Written by: Vardah Littmann Photos by: Chani Feiger
And courtesy of the Israel Museum
It states in the gemorah that in future Synagogues of the Golah are destined to be brought up to Eretz Yisroel. Our seminar organized a visit to the newly configured Synagogue Route of the Israel Museum which was led by Nurit Bank, the former Director Judaic information center of the Israel Museum. Mrs Bank's wellsprings of research, information, and insight enable us to clearly see the fulfillment of the above prophecy before our very eyes.
At the entrance of the Museum, even before entering the building, one encounters the lintels and door frames of Battay Knesyot from the Gallie from after the Second Temple period. At that time there were many Synagogues in Eretz Yisroel. Most of these were destroyed with the ravages of the land by different nations. Many of the shuls that were in the hilly Gallie survived as it was hard to reach them. Also the materials, such as basalt stone (black stone), used in the construction of the sanctuaries were very enduring and hardy.
The motifs engraved on these parts of the Galalean shuls are themes that reappear though-out different synagogues in all the lands of our dispersion. For instance the shape of a seashell, which reminds one to contemplate the wonders of HaSh-m's creation, are seen here are echoed in the Italian and Indian shuls inside. The bunches of grapes, the flowers and the menorah are also reoccurring themes. This should strengthen our pride in being part of the nation of Klal Yisroel that has held on so fiercely to our religion and tradition that even the decorations in our places of worship have been passed down generation to generation for over three thousand years.
The Israel Museum boasts four reconstructed synagogues from Europe, Asia and South America. These former places of worship, from three continents, have been brought up from Chutz La'Eretz and re-constructed on the premises of the Israel Museum. Each one has monitoring instruments to ensue the optimal conditions of lighting and humidity for its preservation.
The first synagogue is an 18th-century Italian synagogue from Vittorio- Veneto in Northern Italy. It served the two small local Ashkenazi communities that settled in the small towns of Vittorio and Veneto during the Middle Ages, but was abandoned when the Jewish community moved to larger urban centers in the 19th century. The synagogue was bought to Eretz Yisroel in its entity, from its ornate lamps to its wooded benches. It is very similar to the Italian Synagogue on Rechov Hillel. Even though there are differences, both are typical Italian shuls. The Italian seating arrangement is unique and is aligned along the side walls of the sanctuary, facing inwards and not like the Sfardie (in the shape of Hebrew 'Chet' ) or the Ashkenazi(frontal) way of seating. The inner row of benches is very narrow and it is surmised that each child sat in front of his father so he could be disciplined to behave appropriately in this Holy place. This is a bipolar Synagogue with the Aron Kodesh at the one end of the shul and the bimah at the other far end. This enabled the Sefer Torah that was taken out of the ark to pass though the congregation on its way to the Bimah where it could be read in the most audible place possible. Above the wooden, well preserved, Bimah is the echoed the shell shape (also made out of wood) which also helps acoustics. Before the Bimah is the wooden Chair of Eliyahu.The Italian Sefer Torah (there are two of them displayed in a glass case at the entrance of the Synagogue) was very large and very heavy. Even its silver keter of rimonim was very heavy.
The late-baroque styled Aron Kodesh is made of wood covered in genuine 24 caret gold which has been rolled less then paper thin. The technique of gilding wood relief in gold is an ancient Italian art. There are two sets of pillars thought to be reminiscent of the Yacin and Boaz pillars of the both Battay Mikdash. Above each set we find a cut off lintel maybe also in remembrance of the two Churbanos. This cut off pattern is also a very common Italian artistic style.
On each of the doors of the Heichal there is a design of a vase with an abundance of flowered vines flowing all over the ark. This may be a depiction of the pasok "Eitz Chaim hie... ", showing Torah is a tree of life. There are three crowns on the ark, the Crown of Torah, the Crown of Good Deeds and the Crown of a Good Name. There are written psokim meant to direct in the service of HaSh-m. "Know before Whom you stand..." "Look for HaSh-m when He is found" ect, all over the ark. Inside the Aron Kodesh are written of the Ten Commandments. These verses gave even the most simple Jew the feeling that here in the Bais Kneses he was connected to Torah learning as here was Torah he could learn immediately.
It should be remembered that at the time this Synagogue functioned there was no electric lighting. Illumination was obtained by the lighting of wicks in oil. Four flowered wall lamps which were donated by a woman in the at the time the Synagogue was built, are placed around the shul. There are hanging oil lamps made of brass-cast. There is a marble hand-washing basin at the entrance to the Synagogue.
The Ezras Nashim surrounds the upper section of the sanctuary and is even above the Aron Kodesh. The bottom of the women's gallery seems to be edged in marble with golden ornamentation. This in fact is wood that was simulated to resemble marble so closely that it misleads the eye.This is a very widely used Italian art technic that is still used today. The window frames of the ladies section open with a upper hinge allowing the ladies to look out and also throw down sweets and peklach.
Before the Synagogue's aliyah, it was photographed from inside and out. When it was reinstalled everything to the last minutest detail was copied.
As one stands in the Synagogue continuos recording of the tfilos and piyotim in the nusach of Italian Jewry, is heard in the background.
As Jews were afraid of arousing the Non-Jews' jealousy the Shul was placed in a building that looked very plain from the outside.
In the fifties Dr. Shlomo Umbertto Nachon realized that many of the shuls in Italy would soon be in ruins. Much of Italian Jewry had left for the new State of Israel and the houses of worship were now deserted. Dr. Nachon negotiated with the Italian Government to allow all unused synagogues to be brought up to Israel. This was no easy task as the Italians appreciate old artifacts. The moment he got the okay, he gathered numerous movable objects from different shuls to a central point and shipped them to Eretz Yisroel. The logistics of collecting all the items was formidable as there were no faxes and pela-phones at the time, but Dr. Nachon managed to bring up many of pieces shul furniture and even two compleat Synagogues. The magnificent golden Aron Kodesh in Yeshivat Ponovitch is also one of the pieces Dr. Nachon brought up.
The second Synagogue is from the a little town of Horb am Main, southern Germany, in proximity to Bamberg. This is the most complete surviving example of the seven known, painted Synagogues by Eliezer Sussman. What is seen at the Israel Museum is the vaulted ceiling and the doors of the Aron Kodesh.
The artist, Eliezer Sussman who decorated the Shul signed his and his wife's name. He was a wandering artist originally from Brody, Ukrain. He used paints made out various plants, leaves,stones and even earth to obtain different colors . These were bound together by eggs and oil. (One can see a video at the museum explaining how these natural paints were made). Employing the 'carpet-style', he painted two vases from which poured out flowered vines that cover the whole plank roof of the Synagogue. He edged the roof in ethical sayings, one of which states that the gates of tears are never locked.
The western wall of the Synagogue has a painting of the heavenly and earthly Yerushalayim on it. The former is depicted as a typical European medieval walled city, with many towers. It would seem that as, Rav Sussman had never been in Jerusalem his vision of the Holy city was influenced by the cities he knew first hand. He wrote the Hebrew letters 'Beit' and Hey' which researchers say stand for Beis HaMihdash and the word Yerushalayim on this drawing. A pair of lions blowing trumpets surrounding verses from the Yamim Noaraim Tfilah are also found on this wall.
Recorded cantorial chanting in the minhag of Ashkanaz is heard in the background.
Between the years 1732 and 1742, Eliezer Sussman painted at least seven different Shuls in southern Germany. All the other Synagogues were destroyed and burnt in different rampages before and including 'crystal night' and the Holocaust. This Horb's Shul was preserved by the Germans themselves in a museum for German Culture in Bamberg.
In 1735, Eliezer Sussman who had been commissioned by the community of Horb, completed painting the Shul. It was used as a sanctuary for 120 years, till the Jews left the village. It was rediscovered in
The third shul is 16th century Kadavumbagam (“by the side of the river”) Synagogue, from Cochin India. When the community built the Bais Kneses they composed a beautiful lyrical song about it. In the South of India, Karala, there were a number of Synagogues. When Indian Jewry made aliyah in the fifties these were deserted and were bought up by the local Non-Jews . One became a storage shed and another a greenhouse. The Kadavumbagam Synagogue was bought by a Hindu and became a factory for mats and ropes. The owner hung his avodah zoroh over the door. To his amazement the next morning he found it lying on the floor in pieces. He persisted in re-hanging the idol and each morning he would find it destroyed. When his sons began to die and he realized that he had to leave the Synagogue. In 1990 Fred and Bellah Worms from London acquired the Synagogue and gave it to the Israel Museum. The couple arranged the dismantling of the Bais Kneses. The ordinate celling weighs seven tons, each of its beams weighing about seven hundred kilos. To install it in the Israel Museum the concrete roof of the museum was removed and the enormous beams were put in place one by one by a carne. But before they could install the wood it had to be acclimatized to the Jerusalem weather conditions so that it should not crack or disintegrate. As the humidity in Karala is extremely high and that of Yerushola'yim is very dry, a special little 'India' with an Indian climate, was created in the Israel Museum. Strands of dry pieces of plants from India were placed around the chamber and monitoring instruments insured high humidity. Slowly over a period of five years the humidity and temp was lowered, thus allowing the wood to get used to its new home. At the end of the five year period the layers paint that had been applied by the community in India, were gently peeled off, enabling one to view the original painted wood.
The beans of the wood are covered in carved Lotus flowers in various stages of bloom. Within some of the fully opened flowers are found different creatures such as birds, fish and even a frog. All this was to show "Mah rabo masecha HaSh-m."
The Indian Synagogue's layout is completly unlike that of any other eidah (community) in the world.
The Aron Kodesh is not the original one from the Synagogue in Kadavumbagamin, but one from the Synagogue from the city of Parur in the same area. As the original ark had been bought up to Israel in the fifties,with the Indian olim, and is use in Moshav Nehalim. The Israel Museum, to its credit, asked Daas Torah, and was told not to use the Aron Kodesh and leave it doing holy task in the Moshav. The ark at the museum was carved in 1892, from an enormous tree trunk given to the citizens of Parur as a gift from the city's ruler. There is an engraving of a menorah on the ark. The sculptured wooden grapevines and decorating the Aron Kodesh are reminiscent of the Galalean shuls. As the sculptor probably never saw the the Gallil engravings, it would seem that there is an echo in the Jewish neshoma of these designs which appeared over and over again thoughout the Jewish world.
The cases of the Sifray Torah in the ark are silver. Many of the paroches in India were made by women
The chair of Eliyahu is very large. The baby was placed directly on the flat seat where the bris was performed.
The typical Indian bimah is in the center of the room in the shape of a horseshoe with a copper railing. Around it jutes out a low shelf-like extension on which the men sat to hear the Torah Readings. The Torah was read from this bimah only on Mondays and Thursdays. On Shabbos the Sefer Torah was taken up twelve steps at the back of the Bais Kneses and read on a high bimah in front of the women's section. This was in remembrance of Matan Torah when Torah was given from up high.
The oil lamps were lit with coconut oil.
The last Synagogue in the route is a Synagogue from Suriname in North South America and is one of the oldest Jewish shuls in the New World. It was built by the Spanish and Portuguese Jews who had fled to Holland during the Inquisition and then many years later immigrated to Suriname. Here they became the owners of large sugar-cane plantations who exported sugar to Europe. Many of them became very wealty. In fact the area was nicked-named the 'Jewish Savanna'. There were tracts of land called Carmel, Sharon, Chermon and similar names. In fact Jodensavanne a town near the Cassipoera Creek along the upper
In the capital Suriname Paramaribo an Ashkenazi Shul "Neve Shalom" was built in 1723 and dedicated in 1735. In 1736 a Sfardie Bais Kneses "Zedeq ve Shalom" was also constructed. The years passed and Jewish presence in the area dwindled. The community decided to amalgamated and operate only the 'Neve Shalom" Synagogue. The Israel Museum asked that Zedek veShalom be transferred to the museum premises in order to preserve it for prosperity. In September 1999, the contents of the synagogue reached
The beauty of this shul is its stunning simplicity. The cedar and mahogany Aron Kodesh is an inspired by the the ark in the Great Spanish-Portuguese Synagogue in Amsterdam, and is in much smaller proportions. Here again we see what are reminiscent of the Yacin and Boaz pillars, maybe to remind us of Bais HaMikdash, as well as the cut off lintels, again maybe, a remembrance of the Churban. The Two Tablets of the Ten Commandments crown the ark at its center. The ancient rich-brown and black wood of this ark is especially well preserved.
There is white sand bought from the Savanna that covers the floor of the sanctuary, as it did in Caribbean. Many of the shuls in the area also had this custom. Mrs Bank was given three explanations by members of the community who visited the Museum, for this spreading of sand. The first claims that, as the climate in Dutch Guinea was extremely humided and also extremely hot, the sand was put down to preserve the wooden furniture of the shul by absorbing the moisture. The second reason states that this is a reminder of how the Morrranos used sand in their places of worship to stifle the noise, so as not to be heard by people and especially the Inquisition,on the outside. And lastly it is said that the Torah was given in the Wilderness of Sinai which was full of sand and therefore each footstep was tracked there. When one came to this shul and saw his footfall being recorded in the sand he was enjoined to contemplate were he was going in life.
There was a special broom to smooth out the sand. There are imposing looking benches for the rabbi and the parnossim and all the seating faces inwards in a 'chet' shape. The bimah is at the centre of the Bais Kneses. Beautiful brass candelabras hang from the ceiling, and there is one extraordinary free-standing brass candelabra plus many free-standing single ones. There is a woman’s gallery in the western part of the Synagogue. The Torah crowns, rimmonim and pointers are of the most superb quality and seem to have been made in the Netherlands.
There are two sets of green doors at each entrance. The innermost doors are swinging mid-west slated (cowboy ) doors with rounded tops. The outer doors are regular square ones
The Israel Museum received the original wooden furniture from actual Synagogue of Suriname itself. But of the building itself only the doors came up to Israel. The architect Chanan De Lange, reconstructed the shul in its entirety on the premises of the museum. He used the most modern materials and methods to recreate an exact replica of the former Bais Kneses . It was made in the whitest of white to show it is not the 'real thing'. The lighting in this section is extremely bright to stimulate the sun-drenched shores of South America.
The Synagogue Route in the Israel Museum opens a window into the beauty of the Jewish soul showing the great love the Jew has for his Maker. Throughout the ages the eternal people used their innate talents to decorate their places of worship thereby furrfilling the verse "Zeh Kailie v'anvay Hue ..." . "This is my G-d and I will build Him a Sanctuary" (Artscroll Siddur).V'anvay Hue -- and I shall beautify this Sanctuary
A word of caution - the Synagogue Route in the Israel Museum is a wonderful eye opener to the beauty of Synagogues as a whole, but unfortunately on the grounds of the Israel Museum are undressed statues, which are a michshol (stumbling block) that open the eye in wrong way and need to be taken into consideration if one wants to visit the place.
The author would to thank Mrs. Nurit Bank for sharing all her beautiful insightful information and wisdom with us.