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Jewish Heritage Report
Issue No. 1 / March 1997
Syrian Synagogue Exhibition

Menarsha Synagogue

Photo: Damascus, Syria. Menarsha syn. © Robert Lyons /WMF 1995

ISJM is organizing the tour of Silenced Sacred Spaces: Selected Photographs of Syrian Synagogues by Robert Lyons, an exhibition drawn from the remarkable photographic survey conducted by Lyons for the World Monuments Fund in the spring of 1995. The exhibit, which opened at Syracuse University in October 1996, was organized by the Jewish Heritage Research Center and the Lowe Art Gallery. It will be on view at Yeshiva University Museum in New York for three months beginning September 21, 1997. The Klutznick National Jewish Museum in Washington, D.C. will mount the exhibition in the summer of 1998. Other bookings are being confirmed.

The exhibit presents a selection of images from the eighteen synagogues photographed by Lyons in April 1995. It is likely that most of these synagogues will be closed and dismantled over the next few years. The Syrian Jewish community helped arrange Lyons' itinerary and the project was supported by World Monuments Fund, the Samuel H. Kress Foundation, and the Cahnman Foundation.

Unlike many other Jewish communities that have suffered willful destruction and abandonment in the twentieth century, Syrian Jews remained in their native country, forbidden to emigrate since the mid-1940s. After emigration policies relaxed in 1990, thousands of Jews left Syria and reconstituted many of their traditional communal institutions in new settings -- notably the United States and Israel. However, they were obliged to leave behind much of the material legacy produced during the centuries of tolerant Ottoman rule when Jewish tradesmen had prospered and constructed many of the large synagogues. Lyons encountered not only difficulties in arranging his visit, but also in the tight control of his work schedule by Syrian security officers. He was nevertheless able to document three-quarters of the known synagogues in the country. Some, such as the medieval synagogue at Tadeef, are in ruin; however, most others are intact and fully furnished. Lyons has captured the architecturally impressive and richly decorated synagogues in what is, for the most part, their complete state. Missing of course, are the congregants whose prayers made these synagogues truly sacred spaces. Lyons' visit did, however, coincide with the celebration of Passover, and many of his photographs of the remaining community of Damascus Jews celebrating the holiday were included in the sweeping exhibition Jews in Arab Lands organized last year by Beth Hatefusoth (catalogue available from Kehayof Verlag, Herzog st. 60, 80803 Munchen, Germany, fax. 89-33-80-53, DM 88).

Lyons' extraordinary photographs comprise the only documentation of Syrian synagogues, and one of the finest photographic documentation projects of synagogues from any land. While WMF provided documentation guidelines, Lyons' photographic skill under difficult circumstances (only existing illumination was used) and his sensitive eye have made art of this documentation process. Synagogue closure and deaccessioning of synagogue holdings -- through legal or illegal means -- is only just beginning in Syria. When Lyons visited Syria, there was hope that a coming peace would allow his documentation to be the first step in a more fully developed process of education and preservation. That hope is now suspended and the value of his work stands out even more clearly.

The traveling exhibition is currently available through December 1998 and includes twelve 20" x 24" color photographs, forty 11" x 14" black and white photographs, six text panels, label copy for each photograph, three exhibit graphics, and exhibition brochures and promotional material. The rental fee is $500.00 per month.

For further information and booking, contact ISJM. An exhibit brochure, with an essay by co-curator Samuel Gruber, is available from ISJM for $2.50 (postage and handling included).

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B. Berman
Updated: 24-Jul-98