All aspects of traditional Jewish life are based on the Torah-the first five books of the Hebrew Bible- and ongoing rabbinic interpretations. Handwritten on parchment, the Torah scroll is read in the synagogue in front of the congregation on the Sabbath and Mondays and Thursdays, and on holidays. When not in use, the scroll is usually housed in a Torah ark-a cabinet set in or against a wall, traditionally the one oriented toward Jerusalem.
In Eastern Europe, Torah arks were often made out of wood and decorated with elaborate carvings incorporating mythical and symbolic creatures as well as vegetal motifs. Stylistically, this Torah ark, made in Sioux City, Iowa, by Russian Jewish immigrant and amateur woodcarver Abraham Shulkin, shows a close connection to Eastern European wooden Torah arks. The iconography of the eagle and the traditional images of the Tablets of the Law and the hands opened in the priestly gesture were often featured in Eastern European arks from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, all of which were destroyed during World War II. The synagogue of Izabielin, in Lithuania, not far from Shulkin's native village of Kapulie in Byelorussia, had a wooden Torah ark featuring beautiful carvings of animals and vegetation, including sunflowers similar to those in Shulkin's ark. In the synagogue of Olkienniki, also in Lithuania, the elaborate wooden Torah ark featured a pair of blessing hands topped by a double-headed eagle.
In the late nineteenth century, nearly five million Jews lived in czarist Russia, the largest concentration of Jews in the world at the time. Political oppression, government-condoned anti-Jewish riots (pogroms), and economic need prompted more than two million Jews to immigrate to the United States between 1880 and 1924. Most new arrivals settled in large urban centers in the Northeast, but some ventured farther west in search of opportunities in the new country. A number of Jewish immigrants, primarily from the small Russian town of Kapulie, reached Sioux City, Iowa, where a few German Jews had lived since the late 1850s, when the city had just been settled.
By 1896, the Russian Jews had founded the congregation of Adath Yeshurun, erecting Sioux City's first Orthodox synagogue soon after. Members of the synagogue made many of its interior furnishings, including this magnificent Torah ark, carved by Abraham Shulkin. A father of twelve, and a peddler and junk dealer, Shulkin was a talented woodcarver who proudly inscribed his name in Hebrew on the ark in the area flanking the Tablets of the Law, above the rampant lions: "This is the handwork of Abraham Shulkin." Below the tablets are two cutout niches housing a pair of doves, underneath which is a Hebrew dedicatory inscription: "This Torah ark was donated by Simhah, daughter of the esteemed David Davidson." Davidson, who owned the Davidson department store in Sioux City, provided the lumber for the Torah ark, which Shulkin accepted in lieu of payment. Wood was not as readily available in Sioux City as it had been in the forested woods of Eastern Europe.
The symmetrical openwork design of the carvings can also be compared with that of Eastern European papercuts. In fact, Shulkin's work method might have consisted of making a preparatory papercut, which he then used as a model for the woodcarving. Although no papercut model for the Adath Yeshurun Torah ark is known to have survived, an extant papercut by Shulkin might have been the source for some of the motifs featured in a second Torah ark he carved in 1909 for the Tifereth Israel synagogue of Sioux City.