Jewish Heritage Report
Vol. I, Nos. 3-4 / Winter 1997-98
CJA News

Center for Jewish Art

1997 Expeditions, the Center for Jewish Art

Privolnoe, AzerbaijanBrick Synagogue in Privolnoe, Azerbaijan, early 20th century, used as electric power station. Photo: Center for Jewish Art.

This past summer has been a particularly enriching and productive period for researchers at the Center whose expeditions took them to three different continents to document synagogues, ritual objects, and tombstones. An expedition to Tunisia brought researchers to the island of Djerba where they fully documented nine synagogues, both architecture and ritual objects, two of which were built in the 18th century. In addition they documented a rare collection of painted Torah cases, also from the 18th century, and the earliest known of this kind. The Jewish community of Tunisia traces its history from the exile after the destruction of the First Temple.

Kulashi, GeorgiaInterior of wooden synagogue in Kulashi, Georgia, not in use today; no Jews left in Kulashi. Photo: Center for Jewish Art.

This year researchers also visited Georgia which also has an ancient history. According to tradition, in 1998 the Jewish community will celebrate 2,600 years of residence in Georgia. Massive emigration has almost entirely depleted this community, which at one time numbered over 100,000 Jews, and synagogues and ritual objects are in danger of disappearing. Today there are an estimated 6,000 Jews in Georgia. Researchers were fortunate to have been able to document 14 synagogues during this expedition. They were also able to view, photograph, and document several different collections of ritual objects and cemeteries. Among the ritual objects were many Torah cases, Torah finials and some pointers. It was of particular interest to note that each region has its specific style of form and design of ritual objects.

The Center's second visit to Azerbaijan revealed a dying community of Jews who call themselves Gerim, in the remote village of Privolnoe near the mountains of Iran. Although researchers were able to document two synagogues, most ritual objects had already disappeared. It was fortunate that researchers during this expedition were accompanied by a video photographer who was able to record on film the remaining members of this community and their traditions.

During the Center's second expedition to Romania, researchers traveled to the historic areas of Transylvania, Maramures, and Walachia, where they documented synagogues, ritual objects, Torah arks, and tombstones. Many of the synagogues documented this year were immense, Moorish style synagogues built at the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century by Neolog (Reform) communities.

This year's expedition to the Ukraine set out to further explore the region of Galicia, which the Center has visited on previous expeditions, and that of Volyn in NW Ukraine. This expedition produced two surprising finds. The first is a wooden synagogue in Skhodnitsa, Galicia, probably the only remaining wooden synagogue in the Ukraine. The second important find is a cemetery located in the town of Kreminitz, which includes 120 tombstones from the 16th to 18th centuries.

Documenting Synagogues in Germany

In 1994 the Center for Jewish Art initiated a pilot project in conjunction with the Institut fúr Baugeschichte of Braunschweig University, to document all extant synagogues built before 1933 in the German state of Lower Saxony. The project has been successfully completed with the documentation of 40 synagogues, ritual baths and cemetery chapels using the most innovative recording technologies. As a result of the success of this project, the Center is now beginning a similar project to document synagogues, ritual baths and cemetery halls in eastern Germany. With the aid of archival research, approximately 90 of these buildings in eastern Germany have been located to date. While in 1933 these were still functioning synagogues, today they are in private hands and some are in danger of being totally destroyed due to a tremendous building boom. We expect to find at least another 50 synagogue buildings in this region. The second stage of this documentation project will begin in the state of Sachsen-Anhalt with the assistance of researchers and architects from Braunschweig University.

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Updated: 23-July-98