March 9, 2010
From ruin to reconstruction, the Hurva Synagogue is completed - again
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In 1836 the site was returned to the Ashkenazi community by the Egyptian reformer Ibrahim Pasha, and a modest synagogue, yeshiva and mikveh were consecrated there the following year. In 1856 Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Tzoref together with British philanthropist Sir Moses Montefiore received a fiman from Sultan Abdulmecid permitting an expansive new synagogue – and forgiving the old debt. Montefiore personally brought the imperial edict from Constantinople (today Istanbul) during his fifth visit to the Holy Land.
The cornerstone was quickly laid in the presence Chief Rabbi Shmuel Salant, who had been instrumental is raising the necessary funding – and paying the requisite baksheesh, and Baron Alphonse James de Rotschild, brother of Edmond James de Rotschild who dedicated much of his life supporting the Jews of Palestine. The not yet built synagogue was officially named Beit Yaakov — House of Jacob — after their father Baron James (Yaacov) Rotschild although popularly it continued to be called the Hurva.
Construction progressed fitfully. Emissaries crisscrossed Europe collecting funds with the slogan “Merit eternal life with one stone”. The new synagogue was intended as an Ashkenazi house of prayer, in particular for the Perushim also called Misnagdim – disciples of Rabbi Eliyahu ben Shlomo Zalman Kramer (1720–1797), better known as the Vilna Gaon, who had immigrated to Palestine in the early 1800s but settled in Safed to avoid the outstanding debt from the time of Yehuda he-Hassid. Dressed in the traditional Damascene garb of local Arabized Jews, called Musta’arabeen, some of the Perushim had moved to Jerusalem, especially after the earthquake that devastated Safed in 1837.
Notwithstanding the inter-ethnic rifts between the Sephardim and the two Ashkenazi groups the Hassidim and their opponents who followed the Vilna Gaon, the largest single gift to build the Hurva came from Yechezkel Reuben, a wealthy Sephardi merchant from Baghdad, who donated one tenth of the one million piasters needed. Another contributor was Prussia’s King Frederick William IV.
The synagogue, finally completed in 1864. was designed by the Sultan’s official architect Assad Effendi – who had come to Jerusalem to restore the Islamic shrines on the Haram ash-Sharif. Effendi’s neo-Byzantine design, evoking Constantinople’s Hagia Sophia cathedral and imperial mosques, contained 14-meter-high window arches and a domed ceiling that soared 27 meters.
The Hurva became identified with the return of the Jewish people to its homeland. Theodor Herzl visited there in 1898. Similarly shortly after Sir Herbert Samuel disembarked in Jaffa in 1920 wearing a white uniform with a gleaming sword strapped to his waist, the first British High Commissioner for Palestine stood up in the Hurva on the Sabbath following Tisha b’Av to proclaim: “Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, says the Lord.” (Isaiah 40:1)
But the hour of redemption had not come. Two days after conquering the Jewish Quarter in May 1948, the Jordanians blew up the synagogue in an act of cultural vandalism, just as they desecrated all 58 of the Jewish Quarter’s synagogues. Abdullah a-Tal, commander of the 6th Battalion of the Arab Legion, reported to headquarters: “For the first time in 1,000 years not a single Jew remains in the Jewish Quarter. Not a single building remains intact. This makes the Jews’ return here impossible.”
After the re-unification of Jerusalem in the 1967 Six-Day War, Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Tzoref’s great-great-grandson Ya’acov Salomon led a campaign to rebuild the Hurva as part of the complete reconstruction of the Jewish Quarter. Salomon turned to Ram Karmi, who was to subsequently design Israel’s Supreme Court together with his architect sister Ada Karmi-Melamede.
Karmi proposed Louis Kahn, the famous Philadelphia modernist architect who was also a founding member of Teddy Kollek’s Jerusalem Committee. Between 1968 and 1973, Kahn presented three ambitious plans for the Hurva, each of which would have left the synagogue ruins in place as a memorial garden, and placed the new structure on an adjacent lot. More controversially, his plan called for a promenade, dubbed “the Route of the Prophets,” to connect the complex with the nearby Western Wall.
For years, Kahn’s model was on display in the Israel Museum, but after the architect died in 1974 his plans were shelved. This was due to a combination of bureaucratic inaction and aesthetic misgivings of the design which was described as “too radical” for government officials. Former mayor Teddy Kollek wrote candidly to Kahn in 1968 that “the decision concerning your plans is essentially a political one. Should we in the Jewish Quarter have a building of major importance which competes with the (al-Aqsa) Mosque and the Holy Sepulcher, and should we in general have any building which would compete in importance with the Western Wall?”
Boston-based architect Moshe Safdie, who has built extensively in Jerusalem including Yad Vashem and Mamilla, and who trained with Kahn in Philadelphia, also favored a modern design for the Hurva. “It’s absurd to reconstruct the Hurva as if nothing had happened. If we have the desire to rebuild it, let’s have the courage to have a great architect do it.”
The aesthetic brouhaha ultimately led to the losing of the gift of Sir Charles Clore, a British financier and owner of Selfridges department store. Yet another plan was drawn up by Sir Denys Lasdun, the designer of London’s Royal National Theatre. But then Minister of the Interior Menachem Begin refused to sign the papers authorizing construction to begin. Time ran out, Clore passed away in 1979, and the Hurva was not rebuilt.
Instead in 1978, one of the four arches that had originally supported the synagogue’s monumental dome was symbolically rebuilt as a stark reminder of the grand building that had once stood there.
Finally in 2005, the Israeli government announced that Assad Effendi’s 19th-century design would be faithfully rebuilt, and allocated NIS 28 million to the Jewish Quarter Development Corporation. Jerusalem architect Nahum Meltzer was given the task of updating the Ottoman design to today’s building code.
While the project is now finished, the ghosts of the past still haunt the scene. Historian Gavriel Rosenfeld, co-author of Beyond Berlin: Twelve German Cities Confront the Nazi Past, notes the Hurva illustrates the manifold links between architecture, politics and memory.
“The reconstruction of the Hurva seems to reflect an emotional longing to undo the past. It has long been recognized that efforts to restore ruins reflect a desire to forget the painful memories that they elicit. Calls to rebuild the Word Trade Center towers as they were before the September 11, 2001, attacks represent a clear (if unrealized) instance of this yearning. And the recently completed reconstruction of Dresden’s famous Frauenkirche — long a heap of rubble after being flattened by Allied bombers in February 1945 — represents a notable example of translating this impulse into reality.
“And yet, the reconstruction project is problematic, for in seeking to undo the verdict of the past, the project will end up denying it. Denial is inherent in the restoration of ruins, as is frequently shown by the arguments used to justify such projects. In Dresden, for example, many supporters of the Frauenkirche’s restoration portrayed themselves as the innocent inhabitants of a city that was unjustly bombed in 1945, thereby obscuring the city’s longtime support for the Nazi regime and its war of aggression during the years of the Third Reich. Similarly, the physical appearance of the restored Frauenkirche — despite its incorporation of some of the original church’s visibly scorched stones — has effectively eliminated the signs of the war that its ruin once vividly evoked.
“In the case of the Hurva, the situation is somewhat different. If many Germans in Dresden emphasized their status as victims to justify rebuilding their ruined church, the Israeli campaign to reconstruct the Hurva will do precisely the opposite — namely, obscure traces of their victimization. As long as the Hurva stood as a hulking ruin, after all, it served as a reminder of Israeli suffering at the hands of the Jordanians. Kollek said as much in 1991, when he noted: “It is difficult to impress upon the world the degree of destruction the Jordanian authorities visited upon synagogues in the Old City…. The Hurva remnants are the clearest evidence we have today of that.” Indeed, as a ruin, the Hurva served the same kind of function as sites such as Masada and Yad Vashem — which, by highlighting the tragedies of the Jewish past, helped to confirm the Israeli state as the chief guarantor of the Jewish people’s future.
“At the same time, however, it seems the Hurva’s existence as a ruin conflicted with the State of Israel’s Zionist master narrative: the idea that ultimately, heroic achievement triumphs over helplessness. In fact, in the end it may be the project’s ability to confirm the national desire to control its own destiny that best explains its appeal. Israel faces many intractable problems that make present-day life uncertain. But in the realm of architecture, Israelis can indulge in the illusion that they can at least control and manipulate the past. In this sense, the Hurva’s reconstruction may express deeper escapist fantasies in an unpredictable present.”
Rosenfeld’s theorizing makes little impression on Nissim Arazi. Even as the CEO faces the end of his term at the helm of the JQDC, he is moving ahead with his next visionary project on the scale of the rebuilt Hurva – a faithful reconstruction of the Jewish Quarter’s second largest destroyed synagogue the Tiferet Israel.
Together the two rebuilt monuments will engage Jerusalem’s skyline not as authentic landmarks but as postmodern simulacrum.
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