ART : Life Among the Gentiles : Jewish adaptability is a central theme in ‘And I Shall Dwell Among Them,’ Neil Folberg’s photographic essay on historic synagogues of the world.
Centuries of persecution transformed the Jewish people into a remarkably adaptable bunch. Without a home land from the year 70 until 1948, when Israel was founded, Jews were pushed from one country to the next for nearly two millennia. As a result, they learned how to live just about anywhere.
This is a central theme behind “And I Shall Dwell Among Them,” Neil Folberg’s photographic essay on historic synagogues of the world. The subject of a book recently published by Aperture and an exhibition on view at the Peter Fetterman Gallery in Santa Monica, Folberg’s photographs document synagogues dating from the 3rd Century to 1917, in locations from the Caribbean to Russia.
“There’s probably not a country in the world where you won’t find evidence of a Jewish presence,” says the 45-year-old artist, who lives in Jerusalem with his wife and three sons. “I was aware of that when I began this project, but even I was astonished to learn the degree to which Jews permeate cultures around the world, and of the enormous diversity in their synagogues as well.
“Jews tend to absorb the attitudes about beauty of the society they live in, so most synagogues attempt to harmoniously integrate themselves into the environment that surrounds them,” adds Folberg, who was born in San Francisco and committed himself to a life in photography at the age of 16 when he attended a 1967 photo workshop at Yosemite taught by Ansel Adams. “They’re able to do that because there are basically only three architectural restrictions synagogues must adhere to. First, as we learn from a phrase in the book of Daniel, a synagogue must have windows. It also has to have a bimah , which is a place somewhere in the center of the room where the Torah scrolls are read. And finally, it must have an arom kodesh , which is where the Torah scrolls are kept.”
A project initiated by Aperture that required a year of preparatory research at Jerusalem’s Center for Jewish Art and three years on the road taking pictures, “And I Shall Dwell Among Them” is Folberg’s fourth photographic essay on aspects of Jewish community and faith. Having spent four years immersed in the subject of synagogues, Folberg points out that “much about these buildings remains mysterious because very little is known about the people who designed them. That has to do with the fact that architects haven’t always had the revered position in society that they have today. Moreover, Jews weren’t even allowed to be architects in medieval Europe, so synagogues were often built by whoever happened to be handy.
“Prior to a certain period, suppression was one of the defining features in the design of synagogues,” he continues. “The ghettoized Jewish communities of Europe couldn’t erect free-standing buildings because they weren’t allowed to have building permits, and in Muslim countries they were forbidden to build their synagogues higher than a mosque. They often weren’t allowed to build a synagogue at all and had to use already existing interior spaces--I’ve seen bomb shelters in apartment buildings that were transformed into synagogues.”
Cultural restrictions of this sort began to lessen after Europe’s emancipation of the Jews in the late 18th Century, when they were finally granted basic civil rights. “At that point, they were finally allowed to erect large, free-standing buildings,” Folberg says, “but they found themselves with a problem. They wanted to build something that looked Jewish, but because a specifically Jewish architecture had never been allowed to develop, there was no aesthetic for them to work with. They didn’t want to build synagogues that looked like cathedrals--although in some cases they did--nor did they want buildings that looked Christian. They wanted something exotic and different, so what they came up with was a sort of Neo-Moorish style that borrows from Islamic architecture. It’s a very fanciful style and you see elements of it in synagogues from Florence, Italy, to Port Gibson, Miss.
“It was shortly after the emancipation that the most lavish synagogues were built,” he continues. “Most of them were in Hungary--in fact, the most opulent synagogue in the world is probably the one in Szeged, Hungary. It’s absolutely magnificent, but sadly it’s barely in use because the Jewish community there was almost completely wiped out by World War II. Virtually all the synagogues in Germany and Austria were destroyed too--the only ones that survived did so because they were connected to other buildings and were impossible to destroy.”
Surprisingly, the greatest abundance of historic synagogues can be found in the predominantly Catholic country of Italy. “Many of them are abandoned or barely in use, but they’ve survived for various reasons,” Folberg explains. “First of all, the anti-Semitism in Italy was always somewhat muted because for a long time the country was divided into little states that tended to be fairly tolerant. If the Jews had problems in one little state they could always move to another one, so consequently there’s been an almost continual Jewish presence in the Italian peninsula for thousands of years. And of course, another reason the synagogues there survived is because Italians are unusually sensitive to the issues of history and religion.”
In addition to serving as a documentary record, Folberg intends for his pictures to work as beautiful images. Toward that end, he’s photographed these synagogues in a highly formal way; they’re dramatically lit and generally unoccupied. This approach lends the pictures a lucid austerity that Folberg says is somewhat at odds with the spirit of the synagogue.
“There’s an innate tension in synagogues that has to do with the fact that while it’s a holy place where silence and decorum should be maintained, Jews tend to live in their synagogue, so they become very comfortable there. You’re there three times a day, everyday, praying, it’s where you study and meet friends--you get used to being there, so it loses that measure of decorum and seriousness and becomes more like a home.
“In light of that, it probably seems odd that I photographed these synagogues when no one was in them, but that was a necessity. Most synagogues are mainly used on the Sabbath, a day when it’s forbidden to take photographs, nor would these communities allow me to shoot them then. Despite the absence of a human presence, however, it was very much my intention that these photographs evoke the spirit of the congregation that gives life to these places. Because truly, it’s the people more than the building that makes a synagogue.”
“AND I SHALL DWELL AMONG THEM,"Peter Fetterman Gallery, Bergamot Station, 2525 Michigan Ave., Santa Monica. Dates: Through Jan. 6. Times: Wednesdays-Saturdays, 11 a.m.-6 p.m.; Sundays, 1-5 p.m. Phone: (310) 453-6463.