German Jews’ Architectural Romance with Medieval Spain

September 23, 2016 | John Efron
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As German Jewry underwent radical change beginning in the late 18th century—with the Jewish Enlightenment, the birth of Reform Judaism, the abandonment of Yiddish, and a transformation in Jewish legal status—many found a model to emulate in the Jews of medieval Spain, at least in the somewhat romanticized picture of them offered by early scholars of Jewish history. Among the effects of this trend was the construction of synagogues in the Moorish style. The grandest of these was the Neue Synagoge on Berlin’s Orienburger Strasse, which Lewis Carroll visited twice and described as “most gorgeous.” John Efron writes:

Beginning in the 18th century, with increasing fraternization between upper-class Jews and Christians and exposure to bourgeois tastes and sensibilities, Jews, long considered to be in religious error, came to believe that they were also in aesthetic error. In almost all corporeal and cultural categories, Jews found themselves to be deficient, occasioning among them a crisis of aesthetic confidence. . . . [This crisis] drew them to the Sephardim, whom they imagined as dignified, elegant, eloquent, and beautiful. . . .

Between the 1830s and 1860s, the advent of neo-Moorish synagogues, with their towering minarets, giant domes, polychrome exteriors, windows with Islamic-style arches, and stunningly ornate interiors were the most visible, indeed, the most spectacular manifestation of an imagined Sephardi aesthetic and the only one that was created in partnership with non-Jews—the architects, builders, city planners, and councils who approved such structures.

While there are neo-Moorish synagogues all over the world, what makes Germany the most important site for this architectural style is that it was the first place such synagogues were built, and secondly, that these were the only buildings in Germany [created in this style, which] almost all architects dismissed as suitable only for entertainment and recreational purposes. . . .

The [Orianburger Strasse] synagogue’s external centerpiece was an onion dome that soared majestically some 160 feet into the air. Wrapped in a blanket of zinc and swaddled in gold ribbing, crowned with a Star of David, the great dome was the brightest and most joyful architectural feature to be found anywhere in Berlin. It was also the tallest structure in the city. The central portal was flanked by towering minarets that borrowed heavily from North African mosques and from the Giralda, a late-12th-century minaret in Seville, while the crenellations were typical of those found on Cairene mosques.

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