Built by Angels: The Sto­ry of the Old-New Synagogue

Mark Pod­w­al
  • Review
By – January 9, 2012

Pod­w­al con­veys the his­to­ry and leg­ends asso­ci­at­ed with the Old-New Syn­a­gogue (the Alteneuschul) in Prague, the old­est sur­viv­ing syn­a­gogue in Europe built in 1270. The lyri­cal text evokes love­ly images, describ­ing the square stones, round stones, stone doors, stone floors, stones carved like leaves, oth­ers like grapes, all brought by angels.” The spare, poet­ic style cre­ates a sense of mys­tery; this may be appro­pri­ate to the set­ting but can also leave the read­er bewil­dered by a lack of sub­stance. For instance, Pod­w­al men­tions an afikomen that hangs in the syn­a­gogue which is said to have spe­cial pro­tec­tive pow­ers and also men­tions but does not describe the many mir­a­cles that have saved the syn­a­gogue from ruin over the years. The sto­ry of the Golem gets only min­i­mal cov­er­age. These hints at deep­er sto­ries leave the book with an unre­solved feeling. 

Podwal’s sur­re­al paint­ings are full of rich col­or and a great sense of move­ment. How­ev­er, they do lit­tle to enhance the text or to cre­ate a sense of place. The descrip­tions of the synagogue’s stones and inte­ri­or dec­o­ra­tions would have been bet­ter served by more real­is­tic and detailed pic­tures of this unusu­al set­ting. An author’s note at the end of the book dis­en­tan­gles some of the myths and his­to­ry asso­ci­at­ed with the Old-New Syn­a­gogue and pro­vides addi­tion­al infor­ma­tion. A short bib­li­og­ra­phy sug­gests adult sources for fur­ther reading. 

There are few pic­ture books that focus on syn­a­gogues. Although the text and illus­tra­tions with­in this book fall short in some instances, both are cre­at­ed with skill. The title will be a wel­come addi­tion to Juda­ic col­lec­tions. In terms of for­mat the book is well­suit­ed to grades K – 3, but the com­bi­na­tion of his­to­ry and leg­end may also appeal to old­er chil­dren and even teens.

Hei­di Estrin is librar­i­an for the Feld­man Chil­dren’s Library at Con­gre­ga­tion B’nai Israel in Boca Raton, FL. She is a past chair of the Syd­ney Tay­lor Book Award Com­mit­tee for the Asso­ci­a­tion of Jew­ish Libraries.

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