Hidden Away in Jerusalem, a Chagall Synagogue Gem

The windows at Hadassah Ein-Kerem Hospital were the artist's 'modest gift to the Jewish people, who have always dreamed of biblical love.'

In France and the United Kingdom, grandiose churches from as far back as the medieval period still tower and impose their characters on today’s town and village centers. This contrasts with Jerusalem, whose numerous synagogues of great character have to be sought out. Many of them are in unlikely places. Indeed, visit any government, medical or educational institution in Jerusalem and you can assume that somewhere within you will find a gem of a synagogue that is in daily use and lovingly cared-for by its devotees. Typical are the Hecht synagogue on Hebrew University’s Mount Scopus, with its picture-window over the Old City framed by its two arks, and the diminutive but tasteful and comfortably-furnished Beth Hamidrash (synagogue and Torah study room) deep within the Ministry of Tourism.

Perhaps the most famous of this genre is the Fannie and Maxwell Abbell Synagogue, in the central square of Hadassah Ein-Kerem hospital. Dwarfed and encircled by the towering medical buildings, it looks from the outside as if Moses’ two tablets of stone have morphed into a modernized three. On closer inspection, however, they turn out to be glass works of art that convey the lives and characters of the twelve tribes of Israel. These are conveyed in a special stained-glass medium that uses up to three different colors in a single pane, rather than separating them with the standard lead strip. It is not at all obvious that they are within a synagogue. Indeed, they are just the top. The rest of the place of worship is underground.

These windows are the fruit of two years of intensive creativity by world-ranking artist Marc Chagall (1887-1985), in his workshop on the Cote d’Azur, France. Chagall’s style took in his early Belarus hassidic roots in the town of Vitebsk, his maturing experiences in the art schools of St. Petersburg and Paris and his growing love for the essentially human dimensions of the Hebrew Scriptures. Though subtly bringing in elements of the cubism, symbolism and surrealism of his day, he sought for his individualist work to be understood on its own merits. Indeed, Chagall’s floating, dreamlike human and animal figures were characteristic of his remark that he did not so much see the Bible as dreamed of it, as the greatest source of poetry of all time.

Each window is dedicated to a different tribe of Israel, taking the Biblical description of the qualities of each tribe in Genesis 49 and Deuteronomy 33 as its starting point. Thus, “Judah, your brothers shall praise you… Judah is like a young lion… The ruling scepter shall not depart from Judah”, and “The richest foods will come from Asher; he shall provide the king’s delights… He is blessed… he shall be accepted amongst his brothers and anointed in oil”. Chagall infuses these images with the mystique of his vividly-imaged figures drifting in the air, which radiantly come to life as the moving sun filters through at different angles, giving the figures a mobility that transcends time and space. Part of this very distinct aura comes from his close identity with his people’s past, his childhood in Vitebsk, and the more recent cataclysmic narrative of the Jewish people. “All the time I was working, I felt my mother and father looking over my shoulder and behind them were Jews, millions of vanished Jews – of yesterday and a thousand years ago.”

The wood-paneling, the matching synagogue furniture and the beige cotton, wool, and silk ark curtain combine to create a gentle mood that offsets the sometimes fierce images in the windows. The simple Jerusalem-stone floor both absorbs and reflects the presence of the changing, filtering hues from Chagall’s twelve masterpieces. Outside prayer time, visitors to the synagogue are guided by an audio-commentary available in several languages, interspersed by extracts from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons.

Though Chagall executed stained glass windows by similar methods in churches, such as in Reims (France) and Tudeley (U.K.), those at Hadassah (Jerusalem) were especially close to his heart. As he declared at the windows’ installation in February 1962: “This is my modest gift to the Jewish people, who have always dreamt of biblical love, friendship and of peace among all people. This is my gift to that people which lived here thousands of years ago among the other Semitic people”. Aptly, nearly half-a-century later, Hadassah was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for its medical partnership programs with hospitals and their personnel in the Arab sector of Jerusalem, as well as further away in the West Bank and Gaza.

Allow an hour for your visit.

The synagogue is in the central square of Hadassah Hospital, Ein-Kerem, Jerusalem. Entrance is from inside the hospital only. Tel. (02) 677-7111. Open Sunday-Thurday, 8 A.M. to 3:30 P.M. Entrance fee. Bus lines: 12, 19, and 27.

Jacob Solomon