Category Archives: synagogue life

Reading Ritual Objects: Torah Binders & the Jewish Life Cycle

This week’s topic is co-territoriality, a concept that anthropologists use when they discuss the sharing of cultural materials by different (ethnic, religious) groups within the same territory or region.

I find it interesting that, in considering Jewish ritual, co-territoriality can be best studied when we confront the Life Cycle, or the series of para-liturgical events that mark the life of individuals (and their families and groups) from birth to death. These include prominently the ritual circumcision (or brit mila; or, in Yiddish-influenced American English, bris), religious majority (Bar and Bat Mitzvah), and wedding ceremonies.

One of the essays we are using in our seminar (Naomi Feuchtwanger-Sarig, “‘May He Grow to the Torah…’: The Iconography of Torah Reading and Bar Mitzvah on Ashkenazi Torah Binders,” in Langer and Fine eds. Liturgy in the Life of the Synagogue, 2005: 161-176), presents us with the unique opportunity to build enough background information to conduct a study of the Ashkenazi Torah binders in The Magnes Collection.

Wimpel (Torah Binder) [67.1.21.17]: Made for David b. Yonah (Bechhofen, Germany, 1742)

Wimpel (Torah Binder) [67.1.21.17]: Made for David b. Yonah (Bechhofen, Germany, 1742), The Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life, UC Berkeley. The boy for whom this textile was created was born in the month of Sivan in the Jewish calendar, under the sign of Gemini, which are depicted in the detail above, along with the Hebrew inscription מזל תאמים (mazal teumim, or the Gemini constellation).

"Lilienthal" Wimpel (Torah Binder) (Germany, 1814) [80.83_03]

Wimpel (Torah Binder) [80.83]: “Lilienthal” Wimpel [Torah Binder made from Circumcision Cloth] (Munich, Germany, 1814), The Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life, UC Berkeley. Textile commissioned by the Lilienthal family of Munich, Germany, in honor of their son, Menachem Mendel (later Rabbi Max) Lilienthal (1814-1882), to an embroiderer named Koppel Heller. The detail highlights three moments in the Life Cycle. From right to left: childhood (with a rare depiction of a young boy in a walker), religious majority (with a depiction of the ritual of “lifting the Torah” (Heb. hagbahah) before the congregation), and marriage (with the depiction of a couple standing under a wedding canopy; Heb. chupah).

Wimpel (Torah Binder) [88.0.14] (Rodalben, Germany, 1922)

Wimpel (Torah Binder) [88.0.14] (Rodalben, Germany, 1922), The Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life, UC Berkeley. The full name of the newborn boy for whom the textile was created appears in Hebrew (in painted Hebrew script) as Yosef bar Henekh, and, below, in smaller characters, in German as Joseph Jesias Koch.

A “Torah binder” is a Jewish ceremonial textile used to keep a Torah (Hebrew Bible) scroll closed tightly when it is not being used for synagogue reading. In some Ashkenazi Jewish communities, predominantly in Germany, Alsace and Denmark, Torah binders were made from the linen or cotton cloth used to cover new-born males during the Circumcision ceremony (brit milah). This kind of Torah binder, also known as wimpel, would be used to bind a Torah scroll once the child became bar mitzvah, and later again on the occasion of his wedding. The Magnes collection includes over a hundred examples of wimpel, most of them from Germany.

The wimpel, a ritual object that physically represents the ties between personal and family rituals on the one hand (the Life Cycle, beginning with the Circumcision), and synagogue and communal life on the other (Torah reading), is today a source of often unique biographical (and genealogical) information about the development of Jewish communities that have long disappeared.

The diverse decorative motifs and the varying quality of the textiles used in the embroideries offer precious insights in reconstructing the social history of the communities of origin, the dynamics of gender roles and relations, the financial status of the families that made them or had them made, as well as the overarching aesthetics that governed their production.

Below is a template that allows to detect, read and interpret the salient elements that compose a wimpel: 

Handle With Care: Performing Texts While Holding Delicate/Precious Ritual Objects

During the past two weeks, Performing Texts has been busy studying ritual objects, their function and their use in synagogue life.

As Vivan Mann writes, Jewish ritual objects:

fulfill  functions mandated by Judaism’s obligatory ritual practices, [but] their forms and decoration often are drawn from those of the surrounding cultures in which Jewish communities have lived. As a result, although the function of a ceremonial object made in a particular cultural area will be identical to one created within another culture, and while they may share a common vocabulary of symbols, their shape, techniques, and decorative motifs will differ. Therefore, a work of Jewish art or material culture must always be studied within two frames of reference: its place within the practice of Judaism, and its relationship to the art and material culture of its place of origin. (“Art and Material Culture of Judaism” in the Encyclopedia of Judaism, see the syllabus for a full reference).

Many of the examples we used to discuss this eminently multi-disciplinary topic came from the holdings of The Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life (online database available here), as well as other cultural heritage collections. We have also used YouTube to see how objects (and the gestures that accompany them) are handled in “real life” performance settings. But museum collections seemed like an obvious go-to place to enhance the discussion.

We often see beautiful ritual objects in museum settings. They are kept with extreme care, and displayed with all the necessary precautions.

Lamp [83.46]: Oil lamp for Hanukkah (Morocco, late 19th century)

Lamp [83.46]: Oil lamp for Hanukkah (Morocco, late 19th century), The Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life, UC Berkeley

 This is what cultural heritage collections do, and at The Magnes we pride ourselves of doing it very well. We take care of allobjects in our collection and we ensure that they are preserved “in perpetuity.” Whether they are indeed “beautiful” is not a primary concern, of course, and we are interested in display any item in the collection if the interest arises.

Tallit Bag, Morocco, ca. 1901-1930

Tallit Bag [75.183.142]: Bag for Yehudah bar Avraham Albo (Morocco, ca. 1901-1930), , The Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life, UC Berkeley

However, some objects are obviously more delicate than others, and need to be handled with extra care. I’ve often heard my registrar colleagues refer to “TLC” in such cases. Brittle paper, parchment, delicate glass, silver objects with tiny little movable parts… Not only all inherently fragile (and old) objects, but anything that “moves,” really, has the potential of breaking. And we cannot allow ourselves to risk breaking anything in the collection.

This necessary attitude towards collection items blends conflicting approaches:  curating with cherishing,  intellectual appreciation with pragmatic object handling guidelines, and emotional attachment with physical detachment. And it is not just an attitude towards the “past,” but rather towards the immediate presence of the (cultural) past.

As a student and an observer of Jewish liturgy and synagogue life, I often wonder about the difference of attitude towards Jewish ritual objects I witness in the “field.” Torah scrolls are meant to be rolled and unrolled, and lifted and raised, and carried around. And their embroidered covers are put on and taken off in a haste, to keep up with the pace of the liturgy and the rhythm of synagogue song. Torah arks are opened, and closed, and opened and closed again and again. And the beautiful curtains that cover them are pulled back and forth, from side to side. Silver cups are filled with wine (or grape juice, which is even stickier), lifted, drank from. Prayer books are leafed through, left open on a synagogue seat while performing other ritual duties. Passover Haggadah books are read during a meal, and are often stained with wine and food. And so on. Actual Jewish life is a museum curator’s nightmare. Or, is it?

I’ve often encountered the idea that the museum world and real life have opposite and conflicting attitudes towards cultural objects. But, in studying Jewish liturgical performance, I am no longer so sure that this paradigm always holds true.

In “actual Jewish life” we also come across special and delicate objects. Ancient prayer books and scrolls, often passed down from generation to generation within a family, are a well-known example. When used in the context of synagogue life, they often generate the “wow” effect of a Stradivari on the concert stage. They are the object of widespread admiration, and they are definitely handled with care. Perhaps not with white cotton gloves, as is the case of museum holdings, but definitely with TLC…

Manuscript [2012.2.1]: Decorated Esther Scroll (Salonika, 18th cent.)

Manuscript [2012.2.1]: Decorated Esther Scroll (Salonika, 18th cent.), The Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life, UC Berkeley. The Magnes recently acquired this manuscript as a gift from Prof. Guy Benveniste (UC Berkeley). It remained in the Benveniste family of Salonika, Greece, for two centuries.

Some of these fragile ritual objects can be very precious, and have great monetary value. Just like some of the objects in museum collections.

A type ritual object that epitomizes the notions of preciousness and fragility is the etrog container.

Etrog Container [76.272.2], 1849-1850 (front view)

Etrog Container [76.272.2], (1849-1850), The Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life, UC Berkeley

These containers, often in the shape of a box, are not only typically precious in their own right, but they are also designed to contain inherently precious (as in rare, and costly) objects: the citrus fruits that are counted as part of the “four species” used (waived, actually) during the liturgy of Sukkot (or Tabernacles; see notes about our recent Sukkot field trip here).

Following rabbinic interpretations (based on the Mishnah and the Talmud, Sukkah), the “Four Species” (a date palm frond, myrtle and willow branches, and an etrog) are typically acquired during the days between Yom Kippur and Sukkot, and, when not locally grown, are often ordered months in advance.

Citrus fruits used on Sukkot are particularly rare items, found in limited quantities on the banks of the Mediterranean, and need to be especially grown, selected, ordered, and exported in time for the beginning of the Festival. At the end of the festival, the fruits are used in culinary recipes, or for their aromatic scent, according to customs that vary throughout the Jewish Diaspora.

Containers have been created throughout the Jewish Diaspora to house one’s etrog for the eight days of the duration of the Festival, so that the fruit can be kept safe when not in use, and thus remain unblemished and usable for ritual purposes. Their shape and materials vary greatly. On occasion, the containers bear inscriptions (generally in Hebrew), including the word etrog and the phrase peri etz hadar (Heb. פרי עץ הדר, “fruit of a beautiful tree,”), derived from Leviticus 23:40. (You can read the rest of my blog post on etrog containers here).

What is interesting to me in the context of ritual performance, is that these containers are not only designed to hold precious and delicate objects: they often are themselves precious and delicate objects. And, when used (I’ve seen some beautiful silver ones used in synagogues in Italy), they are handled with extreme care by their owners. A type of care that is not unlike that applied in a museum context.

Even though most ritual objects are supposed to be created to fulfill a function(see V. Mann above), and thus to be used in the context of ritual performance,  it is their form that bears a direct impact on their use. This is the case of fragile and precious ritual objects described above. Function and form, therefore, may not be the sole categories that allow us to frame the study of Jewish ritual objects. The examination of their performative use may also  yield fruitful  insights on the relationship between ritual and material culture.

A few simple questions then arise while considering ritual objects.

  1. What are the repertoires of materials and forms associated with each specific ritual functions?
  2. Who is allowed to use which ritual objects? (And who isn’t?)
  3. How is the material and form impacting the use of ritual objects? Does the way their users handle them in the course of ritual performance have an impact on the ritual itself?
  4. How is the relationship between form and use negotiated in the course of ritual performance? Is the form of a given object facilitating the performance, or not, or is it “neutral”?

These questions are quite similar to those that we explored in class in relation to the performative dynamics of music in the context of Jewish liturgy.

Field Trip No. 3: Simchat Torah in Berkeley, California

This coming Tuesday we will be meeting at Congregation Beth Israel, for the third (and last) field trip of the semester and attend part of the services for Simchat Torah (aka the “Rejoicing of the Torah”).

Congregation Beth Israel is located at 1630 Bancroft Way in Berkeley.

IMG_4368

Website: http://www.cbiberkeley.org/

Directions are available here: http://cbiberkeley.org/directions/

As it is the case for the two other congregations we visited previously, The Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life holds a collection of Congregation Beth Israel records (description available here).

Berkeley’s Congregation Beth Israel is a Modern-Orthodox congregation. Its original membership was drawn from the First Hebrew Congregation of Berkeley, a congregation that had been meeting at various locations since 1909. In 1924, under the name of the Berkeley Hebrew Center, the congregation erected a building to house “all the Jewish activities.” These activities included the California Alliance of Jewish Women and several Jewish student groups, such as the Menorah Society of the University of California. By the late 1950s, the synagogue served largely social functions. In 1959-1960, young observant Jews re-established Sabbath services and a Hebrew school. In 1961, the congregation selected its first full-time rabbi and changed the name of the synagogue to Beth Israel.

The collection contains correspondence; minutes (1909-1930); bulletins; membership lists; financial records; programs; photographs; newspaper clippings, a handwritten minute book (1940-1943); and a history of the early years of the First Hebrew Congregation and the Berkeley Hebrew Center, which was excerpted from San Francisco’s Emanu-El newspaper.

I plan to be on site at 9:15 (which is when services start), and expect all students to be no late than 9:45. Action will start just then. As we discussed in regards to our previous field trips, you are free to leave according to your class schedule.

The schedule of services is available here: http://cbiberkeley.org/community/dafhashavuah/

At this point, I believe that you should know how to collect information about the Simchat Torah festival (we also encountered this festival, as well as Sukkot, early in the semester, via prints by B. Picart)… right?

Be ready to see a lot of action. The liturgy for this Festival includes the “hakafot” —  dance processionals with the Torah scrolls…

Field Trip No. 2: Sukkot in Berkeley, California

This coming Tuesday we will be meeting at Congregation Netivot Shalom for the second field trip of the semester and attend part of the services for the 2nd Day of Sukkot (aka the Festival of Tabernacles).

P1010231 2012-05-06 LX5 - 0043

Congregation Netivot Shalom is located at 1316 University Avenue in Berkeley.

Website: http://www.netivotshalom.org/

Directions are available here: http://netivottest.org/directions_map

If you are interested in the history of this congregation, do keep in mind that The Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life holds a collection of Congregation Netivot Shalom records (description available here).

Congregation Netivot Shalom was founded in 1989 in Berkeley, California as an egalitarian Conservative congregation. Its founding Rabbi was Stuart Kelman.

The collection consists of Congregation Netivot Shalom’s archive from 1989 to 2007. Included are files on congregational buildings, education programs, events, membership, and committees, as well as a full run of the Congregation’s newsletter.

I plan to be on site at 9:30 (which is when services start), and expect all students to arrive no late than 9:45.

At this point, I believe that you should know how to collect information about the Festival of Sukkot (look it up on either Idelsohn’s Jewish Liturgy p. 188ff. and especially p. 201; or on the Encyclopaedia Judaica, to which you have online access).

Earlier in the Semester, we have examined 18th-century depictions of the Festival by B. Picart.

Be ready for some action. The liturgy for this Festival includes the singing of the Hallel and the waving of the “four species” (aka, the “lulav”). More on the etrog (a citrus fruit counted as one of the “four species”) later on…

Synagogue Field Trip #1: The High Holy Days and Popular Culture

This week, we conducted our first field trip of the Semester. The falling of the second day of Rosh Hashanah at the time of class granted us the opportunity of being the participant observers of synagogue life.

Some students travelled home for the Jewish High Holy Days. Others went on a class-organized field trip to Congregation Beth El in Berkeley, where services were led by rabbis Yoel Kahn and Ruben Zellman. (Future class field trips will allow us to explore local Conservative and Modern-Orthodox synagogues as well, and there is absolutely no hierarchy in how the field trips were scheduled for the Semester, of course).

As your instructor, I particularly enjoyed “being” in the synagogue setting with some of the students in Performing Texts and trying to “take everything in” through students’ eyes and ears.

We will compare notes, and experiences, in class.

While we will focus on the theological aspects of the High Holy Days, as specific occasions of ritual performance, only in the coming weeks, it is probably quite appropriate to introduce them at this time. There is no better way to do it than through the words and music of Leonard Cohen, the Canadian poet, singer and songwriter. His famous song, Who By Fire (released in 1974, in the album New Skin for the Old Ceremony, is directly based upon the High Holy Days liturgy (we heard the piyyut, Unetaneh toqef, sung during services yesterday morning). So, here you have it:

(One can easily find Cohen’s lyrics online, so no links are provided here. Unetaneh tokef is described in your textbook, and in the Encyclopaedia Judaica: links provided in the class Syllabus).

Field Trip No. 1: The Jewish New Year in Berkeley

In this class, we have been studying the fieldwork of the past. It is now time to try this ourselves.

As described in the Syllabus and discussed at class meetings, this semester we will be complementing our study with three field trips to local Jewish congregations. They are all located in Berkeley, in the vicinity of the UC Berkeley Campus.

On Tuesday, September 18, we are meeting at Congregation Beth El for our first field trip of the semester and attend part of the services for the 2nd Day of Rosh Hashanah (New Year).

Congregation Beth El

Congregation Beth El is located at 1301 Oxford Street in Berkeley. Its premises occupy the block between Oxford and Spruce.

Website: http://www.bethelberkeley.org/

Google Maps link: http://goo.gl/maps/Z89Nc

If you are interested in the history of this congregation, do keep in mind that The Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life holds a collection of Congregation Beth El records (a description is available here).

Berkeley’s Congregation Beth El was organized by thirty-five families in 1944. It was founded as a liberal congregation that was guided by reverence for tradition. It moved to a location on Arch and Vine Streets in 1950. In 1951, it joined the Union of American Hebrew Congregations. Its school building was erected in 1958. By 1986, it numbered over 325 families.

The collection contains the minutes of the congregation (1972-1984); by-laws; reports; materials relating to its religious school; flyers and brochures; and lists of the congregation’s officers and members; a report from the Congregation’s Committee on Affiliation (1972), which examined the possibilities of an alternative or supplemental affiliation of the synagogue; a dedication booklet (1981); a description of its stained glass windows; a copy of resolutions considered by the congregation in 1981 that reflect a variety of socio-political concerns; and congregational newsletters.

You already know what to look for:

  • Prayer books (where they are located, in what languages they are written, etc.)
  • Attire (how are people dressed? differences between men and women?)
  • Behavior: standing, sitting, singing, clapping, etc.
  • Music: is there a cantor? a rabbi? “who says what”?
  • Clergy/Congregants interactions
  • Language(s) of prayer

History, Ethnography and Synagogue Life

Our readings this week are split on two separate (but hopefully converging) “fronts.”

Lee I. Levine is a historian and archeologist. His book on The Ancient Synagogue: The First Thousand Years constitues a phenomenal attempt to bridge several fields, from archeology to philology to anthropology, in order to reconstruct the genesis of the establishment of the synagogue as a foundational institution in Jewish life. In the Introduction (p. 2), we read about how the synagogue, since its inception in the early centuries of the common era, was a revolutionary institution when compared to the Jerusalem Temple, in at least four ways:

1. Location. The synagogue was universal in nature. Not confined to any one site, as was the ‘‘official’’ sacrificial ritual of the post-Josianic era, the synagogue enabled Jews to organize their communal life and worship anywhere.
2. Leadership. The functionaries of the synagogue were not restricted to a single caste or socio-religious group. In principle, anyone could head the institution. Priests may have played a central role in its religious affairs as well, owing to their knowledge and experience in liturgical matters and not necessarily because of their priestly lineage per se. Synagogue leadership was— in theory, at least— open and democratic (in certain functions and places, regarding women as well).
3. Participation. In addition to the communal dimension, the congregation was directly involved in all aspects of synagogue ritual, be it scriptural readings or prayer service. This stands in sharp contrast to the Jerusalem Temple setting, where people entering the sacred precincts remained passive and might never have even witnessed the sacrificial proceedings personally unless they themselves were offering a sacrifice. In many cases, visitors to the Temple remained in the Women’s Court without being able to view what was transpiring in the inner Israelite or Priestly Courts. Moreover, non-Jews were explicitly banned from the Temple precincts under penalty of death (warning inscriptions were set up around the sacred precincts), whereas the synagogue was open to all; in many places, particularly in the Diaspora, non-Jews attended the synagogue regularly and in significant numbers.
4. Worship. Perhaps the most distinct aspect of the synagogue was that it provided a context in which a different form of worship other than that of the Jerusalem Temple developed. Over the course of Late Antiquity, the synagogue came to embrace a wide range of religious activities, including scriptural readings, communal prayers, hymns, targum, sermons, and piyyut. Instead of the silence that characterized the Temple’s sacrificial cult, the synagogue placed a premium on public recitation— communal prayer, as well as the reading, translation, and exposition of sacred texts.

Levine’s study moves on to examine archeological evidence and literary sources about the historical development of the synagogue in ancient Palestine (emerged primarily through excavations in the State of Israel) and the Diaspora. It then focuses on the ancient synagogue as an institution, isolating the following aspects (all reflected in dedicated chapters):

  1. Architectural buildings
  2. Communal dynamics
  3. Leadership
  4. Rabbinic involvement
  5. Women
  6. Priests
  7. Liturgy

Samuel Heilman based his study on Synagogue Life on a participant-observer approach that combines “the ethnographic approach, which in its description embodies explanation, with the sociological one, which tends toward analytic generalization.” His research was based on a year-long fieldwork process, during which he assiduously frequented a “modern-Orthodox” synagogue in Queens, NY (which in the book he calls “Kehillat Kodesh,” or Holy Community, an alias designed to preserve the anonymity of the congregation and its members), describing what he experienced there according to a specific point of view.

Heilman considers synagogue life as “the interaction generated within and by the members of [a] synagogue.” (Incidentally, in the book he refers to the synagogue with a Yiddish term, shul, that is popular among Ashkenazi Jews in the United States). Synagogues offer a specific “setting” for the interaction among individuals who, in the context of daily worship, study and assembly, fulfill definite symbolic roles, acting within a space of “institutional sanctity.”

The symbolic roles are outlined by Heilman as those of a predefined “cast of characters.” The theatrical and performative connotations of this approach are obvious, and inspiring in many a way. The characters that act on the stage of synagogue life include:

  1. males and females
  2. the gabbai (a dispenser of “kibbudim,” or ritual honors)
  3. the synagogue’s lay leadership (the “President”)
  4. the chazan (cantor)
  5. the “quasi-chazan” (a figure that stands in a dynamic relationship
  6. with the cantor)
  7. chiyuv and yartsayt (those whose presence at services is mandatory)
  8. rabbinic authority
  9. strangers and guests
  10. mendicants, beggars, shnorrers and meshulachim
  11. children

Both scholars adopted an inter-disciplinary approach to study synagogues and synagogue life. History and archeology, sociology and ethnography are all at play in describing this extremely dense aspect of culture. Comparing Levine’s study with Heilman’s is also useful in identifying some elements of continuity in the development of synagogue life after its “first 1,000 years.” We are thus keeping their respective efforts, and the lists of categories we can derive from them, in mind while continuing our study.

In the exhibition, Case Study No. 2: The Inventory Project, which opened yesterday at The Magnes, there are several items that illustrate some of the dynamics of synagogue life highlighted by both Levine and Heilman. You may want to single them out on your own. (I Spy-style hints: a textile with the names of a man and a woman; a synagogue seating chart; a list of the value of ritual honors; a schedule of liturgical services; a reminder of yartsayt dates; and more…).

Between History and Ethnography (And More Breaking News from 18th-century Amsterdam)

This week, we begin positioning ourselves between history and ethnography. A somewhat awkward, albeit rewarding, spot, that requires both attention and a host of methodological considerations. We also go back to Amsterdam, which we briefly visited last week thanks to The Magnes Collection.

The inauguration of the Spanish-Portuguese synagogue of Amsterdam (aka, esnoga), an 8-day affair, culminated on Friday, August 2, 1675 (corresponding to 10 Av 5435 in the Jewish calendar; date conversion tool available here). As we saw last week, the event is described in the first volume of Bernard & Picart’s Religious Ceremonies and Customs of All the Peoples of the World (1723-1743) with an engraving comprehensive of the architectural setting, the reading from the Torah/Hebrew Bible, the attire and demeanor of those in attendance, etc. This work is available online via the UCLA Library. The first volume can also be downloaded in its entirety via the Heidelberg University Library. The engraving is accompanied by instructive captions (in French), which you can view by enlarging the images online, including the following:

La dedicace de la Synagogue et l’éntré des livres de la Loy se celebra pendant 8 jours, le 10e du mois de Menahem 5435, qui se raporte au mois d’Aut, 1675; on en fait la commemoration tous les Ans.

But Picart’s image—a photograph of sorts, before photography was invented—is far from being the only resource we possess about this event. It is worth citing a few sources, ancient and modern, to understand how all of them concur to expand our understanding of this historical event.

The Spanish-Portuguese synagogue is still standing, and it is now a still-functioning religious institution, a well-known cultural heritage site at the heart of Amsterdam, and a venue for cultural and political events. Of course, the congregation has its own website. where it has the chance to tell its own history.

Google Maps grants a street view of the synagogue

The website synagogues360, which provides 360-degree photographic documentation of synagogues worldwide, presents us with the opportunity of “touring” this synagogue. We can “take in” both the similarities with Picart’s description, and the architectural changes that accommodate its more recent role as a tourist attraction, souvenir shop and security exits included.

We can also rely on YouTube to see this synagogue set to the original candle-lighting features:

See it being used for a paraliturgical event (the “installation” of a new Rabbi), with Hebrew prayers sung by a full male choir:

Or even used as the venue for political speeches (no links provided, but if you search online you’ll see what I am referring to).

There are many other sources, of course. Many of them are historical.

The Bibliotheca Rosenthaliana at the University of Amsterdam has posted online other visual sources about the synagogue and its inauguration (available here) as part of its Treasures of Jewish Booklore online series.

The Amsterdam City Archives hold the Records of the Portuguese Jewish Community (inventory available here), which also relate to the inauguration ceremony of 1675.

But the ceremony also had a specific musical component. The music manuscripts of the Portuguese community have been the object of extensive study, especially by Israel Adler (1925-2009). Adler devoted a section of his study of “art music” in the European Jewish communities during the 17th-18th centuries to Amsterdam (initially in his PhD Dissertation, published in French as La pratique musicale savante, The Hague, Mouton, 1966; later in an English version of the Dutch section,  Musical Life and Traditions of the Portuguese Jewish Community of Amsterdam in the XVIIIth Century, Jerusalem, Magnes Press, 1974). Adler’s study put the ceremony in the context of the musical activities of the community, and of the literary production of its cultural elite.

A Hebrew poem, Chisqi chizqi (“Strengthen my desire…), by Amsterdam Rabbi, Isaac Aboab da Fonseca (1605-1693), was set to music for this occasion by Abraham Caceres (18th cent.), a composer of music for various communal occasions revolving around the life of the Portuguese synagogue and its members. The music manuscript of this composition, which was set for a three-part choir and instrumental accompaniment, is included in a manuscript (Ms. 49 B 22 fol. 15b-16a) found in the Etz Chayim Library (part of the synagogue compound). The manuscript was originally part of the private collection of Amsterdam Rabbi, J. d’Ancona (1911-1945), murdered in Bergen Belsen, and donated to the community library by his widow.

In class, we listened to a contemporary recording of the composition, from the CD, Synagogal Music in the Baroque (which is also listed in our Syllabus). Aside from considering the main features of poetic text (a fine example of Hebrew poetry in the age of the Baroque, full of alliterations, scriptural quotations, and Kabbalistic allusions), as well as the (equally Baroque) style of the musical composition, we can revisit this example of synagogue music in light of the context, and of the other sources at hand.

In Picart’s visual account of the 1675 ceremony, we see  men and women mingling in the main floor of the synagogue building, a space that was (and still is) occupied only by male congregants during the liturgy. At those times, women would sit in the gallery, which is located above the main floor. Following the historical sources that described the ceremony (quoted by Adler), we learn that the event was attended by a wide-ranging public (the “audience” of the musical composition, of the reading of the Torah, and of course of the other parts of the ceremony), which included the city’s Burgomaster and other official and notables. The ceremony was a paraliturgical event that preceded the Sabbath, and that was also a public event, with clear political connotations. It included elements of the liturgy, but was also open to a different kind of participatory use of the architectural space of the synagogue than then one required at liturgical times. Of course, liturgical occasions can also be public events. But their “rules of engagement” are somewhat different.

The liturgical repertoires of the Portuguese community in Amsterdam have also been the object of study. The list of sound recordings included in the Syllabus features The Western Sephardi Liturgical Tradition, a CD that presents a selection of 39 melodies sung by Abraham Lopes Cardozo (Amsterdam, 1914-New York, 2006). Rev. Lopes Cardozo came from a long line of Portuguese Jews who settled in Amsterdam in the 17th century (his great-grandfather was a chief Rabbi of the community), and served three Spanish-Portuguese communities in his capacity as hazzan (synagogue cantor)—Amsterdam, Paramaribo (Suriname), and New York City. A liturgical repertoire, like the one recorded in the CD, is the result of ethnographic fieldwork and of studio “reconstructions,” according to a methodology we will be discussing in the coming weeks.

As we see through a host of concurring visual, archival, literary and musical sources, the space of the synagogue provides a space for both the normative/liturgical and the non-normative/paraliturgical. In exploring synagogue life, we will be focusing precisely on that intersection.

Picart’s Scenes of Synagogue Life

In a way not dissimilar from today’s YouTube dissemination of moving images, the printing press allowed for a far-reaching distribution of information over several centuries.

A book that changed the perception of synagogue life was Bernard & Picart’s Religious Ceremonies and Customs of All the Peoples of the World (1723-1743), which included a host of engravings by Bernard Picart.

Engraving [75.22]: Bernard Picart, La Dédicace de la synagogue des Juifs Portugais à Amsterdam,  (Holland, ca. 1730)

We looked at some of Picart’s engravings in class today, comparing them with contemporary depictions of synagogue life provided by digitally distributed videos.

This very important book (and many of its editions in various languages) has been made digitally available by the UCLA Library in a joint project with the Getty Research InstituteUtrecht University, and the Huntington Library.

You can read about it here, and view Picart’s illustrations here. The introduction to the project states:

Cérémonies et coutumes religieuses de tous les peuples du monde(1723-1743) is a nine-volume folio work published by Jean Frederic Bernard, a French language bookseller in Amsterdam, and lavishly illustrated by Bernard Picart, one of the most famous engravers of the time. As their title suggests, they sought to capture the ritual and ceremonial life of all the known religions of the world. Because Bernard chose to remain anonymous as author, the work has long been catalogued under the name of its engraver, Picart. “Picart,” as many readers called it, helped create the study of comparative religion and had a long-lasting influence on the representations of the world’s religions in the West.

You can also check out Samantha Baskind’s excellent article on “Bernard Picart’s Etchings of Amsterdam’s Jews” (in Jewish Social Studies 13/2, 2007).