The architectural structures that people envision, design, and build serve purposes beyond their intended use. Especially in the built, urban environment, argues Saskia Coenen Snyder, we can "read" the socio-political, cultural, and ideological footprint of different communities in time and place.
A specialist in modern Jewish history, Professor Coenen Snyder completed a detailed comparative study of religious structures in her first book, Building a Public Judaism: Synagogues and Jewish Identity in Nineteenth-Century Europe, published in 2013 with Harvard University Press. Researched in four different languages, her analysis illustrates the many complexities of 19th-century Jewish life, primarily in Amsterdam, London, Paris, and Berlin. She has been sharing her findings with her undergraduate students since she joined the College of Arts and Sciences faculty in 2008.
“I looked at how synagogues were envisioned, how they were debated, why certain locations were chosen, and why Jews built in a certain style,” she says. “When you consider all these questions —and evaluate them through a local lens — then you can tell how differently Jewish communities lived in 19th century Europe, even though these communities were not located that far from each other,” she says. “Synagogues show us how Jews lived, their social ambitions, their political aspirations, how they thought about themselves, and how they wanted to be seen by others.”
Professor Coenen Snyder is currently working on her second book, which analyzes the 19th-century transatlantic diamond trade and the roles of various Jewish communities in it. Tentatively entitled Diasporic Gems: Diamonds, Jews, and Nineteenth-Century Global Commerce, the book examines how precious stones traveled from South African diamond mines to cities like Amsterdam and Antwerp, where working class Jews were entrusted with the cutting and polishing of stones, which then found their way to upscale retail districts in London and New York City. Similarly to synagogues, diamonds have fascinating stories to tell, stories from which we can learn a tremendous amount.
Trained in both Jewish History and Literature, Professor Coenen Snyder teaches undergraduate surveys of modern Jewish history and European civilization, as well as several specialized courses and seminars on the Holocaust. She is one of the founders of the University of South Carolina’s interdisciplinary Jewish Studies Program, which became an official program of the University in 2008.
Throughout her career, Professor Coenen Snyder has received support from many notable organizations, including the National Endowment for the Humanities, the DAAD, and the National Foundation for Jewish Culture. One of her most treasured honors, however, came from undergraduate students. In 2014, she received one of the University’s highest teaching awards: the Mungo Undergraduate Teaching Award.“You’re nominated by students, not your colleagues, so that was such a compliment,” she says. “To know that students were happy and satisfied with my classes was very rewarding.”