Chicago’s Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies is both a spiritual and an architectural landmark. Its entire ten-story front wall is made of angled panes of glass, creating a mirror that reflects the beauty of Grant Park, Lake Michigan, and the Chicago skyline.
When designs were solicited for a new building that would replace Spertus’s previous home, the architects were given one task above all: make it full of light. The result is an architectural jewel, a building that has won numerous design awards since its opening in 2007. Appropriately, the Institute’s logo is a flame accompanied by the Biblical phrase yehi or—let there be light.
I wonder if perhaps the building’s design is also a reaction to the darkness that has characterized so much of Jewish history over the past centuries—the Holocaust, certainly, but also the years when the Jews of Europe were forced to live in cramped and dreary ghettos. But what is even more significant is that Spertus is ablaze not only with sunlight, but also with learning. Students come here to get graduate degrees in Jewish studies, leadership training, and nonprofit management, but the building is in addition a gathering place for the public, who can attend lectures, films, concerts, seminars, and discussions. One of the sayings stenciled on the door of its library illustrates its guiding philosophy: “I do not recall a Jewish home without a book on the table,” said Elie Wiesel.
Spertus also has an array of historical and sacred objects displayed in an area called the Depot. I was most intrigued by the story behind an elaborately carved piece of wood, a tale that I think reveals something important about the spirit of this place.
The piece is a synagogue place marker for the seat of the Vilna Gaon, an 18th-century Talmudic scholar who lived in Vilnius in Lithuania. “Gaon” means “genius,” a reflection of the man’s formidable intellect. Legend says that he was an expert in all five books of the Torah by the age of three. At eight, he was allowed to begin studying Kaballah, the mystical texts of Judaism, despite the fact that custom dictated that one must be at least 40 to do so. The Gaon believed that in order to understand Torah, one also needed to understand worldly subjects, and so he became learned in medicine, astronomy, and mathematics. Though he never became a rabbi, never held a public post, and never published any of his writings during his lifetime, he was renowned throughout Europe for his wisdom.
After his death, the people of his synagogue wanted to create a memorial to him, but synagogues (like mosques) are prohibited by religious law from including images of human beings. So they created a marker that hung on the wall over his place in the sanctuary and kept anyone from sitting in his seat—a reflection of the fact that no one could take his place.
The marker made me think of those people in my life who cannot be replaced, those whose warmth and love no longer grace my days. A lovely idea, isn’t it, to mark an absence in this way, with a piece of art that marks the place in our hearts that can never be filled again?
The Vilna of Gaon’s original marker was destroyed by fire, but it was re-built in 1868 and hung in its original place. This marker was found in the basement of the destroyed synagogue in 1944 and brought to Israel, eventually coming to Spertus in 1968.
And there it remains to this day, a testimony to the importance of learning and to the radiant intellect of a man who is still honored and remembered. It is a fitting tribute to have in the Spertus Institute, this house of figurative and literal light.
Spertus is located at 610 S. Michigan Avenue, across the street from Chicago’s Grant Park. Its vestibule contains a free exhibit on Jewish life in Chicago, and tours of the building are given upon request.