Zeichnung der Synagoge in Biel

Dina Epelbaum in der Synagoge Biel

«Biel was a socialist, migrant, working-class city.»

Dina Epelbaum on the Jewish community in Biel

In 2022, the Jewish Muse­um of Switz­er­land recei­ved a dona­ti­on from the syn­ago­gue in Biel/Bienne, inclu­ding ritu­al tex­ti­les, hats, and a stained-glass win­dow that hung abo­ve the Torah ark. Born in Biel and curr­ent­ly cura­tor of the Basel­land Art Coll­ec­tions, Dina Epel­baum talks about the syn­ago­gue of her child­hood, the lives of Eas­tern Euro­pean immi­grants, and the art of pre­ser­ving objects with their stories.

 Nao­mi Lubrich: Dina, do you reco­gni­ze this stained-glass window? 

Dina Epel­baum: Of cour­se! It was the light source abo­ve the Torah ark in our syn­ago­gue in Biel. It was a memo­rable part of my child­hood. When my thoughts drifted, the beau­tiful win­dow caught my atten­ti­on. The pho­to of this fine stained-glass with its flo­ral orna­ments takes me back to the 1970s and 1980s. I recall the lively syn­ago­gue, hear the sin­ging, and remem­ber the smell of the small building.

NL: As a cura­tor, you read objects as tes­ti­mo­nies of their time. What do the Biel objects tell you? 

DE: The objects come from a small but vibrant com­mu­ni­ty. The syn­ago­gue from the end of the 19th cen­tu­ry was built in the so-cal­led «Moo­rish style», was tas­teful­ly fur­nis­hed and well-main­tai­ned. Many Jews were watch­ma­kers, so-cal­led West­ju­den (wes­tern Jews) ori­gi­nal­ly from Alsace. Joi­ning them were Ost­ju­den (Eas­tern Jews) from eas­tern Euro­pe, among them my grand­fa­ther. He came from Ukrai­ne at the begin­ning of the 1930s. Many eas­tern Jews were Zio­nists, reli­gious; many were poor. Biel was a wel­co­ming place for them: Elec­ted in 1921, the Social Demo­cra­tic mayor Gui­do Mül­ler accept­ed immi­grants to Biel and pro­vi­ded afforda­ble and modern housing. At that time, Biel was a socia­list, migrant working-class city.

NL: As a cura­tor, your approach is holi­stic. In addi­ti­on to objects, you coll­ect their sto­ries. How do you go about it?

DE: Objects come ali­ve through sto­ries. That’s why I would record as much infor­ma­ti­on as pos­si­ble. I’d do it soo­ner than later, becau­se it’s hard to catch up later. I would talk to mem­bers of the com­mu­ni­ty. The­re are not many left in Biel, their num­ber has shrunk con­sider­a­b­ly. I would ask them for pho­tos, let­ters and sou­ve­nirs. I would read the per­ti­nent lite­ra­tu­re, for exam­p­le «Hei­mat Biel» (Chro­nos 2011), and look at past exhi­bi­ti­ons, for exam­p­le «Das Rote Biel» (Neu­es Muse­um 2021). And one more thing: Sin­ce the Jewish Muse­um has only part of the synagogue’s estate, I would note whe­re the other items are, to keep an overview.

NL: You cele­bra­ted your Bat Mitz­vah in this syn­ago­gue and were, tog­e­ther with three others, the first girls to read from the Torah. Were you awa­re what a tur­ning point this was?

DE: No, I didn’t give it much thought. Back then, a bat mitz­vah was not cele­bra­ted as enthu­si­a­sti­cal­ly as it is today. I remem­ber that my par­ents were very com­mit­ted to allo­wing girls to cele­bra­te their bnot mitz­vah in Biel. In the ear­ly 1980s, that was not a mat­ter of cour­se. We were four girls, three Roman­des and mys­elf, who cele­bra­ted tog­e­ther. I remem­ber the syn­ago­gue deco­ra­ted with flowers and a meal tog­e­ther in the com­mu­ni­ty hall. Recent­ly I found the speech my father wro­te for me, with a quo­te from the Book of Ruth, which is read on Shavuot.

NL: Dear Dina, thank you very much for sha­ring your memories.

verfasst am 15.05.2023