Back When the Jews Built Like Jews
On December 5, 1872, authorities in Florence delivered a letter to the Jewish community, halting elaborate plans for a grand synagogue in Italy's capital of the arts. That Gentiles would object to synagogue construction was nothing new, but never for this reason. Absent were any traditional themes of keeping the Jewish minority humble or subservient. Rather, the Accademia delle Arti del Disegno, a cultural body created by Cosimo I de' Medici at the close of the Italian Renaissance, chided the Jews for not building more Jewishly.
The idea that Jews ought to build in their own special style reflected a larger cultural revolution sweeping through Europe. The late 1700s had been defined by neoclassicism—an intentional return to the works of ancient Greece and Rome, whose clean, geometric forms were seen not just as designs worthy of emulation but as embodiments of a universal beauty. No matter the people, no matter the purpose, classical architecture would provide the solution. But with the rise of Romanticism in the 1800s, such universalistic aspirations were replaced by a fascination for the authentic, exotic, and particular. European architects gave renewed attention to local Gothic, Romanesque, and Italianate traditions even while flirting with the unfamiliar realms of Byzantine, Japanese, and Muslim building.
Yet with so many styles suddenly made acceptable, how was one to choose? In time, the drama and authority of Gothic architecture were deemed suitable for Catholic churches; Protestants saw the simpler shapes of Romanesque as evoking a younger, ungilded Church. But what, then, for the synagogue?
For Jews of the 19th century—from Berlin to Baltimore, from Budapest to Brookline—the answer was almost unequivocal: they looked to the mosque.
When the Great Synagogue of Florence was finally inaugurated in 1882, some 10 years after its Jewish facelift, it bore all of the most familiar features of Arabic architecture: a prominent dome, minaret-like towers, ajimez windows, horseshoe arches, an interior overlaid in polychrome tile, and a front garden of date palms. Carol Krinsky, the New York University synagogue historian, even suggests that the area of the holy Torah ark was built to resemble a minbar, a platform constructed at the front of most mosques.
The Great Synagogue is a textbook example of Moorish Revivalism, a Western style defined by imitation of iconic elements of what was then known as oriental art. Of course, imitation of several parts does not imply accuracy in the whole, and Moorish Revival buildings are to actual Muslim architecture what Fiddler on the Roof is to authentic shtetl life: one part gross generalization, two parts colorful exaggeration, and a great deal of adapting the whole thing to suit Western tastes. The Great Synagogue mixes references to buildings as disparate as the Alhambra, the Taj Mahal, and the Dome of the Rock; it is not so much a copy of Muslim style (not that there is “one” Muslim style) as a costume based on it. But it was a costume that the emancipated Jews of Europe and American wore with pride.
Between 1830 and 1930, Jewish communities constructed about one hundred Moorish Revival synagogues, many of which remain contemporary Judaism's most prestigious and significant structures. Exquisite examples include Europe's largest synagogue (Budapest's Dohany Street Synagogue), the historic home base of American Reform Judaism (Cincinnati's Isaac Mayer Wise Temple), iconic survivors of Kristallnacht, including Berlin's Neue Synagogue, and two U.S. National Historic Landmarks, Manhattan's Eldridge Street Synagogue and Central Synagogue.
The building spree continued even as Gentile builders reserved Moorish style for projects fanciful and fun: festive movie palaces, whimsical garden décor, garish smoking rooms, and Shriners’ recreation halls. According to Ivan Davidson Kalmar, an expert on Moorish synagogues, Cologne's stunning Glockengasse Synagogue was reminiscent of the city's zoo. What was cheerfully bizarre for the Gentile was majestically appropriate for the Jew.
Synagogues built throughout the period loudly attest that what architects called “Moorish” had actually become quintessentially Jewish. But what the buildings cannot explain is why.
The typical explanation is that in building like Muslims, 19th-century Jews were reviving the architectural landscape of Golden Age Spain, once populated by heroes like Maimonides, Judah Halevi, and ibn Ezra. In other words, they were building not like actual Muslims but like history's original Sephardim. In this way, these new synagogues expressed aspirations for the future. Yes, each new stone seemed to say, this, too, can be our age of progress and co-existence, of distinctive identity but shared culture. Moorish Revival became an ideal Jewish style because it projected, from history, an ideal Jewish future.
It is a tempting thesis. After all, Moorish Revival was the project of Jews who longed for respectable integration into Gentile society. Nineteenth-century Jewry was quickly gaining new liberties and rights and responded by developing theologies that embraced the best elements of secular culture and science. The Golden Age thesis makes perfect sense.
But it isn’t true. In a comprehensive study of Moorish-style synagogues, Professor Kalmar shows that the vast record of speeches, critical accounts, and promotional literature surrounding these grand temples makes almost no mention of Spanish Jewry. In its place, one simple but surprising theme occurs over and over again: we have built in an oriental style because we are an oriental people. In other words, we shall build like Arabs because they are our true brothers.
Kalmar's works document the many ways in which 19th-century intellectuals regarded their Jewish neighbors as “Europe's Asiatics” and the fact that many of Judaism's most progressive figures embraced this conception. (Benjamin Disraeli preferred the term “Arabs without horses.”) It was part of a larger, well-accepted notion of distinct occidental and oriental peoples, each bearing its own special features. Granted, by identifying as oriental, European Jews were adopting a discourse that often assumed Christian and Western superiority; then again, this same paradigm offered Jewish “others” a legitimate, if not downright noble, place at the table of civilizations. The Jews may be of the East, the narrative went, but that means they bear the Wisdom of the East, a wisdom spawned by Moses, Jesus, and Mohammed, which has long served to complement and perfect that of the West. It was an identity that Jews proudly brought with them to places like Owensboro, Kentucky, and Navarro County, Texas, both sites of elaborate Moorish synagogues—for in the 19th century, being Arab could be refined, could be sexy, and could certainly be Jewish.
Which is precisely the way these resplendent synagogues turned out: refined, sexy, and—most important—the architectural equivalents of a Star of David. For the first time in the post-Temple period, Jews developed a decidedly “Jewish” aesthetic. Of course, buildings for Jews were always unique in certain ways—with Hebrew iconography, for instance, and often facing east—but they largely copied the local, available design schemes. They were buildings for Jews, but not Jewish buildings. Finally, after some 1,800 years of Diaspora, Jews had the political clout, financial freedom, and artistic aspirations to reach for something great and different. In effect, Moorish Revival became the first sustained movement of Jewish architecture.
But will it also be the last? Under today’s auspicious circumstances, we have witnessed the blossoming of literature, music, art, and film that strive to reflect the spirit and condition of the Jewish people. Yet, Fifth Avenue's Jewish Museum sits in a Gothic Revival mansion, and the Knesset is a drab International-by-committee affair whose primary allusion is to the Greek colonnade. The Old City's Hurva Synagogue, once the center of Jewish life in Jerusalem, tells it best. The building’s demolition by Jordanian mines in 1948 signaled the end of Jewish access to the Old City. Recaptured in 1967, the Hurva site became the ultimate opportunity for a monumental expression of resurgent Jewish life. But after a decades-long search for a compelling and meaningful redesign, including submissions by some of the world's most prominent architects, it was decided in 2010 just to copy the Ottoman-era structure that once stood there. Moshe Safdie, best known for his redesign of Yad Vashem, described the new Hurva architecture as “saying we have nothing to say.”
That is a charge rarely leveled against the Jewish people. Creating an architecture that actually speaks—that comments on who we are and where we are from—is no easy task. (Of course, a Moorish Revival revival is anything but a good idea. Edward Said, a certain Mideast conflict, and September 11, 2001 have sufficiently done away with Jews' “oriental” pride.) What remains is the task of crafting an architecture all our own.
Back in 1872, Florence's Accademia delle Arti del Disegno challenged the Jewish community to construct a building that “manifest[s] at first sight so effectively a marked character that it recalls the dates and the places that are of most interest for this religion, and a character such as cannot be confounded with . . . the monuments of other nations and religions.” One hundred forty years later, it’s time we found an answer.
Ben Greenfield is a Tikvah alumnus and a writer living in rural Connecticut.
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