Jewish Houses of Worship, with and without Their Worshippers

August 8, 2022 | Stuart Halpern
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While the recently published anthology Shul Going: 2500 Years of Impressions and Reflections on Visits to the Synagogue focuses mainly on what went on in synagogues, the coffee-table book Synagogues: Marvels of Judaism focuses on the buildings themselves. In his review, Stuart Halpern finds the latter “sumptuous” and “almost every image” therein to be “visually stunning.” The book’s text, however, reveals something more sobering:

It is genuinely exciting to learn of the spaces in which Jews of other times and places met and prayed, danced, and kibitzed. One reads elaborate descriptions of columns, arks, windows, and wall decorations with a rush of aesthetic excitement. And then comes what feels like an increasingly inevitable postscript: “Today only a tiny population of Jews still inhabit . . . ,” “Now a museum, the building was meticulously restored,” “Today, it occupies an important place in Jewish heritage tours,” “A white-pebbled plaza marks the outlines of the torched former synagogue,” “Today, little remains . . . following its desecration during the World War II and its subsequent conversion into a cinema,” “Despite a horrific terrorist bombing . . . ,” “The synagogue was converted into a mosque,” and so on.

More troubling still is the inability of some of the book’s authors to come to terms with the history they are describing:

The contribution on synagogues of the Middle East, North Africa, and India, coauthored by Mohammad Gharipour, an architecture professor at Morgan State University in Baltimore, and Max Fineblum, seemingly one of his students, raises this pattern to the level of egregious distortion. In their chapter’s opening line, we are told that in ancient times, early Jewish tribes inhabited the “arid ancient lands of Canaan, Phoenicia, and Palestine.” Israel and Judea, those Jewish kingdoms spanning around 1,000 years or so, seem to have gotten lost somewhere in the sands of time.

Unfortunately, there is more. In the description of Afghanistan’s Yu Aw Synagogue in Herat, in which “richly painted floral patterns inspired by Persian design . . . adorn the main sanctuary,” the authors admit that Afghanistan has not exactly been kind to the Jews, what with all of the state-sponsored pogroms and plundering. However, with anti-Semitism rising in the 1930s, “Herat was one of the few Afghan cities that did not banish Jews.” We then read that “the pressure to assimilate evaporated when Jews left the city in 1978.” Forced Exile = Evaporated Pressure is a nifty formula, but it misses something—human lives.

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