November 19, 2021
The Jewish bookshelf of Tiferet Binyamin
By Barbara Sofer
It started with a bookshelf.
Usually when we use the term “Jewish bookshelf,” we mean the compendium of basic texts – Torah, Talmud and Commentaries plus more contemporary books of Jewish thought and philosophy. A typical sentence might be: “We want to introduce newcomers to Judaism to the Jewish bookshelf.” There they will discover the stories and laws, the language and values, the history and heart of our people.
But recently I was fascinated by an actual Jewish bookshelf, which led me on an exploratory journey into modern Jewish history.
I was spending Shabbat with my family in Binyamina, a 99-year-old town between Tel Aviv and Haifa. The town’s main synagogue is Tiferet Binyamin, a stately building inaugurated in 1927, and named – like the town itself – for Baron Abraham Edmond Benjamin James de Rothschild, their financier. This is the Baron Rothschild referred to as the “Nadiv,” the “generous one,” for his support of settlement and industry in pre-state Israel. Elaborate chandeliers set off the simplicity of the synagogue architecture. Six pillars surround the bimah and hold up a central dome.
At my Jerusalem synagogue we’re still praying outdoors because of corona, but at Tiferet Binyamin congregants have returned indoors. The downstairs women’s section is crowded, so I ask if the gabbai might unlock an elevated section of the women’s section used mostly on holidays or when there is a bar mitzvah, where the door to the outside can be left open.
I am alone in this upper room.
To my left stands a wooden cabinet containing synagogue books. The contents are a usual mix: prayer books, the Five Books of Moses, commentaries. There are booklets with the prayers for Yom Kippur night when the synagogue is full, and the familiar dog-eared paperback penitent books for the slihot services. One shelf holds a row of IDF-issue Bibles. My oldest Binyamina grandson has recently received his own.
A decorative bronze art nouveau plate is embedded in the cabinet wood. I wonder, in a reverie, if it can be the work of the early Bezalel School of Art. I smile to myself at our country’s innovative art school being named after the Heaven-appointed architect of the wilderness Tabernacle. I think of the school’s founder, Boris Schatz, born in Lithuania, who served as the royal sculptor in the court of the Bulgarian king but moved to Jerusalem after reputedly having coffee and strudel in Vienna with Theodor Herzl in 1903. He wanted to establish a center for arts that would bring together the Jewish art of the West and the Levant.
In 1918, under the Turks, the school was closed and Schatz himself, like other leading Jewish professionals, were exiled to Damascus. Bezalel reopened in 1935. Could this be one of its designs, I wondered.
That would sync with a second metal piece attached to the cabinet – a memorial plaque. The cabinet was donated to the synagogue in memory of the grandparents of a certain Goldman family. One set of grandparents was murdered in Auschwitz in 1942. Another grandmother and her sister died in the 1930s with no indication where. I wonder if this grandmother made it to pre-state Israel before the Holocaust.
After services, I ask gabbai Ami Kahati and others about the cabinet and the Goldman family. No one knows.
I’m not sure why, but the puzzle of the cabinet stays with me. I start checking out images of early Bezalel art and old Israeli furniture online. Although the styles are similar, nothing is a match. I do find a photo of the cabinet itself, but without details. When I call Kahati, it turns out he’s making inquiries, too. He directs me to Moty Harari, the proprietor of Binyamina Antiques and an amateur historian researching the synagogue in preparation for next year’s centennial.
He warns me that I’m going to be disappointed in the cabinet, but that I should know something more about the synagogue. I’m glad to listen.
According to Harari, the Baron had built a synagogue in nearby Zichron Yaakov in 1886 in memory of his father, James Mayer. His architect included a rose window in the façade. Ungrateful locals were offended by the window, because it reminded them of Gothic churches in Europe, and refused to enter. “It was a traumatic event for the Baron,” says Harari. “He stopped building synagogues. But when he asked the people of Binyamina if they wanted a town hall or a synagogue, they voted for the latter.”
Oddly, pieces of red roofing tiles were mixed with the paint to give the walls an orange glow. Only recently Harari discovered that the hillside was covered with reddish foliage that the Baron liked and wanted to preserve. The roof gutters are displayed, not recessed, and are decorated with Hanukkah-related oil canisters beneath the roof Hanukkah menorah. The first Torah scroll came from the Baron’s controversial synagogue in Zichron Yaakov (where eventually a clock replaced the rose window), passed from hand to hand in a line-up of the village’s children before it was placed in a decorated wagon and transported to Binyamina.
The synagogue, with its eight lancet windows, was dedicated in a festive ceremony in the presence of Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi Abraham Yitzhak Hakohen Kook and the chief rabbi of Egypt, Hayim Nahum Effendi.
And the bookshelf? An imitation of local style, says the antiquarian with a dismissive sigh. It’s made in the Far East, of sheesham, North Indian rosewood. “It’s part of a transition from art nouveau to the ‘arts and crafts’ movement philosophy of design,’ Harari says. “The family must have bought it locally and donated to the synagogue. Today, we would be fussier.” He doesn’t know anything about the Goldmans.
There are still mysteries, says Harari. “What did Rabbi Kook say, and why was the chief rabbi of Egypt there?” asks Harari. “We have so many questions to unravel before the centennial. Maybe you’d like to help?”
I just might.
I’m thinking of my own home bookshelves, growing up in Colchester, Connecticut, They didn’t hold the wealth of Hebrew texts we have in our Jerusalem apartment today, but the mahogany shelves contained more contemporary volumes like Exodus and Mila 18, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, and Our Crowd. My mother never missed a Jewish-related Book of the Month club selection. Hardback books with Jewish symbols arrived snow or shine to our home way before Amazon, and more important, decades before her great-grandchildren would be among the congregation in a synagogue in Binyamina.
You can never tell where a bookshelf will lead.