fauxklore (fauxklore) wrote,
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Various Things About Synagogues

This post is a mixture of a few things, but the common bond is synagogues.


Yom Kippur: For Yom Kippur, I “attended” services put on my Shirat HaNefesh. Their cantor is a friend of a friend and it turns out that I had me their rabbi a couple of times, though she was conducting services elsewhere. Their zoom set-up worked reasonably well, with the cantor (and, in some cases, other speakers) visible in one window and the text of the service scrolling in the main window. I’d characterize the service as more or less Reconstructionist. I could have lived without the sporadic guitar music and some other less traditional elements, but it was okay under the circumstances. One thing I did like a lot was that they had various congregants talk about sections of the service. In particular, I thought that having an EMT talk about life and death was appropriate. Also, they used Ishay Ribo’s Seder HaAvoda for that part of the service (which has to do with the high priest’s Temple service), which is a great piece of music, (They played his recording for that.) I could have drifted off, but I think they skipped the Martyrology, which is fine with me. I was, alas, disappointed in the lack of the priestly blessing.

Bottom line is that it was fine under the circumstances, but not really quite what I was looking for. I suspect I need to go to an Orthodox shut to get the level of tradition I want.


Grandpa: As I’ve mentioned before, my paternal grandfather was a cantor and there were some years he was hired to do the High Holiday services at our shul. I had this realization this year, when I was thinking about him, that, since he was born in 1906, he would have been 62 (the age I am now) in 1968. Which is when I was 10 years old. I tend to think of him as being much older. I’m not sure that means anything, but it’s interesting.


Synagogue Art and Architecture: In October, the Orange County (California) Jewish Community Scholar Program had a three part lecture series on synagogue architecture with Samuel Gruber, who is a well-known expert on the subject. I’m not sure where I heard about this - somewhere on Facebook, I assume - but it was right up my alley. The lectures are actually available on YouTube, including a bonus lecture (a continuation of Lecture 2) because Dr. Gruber was ambitious in how much material he intended to cover.

Lecture 1 had to do with Great Synagogues of the World. A key point was the multiple uses of the synagogue, which include a house of meeting (Beit Knesset), house of prayer (Beit Tefillah), and house of study (Beit Madras) and, in early times, also included use as a hostel. (I believe that is not necessarily limited to early times, as there are folktales where people sleep in the synagogue of a town they are visiting.) Dr. Gruber listed a lot of historic synagogues in places ranging from Alexandria, Egypt to Vilnius, Lithuania, from Sydney, Australia to Fez, Morocco. One interesting feature was what he called the “bipolar” plan, in which the bimah (reading desk) is at one end and the aron kodesh (ark where the Torah scrolls are kept) is at the other, with seating along the sides. Another interesting seating arrangement was in the Kehila Kenosha Yeshen (Old Synagogue) in Ionian, Greece, where seats faced outside, as well as inside. He also noted that painted synagogues were the norm in Eastern Europe. As for synagogue exteriors, he discussed the rise of the Moorish style in the 19th century.

Lecture 2 was titled Arise and Build: American Synagogues and Jewish Identity. It was interesting to learn that there was not, in general, any resistance to synagogue building in the United States in the 18th and 19th centuries. The dominant arrangement of interiors of those earlier synagogues was the “bipolar” one and the “theatre” style came later. Some of the synagogues were originally churches (and, of course, some synagogue buildings later became churches). As a result, there are some with stained glass derived from Christian Bible pictures. There were a variety of architectural styles, including Greek revival, Federal, and Egyptian revival. The biggest development in interiors was the rise of the Reform movement, which replaced the women’s balcony with an organ loft (and, in some cases, a choir loft). In the mid-19th Century, the Romanesque Revival style became popular with Central European congregations,, while the Gothic style was popular with German congregations. Almost none of the Gothic style synagogues are used as such now, however. The Moorish style became popular under the Reform leader Isaac Meir Weiss, who envisioned a “Jewish Alhambra.” By the 1880’s, all of these styles merged, with the Moorish dominating and that style (notable for having two towers, often topped with cupolas) was adopted by Orthodox congregations, too.

What made these synagogue buildings uniquely American was the eclectic mix, which also included styles from other American civic buildings, e.g. town halls. Dr. Gruber also noted that “Americans like change.” But the Moorish style predominated, with horseshoe arches, cupolas, and arabesque decorations. Eastern European congregations favored painted interiors, some of which still exist, with scenes of Zodiac signs (“mazole” in Hebrew) and Holy Land landscapers dominating. However, another common style, particularly in rural areas, was the vernacular wooden synagogue, derived from a common form in Poland and Lithuania. This was a rectangular building with a gabled roof. Those also often had elaborate paintings and carved arks. He showed several pictures of a mural from a shul in Burlington, Vermont. The building became an apartment building, but the mural was intact and has been conserved.

Lecture 3 was focused on Modernism. Dr. Gruber noted that we tend to think of modernism as dating from the 1930’s, but “yesterday’s modernism is today’s tradition.” In the late 19th century, classicism was considered modern, especially among the Reform movement. The 1893 Columbian Exhibition in Chicago was a major influence and the so-called White City was picked up by the City Beautiful movement. However, he noted, that Shearith Israel in New York (aka the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue) had always been classical because its architect, Arnold W. Brunner, thought that was appropriate based on excavations in Palestine. What also arose during the early 20th century period was the Jewish Center movement, with synagogues also hosting classrooms, gyms, and even a swimming pool. However, few of those buildings survived the depression. Other modern features that arose were domes (applied to all styles, starting in the early 20th century), art nouveau, and art deco. Orthodox synagogues came to favor the stripped down International style. By the 1950’s classroom wings became as important as the sanctuary. Under the influence of Percival Goodman, a lot of synagogues came to resemble high schools.

The trend now is for smaller, more flexible spaces. This is true even at Orthodox synagogues. There is also a trend to use natural materials and art made by congregants. The lifespan of American synagogue buildings is typically 20-40 years. Finally, Dr. Gruber suggested that you should view photographing a synagogue as if you are the last person ever to see it.

Overall, this was an excellent lecture series and I am glad I stumbled upon it. It was very information dense, with lots of photos of specific synagogues and information about architects, so what I wrote above is a very brief summary. The Community Scholar Program has a lot of other lectures recorded and I intend to watch some of them when I have time.


Three Specific Synagogues: I have attended some High Holiday services at Sixth and I Synagogue in Washington, D.C. which is interesting for having been successfully restored and revitalized in 2004, after having become a church when Congregation Adas Israel moved to the Cleveland Park area in Northwest D.C. (where it remains) in the late 1940’s. It is also a major cultural center with an active program of lectures and concerts in normal times.


The Vilna Shul on Beacon Hill in Boston has, alas, become more or less a museum and cultural center, but has not had an active congregation since 1985. My understanding is that it was pretty much the victim of urban renewal, which destroyed the Jewish community in that part of Boston. I went to High Holiday services there (along with a few friends) during my undergraduate years. It was obviously struggling since, without the four or so young men from MIT who went there, they would have been unable to have a minyan even on Yom Kippur. I liked the connection to my Litvak heritage (my grandfather was born in Vilna, after all), though apparently the building had been altered enough as not to completely reflect that, with the wall murals having been painted over to a bland American beige. While I was sad about this, somebody once reminded me that we are supposed to think of all synagogues in galut (i.e. exile, the Diaspora) as temporary).


Finally, the synagogue I grew up going to was the Jewish Center of Island Park, aka Congregation Beth Emeth. It merged with another congregation some years ago and became the South Shore Jewish Center. I was last there in 2014, when my mother died, and found that they were no longer using the main sanctuary upstairs because too many members of an aging congregation couldn’t handle the stairs. Anyway, it occurs to me that I don’t know much about when the building was erected, as it was already there when we moved to town in 1961. The congregation was apparently founded somewhere around 1950ish (I have seen both 1948 and 1952). I was growing up during a time of rapid growth and there was an expansion added, which was used as a social hall for bar mitzvahs (and, presumably, weddings, though I have to admit not knowing of any). It was also used for services on the High Holidays. I think it was built in the late 1960’s. I should actually know, since my father (who was a civil engineer) chaired the building committee, but my memory is fuzzy on the details. Anyway, in light of Sam Gruber’s lecture series, it would be interesting to spend some time documenting its history - and the history of suburban Long Island synagogues more generally. Because, you know, I don’t have enough projects to spend time on. This entry was originally posted at https://fauxklore.dreamwidth.org/476324.html. Please comment there using OpenID.
Tags: architecture, family, holidays, judaism
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