Jewish Social Studies 7.3 (2001) 68-100
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Moorish Style: Orientalism, the Jews, and Synagogue Architecture
Ivan Davidson Kalmar
The Jerusalem Street synagogue is located in uptown Prague, away from the hustle and bustle of the touristy Jewish Town. Still, on Saturday mornings a few stray tourists find their way to the prayer room up the unlit stairs, making sure there is a quorum. This time there is a couple from England and a young Israeli of Libyan origin. They are shown around the darkened sanctuary. The dim light filtering in through the horseshoe-shaped windows reveals some of the plentiful arabesques that cover everything in sight, including the organ at the back. In the exotic shape of the pillars and the arches, the art historian might detect Arabic and Iranian influence. The English couple asks if this was a Sephardic synagogue. The Israeli is reminded, he says, of synagogues back in Libya.
Nearly a hundred years ago, in a different world, Rabbi Aladar Deutsch spoke at the dedication ceremony here. In attendance were the viceroy of Bohemia, the mayor, the police chief and other high city officials, the president of the commodities exchange and the secretary of the bourse, as well as "numerous industrialists, wholesale traders, lawyers, representatives of the Press, etc." 1 A female coloratura led the organ and the mixed choir in a wrenching rendition of "Hallelujah." One of the rabbis present lit the eternal light. Soon a swarm of white-clad boys and girls strewing anemone blossoms began their march down the aisle. The women smiled at them from above, seated atop the galleries held up by colonnades of wavy arches reminiscent of the fabled mosques and palaces of the East. The blazing colors of the [End Page 68] richly painted interior added to the atmosphere of Oriental splendor. "Pure Moorish style," an enthusiastic journalist qualified it. 2 The boys and girls ascended the staircase to the altar platform and took their places along the sides. They were followed by synagogue dignitaries carrying Torah scrolls, which they placed in the Ark. The organ continued to play. Then the architect spoke, followed by Rabbi Deutsch. His presentation gave way to a military cantor, who intoned the prayer for the emperor. Finally, a rousing rendition of the national anthem concluded the happy occasion. Just before lunch, on September 16, 1906, the "His Majesty Emperor Francis Joseph I Jubilee Temple" of Prague was consecrated as a House of God.
Deutsch's temple was a rather late example of the "Moorish-style synagogue," an architectural phenomenon that began in Germany in the 1830s and was popular throughout much of Jewry until about the outbreak of World War I. The pillars inside the major Berlin and Dresden synagogues were copied from the famed Alhambra. Fabulous white onion-bulb domes, recalling the Taj Mahal, dominate the four corners of the Israelite Temple of Turin. The Plum Street Temple in Cincinnati has two enormous minarets, numerous domes, and a "donkey-back" entrance arch typical of many famous mosques. There are dozens more such exotic synagogues in Europe and America. There were more before.
The English visitors and the Libyan-Israeli were wrong. Moorish-style synagogues were not built for Sephardim but for Ashkenazim. Very few--and it seems none until the late 1870s--were meant to make any reference at all to the Jews of Muslim Spain. The style is called "Moorish" because Moorish architecture, and especially the Alhambra of Granada, dominated the image that early-nineteenth-century Europeans had of Islamic architecture as a whole. To them (though they were capable of making finer distinctions if they had to), a Muslim was a Muslim. As one art historian put it: "'Moorish style' is a Western concept and in its widest sense denotes a style derived from Islamic design elements found in countries ranging from Spain, in the West, to Mogul India, in the East." 3
It was also once called the "Mahometan," "Arabian," or "Saracen" style. ("Byzantine" was also sometimes carelessly included under the same heading.) To avoid overidentification with Moorish Spain...