Sunday, September 28, 2014

Nearly 25 years later, revisiting the old question : Should old synagogues in Eastern Europe be restored?

Exterior Rumbach st. synagogue, Budapest, December 2011. Photo © Ruth Ellen Gruber

I'm crossposting this item that I put up today on Jewish Heritage Europe, the web site that I coordinate as a project of the Rothschild Foundation Europe. It looks back over the past quarter century of Jewish heritage preservation and priorities -- showing that despite progress that has been made and mind-sets that have changed, much still resonates:

Writing in September's Moment Magazine, Phyllis Myers posed the old question: should old synagogues in eastern Europe be saved?

Her answer — and mine — is, of course, a resounding YES.

It is important to remember, however, as Myers points out, that this answer was not self-evident — or even all that widely held — when she, and others involved in the field, first posed the question a quarter of a century ago, after the fall of the Iron Curtain.

Myers first did so in a long article, also in Moment, published in 1990, called “The Old Shuls of Eastern Europe: Are They Worth Saving?”

It’s worth reading again today to get a sense of the situation on the ground — and in people’s mind-sets — back then, just as the movement to document and restore Jewish built heritage in eastern and central Europe was getting under way. In a sense, her article represented a sort of blueprint for what could — and should — be the preservation priorities for the coming generation.

As more restoration takes place, the need for integrity and creativity in communicating the many dimensions of the Jewish experience will grow. The answer is not just a series of plaques on the buildings. Or more exhibit cases of Jewish ceremonial objects. Or lists of famous Jews. We must strive to evoke a unique encounter between visitor and place. We need to remember that as time passes a n d travel increases, visi­tors will want to know more about how Jews lived as well as how Jews died.

A quarter of a century later, the essence of what she wrote still holds true. The priorities she outlined are still priorities that should be addressed, and — despite the many successes and great strides accomplished — her message and the concepts she framed still have a powerful resonance. Indeed, one of the synagogues whose deteriorated condition she specifically mentioned in 1990 – the Rumbach st. synagogue in Budapest — still languishes in a sorry state despite sporadic efforts to restore it.

Interior of Rumbach st. synagogue, 2011

“We preserve—buildings and places, the simple and the awesome—for many reasons,” Myers wrote in 1990.

We preserve to remember. For decades, Jewish preservation in Eastern Europe has focused primarily on places of death. Chasidim have tended cemeteries, especially the graves of Tzadikim (charismatic lead­ers), while other Jews have ensured that death camps remain as witnesses to a story that could otherwise become myth.
But preservation means Jewish life as well as death. When we walk in the footsteps of our forebears, contemplate their lives, stand in the places where they lived—and were betrayed—powerful linkages occur between their lives and ours.

We preserve to learn. American archi­tectural historian Carole Herselle Krinsky writes, “Synagogues…reveal especially clearly the connections between architecture and society.” Clues to self-perceptions of Jews over the centuries, the evolution of faith and culture and relations with Gentile neighbors abound in the shapes, materials, designs and settings of synagogues. Did a community choose Gothic or Moorish ar­ chitecture, site its synagogue on the street or set it back off a courtyard, retain a sepa­rate entrance for women or build a gallery in the main hall? Did it raise a dome high or low in the community’s skyline, place the bimah (pulpit) in the center of the main hall or on the east wall? Did it hire a Jewish, Gentile or Viennese architect? Why did poor Jewish artists in old Poland decorate their synagogue walls with colorful, representational frescoes and pious prayers?

We preserve to provide settings for dia­logue. It is true that in many places in East­ern Europe few, if any, Jews are left, and to talk about understanding, much less recon­ ciliation, would be glib. Yet a dialogue that goes beyond the “chamber of horrors” of the Shoah is clearly underway, fostered in special ways by sites embedded with memo­ries. [...]

We preserve to transcend. On Simchat Torah, 1989, Cracow’s revered Remuh Synagogue, rebuilt but used continuously since the mid-1550s, re­verberated as 40 Israeli teenagers took over the service from a forlorn group of elderly survivors and vibrantly danced and sang “Am Yisrael Chat”—the people of Israel live. The benefactor who paid for the Szeged synagogue’s restoration put it this way: “I just want to know that the synagogue I remem­ber from my childhood is still there.” [...]

We preserve to fulfill our commit­ ment to life. For preservation to play this role—or any successful role—in Eastern Europe, sites need to be acces­sible, marked and interpreted in com­pelling ways. [...]

Click here to read Myers’s 1990 Moment article