One day in 2016, the end of the Great Aleppo Synagogue came again. Fighting between the Assad government and the rebels has torn the old city apart and hundreds of thousands of people have already died across Syria, so it doesn’t seem right to talk about the loss of a building – but this was probably the largest building in the Jewish world. Scholars believe prayers began at the site around the fifth century AD, and possibly earlier, and continued until the 1990s, when the last Jews left the city. There were only respite for events such as the Mongol invasion that devastated most of Aleppo in the 13th century, and the accidental devastating earthquake, Arab riots and arson that accompanied the United Nations vote to establish Israel in 1947. No other synagogue on earth has embodied 15 centuries A continuum of Jewish life and memory.
Since the community’s final departure, the building has been empty but intact, guarded by the regime, and covered by members of the Jewish diaspora in Aleppo. But photos after the 2016 fight showed smashed stonework, a rubble-strewn plaza, twisted iron railings, and Hebrew inscriptions flying off the walls. The Great Synagogue is gone.
However, last week I passed through the high bema, 20 degrees off the ground, lit by the Syrian sun streaming through the porticos of the colonnades. I saw a leaking pump in the courtyard surrounded by sparkling ponds, peeling paint on the columns and deep medieval windows. There was no damage. Everything was so alive that I reached out to touch the wall, forgetting that it wasn’t real. I stopped at the famous “sealed ark”, one of the synagogue’s seven repositories of Torah manuscripts, which at one time and for some reason no one remembers was closed. The ark was, according to local legend, home to a magical serpent that appeared on occasions to save society from its enemies. I read the plaque honoring a benefactor named Eli Bar Natan, and it was engraved before the 9th century. I peeked into Elijah’s Cave, the corner that houses the Aleppo Codex, the most complete copy of the Hebrew Bible, for 600 years.
While writing a book on the manuscript, I heard many hours of recollections of the Great Synagogue from elderly Aleppo Jews, and spent many hours imagining the place. Many memories had nothing to do with rituals: an old woman recalled the frightful whispering sounds she had heard in the corners of the building as a little girl, and in one place where you could stand to feel a strange puff of air. The council has seen many generations of mankind, heard God’s name being spoken, and the story of creation was repeated so many times that it seemed to have come back to life at some point.
It crossed from the old part of the building that was used by the original Arabic-speaking community, The Arabized, to the brighter “new” pavilion built for refugees from Spain after the 1492 expulsion – then the simulation broke down. The Windows screen popped up and a technician took apologizing for my headset; The exhibition is not yet open to the public, and there are still some gaps in the program. It took me a few moments to remember where I was, and that the synagogue still existed.
This exhibit at the Israel Museum, called Jewish Art and Life, contains several reconstructed synagogues, such as the beautiful ones from Vittorio Veneto around 1700, and one from Suriname with its wonderful sandy floor. But the new gallery, which opened this month, marks the first time the museum has used virtual reality. The “exhibition” is just over four chairs and four headphones. The curators, who are of an earlier generation, seem a bit defensive about the technology, realizing it might be considered frivolous. They make sure to make it clear that this simulation is not a fictional recreation, but is based entirely on an impressive series of 51 images taken in November 1947 by an Armenian photographer working for a Jewish woman, Sarah Shamma, whose family kept the historic treasure in their Jerusalem home. In other words, this is not high-tech entertainment, but a show of photographic documentation using new means. “Sarah’s photos are the original artifacts,” said Rachel Zhafati, one of the curators on the gallery. “All we did was change the platform.”
On one day that month in 1947, a few weeks before the outbreak of the Israeli War of Independence, Shamma recorded the entire old building by a photographer who had lost his name. She seems to have an obsession. Just days later, on November 29, the United Nations voted to divide the territory of British Mandate Palestine into Arab and Jewish states, as a mob in Aleppo rioted and burned Jewish homes, shops, and synagogues, including much of a large synagogue. . Similar riots in other cities led to the end of Jewish life in Arab countries. Most of Aleppo’s Jews fled soon after, although the rest remained meandering for a few more decades under the Syrian military dictatorship, praying in part of the building. After the riots of 1947, Shamma arrived in Jerusalem via Beirut with negatives. The border was cut short a few months later, and she never saw her city again.
The idea of reviving the synagogue in virtual reality originated not with the museum but with a group of four creative partners, two in Israel and two in Berlin, with backgrounds in cinema, history and technology. One of them is Avi Dabach, 50 years old, An Israeli director whose great-grandfather Ezra Dabash was the sexton for the Great Synagogue. Avi’s grandfather grew up in an apartment next door and would tell him stories about the building: “He would say, ‘I can’t describe how beautiful it is, and when Israel and Syria make peace, I’ll take you there in the first plane,'” he recalls. The first plane hasn’t taken off yet, but five years ago Shamma’s son Abraham, now 89, showed off photos of his mother on Avi. The partners have spent years turning them into a virtual reality simulator. When you wear the headset at the Israel Museum, you are visiting the synagogue on a specific day in November 1947, the last moment the community was complete. One scenario lets you tour with a ghostly simulation of Asher Baghdadi, the sexton who took over from Avi’s great-grandfather in 1928. The second scenario is a dramatic representation of the events surrounding Shamma’s visit to the synagogue while the Middle East was imploding from within. to her.
Exact details of what happened to the real building remain unclear, but it happened when Assad’s army fought to retake Aleppo from rebel forces in 2016. The slightly smaller Jobar synagogue in Damascus had already been destroyed two years earlier. There is a blurry image showing armed fighters in the Aleppo synagogue, then others showing walls riddled with bullet holes and others reduced to rubble. Two years later, two 360-degree images appeared on Google Street View (over here And the over here) showing signs of cleaning, but the building is a shell.
The recreated synagogues in the Israel Museum, including this one, are beautiful, memorable and very sad. The energy and creativity of the curators cannot obscure what all this tells us, which is that the Jewish world is shrinking. The truth is that in the lives of our fathers and forefathers, the Jews were exterminated in much of the Christian world and wiped out from the world of Islam. It’s not just the Great Synagogue of Aleppo – it’s the houses of worship in Tataouine or Oran, the synagogues in Galicia and Romania, the temples in major Italian cities and mysterious Polish hamlets. And what about Cochin, or Kaifeng, or, for that matter, Knoxville, the Carolinas, and the Caribbean? Much of the weak, beautiful, and strange diversity has gone into the Jewish life that existed a century ago. The vast majority of what remains is operated in the State of Israel and a few major cities in North America.
The new simulation had the effect of bringing life to the Aleppo Synagogue for a moment. The impression of being in that building, even if only virtual, was so strong for me that it didn’t fade away yet. Everyone who can visit the simulation in the Israel Museum must go. But technology has a way of showing us something and leaving us blank. When the headset came out, I had the same feeling as when reconnecting online with a friend from the past – knowing what was there not so long ago, and how it actually disappeared.