Synagogues: Marvels of Judaism by Leyla Uluhanli - review by Sharman Kadish

Sharman Kadish

Houses of the Holy

Synagogues: Marvels of Judaism


Rizzoli 288pp £55 order from our bookshop

‘The most significant volume on synagogue architecture and design to date,’ runs the dust jacket blurb, throwing down a challenge that no reviewer worth her salt could resist. This is a lavish book, in large format, printed on thick, glossy paper and packed with colour photographs. The images come from many sources and some of the photographers travelled to inhospitable places to get their shots. The book’s cover is finished in silver paper, which is not quite as shiny as the silver double spreads that mark the breaks between each chapter. This is a luxurious production indeed.

Synagogues: Marvels of Judaism is a companion volume to Mosques: Splendors of Islam, published by Rizzoli in 2017. Both books name Leyla Uluhanli as their author. In fact, most of their texts consist of contributions by specialists in Islamic and Judaic studies, as well as practising architects and designers. Uluhanli herself is a fashionable interior and furniture designer based in Moscow. She was born in the oil-rich city of Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan. No expense has been spared here, perhaps thanks to patrons like the billionaire American philanthropist and the Russian oligarch who have contributed the schmaltzy foreword and afterword.

But beyond the spin and the bling, what precisely does Synagogues add to the growing literature on synagogue architecture? For it is merely the latest offering in a rapidly expanding field of enquiry that, since the 1980s, has spawned some meticulously researched volumes on individual countries, as well as coffee-table books aimed at the popular market. For example, in 2003, Rizzoli published American Synagogues by Samuel D Gruber, with photographs by Paul Rocheleau, both of whom have contributed to the present work.

This outpouring may be attributed in part to the opening up of regions of the world – most notably, post-Soviet central and eastern Europe – that were once home to significant Jewish communities. Scholars seized the opportunity to make up for the scant attention that the Jewish world had long received in art and architectural historiography. In Europe, from the late 19th century, Jews, as the ‘People of the Book’, were considered not to have produced any significant material culture, beyond a simple, religious ‘folk art’. Moreover, it was believed that the ‘Wandering Jews’, a diaspora for two millennia, subjected to frequent persecution, dispossession, expulsion and extermination, had found little opportunity for architectural expression. The more extreme, frankly racist view was that the Jews were incapable of artistic creativity and what little art they did produce was inferior to that produced by Christians.

Synagogues is designed to counter such views by showcasing the ‘marvels’ of Jewish architecture. It is aimed at the interested general reader who may never have set foot inside a Jewish place of worship. He or she may not be familiar with the tenets or practices of Judaism, a religion adhered to by a minority of Jews, who themselves form a tiny minority (an estimated 15.2 million people) of the global population.

What is required in such a project is a clear and concise description of the principal features of the synagogue, its layout and furnishings and their functions, especially the ark and the bimah, the dual focal points of activity within the worship space. The ark is located on the wall oriented towards Jerusalem. It houses the Torah scrolls, the most precious items owned by the congregation. During some services, the scrolls are taken from the ark to the bimah, the platform from where the Torah is read and from where prayer is usually conducted. The position of the bimah may vary in communities of differing geographical origins (and, in modern times, of differing denominations). Necessary also is a systematic explanation of Jewish symbols, such as the menorah (seven-branched candelabrum), the magen David (six-pointed Star of David) and the luhot (‘tablets of the law’), likely to be encountered in a synagogue. Most important of all is the fact that the plan and arrangement of the synagogue and much of its symbolism are derived from the biblical mishkan (‘portable tent’ or ‘tabernacle’) and its fixed successor, the Temple of Jerusalem. Only when this basic information has been put across can more complex questions about architectural form and style be raised.

Here, however, the reader is distracted early on by digressions on denominational differences and their bearing on the arrangement of the synagogue. Aaron Hughes, entrusted with the introductory chapters, writes from a North American perspective, where non-traditional forms of Judaism dominate. In the wider-world context, Reform Judaism was a latecomer to the scene, dating from the early 19th century and seriously penetrating only German- and English-speaking communities. It had little impact on the majority of Jews in vast swathes of eastern Europe, North Africa and the Middle East, so it would have been simpler to delay discussion of this subject until the chapters that address European synagogues and the New World.

The bulk of the book consists of chapters focusing on some sixty synagogues from all over the world, selected by the individual authors. Approaches to the brief differ: the majority have opted for short write-ups about their chosen buildings, with a brief introductory overview and sometimes a cursory conclusion. A minority have chosen an essay format with more thematic and conceptual content. The results vary in success, while the book suffers from repetition and, as a whole, lacks uniformity. Despite the ambitious global reach, the cultural crosscurrents so characteristic of Jewish history are obscured.

No satisfying overview of periods and styles emerges to complement the variety of buildings illustrated, ranging from classical to contemporary, as would be the case in a good architectural history of the synagogue written by a single author. Jewish architecture is much like Jewish food, drawing from the building traditions of the diverse places where Jews have lived and prayed. There are examples in this book of the whole range of architectural styles, from Greco-Roman classicism and Assyrian and Byzantine in the ancient world through the Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque in Europe. In the 19th century, synagogue architecture was affected by the battle of the ‘revival’ styles, but the so-called ‘Oriental’ became most associated with synagogues, as exemplified by the Great Synagogue in Budapest (1859) and Berlin’s New Synagogue (1866). In the 20th century, Art Nouveau, Art Deco and especially International Modernism found expression in synagogues. In America, such architects as Erich Mendelsohn and Frank Lloyd Wright tried their hand at synagogue design.

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Inevitably, which buildings to include and which to leave out is a vexed issue in a compendium such as this. The criteria for inclusion are never made explicit. The chapters by Samuel Gruber and Michael Levin cover synagogues in the two largest Jewish communities in the world today, the United States and Israel. ‘Yiddishland’, the home of the Ashkenazim of eastern Europe, the world’s largest Jewish community until it was all but wiped out in the Holocaust, merits its own chapter, by Sergey Kravtsov. There is hardly a mention of Iraq, the site of Babylonia, home to the most ancient of all Jewish diasporas. South America proper gets one building (in Buenos Aires), slipped into the chapter on the ‘New World’, which is mostly about the United States. Canada is ignored.

Meanwhile, synagogues of the remote Mountain or Caucasus Jews of Dagestan and Azerbaijan, and of Jewish communities in the cities of Quba and Baku (three each) and Georgia, Uzbekistan and Iran (still home to a surprising 15,000–20,000 Jews, the largest community in the Middle East after Israel) get an entire chapter. The accompanying photographs provide a refreshingly new perspective, thanks no doubt to the role of Uluhanli in the book’s conception. While some of the synagogues featured are no longer in use as places of worship, no abandoned buildings are shown and hardly any that are damaged. Indeed, the ‘marvels’ appear in excellent condition, having been conserved, restored or entirely newly built, often with the help of generous benefactors like the patrons of this book.

From my admittedly rather parochial (in Jewish terms) standpoint, I couldn’t help noticing the slightly eccentric choice of West London (Reform) Synagogue (1870) as the sole British representative, rather than the oldest synagogue in the country, Bevis Marks Synagogue (1701) on the edge of the City of London, a ‘daughter’ of the Portuguese Synagogue or Esnoga (1675) of Amsterdam. Colonial links are missed between London and many points in the Western Sephardi world, not just New York and Montreal, but also Gibraltar, the Maghreb, the Azores, the Caribbean – for example, St Thomas and Curaçao – and Suriname, the synagogues of which testify to the extraordinary mobility of Jewish merchants throughout history.

There are some inconsistencies in transliteration, italicisation and usage of Hebrew terms. It is nowhere explained that heikhal and tevah are Sephardi Jewish equivalents for the Ashkenazi ark and bimah. The glossary is also unreliable. Some definitions are limited to biblical rather than contemporary usage, resulting in confusion. Immersion in the mikveh (ritual bath) was undertaken before entering the precincts of the Temple in Jerusalem, but it is not required today before entry into the synagogue (in contrast to the ablutions carried out at the mosque). Specialist terms of Greek, Latin, Arabic or Persian origin are not included in the glossary.

Too many factual errors crop up in the text. For instance, true Sephardi communities (those that were expelled from Spain and Portugal in the 1490s) dress their Torah scrolls in long mantles of rich fabric, not in tikim (‘cylinders’); such tikim are usually encountered in communities exposed to Muslim culture in North Africa, the Middle East, Central Asia, India and Afghanistan. There are also mistakes regarding specific buildings and sites. The galleries in Amsterdam’s Esnoga, to take just one example, were not an 18th-century addition but an integral part of the original building, as a glance at the plate of the well-known painting by de Witte (1680) will testify.

Sadly, we have come to expect typos in most printed matter these days. However, egregious errors, such as the confusion of ‘proscribed’ and ‘prescribed’, are simply unacceptable. Publications intended for the popular as much as for the academic market demand rigorous editing. So, lovely as it is to look at, to touch and to feel, overall this book cannot be recommended as a reliable introduction to Jewish architecture, let alone Judaism. Do buy it, however, for the glorious pictures.

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