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Exhibition «Ordinary synagogue», october 2010 - february 2011

Ordinary synagogue

The ordinary, once commonplace structures and objects tend to bear a distinct imprint of time and place. A piece sanctified by tradition and habit turns into a unique memorial of the past. When we have to reconstruct the past through a handful of preserved artifacts, the once ordinary cultural phenomena, alongside with the outstanding cultural achievements, turn into priceless testimonies. Such was the fate of the synagogues that a hundred years ago were still to be found in each and every town in the Western Provinces of the Russian Empire. Today, almost none of these numerous synagogues are in existence.

The Jewish religious culture of the Russian Empire was mainly located in the Western Provinces and Tsarstvo Polskoe (the Kingdom of Poland). These administrative units were established in the late 18th century on the territories that had been adjoined to Russia as the result of the divisions of the Polish Kingdom. The Jews residing on the territories became Russian citizens, but their migration within Russia was checked by the establishment of the Jewish Pale of Settlement that had encompassed the provinces of the Western Provinces. The measure was based on the obsolete law that had restricted the Jews from residing within the Russian Empire.

The life of the Jewish communities in the towns was governed by tradition. The tradition successfully withstood modernization that by mid-19th century had changed drastically the lifestyle of the emancipated Jews of Western Europe. The Jewish communities that did appear by the late 19th century in the large Russian cities outside the Pale were Western-oriented, amid other things they used the European standards for the construction and the decoration of their synagogues. The choral synagogues, i.e. the ones of St. Petersburg and Moscow, were the symbols of the modernization of the Jewish religious life.

The emancipated elite of the metropolitan Jewish communities, while not abstaining from religion, did find a niche for the secular culture. In the early 20th century the Jewish intellectuals, eager to preserve their national heritage, started to seek out and to document the monuments of the Jewish past. That was the goal of the first Jewish historic and ethnographic expeditions organized in 1912-14 by the writer and publicist Semyon Akimovich An-sky (Shloyme-Zanvl Rappoport, 1863–1920) that headed for the South-Western Ukraine.

The photographs made in the field by Solomon Yudovin (1894–1954), later a renowned Soviet graphic artist, feature the monumental masonry synagogues and the ’folkloric’ wooden ones (17-18th cents.) that are universally recognized as the masterpieces of Jewish religious architecture, as well as the brick structures of very simple design (late 18th — early 20th cent.).

The question as to whether the latter synagogues are samples of ’Jewish architecture’ or just monuments of the Jewish past was much discussed in the 1910s. In her first large essay the Jewish art, historian Rachel Wishnitzer (1885–1989) had presented the monumental stone buildings of the late 16th — early 17th cents. as the major achievements of the synagogal architecture. She believed that they provided the Jewish religious ritual with the adequate environment. By contrast, An-sky praised highly the wooden synagogues, the ones that Wishnitzer was referring to as ’the unostentatious looking, gloomy sheds with a high roof’. An-sky and his followers treated them as the real masterpieces of the Jewish folk architecture and saw in their shapes the true adherence to the canons of folk art.

Yet, judging by the contents of the expedition’s photography archives, the decision as to whether to photograph a building or not did not depend on the building’s architectural merits or age. The reason was that An-sky had special interest in synagogues, treating them as the centers of traditional culture where the locals would get together and develop the sense of a community. Any synagogue could serve that purpose: the one ranking amid the dominants of a city center and the one blending in with the run-of-the-mill houses.


In the early 20th century almost six million Jews were residing in the towns of the Western Provinces and Tsarstvo Polskoe (the Kingdom of Poland), they had thousands of synagogues in their possession. The numerosity of the synagogues reflected the complex structure of the Jewish community of the time. Even a small town would have not only the local synagogues (located in a certain neighborhoods), but also the guild ones, e. g. for the tailors, the glaziers, the butchers, as well as the one for the merchants etc. Besides, various religious fraternities and the followers of the various Hasidic sects would have their own prayer houses.

The Greek term synagogue borrowed from the New Testament was not in use in the traditional milieu of the Eastern European Jews. The Yiddish word for synagogue is shul, i.e. the school. The nations that for centuries had shared the same habitat with the Jews would commonly also refer to the synagogue as the school. Apart from shul, there are several other words in the Yiddish language that stand for a prayer house: besmedresh (from the hebrew beth midrash, the house of interpretation), kloyz (Yiddish for closed) and shtibl (Yiddish for a small house). The two last terms were mostly used for the small prayer houses of the various Hasidic sects, while the biggest and the oldest synagogue of a town would normally be referred to as shul.

The main synagogue would be described in the local legends; it would be the pride of the community. Yet it was not easy to heat the large prayer hall in the winter, so it was mostly used by the commoners: by the people who would come to the synagogue to pray, not to study, having no time for the learned pursuits. The important and the wealthy would congregate in smaller groups in besmedreshes. They would only attend the main synagogue to see a visiting celebrity, a cantor or a preacher. Traditionally, the prayer hall would be used not only for the services, the studies and the sessions of the rabbinical court, but also for the community events and festivities. On such occasions, even the prayer halls of the largest synagogues would be packed.

Unlike a besmedresh or a small prayer house, such a synagogue would have a special enclosure for women, vaibershul (the Yiddish for female synagogue). If the town had a yeshivah, the Talmudic school of higher learning, the classes would often be held in the synagogue. The vagrant yeshiva students were even entitled to spend the nights there.

The large synagogue and a couple of smaller ones, the kagal administration building, the house of the Rabbi and the almshouse would often be located close together, thus forming the synagogue quarter that would sometimes be referred to as shul-hoif (the Yiddish for the synagogue court) or shul gas (the Yiddish for the synagogue street).

Any synagogue, even if it is just a residential building or a room used for prayers, must have a sefer Torah (the Hebrew for the book of Torah) — a scroll with the handwritten text of the Pentateuch attached to the two special pegs. The service cannot be conducted in the absence of such a scroll. The other mandatory attributes of a synagogue are a special container for storing the Torah scrolls called aron-kodesh (the Hebrew for the holy arc) and a bimah (the Hebrew for an elevation) — an elevated fenced platform for reading sefer Torah.

In the synagogues of Eastern Europe the aron-kodesh would be located by the Eastern wall of the prayer hall. Next to it, normally to the right, would be the omud (the Hebrew for a stand) — a bookstand in front of which the leader of the prayer would be standing.

In the synagogues featured at this exhibition the bimah would normally be in the center of the prayer hall, and the pews would be next to the walls. Normally, the pews would be divided into individual seats. Each seat, called schtot (the Yiddish for town) had an owner. The most distinguished and, consequently, expensive seats would be in the only row by the Eastern wall, next to aron-kodesh. The layout was drastically different from the synagogues that started to appear in the Eastern European cities in the mid-19th century under the Western European influence. There the bimah would be close to aron-kodesh and the pews would be positioned so that all the attendees would be seated facing the Eastern wall of the prayer hall.

The utensils used in the Eastern European synagogues had specific shapes, ornaments and motifs. Not all the exhibits have been attributed, but we can be certain that the ’ordinary’ synagogues would use such and similar objects.


The exhibition features Jewish ritual utensils from the collection of State Museum of the History of Religion (SMHR). On the captions, the names of the utensils are spelled according to the tradition of the Eastern European Jews, but in Hebrew transcription that is used in academic writings. The owners of these utensils called them differently. For instance, depending on the local dialect, the word talit would be pronounced as tales (in Byelorussia) or toles (in the South Western Ukraine).

The inscriptions on the utensils testify that by the most part those were memorial donations. Most commonly, a ritual item would be donated in memento of a deceased relative. The relevant inscription would normally state his name, the date and the year of his death, as well as the name of the donor. The dates were given according to the Jewish calendar (from the Creation), in numerical letters. The captions give, in parenthesis, the dates according to the common calendar.

The exhibition features enlarged copies of the vintage photo prints of the 1910s from the collection of the Jewish Historic and Ethnographic Society (JHES) that currently belong to Center «Petersburg Judaica». The largest part of the JHES collection, including the pieces featured at the exhibition, were the photographs made by S. Yudovin in the provinces of the South Western Ukraine of the Russian Empire during the expeditions of S. A. An-sky. The only exceptions are the photographs of the wooden synagogue of Mogilev (Byelorussia) famous for its murals, that were commissioned by An-sky to the local photographer in 1913.


The exhibition was prepared with the generous support of Avi Hai Foundation