In a rich display of historical reconstruction, the Yeshiva University Museum is exhibiting “Modeling the Synagogue – From Dura to Touro.” Accompanied by artifacts, prayer scripts, artwork and documents, the exhibition demonstrates the context of these buildings – that they are representative of an era, a people and a history.
Upon entering the exhibition, viewers are met with a protruding archeological-like model. The Dura synagogue of 3rd century Syria appears like a newly uncovered relic, earthly and sand-colored. The building is modest, containing only basic architectural elements such as walls and entrances with the exception of a set of ornate wall-paintings in its main room.
Historians often answer questions about “what happened” by comparing stories from a wide variety of sources searching for common elements that validate an account. Then compared with archeological findings, these accounts can be further validated. Disagreement among historians occurs when there are too few sources which to glean, or archeological findings that disagree with supposed accounts. Much of history in the ancient world was captured as lore, each passing version taking on a new feature making it difficult to capture exactly what was true about the account.
Here, less is more and the synagogues simply represent augmentations of agreed historical evidences.
Thus ambiguity in some models is purposeful and grants insight to the viewer that these structures are suggestive. “A lot of the questions we had while making this exhibit are unanswerable,” Jacob Wisse, director of the Yeshiva University Museum, explains. It is upon this that a close exhibition of the model, even with its minimalist remodeling, can inspire an imaginative view of what is missing. The remodeled Beit Alpha synagogue does just that with a beautiful mosaic floor and prominent niche for the Torah. Its unfinished second floor, courtyard, and interior design do, however, leave the viewer with roughly a third of a complete model. It is then up to the viewer to imaginatively reconstruct the remainder of the building – similarly to the researchers who built the actual model.
The models were constructed for an opening exhibit for the YU museum in 1972 , commissioned by the museum’s founders Erica and Ludwig Jesselson – the synagogues were modeled with a vision of what Wisse calls “enlightened patronage.” Each synagogue, aside from reflecting historical accuracy, contains a key feature notable to Jewish history.
Most indicative of this “key feature” is the wooden Zabludow synagogue of Poland. Its tall pointed roof is shabbily slanted with a worn wooden color. Earthly tones and attention to slight details give the work a rustic, weather-beaten and realistic look. This is the feature – the shul’s wear. Tracked muddy ground surrounding the worn building highlights its centrality in Polish shtetl life – that people would live near and commune around their village’s shul. Used as a communal space, the original structure was built entirely out of wood (without nails) and stood for nearly 300 years before its destruction during WWII.
Also on view is the molding and modeling process of the creation of the synagogue set. Silicon and rubber molds sit on display, along with photographs of the modelers at work. A video screen demonstrates a digital modeling process – along with a digital set of synagogues whose physical models are not on view.
While viewers can expect a full historical experience from the exhibition, they should also expect a reconstructive and imaginative one.
“Modeling the Synagogue – from Dura to Touro” will be on display until May 17, 2015 at the Yeshiva University Museum, 15 W. 16th Street, New York.
Yaakov Bressler is a local Brooklyn artist and writer who currently attends Brooklyn College in pursuit of entry into medical school.