Monday, 31 December 2018

Ten synagogues I have
visited in 2018

Inside the Scuola Spagnola in Venice, founded around 1580 by Spanish and Portuguese speaking Jews (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018; click on images for full-screen resolution)

Patrick Comerford

In previous years, in my end-of-year reviews at the end of December, I have often summarised the year’s events in my life, as well providing my own commentary on the year in news, sport, and church life.

However, newspapers and television stations provide substantial summaries of the past year at this time of the year, and the consequences of ‘Brexit’ and the Trump presidency have been devastating and depressing at one and the same time throughout 2018.

Instead, I have decided to end the year on note of celebration over the next few days, looking back at ten countries I have visited this year, ten cathedrals I have visited in Ireland, ten synagogues I have visited, and ten places I have visited in Ireland this year.

The façade of the New Synagogue on Oranienburger strasse in Berlin survived Kristallnacht and World War II (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

1, The new Synagogue, Berlin:

This year marked the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht or the ‘Night of Broken Glass.’ On the night of 9/10 November 1938, Nazi Party members, the Hitler Youth and other people went on a government-sanctioned rampage against Jews throughout Germany and Austria. That night 80 years ago is remembered as Kristallnacht or the ‘Night of Broken Glass,’ and many say it marks the unofficial beginning of the Holocaust.

The New Synagogue on Oranienburger strasse narrowly escaped being destroyed that night through the brave intervention of a district police chief, Wilhelm Krützfeld. It is around the corner from Tucholsky strasse, where I was staying in Berlin.

When the Neue Synagoge or New Synagogue opened in 1866, it was seen as an architectural masterpiece. The opening was such an important event that the attendance included Count Otto von Bismarck, soon to be the first chancellor of the German Empire.

The name ‘new’ refers to the reformed, modern rites and practices. The building was designed by Eduard Knoblauch and completed after his death by Friedrich August Stüller. It was designed in the Moorish style to resemble the Alhambra in Spain, and could hold 3,200 people.

The heavily damaged New Synagogue was essentially demolished in 1958, except for the front façade and entrance. The Centrum Judaicum Foundation opened here in 1988 and the rebuilt New Synagogue opened in 1995 as a museum, cultural centre and community offices.

The congregation in the New Synagogue today is Berlin’s only Masorti synagogue. Gesa Ederberg became the first female pulpit rabbi in Berlin in 2007 when she became the rabbi of the New Synagogue.

The site of Berlin’s first synagogue at Heidereutergasse, dedicated in 1714 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

2, The Alten (Old) Synagogue, Berlin:

Berlin’s first major Jewish house of worship, the Alten (Old) Synagogue on the Heidereutergasse, was dedicated in 1714, almost 420 years after the first documented mentioning of Jews in Berlin in 1295. By 1354, six Jewish families were living in the Kleinen Judenhof or ‘small Jewish court’ settlement. Jews were first expelled from Brandenburg in 1446, but they were allowed to return to Berlin in 1447.

A site for the first Jewish cemetery was bought in 1672 on Grosse Hamburger Strasse, and Berlin’s first synagogue, on Heidereutergasse, was consecrated in 1714. The synagogue was then called the Great Synagogue and was rebuilt in 1854-1855 by Eduard Knoblauch (1801-1865).

The Alten (Old) Synagogue remained unscathed in the Kristallnacht. The last service there took place on 20 November 1942, and it was destroyed by bombing in 1945. Today, there are 19 or so synagogues or Jewish houses of prayer in Berlin, compared with 94 synagogues in 1932.

The Synagogue Rebbi Akiva on Rue Synagogue was originally built in the mid-19th century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

3, The Synagogue Rebbi Akiva, Tangier:

At one time Tangier had over 20 synagogues. Many of these synagogues are now closed, but I found signs on Rue des Synagogues, a twisting and turning street in Tangier, pointing to two of them.

The Synagogue Rebbi Akiva on Rue Synagogue was originally built in the mid-19th century. It was restored by Rabbi Moshe Laredo in1902, and was rebuilt in 1912. More recently it has been converted into a museum of Tangier’s Jewish community.

The Moshe Nahon Synagogue, the last surviving functioning synagogue in the old city, was built in 1878 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

4, The Moshe Nahon Synagogue, Tangier:

At the very end of Rue Synagogue, behind a nondescript door, I found myself at the Moshe Nahon Synagogue, the last surviving functioning synagogue in the old city. From the street, appearances are deceptive, but inside this is a monumental and lavish building, and one of the most beautiful synagogues in Morocco.

This synagogue was built in 1878 and was a working synagogue until it fell into despair in the late 20th century. But it was renovated in 1994, revealing intricately covered carvings that are illuminated by hanging lamps and many Jewish artefacts.

The Scuola Spagnola was founded around 1580 by Spanish and Portuguese speaking Jews (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

5, The Scuola Spagnola, Venice:

The Scuola Spagnola or Spanish Synagogue in the Ghetto in Venice was founded by Spanish and Portuguese-speaking Jews around 1580. This is one of the two functioning synagogues in the Ghetto, and it is open for services from Passover until the end of the High Holiday season.

The synagogue was founded by Jews whose families had been expelled from the Iberian peninsula in the 1490s. They reached Venice usually via Amsterdam, Livorno or Ferrara, in the 1550s. This four-storey yellow stone building, designed by the architect Baldassarre Longhena, was built in 1580 and was restored in 1635.

It is a clandestine synagogue, tolerated on condition that it was concealed within a building that gives no appearance of being a house of worship outside. Inside, however, it is elaborately decorated, with three large chandeliers and a dozen smaller ones, as well as a huge sculpted wooden ceiling.

The Scuola Grande Tedesca or German Grand Synagogue in Venice was founded in 1528 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

6, The Scuola Grande Tedesca, Venice:

The Scuola Grande Tedesca or German Grand Synagogue in Venice was founded in 1528 by the Askhenazi Community and is the oldest synagogue in Venice. The unknown architect had to overcome considerable difficulties to give the appearance of regularity to the asymmetric area of the main hall. He achieved this by building an elliptical women’s gallery and repeating the same motif in the banisters of the lantern-like opening in the centre of the ceiling, giving a feeling of unexpected depth.

This Synagogue was restored often over the centuries. The area with the Ark juts out on the outside over the Rio di Ghetto Novo, with a niche which is also to be seen in the Schola Canton, the Schola Italiana and the Schola Levantina.

The Scola Levantina … founded by Levantine Jews who brought different customs of worship and dress (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

7, The Scola Levantina, Venice:

The Scola Levantina in Venice was founded in 1541 by the Levantine Sephardi Jews who came from the Eastern Mediterranean between 1538 and 1561. It is probably the only synagogue in Venice that has kept nearly all its original features and has the only noteworthy exterior, with its two simple and severe facades interrupted by three orders of windows and the polygonal niche (diagò or liagò) found in the other synagogues in the Ghetto.

The Prayer Hall was chosen in 1950 to honour the martyrs of Nazism and Fascism. The inscription over the portal reads: ‘Blessed be he who enters, blessed be he who goes out.’

A tablet in the entrance hall reads: ‘If you understand, oh, man, what your end in the world will be, and if you show charity discreetly, then when you depart this life your place will be assured: then your chalice will be full of goodness and on your head will be placed a crown.’ Another tablet, dated 1884, commemorates a visit to Venice by Sir Moses Montefiore in 1875.

The Monasterioton Synagogue is the only surviving, pre-war working synagogue in Thessaloniki (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

8, The Monasterioton Synagogue, Thessaloniki:

The Monasterioton Synagogue at the top of Syngrou Street is the only surviving, pre-war working synagogue in Thessaloniki. It was built in 1927 by Jews from Monastir in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. The synagogue was saved during World War II because it had been requisitioned by the Red Cross as a warehouse. The building was structurally damaged by the earthquake in 1978, but it was restored by the Greek government and is one of the three functioning synagogues in Thessaloniki.

In all, there are three surviving synagogues, some surviving Jewish mansions on Vassilisis Olgas Avenue, the Modiano Market, and a new Jewish Cemetery in Stavroupoli. The Jewish Holocaust Memorial at the south-east corner of Plateia Eleftherias (Liberty Square) recalls the 50,000 Greek Jews exterminated in the Holocaust. The memorial is a bronze sculpture by Nandor Glid of a seven-branch menorah whose flames are wrapped around human bodies in death.


The bimah in the Etz Hayyim Synagogue in Chania (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

9, The Etz Hayyim Synagogue, Chania:

Etz Hayyim synagogue stands in a small alley off Kondhilaki Streer in Evraiki or the former Jewish quarter in the old town of Chania in Crete. There has been a synagogue here since the Middle Ages, and it is in the heart of the walled maze of alleyways and narrow streets that spread out from the harbour with its mediaeval lighthouse and the port’s surviving mosque.

There had been Romaniote or Greek-speaking Jews in Crete for more than 2,300 years, and they survived wave-after-wave of invaders, including Romans, Byzantines, Saracen pirates, Venetians and Ottomans. They were strongly influenced by Sephardic intellectual traditions with the Spanish Jews in Crete in the late 14th century, and the two Jewish communities intermarried and accommodated one another.

After World War II, the Etz Hayyim synagogue stood empty. The sleeping building was desecrated, and was used as a dump, a urinal, and kennel, damaged by earthquakes and filled with dead animals and broken glass, its mikvah or ritual bath oozing mud and muck.

The revival of the synagogue is due to the vision and hard work of Nicholas Stavroulakis who grew up in Britain, the son of a Turkish Jewish mother and a Greek Orthodox father from Crete. He first learned about Crete’s lost Jews when he was a young man, and his family ties inspired many visits to this island. He returned to Crete in 1995, set about restoring the synagogue, and Etz Hayyim reopened in 1999.

The synagogue’s floor plan is in the Romaniote, or Greek tradition. The ark faces the eastern wall, while the bimah faces the western one. The rebuilt mikvah is fed by a spring. The scattered remains of the tombs of past rabbis have been recovered and they have been reburied.

In a hallway, a simple plaque bears the names of the Jews of Chania who drowned in 1944 while they were being shipped to Athens and on to Auschwitz.

Etz Hayyim suffered two arson attacks in the same month in 2010. But there was international outage, and donations poured in for the restoration of Etz Hayyim. Today, barely more than a dozen Jews live in Crete, and Evraiki, the former Jewish quarter, is now crammed with tavernas, cafés and souvenir shops. Etz Hayyim holds weekly Shabbat services in Hebrew, Greek, and English, and is home to a research library with 4,000 volumes. Rabbi Gabriel Negrin, who was once a student in Crete, regularly comes to Chania from Athens to help with the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services. I was both privileged and humbled to be a guest of Rabbi Gabriel Negrin and the community at a memorial service in Etz Hayyim on 17 June to mark the anniversary of the destruction of the Jewish community of Crete.

Kehillas Ya’akov was the first Mizrachi Synagogue in Britain (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

10, Kehillas Ya’akov, London:

The East End of London is the cradle of Jewish life in England. At the beginning of the 20th century, it was said there were as many Jews living in one square mile of the East End of as there are throughout Britain today – over 250,000 people.

Today, estimates say, about 2,000 Jewish people live in the East End. Many of them are elderly, and there are just three synagogues still functioning in the East End. After the two-day residential meeting of the trustees of USPG in Limehouse, in January, I strolled through the East End of London, and photographed the Kehillas Ya’akov was the first Mizrachi Synagogue in Britain.

An English Heritage report said Kehillas Ya’akov or the Synagogue of the Congregation of Jacob at 351-353 Commercial Road ‘is a remarkable survival ... and is all the more exceptional for continuing in use as a synagogue.’

This is no ordinary synagogue. From the outside, it looks unremarkable, sandwiched in the middle of a parade of shops on the Commercial Road in Stepney. But inside, there is a fusion of two worlds: one that has disappeared, and another that may be fast disappearing. Here East European Jewry meets the Jewish East End of London, and it is here that hope springs eternal.

Despite the date 1921 on the façade, the synagogue was founded in 1903 and is one of the last three synagogues still functioning in the East End.

The cupola of the Neue Synagoge or New Synagogue in the Spandau area of Berlin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Ten cathedrals I have
visited in 2018

The Blue Crucifix … an icon by Adrienne Lord in the north transept of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Patrick Comerford

In previous years, in my end-of-year reviews at the end of December, I have often summarised the year’s events in my life, as well providing my own commentary on the year in news, sport, and church life.

However, newspapers and television stations provide substantial summaries of the past year at this time of the year, and the consequences of ‘Brexit’ and the Trump presidency have been devastating and depressing at one and the same time throughout 2018.

Instead, I have decided to end the year on note of celebration over the next few days, looking back at ten countries I have visited this year, ten cathedrals I have visited in Ireland, ten synagogues I have visited across Europe, and ten places I have visited in Ireland this year.

During the year, as Precentor, I tried to visit each of the cathedrals and former cathedrals in this diocese: Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick, Saint Flannan’s Killaloe, Co Clare, and Saint Brendan’s Cathedral, Clonfert, Co Galway, as well as the former Saint Brendan’s Cathedral in Ardfert, Co Kerry, Saint Fachan’s Cathedral, Kilfenora, Co Clare, and the site of the former Saint Alibeus’s Cathedral in Emly, Co Tipperary.

I have presided at the Eucharist and preached in Saint Mary’s, Limerick, given a lecture on Prince Milo of Montenegro as part of the history programme marking the celebration of the cathedral’s 850th anniversary, and was invited to make a presentation to Stephen Cleobury after the concert in Saint Mary’s by the Choir of King’s College Chapel, Cambridge.

Needless to say, as Precentor, I am not a visitor in a cathedral where I am the precentor. But I have visited at least ten other cathedrals in Ireland in the past 12 months.

The Malabar community from Kerala in India at a special ecumenical service in Saint John’s Cathedral, Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

1, Saint John’s Cathedral, Limerick:

As Ireland awaited the arrival of Pope Francis, I was invited to take part in a special service in Saint John’s Cathedral, Limerick, in August to mark the opening of the World Meeting of Families.

The service of Solemn Evening Prayer was entitled Le Chéile le Críost and was led by Bishop Brendan Leahy of the Roman Catholic Church and Bishop Kenneth Kearon of the Church of Ireland. Other participants included the Dean of Saint Mary’s Cathedral, the Very Revd Niall Sloane, who read the Epistle reading, the Methodist minister in Adare, the Revd Ruth Watt, who joined me in leading the intercessions, and members of the Italian, Spanish and Polish community.

We were led in and out of the cathedral by members of the Malabar community from Kerala in India, carrying colourful parasols.

Inside the Cathedral of Saint Peter and Saint Paul in Ennis, Co Clare (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

2, The Cathedral of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, Ennis, Co Clare:

The Cathedral Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, at the junction of Station Road and O’Connell Street in Ennis, is the cathedral of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Killaloe. It was designed by the architect Dominick Madden, who had been disgraced earlier in his career, accused of stealing furniture from the Vice-Regal Lodge in the Phoenix Park, Dublin, but who had been commissioned the previous year to design the new cathedrals in Ballina, Co Mayo, and Tuam, Co Galway.

Madden’s designs display a very simple form of Gothic that shows little of the influence of AWN Pugin. The interior was completed under the supervision of JJ McCarthy in 1861. The arcades and piers, the panelled ceiling and the gallery at the west end are his work, as were the altars and the reredos.

For many years, this was officially a pro-cathedral for the Diocese of Killaloe, and it was not dedicated as a cathedral until 1990.

The Ascension depicted in the East Window in Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Armagh (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

3, Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Armagh:

I was in Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Armagh, during this year’s General Synod of the Church of Ireland, when I was one of the hosts for the ecumenical guests. After a long day in London at a meeting of the trustees of the Anglican mission agency, USPG (United Society, Partners in the Gospel), I travelled to Armagh for the opening of the General Synod on Ascension Day [10 May].

At the opening Eucharist, I appreciated that the East Window in the cathedral depicts the Ascension.

The ruins of Saint Mel’s Cathedral in Ardagh stand on a site said to date back to the fifth century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

4, The site of Saint Mel’s Cathedral, Ardagh, Co Longford:

On the way back from Wineport Lodge near Athlone, Co Westmeath, in August, I visited the village of Ardagh, Co Longford, between Longford town and Edgeworthstown.

The ruins of Saint Mel’s Cathedral in Ardagh mark one of the most important ecclesiastical sites in Co Longford. These ruins are to the south-east of Saint Patrick’s, the Church of Ireland parish church, in a corner of the graveyard beside the road. Tradition says Saint Patrick founded a church at Ardagh in the mid-fifth century, around 454, although there is no historical or archaeological evidence to support these legends, and Saint Mel is regarded as the founder of the Diocese of Ardagh.

Saint Canice’s Cathedral, Kilkenny, on the evening David McDonnell was installed as Dean of Ossory (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

5, Saint Canice’s Cathedral, Kilkenny:

I was in Saint Canice’s Cathedral, Kilkenny, at the end of August for the installation of the Very Revd David McDonnell as Dean of Ossory, in succession to Katharine Poulton.

It was good to meet so many friends, colleagues and former students, and because I stayed overnight in Kilkenny, there was extra time to enjoy what I still regards as the most beautiful and interesting city in Ireland.

The deans of this cathedral in the 16th century included Edmund Comerford, who was also Bishop of Ferns, and his son William Comerford. Sometimes, someone who knows me only too well, says that at times she has to peel me out of Kilkenny if I am going to leave.

Inside Christ Church Cathedral, Waterford, designed by John Roberts and built in 1773-1779 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

6, Christ Church Cathedral, Waterford:

Waterford is unique as an Irish city, not in having two cathedrals, but in having two cathedrals, one Anglican and one Roman Catholic, with the same formal dedication and designed by the same architect. On my way to Kilkenny last Thursday [30 August 2018], I stopped in Waterford to visit both cathedrals.

Both the Church of Ireland cathedral on Cathedral Square – Christ Church Cathedral, or more formally, the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity, and the Roman Catholic cathedral on Barronstrand Street – Holy Trinity Cathedral, were designed in the neoclassical style by John Roberts (1712-1796), whose imagination gave shape to much of Georgian Waterford, and I visited both cathedrals on my way from Askeaton to Kilkenny for the installation of Dean David McDonnell.

During the demolition of the earlier cathedral, the mediaeval vestments missing since Patrick Comerford, Bishop of Waterford and Lismore, left for France in 1651, were found in the crypt. In a gesture of ecumenical goodwill centuries before ecumenism became standard practice, they were presented by Bishop Richard Chenevix to his Roman Catholic counterpart, Bishop Peter Creagh, and they are now kept in the Museum of Treasures in Waterford and the National Museum in Dublin.

Inside Holy Trinity Cathedral, Waterford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

7, Holy Trinity Cathedral, Waterford:

The Cathedral of the Most Holy Trinity on Barronstrand Street, Waterford, was also designed by John Roberts (1714-1796), the great architect of Georgian Waterford, and is the oldest Roman Catholic cathedral in Ireland. Both cathedrals are part of the Georgian glory of Waterford, and Holy Trinity Cathedral is an important landmark on Barronstrand Street in the heart of the city.

John Roberts had built Christ Church Cathedral, the new Anglican cathedral on the site of Waterford’s mediaeval Gothic cathedral, in 1773, and this was finally completed in 1792. A year later, in 1793, Roberts was invited to build a new Roman Catholic cathedral on the site of the old Penal chapel and an adjoining plot of land on Barronstrand Street provided by the city corporation.

The cathedral was built in 1793-1796, making it Ireland’s oldest Roman Catholic cathedral. It was built while William Egan was Bishop of Waterford and Lismore (1775-1796) at a total cost of £20,000.

The Cathedral of the Assumption in Thurles, Co Tipperary, was designed by JJ McCarthy and built in 1865-1879 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

8, The Cathedral of the Assumption, Thurles, Co Tipperary:

During one of my day-trips from Askeaton this year using publish transport, I visited Thurles, Co Tipperary, and the Cathedral of the Assumption, the Roman Catholic cathedral for Cashel, in July. This striking cathedral is unusual for its style and stands on the site of earlier chapels that at one time were the only Roman Catholic churches in Thurles.

The cathedral forms part of a group the other church buildings on Cathedral Street, including the Bishop’s Palace, the former seminary at Saint Patrick’s College, the presbytery and the neighbouring convents.

The style of this cathedral is informed by North Italian Romanesque architecture, and both the façade and the Baptistry are modelled on those at the cathedral in Pisa. The exterior was designed by the architect James Joseph McCarthy (1817-1882), who claimed the mantle of AWN Pugin.

The Cathedral of Christ the King in Mullingar, Co Westmeath … a landmark building in the Irish Midlands (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

9, The Cathedral of Christ the King, Mullingar, Co Westmeath:

The Cathedral of Christ the King in Mullingar, Co Westmeath, is a landmark building in the Irish Midlands. The campanile towers and the dome dominate the skyline and approaches to Mullingar, and the silhouette of the cathedral has become a symbol of Mullingar. This is the cathedral of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Meath and it towers above the centre of the town.

Mullingar Cathedral is yet another statement by the Dublin-based architect Ralph Byrne of the confidence of Roman Catholicism in post-independence Ireland in the 1920s and 1930s, like his cathedral in Cavan and his strong emphatic churches in Athlone, Co Westmeath, and Harold’s Cross, Dublin.

I visited Mullingar Cathedral while I was staying at Wineport Lodge near Athlone in August. The cathedral was formally opened and dedicated on 6 September 1936, when, at the request of Pope Pius XI, it became the first cathedral in the world to be dedicated to Christ the King.

The works of art for which Mullingar Cathedral is most noted are the mosaics in the chapels of Saint Anne and Saint Patrick. These are the work of the Russian-born mosaic artist Boris Anrep, a celebrated artist and socialite, best known for his monumental mosaics at the National Gallery, Westminster Cathedral, and the Bank of England in London.

Visitors lost in the new labyrinth in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

10, Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin:

For many years I was not a visitor to Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, for I was a canon and a member of the chapter until I moved to Askeaton last year. But I visited the cathedral last week to see the new stone labyrinth in the redesigned grounds of the cathedral. Funding from Dublin City Council and Fáilte Ireland enabled the redesign and landscaping of the grounds.

Inside the cathedral, I also saw the heart of Saint Laurence O’Toole, which went on public display last month [14 November] following an ecumenical service of dedication and thanksgiving to mark the return of the heart of the city’s patron saint.

The saint’s heart was stolen from the cathedral in March 2012, but following a long-running police investigation, the heart was recovered earlier this year by the gardai after a six-year absence. The heart is now housed in the north transept in a specially designed art piece crafted by the Cork-based artist Eoin Turner.

I could have looked at the many cathedrals I have visited in England this year, including Lichfield, Birmingham and Westminster, or looked at ten cathedrals I have visited across Europe this year, including cathedral in Berlin, Seville, Venice, Torcello, Chania, Rethymnon, Thessaloniki, Perpignan, Elne and Gorizia. But this is just a taste of some of the cathedral I have visited this year.

This evening: Ten synagogues I visited in 2018.