Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Where Were the Women?: The Example of Plzen's Old Synagogue

Plzen, Czech Republic. Old Synagogue, 1857-59. Interior. View of women's galleries. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.
Plzen, Czech Republic. Old Synagogue, 1857-59. Stairs to women's galleries. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.
Plzen, Czech Republic. Old Synagogue, 1857-59. Stairs to women's galleries. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.
Where Were the Women?: The Example of Plzen's Old Synagogue
by Samuel D. Gruber

I have been traveling the past few weeks with Jewish-Heritage-Europe.eu editor Ruth Ellen Gruber to visit several dozen Jewish heritage sites in the Czech Republic and Poland. We've wrapped up our July "shul patrol." By my count I visited 30 synagogues (and a few dozen cemeteries, Jewish quarters or ghettos, and Holocaust-related sites and monuments). 

One of the big questions I was asking on this trip, which is of ever-increasing interest to my students, is "where were the women in synagogue practice and in the synagogue space?." This is a topic that is often addressed in a vague and general way, but only a few books and articles try to address women's experiences in synagogues at different times and places and these cite few real examples. Here's just one intriguing example from Plzen, from only the 2nd day of our trip.
Plzen, Czech Republic. Old Synagogue, 1857-59. View to Ark with two levels of women's galleries. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.
Plzen, Czech Republic. Old Synagogue, 1857-59. Women's gallery. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.
Plzen, Czech Republic. Old Synagogue, 1857-59. View of Ark from women's gallery. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018
Jews were expelled from Plzen in 1504 and only allowed to return in the 19th century. The Romanesque-style Old Synagogue was built in 1857-59 in the courtyard of 80/5 Stephen’s Square (today’s Smetana Park). Though impressive - it was not visible from the street. Architect M. Stelzer designed the substantial structure that was built by W. Wiesner. The rectangular building has a footprint of 20 x 14 m. and is 12 meters high.

What is remarkable is the two-story wooden gallery for women. Already by mid-century the revived community had - or expected - a substantial number of women attending synagogue (on the Sabbath? only of holidays?). I know of only one other 2-level gallery in the present-day Czech Republic; the earlier 19th-century and now fully restored synagogue at Brandys nad Laben. There were, however, several near-contemporary examples in the Austro-Hungarian lands, notably the Tempelgasse Synagogue in Vienna (dedicated 1858) and the Dohany St. Synagogue in Budapest (1854-1857). Other slightly later examples are Timisoara, Romania, 1863-64 and Pecs, Hungary, 1868-69. All these synagogues, however, used iron supports, while the Plzen synagogue uses wood. 

esyn_03_Tempelgasse, Vienna, int. in 1904.jpg
Vienna, Austria. Tempelgasse Synagogue in 1904.

The two winding stone staircases are entered through doors flanking the main entrance on the west facade. There is also an external staircase on the north side, apparently built for emergencies. I'm sorry for the elderly - the path up the winding stone stairs to the women's sections is narrow and treacherous. I hope they wore the right shoes!

The galleries themselves had flat floors with no slope, and solid parapet walls shielded them form the main sanctuary space. Presumably the women sat on benches, and if these were set directly on the floor then only women at the parapet - who craned their necks or were standing - would get any view of the ceremony down below. The women were in the synagogue but not of the synagogue. From these galleries and many others it was almost impossible to see or hear anything of what went on below, and it can get very hot and stuffy the higher one goes.

It is possible that women had their own prayer leaders, known  as firzogerin, who led prayers for women in the weibershul (women's gallery) , This is known to be the case from other 19th-century synagogues, as is described by Pauline Wengeroff in her memoir. This is also the period when printed prayer books for women became increasingly accepted and popular. Fanny Neuda published her popular collection of prayers, Stunden der Andacht: Ein Gebet- und Erbauungsbuch für Israels Frauen und Jungfrauen zur öffentlichen und häuslichen Andacht (Hours of Devotion: Book of Prayer and Edification for Jewish Wives and Young Women)  in 1855, just two years before the Plzen community began construction on the new synagogue. This was the first such book written by a women for women in German, not in Yiddish. The book was published in Vienna  and went through many editions.

First edition of Stunden der Andacht: Ein Gebet- und Erbauungsbuch für Israels Frauen und Jungfrauen zur öffentlichen und häuslichen Andacht by Fanny Neuda, published in 1855. This copy on view in the synagogue of Lostice, CZ, where her husband was rabbi. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.

Plzen, Czech Republic. Old Synagogue, 1857-59. Entrance to women's galleries which flank main portal. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.
Plzen, Czech Republic. Old Synagogue, 1857-59. Stairs to women's galleries. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.




Plzen, Czech Republic. Old Synagogue, 1857-59. Stairs to women's galleries. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.

 
Plzen, Czech Republic. Old Synagogue, 1857-59. Women's gallery. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.
Plzen, Czech Republic. Old Synagogue, 1857-59. Exterior steps to women's gallery. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.

The former synagogue is now one of the Ten Stars Revitalization of Jewish Monuments in the Czech Republic project, and it has been beautifully restored and houses the exhibition "Jewish Customs and Traditions." 

No comments: