Praying for the past

The Israel Museum’s latest exhibit involves the large-scale reconstruction of four diverse synagogues from around the world.

By MEIRA BIENSTOCK
May 30, 2010 05:40
3 minute read.
Zedek ve-Shalom Synagogue from Suriname

Synagogue from Suriname 311. (photo credit: Courtesy Israel Museum, Jerusalem)

 
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‘Inspiration” seems to be the key word in connection with the reconstruction of the four synagogues at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem – the Vittorio Veneto, the Italian synagogue; Horb, the German synagogue; Kadavumbagam, the Indian synagogue; and the Tzedek Ve’shalom Suriname synagogue.

“The inspirational part was that when I arrived, there was an idea to make an outdoor campus, and we thought it’s not about synagogues in the landscape, it’s about these treasures as part of the artifactual history of the Jewish world,” says  James Snyder, the director of the Israel Museum. “And when we were redoing the galleries, we realized since we wanted to build the fourth, if we just moved one, we could have them in a street so it would be like an interior street.”

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The four synagogues, despite their shared purpose, are diverse stylistically.

The Vittorio Veneto, built in the 1700s, reflects the Baroque style with its aristocratic and glistening gilt spirals extending out and onto the ark, overlapping the white background. This interior came from the town of Vittorio Veneto near Venice and was used by the Ashkenazi Jews. By the 19th century, the Jews had moved into larger synagogues, and it was no longer in use by the end of World War I. In 1965, the inside of the synagogue was transported to the Israel Museum, which has been reconstructing it to match the original.

Inspiration came again with the reconstruction of Tzedek Ve’shalom, the Suriname synagogue, this time from the Esnoga, the great Portuguese synagogue of Amsterdam. It emulated the idea of having the ark  and the reader’s platform on opposite sides of the room.

Suriname (formerly Dutch Guiana) is located on the northern coast of South America. Spanish and Portuguese Jews, who before arriving there had escaped to Holland because of the Inquisition, came in the  mid-17th century. They came there because they wanted to find new opportunities, including a way to practice their religion freely. Although seeking new opportunities, they still felt a powerful connection with the ancient Spanish and Portuguese traditions from Holland. This is conveyed through the furniture throughout the synagogue, one of them being the charity box.

The Suriname synagogue, founded in 1736, mirrors the neoclassical architectural style with symmetric polished black benches where the leaders of the community, such as the chief rabbi, were seated. Long white columns are planted in front of the benches. Large windows symbolize the newfound freedom of the Jews who could come out of hiding.

Covering the floor is white sand, a characteristic of the Caribbean synagogues, which symbolizes numerous things. One interpretation is that the spreading of the sand on the ground is comparable to the Jews wandering through the desert after leaving Egypt. Another explanation dates back to the Inquisition when the Jews had to practice Judaism in secret, and therefore had to cover the floor with sand to dampen their footsteps when they went to pray. The reconstruction of the Suriname synagogue is actually only 80 percent of the size of the original, but it is still impressive.



The Horb synagogue, from 1735, on a different end of the spectrum, uses the rural style of architecture. It originally stood in Horb, Germany, with the ark on the eastern wall, the bima in the center and the benches along the walls. However, upon restoration, there is no furniture in the synagogue, but rather  a wooden decorative ceiling completed with two lions with trumpets. When the synagogue stopped being used by the community, the building was converted into a hay barn. As a result, the wood has suffered from humidity, making it appear faded and dried out in one section.

The fourth synagogue is the Kadavumbagam, which uses the Indian style to describe the scenery. Built in 1539 in Cochin, India, for a Jewish community of around 2,500, the Torah ark and the ceiling are made out of carved wood, with lotus leaf designs reflecting the local motifs. Upstairs is a special gallery that protrudes outward that is used for the Shabbat and holidays. The second platform, which uses rusted olive green bars to form the platform railing with a weary green handrail, stands  in the center of the room and is used for daily prayers. The building was discarded as a synagogue when the Jews moved to Israel and was used instead for the manufacture of rope. The Israel Museum bought the interior in 1991 and began its reconstruction.

Together, the four synagogues create one path where visitors can learn many things sequestered in these sacred structures from across the world. “It becomes a kind of footprint for a continuous journey through all the material culture, which you don’t really find in a lot of other museums,” says Snyder.

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