Bret Schlesinger: Still a Fountain Pen

By Sam Bruce | Issue Date: May 2012

Illustration, Church of St. Paul and St. Andrew (SPSA). By Bret SchlesingerNearly everyone reading this has experienced arriving just in time for a packed B’nai Jeshurun Friday night service. We scan the crowd; seeking familiar faces while calculating the odds of finding one before every available seat has been claimed.

The next time this happens to you, take a moment to consider the hundreds of people who just passed through your gaze. It is always a highly diverse crowd in just about every way: age, profession, religious observance, where they live and how often the come, for starters. Think about how all these people have been influenced by this place and by each other and then imagine the myriad ways they in turn influence the world. Now multiply that by the thousands more who have been touched by this kehillah (community).

Bret Schlesinger is an accomplished artist who has done an array of ink-and-watercolor pieces on historic architecture and synagogues are a prominent feature of his portfolio. One of his illustrations, depicted here, was generously given to BJ and has for years been featured on BJ’s notecards and postcards. It is of the interior of the Church of St. Paul and St. Andrew (SPSA) with the banner that hangs there, where BJ has long prayed on Shabbat mornings. It perfectly captures and memorializes the long and important relationship between our congregations.

In a manner befitting an artist who captures the essence of historic places, Mr. Schlesinger was kind enough to share a personal perspective on the BJ of the ‘40s and ‘50s. He counts his grandmother, Birdie Spier, as one of the earliest and most important influences on his Jewish identity (hardly an uncommon influence, a Jewish grandmother). Her Jewish practice, much like that of BJ, did not exactly fit into any particular subdivision or label used by Jews to classify their brethren. There was not, however, anything ambiguous about how important the BJ community was to her. So extensive were her social connections here that she could sit in a pew and “hold court” with all the friends who came to see her at services. The Spier family maintains a prominent place within the BJ community to this day; Birdie’s husband, Harry, has a stained-glass window on the sanctuary’s left wall dedicated to his memory.

He recalls BJ after the war as a congregation that could strike a balance between the political and the personal, as it still does. Rabbi Israel Goldstein, BJ’s rabbi for 42 years, a founder of Brandeis University, and a leader of national and international Jewish organizations delivered passionate sermons on the social issues of the day. During his tenure a young Mr. Schlesinger received a Jewish education with a tight-knit group of BJ classmates. Studying under the stern eye of Cantor Schwartz required the support and friendship of his peers. This pre-teen community was essential to his success in reaching the goal of saying, “Today I am a fountain pen!” (the typical gift for a Bar Mitzvah during the era).

Becoming an adult meant a separation from BJ as Mr. Schlesinger attended college at Michigan State and later Brandeis University. He then embarked on a career of drawings and watercolors; his works were displayed at universities and galleries, including the Museum of Natural History, as well as in the book Roam the Wild Country. Architecture features prominently in Mr. Schlesinger’s work, and synagogues in particular. His tour of world synagogues has gone as far afield as Bukhara, Uzbekistan. Through members like Bret Schlesinger, the spirit of B’nai Jeshurun reaches far and wide, even to the other side of the world.

Sam Bruce has been a BJ member since 2008. A native of Virginia, he moved to New York to attend graduate school and now works in the field of forensic mental health.