A Tale of Two Synagogues: Reflections on Newport and Cincinnati
By Elizabeth Humphrey, WPAMC Class of 2019
My classmates and I recently returned from our week-long Northern trip, the second installment of our summer road trips to learn about American material culture. For this field study, we focused on Southern New England, traveling to and through Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts. Our trip’s subject matter spanned from the 17th to 20th centuries to highlight the various peoples and histories found in the region. As our journey continued, I kept thinking about where religion fits into our understanding of American material culture and identity.
As much as religion was practiced in early America, it also served as an identifier that influenced social status and relations in early America. Remembering our Southern trip and my summer thesis research, I have been reflecting on the role of religion in early America and our contemporary society. My most recent blog post focused on our visit to a campground meeting site in South Carolina, a longstanding tradition of outdoor worship services that continue in different forms today. My summer thesis research included a visit to Plum Street Temple, a Reform Jewish synagogue constructed during the nineteenth century.
I encountered the theme of religion and identity during our visit to the Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island. Touro Synagogue was a new addition to this year’s itinerary. Construction began in 1759, but the synagogue officially opened in 1763. Before the temple was built, Newport’s Jewish community was already on the rise. Many families began settling in the area during the 17th and early 18th centuries due to assurances of religious freedom. Newport became known for its religious acceptance, affording many people the ability to practice their diverse faiths publicly and without fear. At the time of Touro Synagogue’s construction, the Jewish community and congregation had increased to a size that necessitated a sacred space.
Touro’s interior featured Palladian-style architecture, with its Ionic and Corinthian columns used for the ground and second floors. The synagogue’s white walls and sea-green trim make the architectural design more pronounced. While Touro Synagogue employed a Palladian-style architecture in the interior, it continued its Orthodox and Sephardic traditions of having a freestanding, centered bimah that was separate from the Ark’s location. All the sacred objects, brass ornaments, and furniture were original to the building and cleaned during Touro Synagogue’s 2006 restoration project.
While I’ve thought about Touro Synagogue and Plum Street Temple in two separate categories, they both represent identity and assimilation in different ways. Touro Synagogue’s use of Sephardic floor plans and Palladian architecture seems to merge the congregation’s Sephardic cultural roots with an architectural vocabulary popular in America during the 18th century. The synagogue was even built on a hill, taking advantage of the religious freedom found in Newport. Plum Street Temple, made almost a century later, was created as an attempt to find a “Jewish architecture” or “Jewish identity” for Reform Jewish congregations in America. The result was a Moorish revival synagogue with designs inspired by the Alhambra. Although Newport and Cincinnati’s Jewish populations were determining what their identities in America would be, they each used architecture and their religious affiliations to foster community in their new settlements, creating congregations that continue today.