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A New Synagogue in the Old City

Architecture matters.

Oct 7, 2002, Vol. 8, No. 04 • By DAVID GELERNTER
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ARCHITECTURE is politics by other means--at least some of the time. An emerging architectural story in Jerusalem is, in part, wonderful news; in part, a tragic missed opportunity.

Recently the Jerusalem Post ran a story on a project that is bound to attract plenty of attention before long: the rebuilding of the monumental Hurva synagogue in the Jewish Quarter of Old Jerusalem.

In 1948, when Israel declared independence, the Hurva was the main synagogue in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City. The Jordanians seized Old Jerusalem in '48, kicked out all the Jews, banned Israelis from entering even to visit or pray, desecrated Jewish cemeteries, vandalized Jewish buildings--and blew up the Hurva synagogue, just for the hell of it.

When the Israelis recovered Jerusalem in the Six Day War of '67, they rebuilt a single arch in the ruins of the Hurva, intending it as a temporary memorial. Now, at last, they have plans in hand to rebuild the synagogue itself.

Why should the world care? Jerusalem is full of domes; once upon a time, three domes (appropriately) stood out: the Muslim Dome of the Rock, the Christian Holy Sepulcher, the Hurva synagogue. Making decisions about Jerusalem is the exclusive right of Jerusalem residents and Israeli citizens, of all creeds. Butting in is everybody's right--Jerusalem is the quintessential world-city. Jews and Christians are especially entitled to butt in: Christians because the Gospels culminate here, Jews because they regard this city as the holiest on earth. ("Third holiest," which is how the city ranks with Muslims, is a respectable distinction as far as it goes; but when the topic is love, third place suggests a certain lack of ardor.)

Thus, cause for rejoicing: A gap is being filled in the skyline of one of the world's most important cities; ruins speaking of war and destruction are to be replaced by a reassertion of hope, peace, holiness.

So why are the Israelis treating this as such a low-key project? Not even the doviest elements of the Jewish community contemplate returning the Jewish Quarter to Arab occupation. But the Post quotes Professor Ronnie Ellenblum of Hebrew University, who asks: Why rebuild the Hurva? "Is it that Jerusalem needs another synagogue? No. It's just a message of power that says 'We are sovereign.'"

If an Israeli professor says so, when his countrymen merely want to rebuild a blown-up synagogue in the historically Jewish quarter of the historic (since the Early Iron Age) Jewish capital--what is a typical Sorbonne or Oxford or Berkeley professor likely to say?

On the other hand, who cares? The Israelis are missing a wonderful opportunity to speak to the world about Jewish Jerusalem.

Over the centuries a number of synagogues occupied the site, but the last one--the one the Jordanians destroyed--was built in 1864; the current plan is to rebuild this 19th-century synagogue verbatim. It was a dignified but unremarkable building. To copy it is pure tragic timidity. Jerusalemites want something with a dome that looks and feels like a synagogue--fair enough; Israel has more than its share of weird architectural mistakes. But a sufficiently good architect can meet any list of design constraints and still produce a distinguished building instead of a mere copy of a structure that isn't worth copying.

Is it possible for a monumental building to have a dome and be based on traditional local design motives, yet still be strikingly original and beautiful? Yes; I've just described Edwin Lutyens's famous Viceroy's Palace in New Delhi. The Jewish Quarter itself, largely rebuilt after 1967, is full of lovely new buildings that are traditional yet original--some by the eminent Israeli architect Moshe Safdie (although, for the Hurva synagogue assignment, there are designers I would prefer).

Why settle for mediocrity? More important, the new synagogue is an opportunity for Israel to speak to the world, and it would be crazy not to take the opportunity. There has rarely been such an outright need for an open, worldwide architectural competition. Why? To get the most beautiful building that can be gotten, of course--but that's only part of it. Equally important: The Hurva synagogue is the story of modern Israel in microcosm. An announcement of the competition, showing and explaining the site as it is today--the lone arch amid ruins--ought to be posted in every art and architecture school in the world, and in many other places too, everywhere. The poster could be an epoch in itself, if it were spare, vivid and strong, not sentimental, not defensive, with not too many words or colors but exactly the right ones. (Amber, deep terra cotta, and emerald green come to mind.)