The “Jewish Sistine Chapel,” Restored

January 6, 2015 | Matti Friedman
About the author: Matti Friedman is the author of a memoir about the Israeli war in Lebanon, Pumpkinflowers: A Soldier’s Story of a Forgotten War (2016). His latest book is Spies of No Country: Secret Lives at the Birth of Israel (2019).

Jerusalem’s Ades synagogue was constructed at the beginning of the 20th century for a community of Jews from Aleppo. Its woodwork reflects its congregants’ Syrian origins, but its elaborate murals were painted by a brilliant young artist from Austrian Poland, who imbued them with complex Zionist symbolism. The synagogue is only recently being restored to its original splendor. Matti Friedman writes:

The young painter, Yaakov Stark, covered the interior with a combination of traditional motifs, like the symbols of the twelve tribes of Israel, and with the new icons of the Zionist movement, stars of David and menorahs, woven together like a mosaic in shades of blue and green. He included a biblical passage expressing the Jews’ longing to return to Zion, using a Hebrew font that mixed Arabic calligraphy with Art Nouveau. Stark’s masterpiece of early Zionist art turned the building from a mere bastion of traditional craftsmanship into something else—a strange, even unsettling amalgam of styles, the physical expression of the conviction of the Syrian worshipers and the Eastern European artist that though they had never met before, and had recently arrived from vastly different places in a city where they had never been, they were all home. There is no other synagogue like it.

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