Praying for the past

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

Synagogue from Suriname 311 (photo credit: Courtesy Israel Museum, Jerusalem)
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 stylewith its aristocratic and glistening gilt spirals extending out andonto the ark, overlapping the white background. This interior came fromthe town of Vittorio Veneto near Venice and was used by the AshkenaziJews. 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, theinside of the synagogue was transported to the Israel Museum, which hasbeen reconstructing it to match the original.
Inspiration came again with the reconstruction of Tzedek Ve’shalom, theSuriname synagogue, this time from the Esnoga, the great Portuguesesynagogue of Amsterdam. It emulated the idea of having the ark  and thereader’s platform on opposite sides of the room.
Suriname (formerly Dutch Guiana) is located on the northern coast ofSouth America. Spanish and Portuguese Jews, who before arriving therehad escaped to Holland because of the Inquisition, came in the mid-17th century. They came there because they wanted to find newopportunities, including a way to practice their religion freely.Although seeking new opportunities, they still felt a powerfulconnection with the ancient Spanish and Portuguese traditions fromHolland. This is conveyed through the furniture throughout thesynagogue, one of them being the charity box.
The Suriname synagogue, founded in 1736, mirrors the neoclassicalarchitectural style with symmetric polished black benches where theleaders of the community, such as the chief rabbi, were seated. Longwhite columns are planted in front of the benches. Large windowssymbolize the newfound freedom of the Jews who could come out of hiding.
Covering the floor is white sand, a characteristic of the Caribbeansynagogues, which symbolizes numerous things. One interpretation isthat the spreading of the sand on the ground is comparable to the Jewswandering through the desert after leaving Egypt. Another explanationdates back to the Inquisition when the Jews had to practice Judaism insecret, and therefore had to cover the floor with sand to dampen theirfootsteps when they went to pray. The reconstruction of the Surinamesynagogue is actually only 80 percent of the size of the original, butit is still impressive.
The Horb synagogue, from 1735, on a different end of the spectrum, usesthe rural style of architecture. It originally stood in Horb, Germany,with the ark on the eastern wall, the bima in the center and thebenches along the walls. However, upon restoration, there is nofurniture in the synagogue, but rather  a wooden decorative ceilingcompleted with two lions with trumpets. When the synagogue stoppedbeing used by the community, the building was converted into a haybarn. As a result, the wood has suffered from humidity, making itappear faded and dried out in one section.
The fourth synagogue is the Kadavumbagam, which uses the Indian styleto describe the scenery. Built in 1539 in Cochin, India, for a Jewishcommunity of around 2,500, the Torah ark and the ceiling are made outof carved wood, with lotus leaf designs reflecting the local motifs.Upstairs is a special gallery that protrudes outward that is used forthe Shabbat and holidays. The second platform, which uses rusted olivegreen bars to form the platform railing with a weary green handrail,stands  in the center of the room and is used for daily prayers. Thebuilding was discarded as a synagogue when the Jews moved to Israel andwas used instead for the manufacture of rope. The Israel Museum boughtthe interior in 1991 and began its reconstruction.
Together, the four synagogues create one path where visitors can learnmany things sequestered in these sacred structures from across theworld. “It becomes a kind of footprint for a continuous journey throughall the material culture, which you don’t really find in a lot of othermuseums,” says Snyder.