The Synagogue Route: A Jewish time machine

A new exhibit in the Israel Museum’s renovated Judaica wing displays completely restored synagogues from three centuries and three continents.

311_Horb synagogue (photo credit: Courtesy of the Israel Museum)
311_Horb synagogue
(photo credit: Courtesy of the Israel Museum)
It was the first time Tania Coen-Uzzielli had heard of the country Suriname. But it wouldn’t be the last.
When the vivacious, young Italian-born art historian took over in 2003 from Iris Fishof as curator of the Skirball Department of Judaica at the Israel Museum, one of the first major projects she was entrusted with was completing the restoration project of a long-term loan to the museum – the interior of the 17th century Tzedek ve- Shalom Synagogue from Paramaribo, the capital city of Suriname.
Before you scramble to Google or a nearby atlas, as Coen-Uzzielli likely did, let’s make your life easier by disclosing that Suriname is a former Dutch colony situated on the northeastern coast of South America, bordering Brazil on the south, French Guiana on the east and the republic of Guyana on the west.
Even if you were aware of the smallest sovereign state in South America without the help, you might forgive Coen-Uzzielli for the momentary geographical lapse. After all, she’s been quite busy.
“After immigrating to Israel from Italy at the end of high school in 1983, I studied art history and archeology at Hebrew University, specializing in ancient Jewish art,” she said recently, during an early morning visit to the newly installed Mandel Wing for Jewish Art and Life, which opened at the end of July as part of the gala expansion and renewal of the museum.
Before the throngs of visitors begin arriving, the tranquility and stillness permeating the displays and design of the wing emit an eerie sense of dignified history, as if the artifacts are saying “we don’t require human perusal to establish our worth.”
And the most stately and grand element of the new wing is undoubtedly the Synagogue Route - curated by Coen-Uzzielli - a mesmerizing journey which enables visitors to walk back in time along a corridor of history to experience Jewish ritual traditions from around the world.
The new Tzedek ve-Shalom Synagogue exhibit provides the alluring centerpiece of a tour that includes three other synagogues that have been part of the museum’s collection for decades:
• The 16th-century Kadavumbagam Synagogue, from Cochin, India, whose carved wooden interior includes motifs like those found in surrounding mosques and Hindu temples;
• an 18th-century Italian Baroque synagogue from the small town of Vittorio Veneto in Northern Italy;
• a 1735 synagogue from the market town of Horb in Southern Germany, the only surviving example of the region’s painted wooden synagogues.
“The addition of the Tzedek ve- Shalom Synagogue to our galleries makes the Israel Museum the only museum worldwide where visitors can see together in one venue four original synagogues from three continents,” says James S. Snyder, the museum’s director.
Coen-Uzzielli described the five-year project of developing the Judaica wing, the Synagogue Route and the completion of the Suriname synagogue as “incredible, exciting and exhausting.”
“My first thought when I was handed the Suriname synagogue was ‘How am I going to take on such a project?’ But I saw it as a challenge,” she says.
“And as I studied and read a lot of literature on it, and began writing the book that accompanies the exhibit, I began to understand that this remote Jewish community is actually a very important one. It’s a representative of the European Jewish tradition that reached the New World.”
Suriname’s Jewish community took root in the mid-17th century, when Jews of Spanish and Portuguese origin who had fled to Holland during the Inquisition immigrated to Suriname, among the country’s earliest European settlers.
“There were less than 1,000 Jews, but we know that they were very successful, had sugar plantations, and owned slaves. And they were able to order all their religious ceremonial objects from Holland where there was a strong trade route,” says Coen-Uzzielli, hinting at the community’s synthesis of Old and New World aesthetics.
When the museum was approached in 1999 by Suriname’s dwindling Jewish community about rescuing the out-of-use synagogue, it sparked the beginning of a decade-long endeavor that saw the synagogue’s Torah ark, the bima, brass chandeliers, candelabra and silver ceremonial objects representing 400 years of Jewish practice being transferred, stored and restored in Israel.
When Coen-Uzzielli came on board, the synagogue contents were packed away and the plan was to eventually display it somewhere outside the museum campus.
“But when we started planning the new wing, we realized we had an opportunity –with four synagogues – to really represent the Jewish community worldwide,” she says. “As soon as I started working on the Synagogue Route and the Suriname synagogue restoration, I felt right away that this was my destiny. For someone who comes from Italy to make a new home here, I felt a connection with these synagogues that also came from elsewhere and arrived at their new home here.”
So, who better than to take a reader on a virtual tour of the Synagogue Route, than the person who put it all together?
"WHEN WE talk about the Synagogue Route, it's something that was conceived by the designer of the campus, Meira Kowalsky. When we looked for a place to house the Suriname synagogue, we understood that it would be a good idea to house all of the synagogues together on a long corridor where people could pop in and out as they wished," says Coen-Uzzielli, standing at the top of the opulent avenue.
That effort meant relocating and adapting the existing synagogues, which had been scattered in different locations around the museum. The result is a journey of a few hundred meters that covers centuries of history.
It begins with a display of an unrolled Torah scroll from Persia, because, as Coen-Uzzielli says, “without the Torah, there is no synagogue. Showing the scroll unrolled and unadorned, exemplifies its sanctity.”
The corridor features dozens of religious ornaments, ceremonial objects and artifacts from all over the world, many of them originally donated by members of the various communities to their congregations.
“It’s a testament to the important relationship of the individual to the synagogue and being part of the community,” says Coen-Uzzielli. “In the eyes of Israelis, the synagogue is a religious place, a place of worship. In the rest of the world, it’s not like that. It’s the place where the community meets, whether you’re religious or not. That’s why it’s a mirror of the community, it’s explaining what’s going on in the community and the relationship between the person and the Jewish community is so important.”
Italian Torah scrolls with their Baroque art welcome us into the first stop.
The Vittorio Veneto Synagogue, northern Italy
A part of the museum since its 1965 opening, the 18th-century Italian Baroque synagogue from the small town of Vittorio Veneto in northern Italy served a small Ashkenazi community that settled in the area during the Middle Ages and was abandoned when the Jewish community moved to larger urban centers in the 19th century. By the end of World War I, the synagogue was no longer in use.
The original synagogue occupied the second and third stories of a simple building. This modesty was customary in Italy before the Jews were emancipated, the result of local restrictions and the Jews’ own desire to avoid drawing attention to their place of worship.
"It's a typical Baroque synagogue, built in 1701," says Coen-Uzzielli. "It reflects the bourgeois Italian culture with its Baroque style. The decoration of the holy ark gives us a sense of the richness of the community, even though it was one of the small ones."She points out that the design is reminiscent of the national theater galleries, especially the women’s section located on the upper floor and running along all four walls. Other nods to the host country can be found in the ceremonial objects.
“They’re all designed in similar fashion to Christian ceremonial objects used at the time and most of them were made by Christians, and not by Jews,” she adds.
LEAVING ITALY, we see along the corridor ceremonial objects from Hungary and Poland, some featuring the eagle, the symbol of the Hungarian emperor.
“Jews were always paying tribute to the rulers of the countries they lived in,” mentions Coen-Uzzielli. A series of German artifacts bids us welcome to the Horb synagogue.
The Horb Synagogue, southern Germany
The wooden synagogue, originally occupying the second story of a small wooden building, served the Jewish community of Horb, a small market town near Bamberg in southern Germany, explains Coen-Uzielli above the recorded strains of haunting hazanut.
“In each synagogue – through rigorous research by musicologists we consulted – we try to pipe in music that gives the sense of the type of prayer that was conducted,” she says.
Built at the beginning of the 18th century, its Torah ark was set in a niche on the eastern wall, the bima was located in the center of the room, and benches were arranged along the walls.
The women’s section consisted of a small room adjacent to the northern wall; the women entered through a wooden door and were able to see into the main hall through a grille in a horizontal opening in the wall.
The original walls were completely covered with elaborate paintings and inscriptions, some of which still remain.
“We even know the name of the painter who did the amazing wall art,” says Coen-Uzzielli, pointing to a signature high above the ark of an ‘Elazar Bar Shlomo Katz.’ “We discovered that his name was Eliezer Susman and he was a Galician artist famous for decorating a number of synagogues in Poland. He was probably invited by the southern German Jewish community to do paintings in their synagogue. You can see animals, some real, some mythical, you can see a similar pattern to paintings in Poland in the same period.”
The Horb painted ceiling – dating from 1735 – remains as the only surviving evidence of the tradition of painted wooden synagogues in this region.
After 1864 the synagogue became a barn which stored hay, a desecration which ironically contributed to its longevity.
“Hay was covering the whole building and the story goes that a boy and his father were hiking in the country in 1908, and the boy entered the structure.
When he didn’t return, the father went in and discovered the painting on the wall. I’m not sure if it actually happened like that, but it’s very romantic,” says Coen-Uzzielli.
In 1913 what was left of the synagogue was moved for safekeeping to the Bamberg Museum of Art, and in 1968 transferred to the Israel Museum where it found its new home.
LEAVING GERMANY, the Synagogue Route takes us through ornate ceremonial objects of Oriental communities from Persia, Afghanistan and Kurdistan as it leads the way into the Indian synagogue from Cochin.
The Kadavumbagam synagogue, Cochin, India
Built sometime in the 16th century, the Kadavumbagam (“by the side of the landing place”) Synagogue stood at the edge of the Jewish neighborhood in Cochin, India, apparently built over the ruins of an earlier synagogue.
“As you can see, it’s kind of like entering another world,” says Coen-Uzzielli, pointing to the carved wooden interior and intricately designed ceiling featuring motifs like those found in the surrounding mosques and Hindu temples of the time.
“It’s amazing to see that it’s basically the same function and same liturgy as the other synagogues we’ve seen, but the setting is totally different. The Hindu element of the temple is seen with the lotus decoration and the extenextensive use of the colors red and green.”
She explains that the Jewish community of Cochin was very diverse, with many of them coming from Europe to Cochin because it was a trade and market city.
“The Jews of Cochin absorbed the customs of communities from which they came, and where they now settled, a mix of Oriental and European Ashkenazi customs and motifs.”
A unique feature of Cochin synagogues is the presence of two reader’s platforms: one, used on Shabbat and holidays, is located on the gallery, in front of the women’s section and separated from it by a grille; the other stands in the center of the hall and is used for daily prayers.
“On Shabbat, when they read the Torah, they went upstairs to a bima close to the women’s section. So even though the women were separated from the men, they were actually closer to the Torah,” says Coen-Uzzielli.
In operation until the mid-1950s, when most Cochin Jews immigrated to Israel, the Kadavumbagam synagogue Torah ark was transferred to Moshav Nehalim, and the building was turned into a workshop for rope production, putting the carved wooden interior in danger of ruin.
In 1991, the synagogue’s interior was purchased for the Israel Museum and brought to Jerusalem for restoration and reconstruction, a project which took some five years.
“Each piece was dismantled and cut, preserved, and numbered,” says Coen- Uzzielli.
When they started the preservation process, they found colors underneath all the dust that had gathered because of the rope. It all came out like a miracle.”
CONTINUING THE journey through history, we pass by ceremonial objects from Syria, Egypt and Eretz Yisrael, before arriving at a display from Holland which, ironically, signifies our arrival at the South American synagogue from Suriname.
The Tzedek ve-Shalom Synagogue, Paramaribo, Suriname
In the mid-17th century Jews of Spanish and Portuguese origin, who had fled to Holland during the Inquisition, were among the early European settlers in Suriname. They established sugarcane plantations along the Suriname River, to which they gave biblical names, and founded a village in the Savanna, which they called “Jerusalem on the Riverside,” and was often referred to as the Jewish Savanna. By the middle of the 18th century, though, most of the Jews had migrated to the country’s capital city, Paramaribo, where the Sephardic Tzedek ve-Shalom Synagogue was inaugurated in 1736.
“The synagogue represents both the ancient traditions of Amsterdam and Portugal, but on the other side, reflects the results of being in the New World, and of being free to profess your own religion,” says Coen-Uzzielli.
Directly inspired by the Esnoga, the great Portuguese synagogue of Amsterdam, the original synagogue was a neoclassical white, wooden building, with arched windows, majestic brass chandeliers of Dutch manufacture, inscribed with the names of the donors who offered them to the synagogue, hanging from the ceiling and between the colonnades.
“It has large windows and plenty of sunlight, not like the small, protected Horb or the Italian synagogue on the third floor of a simple building. Here, they were proud to be Jews and could be open about it. You can tell in the bold architecture that they were absorbing the New World. It’s that combination of the Old World Holy Ark and sanctuary which are similar to synagogues in Holland and the new white architecture of the New World that makes the essence of this Jewish community.”
During the 1990s, the synagogue ceased to function as a place of worship, with a 1992 event marking the 500th commemoration of the expulsion from Spain being the final time the synagogue was used. After the Israel Museum approached the Jewish community of Suriname to request transferring the synagogue’s interior and all of its ritual objects to Jerusalem, the process of dismantling and shipping took place in 1999.
Under Coen-Uzzielli’s direction the architecture of the synagogue was reconstructed as a natural and authentic background for the display of the original ceremonial objects and furnishings, complete with a floor topped by white sand.
“The sand on the floor is typical of most Caribbean countries like Jamaica and the Virgin Islands. We think of this as a Caribbean synagogue,” she says, explaining a number of plausible reasons for the tradition.
According to one such tradition, the sand symbolizes the Diaspora: just as the Children of Israel wandered in the desert sands before reaching the Promised Land, so too do exiled Jews living outside Israel today. Another, historical explanation for the sand is connected to the origin of the Portuguese Jews in the area, who were forced to convert during the Inquisition but remained covertly faithful to their religion. Accustomed to praying in secret, they may have retained the tradition of coating the floor with sand so as to muffle their footsteps.
A more practical explanation traces refers not to regional customs but to a tradition from Holland, where sand served the purpose of keeping floors clean and protecting sacred spaces from wooden shoes. Whatever the reason, the sand fills the synagogue with a feeling of purity and closeness to nature that reflects its natural beauty and helps make it the shining crown in the Synagogue Route.
Last month, the synagogue received its greatest endorsement when a Birthright group consisting of 15 young residents of Suriname visited the exhibit and were visibly moved at the replication of the synagogue which served their community, now numbering under 100.
“They were very proud to come and see this monument to their heritage,” says Coen-Uzzielli, adding that she’s received very positive feedback on the whole Judaica wing.
“People are reacting very emotionally.
Most of the displays and objects in the wing were already part of the museum before, so our big challenge was how to present them in a fresh way.”
Following our walk through the Synagogue Route, it became clear that Coen-Uzzielli’s challenge was not only met with creativity and passion, but it exceeded expectations. And not only that, she’ll never again need to ask where Suriname is.