The Life of the Synagogue

About the Exhibit

The Life of the Synagogue is a tribute to both the central role of the synagogue in Jewish life and the man whose passion for collecting made this exhibit possible. Curated and authored by Samuel D. Gruber, with project archivists Sarah Glover and Amy Lazarus, the exhibit contains 76 items selected from the William A. Rosenthall Judaica Collection at the College of Charleston, one of the largest accessible collections of imagery related to synagogues and other aspects of Jewish life and culture around the world.

The exhibit is divided into nine sections, exploring topics ranging from synagogue building and dedications to the celebration of life cycle events and festivals to the varied contributions of women. These images offer a broad understanding of the history of synagogue architecture and design, in addition to shedding light on the lives, customs, and religious practices of the people within the four walls of the synagogue.

In engravings, lithographs, postcards, newspaper illustrations, and other formats, the history, religious practices, customs, and daily activities of Jewish communities around the world appear with indelible clarity. The strength of the Rosenthall Collection lies in postcards and prints, but there is a similar wealth of other materials, such as periodicals, clippings, philatelic materials, greeting cards, photographs, textiles, and medals drawn from every continent except Antarctica, including more than a dozen languages, and spanning five centuries. The synagogue is a major focus of the collection. To make a selection for the exhibit, thousands of postcards, hundreds of prints, and all sorts of ephemera were examined, along with other materials that illuminate the design of synagogue buildings and the activities that took place within and around them.

Though vast in size and scope, the Rosenthall Collection is not a comprehensive history of synagogue architecture or of Jewish ritual and domestic life. Rather, it reflects the availability of material, and the interests, tastes, and tenacity of the collector during the pre-Internet decades when Rabbi Rosenthall was actively acquiring items from print and antique shops, bookstores, and flea markets. Many synagogues located in places too far away, or of too little popular interest, were just never illustrated. Everyday synagogue activities were not frequently recorded. Most surviving illustrations thus represent important or unusual people, places, and events rather than the more mundane—but always fascinating—lives of ordinary people in ordinary times.

Rabbi Rosenthall began collecting Judaica as a boy, and later had the opportunity to expand his collection while traveling on business for various Jewish organizations. He established a network of personal and professional correspondents who alerted him to “finds” or sent him new items for consideration. With the gift of the collection from his widow, Irene Rosenthall, a vast world of iconography is now available to all.

Bear in mind that images are not neutral. Their subjects, design, production, and distribution are matters of choice and therefore reflect preferences and biases of the time and place in which they were made and viewed. This is particularly relevant to the history of the imagery of Jews. Until quite recent times, most such depictions were not made by Jews themselves, but by gentiles, sometimes for a Jewish audience, but more often for a broader public. Non-Jewish ethnographers and journalists who chose to depict Jewish rituals and customs—whether to denigrate them or to better understand them—created a priceless record of Jewry’s confrontation with modernity from the 16th century onward, particularly in Western Europe. These same artists and writers rarely illustrated or presented scenes of everyday life, favoring the unusual or exotic over the common family and communal events that filled most days and were not so dissimilar from those of contemporary gentiles. Thus, our visual understanding of the Jewish past is heavily filtered through non-Jewish eyes, and is highly selective in its presentation.

In the 19th century, the rise of illustrated weekly newspapers offered a broader public new glimpses into the life of the synagogue. For the first time, thanks to publications such as L’Artiste,Le Monde illustré,Gazette des Beaux-Arts, L’Illustration, The Illustrated London News, Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, Harper’s Weekly, and others, tens of thousands of readers, most of them non-Jews, were taken inside the synagogue to observe, through artistic representation, festivals and ritual observances including Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, and Hanukkah services. In addition, special occasions such as the dedications of new synagogues, the installation of important rabbis, and the weddings of Jewish celebrities, including members of the Rothschild family, were frequently illustrated.

Most of the artists were either regular “staffers” or freelance artists working for the papers. Most were not Jewish, but the work of a few Jewish artists, like the Anglo-Jewish Isaac Snowman, was reproduced. Detailed stories explaining the scenes often ran with the illustrations. Images made in one country were frequently reprinted in another, dispersing information on synagogues in Europe, the United States, and North Africa.

In the 19th century, Jewish artists were much more active. Their work embraces diverse points of view, reflecting the turbulent intellectual currents of the times. Jewish artists who devoted themselves to representing Jewish life and customs—Moritz Oppenheim, Alphonse Lévy, Isidor Kaufmann, and Saul Raskin, among others—had their own motivations, nostalgic, patriotic, socialist, and Zionist among them. Aimed at Jewish readers who purchased magazines or portfolios of prints, or the new medium of postcards, their work showed up in the non-Jewish media, too.

The texts that accompany the images in The Life of the Synagogue try to enhance the viewing experience by explaining the context—the circumstances and the setting—in which each work was produced and viewed. Images that were made as ephemeral illustrations have become important historical documents, evidence in the case of Jewish history of the pull of tradition and the temptations of modernity.

For more information on William A. Rosenthall and the Judaica he acquired over his lifetime, see