An Interview Between Naomi Simhony and Lior Orgad
I met Naomi to discuss her research a few weeks before the opening of an exhibition presenting local synagogues constructed between the 1960s and the 1970s. The exhibition, "Concrete Folklore", was curated by both Naomi Simhony and Dana Gordon, chief curator of the Architects' House Gallery in Jaffa.
Your PhD research focuses on synagogue architecture in Israel's first three decades of statehood. In the upcoming exhibition you chose to focus on a number of synagogues built during a ten year span. What is the significance of this period, and did it have any influence on the buildings' form?
The exhibition focuses on five iconic synagogues, designed between the 1960s and 1970s. Three of them built in the late 1960s: The central synagogue in Nazareth Illit, the IDF officers' school synagogue in Mitzpe Ramon and Ohel Aharon synagogue in the Technion campus in Haifa. The latter two synagogues were erected in the late 1970s: The Eliahou Khalastchi Central Synagogue of the Babylonian Jewry in Beer-Sheva and Heichal Yehuda synagogue of the Salonica Community in Tel Aviv.
The buildings represent two periods in Israeli architecture, reflecting different concepts of local identity as well as eastern and western influences: In the formative years of the State (1948-1967), Israeli architecture reflected an institutional effort to mold a national Zionist identity. The Six-Day War of 1967 changed the perception of space and the exploration of a new architectural language began. Its stylistic manifestations were large- scaled buildings, massive presence of building materials, mainly rough concrete and stone and the integration of vernacular elements.
The buildings of the first group illustrate the influence of modern European architectural movements, mainly Brutalism and Structuralism, which is evident in the use of rough concrete.
The buildings of the second group are influenced by post-modern architecture, manifested in direct expression of the images that inspired the design, namely, a seashell and a tent.
The exhibition aims to take deeper look at the buildings, going beyond their famous exteriors, and exploring their interior design, their ritual furniture, ceremonial objects and Jewish art articles. It studies the interface between material and ritual, revealing the avant-garde approach to religious structures during these years.
Please give our readers some information about the specific sacred elements that all synagogue interiors consist of. What are the elements that define the structure as a sacred one?
Over the years, the synagogues' beauty and their remarkable technological innovations won them general popularity and favorable reviews in architectural circles. However, those have generally focused on their external appearance, neglecting their contribution to synagogue design tradition.
There are a number of pieces of furniture that are a part of the prayer rituals (typically including a Torah ark, platform, seating area and women's section). In some cases the architect who designed the building's exterior, designed its interior and furniture as well. In others, artists were commissioned to design and create the interior elements.
Heichal Yehuda Synagogue. Photo by: Eli Singalovski
What is the element of greatest importance in the interior space of the synagogue?
They are all significant, but there are two main objects that are the focal point of the prayer ritual; The Torah Ark (known as heichal in Sephardi Jewish communities) is the cabinet in which the Torah scrolls are kept in a synagogue. It is built as an independent piece of furniture positioned against the wall facing Jerusalem, often placed within a niche. The ark is usually hidden behind an embroidered curtain (Hebrew: parochet) and is accessed by steps.
The bimah (also called tevah in Sephardi synagogues) is a platform or a table for Torah reading and praying, and is also the seating place of community dignitaries, the rabbi and the cantor in Sephardi synagogues.
It is usually placed along the main axis connecting the entrance with the Torah Ark, and is often shaped as square or polyhedral.
However, form and location may differ according to community traditions. The bimah is surrounded by a railing, and is accessed by a staircase.
How do these significant elements affect the arrangement of the other sacred objects throughout the space?
In Ashkenazi synagogues, the Torah Ark is positioned next to the east wall facing Jerusalem. The bimah (platform) stands in the middle of the space, and the benches are arranged in rows facing the Ark.
In synagogues of Sephardi Jewish communities, the benches are arranged as an open sided square or a half circle around the bimah, or in rows adjacent to the sidewalls facing the central axis.
Eliahou Khalastchi Synagogue.
Photo by: Eli Singalovski
Since Judaism prohibits the creation of "any graven image" (The Ten Commandments), the idea of commissioning an artist to create sacred elements inside a synagogue is intriguing. What would you say are some of the most interesting examples of the commissioned artworks?
The artwork isn't highlighted, but rather modestly assimilated into the synagogue's interior. Perhaps this is the reason why they weren't given much attention from the public until now. The furniture is sometimes moveable and not always site specific, it is also very practical and used on a daily basis during the prayer session. In some cases, the more contemporary structures present artworks that are more decorative. The Heichal Yehuda synagogue (1980) for example, commissioned the work of Yossef Shealtiel, who created twelve arched stained-glass windows displaying a series of motives symbolizing the Jewish life cycle and rituals. Windows have special significance in a synagogue, derived from the Babylonian Talmud saying "A man should always pray in a room which has windows" (Berachot, 31, 1). The physical openings symbolize the spiritual appeal to God in prayer. The number of windows represents the twelve tribes of Israel.
On the other hand, the hand-washing basin in Ohel Aharon synagogue's interior isn't prominent in its surroundings and it takes a while to notice it among the series of original ritual pieces of furniture and ceremonial objects. The hand-washing basin is mentioned in biblical descriptions of the tabernacle and the temple. On it, the priests used to wash their feet before offering sacrifices on the altar but also before blessing the audience. This gave rise to the custom of hand washing before prayers.
Concrete Folklore is a unique exhibition exploring a matter that has been marginalized and placing it in the center of the discourse. The exhibition displays archival material as well as original art works created specifically for it. Can you give our readers a glimpse of how you approached this project?
The visual language of "Concrete Folklore" encompasses space design, graphic design and photography. These perspectives are all used to establish associations between the contemporary, the traditional and the historical, and between the documentary and the interpretive. The works of Eli Singalovski, Hili Greenfeld and Naama Roth reflect the artists' reactions to the synagogues on display. The exhibition design, combined with the graphic design of Avi Bohbot is the final layer enveloping the exhibition's content.
By revisiting the buildings, the exhibition seeks to explore the significance of local Jewish architecture, and promote the maintenance and preservation of unconventional synagogues.