Sister Shuls: Dohány Street Synagogue in Budapest
In “Sister Shuls,” we travel virtually to other synagogues whose exuberant architecture has a kinship with our landmark home, the Eldridge Street Synagogue.
After visiting the Jerusalem Street Synagogue in Prague for our first “Sister Shuls” journey, a bit more cyber travel landed me in Budapest, Hungary at the Dohány Street Synagogue. That destination was not completely random. More than a few well-traveled visitors have told me during tours that our own Lower East Side landmark reminds them of Dohány Street. Let’s have a look.
Dohány, also called the Great Synagogue, was built between 1854 and 1859, making it older than Eldridge by about thirty years. Like Eldridge, its design is an eclectic combination of styles with clear Moorish influences. Dohány is the work of Viennese architect Ludwig Förster. The architect was not Jewish, but was known for designing both Jewish and Christian houses of worship. Föster looked to the Middle East and Islamic architecture for inspiring stylistic elements. In his work, as in other synagogue architecture at that time and for decades following, Moorish features were used as a way of distinguishing Jewish houses of worship from churches. [Read more about this trend in our blog post “Why Moorish?“]
Eldridge Street is also designed by non-Jewish architects. Peter and Francis Herter were German immigrants, and Roman Catholic. And although they were working a few decades after Föster, they also looked to Islamic architecture for inspiration. Moorish elements were still very popular in synagogue architecture in 1887. And surely they had seen Moorish-style synagogues in Europe before they came to the U.S. It’s even a safe bet that the Herters would have seen Central Synagogue uptown in Manhattan. Central was closely modeled on Dohány. Built in 1870 on Lexington Avenue at 55th Street, it served a German Jewish congregation who was a bit more established in America than the downtown Eldridge Street immigrants. So modeling their synagogue on the grand uptown shuls was a no-brainer.
Like Eldridge, Dohány’s façade features a large Gothic-style rose window. It also boasts two side towers topped with onion-shaped domes, an element found not just in Russian churches but also in some Islamic architecture. Eldridge has another kind of Moorish topper – finials featuring Stars of David. Both roof embellishments serve a similar function – to make the building visible and prominent from afar.
The Dohány Street Synagogue is the largest Jewish house of worship in Europe. It holds more than 3,000 seats – three times as many as Eldridge! So it is definitely our big sister in terms of capacity. Still, there are many similarities in the layout. Both feature a U-shaped women’s balcony. In both buildings, the walls and arches are covered in painted decoration, and the ceiling is decorated with a painted design of square tiles that give the effect of three-dimensional coffering. Large, round clerestory windows run the length of both sanctuaries up near the ceiling. At Eldridge, those windows’ stark blue and gold pie-wedge design has led many visitors to think they are a modern addition, but they are actually part of the building’s original fabric. They were a clever way to admit more light to the space below. Dohány’s clerestory windows also have a geometric design – a grid filled with Stars of David.
A look at both ceilings presents an interesting comparison, especially when photographed at the same angle by the same photographer! Laszlo Reglos visited both shuls, and his beautiful photos are above. There is certainly a kinship there in the architectural bones of the space and the all-over decoration.
Examining the stained glass at each synagogue is a lesson in the design options available for a house of worship where religious law prohibits depicting figures that could be considered graven images. Both use simple geometric designs enlivened by color. Both employ the Star of David to convey a religious dedication. The window at Dohány, shown above, has many fewer pieces of glass than the one from Eldridge, but both give the space a sacred feeling.
Dohány went through a restoration in the 1990s after democracy returned to Hungary. It was funded by the Hungarian government. But American Jews donated too, including cosmetics entrepreneur Estée Lauder and actor Tony Curtis.
New York’s Central Synagogue gets twin sister honors for Dohány, but the Eldridge Street Synagogue certainly shares enough architectural and spiritual DNA to be part of the family. Do you know a “Sister Shul” that you’d like to see side-by-side with Eldridge Street? Let us know in the comments.
Nancy Johnson is the Museum at Eldridge Street’s archivist and exhibition curator.