Glorious Aleppo

The Ades Synagogue remains a vibrant, community-oriented house of worship preserving a unique tradition.

ades synagogue 298.88 (photo credit: )
ades synagogue 298.88
(photo credit: )
Israel has many synagogues: gigantic and tiny, ostentatious and plain, famous and forgotten. New ones are formed all the time by groups of new immigrants or creators of new communities, but the older, smaller batei knesset (literally, houses of meeting) sometimes stand neglected, searching for the 10th man for a minyan, the quorum for prayer. This is especially common in areas of shifting demographics such as Jerusalem's Nahlaot neighborhood, where the numerous offspring of a traditional community are often unable to purchase or even rent an apartment and newer residents may be non-religious or from a different eda (ethnic group). Thus, a community decreases and sometimes even dies out. Yet one of Nahlaot's oldest synagogues is one of its best-known and one of its most active - the Ades Synagogue (pronounced like Addis Ababa), housed in a old-style stone building on the corner of Beersheba and Shilo streets, just off Bezalel. Renowned as a center for Mizrahi hazanut (Middle Eastern-style Jewish liturgical singing), Ades is one of only two synagogues in Jerusalem that maintain the ancient tradition of bakashot, a set cycle of kabbalistic poetry sung in the wee hours of Shabbat morning during the winter months. "All the hazanim [cantors] you know of learned here," promises Shmuel Abdan, the shamash (caretaker). A friendly and to-the-point man in his 50s, he escorts In Jerusalem around the ornate interior of Ades while straightening up after evening prayers. During the densely packed bakashot sessions (which start at 3 a.m.) he can be found dispensing endless cups of steaming tea or coffee, making sure seniors have a seat - and generally making sure everything is okay. Ades was built 105 years ago by a community of Jews from Aleppo, Syria. The outside of the building famously declares, "The Great Synagogue Ades of the Glorious Aleppo Community, Est. 1901." At that time much of the Jewish community had fled Syria due to a combination of blood libels and economic downturn relating to the decline of the Ottoman Empire. While many settled in the greener pastures of England, the United States and South America, some families decided to try their luck in the Holy Land. Most were laborers, shopkeepers or merchants. "Two brothers, Ovadia and Yosef Ades, financed the building," says Abdan, who attended services here throughout his childhood. "It was named after them." Yosef Ades, unlike many in his community, was a rich man with connections in the Ottoman city administration, and the new synagogue was designed to be a big neighborhood institution. At the time, it was one of the fanciest synagogues in Jerusalem, although today it seems small when compared with the Great Synagogue or the mammoth structure constructed by the Belz Hassidim. Solidly constructed, the synagogue still bears scars from World War I and the War of Independence. The traditional Middle Eastern-style interior is elaborate and well-kept, with a high ceiling dripping with chandeliers, stuffed wooden benches facing a central dais, a small balcony for the women's section and a unique, mother-of-pearl inlaid wooden (ark) along the entire eastern wall. "It was carried from Haleb by donkey and camel," explains Abdan, using the Arabic name for Aleppo. The gigantic ark, a striking presence made of walnut and covered with intricate geometric designs, was extensively repaired in 2001 as part of a large refurbishment project to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Ades. A faded mural depicting stylized representations of the Twelve Tribes of Israel, visible along the upper part of the walls, is another unique feature. The mural was painted around 1911-12 by Ya'acov Stark, a passionately Zionist teacher at the then newly formed Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design. Stark was part of a loosely organized group of secular artists and thinkers during the Second Aliya who wanted to create a new, vibrant creative culture in Jerusalem (as reported in In Jerusalem, "From the Rooftops of Zion." April 13). Over time, the mural was partially covered by layers of paint, but Shmuel Abdan remembers. "There were pillars [painted] there," he says, pointing to painted-over areas at eye level between the windows. "There was a pomegranate tree, an etrog... the species of Israel. And the roof was covered with stars." He doesn't remember why parts of it were covered, but thinks there was some damage or discoloration. Ades has two daily morning services, and an afternoon and evening service that tends to get started just before sundown. In addition, the community holds Shabbat and festival services, too. The services are always very crowded since Ades attracts many visitors from Israel and abroad who come, at least in part, because of the unique liturgical style. And the Friday evening services always seem to draw in a few groups of the newly religious, the new-age religious, and even a curious Hassid or two. The community enjoys a unique place in Jerusalem's religious life. Many prominent and well-known religious figures spent time in Ades during their youth, among them former Chief Rabbi and halachic authority Ovadia Yosef, who still makes occasional appearances during the bakashot. Many famous hazanim have also come out of Ades - as befitting its position as a center for the art - the most well-known among them is the near-legendary Moshe Habusha. In recent years, Ades has received extensive attention even in the secular media - due to a combination of its 100th anniversary, unique status and the trend toward an increased interest in religious song. The synagogue has even become a regular stop for the many organized walking tours that stroll through Nahlaot. But Ades is no museum. Naturally, perhaps organically, the community preserves the links to its rich history and tradition from generation to generation. Yet, at the same time, they remain aware, as one old-timer succinctly said, "There is something special here."