Machberes: Inside The Chassidish And Yeshivish World
By Rabbi Gershon Tannenbaum
Several sukkahs around the world have earned recognition for their exceptional beauty, and Boro Park has an impressive number of them. Most impressive are those of Bobov (48th Street and 49th Street) and especially that of Munkacs. Between 47th and 48th Streets on 14th Avenue, the Munkacser sukkah serves not only as a yom tov citadel of Chassidic rapture, but also as a portal to the world’s great synagogues of the past, many of which are still in daily use.
For the past 11 years, a total of 160 aesthetically enlarged professional photographs have bejeweled the Munkacser sukkah, and simultaneously served as major contributions to Jewish history, all taking place in the midst of a brimming Chassidishe setting. In addition to the Munkacser Rebbe’s illustrious tisch with the spirited participation of thousands, the sukkah itself is magnificent and gives the thousands that visit the opportunity to also visually look back into Jewish history. The many guests had and will have the pleasure of viewing the world-class resplendent sukkah ornamented with a visual tour worthy of Jewish history.
The Sukkos 5774 (2013) Exhibit
To enhance this year’s sukkah, the Munkacser Rebbe, Joel Berkowitz, and Eli Isaac (Robert) Vegh convened and selected 12 exquisite 20 × 30 portrait photographs that date back as early as the 1600s. This year, the Munkacser sukkah presents a rich visual display of the following important shuls:
Ancona, Italy (1700). Two spectacular synagogues—one Sephardic and the other Italian nusach—were transferred from their original locations, circa 1876, along with a mikveh; each of them now occupies a separate floor at number 14 Via Astagno, a steep cobblestoned street not far from the harbor. The Sephardic shul was rebuilt from scratch in the second half of the 19th century. Its high arched windows occupy the entire height of the first floor. The austere facade, with an arched portal framing heavy wooden doors, has no outward markings identifying it as a synagogue. The Italian-nusach shul preserves the furnishings of the previous synagogue.
Ansbach, Germany (1745). This shul is on Rosenbadstrasse in the old town. It was built between 1744 and 1746. Guided tours are available which take visitors inside to see its wonderful interior. It is not open apart from tours, sadly. However, the outside of the building is just as beautiful, considered one of the most beautiful shuls in Germany. Tours are only available on Sundays.
Basel, Switzerland (1868). The Basel synagogue was built in 1868 and enlarged in 1892. A stunning edifice in Neo-Byzantine style, the shul has a domed roof in the center of the city.
Cavaillon, France (1772). The shul in Cavaillon, a masterpiece of 18th-century folk art, was classified as a historic monument in 1924. Built between 1772 and 1774 on the vestiges of the primitive 16th-century synagogue, it is situated at the heart of the ghetto reserved for Jews. Indications of a Jewish community in Cavaillon date back to the 11th century. The rabbi’s rostrum is situated between two staircases dominated by a beautiful wrought-iron balustrade.
Corfu, Greece (1800s). Before the Holocaust, 5,000 Jews were living in Corfu. A large influx occurred in 1493, caused by the Spanish Inquisition. Presently, approximately 120 Jews live in Corfu. The shul is on Velissariou Street in the old city.
Harlau, Romania (1800s). Of the five synagogues that were in Harlau, one was the Groose Shul (Big Synagogue), founded, according to the tradition, in the very early 1800s. Its Holy Ark holds almost 50 sifrei Torah. During World War II, Jewish leaders were held hostage in the Groose Shul and were accused of causing all the sabotage and bombing acts. They were imprisoned there for more than two months. Romanian and German soldiers threatened to kill them. Miraculously, they were released.
Iasi, Romania (1671). Currently, Iasi has a declining Jewish population of 600 members and two working synagogues, one of which, the 1671 Alte Shul Great Synagogue, is the oldest surviving synagogue in Romania.
Lengnau, Switzerland (1847). Notable for being one of two villages where residence was permitted for Swiss Jews between 1633 and 1874, Lengnau’s shul is listed as a heritage site of national significance. The Jewish population there built their first synagogue in 1750 and the second in 1847.
Marrakech, Morocco (1800s). Today, there are 250 Jews living in Marrakech, who maintain an old synagogue, the Alzama. Its entrance is down a small alley and its doorway is unmarked.
Mumbai, India (1884). The Knesset Eliyahu Synagogue is the second-oldest Sephardic synagogue in Mumbai. Constructed in 1884, the shul was designed by renowned Bombay architects Gostling and Morris and was paid for by the Sassoon family, who were prominent philanthropists in Bombay during the 19th century.
Sofia, Bulgaria (1904). The Sofia Synagogue is the largest shul in southeastern Europe, with 1,300 seats. It is one of only two shuls functioning in Bulgaria, and the third-largest in all of Europe, constructed to serve the Jewish community, mostly Sephardic, of the Bulgarian capital. The shul was officially opened on September 9, 1909, in the presence of Tsar Ferdinand I of Bulgaria (1861–1948, who reigned 1908–1918).
The first preparations for the synagogue were in 1903, and the construction itself began in 1905. The construction of the shul was part of a reorganization of the Bulgarian Jewish community. The shul was built on the foundation of an older synagogue. Richly decorated with multicolored Venetian mosaics, the shul has Carrara-marble columns and is topped by an octagonal dome. The shul’s central chandelier, parts of which date back to ancient Israel, weighs 1.7 tons and is the largest in the country. Presently, it has a regular attendance of almost 100 mispallelim.
Szczebrzeszyn, Poland (1600s). In 1555, King Zygmunt August issued a binding decree to end an ownership dispute, and allocated rights over the city to the Gorka family of Greater Poland. The Gorkas took a strong interest in religious affairs and granted freedom to all religious groups. Thus, the synagogue was allowed to be built.
The Exhibition’s Beginnings
Eli Isaac (Robert) Vegh of Lawrence is well known in the world of chazzanus. In addition to being a successful and respected real-estate financier, he is the chazzan for the Yomim Nora’im at Congregation Ohr Torah in West Orange, NJ. He will also be a lead chazzan in the October 13 concert in Bnei Israel of Linden Heights in Boro Park celebrating the 80th yahrzeit of Chazzan Yossele Rosenblatt. He has an exceptionably warm relationship with the Munkacser Rebbe. He regularly vacations by visiting shuls abroad and continuously shares his vacation experiences and all shul photographs with the Rebbe. Having always had an intense interest in older shuls, the Rebbe asks a myriad of pointed questions, with a focus on whether the shuls continue to maintain traditional Torah practices and values, and what their communities are like today.
Eli Vegh met and found Joel Berkowitz, a member of Congregation Ohab Zedek in Belle Harbor, so very interesting and engaging that he proudly introduced him and Berkowitz’s treasure trove of shul photographs to the Rebbe. Eli volunteered the photographs to be befittingly used as regal decorations for the magnificent sukkah that Munkacser Chassidim enthusiastically erect every year for their beloved Rebbe.
In addition to Eli sponsoring the costs of professionally developing, enlarging, and custom framing the photographs in a special high-tech photo lab, Eli and Joel carefully research and prepare brief historical descriptions that are included in the flyers distributed in the sukkah. Not only do the visitors see the shuls, they also learn each shul’s history. The Munkacser sukkah experience is truly unique for its own beauty and for its ongoing historical contribution. v
Rabbi Gershon Tannenbaum is the Rav of B’nai Israel of Linden Heights in Boro Park and Director of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. Rabbi Tannenbaum can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.