Architecture and Jewish identity

Mapping efforts to resolve tensions between being Jewish and American, the sacred and the secular.

ERIC MENDELSOHN’S SYNAGOGUES IN AMERICA By Michael Craig Palmer and Ita Heinze-Greenberg Lund Humphries 216 pages; $54.95 (photo credit: Courtesy)
ERIC MENDELSOHN’S SYNAGOGUES IN AMERICA By Michael Craig Palmer and Ita Heinze-Greenberg Lund Humphries 216 pages; $54.95
(photo credit: Courtesy)
This is a most beautiful book, a delight to the eye. Stunning color photographs by Michael Craig Palmer record in great detail architectural and design wonders produced by the German-Jewish architect Eric Mendelsohn. Between 1946 and 1953, Mendelsohn conceived and brought to magnificent fruition four synagogues. Located in Saint Paul, Saint Louis, Cleveland and Grand Rapids they were – as Ita Heinze-Greenberg points out in her accompanying essay – a radical departure from the sort of approach that had previously marked synagogue design. They became the benchmark for modern American synagogue architecture.
In their comprehensive Synagogue Architecture in America, Henry and Daniel Salzman describe how Jewish communities, in designing their synagogues, had long tried to resolve the tensions between being Jewish and being American, between the sacred and the secular, the modern and the traditional. For Mendelsohn these issues were magnified by the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948. This added a new and stronger necessity for congregations to demonstrate how to reconcile their adherence to Jewish values – which now had the added dimension of a bond with Israel – with their strong adherence to the values of America. The Jewish congregations that commissioned these buildings wanted them to express the totality of their communal identity. Mendelsohn’s genius in translating this responsibility into spectacular constructs of brick, stone, cement, glass and interior design are evident in the pages of this volume.
Born in East Prussia in 1887 to a middle-class family, Mendelsohn was always proud of his Jewish identity. Although never observant, he did draw spiritual comfort from involvement in Jewish religious services. As a student in Berlin and Munich he became loosely connected to Zionism, although never a passionate activist. After the First World War, in which he served for three years on the Russian and French fronts, his architectural career began as it was to end – with a structure intrinsic to Jewish religious practice. Heinze-Greenberg suggests that his architectural life might almost be seen as a wheel coming full circle.
The first building he designed and saw erected was a structure adjacent to the Jewish cemetery in his native town of Allenstein – a beit tahara, in which corpses were washed and prepared ritually for burial. The building, which Heinze-Greenberg describes as “a most striking architectural piece” has recently been restored, and photographs of its interior illustrate her essay.
Mendelsohn left Germany in March 1933, just before the first Nazi crackdown on Jewish businessmen and professionals. He and his wife took the night train to Amsterdam and never set foot in Germany again. The last 20 years of his life saw him move from Amsterdam to the Côte d’Azur, to London, to Jerusalem, then to New York and finally to San Francisco, where he lived and worked from 1946 until his death in 1953. Perhaps his own struggle to integrate his Jewish self with his new-found American homeland gave him an insight into the needs of the four congregations to whose spiritual requirements he gave such wonderful expression.
Working on the first – Park Synagogue in Cleveland, Ohio – he conceived a basic concept that he applied to all four. His synagogues, he determined, would be designed around three areas: the House of God (the sanctuary, including the ark and the scrolls of the law); the House of the People (the social areas, including halls for communal events); and the House of the Torah (including the areas set aside for study and children’s classrooms).
Craig Palmer’s photographs vividly illustrate how this vision was brought to life. The Cleveland synagogue – which he describes as “a jewel of a building” – is dominated by a striking pastel green dome, pictured from the exterior and from inside. The ark and the four Ashkenazi Torah scrolls are a dazzling vision of scarlet, silver and gold. Some of Mendelsohn’s sketches for the interior of the main synagogue are included, and photographs show how his concept of following the circular plan of the dome that tops it was realized.
Both the Cleveland synagogue and the B’nei Amoona synagogue in Saint Louis, Missouri, were completed in 1950. They were entirely different structures. As the stunning photographs show, the Saint Louis building is dominated by a vast parabolic arch in concrete, with great windows at the open end of the parabola. Photographs of the interior demonstrate Mendelsohn’s meticulous attention to detail in every aspect of the design.
His other two synagogues – Mount Zion in St Paul, Minnesota, and Temple Emanuel in Grand Rapids, Michigan – were completed in 1954, after he had passed away. The exterior of the Mount Zion synagogue is awesome. A long building clad in grey erupts, at its far end, into a startling vision of gold and glass depicting a giant menorah. While Mendelsohn was first working on the design, the rabbi wrote to him asking for some of the contents of the old synagogue to be included, as a “sentimental remembrance.”
Mendelsohn’s unequivocal rejection of the idea – couched in positive rather than negative terms – is included among the photographs and sketches. “The new Temple (and chapel),” he wrote, “will reflect a new world of thought and religiosity, and all architecture and ritual features will be in harmony with it.” This philosophy he carried through to his final synagogue, Temple Emanuel in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
For external architectural impact, Temple Emanuel is perhaps the simplest yet the most striking of all four of Mendelsohn’s synagogues illustrated in this volume. Atop a ground floor structure, and supported on 12 white columns, spread the wings of a vast white concrete roof unattached to the building itself. After his death, Mendelsohn’s wife, in a letter included in the book, wrote to the Grand Rapids congregation in which she describes the building as “a great and noble bird.” It could also be compared to an airplane in flight.
Eric Mendelsohn’s Synagogues in America is a compendium of visual delights. It is a book to cherish.