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Pittsburgh photographer offers rare view of Eastern European synagogues

| Saturday, May 17, 2014, 8:42 p.m.
Synagogue, Ceiling, Prague, Czech Republic from 'Synagogues of Prague and Budapest: David Aschkenas'
Jubilee Synagogue, Balcony, Prague, Czech Republic from 'Synagogues of Prague and Budapest: David Aschkenas'
Dohany Street Synagogue, Budapest, Hungary from 'Synagogues of Prague and Budapest: David Aschkenas'
Strong Boxes, Old New Synagogue, Prague, Czech Republic from 'Synagogues of Prague and Budapest: David Aschkenas'
Old New Synagogue, Prague, Czech Republic from ‘Synagogues of Prague and Budapest: David Aschkenas'

Each year, legions of tourists flock to the churches and synagogues of Prague to take in the beauty and history of each. But few get the chance to investigate them more closely than Pittsburgh photographer David Aschkenas, who first traveled to the Eastern European city in November 2011 to photograph synagogues, and later to Budapest, Hungary.

Aschkenas comes from the Ashkenazi Jewish tradition, and he created these photographs in an effort to “capture the rich complexity and power of our shared Ashkenazi heritage.”

But first, he had to solve a little problem.

“After I bought my tickets, I bought some travel books, and I noticed (in them) the symbol of the camera with a line through it and I thought, how am I going to make photographs there?” he says. At his wife's suggestion, he wrote to the Jewish Museum in Prague, and sent them some images he had created a few years earlier of Rodef Shalom, a synagogue in Oakland.

“I said this wasn't for commercial purposes, that I just wanted to do it,” he says. “They granted me permission for two hours, and I thought how can I photograph six synagogues in two hours. After begging, they gave me a day.”

Now, 23 remarkably detailed images from that trip, as well as a trip to Budapest in May 2013, make up the exhibit “Synagogues of Prague and Budapest: David Aschkenas,” at the American Jewish Museum at the Jewish Community Center in Squirrel Hill.

Large, lush images, they capture even the tiniest of details, from the well-used desks and threadbare chairs inside each to the curves and swirls of the Moorish architectural details that are pervasive inside and out.

One of the simplest structures though is also the most grand. It is an image of the Old New Synagogue.

“It's the oldest synagogue in the world, it dates to 1270,” Aschkenas says. “It was one of the first buildings built in Prague.”

It has been the main synagogue of the Prague Jewish community for more than 700 years. One of the first things the casual viewer will notice about the photograph is that the windows only let in light from an upper half portion of each. That's because, In accordance with tradition and as a sign of humility, the floor level of the hall and main nave is several degrees below the surrounding terrain.

The main building is surrounded on three sides by low annexes which serve as a vestibule and women's sections; the latter are connected to the main hall only by narrow apertures in the walls, which enable women to hear the services. These are noticeable to the left and right of the images and hearken to the Orthodox tradition.

“It's much smaller inside than it looks in the photograph,” Aschkenas says in regard to the image. “In fact, it's not even as big as this room (the exhibit space), and it has that sort of damp-limestone basement smell to it.”

The image “Strong Boxes, Old New Synagogue, Prague, Czech Republic” hangs nearby. In it, two early Baroque money boxes shown in the vestibule were used for collecting Jewish taxes from the entire kingdom.

There are several legends related to this synagogue, Aschkenas says, among them that the synagogue's attic is home to the golem, the superhero figure made from clay by Rabbi Loew (1520-1609), who once served here, to protect the Jews of Prague from anti-Semitic violence.

The story goes that with the Jewish community of Prague facing either death or expulsion, Rabbi Loew took clay from the banks of the river Vltava to build the golem, which he brought to life through Hebrew incantations. According to folklore, the rabbi used his esoteric knowledge of God's animation of Adam to bring to life the hugely powerful creation. “It's also the story that Frankenstein was based on,” Aschkenas says.

Another breathtaking image, as well as one full of history, is that of the interior of the Dohany Street Synagogue, Budapest, Hungary. Pointing to the massive mezzanine filled with benches, Aschkenas says, “It's one of the largest synagogues in the world and can hold about 3,000 people.”

So massive is this structure that, in 1944, it was used as an internment camp for the Jews subsequent to their deportation. “During World War II, the Nazis used the first floor as a stable, and Adolf Eichmann, one of the major organizers of the Holocaust, had an office upstairs,” Aschkenas says.

Later in the 20th century, during the Communist period, many windows were broken, and the Jews boarded up the synagogue. An ambitious restoration was recently completed, funded in large part by the late actor Tony Curtis, who was of Hungarian-Jewish descent, and Estee Lauder. The building's original splendor is now fully apparent in this amazing image.

Several detailed shots of the elaborate Jubilee Synagogue in Prague feature a hybridized blend of Moorish Revival and art nouveau architectural details, both inside and out. They are complimented by images of graveyards nearby, rounding out this remarkable exhibit.

It's worth noting that a similar exhibit of Aschkenas' photographs is on display at the Jubilee Synagogue, and will remain in their collection for future exhibits as well.

Kurt Shaw is the art critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at

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