Gavriel Rosenfeld on Jewish Architecture

Building After Auschwitz: Jewish Architecture and the Memory of the Holocaust is the first major study to examine the rise to prominence of Jewish architects since 1945 and the ways in which their work has been shaped by shifts in Jewish memory and identity since the Holocaust. Leading up to the book’s November 29 publication, we sat down with author Gavriel D. Rosenfeld to discuss how his groundbreaking study explores this important cultural relationship between experience and design.

Yale University Press: How do you define “Jewish architecture”?

Gavriel Rosenfeld: Jewish architecture does not exist in any stylistically recognizable sense.  Historically, the divergent experiences of Jews living in the diaspora prevented the emergence of a unified “Jewish style” of building.  Still, the buildings built by, and for, Jews over the centuries have exhibited Jewish traits in the myriad ways that they have reflected the historical forces that have shaped Jewish life.   Some of these forces have impacted the buildings used by Jews in indirect fashion.  In other instances, Jews have made deliberate efforts to draw on their cultural and religious traditions to infuse their buildings with a sense of Jewishness.  I prefer to think of Jewish architecture expansively, as buildings that express the Jewish historical experience.

YUP: Is this a term that’s commonly accepted, or do some architects or historians find it problematic?

GR: Historically, scholars and architects have spurned the idea of Jewish architecture, with many denying that it exists altogether.  I think the term should be accepted without too many reservations.  After all, we readily speak of Christian or Islamic or Buddhist architecture, just as we speak of American, British, or German architecture.  These terms, to be sure, may be problematic for their own reasons (largely having to do with disagreements about how to define religious and national identities more broadly), but the idea of “Jewish architecture” is hardly more problematic.  In reality, the problematic aspects of Jewish architecture as a concept make it all the more intriguing as a subject of scholarly analysis.

YUP: How did the Holocaust affect Jewish artistic production, and architecture in particular?

GR: Jews in all fields of creative endeavor have been shaped by the legacy of the Nazi genocide, although not in the same way and certainly not at the same time.  While writers, poets, and painters, for example, began to wrestle with the Holocaust’s significance in the early years after 1945, architects by and large refrained from doing so until the 1980s.  Thereafter, the Holocaust’s legacy made itself felt in a variety of ways: in the deconstructivist movement, Holocaust museums, and even synagogue design. Overall, Jewish architects, like other creative figures, have struggled with the problem of how to represent the Holocaust in their work.  The architectural responses to this aesthetic and ethical challenge have been diverse and they are notable for breaking new ground both in the history of Jewish architecture and western architecture more broadly.

YUP: What are the greatest challenges that Jewish architects have faced in the past, and how are they dealing with these issues today?

GR: For centuries, Jews faced major obstacles in breaking into the field of architecture due to guild restrictions and other professional barriers.  This gradually changed with the onset of emancipation in the 19th and 20th centuries.  Today, Jews face few such hurdles.  Yet until recently, they were generally dissuaded from, and were inhibited about, expressing a sense of Jewishness in their work.  Since the 1960s, however, the rise of multiculturalism and postmodernism in the west has liberated Jews to draw on Jewish sources of inspiration in their designs.  This new sense of creative freedom has allowed some Jewish architects to attain unprecedented accomplishments and, at the same time, has made the architecture of Jewish architects more “Jewish.”

YUP: What is the status of Jewish architecture today?

GR: Whether one looks at the United States, Europe, or Israel, Jewish architects are active doing what all architects do: designing buildings.  Not all of their work qualifies as Jewish architecture, of course, as much of it is strictly secular or unrelated to Jewish sources of inspiration.  Wherever specifically Jewish projects are underway, however – whether they be synagogues, Jewish museums, Jewish community centers, Holocaust museums, or other projects – it is likely that their designers are committed to lending them some sort of Jewish “meaning.”  Indeed, Jewish construction projects are now expected to communicate deeper symbolic messages related to Jewish existence and identity in the present day world.  The designs of, and the reactions to, recent Jewish museums in cities like Los Angeles, Chicago, and Philadelphia make this abundantly clear.

YUP: The photograph on the cover of your book is very interesting. Why did you select it?

GR: German Jewish architect Manuel Herz’s new synagogue in Mainz, Germany is a remarkable building for many reasons, but the photograph symbolizes my book’s major theme: how the legacy of the Holocaust continues to shape present-day Jewish architectural activity.  The structure on the cover’s left hand side is part of the ruined portico of Mainz’s prewar synagogue, which was destroyed by the Nazis on Kristallnacht (November 9th, 1938).  The angular structure on the right is the sanctuary of Mainz’s new synagogue and Jewish community center complex.  Herz wanted the sanctuary to resemble an upright shofar calling congregants to prayer.  It is a hopeful forward-looking symbolic gesture.  At the same time, he did not want to overlook the legacy of the Nazi experience on the site and preserved the ruined fragments of the prewar synagogue as a marker of memory.  The ways in which Jewish architects have responded to the Holocaust have been diverse, but the dramatic juxtaposition of past and present in this photograph was particularly evocative.

Gavriel D. Rosenfeld is associate professor of history at Fairfield University. His books include Munich and Memory: Architecture, Monuments, and the Legacy of the Third Reich and The World Hitler Never Made: Alternate History and the Memory of Nazism.

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