Synagogue Architecture in Four Nineteenth-century European Capitals

 Vladimir Levin on Saskia Coenen Snyder’s Building a Public Judaism

Building a Public Judaism
Saskia Coenen Snyder, Building a Public Judaism: Synagogues and Jewish Identity in Nineteenth-Century Europe, Harvard University Press, 2013,
360 pp., $49.95

Building a Public Judaism offers a fascinating journey to Jewish communities in four European capital cities in the second half of the nineteenth century. Saskia Coenen Snyder’s decision to deal with synagogues in Berlin, London, Amsterdam, and Paris departs from the historiography on Jewish ritual architecture. Besides several large works devoted to the synagogues of the world in general, or Europe in particular, writing on the topic is typically limited to one country: The Synagogues of Britain and Ireland by Sharman Kadish; Zsinagógák Magyarországon (The Synagogues of Hungary) by Rudolf Klein; or Synagogy Moravy, Slezska a Čech / Synagogues in Moravia, Silesia, and Bohemia by Jaroslav Klenovský and Ludmila Hájková, to mention just a few very recent volumes. Yet Coenen Snyder’s transnational approach — crossing boundaries and discussing important Jewish urban centers in comparative perspective — turns out to be extremely fruitful.

Another important difference between Coenen Snyder’s book and the existing academic literature on synagogues is methodological. Coenen Snyder’s is not a book about architecture, but rather a social history of synagogue architecture, a study of Jewish politics and Weltanschauung reflected in the appearance and urban situation of “the most important public arena for the expression of a Jewish identity.” The synagogue buildings  — their placement, size, style, exterior and interior arrangements — are statements in and of themselves and reflect carefully defined self-representation.

Coenen Snyder tells the story of synagogues in four capitals of “northern Europe” in four corresponding chapters. Each chapter starts with an elegant description of the city’s development in the second half of the nineteenth century — its architecture, stylistic choices, and their meaning — and continues with a discussion of the local Jewish community, its structure, urban features, and its situation vis-à-vis the general public and state authorities. This comprehensive picture creates a context in which the question of the synagogues’ construction emerges from the minutes of communal boards and opinions expressed in Jewish and general press. Coenen Snyder explains the functioning of synagogues in the “internal” Jewish world, as well as the “messages” they were intended to convey to the non-Jewish surroundings.

Neue Synagoge
Neue Synagoge at Oranienburgerstrasse, Berlin

The first chapter focuses on Berlin and especially the New Synagogue at Oranienburgerstrasse. Contrary to the prevailing view that this magnificent synagogue built in lavish Moorish style was a symbol of emancipation, Coenen Snyder shows that the synagogue was intended to serve as but one of the means for achieving emancipation, through demonstrating the “worthiness” of Berlin Jews, their German acculturation, and their acceptance of modern — i.e., reformed — worship. In contrast to the Jews’ intentions, the German public regarded the Moorish Oranienburgerstrasse synagogue as an expression of Jewish separateness, and thus this huge and splendid building failed to fulfill its original purpose.

In Britain the question of emancipation was not as pressing as in Prussia and seemingly played no role in the choice of representational forms. No single huge synagogue was erected in London in the second half of the nineteenth century, while modest and stylistically indistinct synagogues were built in the districts with a substantial Jewish population. This mode of building, undertaken by the centralized organizations of the United Synagogue and the Federation of Synagogues, was dictated by financial pragmatism, a high public degree of Anglicization, and the acceptance of religious diversity by Victorian society. Anglo-Jewry, to Coenen Snyder, “conveyed to the public the community’s religious respectability and good citizenship, as well as its belief that religious distinctiveness was better served in private.” In the internal Jewish realm, the author argues that notwithstanding growing secularization and reduced attendance, synagogues remained central to Victorian Jewish identity.

Amsterdam presents a different story altogether, where two great synagogues — the Sephardi and the Ashkenazi — existed since the late seventeenth century. Amsterdam Jewry did not need to deploy the architecture of emancipation because its increasingly secular Jews felt secure about their civil status. Instead of elaborate synagogues, the Jewish community directed its resources toward health and education services for the poor and built small and relatively inconspicuous places of worship. Unlike in London, Paris, and Berlin, “the Dutch capital did not witness the subtle but nonetheless imperative transformation of the conception of synagogue as a house of worship to an Erbauungslokal, a locality where worshippers could gain and display edification by means of modernized liturgy, an edificatory sermon, and an inspiring Christian-based interior design.”

Coenen Snyder’s final case study is Paris in the era of Georges Eugène Haussmann. The heads of the Paris community, emancipated since the late eighteenth century, desired buildings that would represent Judaism “with dignity” and were ready to invest in such representation. However, in the highly bureaucratized Second Empire they had no other choice but to consent to the visions of the authorities, Hausmann in particular, who privileged uniformity, and to employ state architects for bureaucratic and tactical reasons (access to licenses, signatures, and subsidies). As a result, Paris’s great synagogues have no distinct role in the capital’s cityscape; the aesthetic vision of their architects says more about how Christians viewed Jews than Jewish self-representation in the public domain.

In the concluding chapter Coenen Snyder formulates the differences and similarities between the four cases discussed in her book. The starting point for any comparison is the political and cultural situation of the Jews; in other words, the extent, and obstacles, to their integration into and acceptance by the surrounding society. There are also a number of trivial but rarely mentioned factors, influencing how and why different communities built their synagogues. A few examples include Jewish residential patterns, the slow upward mobility of Amsterdam Jews in comparison with the three other capitals, or the fact that no government permission was required to erect synagogues in Britain and Holland, while in Berlin and Paris the need to obtain authorization hindered the building process for many years. Coenen Snyder’s main concern, however, is the question of whether architecture is an effective agent of communication and whether monumental synagogues were symbols of equality and integration. She rejects the “all-European” approach to the meaning of “Jewish architecture,” which relies on a very generalized understanding of what synagogues meant for Jews in the nineteenth century. She favors instead an appreciation of “multiple Jewish modernities, all of which expressed themselves differently in the built environment.” It is in the synagogue itself, Coenen Snyder argues, that Jews debated the boundaries of acculturation, “rendering it a central space for the reinvention of Jewishness.” Finally, Coenen Snyder provocatively points to another issue of architectural representation of a religious minority — the issue of erecting mosques in twenty-first-century Europe.

When Coenen Snyder speaks about Europe, her continent ends on the western bank of the Oder River and does not include the vast countries to its east. Even so, her research is highly relevant to understanding the significance of synagogues built in cities such as Warsaw, St. Petersburg, Vienna, and Bucharest, and her methodology and conclusions are no less significant for eastern and southern Europe than for the north-western part of the continent. She makes a very significant contribution to the new way of exploring questions of symbolical representation in its architectural and spatial dimensions. As such, Building a Public Judaism not only successfully and convincingly reconsiders synagogue architecture in European capitals of the nineteenth century but also successfully revisits the processes of integration and acculturation Jews experienced during the period.