Centers of Jewish life, synagogues reflect both the city that surrounds them and the communities that built and continue to use them. We asked docents across our network to delve into the architecture and history of some of the most iconic synagogues from around the world, and help put diverse Jewish narratives in Context.
Agoudas Hakehilos Synagogue, Paris
Paris historian Marie Dessaillen leads our Jewish Quarter Paris Tour. We asked her to reflect on the history and presence of the Agoudas Hakehilos Synagogue in the Marais, one of the more interesting synagogues from around the world.
“Much of the Jewish immigration to Paris from Poland and Russia in the 1890s was orthodox. In France, the Consistoire, the Jewish organization working with the French Ministry of Religion since Napoleon I, had been building synagogues following a regulated pattern, but the newly arrived Jews had a different view as to what their synagogue should be like. The synagogue of Agudas Hakehillot is the most famous example of how the new population showed their integration into French society and its economic success. (Note, we also run an Immigration to France Tour in Paris that touches on some of these ideas.)
“The State and Church separated in 1905, and in 1911, nine associations of Polish and Russian Jews got together to build a synagogue on rue Pavée in the Marais, in the middle of a Jewish neighborhood. The land was weirdly shaped; the front wider than the back. They asked Hector Guimard, architect of the emerging Art Nouveau aesthetic who invented the Parisian metro decorations, to build it in a style that was comfortable without being luxurious, according to the orthodox beliefs. Guimard used modern materials which enabled him to work quickly and economically. Guimard was not Jewish himself, but was married to a Jewish woman and had financial links to Jewish Parisian society. (For more about the Art Nouveau in Paris take a look at our Haussmann’s Paris Walking Tour.)
“He created a facade quite different from the synagogues built in the 19th century. It creates waves, curves and counter-curves that contrast with the straight lines so typical of Paris streets. Instead of hiding its function as a cult location, the synagogue’s elevation takes the eyes towards the Ten Commandments at the top. Beside that symbol, the decorative vocabulary is one of geometry and vegetation allusions, the grammar that Guimard and the Art Nouveau style specialized in. Guimard felt that the role of architect is to create a total work of art, and so didn’t not stop at the building, but also designed the furniture. Thus, a decorative unity can be found inside as well: Guimard fashioned the candelabras, the pure lines of the columns and balconies, the furniture and the lamps.
“Considered too modern for Consistoire tastes, the synagogue’s inauguration was boycotted by the Jewish authorities. Bombed during World War II (1941), it was restored afterwards: The three triangles that once adorned the three doors were replaced by a large Star of David, symbol of the rebirth of the Jewish community in the Marais after the war.
“Personally, I very much enjoy Guimard’s synagogue. I regret that the use of cheap materials make its facade look grey, but I very much enjoy its curves and have fond memories of the inside from back when non-Jews (like me) were welcome to visit it a decade ago.”
Sinagoga Major in Barcelona
Dominique Tomasov Blinder is a historian who leads our Jewish Barcelona Tour, which includes the Sinagoga Major.
Also known as the Ancient Synagogue of Barcelona, the Sinagoga Major is thought to originate from the third or fourth century, and is likely one of the oldest synagogues in Europe. Today, it exists not as the grand building it once was, but a small subterranean space at the same address. This sad diminishment represents millennia of troubles for Spain’s Jews and provides the backdrop for deep discussions about the history of Jewish Barcelona and, general synagogues from around the world. “All we know about the Sinagoga Major in Barcelona is its location (and there is some debate about that as well) as it is referred to in property and tax records of the Middle Ages,” explains Dominique. “There are no drawings or descriptions available, so we can only imagine how it might have looked, based on other sources. For instance, the Sarajevo Haggadah, an ancient illuminated Jewish manuscript, shows some praying in the synagogue. As this book was made in the area of Barcelona, we might infer that the synagogue shown in it is like those in this region.”
Spanish Jews once constituted one of the largest and most prosperous Jewish communities in the world. Widespread persecution of Jews broke out in the 1300s, culminating in massacres from which the community would never fully recover. “The synagogue changed hands many times, being used for different activities. In the 1600s it was demolished to ground level and a new building was erected on top of some of its lowest structures. Today, during our Jewish Barcelona tour, we visit a small cellar of that same building, which is not the size nor the shape of the original synagogue, though it is at the same “address”. It is today a museum that can be rented for private Jewish ceremonies, and it is operated by a Jewish Association.”
“Barcelona was one of the many cities in Spain where Jewish life was very rich, and great scholars lived and taught. But Barcelona is the only of these cities to have an important Jewish presence today, with about 5000 Jews, and four congregations. Today’s Jews are involved in different activities. The Jewish institutions make all efforts to be more visible, opening all cultural activities to the general public, participating in roundtables, debate and in the media. Individuals are involved in all kinds of professions and businesses, and some have made choices to work in the field of Jewish Heritage. This is the case of the man who first bought the basement where the Major Synagogue Museum opened, and also myself, who decided to orient my architect’s practice to Jewish Heritage in multiple ways.”
Portuguese Synagogue in Amsterdam
Michael Karabinos is a docent in Amsterdam who leads our Jewish Amsterdam Tour.
“The Portuguese Synagogue was built between 1671-1675 for the growing Sephardic Jewish community in Amsterdam. Sephardic Jews had been coming to Amsterdam from Spain and Portugal for about 100 years prior to the building of the synagogue, fleeing the Spanish Inquisition and the persecution associated with it. In Spain and Portugal they were forced to convert to Catholicism or leave to avoid execution. The Netherlands, and in particular Amsterdam, were seen as a safe destination as the Protestant Netherlands was at war with the Catholic Spanish for their own independence (the Netherlands was under the control of the Spanish Empire, and the Eighty Years’ War, from 1568-1648, was the Dutch war of independence against the Spanish).
“It’s a very grand and monumental building, and its existence itself tells a little story of 17th century Dutch ‘tolerance’ and the religious atmosphere of the time. The synagogue was actually built at a time when Catholics were unable to build anything that looked like a church from the outside, hence hidden Catholic churches like Ons’ Lieve Heer op Solder and the one in the Begijnhof. City officials knew of such clandestine churches and allowed for them to be built as long as their exterior did not betray their intended usage. Jews in the city, unlike in many other parts of Europe, were allowed to practice freely and build prominent synagogues. Economic opportunities for Amsterdam’s Jews were, however, limited. This period known for its religious tolerance was therefore more complicated than the word tolerant may make it seem.
“The building has a large open interior with high ceilings, sand on the floor, and a separate women’s gallery above for keeping the sexes separate (the women’s entrance is in the back of the synagogue, so that women and men entered separately as well, with women going directly upstairs). The synagogue is still lit by around 1000 candles in chandeliers, which can be seen lit during special candlelight concert events, the Amsterdam Light Festival, Museum Night and holidays services.
“The neighborhood surrounding the synagogue retains little of its 17th century feeling. The hongerwinter (hunger winter) of 1944-45 left the old Jewish neighborhood in shambles. Houses of deported Jews were ransacked for anything wooden that could be used for warmth. The result was a once-thriving neighborhood bearing the scars of the war both in its architecture and its murdered population. Postwar city governments had various plans for the neighborhood, including both a highway and an underground Metro station. The building of the Metro station required the tearing down of many historical buildings, and the main street (Jodenbreestraat) was widened in preparation for the highway. Major protests erupted in the 1970s, and the highway plan was abandoned, but much of the damage to the neighborhood was already done. Today the old Jewish Quarter is primarily filled with 1970s/80s apartment buildings, with few of 17th century structures surviving. These include the Huis de Pinto, the Rembrandthuis, and both the Portuguese Synagogue and the former Ashkenazi synagogues which now house the Jewish History Museum.”
Great Synagogue of Budapest
Szonya Komoróczy is a history in Budapest who leads our Jewish Quarter Budapest Tour.
“The Great Synagogue is a symbol of Hungarian Jewish assimilation and integration. Built in 1859, in the times when Hungary was a part of the Habsburg Empire, by Viennese architect Ludwig Förster, it’s an amazing building, every part of which is symbolic and important. Inside, the Ark, designed by Frigyes Feszl, a prominent Hungarian architect of the time, is a breathtaking feature. With its two towers, clocktower, organ, three naves, and a rosetta above the entrance, the synagogue consciously wants to look like a church or basilica in all senses—reflecting the complex relationship the Jewish community had with the wider city and its inhabitants.
“A beautiful example of the Moorish style, which became the beloved style of synagogue architecture in the Habsburg Empire, the the Great Synagogue features oriental elements inspired by the Alhambra, and modern technology such as its internal cast iron structure. When it was built, it was the largest place of worship in Pest – later Budapest, with the Basilica and the Matthias Church dating from the turn of the century, practically a generation later. Today, it is one of the largest functioning synagogues in the world.”
Note, we visit a number of these places on our various Budapest walking tours.
In addition to our in-depth, expert-led tours of Jewish history in Paris, Barcelona, Amsterdam and Budapest, you can also explore Jewish history on our Jewish Berlin Tour, Jewish Prague Tour, Jewish Heritage Tour of London, Jewish Buenos Aires City Tour and Jewish Culture and Food Tour of New York with us. Browse our offerings online and book now.