A little less than two years ago now I went to Prague on spring break during my semester abroad. My mom had flown overseas to visit and together we spent the better part of one of our days in the city touring the old synagogues in the Jewish Quarter. Recently, 60 Minutes did a wonderful segment ( I highly recommended watching it) about a Londoner who visited Prague on the eve of war in 1938 and ended up saving almost 700 Jewish children. During the piece they highlighted one of the temples we had visited while in the city, Pinkas Synagogue. Upon seeing the segment it brought back memories of our visit and all the historic landmarks we had seen. Now, for those who’ve ever studied abroad, you know how condensed your precious months abroad are. You see a lot but you hardly have the time to dig deep into the landmarks on your itinerary. That’s what this piece is for. I present to you, a closer look at the synagogues of Prague.
Synagogues of Prague
1. Old New Synagogue (Star)
Originally built in the late third of the thirteenth century as the main synagogue of the Prague Jewish community, the Old-New synagogue has been the cornerstone of the Jews in Prague for over 700 years. Originally named as the New Shul, after the construction of other synagogues in the area (many named in this post) the historic temple became known as the Old New Temple. There are many legends surrounding the temple but perhaps the most popular revolves around the Golem. According to tale, the Golum, lives in the attic of the synagogue brought to life by Rabbi Loew in order to help protect the citizens of Prague. One of the oldest synagogues in all of Europe, the Old-New Synagogue is adorned with symbolism. The narrow windows in the hall are twelve pointed, corresponding to the number of Israeli tribes. Furthermore, the floor of the hall and the main nave are below street level as a sign of humility. The synagogue was restored in 1716 by Emperor Charles VI and has only had minor renovations since.
2. Pinkas Synagogue (rectangle)
In 1535 the Horowitz family had the Pinkas Synagogue built between his house and the Old Jewish Cemetery (4 in the map above). After being used for a little less than 400 years the synagogue was turned into a memorial after World War II commemorating the Jews of Bohemia and Moravia ( two of the largest regions in old Prague) who perished in the Holocaust. In 1968, during renovations to the buildings foundation, workers discovered the vaulted spaces with an ancient well and ritual bath area. Unfortunately, this was also during the time of the communist reign of Gustáv Husák in Prague. The communist regime intentionally held up renovation work and removed all the inscriptions off the walls of the synagogue. The building was finally able to be completed in 1990. Amazingly, all 80,000 names, personal data, and communities affiliations were rewritten on the walls. This process took almost three years from 1992-1994. To learn more about the names visit the Czech Jewish Museum website.
3. Spanish Synagogue (triangle)
The Spanish Synagogue recently (well, relatively) just reopened in 1998 after about two decades of restoration and repairs led by the Jewish Museum. This coincided with the 130th anniversary of it’s establishment. It is now home to worships and classical concerts throughout the certain weeks. Mom and I were lucky enough to attend a concert one evening in the Spanish Synagogue and it was one of the most memorable moments of our trip. Just sitting in such a beautiful place listening to the peaceful music was such an overwhelming experience and something I highly recommend any travelers experience. Finally, despite it’s name, the synagogue does not serve a Spanish or Sephardic congregation. Ivan Kalmar of the University of Toronto published a paper in 1999 citing two potential reasons for the mix-up. The first reason, which seems sort of obvious, is the architectural style that the synagogue was built in. The second reason is that the synagogue was built on the site of the cities oldest synagogue, which originally may of been the home of Byzantine Jews. You can read more of Kalmar’s paper by clicking the link in the sources section.
At one time, Frantisek Skroup was the synagogue’s organist. He later composed the Czech national anthem.
4. Klausen Synagogue (Circle)
Moredehai Maisel, then head of the Prague Jewish Community, commissioned the temple’s construction in 1573 in honor of a visit from Emperor Maximilian II. The original synagogue was destroyed by a fire in 1689 and was rebuilt to it’s present form by 1704. There is a permanent exhibit in the synagogue highlighting customs and religious traditions. During the Holocaust, the Nazis left much of Prague’s Jewish Quarter intact (while deporting and murdering its residents) because they planned a “Museum of an extinct race” which was to be constructed in this temple. Many personal religious items are currently housed in this building, donated by families and friends of the temple.
For those traveling to Prague I highly recommend visiting at least one of the synagogues. It’s hard to choose but if you’re in a bind for time I really think the Pinkas Synagogue is well worth your time, if only to feel the incredible vastness of all the names. Also as recommended above it’s hard to skip a classical concert at the Spanish synagogue. For those who don’t have the luxury of visiting the Czech Republic soon, I hope you still learned a little something.
All pictures above are my own except for the Old-New Synagogue. The picture is linked to the source.