Budapest -- New Book on Dohany St. synagogue

 Tourists outside the Dohany St. synagogue during the summer Jewish culture festival, Sept. 2009. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

The second major book in less than two years has come out in Hungary on the Dohany St. synagogue -- the biggest synagogue in Europe and a major Budapest landmark, which was inaugurated just 150 years ago.

This book, titled simply "The Dohany Street Synagogue," is by the Hungarian-born American photographer Laszlo Regos, and it was published by the Hungarian publisher Alexandra to coincide with events marking the synagogue's anniversary in September. I have not seen the book yet, but Regos posted a video preview on YouTube.

Regos, who specializes in architectural photography, said that what sets his book apart from that published last year by the Budapest-based architectural historian Rudolf Klein ("The Great Synagogue of Budapest," published by the Budapest house, Terc) is the emotional aspect. Klein, he said, "put his talent as a photographer and his knowledge as an architect to it -- I gave my soul. It took me eight years to do it, and [I] approached it not just as an architectural photographer."

Regos is an accomplished photographer and clearly passionate about his subject,  and the photos on the video and on his web site are luscious. Again, I haven't seen the book yet (and don't know what text there is to go with the pictures) but one thing does bother me (it bothers me a bit in Klein's book, too, but that book is really text-driven) -- in the images I have seen, the synagogue is presented as empty; gorgeous and beautiful and artistically and architecturally powerful, but empty. People (Jews or not) are literally not in the picture(s). Yet this is one of the synagogues in Europe -- in post-Holocaust, post-communist Europe -- which is, in fact, rarely empty. On major Jewish holidays, it is packed by a congregation that spills out on the forecourt, seeing and being seeing. At other times during the year, it is crawling with tourists who often must line up to gain entry. It is, in short, a living space -- and I hope that this comes through in the book.

In 2004, Regos included photographs of the Dohany St. synagogue in an exhibition on synagogue architecture held in New York called "Palaces of Prayer." Sam Gruber mentioned this exhibit in an article on synagogue photography in The Forward. 

On his web site Regos includes the following as Artist's Statement:
      ...When I was a little boy, my parents took me there for the very first time. I didn't like the place at all.
      It was dark, gloomy; the lingering smell of crumbling plaster and mildew was in the air. I didn't understand why everyone's eyes were filled with tears.
      Later when I understood all too well, I went back whenever I could to say Kaddish for my grandparents. They didn't come back from Auschwitz, along with the other 600 thousand Hungarian Jews who perished during the Holocaust. Challenging the watchful eyes of the ever-present Secret Police, I went there with my family and friends to demonstrate that we belonged there rather than Communist Party meetings.
      The location was Budapest, Hungary. The place, the Dohany Street Synagogue.
      In 1979 I left Hungary seeking political, religious and artistic freedom.
     The next time I saw her was a few years ago. I couldn't believe my eyes! She was gorgeous and probably looked better than when she was born in 1859. Her breathtaking beauty made me fall in love.

 I too remember the Dohany Street synagogue where it was in terrible condition, dark and dank and with its ceiling sagging down over the sanctuary, swathed in plastic sheeting and held up by metal bands. But I also remember it -- even then -- as, at least on the High Holidays, being, despite everything, a place of life, where thousands of people congregated. They were there to make a statement of belonging and identity -- I'll never forget walking in to Yom Kippur services in 1983 and being aghast at the noise of what amounted to a giant schmooze fest under that sagging ceiling.