Revelations about Synagogue Architecture (3 cents)

I was one of about 35 lucky people to hear Hungarian Jewish architect and historian Rudolf Klein talk in brief yesterday at the Library of Congress about his massive and beautiful new book on Hungarian synagogue architecture. Unfortunately, I don’t know if this book will be available in the United States, and I am sure that this book will cost a pretty penny – or more likely a pretty forint, as the text is only in Hungarian (photo captions are in both English and Hungarian).

Klein, a Hungarian Jew born and raised in Serbia (don’t ask me, but he explained how that could be), teaches at Szent Istvan University in Budapest and spends considerable time at Tel Aviv University. His main focus is on 19th century European architecture and in particular synagogue architecture.

His 45 minute presentation was aided by a power point presentation. You had to pay close attention – he had a lot to say – but if you did, you were well rewarded.

He started with a brief history of the Jews of the Austria-Hungarian empire, about how supportive Franz Joseph was toward the Jews, and how the Jews, over a period of generations, migrated to Budapest and other large cities, not only from rural Hungary, but from other parts of the empire as well, including Bohemia and Moravia to the north, and the then future and now former Yugoslavia to the south. Budapest became about 30 percent Jewish (Anti-Semitic Viennese mayor Karl Lueger called it Judapest, and said he would never set foot in the city) and the Jewish community there, and in the remainder of Hungary, became extremely well integrated. They were Hungarians, just as the ethnic Hungarians, believed themselves to be Hungarian, were extremely patriotic, and until the Germans invaded the country in 1944, led a comfortable existence. Budapest had many beautiful synagogues, to be sure, but so did the rest of the country.

I have never been interested in synagogue architecture more than in an anecdotal way – if I went to a new city, I’d visit the synagogue, sometimes find it an interesting building, and now and then even remember what I saw. But that’s it. Now I see that I had no idea how to look at synagogue architecture. I think I will see things differently in the future.

For one thing, you cannot compare synagogues to churches. Klein explained, in ways I had not considered, how different Christian and Jewish architecture was. Christian architecture equates form with substance, a carryover from the Greek and especially the Platonic. Christians created architecture that was itself a physical manifestation of the Christian religious spirit. Gothic and Baroque. Very un-Jewish. And all of a piece – if you see a Gothic cathedral from the outside, for example, you know pretty well what it looks like inside, both floor plan and decor. Synagogues were not physical manifestations of anything – that would be too analogous to a graven image. A synagogue is just a building. Certainly not meant to evoke a faith.

This means, says Klein, that synagogue architects could pick and choose from a variety of styles and components – they were not bound to create a homogeneous building that fits the spiritual pattern of the day. When you study synagogues, therefore, you must study its components separately. Its external design, its structural components, its floor plan, its decor, how it is placed in its location, and how the location fits into town. By looking at these individual facets of the synagogue, you learn a lot about the history of the Jews at the time, and if you look at a number of synagogues, you begin to piece together more about the history of the local Jewish community.

Some examples. At first, Budapest synagogues were hidden in residential building courtyards (we once visited a courtyard synagogue in Buda, not far from the castle). A little later, they might still be placed in the courtyard but they became visible from the street. Next, they were placed directly on the street in the middle of the block, and soon would be bordered by Jewish community buildings. Then, they were placed on more prominent corner lots, and some of them took up the entire block. As to city location, the older synagogues were placed in residential neighborhoods which were by and large heavily Jewish, but slowly synagogues moved from local neighborhoods to more central locations, to the heart of the city, sometimes being placed on the main square and sometimes on valuable land with river views.

Klein also talked about the evolution of synagogue floor plans, as the bimah moved from the center closer and closer to the ark on the eastern wall, so the synagogue began to look more and more like a church. Looking at the famous Dohenyi Street Synagogue, Europe’s largest with room for over 3,000 congregants, you can see how church-like the interior became. Of course, this is a “liberal” synagogue (although there remains separate seating for men and women), which even when built contained an organ.

The external designs of synagogues also ranged widely. There were Greek-like classical designs, buildings designed in the romantic style of architecture. There were Byzantine designs, rural synagogues that looked similar to peasant houses, those that looked like more prosperous burghers’ houses, and those (for modest urban congregations) that looked like factories, where the congregation did not want to show off. Of course, other designs such as the romantic synagogues, the Byzantine, those that looked like Solomon’s temple, and those that were modeled after palaces were specifically designed to show off, to show off the prosperity of the community, and to the fact that it had nothing to hide, that it was as much a part of the local Hungarian community as were the various Christian sects.

There are some beautiful synagogues in Hungary. Most of them survived the war and of course a significant Jewish population still exists to use and help preserve many of the buildings. Most, he says, are in good shape, some (particularly in smaller towns) now in alternative uses such as theaters, community centers, and so forth, restored by a combination of public and private funding. On the other hand, some former synagogue buildings are not in good shape, especially those in out of the way locations, towns without significant Jewish populations, not on major highways, not served by railroads. These, Klein says, have no alternative uses, and preserving them have so far not been possible.

I own two other books on synagogue architecture – Brian de Breffny’s “The Synagogue”, and Carol Herselle Krinsky’s “Synagogues of Europe”, both of which are very informative (with pictures, floor plans, etc.) but neither of which take the same type of analytical approach that Klein adopts.

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