Blog  Diversity of Jewish Life in Middle Ages (Less Foreign Than You Would Think!)

Diversity of Jewish Life in Middle Ages (Less Foreign Than You Would Think!)

Today we went on a tiyul to the Israel museum. Our main focus was the diversity and uniformity of the different Jewish communities and the Jewish life in the Middle Ages. After the Jews were expelled from Spain, they dispersed across Europe, Asia, and other continents.

We viewed a temple diagram that was from the Kadavumbagam Synagogue from India. This temple featured aspects of Sephardic Jewish traditions, such as the bimah located in the center of the temple instead of at the front synagogue. The diagram also contained Sephardic scrolls, that open like a book and then turn, instead of needing to be unrolled, such as the traditional torah scrolls. This temple also had large windows, so women could watch the service from outside.

This separation of women is also featured in the Italian Vittorio Veneto Synagogue. However in the Italian synaogue, women sat above men in the balcony. The Italian Synagogue was very elegant and beautiful; showing signs of the Christian Church influence.  The Vittorio Veneto also took after the Sephardic traditions by having pews turned toward the center for the torah reading and service, just as the Indian center bimah was for.

The third temple experience we viewed was the Horb Synagogue from Germany. This temple was very modest and easily mistaken for a barn except for the elegant artwork on the inside. The German temple was made out of wood just like the Kadavumbagam synagogue. This had to do with the geographic differences, since wood and forests happened to be available to these temples, but not the Italian one. The Horb Synagogue was much more modest than the Italian temple. I was interested to see Jerusalem depicted in the paintings on the walls of this german synagogue, which shows the Jewish community during that time had not forgotten their land.

The last temple diorama we visited was the Tzedek Ve-Shalom Synagogue in Suriname. This synagogue was very different from the others, and the impact South America had on the temple was clear. The floors were made of wood, but covered in sand so that the common wooden shoes of the Surinamese people would not make unpleasant noise on the floor. It was powerful to the similarities in the temples were similar, even in such different areas, but also how the surrounding cultures had impacted the individual synagogues.

Our traditions and styles may have differed slightly from place to place, but the Hebrew language kept the Jews together. All the Jewish books and scriptures that had been found throughout the world were written in Hebrew. Some of the art and the format in the books had been changed, but our language remained the same. Many artifacts that weren’t too foreign to our modern day culture were discovered as well. In Morocco, the holder of a prayer shawl was found with a prayer honoring thy mother and father in Hebrew. This is very similar if not nearly the same as our modern day Talit.
An ancient German stone used for breaking a glass on a wedding day was also uncovered. We still practice the tradition of breaking glass on a wedding today, to remember the destruction of the temple. No matter how dispersed we are, or how distant in time we are from each other, all Jews will always continue the same general traditions, and we will always have history in common.

Eliana Mann is a sophomore from Lafayette, California. She belongs to Temple Isaiah and is a member of NFTY-CWR