"Reinventing [?] Jerusalem"

Simone Ricca, Reinventing Jerusalem, London: I.B.Tauris, 2007. According to the information provided by Google books online, this "fascinating" book is about "History."

But, unfortunately, it is not. And what one finds in it is a critical analysis on "politics of heritage conservation," well impregnated with ideologically-inspired interpretation.

Ricca presents some facts concerning Jerusalem, but keeps for himself those he prefers not to deal with. Then he proceeds to interpret the fragmentary piece of evidence he has chosen and, in the end, he provides one with an avalanche of farfetched criticism.

A British writer who had been working as a UNESCO employee, Ricca is somewhat economical with the truth. As a matter of fact his Reinventing Jerusalem is itself a reinvention of the history of Jerusalem in its own right.

Ricca's book includes misinterpretations, misspellings and misleading captions, such as the one visible in the first image, which reads "The ruins of the Hurva synagogue." This is inaccurate, for what the photograph shows is not only "the ruins of the Hurva synagogue," desecrated and blown up in 1948, but also one of its arches, reconstructed in 1977. Such ruins plus the reconstructed arch constitute from 1977 onwards a memorial site, and not merely "ruins." The photograph shows the 1977 arch functioning as a reminder of what once was a major synagogue of Jerusalem, a historical landmark. The 1977 arch was added to the ruins as a temporary solution and until the Hurva Synagogue would be build once again.

Ruins plus an arch is not a synagogue. Yet, Ricca describes them as "celebrative ruins" (p. 111).

How can a manifestation of destruction be a reason for celebration?

Whatever the answer, the fact is that in the well-known 1977 memorial combining a ruined synagogue and its reconstructed arch, Ricca discovers a fascinating source of inspiration, and even "new aesthetical values" (p. 224, n. 34).

Isn't his approach grotesque? And don't Ricca's ideas recall the ones expressed in 1975 by British painter Francis Bacon about being fascinated with the "kind of beauty" he had eventually found in some decomposing matter?

Discarded newspapers changing colour in the sunlight, bones and carcasses that have been in the sea or sun for a long time, gradually change into other things. There is a kind of beauty in that—a kind of magic (Bacon, "Remarks from a conversation with Peter Beard," Francis Bacon, New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1975, p. 16).

According to Ricca, those who had lost their sanctuary were supposed to be happy [and presumably even thankful] for having provided with a highly suggestive memorial, ruined for ages.

The ruined condition of Synagoga, a several-times-restored medieval sculpture (Cathedral of Rochester, United Kingdom), is no doubt more than compatible with Ricca's "celebrative ruins"

It comes as no surprise Ricca condemning in his book some words expressed against the temporary Hurva arch in the mid-1990s, then aptly described as "a lonely architectural sign standing as an insipid memorial for a nineteenth-century synagogue in ruins" (Reinventing Jerusalem, p. 111). Regardless of what Ricca may think about such words, the fact is that the solitary 1977 arch was a transitory solution, and by the mid-1990s, it became "an absolutely objectionable substitute" for a blown up temple (ibid; see also The Real and Ideal Jerusalem in Jewish, Christian and Islamic Art, ed. by Bianca Kühnel, 1998, pp. 245-53).

Ricca: "Beyond commemorating the destruction, the Hurva memorial allows the entire [...] community collectively to appropriate the site in an extremely powerful and profound manner, unrivalled by any architectural design. Indeed, the collective [...] memory can, tragically, superimpose, to the sight of yet another ruin, countless images of destroyed synagogues and pogroms" (Reinventing Jerusalem, p. 111; photo by C. Barnard)

« And Sarah laughed within. » Genesis 18:12

The Hurva Synagogue
Several synagogues were built and subsequently destroyed on the same site in Jerusalem.
1267 Original synagogue
1421 Document refers to the original synagogue
1585 Intentionally desecrated and destroyed
1700 The Rabbi Yehuda ha-Hasid Synagogue, built by his students and followers
1721 Intentionally desecrated and destroyed; nick-named "The Hurva"
1836 Rebuilding restarts thanks to Rabbi Abraham Shlomo Zalman Zoref
1864 The Bet Yaakob Synagogue, built by the disciples of Rabbi Eliyahi Ben Shlomo Zalman Kramer, the Vilna Gaon, is inaugurated as the Great Synagogue of Jerusalem
1948 Intentionally desecrated, burnt and blown up
1968-74 Louis I. Kahn develops the Hurva Synagogue Project (unbuilt)
1977 Arch is erected, marking a memorial site
2003-10 The Hurva Synagogue, built by Jerusalem architect Nahum Meltzer ("Mitzer" according to Ricca, p. 111).

Hurva Synagogue, Jerusalem, 1864-1948 (Yaacov Ben Dov)

1948-1967 In ruins

1977-2003 Memorial arch

1968-1974 Unbuilt project by Louis I. Kahn (Kent Larson, MIT)

2010 The Hurva Synagogue

The Hurva Synagogue was part of a neighborhood dating back to the eighteenth century. It was named after Rabbi Yehuda ha-Hassid, a mystic from Poland who began to build it, but died within days of his arrival in Jerusalem. The temple was burned down in 1721. Since then it became known as the "Hurva" (the Ruin). It was still called so even after it was rebuilt in 1864. The second rebuilding brought the temple to the height of twenty four meters. It was blown up by the Jordanian army in 1948. A single Hurva arch was rebuilt in 1977. After almost four decades of community and architectural discussions and successive plans that were put forward and dropped, the Hurva Synagogue was rebuilt in 2005 and rededicated in 2010. The new building follows closely the 1864, neo-Byzantine Hurva Synagogue, of which it is practically a replica.

In Reinventing Jerusalem, Ricca claims that the Old City's reconstruction did not preserve the past. This is idea is mistaken today: Meltzer's Hurva Synagogue, for instance, is a building which has been conceived precisely to preserve the past.

According to Jerusalem architect Nahum Meltzer,

The Hurva synagogue was destroyed just over half a century ago, and many details of the building have been preserved. These details are based on precise, constant measurements of the building, the surviving remnants, the large number of interior and exterior photographs that exist, and eyewitness reports both oral and written. These extensive details enable us to conceive a complete architectural restoration of the building and return it to its former state without making any assumptions. We know, with a great deal of certainty, the formation of the walls, the character of the portals, the dimensions of the dome and the technique used to lay it on the walls of the synagogue.
All these make the restoration concept legitimate, both scientifically and within the parameters of accepted ethical code used for restoration work, as expressed in the ninth paragraph of the Venice Convention. "The object of restoration is the preservation revelation of the monument's historical and aesthetic values, and is based on respect to the existent and correct, un-manipulated documentation which must end at the point where all conjecture begins" (A statement by Architect Nahum Meltzer).

In a 2007 article entitled A New Ruin Raising, published three years before Meltzer's reconstruction had been finished, Gavriel Rosenfeld noted, "The only certainty is that the future synagogue will be guilty of the sin of all reconstructions: that of falsifying the past. Once the Hurva is completely rebuilt, its dome will no doubt blend harmoniously into the Old City’s ancient skyline. It will do so, however, not as an authentic historic artifact but rather as a postmodern simulacrum. When the new synagogue is rededicated, some of the initial reactions will likely be critical. [...] Historic preservationists will complain about the fabrication of an architectural forgery."

In Reinventing Jerusalem, Ricca complains non stop.

However, as Rosenfeld wrote, "In the long run, [...] few will know or care that the restored Hurva is a copy of a copy," to finally recognize that "Our world is full of counterfeit buildings —think of Venice’s campanile on the Piazza San Marco, or Colonial Williamsburg— none of which seems to affect us in any adverse way."

Writing these ideas Rosenfeld was more or less right. The only thing one may not agree with Rosenfeld is his idea that "for those who value the opportunity to encounter the authentic traces of history, the Hurva’s restoration will hardly be a cause for celebration." In this, Rosenfeld was not totally right. Ricca may probably never celebrate Meltzer's reconstruction of the Hurva, nevertheless the Jerusalem architect's work is a fine restoration, which significantly includes "authentic traces of history," such as the structural remnants of the 1864 Bet Yaakob Synagogue, whose original yet fragmentary Jerusalem stone wall Meltzer has left visible in an architecturally honest restoration.

Interior view of the Hurva Synagogue, Jerusalem, May 2010. Architect Nahum Meltzer

Additional references
Sacred Destinations
The History of the Hurva Synagogue
Rosenfeld, Gavriel. "A New Ruin Rising: The Hurva Synagogue’s Latest Incarnation," Forward, 9.11.2007
Yehuda Azoulay, "Rebuilding the Ruins," Sepharadic Legacy, September 2010, pp. 54-60, PDF
¿Kahn’s project versus Meltzer’s restoration?, 21.7.11
Photographs by William Hamblin. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5.

Abel Pann, « And Sarah laughed within. » (Genesis 18:12), 1925
pastel, 40 x 42 cm. Private collection
Pann, The Palestine Weekly, January 1924: "I wish to picture the heroes of the Bible as human beings made of flesh and bone, beings in whose veins blood flows. I wish the characters of the Bible to be shown as possessing the passions of human beings just as they are pictured in the Book, with their virtues and vices, loves and hatreds, stories of tragedy and humour, poetry and prose." Moreover, "The task I have set myself involves a serious responsability. The enthusiasm which my work arouses in me is often clouded by painful doubts and questionings. For that same Book which has inspired many a genius to produce his masterpiece has proved to be beyond the reach of a far greater number of artists. A son of the race which produced this marvelous Book, I feel that I, better than some others, may be able to size its true spirit, and to communicate it to my fellow-men. But the absolute truth is with God alone" (Personal Statement). Abel Pann's youngest son was killed in the 1948 Arab-Israeli War.

Additional resources
• Kahn, Order Is, 1960
Hurva Synagogue: Kahn vs Meltzer?, Documenta, 21.7.2011

• También en español: Ricca y su publicada tergiversación (8.7.11) y Sinagoga Hurva: ¿El proyecto de Kahn versus la restauración de Meltzer? (20.7.11).


1 said...

The piece you criticize is a small part of the book. It seems that Ricca is more concerned about archeology and you are more about architecture and there lies a conflict in perspectives. Ricca makes it clear what he likes and dislikes.
Having said that, I wonder how your comments and photos on the British Guard and Pann's ending comments fit into your critique of Ricca. I am sorry, their symbolisms regarding your article escape me.

2 said...

Yes, there is a conflict of perspectives and there is also a conflict in the Middle East.

3 said...

I think Akerman criticizes a telling-all element from "Reinventing Jerusalem" and makes a point. The book is not objective and written by a mediocre author, who is not interested in archaeology, but in using it as a pretext to promote a pack of lies. Surprisingly, Ricca is an architect seeking not construction but its very opposite.

4 said...

The book has been written by somebody manipulative and needs to be approached carefully.

5 said...

History is about facts and objectivity. Who cares about what Simone Ricca likes or not?

6 said...

Architecture is design, shape and symbol. In this, the Hurva synagogue is no exception. Metaphasia is an inability to perceive metaphor.

7 said...

Hola Mariano. Escribo en porteño porque en inglés no me sale el lunfardo. Este fulano Ricca me hace acordar a un decano Rica que tuvimos, oportunista y traidor. Creo que la pregunta es: ¿qué se hace con un autor tramposo, mistificador, manipulador, errado y herrado? Hace muchos años un colega de aquí, más menos mi edad que fue estudiante mío en la UBA, fue universitariamente ungido y tomó a su cargo de Historia III, aunque yo le dije que no podía hacerlo. Al poco tiempo, creyó que podía escribir un libro sobre Historia de la Arquitectura Contemporánea e incluso se lo publicaron. Cuál no fue nuestra sorpresa cuando lo compramos, lo leímos y vimos que estaba plagado de errores garrafales, opiniones ambiguas y distorsionadas. Una porquería. ¿Qué hicimos, después que se nos pasó la bronca? Cuando pudimos, lo comentamos desfavorablemente desde lo académico y a los alumnos les dijimos que no lo podían tomar como referencia. Los animamos a encontrar los errores, como si se tratara de un juego. Al poco tiempo, el autor se enfermó de cáncer y se murió. El libro desapareció de todos lados y ya nadie se acuerda ni siquiera de él.
Estuve leyendo esta nota y pienso que es correcta: Ricca es un aventurero de opiniones y juega con el "esto es lo que yo opino y me importa un bledo lo verdadero.” El negoció sponsors, una buena editorial y un tema que emotivamente toca a mucha gente y así hace su negocio de ideas que parecen ser intelectualmente elevadas, sin serlo.
No olvidemos que hoy mucha gente habla de todo como si supiera en profundidad, pero de hecho usa lo que "dicen" los otros y viola la verdad histórica.
Ricca especula con que se va a encontrar con un público ignorante y no con un sabio como vos estudioso al extremo antes de escribir y publicar una opinión. Vos lo confrontas en una nota meticulosa y nos ilustras.
El tiempo hará que el cadáver de tu enemigo pase frente a tu puerta.
Estoy totalmente de tu lado y si podés escrachar la cucaracha, hacelo: una cucaracha nunca se convierte en mariposa.
Sos un sol, te mando un gran beso,

8 said...

El mundo está plagado de mediocres que escriben. La gente lee y traga. Si es verdad o mentira, la gente no investiga. Así es como se editan libros a carradas que contienen material barato, con interpretaciones y comentarios personales que nada tienen que ver con un trabajo profesional. Ricca no es historiador. Escribió un libro. No más. Historiador no es.
Personalmente, a mí si la sinagoga Hurva o la reconstrucción de Jerusalén es fiel al pasado o no me tiene sin cuidado. Lo que vale, lo que tiene peso real es su simbolismo y los valores espirituales que representan esas obras de arquitectura. Si son iguales, parecidas o diferentes a sus predecesoras no cambia nada. No quita ni pone. Es la tradición y el arraigo emocional, subjetivo, lo que nos une a esas ruinas y a recuerdos que se remontan a nuestros antepasados lo importante. Lo material no debe adorarse. Es el concepto lo que vale.

9 said...

The new building looks nice. Its decoration y sober and elegant. The architect's ideas are consistent and appropriate.

10 said...

I love it. Brillant!

11 said...

Ricca lacks the necessary experience in the field. His remarks are out of place. "Los perros ladran, la caravana pasa".