During a trip to England two years ago I drove up to Bradford to see the old synagogue. I have an interest in historicist architecture – identity statements made in stone – and a passion for Islamic architecture.
Bradford is perhaps the most authentically Islamic of the many Jewish synagogues built in what is known as the Moorish Revival Style. Handsome Moorish synagogues like the one in Bradford a dual statement: we are part of the public life of this community, and we are a people with ancient roots in the East. According to Sharman Kadish, the Jewish community of Victorian Bradford was mostly made up of Reformed Jews from German-speaking communities in Central Europe, where Moorish synagogues were extremely popular.
A member of the synagogue had agreed to meet me and let me into the building; he very kindly waited as I made several wrong turns, calling him on my cell as I bumbled through roundabouts and no-right-turn signs before finding my way to Manningham, a south-Asian neighborhood of substantial Victorian town houses and a lovely park bursting with daffodils. I finally located the synagogue. The building’s Lombard stripes, Ogee arched windows, and Hebrew inscriptions were unmistakable.
The interior is beautiful, especially the Torah Ark set into an exquisitely carved horseshoe arch.
The Bradford synagogue was part of an admiring wave of Orientalism that swept Europe in the nineteenth century. Washington Irving’s Tales of the Alhambra was a great best-seller. Artists flocked to the paint the dazzlingly exotic Near East. And Westerners built exotic orientalist buildings, like P. T. Barnum’s house in Connecticut, Iranistan. The Royal Pavillion at Brighton, England. Exotic Olana on Hudson. And the Arab Hall at Leighton House, London.
But the greatest number of Moorish revival buildings were synagogues. There were over two hundred Moorish revival synagogues, although a complete count has never been made and some of the smaller European examples may go unrecorded. A surprising number survive, including the Budapest’s exquisitely beautiful Rumbach Street synagogue, an eight-sided architectural homage to Jerusalem’s Dome of the Rock designed by the great Viennese architect Otto Wagner, which, like many old world synagogues, is far more magnificent inside than out. Americans may know the soaring minarets of Cincinnatti’s Plum Street Temple, the onion domes of Temple Beth-El in Corsicana, Texas or the funky Moorish roof line of the little synagogue in Owensboro, Kentucky.
The Bradford Synagogue can take its place among the most handsome and authentic buildings of the Moorish revival, but it must have looked dramatically exotic in the Bradford of 1880. On the day I visited the neighborhood, there were a smattering of people in western dress, but the streets of Walsingham at midday on a Thursday were filled with mothers in hijab pushing baby strollers, and clusters of men and boys in shalwar kameez.
The congregation has been kept open until now by the sentimental attachment of members and the children of former members who live elsewhere. It opened a suburban location years ago; that building has recently closed.
Whether the old Moorish revival building on Bowland Street can continue to function as a synagogue, even with the help and support of its Muslim neighbors, is an open question. If it does not, it will make a handsome mosque with an exquisite mihrab in the center of one of Britain’s liveliest Muslim neighborhoods.