Thursday, April 2, 2009 May Be the Best Synagogue Website Ever! May Be the Best Synagogue Website Ever!

I've just stumbled across what may be the best synagogue website ever. Why didn't I know about this? Well, there are so many people out there doing good work that it just isn't possible to keep track of them all - and all their projects. Fortunately, when looking for some on-line photos of synagogues in Piedmont for my Syracuse University class, I hit, an amazing collection of high quality panoramic images of more than forty synagogues around the world, taken by Louis A. Davidson of Tulsa, Oklahoma. Louis and his wife Ronnie have prepared this project, which is now housed at Beth Hatfusoth (Museum of the Diaspora) in Tel Aviv, but is available online to everyone, everywhere.

Davidson's panorama includes well-known buildings like the Spanish Synagogue in Prague and (Frank Lylod Wright's) Congregation Beth Shalom in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania, but also many lesser known but well preserved buildings, with a good number in Central Europe and Italy. Several of these are restored synagogues that I have had some connection with in past years (Pfaffenhoffen, Boskovice), so it is terrific to be able to link to the site to show off these achievements.

Looking at these panoramic images allows one to fully appreciate the architecture of these spaces, and their scale, aswell as their decoration - sometimes simple (Pfaffenhoofen) and sometimes over the top (Casale Monferrrato). As much as I like - and depend upon - the information in texts such as Carol Herselle Krinsky's now classic and still-essential Synagogues of Europe (1985) it is hard to convey the interest and real beauty of many synagogues from those dreary pictures Carol was forced to work with in 1970s and 80s when she prepared that book. Many new synagogue books use selected color photos and Paul Rocheleau and I tried to do better when we did our 20th century American Synagogue book, where our attempt through still photography was to try to recreate the spatial and visual experience of each synagogue through multiple color photographs. The idea was not to create a single iconic view - that actually might not reflect the way a user saw the building (very few people ever experience synagogues directly on axis). I think we did a pretty good job, but aesthetically Paul's photos can stand alone, and they are designed to please the viewer and also the architectural publisher who wanted (rightly so) to show of the building designs. But nothing that I know of short of visiting each building (still the best thing to do) informs the viewer about synagogue spaces like these panoramas by Louis A. Davidson.

Now, if we could only start documenting these buildings - or at least those that still function as active synagogues - in use, too. (ISJM has sponsored just such documentation by Vincent Giordano of the surviving Romaniote Synagogues in New York and Ioannina, Greece). Because the architecture only really comes alive where one sees people interacting, and one hears prayer and synagogal chant and music. Synagogues are not abstractions - religious, social or historic. They're built for a function, and even when they are elaborate in their "adornment of the commandments," they are best appreciated in use.

Congratulations Louis and Ronnie Davidson on your good work!

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