So one of the reasons why I was most excited to plan a trip to Prague was its incredibly rich Jewish history. I taught at a Jewish day school for several years and learned so much about the culture from my amazing students and coworkers.
A Little Backstory
Prague's Jewish Quarter is comprised of three blocks in the Old Town. It was originally the most flood-prone area where Jews were forced to live and work in relative isolation from the rest of the city. Today its one of the best remaining displays of hundreds of years of Jewish culture, history, and architecture anywhere in Europe. Prague was never bombed on a large scale during World War II and very little damage was done by the Nazis, who actually preserved the city's synagogues with the intent of creating a museum after the war. Jewish artifacts from all over Europe were shipped here for the planned museum, many of which never made it back to the original locations because so many synagogues were destroyed. (This makes for amazing, but haunting, displays today.) The Jewish Quarter was once again relatively lucky during the Communist era. Prague was considered such a backwater that they never got around to demolishing the city's places of worship.
The Maisel Synagogue
A book documenting the work of Tycho Brahe by a local Jewish scribe.
This building was filled with interesting displays about the ups and downs of Prague's Jewish citizens over a thousand years, including an example of the pointed hat men were required to wear during medieval times. This was eventually replaced by a yellow badge on the clothes. (The idea was far from original to the Nazis.)
A statue depicting a woman begging Rabbi Loew for help.
A 1930's poster advertising a play about the golem.
As part of the display on Jewish mysticism (called Kabbalah and famously followed by Madonna) there was a lot of information about Rabbi Loewe and the Golem, one of Prague's most famous myths. According to the legend, Rabbi Loew created a protector for the city's Jews out of Vltava River clay known as the golem. He placed a magical stone called the sem (meaning "word" in Hebrew) under the golem's tongue to bring it to life.
The golem guarded the ghetto, but to observe the Sabbath on Saturday Rabbi Loew would take the stone out of the golem's mouth every Friday night. One Friday, the Rabbi forgot to remove the sem and the golem went on a rampage throughout the Jewish Quarter. When he finally caught up with the golem, Rabbi Loew was forced to remove the sem for good. He hid the golem's clay body in the attic of the Old-New Synagogue (see below), where it remains to this day. (Incidentally, the attic is closed to the public.)
Whether you believe in the legend or not, small clay figures, complete with spaces in the back of the head for written instructions, are popular souvenirs across the Jewish Quarter. Also, if you visit, make sure to keep an eye out for the sem, which is said to still be somewhere on the streets of Prague.
The Pinkas Synagogue
If you are going to visit Prague's Jewish Quarter, this is one of the most important places to visit. In addition to being a site of Jewish worship since the sixteenth century, today it's an incredibly powerful and moving memorial to the 77,297 Czech Jews who perished at the hands of the Nazis. Hand painted on what seems like every square inch of the bare walls over two floors are meticulously organized names grouped by family. The family names are in red, followed by the first name, birth date, and date of death (or the date of deportation if unknown). One of the saddest things, beyond the sheer scale of loss, is how hard hit entire families were.
Old Jewish Cemetery
Another famous site, again thanks to the golem. This small space houses 12,000 tombstones. For more than 300 years, this was the only burial ground allowed to Prague's Jews. The surface of the cemetery today is several feet above street level (and the modern streets are already significantly higher than in medieval times.) Some estimates put the number of inhabitants at 85,000, perhaps seven or eight deep. Among other famous residents, Rabbi Loew is buried here. Many people come to place pebbles and written wishes on his headstone, asking the golem for help or protection.
The Old-New Synagogue
The Old-New Synagogue is more than 700 years old and is the oldest synagogue in Eastern Europe. The Gothic interior still serves as a working synagogue. (It is also, according to legend, the final resting place of the golem who's clay body still resides in the attic.)
Although it's hard to see in the picture, this clock features Hebrew numbers, and the hands do run counterclockwise in accordance with an older style of telling time.
The Spanish Synagogue
Although the Spanish Synagogue was built in the late 1800's, and represents one of the first Reform synagogues in the area, it sits on the site of Prague's oldest synagogue, built around 1150 and burned to the ground during the 1389 pogrom. The interior is incredibly intricate and features guilt decorations and a large dome.
I thought the six-sided chandelier was a clever touch.
The balcony above features displays about Prague's famous Jews, like Freud and Kafka, and a moving display about the children of the Holocaust, including school books and art work from the nearby Terezin camp where mass deportations took place.
This only took us to mid-afternoon. Stay tuned to find out what museum we visited next. It wound up being our favorite of the entire trip!