‘A snapshot of history’ an illuminating incident taken from that tattered old photo album that makes up our shared experience. It’s a big tome, some of it is embarrassing, some pages we cannot bear to look at, others make us laugh and cry simultaneously – like any family album. But this is different, this isn’t any family album, this is our family.
The city prospers, struggles and prospers, and those in exile, self-imposed or involuntary, seek the peace of the city. And often there is not much peace to be found. The beckoning Atlantic speaks to the best and worst of the city. It is part sinister Leviathan accepting our worst sins, our inhumanity and part a swelling Galilee bringing tales of new life and our capacity for great acts of humanity.
Human lives weave around each other to survive and thrive and begin to flourish. A beautiful stoic synagogue, in a beautiful stoic city. Orthodox, sometimes austere, hardworking, but they know how to kick it come Purim. And so beautiful. Designed by a couple of Edinburgh architects who do not know the first thing about Judaism. They design a huge space for a massive organ oblivious to the fact the congregation won’t use one. They adopt a mix of styles, heavily influenced by Moorish Revival, equally creative and naive in their mixing of influences. The money for the building, raised from donations of all sizes from across the social spectrum abruptly runs short and the inside has still to be decorated. So the women hold a market and raise three grand (this is a Victorian three grand of course) and the synagogue is done out splendidly.
The synagogue innovates through the tumult of war and societal upheaval with its unique mixed gender choir blending Hebrew tradition and English choral music. Just as profound shocks have forced cultures to weave together in new ways and likewise social classes, genders are learning to weave together their voices in new ways singing ancient words in a building designed to transport these voices and the congregation listening to them.
There is peace in the city and there is struggle. Both the inequality that led to squalor and the cohesion that led to flourishing is put to the test by this new fractious peace. It is a peace that is implemented piecemeal and sometimes not at all. Then as tensions flare once again in this city, this gateway to the Atlantic, people break into this beautiful synagogue and set it on fire. Inside, the lovingly painted surfaces are destroyed. A sanctuary, a home, a place to leaven the spirit is reduced to ash.
It is just over a hundred years since the building was consecrated and here they are again left with an empty shell they must fill. Keen to restore what they can, the synagogue turns in vain hope to the company that originally carried out the painting, generations before, to ask for guidance. Are there any records they can work from? It so happens the company still has the stencils.
And they are splattered with paint.
Now they can recreate the stunning interior, using the stencils and the paint left on them to find the right colours. Careful diligent craftspeople have unwittingly retained a ‘back up’ of the emotional weight of a beautiful stoic people in a beautiful stoic city – all the more beautiful and the more stoic for having such an important part of it restored and proudly resilient against the hate and pettiness. And the choir still sings. And their hearts still sing. And the building still stands. And so do we.
Princes Road Synagogue, Liverpool.