Book Information

Resplendent Synagogue: Architecture and Worship in an Eighteenth-Century Polish Community

2003
226 pp.
1-58465-216-0

Book Review

"A Tale of Two Synagogues," David Gelernter, Jewish Review of Books

Resplendent Synagogue


Thomas C. Hubka

resplendent synagogue“Hubka’s book exhibits a fine blend of scholarship, accessibility and panache. In fact, Hubka’s is the only book in the field of Jewish architecture that attempts to contextualize a building with such specificity and with such a broad sense of the way it belongs in its immediate and more extensive cultural surroundings. It is unique in using architecture to fill in details of the relatively undiscovered country of pre-Hasidic Eastern Europe. The extrapolations it invites are essential to understanding the period and place, making Hubka’s thesis a force to be reckoned with.”

— Marc M. Epstein, associate professor, Religion and Jewish studies, Vassar College

A provocative interpretation of the art and architecture of a pre-modern wooden synagogue illuminates the social, historical, and religious context of an Eastern-European Jewish community.

Thomas C. Hubka, an architectural historian known for his work on American vernacular architecture, immersed himself in medieval and early-modern Jewish history, religion and culture to prepare for this remarkable study of the 18th-century Polish synagogue in the town of Gwozdziec, now in present Ukraine. Hubka selected the Gwozdziec Synagogue — one of the finest examples of a small-town wooden synagogue from the former Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth — because of the completeness of its photographic and historical records.

This truly resplendent synagogue exemplified a high point in Jewish architectural art and religious painting, a tradition that was later abandoned by Eastern-European Jewish communities in the 19th and 20th centuries. Because the Gwozdziec Synagogue, like so many others, was destroyed by the Nazis, this book revives a spiritual community lost to history.

Graced with nearly 200 historical photographs, architectural drawings, maps, diagrams and color illustrations, "Resplendent Synagogue" vividly recreates the spiritual heart of a once-vibrant Jewish community. Hubka “reads” the synagogue both as a historical document and as a cultural artifact. His interpretation of its art and architecture — and its liturgy — enables him to recreate a pre-modern Jewish community seen in relation to both its internal traditions of worship and its external relations with Gentile neighbors.

Hubka demonstrates that while the architectural exterior of the synagogue was largely the product of non-Jewish, regional influences, the interior design and elaborate wall-paintings signified a distinctly Jewish art form. The collaboration of Jewish and Gentile builders, craftsmen and artists in the creation of this magnificent wooden structure attests to an eighteenth century period of relative prosperity and community well-being for the Jews of Gwozdziec. This unique exploration of a lost religious and cultural artifact breathes new life into a forgotten but fascinating aspect of 18th-century Polish Jewry and is certain to incite discussion and debate among modern readers.

“Thomas Hubka has found an extraordinary new gateway back into a lost Jewish past. Through the meticulous analysis of a single wooden synagogue, he opens before us the nearly undocumented pre-Hasidic popular culture of Eastern European Jews.”

— Michael Steinlauf, associate professor of history, Gratz College

This book can be purchased directly through the University Press of New England.