4.70. Manuel Herz, synagogue ‘Meor Hagola – Beth Knesset Magenza’ (2010)

Meor Hagola – Beth Knesset Magenza is the name of the new synagogue in Mainz (Germany), written in Hebrew characters on the door of cast aluminum (Fig. 13b). Meor Hagola (“Light of the Exile”) was the title of honor of Gershom ben Yehudah, the influential rabbi who lived in Mainz around 1000 and was the founder of the city’s first Talmud school, while Beth Knesset Magenza means “synagogue of Mainz.” The Jewish community of Mainz, the oldest and best-known in Germany, has suffered persecution more than many other communities. The liberal synagogue, built in 1912, was burnt down and plundered during Kristallnacht of November, 1938, *Kristallnacht: Cf. Chapter 4.47 and the last transport to the concentration camps left in February, 1943. In 2010, when the Jewish community had grown to some 1000 members, they inaugurated a new synagogue in the place of the old one.

The German architect Manuel Herz (born 1967) designed a typically deconstructivist building. The fragmented structure and the leaning walls of the building seem to symbolize the desolate and chaotic situation of the Jewish community after the Shoah, while the unusual ceramic surface, whose color changes under the influence of light, suggests that the building is meant for a community which not only has its own strong character, but also fully participates in society. Manuel Herz’s synagogue has common characteristics with two buildings by Daniel Libeskind: the Felix-Nussbaum-Haus *Cf. Chapter 4.18 for work by Felix Nussbaum in Osnabrück with its seemingly fallen walls and dead ends, and the Jewish Museum in Berlin with its ground plan like a torn-apart Star of David.

Herz also visualized the positive and uniting forces in Jewish history and did this in two ways. He chose a Jewish symbol, not the Star of David, but the less nationally-charged shofar. The synagogue complex shows not only the curved and torqued form of the ram’s horn, the bell being represented by the 26 meters high roof, but also the typically transverse-ribbed surface of the horn. Herz chose the shofar because this instrument calls the community together, while it is the symbol of a new beginning with new hope in the Rosh Ha-Shanah service. Thus, the shofar is a real “tool of remembrance.” In another stylization process, Herz took the Hebrew word kedushah (“sanctification”) as the point of departure. Kedushah is the prayer of the angels to God, which is repeated by the faithful on the earth. *Isa. 6:3, The Koren Rosh HaShana Maḥzor 436 and 707, and The Koren Yom Kippur Maḥzor 852. Cf. also Chapter 4.20 on Birnbaum. It sanctifies an object, in this case a building. The characters of the word are related to the parts of the building: kof to the synagogue; dalet to the entrance hall; vav to the conference room; shin to the seminary; and heh to the office space and living space (Fig. 13a).

Herz 1

Fig. 13a. Manuel Herz, Meor Hagola. Kedushah. From right to left: kofdaletvavshinheh. This schematic rendering does not show the shofar-like, curved ground plan of the building. © The Jewish Daily Forward.

The concept of kedushah is used neither in a didactic way nor as a “manual,” nor does the connection between characters and functions have a symbolic meaning. As Herz stated,

The building should not be “readable” and it does not matter if one cannot recognize the concept of kedushah. Rather, the basic form of the building results from urban development considerations, and of course, from considerations concerning the inner space. The abstract reproduction of the concept of Kedushah specifies this form and adds a religious level of meaning to the considerations of architecture and urban development. *Herz, e-mail to the author, May 14, 2012. Translated from the German by KvH.


Sicht vom Synagogen-Vorplatz View from the Synagogue Square

Fig. 13b. Manuel Herz, Meor Hagola. The picture shows the right part of the building with the kof (height 26 meters) and the dalet, and the inscription Meor Hagola Beth Knesset Magenza on the door of cast aluminum.

In Herz’s synagogue, the Past is altered by the Present, by the point of departure of both the architect and the community: the remembrance of the Shoah and the building of a new community. The synagogue plays a part in four dialogues which are determined by the shofar and refer to the Bible or the High Holy Day prayer books.

The first dialogue is the one between the inner and the outer world. In the morning, the light of the rising sun falls through the “shofar bell,” the glass roof of the tower, and shines upon the bimah and the walls, covered with innumerable golden Hebrew characters, which concentrate here and there into prayer texts. In the evening, the artificial light from inside the synagogue shines through the same glass roof and is seen outside. A thunderstorm with lightning can be seen through the glass roof, which then awakens associations with the camp at the foot of Mount Sinai in Exod. 19:16: “On the third day, as morning dawned, there was thunder, and lightning, and a dense cloud upon the mountain, and a very loud blast of the horn, and all the people who were in the camp trembled.” The synesthesia in Exod. 20:15: “All the people witnessed *“saw” in some translations the thunder and lightning, the blare of the horn and the mountain smoking,” in which the audible is expressed in terms of the visible, can be compared to the synesthesia in the synagogue itself, which expresses the sound of the shofar in light from outside and inside respectively.

The second dialogue is that between East and West. In a comment on his design, Manuel Herz noted that the organization of space in a synagogue is characterized by a contradiction: a synagogue is directed to the East, to Jerusalem, whereas the Torah is read in the center of the space. He solved this inherent contradiction by designing a roof as the bell of a shofar, which directs the space to the East, while at the same time providing light on the bimah, where the Torah is read and the shofar is blown. *www.manuelherz.com/synagogue-mainz.

The third dialogue is the one between heaven and earth. The synagogue roof, directed both eastward and upward, expresses “the call to G-d, the listening to G-d, and the receiving of G-d’s light and wisdom.” *Jüdische Gemeinde Mainz, Neubau der Synagoge in Mainz. Quotation translated from the German by KvH. The roof of the synagogue resembles both a transmitter and a receiver, both a “trumpet” and an “ear trumpet” in the form of a horn as an old-fashioned hearing aid, a modern stethoscope, or even a dish antenna, directed to heaven. In the Malkhuyyot and Shofarot sections in the Rosh Ha-Shanah service, the shofar is a means of communication in an interaction of transmitting and receiving. One time, the emphasis is on the act of transmitting: “As Your congregation sounds their call to You on the ram’s horn this day[;]” *The Koren Rosh HaShana Maḥzor 552 another time on the act of receiving: “O Lofty One, lend a listening ear . . . Turn to the sound their shofar blasts from on high” *Ibid. 556 and “Blessed are You, LORD, who listens to the sound of Your people Israel’s trumpet-blasts in compassion.” *Ibid. 622. The interaction of transmitting and receiving *Cf. “Giving” and “receiving” in Loewenthal’s painting. *Chapter 4.65 is best expressed in Malkhuyyot: “May our mouths’ words rise beautiful before You, / most high and elevated God, who understands and heeds, / looks on and listens to the sounds of our shofar blasts.” *The Koren Rosh HaShana Maḥzor 606.

The fourth dialogue is that between the Past and the Present. Besides the dialogue with Gershom ben Yehudah, the rabbi from Mainz whose title of honor Meor Hagola has passed on to the synagogue, there is a dialogue with another medieval rabbi from Mainz, Rabbi Amnon, the legendary author of the U-Netanneh Tokef prayer from the Yom Kippur service. This begins as follows: “A great shofar sounds, / and a still small voice is heard, / angels rush forward / and are held by trembling, shaking; / they say: “Here is the Day of Judgment / visiting all the heavenly host for judgment –[.]” *The Koren Rosh HaShana Maḥzor 566. “A still small voice” refers to God’s message to Elijah in 1 Kings 19:12. The Complete ArtScroll Machzor Rosh Hashanah 480-1 considers Rabbi Amnon a historical figure of “about one thousand years ago.” The Oxford Dictionary of the Jewish Religion 709 states about the U-Netanneh Tokef prayer: “Documentary evidence, however, points to a much earlier composition date, during the Byzantine period by a Jewish contemporary of the emperor Romulus[,]” that is, the late 5th century CE. The stories about Rabbi Amnon reflect the persecution of Jews in Mainz at the time of the Crusades. The Bishop of Mainz, who was also the city’s mayor, is said to have pressed Rabbi Amnon to convert, which the Rabbi refused, even after torture. On Rosh Ha-Shanah, Rabbi Amnon was carried to the synagogue, where he prayed the U-Netanneh Tokef and died. According to the historian Ivan G. Marcus, the story ends with an allusion to Jesus’ appearance before his disciples three days after his death: “Amnon appears to a leader of the Mainz community three days after his death and tells him to disseminate the prayer he has composed. Christianity itself has been bested: another Jewish Christ figure has suffered for the truth, which will be perpetuated after his death.” *Marcus, “A Jewish-Christian Symbiosis: The Culture of Early Ashkenaz” 495. The U-Netanneh Tokef prayer in the Rosh Ha-Shanah service is followed by the Kedushah, the prayer which provided the characters determining the form of Herz’s synagogue. The gold-colored interior walls of the synagogue are covered by reliefs with thousands of small Hebrew characters, which concentrate, in certain areas, into piyyutim written by the medieval rabbis of Mainz. A dialogue with the recent Past arises from the fact that Meor Hagola is built in the place of the synagogue destroyed in Kristallnacht. Four preserved columns from the destroyed synagogue were erected before the new building (Fig. 13b) and the dialogue between the Past and the Present is stressed by the similarity of the ribbed surfaces of the old columns and the ceramic tiles covering the new synagogue. Under the influence of sunlight, the color of this ceramic material changes from black into olive green (Fig. 13b), thus resembling charred wood and young tree trunks respectively, and symbolizing destruction and renewal, death and new life; a similar concept to the “sinking” and the “rising” in Nelly Sachs’ poem Someone Blew the Shofar. *Chapter 4.26. The architect stressed the dialogue between the new synagogue and the neighboring 19th-century buildings: “The volume of the building is situated parallel to the streets and its facades are in line with the existing neighboring buildings, thus creating a contained street space.” *www.manuelherz.com/synagogue-mainz.

Concluding, it can be said that the shofar not only provided the inspiration for the form of the Mainz synagogue, that is, the curved ground plan and the ribbed surface, but also for its communicative functions in the dialogues between inner and outer world, East and West, heaven and earth, as well as Past and Present.


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