The Jewish community of Prague (and greater Bohemia) has been traced as far back as the 10th century. And, with a few exceptions (Jews were expelled from Prague in 1542 and 1561, and again in 1744 from all of Bohemia and even beyond), the city has maintained a Jewish presence ever since. Today, the community numbers somewhere between two and ten thousand – the lower is the number of “official” Jews, while the higher number represents the likely number, with many still refusing to publicly identify due to the tumultuous past – but its history offers one of Prague’s most unique touristic experiences, one that belies its current size: the Jewish Quarter.
1564 to 1612 is considered the “Golden Age” of Prague’s Jewry, and much of what remains of the Jewish Quarter traces back to that period. During this time, the Jewish Quarter was home to lavish building projects. Few of these stand today, as the entire quarter was redeveloped around the turn of the 20th century. To give an idea, there are six synagogues from prior to the nineteenth century still standing, but in the early 1700s, more than one quarter of Prague’s population was Jewish and resided here. While what remains is impressive, what doesn’t must have been even more so.
Today, a walk through the Jewish Quarter will take one past stunning buildings and luxury shopping – and the remains of Prague’s long Jewish history. It is one of the most popular places for tourists to see in the city, offering a glimpse at Renaissance Judaism not possible almost anywhere else.
(I want to offer a personal note here. This experience was at the same time incredibly meaningful – after all, it is rare to experience my own people’s history, especially in a Europe that during various periods has expelled us or tried to wipe us out – and also very sad, that this is all that remains, and that even this exists basically nowhere else. I’m writing this several days later, and still struggling with balancing those two seemingly competing narratives.)
Tickets for the sights of the Jewish Quarter can be purchased as a combo, for $20, and include five synagogues, the Jewish cemetery, and the ceremonial hall. (Or if you have a Prague Visitor Pass, all are included, although you’ll have to visit one of the ticket counters to have your paper ticket issued. Thank you to Prague City Tourism for sponsoring my Prague Visitor Pass.) Tours are extra, and keep in mind that Jewish Quarter walking tours do not enter the synagogues, so you’ll need to double back and do that on your own.
With the current Jewish community so small – in comparison to what it once was – only one of the synagogues you’ll visit is currently regularly used. The Old New Synagogue, as it is called, is Europe’s oldest active synagogue. It was built in 1270, and at the time was just the New Synagogue. (The Old Synagogue was demolished in 1867 and replaced by the Spanish Synagogue.) It is tiny, with seats skirting the wall, and pretty sparsely decorated in comparison to others you’ll visit. Admission is also not guaranteed, as with it being an active synagogue, it might be in use. Denominationally, it is Orthodox.
At the other end of the spectrum is the aforementioned Spanish Synagogue. Built in 1868, it is the newest of the Jewish Quarter synagogues you’ll visit, and was constructed in a Moorish style, complete with domes. The interior is stunning, with similar Moorish geometric patterns alternating with Jewish symbols. Restoration of the Spanish Synagogue is a more recent evolution of Prague’s Jewish Quarter, and the building only reopened in 1998. The Spanish Synagogue is occasionally used for religious purposes, though not as regularly as the Old New.
(If you choose to only visit a single synagogue on your trip to the Jewish Quarter, make it this one. It shares its space with the Jewish Museum, as well. And there is a statue of Franz Kafka outside.)
The other synagogues are really just shells of themselves. While portions of the interiors are preserved, they function as museums rather than as religious centers. Some exhibits discuss Jewish ritual; others talk about the Jewish history of Prague and Bohemia. The Maisel Synagogue is the largest of these. Built in 1592, it was founded and funded by Mordechai Maisel, one of the largest benefactors of the Jewish Quarter in Renaissance times.
The remainder of the sights are in a cluster, situated around Prague’s old Jewish cemetery. The cemetery itself contains centuries of Jewish remains, and is so small in relation to the size of the community and the number of generations needing to be interred there that bodies are up to twelve deep in places. It is for this reason that the tombstones are so closely crowded together. (Another Jewish cemetery on the outskirts of the city was destroyed to build a park.) The cemetery was actively in use until 1786.
Connected to the cemetery are the Klausen Synagogue and the Pinkas Synagogue. The Klausen is a high-roofed structure built in 1694 after a prior synagogue on the site burned down. The exhibit here showcases Jewish ritual and culture.
The Pinkas Synagogue, meanwhile, was built in 1535, and serves today as a memorial to the approximately 78,000 Czech Jews killed in the Holocaust. Every wall is covered with the names of the murdered, organized by city of residence and by family name.
Finally, the Jewish Ceremonial Hall. The newest of all the Jewish Quarter sites, it wasn’t built until 1912, and served as a home for the Jewish Burial Society, hence its location adjacent to the cemetery. The exhibit here discusses Jewish burial rituals, unsurprisingly, although the highlight is the beautiful flooring.
There is one other site to mention, though it sits well outside the Jewish Quarter (close to Prague’s central train station) and has a separate admission fee. The Jerusalem Synagogue is also still in use, but by Prague’s Reform Jewish community. Built in 1906, it is a stunning building in the art nouveau style. While the supposedly amazing facade is currently being refurbished (it is expected to reopen in spring 2023), the interior is incredible. Full of color, it is the equivalent of the Spanish Synagogue for beauty, and is worth a visit. An upstairs exhibit discusses Prague’s Jewish community following World War Two, with continued anti-Semitism.
It is a strange feeling to visit religious sites in Europe that are not churches. Prague offers a chance to experience Renaissance Judaism in a manner unavailable anywhere else in the world, with not merely one, but several sites having survived the centuries. It is both uplifting and somber, though my overarching feeling is one of gratitude that it exists at all, and offers both my people and visitors the chance to learn and to experience a deep culture that helped to shape Europe.
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