A Tale of Two Synagogues
BETH SHOLOM SYNAGOGUE: FRANK LLOYD WRIGHT AND MODERN RELIGIOUS
by Joseph Siry
University of Chicago Press, 736 pp., $65
ARCHITECTURE AND WORSHIP IN AN EIGHTEENTH-CENTURY POLISH COMMUNITY
by Thomas C. Hubka
Brandeis University Press, 226 pp., $35
In December 1953, Rabbi Mortimer Cohen led a small delegation from his Conservative synagogue in Philadelphia to meet with Frank Lloyd Wright in his suite at the Plaza Hotel in Manhattan. Wright was in his eighties; he was a celebrity and the greatest architect alive—a fact of which he and the rabbi were both well aware.
Rabbi Cohen approached Wright with due reverence, and Wright graciously hearkened to him. Cohen wanted a building that looked like a mountain, a kind of "portable Mount Sinai," brought to suburban Philadelphia. Wright liked the idea. As it happened, he already had the pyramid shape in his repertoire. His drawings for his unbuilt "Steel Cathedral" of the late 1920s foreshadow Beth Sholom.
Rabbi Cohen was a student and follower of Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, who hoped for the development of a distinctly American Judaism. For his part, Wright preached and practiced a distinctively American architecture. (In fact, he invented and relentlessly promoted the word "Usonian" to mean United States-ian.) When he mailed the preliminary drawings for Beth Sholom to Rabbi Cohen, he described the new synagogue as "truly a religious tribute to the living God. Judaism needs one in America. To do it for you has pleased me . . . Here you have a coherent statement of worship. I hope it pleases you and your people." (Wright was a genius, but did sometimes sound like a pompous windbag.)
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