Davening lends itself to daydreaming, and perhaps your eyes will wander, in these Days of Awe, from windows to ceiling, from carved lions to ornate arks, from stained glass to pews hewn from cedars or acacia. What is a shul supposed to look like, anyway?
In 2015, Michael Weinstein, 54, a financial advisor from Syosset, would often find himself in Brooklyn, where he would volunteer as a visitor to lonely Holocaust survivors. Raised Conservative, but growing more observant, he “sometimes davened in the shuls,” invariably Orthodox, “in these survivor neighborhoods,” such as Borough Park and Flatbush. In shuls, old, elegant and weathered, he felt wonder and spiritual splendor. He felt compelled to photograph them, and then other shuls, in an ever-expanding range of neighborhoods, 60 in all, eventually in all the boroughs. His photos are newly published in “Ten Times Chai: 180 Orthodox Synagogues of New York City” (Brown Books Publishing).
“Of course, this book is not a definitive guide to every existing Orthodox synagogue in New York City,” writes Weinstein in the preface. Other than two relatively small chasidic shuls, the Breslov shul in Borough Park and the West Side’s Carlebach shul, he only photographed larger synagogues, excluding shtiebles (small shuls, often the size of a large room in a private home), and yeshivas (almost all of which serve as shuls, as well).
His other two self-imposed rules: “I decided not to photograph any people,” said Weinstein, “to protect their privacy,” and he didn’t photograph any Torahs, either, after several expensive scrolls were stolen around the time of his project. “I didn’t want to have my photos become a temptation for thieves.”
“Growing up on Long Island, I was never very religious,” he said. “When I started going to these synagogues,” after visiting the survivors, “I’d go on a Thursday” for the twilight Mincha, or for Shachris on Sunday morning. The more I went, the more comfortable I felt, the more spiritually connected.”
Several years ago, visiting Israel, Weinstein recalled “visiting the kever [tomb] of the Ari,” Rabbi Yitzhak Luria, father of Safed mysticism. “Getting back on the bus, someone gave me a card with a picture of Reb Nachman of Breslov,” one of the early chasidic masters. “I didn’t know anything at all about him. I later learned one of his teachings, ‘Azamra’ (‘I Will Sing’) to always judge favorably, to look for the good points — in places, in other people, in ourselves. When I did this book, there were some synagogues that weren’t so nice looking, with barely a minyan. With my camera, I tried to find their good points. Sometimes that meant just taking a picture of the aron-kodesh (the ark) or a stained-glass window, or a tzedakah box. The whole synagogue might not have been so nice, but they might have had a beautiful tzedakah box. Wherever I went, I tried to live Reb Nachman’s teaching.”
Although he was usually avoiding the smaller Brooklyn shuls, Weinstein, out of respect for Reb Nachman, visited a shul in his spirit, Congregation Chassidei Breslov in Borough Park. “It was physically unimpressive. You wouldn’t know it; you could walk right past it. I went in there a few times. They had a custom of dancing after every davening, it was so joyous. To me, that meant a lot. I grew up in a synagogue that wasn’t happy. I didn’t have positive experiences as a kid. The Breslov shul wasn’t the most [architecturally interesting], but the singing, the dancing, the atmosphere, the people were so beautiful, so impressive.” Weinstein took photos, and in the book he uses a single picture of the ark. “In my mind, I have very good memories of the people being joyous, kind and welcoming to me, listening to who I was, and what I was doing.”
We asked Weinstein, since you already broke your rule about not photographing small shuls, why not break your other rule about not photographing people, since nothing about the shul impressed you so much as the people? The one photo of the ark captures neither the look of the room nor the atmosphere. Even the caption only tells the address of the shul and Reb Nachman’s lineage, nothing about the shul’s character.
Weinstein admited, “What I saw in that shul never made it into the book. The book is incomplete because it’s missing two major things: It doesn’t have people, and it doesn’t have Torahs, or any of the (religious) books that people learn from. Without Torahs or people, it’s not complete.”
He did try to evoke Judaism’s most evocative numbers, such as utilizing exactly 613 photos, one for each mitzvah, and shooting a total of 180 (“10 times chai”) shuls, and that pleased him, even if the collection was nevertheless “incomplete.”
He wanted to use his photos “to show both men and women what the view was from different perspectives. So, if a shul had a women’s balcony, he liked to take a photo from a woman’s seat. In the men’s section, “Mostly, I was focusing on being close to the ark.”
And so what we’re left with are the large empty sanctuaries, almost exclusively used on Shabbat, rather than the smaller Beis Midrash rooms where weekday davening happens. In the big rooms, nothing is messy. Every tallis is folded. Every after hours siddur put away. There are no paper plates of herring and chickpeas, no men laughing, no one sitting around luxuriating in the post-prayer camaraderie, as if at a dominoes table on a street corner in Little Havana.
Weinstein doesn’t take us into the secret passageways familiar to every shul’s intimates. For example, the Bialystoker Shul, built in 1826, has spectacular stained glass, but what the camera misses is a ladder in the women’s section that leads to a hideout once used by the Underground Railroad. The one photo of the Carlebach Shul focuses on the ark, missing the pay phone the shul installed in Reb Shlomo’s living room (in the shul, and used by it) because so many “holy hippies” would use Reb Shlomo’s house phone” that if he didn’t install a pay-phone he’d go broke. Every shul has its legends, often more interesting than their arks or architecture.
Philip Nobel, writing about synagogue architecture in The New York Times, discovered that “Jewish writing on synagogue architecture is scant and contradictory.” You need the basic furniture, though even the Eternal Light and the pulpit are historically recent. Nobel notes that architects such as Erich Mendelsohn, Frank Lloyd Wright and Walter Gropius have given it a shot, “but seldom convincingly in our time.”
Perhaps the problem is exacerbated by the fact that the best davening is an interior exercise, not a visual one, and God showed little interest in synagogue design; God gave detailed instructions for the construction of the biblical Tabernacle and later the Holy Temple, but there are no instructions whatsoever for synagogues (which itself is a Greek word, not a Jewish one). Because the synagogue, writes Nobel, “emerged from the absence of architecture — the ruined Temples — the finest architectural expressions may be the ones that express the least.”
In the end, one can walk into any one of Weinstein’s 180 synagogues, whether in Coney Island or Pelham Parkway, and it is you, says Weinstein, who completes the picture. After all, to borrow from Paul Simon, in every shul, we — you, dear reader — are the “angels in the architecture, spinning in infinity.”