Joyce Ellen Weinstein
The Wooden Synagogues of Lithuania, p.2

Records show that Jews were already settled in Lithuania well before the fourteenth century. In the mid-sixteenth century Lithuania and Poland merged under common government and legislation. During the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the complex political relationship of Poland, Lithuania and Russia (a subject well outside the scope of this article) brought many more Jews to Lithuania, mostly from Poland. One of the first buildings constructed in each new Shtetl was the synagogue.

According to Rosa Bielioiskiene, Chief Curator of the Vilna Gaon Jewish State Museum, the newest of the synagogues is close to one hundred years old. The oldest of these Baroque buildings (dating from the seventeenth century) were scattered in villages across the country like Valkininkai, Jubarkas, Saukenai and Vilkaviskis. These villages once had sizable Jewish populations and in some cases were completely Jewish. Construction of wooden synagogues continued until the early part of the twentieth century, with more than twenty-three constructed between the nineteenth and the early twentieth centuries. After World War I, almost nine percent of the total population of Lithuania was ethnically Jewish, and up until the Second World War there were 500 to 600 different kinds of Jewish prayer houses in the country.

Because of the abundance of forestland in Poland, the settlers were experienced in using wood. Lithuania’s vast woodland (similar to Poland’s in its magnitude) made construction of the synagogues simple and affordable. There is no definitive evidence as to whether Jews or Lithuanians actually built the structures, but it is generally assumed that Jews at least ordered the construction to their specifications. They were able to tell the workers how to build what they wanted. Later, into the twentieth century, professionals and architects were hired.

Generally, wooden synagogues took on the appearance of barns so as not be conspicuous. To avoid competition with the churches located in the center of town, synagogues were usually erected in areas reserved for the Jewish quarter. But there are conflicting stories about where Jews lived. According to some people we interviewed, Jews were scattered throughout the village and lived wherever their shops were located. Others claimed Jews lived in specific areas. In either case, for safety, buildings were enclosed and monumental. There were often no significant details on the façade to identify them.

The interiors of some of the synagogues were elaborately decorated. It is probable that except for very early on, Jews painted the interiors. They might have seen the elaborate ornamentation inside neighboring churches and used that model to create their own decorations. However, there was no special tradition or imagery for the Jewish artists to draw upon so they had to invent the imagery as they went along. The artists would work on the decoration after finishing a day’s work. It is possible that someone a little more prosperous in the village requested and paid for the work, but most probably it was purely a labor of love. (This is only an educated assumption). Experts now characterize the decoration in the synagogues as folk art.

In Kurkliai, a village of 117 families, located about 100 kilometers northwest of Vilnius, we found the synagogue behind several very old wooden cottages. Built somewhere between 1915 and 1939, it is similar in style to eighteenth-century Romanticist/Historicist architecture. The square building is one story, with a little corner tower and a small peaked roof that accommodated stairs to the women’s balcony. The façade is plain with some elements of Moorish styling in the window frames; narrow and high with a peaked triangle as a crown. A Star of David can be seen on the facade of the building. It is not known what the glass in the windows actually looked like. Today the windows have been boarded up.

[1]       2       [3]       [next->]
October 2005

Keri HaRishon
Bruce Lokeinsky

Happy Jew Year
Haya Pomrenze

Ochila La'Eil
Hayes Biggs

The Wooden Synagogues of Lithuania
Joyce Ellen Weinstein

Fetishizing the Trigger
Jay Michaelson

The Goats of War
Jennifer Blowdryer

Our 760 Back Pages

Zeek in Print
Fall 2005 issue out this month

About Zeek

Mailing List

Contact Us


Tech Support


From previous issues:

Two Incidents at the Cafe Kamienica
Gordon Haber

Jay Michaelson

Bush the Exception
Samuel Hayim Brody