Jewish immigrants from “the old country” brought centuries of cultural heritage with them — including their understanding (and appreciation) of synagogue spaces and arrangement.
In a post on his blog, Samuel Gruber explores the relationship between a small synagogue in Middletown, Pennsylvania and that in Pušalotas, Lithuania, a small town from which many if not most of the Jews who settled in Middletown emigrated around 1900 — as well as the Lithuanian influences on other American synagogues built around the same time.
The Middletown synagogue
bears striking formal similarities to the former Ohavi Zedek Synagogue in Burlington, Vermont, and the B’nai Abraham Synagogue of Brenham, Texas, which was recently relocated to Austin (and which will be rededicated on August 30th). These were all Lithuanian-Jewish (Litvak) settlements, and they all seem to have drawn on similar sources and/or been inspired in similar ways by local American vernacular construction. I’m also interested in Middletown’s connection to Pušalotas, Lithuania, the town from which most of the Middletown Jewish settlers emigrated ca. 1900, and whose Jewish population was massacred in 1941, but where the former synagogue still stands, and has been returned to the Jewish Community of Lithuania.
He writes that the B’nai Jacob synagogue
is a simple but refined one story brick structure, with tall narrow front, side and back windows with pointed arches. It is only because of these windows that the synagogues is sometimes referred to as “Gothic” in style.
The surviving synagogue building in Pušalotas was constructed in 1913, after an earlier wooden synagogue burned down. It is also a brick building, with some “gothic” touches — devastated during and after World War II, it has been used for a variety of purposes over the past 70 years (such as a dairy and a textile mill) and is described in detail in the book Synagogues of Lithuania, Vol. 2, pp 61-65.
Gruber writes about a rather dramatic American connection to the building that links it to the Litvak immigrant communities in the U.S.:
Funds for this synagogue were originally sent from immigrants in America to Rueven Brog, the grandfather of Israeli politician and former commander-in chief Ehud Barak (b. 1942), … who was a pharmacist. In 1912, he received the money from the United States but thieves broke into his house, killed Reuven and his wife Frida, wounded their eldest son and stole the money.
The synagogue was built nonetheless. (Click HERE to read details of the murder, theft and trial.)
Descendants of Jews from Pušalotas gathered there in 2005 and dedicated a memorial plaque on the building.