The prettiest Synagogue in England

This story begins with the Creation which, contrary to anything that I might have picked up on my recent trip to the United States of America, I firmly believe to have taken place something of the order of ten billion years ago. But there are many different ways of looking at the world and, from an artistic point of view, there is nothing to stop me from undertaking an embroidery project with a charming set of illustrations of the Biblical telling of this story.

Frankly, my sewing isn’t really up to much (as my sister and mother would no doubt be pleased to confirm) but when I discovered that the set of cushion cover kits I was about to embark upon contained only six designs, something just didn’t feel right. What about the seventh day? When you consider the fact that even the first three are likely to take me longer to complete than the Sistine Chapel I might have been getting a bit ahead of myself but, nonetheless, the Seventh Day continued to niggle and I began thinking about depicting it with a design of my own.

The seventh day is, of course, the Day of Rest and several designs featuring churches, abbeys or Cathedrals started running through my mind until I remembered that the story of Genesis is shared by Jews, Christians and Muslims alike and thought how much better it would be to include a Mosque and a Synagogue as well. There can be no argument about which Mosque I should choose, it simply has to be the Shah Jahan in Surrey. This is a delightful little local treasure built in the nineteenth century to teach the English about Islam and more recently refurbished and put back to its proper use by the strongly pacifist British Ahmadiyya Muslims. But which synagogue should I depict? London’s Bevis Marks was built by the Puritans and is definitely too severe, the Great Synagogue of Budapest overflows with baroque curlicues but is altogether too foreign. I’m sorry to say that, my immediate ideas already exhausted, I had no choice but to resort to the Internet.

The New West End Synagogue certainly lives up to its description as the prettiest synagogue in England as I found out for myself once I’d got over my embarrassment at not having known that such a jewel box lay virtually on my doorstep. And it’s just around the corner from the equally lovely St Sophia’s Greek Orthodox Cathedral, subject of an earlier and equally foolish oversight when I was working my way around the cathedrals of England a few years back.

Completed in 1879, this Grade I listed building has become one of the most sought after locations in the country for Jewish weddings, indeed the bridal canopy was still set up when I visited last Monday. I asked the Rabbi whether he had to contend with the same difficulties as Christian ministers when it came to the modesty (or otherwise) of modern bridal dresses and he said: “Oh, no, they are told what to wear beforehand”. I suppose that the fact that they have to be told at all really answered my question.

The synagogue is very active in the community as the great piles of donations for the homeless spilling out into the corridors attested. Although I was given a friendly welcome and permitted to wander around and take as many photographs as I liked no-one had time to give me a tour or a chat. Well, its not as if I had visited by appointment and apparently there was a big inter-faith event to prepare for. Something to be extremely grateful for in today’s precarious International climate.

I very much enjoyed my little visit and took away a lot more than just an appreciation of the decorative style; “the architectural high-water mark of Anglo Jewish architecture”, as it has been called. The strong sense of community and neighbourliness that I experienced echoed my recent experiences at the Morden Mosque (I didn’t get a cup of tea there, either) and contrasted starkly with the growing trend towards mono-culture which is stripping the heart out of the ancient cities of the Middle East. It’s impossible not to view the looming conflagration in that region with horror but heartening to have such a reminder here at home that different faiths do not have to mean different values and caring about other people is a universal good.

 

Categories: Britain, London

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