How Islam helped to beautify our shuls

Anglo-Jewry's architectural heritage is celebrated in a sumptuous new book

By Stephen Games, July 14, 2011
Islamic influence at the grade 1-listed Princes Road Synagogue, Liverpool

Islamic influence at the grade 1-listed Princes Road Synagogue, Liverpool

The Synagogues of Britain and Ireland
Sharman Kadish; Yale, £45

Diaspora Jews have always built in the manner of the communities among whom they have lived. In fact, until the 20th century, most synagogue architects were non-Jews. Thus, the Alt-Neu Shul in Prague (1270) is essentially a small Gothic church, the even earlier St Mary-the-White (Santa María la Blanca) Shul in Toledo (1190) resembles a mosque and the synagogue in Kaifeng is, above all, a Chinese temple.

Not surprisingly, British shuls reflect Christian architectural practice. Bevis Marks (1700-1), our oldest surviving shul in Britain, has its origins in the Esnoga, Amsterdam's Portugese shul of 1675, but the Esnoga itself was based on drawings by Spanish Jesuits. Likewise, Georgian shuls in the provinces - Plymouth (1761-2), say, or Exeter (1763-4) - could be mistaken for Unitarian meeting houses of the period.

Even in the second half of the 19th century, when most British architects were reviving the medieval Christian-Gothic style for their own buildings, we continued to copy their overall approach and simply used different models. Our favourites were Islamic - at Princes Road, Liverpool (1872-4), Manchester Sephardi (1873-4), the New West End, London (1877-9), and Bradford Reform (1880-1) - and Romanesque at Middle Street, Brighton (1874-5), Leazes Park, Newcastle (1879-80), and Garnethill, Glasgow (1879-81). Canterbury's little shul (1847-8) even made a foray into Egyptian, which now seems perverse.

In short, even when our references were different - and Romanesque was by no means a Jewish monopoly - we were still emulating our gentile hosts. That is why, when we consider shuls, it is logical to view them in the context of the religious mainstream. The problem is that few shuls can compete with the best of British architecture; and as a marginal culture, our buildings are easily overlooked. This raises the question of whether we should not define and judge shuls on their own terms.

Enter Dr Sharman Kadish. Some 25 years ago, Kadish got interested in Jewish architectural heritage. Since then she has become this country's leading scholar and campaigner in the field. Her goal, as she explains in her new and sumptuously illustrated The Synagogues of Britain and Ireland, is to avoid "treat[ing] the synagogue as some kind of variant church", and instead "to explore the Jewish place of worship … as the product of its own particular history".

The result is the first evolutionary study of the genus "synagoga britannica". Here, she establishes what was built, where, when, by whom, how, and at what cost. From these facts she draws lines of influence, naming the first example of each innovation. Bevis Marks was a one-off. More important, nearly a century later, was James Spiller's rebuilding of the Ashkenazi Great Synagogue (1790) as a Roman-style basilica à la John Nash. Then John Davies's New Synagogue (1837-8) in an Italianate style symbolising religious freedom and inspiring the "cathedral" shuls of the mid-century. Then Edward Salomon's Manchester Reform (1857-8), Britain's first "Islamic" shul. Then Hyman Henry Collins's Chatham (1865-70), the most spectacular example of Romanesque; and so on, into the 20th century.

Many shuls are no longer where they are needed

From questions of style she moves to technical matters: the first use in a shul of gas or electric lighting, of heating, of cooling, of toilets; provision for women; the introduction of stained glass from the 1850s; the use of huts in the 1930s; and the anomaly of misaligned arks - at Norrice Lea (1934-1960s), Beehive Lane (1961-2), and Stanmore (1959-63). Kadish also charts the involvement of gentile architects and the rise of their Jewish counterparts, the first of whom to build a shul was David Mocatta, who designed Ramsgate synagogue (1831-3) for his first cousin, Sir Moses Montefiore.

And so to social history. Here, Kadish contrasts the sophistication of the early Reform movement with the simplicity of immigrant shuls, often in makeshift premises with interiors crafted by congregants in folk-styles brought from the heim. She notes the use of architecture by different groups to defend or impose their own forms of religious practice, the rise of the "cinema" shul, the devastation caused by wartime bombing and the move to the suburbs.

Finally, she raises the demographic dilemma: the fact that many shuls are no longer where they are needed, leading to demolitions - at Adelaide Road, Dublin (1999), Clapton Federation (2006) and, now pending, Bournemouth - and a new nervousness about architectural commitment. With once proud synagogues stranded like beached whales, we now prefer ad-hoc spaces and conversions, a phenomenon taking us back to our origins in this country. Kadish does well to research examples of this as well.

With all this cornucopia, the theoretical question of whether it is justifiable or special pleading to deal with shuls on their own terms, or even whether Kadish explores those terms fully, can be set aside for the lay reader. The book is a masterpiece.

Last updated: 10:50am, July 14 2011