If you build it…

January 2, 2011

Kevin Costner has been coming to mind while reading the JC recently.  Rarely does a week go by without one synagogue or another revealing plans for a new building.

What has struck me most about these announcements is that many seem to follow an inordinately long period of gestation.  It’s not uncommon, for example, to read that a community has, after 36 years, finally found a course of action that satisfies the neighbours, the local planning department and the members (especially the members), such that ground will be broken for their magnificent new home in weeks.  And by weeks I suspect they mean “some unspecified time in the future when we have raised enough money for a builder to take us seriously”.

How can the Shard be piercing the sky within days of the unveiling of its plans, yet it takes years for any quick drying cement to make its acquaintance with the foundations of what is, let’s face it, the equivalent of a small warehouse space?

I’ll tell you how. Outside a synagogue everyone’s an anti-Semite, and inside a synagogue everyone’s an architect, a planning expert or an interior designer.  Especially an interior designer. Or more accurately, everyone is all three of them.  Everyone knows best and everyone else is a schmuck.  If one person says the walls should be green, everyone else says it should be another colour.  What colour should it be?  “I don’t know’, one will admit, “but definitely not green.  What about gold? Gold is nice.  Or Magenta?” Then another expert will cry out “Gold?  Magenta? Don’t be ridiculous!” And so it goes.

The simple truth is that no Jew should be allowed anywhere near shul design, especially not the internal bits. Not unless you want the inside of your prayer house to be in the style of Juif Quatorze.  You know what I mean: white marble floors, Ionic columns everywhere, plastic protectors covering burgundy velour upholstery.  Do you want the walls of your shul festooned with bronze and gold lamé drapes?  Do you want your ark to be in mahogany veneer with rolling doors like a 1970’s television cabinet? Do you want a four-ton crystal ner tamid with a thousand glistening lamps hanging off it?

As far as prayer venue design is concerned we’d do well to look to our Christian neighbours for inspiration. They have a penchant for images of nearly naked men being tortured, there’s neither leg-room nor sufficient comfort for a quick shluf, and they have clearly never heard of heating.

All this is deliberate.  Vicars realise that the last thing they want is for their places of worship to be welcoming.  This will only lead to people hanging around and arguing with each other about the curtains, the furniture and the minister.  Whereas we Jews lay on a small feast after the service, priests give their congregants one wafer, a sip of wine, then shoo them on their way, standing by the door to make sure they all disappear quickly.

That’s the attitude to adopt.   If you build it they won’t come.