Real Israel: Saving graces

Abandoned synagogues make ‘aliya’ and find a home.

Suriname shul 311 (photo credit: Israel Museum)
Suriname shul 311
(photo credit: Israel Museum)
I recently went to four synagogues on one Monday morning. It was  devotion to art rather than piety that led me from one shul to the next, but it was a moving experience nonetheless.
I took part in a press tour ahead of the museum’s reopening next month after its $100 million makeover.
The new “Synagogue Route” is one of those things that make the Israel Museum so uniquely, well, Israeli. It is not like any Jewish museum in the Diaspora, as the stunning Jerusalem view makes so obvious, but a distinctly blue-and-white combination. A difference between heaven and earth.
On our way to the Synagogue Route, incidentally, we passed the best thing to have come out of the Holyland project: the incredible Second Temple model that was carefully removed from the grounds of the former Holyland Hotel before it was turned into the megalomaniac housing complex that can be clearly seen blighting the landscape here too.
We also skirted the Shrine of the Book, housing the Dead Sea Scrolls in more natural surroundings than the Royal Ontario Museum, where I saw the traveling exhibit as a tourist last summer. Although this time, I discovered that the water playing on the distinctive white dome is a purely architectural feature and not to keep the temperature down, as legend has it.
The route itself comprises carefully restored original synagogues from three continents. There is the 16th-century Kadavumbagam Synagogue from Cochin, whose exquisite carved wooden interior includes lotus-leaf motifs. The 18th-century Italian Baroque synagogue from the small town of Vittorio Veneto served a small Ashkenazi community which settled in the northern rural area during the Middle Ages, but was abandoned when the Jews moved to larger urban centers in the 19th century.
And a 1735 synagogue from the market town of Horb in southern Germany is both splendid and sad. It is the only surviving example of the region’s painted wooden synagogues. When it stopped being used as a house of prayer, it served as a barn, an ignoble function for a former house of God, but one that probably enabled it to survive Kristallnacht and the destruction of the Shoah. It was rediscovered and transferred to the Israel Museum in 1970. I found myself irreverently wondering how the tiny community managed to afford the astonishing wall-to-wall artwork (especially as there is no sign of donor plates ubiquitous in modern Diaspora shuls).
The point of the tour was to showcase (or show off) the newly restored 18th-century synagogue from Suriname, a highlight of the revamped museum. The South American prayer house, one of only two remaining synagogues in this style, is already turning into a focal point of the new Mandel Wing for Jewish Art and Life.
Built in 1736 in Paramaribo, the capital city of what was then known as Dutch Guiana, the Tzedek Veshalom Synagogue reflects Jewish history as much as religious practices.
The Jewish community of mid-18th-century Suriname were descendants of “conversos,” who had fled the Inquisition to Holland and then settled in the Caribbean along with the early European settlers. Curator Tania Coen-Uzzielli explained that the large windows which invite in the sunlight also marked the community’s new-found freedom to worship openly. The site must have seemed like the answer to their prayers.
Inspired by the great Portuguese synagogue of Amsterdam, it combines Sephardi European elements with the simple, symmetrical structure and white walls common locally.
The most striking feature is the white sand covering the floor in acharacteristically Caribbean style. Many reasons are given for this:“Members of the community will tell you that the sand reminds them ofwandering in the desert, like the Children of Israel,” saidCoen-Uzzielli. Another explanation is that the sand muffled the soundof prayer, to remind them that they had once been forced to praysecretly. More likely, the sand was an early fire prevention measure –faith is all very well, but practical steps to stop the spread of firein a wooden structure lit by candles can’t hurt.
The synagogue’s restorer-rescuers are particularly proud of the brasschandeliers, one with a Portuguese dedication engraved with the date AD1746. Strangely both the lamps and the simple plaque recording the TenCommandments above the ark reminded me of the Jerusalem synagogue whereI pray – although our similar-shaped lamps are dustier and describingthem as museum pieces does not necessarily sound complimentary.
Friends from England who visited recently marveled that unlike Britishsynagogues, ours doesn’t need a security detail to protect it, so Iguess we can count our blessings. On the other hand, you don’t havearmed guards at the doors of British supermarkets, as they do here, soour prayers for peace have a different quality.
When recently reviewing the book Conquering Fear: LivingBoldly in an Uncertain World, by Rabbi Harold S. Kushner, Ifound a quote which sounded pertinent to our community: “... acolleague of mine has suggested that the true test of the effectivenessof a church or synagogue is not the size or beauty of the building orthe attendance at services but how well people come through for eachother in difficult times and how generously they share their happinessin good times.”
I say amen to that.