“The isolated ruins lay hushed in
the late afternoon sun as we clambered the low walls and paced the broken
pavement. A fallen architrave, engraved with ancient Jewish symbols of a
menorah, shofar, lulav, and etrog, lay on the ground near the remians of
a high semiciricular brick structure, thought to be the Holy Ark niche.
We photographed the site as a matter of course. We did not know then that
we had stumbled on a mission”.
“By the time we arrived in Piedmont
and canvassed its synagogues, enclaves of art and tradition, we realized that
we were on a new course. More of Renaissance Italy could wait. These synagogue
treasures — the legacy of scattered Jewish communities that dotted the hills
— must be documented.”
After five years of fieldwork and seven
additional years of research the project that began as an inspiration evolved
into a coffee-table size book illustrated with over 300 color photographs
of synagogues in 30 small Jewish communities located in central and southern
Europe. The art and architecture of these synagogues underscore the centrality
of the synagogue to the life of a Jewish community and the book is premised
on the idea that synagogues are the “most significant clue to the public
aesthetics of Jewish life.”
Synagogues Without Jews focuses
on lesser known synagogues that are often the “sole reminders of an enterprising
Jewish existence that once extended to every hamlet.” There was a real sense
of urgency in doing this work as the authors explain: “As we researched we
were literally racing against time, against indifference, deterioration, and
In one town the synagogue is now used
as a barn, in another it had been torn down 11 months earlier, and in others
they are storerooms, workshops, apartments, churches. In addition to describing
the spiritual, artistic, and economic achievements of Jews from these communities,
the authors met and interviewed Jewish and non-Jewish residents who remember
when these were thriving Jewish communities. The interviews were transcribed
and translated by volunteers in Israel and these memories are another significant
contribution of the book.
When they embarked on this work of
love, the authors had no idea that it would be published by so prestigious
a press as The Jewish Publication Society or win a Jewish Book Council award.
Although Rivka and Ben Zion Dorfman were retired from their professional
lives’, this research became their lives’ work and it is a monumental achievement.
Synagogues Without Jews
is an excellent addition
to any Jewish library (and would make a lovely gift) — it is a scholarly,
very readable and beautiful book that is written with compassion and grace.
by Deborah Rosenbloom.