In light of a UKIP leader making a blunder by characterizing Westminster Cathedral as a “mosque”, it is worth recalling an earlier article I wrote on Jewish architectural Orientalism and the Moorish revival style.
An 18th-century portrait in the Barbados Jewish Museum shows a large, fat man sitting on a wooden chair, his merchandise spread out around him, a turban encasing his head and a beard surrounding his jaw. The inscription tells us this is a Jew, though his attire is Islamic – clothing his ancestors would have worn in Spain in the 15th century before their expulsion.
The painting is no fabrication. Jews dressed like this, as we know from drawings of Maimonides, who is often depicted in a turban (though paintings of him did not appear until the 16th century). In fact, the color Jews could choose for their turbans was regulated in various Islamic areas (usually yellow for Jews and blue for Christians) so that they could be easily recognized.
The Isaac M. Wise Temple in Cincinnati (formerly known as the Plum Street Temple) reflects this Islamic-Jewish motif in its architecture. Designed by James Keys Wilson, a non-Jew who was an expert in creating Gothic-style buildings, the edifice borrowed heavily from what has been variously described as Romantic, Byzantine or Moorish architectural styles. Contemporary accounts noted it was built to resemble the Alhambra, the famous Islamic citadel in Granada that fell to the Reconquista in 1492 (the year the Jews were expelled).
But whereas the Jewish merchant in Barbados, if the painting is an accurate portrayal, really wore a turban, the temple on Plum Street, despite its domes and minarets, has no connection to Spain. The decision to build a new Alhambra was made by the leading light behind the temple’s founding, Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise.
Wise was born in 1819 in Steingrub in what was then the Austro-Hungarian empire and is now part of Bohemia in the Czech Republic. He had a traditional Jewish upbringing, combined with a secular education in Prague, and became a rabbi in 1843. Immigrating to America, he became a leader in the nascent, as yet unnamed, Reform movement.
Wise’s congregation in Albany, New York was the first to introduce mixed seating in the U.S. and Wise encouraged the counting of women in the formation of a minyan. (These innovations were not atypical of the ideas considered by Jewish reformers of the time. Radicals such as the German rabbi Samuel Holdheim even voiced support for ending circumcision.)
Wise moved to Cincinnati in 1854 and became rabbi of Congregation Kehilat Kedushah B’nai Yeshurun, which he led for the next 46 years (the Plum Street edifice was built in 1866) and which was widely considered the leading Reform temple in America.
He later became the first president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations and founder of Hebrew Union College. Thus his influence and his decision to build the Plum Street Temple in the Moorish style is not only important but is also connected with the foundations of Reform Judaism itself.
According to the Isaac M. Wise Temple website,
[T]he building reflects a synagogue architectural style that had emerged in Germany in the nineteenth century, a Byzantine-Moorish style. It hearkens to a previous era of the Golden Age of Spain in Jewish history, and reflects Rabbi Wise’s optimism that the developing American Jewish experience would be the next Golden Age . The complex design of Plum Street Temple mirrors many cultures: from the outside the tall proportions, three pointed arched entrances and rose window suggest a Gothic revival church; the crowning minarets hint of Islamic architecture; the motif’s decorating the entrances, repeated in the rose window and on the Torah Ark introduce a Moorish theme . The chandeliers and candelabra, formerly gaslight, are now electrical but still the original fixtures. The original pipe organ, itself historical in nature and a unique instrument, built by the Cincinnati firm of Koehnken and Company is still in place, although in need of restoration.
Wise’s Alhambra was not the first Jewish Moorish-style mosque to be built. Nor was it the most grand. According to Alan Silverstein’s Alternatives to Assimilation: The Response of Reform to American Culture 1840-1930, Philadelphia’s Keneseth Israel Temple preceded the Plum Street building by one year. That temple was an imitation of a Reform temple in Kassel, Germany. However, whereas Plum Street borrowed directly from Islamic motifs, Keneseth Israel’s steeple or minaret looks more like Big Ben clock tower than something found in Riyadh.
Other famous and large Reform temples in the U.S have been similarly influenced either by Moorish Reform synagogues in Europe or Muslim edifices. Temple Emanu El in San Francisco, opened in 1926 and designed primarily by Arthur Brown, Jr. (designer of the War Memorial Opera House, the Hoover Library at Stanford and, with two others, the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge), was modeled on Hagia Sophia in Istanbul with a smaller, but no less grand, 150-foot dome. In this case the Reform movement was actually copying a copy of a church. The Turks had simply put minarets around Hagia Sophia, a giant Orthodox church, when they captured Constantinople in the 15th century.
The Central Synagogue in New York, built in 1872 in the Moorish Revival style, is another example. Designed by architect Henry Fernbach of Germany, it was built by German immigrant members of Congregation Ahawath Chesed. One description of it notes it “is dominated by two octagonal towers rising 122 feet. They are meant to be reminiscences of Solomon’s Temple. The towers are topped onion-shaped, green copper domes.”
The Central Synagogue appears in Barbaralee Diamonstein Spielvogel’s The Landmarks of New York, Andrew Dolkart’s Guide to New York City Landmarks and at nyc-architecture.com. But despite the allusions to Solomon’s temple, it is actually a conscious copy of the Great Synagogue on Dohany Street in Budapest, a massive structure with some 2,964 seats built in the 1850s by the Neolog (Hungarian Reform) Jewish community of Pest according to the plans of the Viennese architect Ludwig Foerster.
Other Reform buildings from the period used a similar style; one such was the Oranienburger Strasse New Synagogue, which opened in Berlin in 1866. But perhaps the most mosque-like of any European Reform synagogue is the Rumbach Utca synagogue in Budapest. Built between 1869 and 1872 by the architect Otto Wagner (no relation, apparently, to the composer Richard Wagner), it contains two minarets, much like the temple on Plum Street.
Most bizarre of all, these minarets not only include Islamic styles such as specifically Arabesque and Moorish geometric shapes and lines, but also railings and a sort of crow’s nest where the Muslim muezzin would have shouted the call to prayer. But this railing, the purpose of which is to protect one from falling, has no function in a Jewish synagogue and is as out of place as a shofar or a bell tower in a mosque.
* * *These Reform temples in the Moorish style that evoke memories of Spain and the Alhambra, and of mosques in general, are not only distinguished by their Islamic elements but also by their sheer physical size.
Whether in Berlin or San Francisco these buildings dominated their surroundings and their cities, eventually becoming national landmarks. Some are considered important architectural masterpieces of the second half of the 19th century. In all cases it is pointed out that their grandeur represented the newly elevated status of late-19th century Jews, who were increasingly wealthy and receiving a greater share of equal rights in their countries of residence.
But not all Jews were constructing such grand edifices. The large buildings were built almost without exception by Reform Jews, and the synagogues that used Islamic themes were exclusively Reform.
According to Silverstein, this was deliberate. “Pride in Reform was evident in the opulence and magnificence of the buildings constructed.” Golden domes “loomed garishly” over the skylines of cities and “imposing structures testified to the rapid pace of congregational growth” and “the grandeur of these Moorish edifices was a statement of acculturation.”
Silverstein notes that the buildings were intended to evoke the idea of grand temples – indeed, to evoke the word “temple” rather than “synagogue.” It was the belief of Isaac Mayer Wise that “synagogue” represented mourning whereas “temple” would bring gladness to worship.
“Previously reserved solely for the temple in Jerusalem,” these new temples, Wise wrote in his book American Israelite, would be “without prayers for bodily resurrection, the coming of the messiah [or] the returning to Palestine.”
The exteriors may have been Islamic, but the interiors resembled Christian churches. The Reform movement in Europe had borrowed heavily from churches, installing organs in its temples and instituting mixed seating, with pews and giant open-air basilica-style naves to house large congregations. It was part of the general Reform determination to bring Judaism into the modern world – and for 19th-century Reform Jews, modernity meant Christian Europe and assimilating into it.
Assimilation into Christian Europe did not, however, result in architectural assimilation – and therein lies a great mystery and a question that gets to the heart of our subject. Why did Reform Judaism become Islamic in its trappings?
Wise was one of the great advocates of Moorish-style architecture and memorializing the Golden Age of Spanish Jewry by designing buildings that reminded him of the Alhambra, a Muslim fortress. He wasn’t as interested in reminding himself of the Torah-adherence of Spanish Jewry, nor did he wish to wear a turban or dress in the manner of Sephardi chief rabbis. For him the clothing had to be European and the interior of a temple likewise European and reminiscent of a church – while the exterior, ideally, would resemble a mosque.
This preference bears many of the hallmarks of what some have termed Jewish Orientalism, a reference to the tendency among Jewish intellectuals in the 19th and 20th centuries to take an academic and romantic interest in the East and the history of Islamic culture and Jewish connection to the Islamic world.
In his widely acclaimed book The Orientalist, Tom Reiss writes, “The Jewish Orientalist saw the East as a place not to discover the exotic Other but to find his own roots, and for him the Arabs were nothing less than blood brothers . The anti-Semitic slur, of course, was that the Jews were an alien, Oriental race in Europe – but Jewish Orientalists turned the slur on its head, embracing their ancient desert nobility. Jews drew themselves closer to their lost ‘brothers’ in the East and attempted to explain Semitic culture, including Islam, in the West.”
This was the path taken by the protagonist of Reiss’s book, Azerbaijani-born author Lev Nussimbaum, also known as Essad Bey and Kurban Said.
Middle East scholar Martin Kramer has drawn similar links, even using a photo of the Budapest synagogue on the cover of The Jewish Discovery of Islam, a book of essays on the subject he edited in 1999. And historian Bernard Lewis has noted that “The role of [Jewish] scholars in the development of every aspect of Islamic studies has been immense – not only in the advancement of scholarship but also in the enrichment of the Western view of Oriental religion, literature, and history, by the substitution of knowledge and understanding for prejudice and ignorance.”
* * *But if Jews were deeply involved in Orientalism and the exploration of the Islamic “other,” it still does not entirely explain the Reform fascination for building what amounts to mosques. So the question remains: Why did the Reform movement, even as it sought to tear itself from its roots in Jerusalem, attempt to become more Islamic and thus more Eastern?
Apparently, while Reform leaders wanted to remake Judaism in a more progressive and modern image, they preferred to remain “foreign” in Europe and America. But instead of remaining foreign and Jewish by maintaining traditions such as kashrut, Reform chose to remain foreign in its outward style, its architecture.
And since there was no Jewish architecture to look to, Islam, as the ultimate non-European “other,” was the perfect choice. So it was that Jews attempting to assimilate into Europe and become more “modern” actually became, in terms of their houses of worship, outwardly Islamic in order to retain some identification as the “other.”
The irony of Reform’s penchant for Islamification is that it presaged precisely what Europeans would be doing 150 years later in their attempt to accommodate Islam and graft it into modern Europe.
Isaac Mayer Wise could never have imagined how much of a sage he was when he sat down with his gentile architect and designed a mosque with minarets for Cincinnati. He dreamed of a new Golden Age. He swallowed whole the Orientalist myth of the “tolerant East” where Jews lived in harmony with Muslims, ignoring or forgetting that long before the Christian Reyes Catolicosexpelled the Jewish community in 1492, many individual Jews had already been forced out by the Muslim Almohads in the 13th century, among them the family of Maimonides. This was the other side of the “golden age.”
The need to romanticize the “other,” this tragedy of the West, was present in Cincinnati in 1865. It was present in the romance and the exotic love of a mythologized East encapsulated in the temple constructed on Plum Street.
In sharp contrast, the real Jew, the one selling his wares in the painting in the Barbados Jewish Museum, was not romantic. He was considered savage and hard, dirty and mean. Only his style of dress was romantic.
And therein lies the problem. Some of us desire the exotic clothing, the kaffiyah, the romantic East, even as we ignore the reality. We want to hearken back to Istanbul and Muslim Spain, but we forget that these were societies built on the bodies of slaves, societies of mass rape where women were locked in harems and sold at young ages, societies of genocide against minorities, societies that imported Africans to stand all day and fan the local sultans.
Seth J. Frantzman is a researcher at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.