Tuesday, October 21, 2008

From the Top Tier Gallery, Vienna

As noted in a previous post, I spent much of the High Holy Day period moving around Europe, in a sort of mini-Jewish Heritage tour of Siena, Vienna and Budapest.

Vienna on Yom Kippur provided the most traditional Ashkenazic experience -- services in the historic "Stadttempel," the lovely neo-classical synagogue on sloping Seitenstettengasse, in the heart of the city's core First District. From the outside, the synagogue, built in 1824-26, looks like a plain, anonymous building -- many synagogues across Europe (including that in Siena) are hidden behind featureless outer walls that face the street. This was either for protection or in compliance with edicts that allowed direct access to the street only for churches. (This positioning saved the synagogue during Kristallnacht pogrom in November 1938; it was not torched for fear that the entire block could go up in flames and survived World War II almost unscathed. All of the other nearly 100 synagogues and Jewish prayer houses in Vienna were either destroyed or severely damaged.)

What sets the building apart these days is the security outside -- including armed guards.

Designed by the architect Josef Kornhausel, the Stadttempel features a graceful oval sanctuary encircled by two tiers of women's galleries and topped by a sky-blue dome sprinkled with gilded stars. Twelve fluted ionic columns support the galleries and partition the perimeter, and a gilded sunburst tops a rendition of the Ten Commandments that seems to float above the ark.

I arrived in Vienna just in time to enjoy a pre-fast meal with my friend Antonia before we took a taxi to services. We had to climb to the top tier of the women's galleries, where we stood at the back -- if we had been in a theater, we would have been in "the gods." From almost no seat in either of the women's galleries, however, is it possible to see anything of what goes on on the ground floor, where the men are seated. You have to lean right over the edge of the galleries and look down -- not good if you have a fear of heights.

Throughout the service, boisterous and cute little children ran in and out, and the other women around us, unable to see (and only to hear with some difficulty) used the opportunity -- as usual in such cases -- to schmooze. When I could hear, it was a pleasure. (Even though Antonia and I arrived too late to hear Kol Nidre). The cantor was excellent, and the melodies sung in the service here are the same ones I grew up with at my Conservative JCC in suburban Philadelphia...

The crowd was well-dressed and prosperous-looking; all ages represented. Afterward, we milled about on the cobbled street outside, greeting friends in the congregation -- these included Edward Serotta, the director of Centropa.org, the central European Jewish research institute. (I write a travel column for Centropa -- it was on hold for a few months during a redesign of the web site, but is now back up on line.)

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