Written by Louis Davidson
Art Nouveau is a grand and romantic design style found in art, architecture and the decorative arts. With its sweeping flourishes and themes taken from flowers and nature, it bridged the gap between ornately curly-cued Victorian and the stern geometry of Art Deco. Art Nouveau’s popularity was at its height during the Belle Époque in the late 1800s and early 1900s and is nowhere better seen than in Paris.
To my knowledge there are only two synagogues that were built in the Art Nouveau style. One, in Subotica, Serbia, we photographed in 2010. The other, on Rue Pavée in Paris’ Marais district, had remained elusive. The Agoudas Hakehilos Synagogue, popularly known as the Pavée Synagogue, was designed by none other than Hector Guimard, who was one of the greatest Art Nouveau architects, and certainly one of the most productive. His accomplishments include the iconic Paris Metro station entrances as well as numerous magnificent buildings.
Around the turn of the century there was a great migration of Jews from Russia and Eastern Europe to the west. Many settled in Paris. By 1913, Agoudas Hakehilos (Union of Communities), a group of nine small Orthodox Jewish congregations of primarily Russian and Polish origin, acquired a very narrow parcel of land at 10 rue Pavée. In a grand gesture to create their new synagogue in the esthetic vocabulary of their new homeland, they asked Hector Guimard to design their building. Guimard, who was not Jewish, had never before designed a building with a religious purpose. The size limitations of the site made the project even more difficult. It is believed he took on this challenging assignment as a favor to his Jewish wife.
Last February, as part of my preparation for an October visit to Paris, I began attempting to obtain permission to photograph the Pavée Synagogue. My initial emails went unanswered. Thinking there might be a language barrier (I’m hopelessly monolingual), I had a French-fluent friend send emails. No answer, nada, zip. It was time to call in some favors. I asked for help from the European Jewish Community organization, which has used many of my synagogue photos in their books and publications. They put me in touch with people in high positions in the Paris Jewish Community. Amazingly, these highly positioned people only led to a highly confusing labyrinth of other contacts which were ultimately time consuming dead ends. I’d never even seen a photo of the interior of the Pavée, and as I became lost in this bureaucratic web spun by masters of evasion, I understood why.
A month before my arrival in Paris I had occasion to visit with a professional videographer who had made arrangements to film a television documentary about the Pavée synagogue. She said that although she had permission, when she arrived at the building with her filming crew, she was denied entrance. It became clear that whatever they were hiding in there, I wasn’t going to get to take pictures of it.
Fast forward nine months to October in Paris. Though I had given up on any possibility of photographing the Pavée, my wife and I ventured to the gemutlich Marais district to enjoy a good Jewish lunch. The narrow streets of the Marais are lined with Jewish restaurants, bookstores, art galleries and purveyors of all things Judaic. Chasidic rabbis roam the streets inviting Jewish tourists to join them in prayer or visit their prayer rooms. I was approached by a red-bearded enthusiastic young rabbi, who invited us to see his prayer room. Through a doorway, along a dark passage, up a narrow staircase and we were there. If this sounds like a setup for a mugging, it wasn’t.
“Would you like to put on tefillin?” he asked. “I don’t know how,” I replied. “It will strengthen your bond with G-d and give your prayers more power. Here, I’ll help you”, he answered. I wasn’t sure that this was a good idea, but the young rabbi was so sincere and charming that I didn’t want to disappoint. In seconds he had me wrapped in tefillin, following him in some basic prayers. After unwrapping, we strolled over to the Pavée synagogue just to see it, with no thought of photography. I wasn’t even carrying my 70 lbs of camera gear.
The door to the Pavée was locked. As we stood looking at the exterior, the locked door opened to admit a person who evidently was part of the inner cabal. Not one to dally, my wife slipped in behind him and I followed. We were promptly told to leave. Just as promptly, my spouse put on the charm and asked if we could just take a look … we’d come all the way from Oklahoma, after all. Grudgingly, we were allowed to go up to the women’s balcony and take a quick look; under no circumstances were we to enter the main sanctuary.
Upstairs, we saw a stern, bearded, black-garbed rabbi entering a room adjacent to the balcony. I approached him and explained that I had been trying unsuccessfully to arrange photographic permission for nearly 10 months, that my cause was worthy and my objectives noble. He gave me the telephone number of the congregation’s president who, he said, was the only person who could authorize my photographic incursion into their inner sanctum.
When we reached the entrance lobby I dialed the number he had given me. It didn’t work. A cordial Chasid Shamash overheard my frustration. He looked at the number I was dialing and said, “You’ve been given the wrong number. Those guys upstairs do that.” Dialing my mobile phone, in a moment he had me connected to the congregation President. I felt like the Tin Man in the Wizard of Oz, who, after a host of obstacles, was finally talking to the Wizard. Overcoming my discouragement, I explained my desire to photographically document the Pavée for posterity. And “Voila!”, as they say in France, he agreed!
We now have what may be the only documentary photos of the interior of this unique Art Nouveau synagogue. Is this tefillin power or what? You tell me.