Prague: a millennium of Jewish community

An index to the Prague series appears on the first post.

The Jewish community of Prague gives one of the best glimpses of the city’s rich history.  The Jewish Museum in Prague uses the community’s most historic buildings to tell the story of Judaism in Bohemia. The architecture and exhibits reveal a community in long dialogue with the gentiles of Bohemia.

Since I visited many parts of the community in the course of my day, I will start with a list of the sites, along with their dates of construction and the exhibits at each.

Site Founding Exhibit
Old New Synagogue 1270 (none)
Jewish Cemetery 1439 Graves spanning 350 years
Pinkas Synagogue 1535 Memorial of the Shoah
Maisel Synagogue 1592 History of Bohemian Jews I
Klausen Synagogue 1694 Jewish Customs I
Spanish Synagogue 1868 History of Bohemian Jews II
Ceremonial Hall 1906 Jewish Customs II
Jubilee Synagogue 1906 (none)

Maisel Synagogue

My first stop on the tour began telling the history of Jews in Prague.  Their part of the city was frequently given the named “Josefov.”  Jews first came to Prague during the tenth century from the Alps to the southwest, or from Byzantium.  Their history in Prague was an uneven one.  After initial settlement below the castle in the “Lesser Town,” Jews began consolidating the “Old Jewish Town” at the bend of the Vltava River during the 13th and 14th centuries, partly because of physical attacks from gentiles.  To see how extensive this community became, I suggest you look at this 1804 map.  As I had seen previously in Berlin, the Jews of Prague were key to financing the kingdom, either through personal loans or through taxes imposed on its wealthiest citizens.  Persecution and pogroms damaged the community, as in other cities.  In 1577 and later, Emperor Rudolph II made living conditions for Jews in Prague much better, turning some of the verbal protections for the community into laws.

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This model of Prague, containing >2000 buildings, was constructed of pasteboard by Antonin Langweil (1791-1837).

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A statue from the Maisel of Rabbi Loew, meeting death

The Maisel Synagogue now features a large TV to showcase a 3D computer animation of Prague that highlights historical buildings in Josefov.  The animation has been based upon an enormous paper model of Prague that is now on display in the Prague City Museum.  The Maisel is also helpful in understanding other sites on the tour.  For one, the oldest tombstone from the Cemetery (dating from 1439) is exhibited there.

I was particularly glad to see that some figures that were equal parts history and lore were included in the Maisel display.  I had encountered Rabbi Loew before in a special exhibit on the Golem.  The historical Rabbi lived from 1525 to 1609, and his Talmudic writings and mentoring were quite significant in shaping Jewish thought.  The legends surrounding him, however, are other-worldly.  He was said to have brought a statue to life through his wisdom, but when he failed to give it a day of rest on the Sabbath, it went out of control.  He disabled it and then hid it in the attic of the synagogue.  He was rumored to have escaped from Death by snatching away the list with his name on it.  In the statue shown here, Death catches up with him by hiding in a drop of dew on a rose given to the Rabbi Loew.

Pinkas Synagogue

I was not altogether sure what to expect as I entered the next building.  The second-oldest surviving synagogue in Prague has been entirely given over to a memorial to the victims of the Holocaust (sometimes called the Shoah).  80,000 names of citizens from Czech and Moravian Jews have been painted in fine script on the walls.  It is a very somber walk.

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The scale of loss is hard to countenance.

I looked up toward the vaulted roof for a respite.  The building was really beautiful.  When I climbed upstairs, I encountered a small art gallery.  It featured “Art in Extreme Situations,” a presentation of art works by children who were learning the stories of children deported to the Terezin ghetto in 1941-1944.  I was glad to see that the Czech education system is reminding this generation of the atrocities committed through the hatred of minorities.

Old Jewish Cemetery

The exit from Pinkas leads directly to the famed Jewish Cemetery.  Graves were located in this location as early as 1439.  The area is absolutely crammed with graves; more than 12,000 are packaged into the area.  Apart from three and a half centuries of use, this cemetery grew as other Jewish graveyards were closed; the community was compressed into an ever-smaller area.

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A place of peace

The clouds had enclosed Prague all morning, but the sun peeked from the clouds as I walked around the cemetery.  It was a needed moment of uplift after the Pinkas Synagogue.  When I reached the tomb of Rabbi Loew, I paused for a moment to admire the rampant lion atop his marker.  It felt good to put a pebble on his tomb, like I had touched a figure from deep in history.  This tomb was erected just two years after Jamestown was founded in Virginia!

Klausen Synagogue and Ceremonial Hall

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The beautiful vault of Klausen Synagogue

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The Ceremonial Hall is a lovely structure.

The exit of the cemetery leads directly into the next part of the museum.  The Klausen Synagogue and Ceremonial Hall both exhibit materials associated with Jewish tradition.  I really liked the Klausen displays.  Since I grew up as a Southern Baptist, I did not get a thorough grounding in Jewish tradition.  I appreciated a document that explained the relationship between aspects of the Jerusalem temple and the synagogues.  Why, for example, are the ends of the wooden rollers on which a Torah is wound frequently modeled after pomegranates?

The adjoining Ceremonial Hall may be a much more recent construction, but its beautiful building seems like it comes from an earlier time.  The exhibited materials emphasize funeral rites for the Jewish community.  I liked a set of diagrams that showed the most common symbols from gravestones and their interpretations.  The lion I had seen on Rabbi Loew’s tomb, for example, implied a connection with the tribe of Yehuda (Judah).  Throughout the hall, though, I was continually distracted from the exhibits by the lovely artistry of the floors, arches, and windows.

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For just a moment, nobody was walking on this mosaic!

The Old New Synagogue

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I was glad for a moment in this sacred space.

My next stop was not part of the museum, but anyone interested in Jewish history would visit it.  The thirteenth century synagogue was not the first in Prague, but it is the oldest still standing.  One legend has it that the Jews were led to this spot by an elder, who told them that God would provide the community a synagogue.  The Jews dug into the ground and uncovered this building, ready for service!  Perhaps this story accounts for its odd name.

Because it is still used for services, I was required to don a kippah (sometimes called a yarmulke) to cover my head.  The men’s prayer hall has retained an ancient style for its structure (women listened from another chamber).  A central well is surrounded by an inner ring of wooden seats, and the walls are ringed by another set  of wooden seats.  The outer walls have bronze candle holders with reflectors to guide the light downward.  An odd metal framework extends out from the central area.

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The men’s prayer hall

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13th century architecture looks somewhat out of place in its current surrounds.

The Spanish Synagogue and the Jubilee (Jerusalem) Synagogue

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Looking toward the vaulted ceiling

Today’s Jewish community in Prague is quite diverse.  The site of the oldest synagogue in Prague was taken over in 1868 for the construction of the Spanish Synagogue.  Its design may reflect the influence of Sephardim.  The ornate interior is something from another world.  The seating on the synagogue floor was blocked off, presumably for services.  The upstairs, however, had considerably more information on the history of Bohemian Jews.  In particular, it features information on Jewish involvement in publishing and the arts.  I was glad to see Franz Kafka getting credit for his work.  A statue right outside the Spanish Synagogue also stands in tribute to him.

Another synagogue is not included on the tour for the Jewish Museum in Prague, but it should not be missed.  The Jerusalem or Jubilee Synagogue was built at the same time as the ceremonial hall above, but its style could hardly be more different.  Its facade is distinctly Art Nouveau, simply popping with bright colors!  The lines, on the other hand, are more Moorish in architectural influence.  Sadly, the building was closed for a couple of months around the time I visited; apparently the space was quite challenging to keep heated during winter months.

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It’s almost like a piece of wedding cake!

I was very fortunate to get this tour of Jewish history while visiting Prague.  I appreciate that you took the time to read my account of it!

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3 thoughts on “Prague: a millennium of Jewish community

  1. Pingback: Prague: Old Town, New Town, and Revolution! | Picking Up The Tabb

  2. Pingback: Prague: Castles, Cathedrals, and Communists | Picking Up The Tabb

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