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