To me, one of the most striking aspects of Cincinnati's seven hills are the tiny steeples that dot nearly every peak, their numerous spires serving as a constant reminder that this is a blessed town. Many such houses of worship are similar not only in style (Gothic revival is popular), but also in denomination -- it seems the majority of these structures house Jesus-centered congregations. So how could I choose a diamond in the rough among such conspicuous beauties? Well, the simple answer is that I didn't. I thought I'd see what Judaism has to offer instead and found a gleaming gem in the PLUM STREET/WISE TEMPLE.
Along with the influx of other German immigrants in the mid-19th century came a substantial migration of German Jews. With Rabbi Isaac Wise as their leader, the already prominent congregation quickly became "a center of national Jewish life" pioneering the Reform Judaism movement.
They therefore needed a facility to match their ambitions. Renowned Cincinnati architect James Keyes Wilson proved to be the man for the job, designing a visionary temple that was finally completed in 1866, whose all-inclusive style evokes tenets of the Reform movement itself.
The Reform Judaism Web site best describes their inclusive policies as follows: They strive to "enable Jewish people to introduce innovation while preserving tradition, to embrace diversity while asserting commonality, to affirm beliefs without rejecting those who doubt and to bring faith to sacred texts without sacrificing critical scholarship." Reform Jews include anyone who wishes to devote him or herself to Judaism, and instead of persecuting "non-believers," they choose to accept and respect other monotheistic religions.
In Architecture in Cincinnati, author Sue Ann Painter describes how the Plum Street Temple merges disparate religious influences. It evokes a Gothic cathedral in its implementation of a tripartite façade, a rose window within a pointed arch and a basilica-style plan. Yet its Islamic influence is readily visible in the twin minarets (the double towers on the façade), and Moorish details are clear in the abstract, colorful decorative motifs. This harmonious mix is especially evident in the temple's interior.
Upon entering and viewing the temple plan, it would be very easy to mistakenly believe yourself inside a cathedral: The central nave is flanked by two side aisles that lead into a transept. Even the 13 domes that adorn the ceiling are reminiscent of Byzantine architecture. Yet the exotic motifs and use of words (Hebrew inscriptions) as decoration that cover every interior surface but the floor offer an explosion of color and pattern overload in a way that is unique to Islamic décor.
This Byzantine-Islamic temple design developed in 19th-century Germany. Intended to harken back to "a previous era of the golden age of Spain in Jewish history," temples of this style play upon the stylistic influences of the Moorish architecture of Spain, incorporated through exposure to monuments such as the Alhambra. Germany enjoyed a wealth of such unique synagogues for a time; however, Hitler later destroyed all such architectural monuments. Today only two remain in America -- besides the Plum Street Temple, one exists in New York City.
I had the recent pleasure of attending a wedding ceremony at the Plum Street Temple. It was an enchanting experience. The interior glows with an ethereal light that enhances the exoticism already apparent in the Moorish decorative motifs. Sure, Cincinnati might be largely associated with German Catholics, but the meticulously preserved Plum Street Temple is a unique, dazzling reminder that this town is simultaneously a historic center of Jewish culture, religion and learning.
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