Tag Archives: Prague

Czech Out Those Jews: Judaism in the Czech Republic

By Kayla Green

How is it possible to judge the attitude toward Jews in the Czech Republic, a country where Jews have in recent history suffered not only from the devastating Shoah, but from stifling Communism, as well? Many westerners are quick to associate the country with anti-Semitism, and can cite the fact that between the beginning of the Prague Shoah, which began in 1938 (the longest Shoah in Europe due to appeasement in Munich), and Communism, which ended in 1989, Czech Jewry only had two and a half years of freedom. However, in only focusing on the past, one completely misses all the events and sentiments that paint a much rosier picture of Czech and Jewish relations.

The Czech Republic is home to ten Jewish communities, 350 Jewish cemeteries and boasts the second largest synagogue in Europe (the third largest in the world). It is now experiencing a huge revival of Jewish life, supported by the Czech Union of Jewish Youth. While Jews in the Czech Republic are slowly feeling more and more attached to their religion, the prospering of Jewish life is also heavily dependent on the surrounding ambivalent Czech community. It is almost impossible to depict overall sentiment towards Jews in a country so varied that locals joke anti-Semitism “depends on the Pub you are sitting in” however, one event stands out that aptly displays the dichotomy of hatred and acceptance which Czech Jews often face.

The significant incident took place on November 10, 2007, the 69th anniversary of Kristallnacht, when nearly 400 neo-Nazi’s gathered in Prague’s Jewish Quarter for a purported reenactment of the horrific event. While this act of hatred is horrifying and unacceptable, the Czech reaction was uplifting. Prague’s Mayor and the Czech police thwarted the march, along with a group of anti-fascists that far outnumbered the neo-Nazis. Onlookers remember seeing a diverse group of Czechs, from war-veterans to Czech citizens wearing full suits of armor, banding together to support their Jewish community. Ordinary Czechs proudly donned stickers of yellow stars to show their support and kinship with the Jewish community, recalling Denmark’s King Christian X famous show of support for Jews during the invasion of his country, in which he wore a Star of David on his arm during his scheduled afternoon ride.

Jewish sentiment in the Czech Republic is not always positive, but many individuals and communities remain loyal to the Jewish community and are willing to help support and honor them.  Of course, the true path to acceptance and understanding is readily available in the Czech Republic: Education. Classes to instruct teachers about how to teach the Holocaust offered by Terezin, once a concentration camp, are overbooked through 2050, giving hope that Czech/Jewish relations are heading towards a better future.

The Golem in the Attic

By Kayla Green

Tucked away in the snowy cobblestone streets of Prague’s Jewish Quarter stands a synagogue that is as old and significant as it is beautiful. With its high, pointed brown roof and few windows, the Old-New Synagogue  maintains old-world style without revealing its true age; built between 1270 and 1280, it is the oldest synagogue still in use in Prague. It defined the Jewish Ghetto, survived the Pogroms and the Holocaust and continues being used today. Embedded in the Shul’s ancient walls lies the history of Prague’s Jews, making it a riveting symbol of the community’s remarkable past.

From the beginning, the Old-New Synagogue reflected the troubles of the Jewish community in Prague; hardships and anti-Semitism hindered the process of building the synagogue in ways still visible in its physical structure.  Because it was illegal for Jews to hold jobs when the synagogue was built in the 13th century, they had to employ Christians to build their house of worship. As a result, the synagogue’s Gothic style included vaulted ceilings whose beams intersect in “cruciform” (the form of the cross). The Synagogue added an additional beam so the intersecting lines would form something that resembled an asterisk rather that a cross, exemplifying Jewish techniques for complying with the law while remaining true to their Jewish identity.

Between the 15th and 16th centuries, the Old-New Synagogue experienced more changes, but this time it was from the community itself rather than from outside. Jewish women, who at the time were not allowed in the all-male congregation, demanded a space to accommodate them for prayer. Architecturally, it would have been impossible to add a balcony or another floor, so an oblong room was built alongside the Synagogue in which the women could watch the sermons through a window. Unfortunately, the delicate Gothic structure would not permit windows large enough for all patrons to get a complete view, so the “windows” more closely resemble holes, about one foot tall and two feel wide, placed at eye-level. To this day, women who attend service at the Old-New Synagogue can be found, faces pressed against the window, prayer book clutched in hand, straining to hear the words of the Rabbi. The dedication of these women, who strictly believe and observe words they strain to hear, provides a fascinating insight to the history of the Jewish women’s movement, demonstrating how the Jewish people have adapted to new ideas, accommodating change yet stay true to their beliefs.

In the main room, what appears to be a heavily vaulted chest conceals the true treasures of the synagogue and represents yet another example of the challenges of Prague’s Jewish community. This chest is in fact a locked closet that was created to hide Torah scrolls during Pogroms, a constant reminder of the history of persecution.

While the architecture, closet and women’s gallery are all essential to the preservation and adaptation of Prague’s Jewish community, they are not the only protectors of the Jewish people present in Old-New Synagogue; the building was also said to be the home to the mythical Golem, an animated being in Jewish folklore.   Rabbi Judah Loew Ben Bezalel, the chief Rabbi of Prague in the late 16th century was said to have created a Golem out of clay from the banks of the Vltava River and brought it to life through rituals and Hebrew incantations to defend the Prague ghetto from anti-Semitic attacks. The legend adds a mythical layer to the already complex and awe-inspiring Synagogue. Though the Golem is rumored to have been driven out of the Shul’s attic during the reconstructions, it is certain that even without it’s mythical protector, the Old-New Synagogue will continue thriving and prospering, much like the community it represents.

Michelle Obama Visits Prague Jewish Quarter

By Benjamin Schuman-Stoler

Michelle ObamaThe Jerusalem Post was with MO in Prague’s historic Jewish quarter yesterday. “It was a wonderful visit, but much too short,” MO said. “I’ll be back.”

The JPost has a video, which you can see here. She had a busy day:

Her visit included a stop at the Pinkas synagogue, whose walls bear the names of more than 80,000 Czech Holocaust victims…

There were a few somber moments at the [community’s] tiny cemetery, jammed with some 12,000 family gravestones crowded into a little garden near the Vltava River, and about 100,000 dead buried in several layers beneath them.

Mrs. Obama stood briefly by the oldest gravestone – that marking the resting place of poet Avigdor Kara, who died in 1439 – before moving to the grave of the legendary 16th century rabbi Yehuda Loew, the Maharal, considered one of the greatest Jewish scholars and philosophers. In keeping with local custom, she placed a prayer on a piece of paper and weighted it down with a little stone.

Her last stop was the Old New Synagogue, built around 1270 – the oldest synagogue in Europe, and one of the earliest Gothic buildings in Prague.