Jewish Social Studies 6.3 (2000) 1-30
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The Narrating Architecture of Emancipation
L. Scott Lerner
The monumental synagogues of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in Europe were planned, executed, and commonly viewed as "visible signs" of the exodus from the ghettos. In Italy, where the term "ghetto" has a concrete as well as a figurative meaning, one signifier of Judaism substituted for another. Nowhere was this phenomenon more apparent than in Rome, where the 300-year-old ghetto on the Tiber was razed and a "New Temple" erected in its stead. Today, the Roman ghetto is still indicated on popular maps, but visitors will find few vestiges of it in the historic quarter that bears its name. Rather, they will be confronted with a monumental synagogue topped by an enormous aluminum cupola towering 150 feet above ground. (See Figure 1.) In Turin and Florence, new synagogues took the place of the ghettos less directly, but the effective substitution of signifiers of Jewish presence within the cities and on the urban landscape proved just as evident. Elsewhere in Europe, hundreds of monumental synagogues similarly heralded the transition from the old to the new, even in the absence of a physical ghetto.
Contemporaries looked upon these buildings with pride, inaugurated them with pomp, and invested them with an explicitly communicative function. The buildings were the bearers of the message of the new Judaism of modern times in free and equal societies. The reign of eclecticism facilitated this mission. Based on a process of recomposition of elements taken from monuments erected in distant civilizations, eclecticism "brought forth the idea of a narrating architecture." 1 Echoing this spirit, Dante Lattes, one of the most influential Italian Jewish intellectuals of the twentieth century, called the temple "the [End Page 1] [Begin Page 3] only visible monument that expresses in the eyes of the world the vitality of the people and idea of Israel." 2 Through their architectural language, along with the inauguration speeches they occasioned, the new synagogues served as story-telling signifiers. They constituted a key event in revised narratives of the histories of Jewish communities, publicly redefining Jewishness in the new socio-political context.
The monumental temples, particularly those of the second half of the nineteenth century and the first decades of the twentieth, also coincided with a sharp decline in Jewish religious life and intellectual culture. Consequently, combatants for Jewish renewal seized upon them as signifiers of the decline that accompanied liberation and of the poor direction provided by Jewish leaders responsible for the buildings and for the Judaism they represented.
Finally, the synagogues exercised a signifying function that was not explicitly identified by contemporaries and was wholly absent in later critiques. Especially in Italy, in the context of real ghettos and in the shadow of the Catholic Church, they produced a rival narrative to a foundation-story of the Church that had served as the cornerstone of Christian apologetics for nearly two millennia: of the Jews as a people punished by God for having murdered Christ. The refutation of this tale told and retold in countless ways in Christian culture constituted one of the highest priorities of emancipated Jewry in Europe. The synagogues that served as speaking monuments of the new Judaism provided a vehicle for the revision of this traditional Christian narrative in a way that refrained from disrupting the public discourse of equality and fraternity between Catholics and Jews. 3
With few exceptions, the synagogues of the ghettos had been visible almost exclusively from the inside. Both in order to comply with restrictions imposed by external authorities and in order to avoid provoking acts of persecution, pre-emancipation Jewish communities took pains to ensure that synagogue exteriors did not attract attention. As a result, ghetto-era synagogues like those of Venice, Casale Monferrato, and Siena were as beautiful (even lavish) within as they were (and remain) difficult to identify from without. In contrast, the new temples were designed to arrest the gaze of passersby. They were extremely large, exotic-looking, and as striking as their predecessors had...