Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Cream Cheese and a Big Cracked Bell

"Old Country" interior of the Philly Shul
There’s more to Philadelphia than cream cheese and a big cracked bell. There are wonderful synagogues and fabulous shoestring potatoes too.  After learning in grade school about Benjamin Franklin, the Liberty Bell and the miserable winter Washington’s troops endured at nearby Valley Forge, few of us think much about Philadelphia. Yet, it is our nation’s fifth largest city. Sandwiched among much higher profile cities like Washington, New York City and Boston, Philadelphia tends to be overlooked.

When I began planning last summer’s east coast synagogue photo-safari, I was amazed to learn that Philadelphia’s Jewish population is the third largest in the USA. It has the most synagogues per-capita, and 47 kosher restaurants.  That last statistic is vitally important for us synagogue photographers because schlepping heavy camera gear up innumerable narrow steps to the women’s gallery creates an urgent desire for a corned beef sandwich.

A trip to Philadelphia for the Jewish tourist is a veritable bonanza. There’s Independence Mall, part of the Independence National Historic Park, which includes historically significant buildings such as the original Continental Congress Hall, Independence Hall and the Old City Hall as well as the Liberty Bell. Adjacent to the Mall you’ll find the National Museum of American Jewish History, which in itself is worth the trip to Philly. This four story museum offers a unique view of the Jewish experience in the United States.  Its exhibits begin with the first Jewish settlers in 1654 and continue to the present day.

The neighborhood surrounding the Museum of American Jewish History and Independence Mall is a mish-mash of brick and stone colonial-era townhouse buildings, peppered with newer structures and verdant squares where once our forefathers and foremothers strolled. Doing some strolling of our own through this warren of galleries, antique shops, boutiques and cafes, we happened upon Elfreth’s Alley, our nation’s oldest residential street, dating to 1702. There are 32 houses on “the Alley” built between 1728 and 1836. 

Congregation B'nai Abraham AKA The Philly Shul
In an adjacent neighborhood, comprised of small-scale Georgian red brick buildings, there’s the Philly Shul, formally named Congregation B’nai Abraham.  Although there are several synagogues in the immediate area, we elected to photographically document this one as it is the oldest building in Philadelphia that was built as a synagogue and has been in continuous use as such.  Founded in 1874 by Lithuanian and Russian Jews fleeing Czar Alexander II, the Byzantine structure was built exclusively by Jewish workmen. Just try and find a 100% Jewish construction crew nowadays.  The Philly Shul’s eclectic design combines Doric columns, Mogen David patterned windows and Byzantine themes.  With my tripod and camera gear, I was a one-man traffic hazard as I photographed this incongruously large building from the middle of the narrow 300 hundred year old street.

While the immediate area around Independence Mall is primarily colonial era, the surrounding neighborhoods are a rich ethnic mix, each reflecting the culture of the immigrants who settled there. South Philly was mostly Italian and Jewish. By 1910, “Russian-born Jews were the largest ethnic group,”  according to Murray Dubin’s book, South Philadelphia. “By 1930, Jews seemed to have synagogues on every corner,” wrote Dubin.  

Congregation Shivtei Yeshuron Ezras Israel (known as the Little Shul), founded in 1876, occupies a rebuilt colonial row house.  A century ago there were 155 small synagogues like it dotting the streets of this neighborhood of immigrants.  Now, the Little Shul is the last operating row-house shul in South Philly.

Congregation Shivtei Yeshuron Ezras Israel
AKA The Little Shul
The Little Shul stands out from the other row homes on the block because of its pillared entrance. Inside, the walls and ceiling are made of pressed tin and adorned with tapestries, memorial boards and shelves of Hebrew artifacts and relics. This is a gemutlich hangout for a few elderly Jewish men who haven’t followed their children to the suburbs where their grandchildren loiter over lattes at Starbucks.
Interior of the Little Shul

To the north of the Mall, only a ten minute drive from the Little Shul, stands monumental Congregation Rodeph Shalom.  Founded in 1795, Rodeph Shalom is the oldest Ashkenazi congregation in the Western Hemisphere.  Its amazing Byzantine-Moorish design was inspired by the Great Synagogue of Florence, Italy.  Lavishly decorated with hand-stenciled walls, stained glass and a starburst dome light by D’Ascenzo Studio, it received the Pennsylvania Historic Preservation Award in 2006 and entered into the National Register of Historic Places a year later. Verbal superlatives don’t do the building justice.

No visit to Jewish Philadelphia would be complete without a pilgrimage to suburban Elkins Park where you will be awestruck by Beth Sholom, the only synagogue ever designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.

Philadelphia is a perfect destination for the Jewish tourist. It offers an amazing variety of synagogues to ogle, the great cultural experience of the National Museum of American Jewish History and mouthwatering kosher restaurants with dishes that would make your grandmother throw away her strudel pan.  All of this in a city that is so much more accessible and less expensive than New York or Boston.
Sign on the wall at the Little Shul

Friday, February 20, 2015

Pavée and the Power of Tefillin

Continue on, my friends, and take heed – a true tale of tefillin and Paris to read. I hope to enlighten and perhaps entertain with this story which takes place near the River Seine.

Splendid interior of Pavée Synagogue.
Art Nouveau is a grand and romantic design style found in art, architecture and the decorative arts. With its sweeping flourishes and themes taken from flowers and nature, it bridged the gap between ornately curly-cued Victorian and the stern geometry of Art Deco. Art Nouveau’s popularity was at its height during the Belle Époque in the late 1800s and early 1900s and is nowhere better seen than in Paris.

To my knowledge there are only two synagogues that were built in the Art Nouveau style. One, in Subotica, Serbia, we photographed in 2010. The other, on Rue Pavée in Paris’ Marais district, had remained elusive. The Agoudas Hakehilos Synagogue, popularly known as the Pavée Synagogue, was designed by none other than Hector Guimard, who was one of the greatest Art Nouveau architects, and certainly one of the most productive. His accomplishments include the iconic Paris Metro station entrances as well as numerous magnificent buildings.

The Pavée is squeezed into a difficult site.
 Around the turn of the century there was a great migration of Jews from Russia and Eastern Europe to the west. Many settled in Paris. By 1913, Agoudas Hakehilos (Union of Communities), a group of nine small Orthodox Jewish congregations of primarily Russian and Polish origin, acquired a very narrow parcel of land at 10 rue Pavée. In a grand gesture to create their new synagogue in the esthetic vocabulary of their new homeland, they asked Hector Guimard to design their building. Guimard, who was not Jewish, had never before designed a building with a religious purpose. The size limitations of the site made the project even more difficult. It is believed he took on this challenging assignment as a favor to his Jewish wife.

Last February, as part of my preparation for an October visit to Paris, I began attempting to obtain permission to photograph the Pavée Synagogue. My initial emails went unanswered. Thinking there might be a language barrier (I’m hopelessly monolingual), I had a French-fluent friend send emails. No answer, nada, zip. It was time to call in some favors. I asked for help from the European Jewish Community organization, which has used many of my synagogue photos in their books and publications. They put me in touch with people in high positions in the Paris Jewish Community. Amazingly, these highly positioned people only led to a highly confusing labyrinth of other contacts which were ultimately time consuming dead ends. I’d never even seen a photo of the interior of the Pavée, and as I became lost in this bureaucratic web spun by masters of evasion, I understood why.
A month before my arrival in Paris I had occasion to visit with a professional videographer who had made arrangements to film a television documentary about the Pavée synagogue. She said that although she had permission, when she arrived at the building with her filming crew, she was denied entrance.  It became clear that whatever they were hiding in there, I wasn’t going to get to take pictures of it.

Fast forward nine months to October in Paris. Though I had given up on any possibility of photographing the Pavée, my wife and I ventured to the gemutlich Marais district to enjoy a good Jewish lunch. The narrow streets of the Marais are lined with Jewish restaurants, bookstores, art galleries and purveyors of all things Judaic. Chasidic rabbis roam the streets inviting Jewish tourists to join them in prayer or visit their prayer rooms. I was approached by a red-bearded enthusiastic young rabbi, who invited us to see his prayer room. Through a doorway, along a dark passage, up a narrow staircase and we were there. If this sounds like a setup for a mugging, it wasn’t.

The Rabbi invited us to see his prayer room.
“Would you like to put on tefillin?” he asked. “I don’t know how,” I replied. “It will strengthen your bond with G-d and give your prayers more power. Here, I’ll help you”, he answered. I wasn’t sure that this was a good idea, but the young rabbi was so sincere and charming that I didn’t want to disappoint. In seconds he had me wrapped in tefillin, following him in some basic prayers. After unwrapping, we strolled over to the Pavée synagogue just to see it, with no thought of photography. I wasn’t even carrying my 70 lbs of camera gear.

The door to the Pavée was locked. As we stood looking at the exterior, the locked door opened to admit a person who evidently was part of the inner cabal. Not one to dally, my wife slipped in behind him and I followed. We were promptly told to leave. Just as promptly, my spouse put on the charm and asked if we could just take a look … we’d come all the way from Oklahoma, after all. Grudgingly, we were allowed to go up to the women’s balcony and take a quick look; under no circumstances were we to enter the main sanctuary.

Upstairs, we saw a stern, bearded, black-garbed rabbi entering a room adjacent to the balcony. I approached him and explained that I had been trying unsuccessfully to arrange photographic permission for nearly 10 months, that my cause was worthy and my objectives noble. He gave me the telephone number of the congregation’s president who, he said, was the only person who could authorize my photographic incursion into their inner sanctum.

When we reached the entrance lobby I dialed the number he had given me. It didn’t work. A cordial Chasid Shamash overheard my frustration. He looked at the number I was dialing and said, “You’ve been given the wrong number. Those guys upstairs do that.” Dialing my mobile phone, in a moment he had me connected to the congregation President. I felt like the Tin Man in the Wizard of Oz, who, after a host of obstacles, was finally talking to the Wizard. Overcoming my discouragement, I explained my desire to photographically document the Pavée for posterity. And “Voila!”, as they say in France, he agreed!

Art Nouveau details in the Pavée's interior.
We now have what may be the only documentary photos of the interior of this unique Art Nouveau synagogue. Is this tefillin power or what? You tell me.