Vilnius, Lithuania. Choral Synagogue. Historical marker outside fenced area on Pylimo Street. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2105
by Samuel D. Gruber
A few weeks ago I wrote about the fate of the former City or Great Synagogue of Vilnius that was damaged during World War II and subsequently demolished and for which excavation plans are now made. For those who do not know Vilnius, it is important to know that not far from the site of the old City Synagogue and the Shulhoyf is the impressive and still extant and active Choral Taharat Ha-Kodesh Synagogue at 39 Pylimo Street, erected by the “progressive” congregation of the maskilim outside the old Jewish neighborhoods (and subsequent Nazi-imposed ghettos). This location is one reason for its survival.
Today, the Choral Synagogue is the sole functioning synagogue in Vilnius and one of only a small number of recognizable synagogue buildings in a city, known as The "Jerusalem of Lithuania," that held approximately 160 synagogues and prayer rooms before the Holocaust. The building underwent significant repairs from 2008-2010. These were sponsored by the Jewish Community of Vilnius with support from the Jewish Heritage Program of the World Monuments Fund and other donors. Substantial work was done on the roof, dome, windows and the entire exterior water handling system and many repairs to unseen sections of the building.
(For an excellent 360 degree view of the prayer hall and other views, perfect for arm-chair travelers, see synagogues360.org)
The synagogue occupies an ample lot on a major street just outside the historic center, but is very much part of Downtown Vilnius today. Despite its origins, the synagogue now is the home of a congregation that follows a traditional Litvak Orthodox minhag (liturgy). The main change to the worship space has been the addition of a free standing bimah set in front of the previously combined bimah and Ark platform.
According to the authors of Synagogues in Lithuania, N-Z (p. 254):
The establishment of a maskilic synagogue open to the public was a clear political, ideological and cultural statement, which showed the maturity of the Haskalah movement and its readiness to advance to the public space and to confront directly the conservative circles of the Jewish community. Soon after the establishment, the idea to build a separate building for the synagogue was articulated; however, as a Hebrew newspaper complained in 1867, “it costs much money".There was on-going discussion about building in a new Temple in the 1870s an through the 1880s (no doubt inspired in part by similar efforts in other major cities in Germany, Austro-Hungary and Poland). A design by architect Mieczysław Strebejko in 1877 for a separate building on Novaia (today Islandijos) Street, in a Neo-Gothic style, included a "spacious prayer hall with a Torah ark combined with a bimah on the northeast and a women’s gallery on three other sides. But the project was not carried out (eventually the Talmud Torah school was built on that plot in 1891). [See Synagogues in Lithuania, N-Z, p. 254]
Various quarters served the congregation including a new synagogue in a rented house on Politseiskaia (today Arklių) Street, inaugurated in 1886. This, however, is described as a “narrow and short house, the women’s section is like a chicken coop;" hardly the modern and urbane image to which the adherents of the Haskalah Movement aspired.
Finally, a house and an empty plot were bought in 1899 at 35 zaval’naia (today 39 Pylimo) Street, in order to build there the permanent synagogue; meantime, the temporary synagogue moved there.
The congregation was never large. In 1933, there were only118 regular worshipers - a small number given Vilnius's still large Jewish population.
The overall style of the building is Moorish, but with a Neo-Classical central window. This mix is not unusual for European synagogues - especially Progressive "Temples" at the end of the 19th century. The building tries to combine a dignified civic monumental with the more particular Moorish (or Oriental) features by-then recognized as Jewish.
The main northeastern façade of the synagogue, facing Pylimo Street, is designed as an arched recessed portico, set between pylons and lateral low annexes, and beneath a gable surmounted by the Tablets of the Law. Inside, the vestibule and staircases precede the prayer hall; the direction towards the southeastern Torah ark is perpendicular to that of the entrance. The spacious first floor prayer hall is surrounded on three sides by women’s galleries.
The Torah ark is preceded by a domed canopy decorated with colonettes, dentiled cornice and crenelation, all of which are set within a semicircular ambulatory. While certainly informed by previous examples of Moorish synagogue design, this small domed structure is essentially a transformation of the traditional four-column central bimah common Polish and Lithuanian synagogues from the 17th through the 19th centuries. Its form and decoration may also derive more directly from Ottoman shrines and covered pulpits known to travelers first-hand in this period.
A pulpit for a preacher – a distinctive feature of a “progressive” synagogue – is situated in front of the ark.
Today, a bimah is fenced by a metal parapet and situated in the midst of the pews. The first floor of the ambulatory served the choir. Four massive piers support the central cupola, while the women’s galleries and the choir rest on Alhambra-inspired columns. The hall is well lit by the large arched windows and by the skylight in the cupola, glazed with a Star of David design.