Why Moorish Architecture at the Eldridge Street Synagogue?

By Sophie Kaufman

I have only been working as an intern at Eldridge Street for a few weeks, but I have already heard the same exclamatory response from various visitors who are walking into its doors for the first time; “I have never in my life seen a synagogue like this!”

Interior of the Eldridge Street Synagogue, built by the Herter Brothers in 1887. The domes of the synagogue allude its Moorish inspiration. Photograph by Whitney Cox.

Interior of the Eldridge Street Synagogue, built by the Herter Brothers in 1887. The domes of the synagogue allude its Moorish inspiration. Photograph by Whitney Cox.

They are responding to Eldridge Street Synagogue’s breathtaking interior for sure. But many visitors are also baffled by the architectural choices present here. They are used to viewing far less ornamented Jewish places of worship. They are also surprised to find the use of Moorish design in a Jewish sacred site. Some visitors even initially believe that the Synagogue was built by Sephardic Jews – not Eastern European immigrants – because of the ornate murals and rounded architectural shapes. Although the architectural choices may seem incongruent to some, upon further reflection it is clear that these choices echo the economic, social and cultural life of the time.

The architects of the new home of Congregation Kahal Adath Jeshurun sought to find an impressive style that would proclaim the religious identity of their clients and their joy in finally being able to practice freely. (Interestingly enough, the Eldridge Street Synagogue’s architects, Peter and Francis Herter, were Roman Catholic tenement builders from Germany. The Herter Brothers: Architects of Eldridge Street). The problem was what style to use. Classical buildings often called upon pagan Greco-Roman themes. Gothic styles were dominant among Christian churches. Both felt unsuitable for this newly established Jewish worship space. The architects and Eldridge Street’s pioneer congregation settled on utilizing characteristics of Moorish Revival, an architectural phenomenon that was popularly used in German synagogues, beginning in the 1830’s and lasting throughout much of Jewry until the outbreak of the First World War. The first major examples of the Moorish Revival architecture were Friedrich von Gartner’s Munich Synagogue of 1832 and Gottfried Semper’s Dresden Synagogue of 1837.

Gottfried Semper’s Dresden Synagogue of 1837, one of the first Moorish-inspired synagogues built.

Gottfried Semper’s Dresden Synagogue of 1837, one of the first Moorish-inspired synagogues built in Germany.

Moorish architecture is named after the Moors, North African people who conquered the Iberian Peninsula as well as many island in the Western Mediterranean beginning in the 700’s. For over a hundred years, the Moors controlled what is now Spain, Portugal, and the Pyrenees region of France. Moorish architecture is influenced by Greco Roman, Berber and Visigoth traditions and, in turn, influenced many future Mediterranean cultures.

The Great Mosque of Cordoba, located in the Spanish city of Córdoba, Andalusia. The Mosque, completed in 987, is one of the earliest and most monumental examples of Moorish architecture.

The Great Mosque of Córdoba, located in the Spanish city of Córdoba, Andalusia. The Mosque, completed in 987, is one of the earliest and most monumental examples of Moorish architecture.

But why did the architecture style of a North African people become the architectural choice for Synagogues built in the late 1800’s? The Moorish style evoked a high point in Jewish life in 11th century Spain when Jews, Christians and Muslims lived peaceably together. It was a time when Jewish intellectual and spiritual life flourished. Those building new Jewish places of worship in the United States took their inspiration directly from Germany, where the Moorish-inspired Leipzig Synagogue of 1855 and the New Synagogue of 1866 in Berlin were both widely publicized.

There were also numerous other synagogues built in New York around the same time as Kahal Adath Jeshurun that utilized characteristics of Moorish Revival architecture including an early incarnation of Temple Emanu-El which was built in 1868 and located on 43rd Street and Fifth Avenue, Central Synagogue built in 1872, Park West Synagogue built in 1889, Temple Beth El built in 1891 and Temple Beth El built in 1891. All of these structures not only share the use of Moorish architecture but also the desire to declare their Jewish idenity in a public and celebratory way. These stylistic choices were made purely for the purpose of a proud representation of the Jewish faith.

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