Riga Synagogue sees new life ahead

  • 2006-02-22
  • By Paul Morton
RIGA - In 1904, a small group of wealthy Jewish merchants fought a maze of rules to open a synagogue in Peitavas Street in Riga's Old Town. It would be far from the Moscow District where they lived, but close to the shops and markets where they worked. In Czarist Russia, synagogues were prohibited from being built too close to churches, so they had to get permission from the pastor of a Reform Church with which it would share the block.

The German architect Wilhelm Neumann (who had also been responsbile for the striking Museum of Fine Arts), a follower of the Jugendstil school, had been contracted and a total of 150,000 rubles had been spent. Finally, in the days before Rosh Hoshannah, they had gotten everything ready when the local government decided to forbid the synagogue's opening.

A meeting between the wealthy benefactors of the synagogue and a local governor followed. An article in a Yiddish newspaper from the 1930s recounts a key speech:

"Young people are being led astray by the revolutionary movement. And with each day, the movement's influence is stronger and stronger. So in order to restrain young people from these ideas, we decided to build a beautiful synagogue."

The answer, perhaps goaded by fears of the incipient threat of 1905: "Go and pray."

Forty years later, it was the only synagogue among hundreds in the country to survive World War II. An obscure Psalm was written atop the marble alter, "Blessed art you the good, for you did not allow teeth to tear me," to remember the 80,000 to 100,000 Latvian Jews who did not. Michael Freydman, the synagogue's guide, claimed that a pastor at that local Reform Church had instructed the Nazis not to burn the synagogue as it put his church in danger.

The Riga Synagogue still functions today and if you come by anytime from Sunday to Friday you'll probably meet Freydman, a plump sardonic bachelor of 47. It's the winter now and he's receiving few visitors. In the summer, he gets a deluge of American and Israeli tour groups, "the allied forces" as he calls them. When I came by on a weekday afternoon, a repairman was fixing the hinge on the congregation hall's green wooden door. Freydman: "It's no great tragedy."

Freydman grew up with the synagogue, and recalls its problems under Soviet rule in the 70s. "Jews were suspicious. [Russian authorities] thought Zionism and Judaism were the same thing." Jewish holidays were celebrated in as integrated a way as possible. "We would be outside the synagogue drinking vodka, Russian-style."

For as long as Freydman has known the synagogue, it hasn't changed. It still has the same dilapidated brown-and-yellow pews, and the same splintery green door. Much of the synagogue will be renovated soon.

There's an old black piano in the basement embossed with a Star of David and accoutred with two candlestick holders. In the back of the congregation hall is a bookcase of 19th-century Talmuds printed in Vilnius, which was once one of the great centers of Jewish learning. They survived only because the Nazis couldn't find them. The bindings are peeling, and the pages are ripped.

Two palm fronds are etched atop the doorway and the pillars are stacked with lotus leaves. Freydman has what some others feel to be a dubious theory that the decorations are related to the era in which the synagogue was built. In 1904, Zionism was in its nascent state in Germany. "This was a time when Jews were trying to remember their roots [in Egypt]," says Freydman.

A few days later, I sat in the office of Rabbi Mordechai Glazman, an Israeli-American Hasid who first came to Riga in 1992 with his wife and son to start a Chabad service. He became the synagogue's head rabbit in 2004. Now has 10 children 's "a minyan." He told me I had to take much of what Freydman had told me with a grain of salt.

He didn't believe the story of the priest. "Of course, the Germans didn't want to burn the synagogue down. It was in the middle of a crowded city." The books Freydman honored were of course spiritually valuable, but in his opinion, no more worthy of study than any modern prayerbook. He rolled his eyes at the idea that the palm fronds could have any Zionist connection. (Glazman didn't say so himself, but the Art Nouveau style that was popular in Riga at the time involved prettifying buildings with an elegant kitschy style, playing with strange decorations and patterns that meant absolutely nothing.) So much for guides.


Saturday, the Sabbath, is the one day of the week when Freydman doesn't attend the synagogue. Riga's Jewish community 's approximately 5,000 strong 's was represented in the main hall by a group of 50 or so men. In keeping with Orthodox tradition, the women and children sat in the rafters, sometimes peeking behind a blue curtain.

There were a few Hasidim dressed in black, including an American who was living in Riga and worked in marketing. The cantor, Zeev Shulman, a 33-year-old round-faced trained opera singer with glasses and some light facial hair, stood at the pulpit and sang out the prayers. The congregation was made up of old men in old fraying suits and ties, wearing yarmulkes, milling about through the service from pew to pew, casually socializing. There were some younger more devout members rocking back and forth in prayer. A few whispered casual conversation to each other. One man sat and read a Russian newspaper.

There were a few 90-somethings in the group, a few of whom, I had been told, were swept up by the Russians in the gulag system before they could be sent to a Nazi death camp.

When I looked up into the rafters, where in accordance with Orthodox Jewish custom, women and children sit far from the men, I caught the eye of a young redhead who immediately closed the curtain in front of her. During the torah reading, the more devout became impatient with the casual parishioners. They banged on the banisters and demanded silence, which they never fully received.

When I asked Glazman about this later, he said, "Do you expect 80-year-old men to learn and study Hebrew?"

At 12:30, we had the Kiddush meal. Long tables had been set up with theater seats from a failed movie theater serving as chairs. Plastic plates and cups. Radishes, gefilte fish and matzo bread. A bottle of wine and shots of vodka in plastic cups for all the men. The women and children still sat separately. But now, everyone was in the same room.

I talked to Shulman, the cantor. "Before the war, the synagogue had a very good children's choir," he said. "They played at the Latvian Opera House. 'Carmen.'" With some foreign funding, he's looking to revive the tradition.

Freydman had told me that he greatly disliked Prague's Jewish Quarter, in which old synagogues had been converted to museums charging admission. "It was part of Hitler's dream to turn Judaism into a museum." The Riga Synagogue, in the time before its renovation, may feel more old than young. But it is emphatically not a cemetery.