Using matches, Kiev artist builds shuls

Josef Ostashinky points to his matchstick recreation of Kiev's Rosenberg synagogue, part of an exhibit of his work at the city's Kinor Jewish community center.    (Vladimir Matveyev)

Josef Ostashinky points to his matchstick recreation of Kiev’s Rosenberg synagogue, part of an exhibit of his work at the city’s Kinor Jewish community center. (Vladimir Matveyev)

KIEV, Ukraine (JTA) – A Kiev man’s artwork has led him back to his Jewish roots – by way of matches.

Josef Ostashinsky, a 58-year-old photographer and copyist, has spent 20 years creating miniature models of synagogues, churches and castles primarily out of matchsticks.

The 11 synagogues he’s built mean the most to him, he says. The models, portraying famous Ukrainian and international synagogues, went on display this summer at Kiev’s Jewish community center, Kinor.

The artist is particularly proud of his rendition of Kiev’s historic Brodsky Synagogue. The real-life shul for years was used as a puppet theater in Communist times before being returned to the Jewish community in the mid-1990s and restored to its original elegance.

Ostashinsky created his copy in 1991 for the 50th anniversary of the Babi Yar massacre.

“I was born near the Brodsky synagogue and fell in love with it,” Ostashinsky said.

He has had 50 exhibitions throughout Ukraine, with funding from local authorities.

Ostashinsky’s depictions of Kiev’s Rosenberg and Brodsky synagogues convey the rich Jewish architecture and heritage of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. His miniature versions of two of the oldest Ukrainian synagogues – the Lutzk synagogue fortress of 1628 and a destroyed wooden synagogue constructed in 1690 in the Pogrebische, Vinnitzky region – illustrate Jewish architecture of the 17th century.

Each artwork requires five to 10 matchboxes and takes between eight weeks and one year to complete. It takes longer than that to find the designs for each building, which he researches in archives or libraries, and to make the model on which he bases the final work.

His collection contains about 40 subjects, including the 11 synagogues. Each finished work is slightly larger than 1 square foot.

It has been a long road back to his Jewish roots, though Ostashinsky insists he felt Jewish. He was raised in a non-observant home but says he maintained a strong Jewish identity. His family spoke Yiddish; Ostashinsky remains fluent in the language.

“My parents were secular, but my grandmother Stysya attended synagogue on Yom Kippur and prayed for all of us,” he said.

Ostashinsky trained and worked as a printer even after a wound he suffered during his army service from 1968 to 1970 left him disabled. Former Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev’s policy of political and economic freedoms encouraged him to take up art in 1985, he said.

Today Ostashinsky attends synagogue, is a member of the Kiev B’nai B’rith and is active at the local Jewish community center.

The artist says it may be his grandmother’s spirit that guided him to his Jewish and spiritual interests.

“My grandmother’s spirit, the rebirth of Judaism in Ukraine and my own painful illness led me to create this spiritually inspired artwork,” he said, pointing to a picture he drew that features a fanciful rendition of the Second Holy Temple in Jerusalem.

Ostashinsky says he’d like to see his work displayed in a local museum one day, particularly his synagogues.

“I want them to stay in Kiev as a symbol of the richness of Ukrainian Jewish spirituality and in memory of Babi Yar,” he said.

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