Monday, February 22, 2010

Health-wise, I've felt the best I have in a long while - nothing respiratory is plaguing me, I can breathe through my nose all right, and there are no noticeable extra aches and pains. All of that seems to have passed on to my husband, who wakes each morning coughing and hacking away, something that gets better as the day goes least, it got better enough to enable my husband to sing a beautiful solo at the synagogue in Mobile, Alabama, Saturday night.

The performance of Jewish songs and liturgy we participated in attracted all sorts of folks in the Mobile community, and not just the Jewish folk. One fellow went up to my husband afterwards and asked him about the significance of the sanctuary's architecture. "Why IS all the seating arranged to angle downwards from the pulpit instead of upwards, like stadium seating?" he was asked. Good question.

Dan's answer, even though he wasn't a member of the temple in Mobile? "The architect designed it that way."

It's true. There's no hard and fast rules for how a synagogue should look, necessarily. The only requirements that have developed over the centuries are that the synagogue must have an aron ha-kodesh, a holy ark, in which to store the Torah scrolls that are read from every Shabbat, and that the congregation must be facing in the direction of Jerusalem, something that got thrown out the window for a while in Reform Jewish temple architecture and was returned to in recent years as Reform Jewish congregations reclaimed more of the ritual present in more halakhically observant sects of Judaism. The orthodox Jewish shuls still maintain separate seating for men and women, either with the use of a mechitzah - a separating barrier of some sort - or a balcony for the women. But, aside from those requirements, pretty much anything goes.

I grew up in a synagogue with a sanctuary that had an aron so tall the curtains had to be opened by pushing a button (things are always done bigger in Texas), and I've been in synagogues that were in shopping centers until their facilities could be built. I've been in the many-columned great room of a synagogue-turned-church in Toledo, Spain, with the incongruous, now-I'm-a-museum-to-the-history-of-what-the-Inquisition-drove-out name of Santa Maria la Blanca Sinagoga (The one thing about synagogues is, once they have become churches, they can't be reconsecrated as synagogues. Thanks, Fernando and Isabel. Thanks loads.). I've been in some huge temples and some small ones: the one in my great-grandparents' neighborhood in Brooklyn was about the size of our apartment here. Size doesn't matter, so long as you can have at least ten people in there for a worship service.

The inspiration for decorations and structure tends to be borrowed from many sources: not just the Tanakh, but also the use of words in Islamic mosque decorations and the use of stained glass in churches and cathedrals (the use of which is sometimes thought to be borrowed from some pieces of colored glass in window niches in early mosques). And then there are the quirky decorations, like the huge tapestry of a somewhat abstract flaming bird that once formed the centerpiece of a local sanctuary and covered the aron in that sanctuary as well. Dan once whispered to me in the middle of a service that the tapestry reminded him of a turkey, with the Torah as its giblets, causing me to never see that thing the same ever, ever again. That was a synagogue design faux pas if ever there was one.

As for the sanctuary in Mobile, I don't know why the architect made that choice of having the seating angling downward from the bimah, or pulpit. The reasoning posited was probably to raise the Torah physically up higher than the congregation or some such thing...but that can be done without angling all the seating like that. If anyone knows what the reasoning would be, I'd be interested in finding out.

Just beware of those strange tapestries in ritual settings...


mominem said...

On a lighter note speaking of Jewish songs how about the Israeli Ice Dancers skating to Hava Nagila.

I never knew the words were written in 1919 to celebrate the British victory in Palestine.

Leigh C. said...

Mom, 'twas the sloooowest Hava Nagila dance ever, unfortunately. I danced faster at my wedding - but it was a kick to see the Israelis ice dancing. 8-)

mominem said...

Yeah, I kept waiting for it to really pick up speed for the climax.