On the eve of the inaugural ‘Journeys in Watercolours – Synagogues of India’ Exhibition at the Millie Phillips Gallery at Emanuel Synagogue in Sydney in June 2022, Professor Waronker spoke to IJAANZ about the beautiful synagogues of India, of synagogues as living spaces, and the inspiration behind his work. Australians will have an opportunity to view a curated selection reproductions of these artworks for the first time.
Professor Jay A. Waronker is Professor at Kennesaw State University in Atlanta. He was educated in architecture and architectural history at the University of Michigan, Harvard and Cornell Universities. He has pursued research in the history of diasporic synagogues for decades. Professor Waronker is the recipient of innumerable awards, scholarships and grants including the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, and more than two Fulbright scholarships – which he won again to study in India this year to complete detailed watercolour renderings in the centuries-old tradition of hand-drawings of synagogues in India. Professor Waronker founded and served as the curator for India’s first Jewish museum, and was advisor to the Government of Kerala. He has written extensively on the subject, including his book, ‘The Synagogues of India’, part proceeds of which are kindly donated to IJAANZ, and is available for purchase. (email@example.com)
Professor Waronker, thank you for taking the time to talk to us about your life’s work on the synagogues of India. What do the synagogues of India mean to its congregants? How were they viewed then, and now?
To their congregants, the synagogues of India were—and still are—welcome settings where they gathered and prayed, became a part of a mutual whole, joyously and solemnly celebrated holidays like Rosh Hashanah, Simchat Torah and Yom Kippur. They gathered for such life-cycle events as b’nei mitzvahs and weddings, learned Hebrew, studied Torah and Talmud and assembled to kindle Shabbat candles, offer the kiddush on wine and recite the hamotzi with bread.
“Synagogues become centres of life and friendships—and perhaps even where spouses were found. It’s much more than architecture…”
Here, they would exchange thoughts about religion and the world, come together to acknowledge timely events—the outbreak and conclusion of wars, Indian independence and the establishment of the State of Israel—pause to reflect spiritually and bodily, listen to sermons and speakers, socialise, share meals, make lifelong friends and even find spouses. As a result, so many recall and cherish their experiences growing up in the Indian synagogues, which are dear to their hearts and psyche. People love their modest structures as much as the fanciest and most beautifully designed ones.
Some see them solely as community buildings and don’t worry too much about aesthetics and space. Synagogues become centres of life and friendships—and perhaps even where spouses were found. It’s much more than architecture, but still the architecture deserves centre attention.
Tell us more about your experiences about studying and painting the synagogues of India.
Some forty structures constructed as synagogues can be found in India today. Among them are fully functioning ones, open yet marginally active, closed but still intact and repurposed.
“Remarkably, some of these synagogues date from the mid-sixteenth century and are among the oldest synagogues in the Commonwealth.”