The landmark synagogue before being
dynamited by Jordan’s Arab Legion in 1948. (photo from Wikipedia)
A cornerstone laying ceremony was held May 29, 2014, for the rebuilding of the Old City of Jerusalem’s Tiferet Yisrael Synagogue, which was dedicated in 1872 and dynamited by Jordan’s Arab Legion in 1948.
Speaking nearly five years ago, then-Jerusalem mayor Nir Barkat declared, “Today we lay the cornerstone of one of the important symbols of the Jewish community in Jerusalem. The municipality attaches great importance to the preservation and restoration of heritage sites in Jerusalem, and we will continue to maintain the heritage of Israel in this city.”
Citing Lamentations 5:21, Uri Ariel, housing minister at the time, added, “We have triumphed in the laying of yet another building block in the development of Jerusalem, a symbolic point in the vision that continues to come true before our eyes: ‘Renew our days as of old.’”
The two politicians symbolically placed a stone salvaged from the ruined building, and construction was supposed to take three years, according to the Company for the Reconstruction and Development of the Jewish Quarter in the Old City of Jerusalem Ltd. (JQDC), a public company under the auspices of the Ministry of Construction and Housing.
Fast forward to Dec. 31, 2018, and the exercise was repeated, this time with the participation of Jerusalem minister Zeev Elkin, construction minister Yoav Galant, deputy health minister Yaakov Litzman and Jerusalem Mayor Moshe Leon. But, this time, according to the JQDC, much of the project’s NIS 50 million (approximately $18 million Cdn) budget has been secured, in part thanks to anonymous overseas donors. With the Israel Antiquities Authority’s salvage dig of the Second Temple period site headed by Oren Gutfeld completed, work can now begin in earnest.
Fundraising to purchase the land for the Tiferet Yisrael, also known as the Nisan Bak shul, was initiated in 1839 by Rabbi Israel Friedman of Ruzhyn, Ukraine, (1797-1850) and his disciple Rabbi Nisan Bak, also spelled Beck (1815-1889). While der Heiliger Ruzhiner (Holy Ruzhyner), as his Chassidim called him, purchased the hilltop in 1843, the mystic didn’t live to see construction begin.
His ambitious plans in Jerusalem reflected his grandiose lifestyle in Sadhora, Bukovina, in Galicia’s Carpathian Mountains, pronounced Sadagóra in Yiddish. There, he lived in a palace with splendid furnishings, rode in a silver-handled carriage drawn by four white horses and, with an entourage, dressed like a nobleman, wore a golden skullcap and clothing with solid gold buttons, and was attended by servants in livery. This unusual manner was accepted and even praised by many of his contemporaries, who believed the Ruzhiner was elevating God’s glory through himself, the tzadik (righteous one), and that the splendour was intended to express the derekh hamalkhut (way of kingship) in the worship of God.
In one incident, described in David Assaf’s The Regal Way: The Life and Times of Rabbi Israel of Ruzhin (Stanford University Press, 2002), the Ruzhiner’s Chassidim noticed that, notwithstanding that their rebbe was wearing golden boots, he was leaving bloody footprints in the snow. Only then did they realize that the gold was only a show and his shoes had no soles. Indeed, he was walking barefoot in the snow.
Rabbis Friedman and Bak were motivated by a desire to foil Czar Nicholas I’s ambitions to build a Russian Orthodox monastery on the strategic site overlooking Jerusalem’s Temple Mount. Bak consulted with architect Martin Ivanovich Eppinger. (Eppinger also planned the Russian Compound, the 68,000-square-metre fortress-like complex erected by the Imperial Russian Orthodox Palestine Society west of the Jaffa Gate and outside the Old City, after the czar was outmanoeuvred by the Chassidim.)
Bak, who both designed the massive synagogue and served as its contractor, spent more than a decade fundraising and six years building it. Inaugurated on Aug. 19, 1872, he named the three-storey landmark in honour of his deceased rebbe.
According to a perhaps apocryphal story, the quick-witted Bak was able to complete the ornate synagogue thanks to a donation from Kaiser Franz Joseph of Austria-Hungary. In 1869, while visiting Jerusalem en route to dedicate the Suez Canal, the emperor asked his subjects who came from Sadhora in the remote Austrian province of Bukovina why their synagogue had no roof. (In 1842, having spent two years in Russian prisons on charges of complicity in the murder of two Jewish informers, Rabbi Friedman fled to Sadhora and reestablished his resplendent court.)
Seizing the moment, Bak replied, “Your majesty, the synagogue has doffed its hat in your honour.” The kaiser, understanding the royal fundraising pitch, responded, “How much will it cost me to have the synagogue replace its hat?” and donated 1,000 francs to complete Tiferet Yisrael’s dome, which was thereafter referred to by locals as “Franz Joseph’s cap.”
Tamar Hayardeni, in “The Kaiser’s Cap” (published in Segula magazine last year), wrote that, while the kaiser made a donation, the dome was in fact completed with funds provided by Rabbi Israel of Ruzhyn’s son, Rabbi Avrohom Yaakov of Sadhora (1820-1883).
In the winter and spring of 1948, the dome served as a key Haganah military position and lookout point for the Jewish Quarter’s outgunned defenders.
Children were recruited for the battle for Tiferet Yisrael. Some as young as 9 built defence positions. The “older” ones – 12 or so – carried messages, food, weapons and ammunition. Some were killed, including Grazia (Yaffa) Haroush, 16, and Nissim Gini, 9, who was the youngest fallen fighter in the War of Independence. Like the others who fell in the defence of the Jewish Quarter and were buried there, his remains were exhumed after 1967 and reinterred on the Mount of Olives.
Badly damaged by heavy shelling, the synagogue was blown up by Jordanian sappers on May 21, 1948. A few days later, following the neighbourhood’s surrender on May 25, the nearby Hurva Synagogue – the main sanctuary of Jerusalem’s mitnagdim (anti-Chassidic Ashkenazi followers of the Vilna Gaon) – met the same fate.
With the rebuilding of the Hurva completed by the JQDC in 2010, Tiferet Yisrael became the last major Old City synagogue destroyed in 1948 not rebuilt.
Hurva is a stone-clad, concrete and steel facsimile of its original structure, updated to today’s building code and equipped with an elevator. The same is planned for Tiferet Yisrael.
The reconstruction of faux historic synagogues has not been without critics. Writing in the Forward in 2007 as the Hurva was rising, historian Gavriel Rosenfeld, co-editor of Beyond Berlin: Twelve German Cities Confront the Nazi Past (University of Michigan Press, 2008), noted the manifold links between architecture, politics and memory.
“The reconstruction of the Hurva seems to reflect an emotional longing to undo the past. It has long been recognized that efforts to restore ruins reflect a desire to forget the painful memories that they elicit. Calls to rebuild the World Trade Centre towers as they were before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks represent a clear (if unrealized) instance of this yearning. And the recently completed reconstruction of Dresden’s famous Frauenkirche – long a heap of rubble after being flattened by Allied bombers in February 1945 – represents a notable example of translating this impulse into reality.
“And yet, the reconstruction project is problematic, for in seeking to undo the verdict of the past, the project will end up denying it. Denial is inherent in the restoration of ruins, as is frequently shown by the arguments used to justify such projects. In Dresden, for example, many supporters of the Frauenkirche’s restoration portrayed themselves as the innocent inhabitants of a city that was unjustly bombed in 1945, thereby obscuring the city’s longtime support for the Nazi regime and its war of aggression during the years of the Third Reich. Similarly, the physical appearance of the restored Frauenkirche – despite its incorporation of some of the original church’s visibly scorched stones – has effectively eliminated the signs of the war that its ruin once vividly evoked.
“In the case of the Hurva,” writes Rosenfeld, “the situation is somewhat different. If many Germans in Dresden emphasized their status as victims to justify rebuilding their ruined church, the Israeli campaign to reconstruct the Hurva will do precisely the opposite – namely, obscure traces of their victimization. As long as the Hurva stood as a hulking ruin, after all, it served as a reminder of Israeli suffering at the hands of the Jordanians. [Mayor Teddy] Kollek said as much in 1991, when he noted: ‘It is difficult to impress upon the world the degree of destruction the Jordanian authorities visited upon synagogues in the Old City…. The Hurva remnants are the clearest evidence we have today of that.’ Indeed, as a ruin, the Hurva served the same kind of function as sites such as Masada and Yad Vashem – which, by highlighting the tragedies of the Jewish past, helped to confirm the Israeli state as the chief guarantor of the Jewish people’s future.
“At the same time, however, it seems the Hurva’s existence as a ruin conflicted with the state of Israel’s Zionist master narrative: the idea that, ultimately, heroic achievement triumphs over helplessness. In fact, in the end, it may be the project’s ability to confirm the national desire to control its own destiny that best explains its appeal. Israel faces many intractable problems that make present-day life uncertain. But, in the realm of architecture, Israelis can indulge in the illusion that they can at least control and manipulate the past. In this sense, the Hurva’s reconstruction may express deeper escapist fantasies in an unpredictable present.”
Rosenfeld’s theorizing about architectural authenticity made little impression on the JQDC chair, Moti Rinkov. Indeed the JQDC, together with the Ben-Zvi Institute, recently published High Upon High, in which 12 historians trace Tiferet Yisrael’s history. Rinkov noted at the second cornerstone ceremony: “The renovation and restoration of the Tiferet Yisrael Synagogue in the Jewish Quarter is one of the most important and exciting projects I’ve taken part in. Rebuilding the synagogue is, in fact, raising the Israeli flag in the Jewish Quarter. It’s truly a work where they’re restoring the crown to its former glory and restoring glory to the Jewish people.”
The rebuilt Tiferet Yisrael, together with the Hurva, will engage Jerusalem’s skyline not as authentic landmarks but, as Rosenfeld noted, “postmodern simulacrum.”
The other Tiferes Yisroel
In 1953, Rabbi Mordechai Shlomo Friedman, the Boyaner Rebbe of New York, laid foundations for a new Ruzhiner Torah centre in west Jerusalem to replace the destroyed Tiferet Yisrael. Located on the western end of Malkhei Yisrael Street between the current Central Bus Station and Geula, the downtown of the Charedi city, the Ruzhiner yeshivah, Mesivta Tiferes Yisroel, was inaugurated in 1957 with the support of all of the Chassidic rebbes descended from Friedman, who was the first and only Ruzhiner Rebbe. However, his six sons and grandsons founded their own dynasties, collectively known as the “House of Ruzhin.” These dynasties, which follow many of the traditions of the Ruzhiner Rebbe, are Bohush, Boyan, Chortkov, Husiatyn, Sadigura and Shtefanest. The founders of the Vizhnitz, Skver and Vasloi Chassidic dynasties were related to the Ruzhiner Rebbe through his daughters.
A grand synagogue built adjacent to the new Ruzhiner yeshivah also bears the name Tiferes Yisroel. The current Boyaner Rebbe, Nachum Dov Brayer, leads his disciples from there. The design of the synagogue includes a large white dome, reminiscent of the original Tiferet Yisrael destroyed in 1948 and now being rebuilt.
Gil Zohar is a journalist based in Jerusalem.