10 September 2023

Synagogues in Europe
and the Mediterranean:
a photographic exhibition
in Milton Keynes

Patrick Comerford

I am taking part in the Open Day at Milton Keynes and District Reform Synagogue this afternoon, as part of the European Days of European Days of Jewish Culture 2023. Part of the programme includes an exhibition of a selection of my photographs. Click on the images for full-screen viewing. The photographs and accompanying texts are taken from a fuller survey of synagogues in Europe and the Mediterranean:

1, Synagogues in Europe
and the Mediterranean

Poem Without an End (שיר אינסופי)

Inside the brand-new museum
there’s an old synagogue.
Inside the synagogue
is me.
Inside me
my heart.
Inside my heart
a museum.
Inside the museum
a synagogue,
inside it
inside me
my heart, inside my heart
a museum.

Yehuda Amichai, translated from the Hebrew by Chana Bloch


I was born beside the principal synagogue in Dublin, on Rathfarnham Road, Terenure. Many members of my grandfather’s family lived in the Clanbrassil Street area, known as Dublin’s ‘Little Jerusalem. The Comerford family are mentioned in Molly Bloom’s soliloquy in James Joyce’s Ulysses, and I grew up knowing intimately many of the synagogues in that part of Dublin.

For many years now, I have visited and blogged about synagogues on three continents, visiting about 160 synagogues, Jewish cultural sites and the sites of former synagogues.

My photographs in this exhibition offer a tantalising taste of the rich diversity, heritage and variety of synagogue architecture and culture throughout Europe and the Mediterranean.

Patrick Comerford

1, From antiquity to war-time: 1, Greece

There have been Jews in Greece since the fourth century BCE if not earlier. Today, the Jews of Greece include the Romaniotes or descendants of the oldest known as Greek Jews, and the Sephardim, descendants of refugees who fled Spain and Portugal and found refuge in the Ottoman empire.

The city of Thessaloniki, the second city of Greece, was once the largest Jewish city in terms of population, and was known as the ‘Mother of Israel.’

During World War II, 55,000 Jews were deported from Thessaloniki to extermination camps in 1943 – fewer than 5,000 survived. On the other hand, the entire Jewish population of Zakynthos was saved from the Holocaust by the local population of the island.

Today, there is a Jewish community of 6,000 in Greece, with active synagogues in Thessaloniki, Corfu and Chania (Crete), in my photographs here, and in Athens, Rhodes and other places.

2, Escaping the Inquisition: Spain

The Jewish Quarter in the heart of Córdoba is recognised by Unesco as a World Heritage Site and its narrow mediaeval streets, with their distinctly Moorish flair, recall the prosperity of the city’s Jewish community during the Caliphate of Córdoba.

Local lore says Solomon visited Córdoba after building the Temple in Jerusalem, and built a replica of the Temple on the site of the present Mezquita de Córdoba, which has been a mosque and a cathedral at different times across the centuries.

It is known that Jews have been a part of Córdoba’s life and culture from at least the second century AD until they were expelled from Spain by Ferdinand and Isabella and the Spanish Inquisition in 1492. The only surviving synagogue in Córdoba, built by Simon Majeb over 700 years ago in 1315, is one of only three significant synagogues remaining in Spain.

3, The first Ghetto:

Our English word ‘ghetto’ is derived from the Jewish ghetto in Venice. This is the area in Venice where Jews were forced to live under a decree issued by the Doge in 1516. The name comes from the word geto, referring to the foundry that was first on the site.

The Ghetto in Cannaregio includes the Ghetto Nuovo (‘New Ghetto’) and the Ghetto Vecchio (‘Old Ghetto’), and is still the centre of Jewish life in the city.

There are five 16th century synagogues in the Ghetto: the Scola Grande Tedesca or German synagogue, the Scola Canton, the Scola Italiana, the Scola Levantina and the Scola Spagnola. There is a Jewish Museum, a Chabad house, guest houses, shops and restaurants too.

4, From antiquity to war-time: 2, Italy:

The Jewish presence in Italy dates back to the pre-Christian Roman period and has continued, despite periods of extreme persecution and expulsions, until the present.

The Jewish community in Rome may be one of the oldest continuous Jewish communities in the world, existing from classical times until today. When Simon Maccabeus sent a diplomatic mission to Rome in 139 BCE, they were welcomed by Jews already living in Rome.

There are about 45,000 Jews in Italy today, with synagogues in major cities, including the synagogues I have photographed here in Rome, Padua and Bologna.

5, Return to England:

Bevis Marks Synagogue in Aldgate in the City of London is the oldest synagogue in continuous use in the United Kingdom.

The synagogue was built in 1701 and is affiliated to the Spanish and Portuguese or Sephardic community. It is the only synagogue in Europe that has held regular services continuously for more than 300 years.

King Edward I issued a decree in 1290 expelling all Jews from England. Jews were permitted to return to England in the 1650s, and the community dates from that period.

6, The Jewish East End:

Three synagogues typify the story of the Jewish East End for me: Brick Lane, the Synagogue of the Congregation of Jacob on Commercial Road, and Sandy’s Row Synagogue near Liverpool Street Station.

The East End was a distinct Jewish area before tens of thousands of new arrivals in the 1880s, fleeing pogroms and persecution in the Russian Empire. The Jewish East End thrived, up to World War II, with over 100 synagogues and small steibels in the area. There was a vibrant Jewish cultural life, with Yiddish theatres, Yiddish newspapers and journals, literary groups and societies, cinemas, dance halls and active political groups. Many Jews in the East End came together to challenge Mosley’s Blackshirts in the Battle of Cable Street (4 October 1936).

Brick Lane Synagogue, or Spitalfields Great Synagogue, opened in 1898 in a former Huguenot church. It is now the Brick Lane Mosque. The Synagogue of the Congregation of Jacob on Commercial Road is one of just three synagogues still functioning in the East End. Sandy’s Row Synagogue is the oldest surviving Ashkenazi synagogue in London.

7, England’s Second City:

Singers Hill Synagogue is the most important and influential synagogue in Birmingham. It is home to the Birmingham Hebrew Congregation and has been the focal point for Jewish life in Birmingham for almost 170 years.

Singers Hill Synagogue is the oldest still-functioning ‘cathedral synagogue’ in England.

An outstandingly beautiful building, it was built in 1856, and was recently awarded English Heritage’s prestigious award for the ‘Most Improved Place of Worship in the West Midlands.’

8, Outside the big cities:

The first Jews arrived in England in the wake of the Battle of Hastings. The majority of these Jews initially settled in London, but many towns and cities had an area known as ‘the Jewry’. The massacre of the Jews of York in Clifford’s Tower in 1190 was a horrific catalogue of violence and murder driven by religious intolerance and greed.

King Edward I issued an edict in 1290, expelling all 5,000 Jews from England. Jews did not return to England until 1656. Portugal Place and Portugal Street in Cambridge were so named because Sephardic Jews from the Iberian Peninsula found a welcome in Cromwell’s England.

The Oxford Jewish Centre provides for all Jews in Oxford and holds services with Orthodox, Masorti and Progressive prayer, sometimes simultaneously. There was a synagogue at No 3 Aldwark, York, from 1892 until 1975. A new Liberal Jewish community was formed in York in 2014, and recently appointed its first resident rabbi.

9, A 20th century revival: Portugal:

The Kadoorie Mekor Haim Synagogue in the northern suburbs of Porto, built in 1929, is the largest synagogue in the Iberian Peninsula and one of the largest synagogues in Europe.

The story of this synagogue dates back almost a century to 1923, and to the efforts taken to re-establish the Jewish community in Porto by Captain Artur Barros Basto, a Sephardic Ben Anusim or descendant of a family that had been forced by the Inquisition to convert to Christianity around the 15th century.

His life story has earned him the name of the ‘Captain Dreyfus of Portugal.’ He also helped the return of Crypto-Jews to Judaism and during World War II helped Jewish refugees escape the Holocaust.

10, Kristallnacht and the Holocaust:

The Neue Synagoge or ‘New Synagogue’ on Oranienburger Strasse, built in 1859-1866, is the main synagogue of the Jewish community in Berlin. With its domes, exotic and eastern Moorish style, and its resemblance to the Alhambra, it is an important work of architecture from the mid-19th century in Berlin.

It was one of the few synagogues in Germany to survive Kristallnacht or the November Pogrom 85 years ago on the night of 8 and 9 November 1938, when Nazi mobs broke into the Neue Synagoge, desecrated Torah scrolls, smashed furniture and furnishings, piled them up and set them on fire.

In 1935, Regina Jonas (1902-1944), who born in Berlin, became the first woman to be ordained as a rabbi. She died in Auschwitz in 1944. Gesa Ederberg became the first female pulpit rabbi in Berlin in 2007 when she became the rabbi of the New Synagogue.

11, Surviving the Holocaust, 1, Poland:

Kraków is a mediaeval city in southern Poland, and a former capital of Poland. From the early 12th century, this was an influential centre of Jewish spiritual life, including Orthodox, Chasidic and Reform communities that all flourished side-by-side.

Many people visiting Auschwitz stay over in Kraków. Before the Nazi German invasion of Poland, Kraków had a Jewish community of 60,000-80,000 people in a city with a population of 237,000, and at the time there were at least 90 Jewish prayer houses. Most of the synagogues in Kraków were ruined during World War II, the Nazis robbed them of all their ceremonial objects and decorations and used the buildings to store ammunition and military equipment.

Today, the surviving synagogues in Kazimierz, the old Jewish quarter, include: the Old Synagogue, the High Synagogue, Remu’h Synagogue, Wolf Popper Synagogue, the Tempel Synagogue, Kupa Synagogue and the Izaak Jakubowicz Synagogue.

12, Surviving the Holocaust, 2, Austria:

The Stadttempel or City Synagogue on Seitenstettengasse in the Innere Stadt 1 district is the main synagogue in Vienna. It is the only synagogue in the Austrian capital to have survive World War II, when the Nazis destroyed all the other 93 synagogues and Jewish prayer-houses in Vienna.

Jews have been living in Austria since at least the third century. Archaeological excavations in the Judenplatz in Vienna in 1995-1998 uncovered the site and remains of one of the largest-known mediaeval synagogues, dating back to the mid-13th century: 300 Jews died by suicide in the Or-Sarua synagogue, and another 200 people were murdered during a pogrom in 1421.

An edict by Joseph II saved the City Synagogue from total destruction on Kristallnacht, 9-10 November 1938, because the synagogue could not be destroyed without setting on fire the buildings to which it was attached. The Hotel Metropol, 150 meters away, was the Nazi headquarters in Vienna, and they did not want a fire to spread there.

13, Surviving the Holocaust, 3, Czech Republic:

The Golem and Franz Kafka are the two best-selling themes among the trinkets and souvenirs in the tourist shops in the Old Town in Prague. Many of the synagogues of Prague survived the Nazi occupation because they were used for military storage and because the Nazis had planned a ‘Museum of an Extinct People.’

Legend says the Golem stalked the streets of Prague, protect the Jews of the city against anti-Semitic violence, until Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel returned him to the attic in the Old-New Synagogue.

In all, there are six synagogues in the Old Town: the Old-New Synagogue, the High Synagogue, the Maisel Synagogue, the Klausen Synagogue, the Spanish Synagogue, and he Pinkas Synagogue. A seventh synagogue, the Jerusalem Synagogue, the youngest and the largest synagogue in Prague, was built as the Jubilee Synagogue in 1905-1906.

14, Surviving the Holocaust, 4, Hungary:

Dohány Street Synagogue in Budapest is the largest synagogue in Europe with a seating capacity for 3,000 people, and it is one of the principle centres of Neolog Judaism. It was built in 1854-1859 in the Oriental-Byzantine or Moorish Revival style. Both Franz Liszt and Camille Saint-Saëns played on its organ. The Central Synagogue in Manhattan, New York, is a near-exact copy of the Dohány Street Synagogue.

The synagogue complex includes the Great Synagogue, the Heroes’ Temple, the graveyard, the Holocaust Memorial, the Memorial of the Hungarian Jewish Martyrs by Imre Varga, the Raoul Wallenberg Memorial Park, and the Jewish Museum, built on the site of the house where Theodor Herzl was born.

At least 400,000 Hungarian Jews were murdered by the Nazis. Imre Varga’s sculpture resembles a weeping willow whose leaves bear the names and tattoo numbers of the dead and disappeared.

15, A unique Island (1):

Irish mythology claimed fancifully that the Gaels or ancient Irish were descended from Tea and Tephi, daughters of King Zedekiah, sent to Ireland by the Prophet Jeremiah. The earliest historical reference to the Jews in Ireland is in 1079.

Following the expulsion of Sephardic Jews from Portugal in 1497, some Portuguese Jews may have settled in Ireland. William Anyas was elected Mayor of Youghal, Co Cork, in 1555. Francis Annyas was a three-time Mayor of Youghal in 1569, 1576 and 1581.

The first synagogue was founded in Dublin in 1660. Jewish life continued in Dublin’s ‘Little Jerusalem’ in the south inner city until the 1970s. Here there were many small synagogues in the narrow terraced streets, and this was the supposed birthplace of Leopold Bloom in James Joyce’s Ulysses. Today, the main synagogue in Dublin is in Terenure, there is a Progressive synagogue in Rathgar, there are three Jewish cemeteries, and a Jewish Museum in a former synagogue in ‘Little Jerusalem.’

16, A unique Island (2):

Small Jewish communities were found outside Dublin in cities such as Belfast, Cork, Limerick, Waterford and Derry.

The Cork Jewish community has given Ireland well-known politicians, judges, writers and film-makers. One area of Cork is still known as ‘Jewtown.’ Although the last synagogue in Cork closed in 2016, a new vibrant community, the Cork Jewish Community, has emerged in recent years.

The earliest records of Jews living in Limerick date from 1790, and Limerick once had two synagogues. But the city also experienced a ‘pogrom’ in 1904. Descendants of Limerick Jews include the scientist John Desmond Bernal and the historian Simon Sebag Montefiore.

17, British Jewry today:

The first Shabbat Morning Service was held in Milton Keynes synagogue 20 years ago on 20 August 2002. But there was a mediaeval Jewish community in Newport Pagnell during the reign of Henry II. The Revd Moses Margoliouth (1818-1881), Vicar of Little Linford, was, perhaps, the most controversial figure of Jewish birth to have lived in the Milton Keynes area.

Sir Herbert Leon (1850-1926), who lived at Bletchley Park, was one of the richest and most influential Jews in Britain during his lifetime. The very extensive Jewish contributions to the code-breaking activities at Bletchley Park during World War II are described in the their book by Michael A Kushner and Martin Sugarman.

The present congregation was formed 45 years ago in 2018, and the story of the present Jewish community in Milton Keynes dates back 45 years to 1977, when Malcolm and Maureen Pruskin moved to Milton Keynes.

18, Synagogues in a Muslim world:

The coastal town of Saranda in Albania, about 14 km across the Ionian Sea from Corfu, was known in antiquity by the Classical Greek name of Onchesmos.

Saranda was the home to Albania’s first synagogue, built in Onchesmos in the fourth or fifth century CE. It is thought that it was built by the descendants of Jews who arrived on the southern shores of Albania around 70 CE, following the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem.

Almost all Jews in Albania during World War II were saved from the Holocaust. It is a remarkable record that cannot be claimed in any other occupied country in Europe, and it is all the more remarkable in some people’s eyes because Albania is Europe’s only country with a Muslim majority.

19, Synagogues in the Arab World (Morocco):

Tangier never had a walled Jewish Mellah or ghetto – instead, it had an unprotected Jewish quarter. Jewish refugees from Spain fleeing the Visigoth persecutions arrived in Tangier in the fifth and sixth centuries CE, bringing with them their culture, industry and commerce. Several Berber tribes converted to Judaism and Jews lived in peace in Tangier for the next several centuries.

At one time Tangier had over 20 synagogues, and two of them survive to this day. 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 is the last surviving functioning synagogue in the old city.

Today, there is a vibrant Jewish community in Morocco numbering about 2,000 to 2,500 people in a Muslim-majority, Arabic-speaking nation. Moroccan Jews also make up the second largest community in Israel.

All photographs © Patrick Comerford, 2023. Click on images for full-screen viewing or to start slide show

For a guide to my blog postings on over 160 synagogues, Jewish sites and the sites of former synagogues, visit HERE

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