Kraków: Menorahs and Showbread

Menorah, Isaac Synagogue, Kraków, Poland

After entering Kraków in September 1939, the German invaders closed the synagogues and confiscated items of value housed in them. Jews in Krakow continued to pray, of course, but did so in private. Their public houses of prayer were no longer available to them.

Friday, October 19, 2018: Beth and I visit synagogues in the Jewish District of Kazimierz, the section of Kraków where we stayed during our visit. In previous posts, I wrote about two of the synagogues located here: the Isaac Synagogue and the Remuh Synagogue. In this post, I will say something more about the Isaac Synagogue. In later ones, I will provide information about four other synagogues in Kazimierz.

Isaac Synagogue: In the small bookstore in the front entrance to the synagogue, I find and purchase a booklet titled “Isaak Synagogue in Cracow.”¹ The contents are in Polish and English. From it, I learn that in December 1939, the Nazis shot the synagogue’s rabbi for refusing to burn the Torah scrolls. The synagogue did not serve as a house of prayer from 1939 until 2007 when Chabad Lubavitch of Kraków leased the building. Since then, the Isaac Synagogue has become, once again, a functioning Jewish house of prayer.

The synagogue contains a fascinating and significant design remnant on the right side of the wall where the Aron Kodesh containing the Torah Scrolls is located. To understand its importance, we need to recall a little ancient history. When the Romans destroyed the Second Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE, the Temple’s menorah and showbread table were lost. One can see representations of these items on the Arch of Titus in Rome. Since the Temple’s destruction, these objects, or replicas of them, have not been allowed to be placed in synagogues. Fortunately, though, there was no proscription concerning two-dimensional representations of the objects. Their location within the synagogue, however, was distinct: If they appeared on the eastern wall of the synagogue, the menorah had to be on the right side of the wall, and the showbread on the left side.

The Isaac Synagogue is one of only two synagogues in Kraków that contain surviving representations of these two ritual objects, though neither of them has both. The Isaac Synagogue has just the menorah; the Kupa Synagogue has only the showbread table.

Kupa Synagogue: Located at Miodowa 27, the synagogue sits directly across from the Jewish Community Center. Its name, “Kupa,” derives from the Hebrew “kupat tzedakah,” a collection box used to fulfill the commandment to give charity. In this case, the donations supported the synagogue for, unlike the Isaac Synagogue which was funded by a single individual, the Kupa Synagogue was supported by contributions from Jewish merchants and craftsmen. It is in this synagogue that one finds the representation of the showbread.

Table of Showbread, Kupa Synagogue, Kraków, Poland

This synagogue, like all the others in Kraków, was devasted by the Nazis during World War II. But unlike many of the others, it has been painstakingly restored. It is a beautiful building, but it no longer serves as a synagogue. Instead, it now functions as a hall for exhibits and musical events.

What do you do with a building that, for whatever reason, can no longer serve its original purpose? One option, a choice taken too often, so it seems, is to do nothing, at least initially. Over time the building deteriorates, its structure weakens, its foundation cracks, until at last, it becomes such an eyesore, or safety hazard, or both, that the decision is made to tear it down and use the space for another purpose.

I remember living in North Philadelphia in the 1970s and 80s while attending graduate school at Temple University. Often I would pass the Widener Mansion then standing at Broad and Girard Streets. It seemed to be in an extended, slow, steady, state of decline. It was destroyed by fire in 1980. A fast-food chain built one of its restaurants in the cleared space. There is a sense in which one can say that it was time for the building to go. There seemed to be no one who cared for it enough or who could do something about it. Nevertheless, after the fire and the building of the restaurant my heart hurt every time I passed the corner where the building had stood and remembered what had been there.

A second option is to renovate, refurbish, and repurpose the old building. During our trip to Poland, Beth and I saw numerous examples of this option exercised for former Jewish communal buildings and houses of prayer: the old mikveh building in Tarnów, for instance, now housing a restaurant; the Stara Jewish Synagogue in Rzeszów, current home of the city’s archives.

But the best, and highest, and rarest, of options is to renovate and rededicate a building to doing what the people who envisioned it and built it meant it to do. Beth and I were fortunate to see this in the Isaac Synagogue in Kraków.

¹Fundacija Chabad w Krakowie: Synagoga Izaak w Krakowie, Drukania GRYFIX.

Photos © 2018 Beth Ben-Avraham.

Author: Gershon Ben-Avraham

Gershon Ben-Avraham is an American-Israeli writer. He lives in Beersheba, Israel, on the edge of the Negev Desert. He and his wife share their lives with a gentle blue-merle long-haired collie. Ben-Avraham earned an MA in Philosophy (Aesthetics) from Temple University. His short story, “Yoineh Bodek,” (Image) received “Special Mention” in the Pushcart Prize XLlV: Best of the Small Presses 2020 Edition. Kelsay Books published his chapbook “God’s Memory” in 2021. חב"ד‎

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