Spanish Synagogue 4. November 1999
- 30. January 2000
The exhibition Genizot documents one of the lesser known aspects of
Jewish tradition. According to Jewish law, discarded Holy Scriptures
which contain the name of God must be deposited in a safe place, where
they are protected from desecration and subject to natural processes
of decay. This also applied to other texts of a religious and
even secular nature, written in the Hebrew language or script. The place
of storage is known as a genizah (plural: genizot, from the Hebrew root
GNZ - literally ”hiding, storing”).
Books and other objects were either
gathered in a special place and later buried en masse, or were deposited
in synagogue attics. Very few genizot have remained intact to this day,
the majority being destroyed as a result of fire, rebuilding or expulsions
of Jews. As part of research carried out by the Jewish Museum, genizah
remnants were found in only 12 of over 50 synagogues examined. The most
significant discoveries were made in Luze, Breznice, Zaluzany, Rychnov
nad Kneznou and Holesov.
Alongside Torah scrolls and
their remains, the genizot mostly contained 17th - 19th century Hebrew
and Yiddish printed texts: prayer-books, editions of the Bible, Passover
Haggadot, Talmud with commentaries, and other Halacha literature; and,
to a lesser extent, Kabbalistic writings, popular Yiddish literature,
textbooks of Hebrew, religion and even mathematics.
Among the most valuable discoveries
are those of manuscripts - mostly transcripts of rabbinic writings
or records of lectures by contemporary rabbis from Prague, Golčův Jeníkov
and Bratislava, but also fragments of tablets with prayers and blessings
for the synagogue and home and liturgical wall calendars.
Also to be found in the genizot are official documents and private correspondence.
Damaged ritual objects and synagogue
furnishings were also deposited in the genizot. Unique sets of textiles
were found in Luze and Breznice: synagogue curtains, mantles and Torah
wimples with folk ornamentation, tallitot of various sizes and design,
and bags for tefillin, in addition to children’s skullcaps and shoes.
The only genizah to be found completely intact was in Luže, a
small town in East Bohemia where Jews settled as early as the 16th century.
In the 19th century it was the seat of the district rabbi and a local
Jewish centre. The synagogue was built around 1780; the genizah was
used up until the early 20th century. 600 fragments of prints, over
100 manuscripts and about 100 textiles have been selected from a wealth
of discovered material. Unique finds include notifications of the election
of alms collectors, or stencils for tombstones. Fragments of decorative
mizrahs and tablets with blessings, adorned with folk woodcuts or cut-outs,
are invaluable records of the traditional religious life of rural Jews.
Březnice (SW Bohemia) had a Jewish community from as early as the beginning
of the16th century and was also the seat of the district rabbi. The
synagogue building, which in addition housed a school, was built in
1725 and renovated after a fire in 1820. Only scattered relics have
survived to this day in the genizah. Alongside a series of rare textiles
(e.g., a mantle dating from 1758) it contains printed books, hand-written
drafts of sermons and Halacha notes. Teaching material and exercise
books were also found.
We still have little information on the small Jewish community of Zalužany,
a town not far from Breznice. The small Empire-style synagogue was built
at the beginning of the 19th century and was used for liturgical purposes
for around 100 years. It is now in private hands and the attic is being
used as a storage space for junk . A few fragments of common Hebrew
prints were found, which is to be expected considering the size of the
community. What was surprising, however, was the discovery of embroidered
wimpels, one of which (1748) is amongst the oldest of its kind in the
collections of the Jewish Museum.
Rychnov nad Kneznou
Like Luze and Breznice, Rychnov (East Bohemia) was a regional Jewish
centre. Jewish settlement here is recorded from the 16th century. The
genizah in the synagogue (built in 1782) was damaged during earlier
refurbishment work . Alongside Halacha fragments, the manuscripts that
were found included special prayers (e.g., for pregnant woman) and a
1767 record of a legal decision (psak din) settling a dispute between
two community members. A leather case for a mezuzah and a leather shoe
for the halitzah ceremony were also found.
The Jewish community of Holesov was one of the oldest and largest Jewish
communities in Central Moravia. The genizah in the Shakh Synagogue (built
after 1559), however, dates from as late as the mid-19th century. A
unique discovery is that of a machzor fragment (Prague 1529) with figurative
Renaissance woodcuts, which were first used in the famous Prague Haggadah
(1526). Records of rabbinic lectures originate from pupils of Moses
Sofer, Yehezkel Landau and other authorities. The genizah also contained
painted wooden fragments from synagogue furnishings, shards from ceramic
pitchers and a paper Purim mask .
These genizah discoveries provide us
with valuable insights into the customs and interests, standards of
living and craft traditions of the rural Jewish population from the
late 17th to the mid-19th centuries. Bringing them to light is only
the start of a long-term process of conservation and research. The material
has to be sorted and identified, and the most interesting items cleaned,
registered, conserved and restored. Damaged fragments and items of lesser
interest have been buried. Only a small selection of this rare testimony
to the past can, however, be displayed in this exhibition.
Exhibition curator: Olga Sixtova,
Dr. Arno Parik
Installation: Pavel Brach