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Court & Social

June 13, 2002

Synagogue splendours

FOR centuries synagogues have been treated more brutally than any other places of worship. In London a handsomely appointed group survives, little known but remarkably complete, and a rare opportunity to explore the distinctive architecture of some of these synagogues is on offer this Sunday as part of the European Day of Jewish Culture and Heritage.

While Anglican churches have often evolved over centuries, the special appeal of synagogues is often that they are all of a piece with furnishings and fittings matching the architecture.

The oldest extant synagogue in Britain, Bevis Marks, built in 1699-1701, is full of rich dark woodwork like one of Wren’s City churches. The galleries have lattice fronts rather than the solid panels found in contemporary Anglican churches or Nonconformist chapels. The handsome Echal or Ark is like a baroque reredos, with marbled and grained Corinthian columns. It houses the Torah scrolls and on it the Decalogue is painted in Hebrew letters.

Towards the other end is the raised platform of the Bimah from which the Torah and Benediction are read. This is surrounded by an imposing balustrade with twisted balusters, similar to a set of communion rails.

Hanging from the ceiling are seven handsome brass chandeliers representing the days of the week. The high-backed benches face inwards according to the Sephardic rite. Hinged flaps in the seats provide space for storing prayer books and shawls. Furniture history buffs can study the Sheraton-style Circumcision chair of c 1790 and the canopied choir stall of c 1830.

The synagogue stands in a court; when it was built Jews were still forbidden from building in a high street. By tradition, Queen Anne (while still a princess) gave one of the main beams.

The richly atmospheric Princelet Street synagogue in Spitalfields is a place where time appears to have stood still for far longer than the 30 years it has lain disused. It was built, out of sight, on the garden of a 1719 Huguenot weaver’s house and forms a long narrow space overlooked by a first-floor ladies’ gallery. Pastel glass in the roof light casts an ethereal light on gallery fronts emblazoned in gold letters with the names of donors. Large doorways on both levels allowed the congregation to stretch back into the house, while in the basement is the meeting room of the Friendly Society which established the synagogue a century and a half ago. It was set up by Ashkenazi Jews to help refugees from 19th-century pogroms and the Spitalfields Centre is now seeking to raise £3 million to preserve it as a museum of immigration.

By the end of the 19th century synagogues were designed to put on a show of splendour.

The New West End Synagogue in St Petersburgh Place has soaring twin towers framing a large and intricate rose window. Built to the designs of George Audsley, it mixes Romanesque, Byzantine and early Gothic detail. The interior has tall arcades supported by columns with Moorish capitals, a barrel vault and domed end. Galleries on three sides provided for a very large congregation.

This year, as last year, the popular European Heritage Days are in September but as Jewish High Days and Holy Days and Festivals fall on Sundays throughout September this year, the European Day of Jewish Culture and Heritage is to be held on Sunday, June 16. The theme chosen for this year is “The Jewish Calendar through Art, Music and Culture”, which offers individual synagogues all over the country a focus for an event for their own community, in the form of a lecture or an exhibition on a heritage theme.

  • For information on opening times of selected synagogues this Sunday, including a number outside London visit www.bbuk.org/bb_heritage.htm or http://www.heritageopendays.org/ or call 020-7930 9294.

  • The Times Faith page, with religious news and features, the Credo column and Sunday worship listings, appears every Saturday in The Register.
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