I Found my Synagogue in a Lava Tube

By Rabbi Corinne Copnick

Cesar Manrique Lava Tube, Lanzarote, Canarias, Spain

I had been inside a lava tube once before, a long time ago. The tube was in the Hawaiian Islands and amazingly cut right through a volcano that was still fitfully alive — the Kilauea volcano on Big Island, near the Hawaii Volcanic National Park. Apprehensive visitors like me might be experiencing some internal quaking of their own before entering the tube, but the attraction was irresistible: a 1,000-year-old, tropical rain forest. Right inside the rocky darkness of the lava tube! Such a beautiful, bountiful, colorful rain forest that its location strained credulity.  

This volcano, one of five in Hawaii and estimated to be between 300,000 and 600,000 years old, was known to be temperamental. From time to time, it erupted, hurling its lava streams down the mountain into the sea. I remembered walking on another area of that same Hawaiian volcano, deemed “safe” for that afternoon by knowledgeable scientists (seismologists I think they are called) who took continual, up-to-the-minute readings of the volcano – and would change the visiting parameters accordingly. Still, my family and I (my husband and I were there with our four teenage children) could actually see red embers glowing here and there beneath the thin cracks in the black lava. Prominent signs warned visitors not to stay for more than a few minutes because of the sulphur fumes.

In more recent years, the Kilauea volcano erupted so forcefully that it destroyed everything in its wake. In fact, the eruption did in so much damage that the Hawaii Volcanic National Park had to be closed for some time.

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Decades have passed, and I am standing at the entrance to another natural wonder on a different island. This time it is a black lava tube on Lanzarote, in the Canarias (Canary Islands in English). These islands, infamous for dealings with pirates in past centuries, are part of Spain, but they are autonomous. It has taken six days at sea on the Atlantic Ocean to travel here from Barbados, our first stop. I am with my daughter, Janet (who, as it happens, was also with me when we visited the Kilauea lava tube). But this time an immensely talented man has joined forces with nature to create an aesthetic, unexpectedly spiritual, environment carved from the black rocks inside.

His name is Cesar Manirique, and, although I had never before heard of him, he is an internationally known and respected artist. His life’s work – he has since passed away — is built on the premise that art and nature in combination cannot be surpassed. His projects are large scale, and their effect is deeply moving. His major work is intentionally on Lanzarote, and they have brought fame – and tourists, with an accompanying boost to the economy — to an island created from ground-up, rocky soil as well. The landscape is dotted with small settlements of white, adobe-style houses clustered together on the black land, with a little greenery flourishing here and there.

My daughter, who rock climbs as a sport, jokes that I have also become a rock climber in Manirique’s lava tube. She calls it “scrambling.” I would call it something else – OMG — stooping as low to the ground as possible and clutching on to the jagged rocks like a railing as I climb the many steps carved further and further into the black tube. Soon my fears of falling disappear as I am overwhelmed by the aesthetic experience created by a master artist.

Manirique and his team have enlarged a natural opening in the rock in the shape of a perfect oval, so that those who enter the lava tube discover a magnificent view of the ocean and the looming mountains beyond. This exquisite sight from outside is reflected in a large, sky blue pool amid the rocks, bestowing a unity with the outside world on the lava tube’s environment. The water continually flows from the lava tube to the sea, so that the level of the water rises and falls with the tide. As I look at the pool with the eyes of a rabbi who serves as a dayan (a judge in a rabbinic court, a bet din), I realize that, unintentionally, Manrique has created a natural mikveh (body of water for ritual purification).

And when I look at the water and surrounding rocks more closely, I see that there are living things in this pool — tiny, albino spider-crabs, as small as spiders, but they are actually crabs – that keep the water clean.

We look at the pool for a long time. To further enhance its effect, Manirique has outlined the pool’s curving shape with a thick, white plaster substance, an artistic exclamation point, something he has repeated at various points throughout the lava tube experience.

There is even a small, charming restaurant close by, tables and chairs, more openings to the outside.

We climb more stairs, further into the tube. And then we enter a huge space carved out of the rocks, or maybe it is a natural space, a bubble in the lava tube. I gasp. My daughter gasps. The immense ceiling is so high. It is dimly lit. Benches carved from the black rock and accented with white plaster backs descend down a long, sloped aisle to what seems to be — a stage? — at its base. There are benches on the other side of the aisle too. Seating, we learn, for 1200 people. Classical concerts are given here at regular intervals. The acoustics are terrific, and the space has been wired for sound and additional lighting. Amazing.

It is an awesome space; it feels like a cathedral. I imagine that it is a synagogue at Rosh Hashana. On the stage, the bima, my mind projects an altar and there, just behind it, an Ark holding the Torah scrolls. The rabbi – is it me? a few of my colleagues taking turns with me, sharing the service ?– and a cantor are there. A choir? Of course. Are there people sitting on the benches? Throughout my visit to the Canary Islands, I have looked for Jewish history, for any evidence that there is still a synagogue in these islands (there is a small one in Las Palmas, and the Torah scroll that was once in Tenerife was sent there; however, the synagogue’s door is unmarked, and, in the brief time I was in Las Palmas, I could not find it).

Once, even before the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions, there was a humble Jewish community on this island, Lanzarote. Later there was a prosperous community of Portuguese Jews who fled their own land and built this island’s economy. Once…

I take a deep breath. At this moment in time, just for this beautiful moment, I have found what could serve as a synagogue deep in the rocks. Complete with mikveh – and catering service. And my daughter is by my side. Outside the sun is shining.

©Corinne Copnick, Los Angeles, 2019. All rights reserved.