Buff Brick Synagogue (Aesthetic Judaism)


These pictures are from inside one of my favorite places in New York, Anschei Chesed, a now liberal egalitarian congregation, with deep historical roots in the 19th century German immigration.

AC was founded in 1829. The new site was dedicated in 1928, just before the Crash. There is something indigenous to this form of “the American religion.” Time is a funny that way.

The building itself is described on the congregation website as a “majestic, buff, brick synagogue.” Designed by architecture Edward I. Shire, the exterior combines neo Romanesque and neo Byzantine styles. (All this I’ve cribbed from the synagogue website.)

Inside, the interior design details are all Bezalel design, which was a faux biblical style developed by the Bezalel school in Jerusalem at the start of the twentieth century. The design was an attempt to reconstruct a Hebrew art style in Palestine that was both “new” and “indigenous.” I’m not sure about any neo-Byzantine influence on Bezalel. Certainly, there’s a lot of art nouveau at work in the decorative motifs.

I used to hang out upstairs at another minyan with the professors. They are a smaller, more intense group that occupies a smaller space. I have since come to like the big empty space downstairs in the main sanctuary. The big space in the sanctuary is sensitive to ambient light and to the sounds of automobile traffic just outside on West End Avenue.

My attention always goes to:

 –the soaring arched columns in combination with electric light sources (the “eternal lamp” [ner Tamid] over the ark and also the pink-red EXIT sign.

–objects made of wood –the rectangular verticality of the doors to the ark, the square like memorial plaque at the back of the sanctuary, and the long pews in the middle.

–the light and sound and the tactile value of old, dark wood.

About what, for me, are the pleasing effects of (my) bad amateur photography, namely how the fuzzy focus makes for a sense of vagueness, about this I wrote below re: “mezuzah.”

I’ve been writing here at Jewish Philosophy Place about the interface between human and non-human elements in religion and science. I think the same dynamics define absorbtive architectural interiors. Over time, I have come to feel very much a part of this building, a bit of its brain and a piece of its flesh.

In religion, I think that cognitive, propositional, and dogmatic contents about this or that are almost always secondary. I’m more interested in the physical and mental back and forth movements into and out of these kinds of place.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics. http://religion.syr.edu
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5 Responses to Buff Brick Synagogue (Aesthetic Judaism)

  1. hayyim rothman says:

    less on the aesthetics of place and more on the physical/sensual element of religion in general. have been reading spinoza’s ethics recently and was wondering what you would think about this: last we spoke i was effusive about nietzsche and one of the things you brought up is that the WTP is inseparable from a certain violence. there is a certain dangerous aristocracy (to put it lightly) to it. it seems to me that spinoza’s conatus is a corrective to this because it is its own sort of WTP but one that recognizes that it can only find its highest realization in community b/c mental complexity emerges from multi-modal affectivity, so being-with-others, even (especially?) in a bodily sense, is essential to the self-realization of the conatus qua WTP.

    can you think of how/where this might fit into a jewish mode of thinking?

  2. hayyim rothman says:

    also, i wonder about a corrective to spinoza? what i like about nietzche is the ecstatic quality there. but intellectual love of god…. this is not ecstatic. is it even possible to have an ecstatic mode of life and be in a community? the hasidic rebbes were (perhaps) ecstatic, but they were above their communities, not IN them. in a time of jewish history when we cannot have people above us like that, when there is a necessary loss of faith in the tzaddikim, is there a legitimate place for ecstasis that is not dull and fluffy (ala carlebach minyanim) or scary and neurotic (ala 770)?

    • zjb says:

      I think you’re right about Spinoza. I don’t think he’s ecstatic. And I think you’re right about the non-place of ecstasy. I’m with Mendelssohn. Will settle for happiness.

  3. hayyim rothman says:

    i hear you on happiness v.s. ecstatis. but – and here i can sort of lead the discussion back into your original discusssion of architecture. one of the things i find so displeasing about contemporary synagogue architecture is that there is a total lack of the dimension of height. i don’t mean “tallness” … there are plenty of large synagogues. but they tend to be boxy. they are tall without an affective-aesthetic dimension of height. i associate height with ecstasis…. when i was a little kid i would have these dreams of entering massive rooms and feeling an intense sense of overpowering awe and smallness-with-belonging. this is part of religion too, an important part for me. but happiness alone doesn’t accomplish that.

    what i would want, but dont know if such a thing is possible, is an immanence in which the spinozistic/democratic correction to the nietzschean WTP obtains which is also somehow not closed off to the dimension of height (in chabad language: sovev in memalei). but this is also a precarious position b/c it can always teeter over to one or the other….

  4. zjb says:

    that’s interesting. i think i’d associate height with happiness, and ecstasis more with closed in spaces (which are more in-tense).

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