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Tuesday, October 21, 2014

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Photographer finds a personal connection to fabled synagogue

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Orah Buck

To Orah Buck, a Toronto photographer and former Hebrew teacher, the twice destroyed and twice resurrected Hurva Synagogue in Jerusalem’s Jewish quarter is imbued with special meaning and resonance.

The shul is not only emblematic of the continued presence of Jews in this most contested of cities, but an enduring symbol of their yearning for Zion, she said last week.

Built by Ashkenazi Jews in the early 18th century, it was set alight by Arab moneylenders in 1721 when its Jewish congregants failed to repay a debt. As a result of this incident, Ashkenazi Jews were banned from the city until the debt could be repaid.

The Hurva Synagogue  [Orah Buck photo]

Forlornly lying in ruins for more than a century, the neo-Byzantine synagogue was rebuilt in 1864. For more than 80 years, it was a landmark, one of the tallest structures in Jerusalem and one of the most beautiful synagogues in all of Palestine.

Visited by the British philanthropist Moses Montefiore in 1866, it was the venue of a memorial service for Queen Victoria after her death in 1901.

Blown up by Jordan’s Arab Legion during the 1948 War of Independence, it was again rebuilt, and officially reopened on March 15, 2010.

Buck, whose parents, Abraham Meir and Rachel, were born in Jerusalem, has a personal connection to the tragic yet inspirational story of this fabled synagogue.

Her father’s great-grandfather, Rabbi Avraham Meir Ben Yirmiyahu, played an instrumental role in the rebuilding of the shul in the 19th century.

It was he who carried a klaf – an important Jewish document written in florid fashion on kosher parchment – to Europe to raise funds for its reconstruction. His mission was successful. Thanks in part to his efforts, the Hurva arose from the ashes.

The inextricable link between Buck’s family and the synagogue was delineated by Buck’s cousin in Jerusalem, Ruth Marcus, a retired professor of mathematics at Tel Aviv University and a member of the Israel Genealogy Society.

Two decades ago, while researching the genealogy of her family over the centuries in Palestine, she heard about a klaf that aroused her curiosity.

Owned by an Orthodox Jewish  family in Jerusalem, it contained Rabbi Ben Yirmiyahu’s name in bold letters. Bowled over by the discovery, she and her cousin sought to buy the klaf, but the owners preferred to keep it in their possession.

Two years ago, when Buck visited Israel, she and Marcus went to see the klaf once again. This time, she was allowed to take a photograph of it.

To Buck’s delight, the photograph was placed in the vestibule of the rebuilt synagogue.

When it was officially reopened in the presence of Israeli politicians and rabbis after about five years of construction, Buck was permitted unveil the klaf.

“It was an amazing experience,” she said. “It was like unveiling a Rembrandt painting.”

She added, “Despite Arab protests, the dedication ceremony was a joyous occasion. Adults and children alike danced and sang with great fervour and hope for the future.”

Palestinian leaders claimed that the reconstruction of the synagogue was a sign of Israel’s intention to destroy the Temple Mount. Indeed, Hamas described the opening of the shul as “a declaration of war,” while Iran called it a “catastrophe that has distressed the Islamic world.”

In honour of its resurrection and her family’s historic ties to the synagogue, Buck has made a 38-minute documentary film, which is available in DVD form.

Titled The Hurva and the Klaf, the film, with a musical score by the late Canadian composer Srul Irving Glick, recounts the turbulent history of the synagogue and her family’s relationship with it.

Buck hopes that the DVD will inspire viewers to visit Jerusalem and spend time in the Hurva Synagogue.

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