Religion, Auto-Orientalism — Midtown Manhattan

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More from walk through midtown this week – Walking down Lexington on the way to meetings, I caught sight of the bulbous green and gold onion domes of Central Synagogue. Designed by Henry Fernbach for a liberal community whose members originally came from Bohemia and then Germany. Built  in 1872, it was restored according to a modernist design by Ely Kacques Kahn, and then again in 2001 after a fire gutted much of the building

You can find interior and historic photographs here. All the colors, it’s like liturgical eye candy. 

As for the exterior, I think it puts the kabosh on glib theories about liberal assimilation. I think it’s interesting how liberal Jews in the 19th century deliberately chose by building in this neo-Moorish style to mark themselves off as distinct from their Christian fellow citizens. Building like this in the U.S. or in Europe, it’s not “orientalist” if only because orientalism is a discourse about “other people.” This is more like “auto-orientalist” An homage to the Golden Age in Spain under Islam, it’s a conscious act of self-othering.

At the same time I noticed the almost complete absence of particular Jewish symbols. There are no ostentatiously placed Jewish symbols or signs like stars of David, tablets of the law, or Hebrew script. Just good neo-Gothic-neo-Moorish design. There are a few stars of David on and above the door, but they are not part of the main design. They are more like tags on a blog page.

 I’m guessing, only guessing, that the design work in the big rose window is from the 2001 reconstruction. The abstractions strike me as neo-Modernist, but again, I’m not sure.

In the 1870s, the synagogue towered over the simple, neighboring brownstones. You can see this in a photo in the link I’ve included in this post. These pictures of New York from the turn of the century always surprise me by how empty now crowded parts of the city are. Now the synagogues is framed by the skyscrapers and enmeshed in the commercial drek the dominates midtown east of Park Avenue. The juxtaposition of old and new doesn’t always work to the naked optical eye. It’s easier to fudge this with a photorgraph with the right kind of cropping. In the main picture above, I like a lot the juxtaposition of [1] Moorish-neo-Moorish with [2] the mid-20th century blond brick work, patio gardens, and air conditioning units, and [3] the more recent big black glass and steel job behind them all. It all works together.

I’m not sure if classy is the right word. Luxe, yes, but classy, I’m not sure. Depends upon how you frame the perspective. At the very least, it’s a lovable in-place-out-of-place architectural oddity in the modern-contemporary metropolis.


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.
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