Tuesday, November 13, 2018 -
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Jewish Prague: a photographic tour

This photographic tour of Jewish Prague is available as a Google Map, featuring a map of the area, walking route, photos and descriptions.

The majority of Prague’s remaining synagogues are owned by the city’s Jewish Museum, which has created a tour from the six sites it maintains. From one perspective, there is appreciation of the beauty of the synagogues, the preservation, the chronicling of history. Conversely, others feel pain or displacement that these holy sites form a museum instead of a living, Jewish organism.

The Maisel Synagogue, Prague

 

The Maisel Synagogue, (left), built in the 1590s, provides the first stop of the tour, and chronicles the settling of Jews in the Czech lands, spanning the Middle Ages through the 18th century. The synagogue’s main sanctuary houses sacramental objects, illuminated seforim and an Aron Kodesh.

The Spanish Synagogue, Prague

 

The Spanish Synagogue, (right), new by Prague standards, was built in 1868 in the Moorish style, on the site of what was then Prague’s oldest place of worship, the Old Synagogue. During the Holocaust, the synagogue was used to store goods confiscated from Jewish homes. Later, during the Communist period, the synagogue fell into such disrepair it was closed. On its 130th anniversary, in 1998, it was reopened.

Forming the second part of the museum’s tour, the synagogue’s exhibition provides a perspective on the development of Prague’s modern Jewish community, beginning in the mid-19th century through Communist times. One of the most poignant photo series in the exhibition is that of the dismantling of the Zigeuner Synagogue during Prague’s rebuilding campaign in the late 19th century. In one photo the Aron Kodesh is visible, standing alone amidst the rubble of the shul.

The Pinkas Synagogue, Prague

The Pinkas Synagogue, (left), third stop on the museum tour, is easily the most devastating, highlighting the dearth of Jewish life in an area where the Jewish community was so robust.

The shul, built in the mid-16th century, is a testament to the destruction of European Jewry, its walls transformed into an epitaph for the 80,000 Bohemian and Moravian Jews killed during the Holocaust. Each name is carefully painted in black and red calligraphy, noting – when the information is available – first and family names, dates of birth, dates of deportation, dates of extermination. Families are grouped together, and the most horrific are those where the final date is shared by each member. Upstairs, the sea of names continues alongside an exhibition of children’s paintings and poetry from Theresienstadt (or Terezin), the concentration camp where many Czech Jews were initially sent.

Nestling Prague’s medieval Jewish cemetery, the Pinkas Synagogue is a brutal memorial, not only due to the sheer number of names, but the unused synagogue and sanctuary. They stand as painful reminders of what a Jewish community has become – a memorial to that which no longer exists.

The Klausen Synagogue, Prague

The original Klausen Synagogue was erected in 1573, but was destroyed in a Jewish ghetto fire more than 100 years later, in 1689. The current synagogue (right), was rebuilt immediately after the fire and remodeled in the late 19th century. It is a bright, airy building, showcasing a permanent exhibition on Jewish feasts and customs.

 

Ceremonial Hall, Prague

Next door to the Klausen Synagogue is the Ceremonial Hall (left), which housed Prague’s chevra kadisha and a mortuary. The stone building, belonging to the cemetery it abuts, was built in a Romanesque style. With its winding stairs and a tower topped with a gabled roof, the Ceremonial Hall appears old, but was actually erected in the early 20th century. The building houses a permanent exhibition on Jewish rituals surrounding death, with an emphasis on the traditions and history of Prague’s Jewish community.

Altneu Shul, Prague

The Altneu Shul – or Old New Synagogue – (right) is Prague’s, and one of the world’s, most famous. The oldest extant synagogue in Europe lies in the heart of what was once Prague’s Jewish ghetto. This was the shul of kabbalist Rabbi Judah Loew – known as the Maharal. As legend has it, the remains of the mythical Golem, a creation of Rabbi Loew’s, is housed in the shul’s attic.

In 1270, when this shul was completed, it was the newest in Prague, and therefore called the New Synagogue. As Prague’s community grew, and more synagogues were built, the New Synagogue was no longer new, hence the Old New Synagogue.
That this building still stands seems to be a metaphor for the Jewish people. Not only has the shul survived ghetto fires, but in the late 19th century, when the entire ghetto was demolished in order to rebuild a cosmopolitan city center with wide boulevards (now called Josefov, after the then Hapsburg emperor), the Altenu shul remained intact.

Altneu Shul, Prague

 

The entrance to the Altneu shul (left). After passing through the heavy metal doors, one descends several steps into the stone building, glimpsing the sanctuary as well as kabbalistic acronyms painted on the stone walls. Spire topped with Magen David, Prague

 

Across from the Altneu is the High Synagogue, no longer operating as a synagogue. On the facade of the building is a clock face, with Hebrew letters in lieu of the usual Roman numerals (below, left). The building is topped by spire with a Magen David (right).

 

Clock face with Hebrew letter, Prague

 

 



Shana Goldberg

IJN Assistant Publisher | shana@ijn.com


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