In Plain Language: The ghost of Judaism past

Prague, by all accounts, is a charismatic and captivating city. Architecturally, aesthetically, historically, it is a feast for the eyes and heart.

Prague Synagogue 521 (photo credit: Courtesy: Susie Weiss)
Prague Synagogue 521
(photo credit: Courtesy: Susie Weiss)
I don’t believe in ghosts; never have. But it’s hard not to believe in something when it surrounds you at every step.
Prague, by all accounts, is a charismatic and captivating city. Architecturally, aesthetically, historically, it is a feast for the eyes and heart.
Majestic baroque and cubist buildings stare out at you from every corner. Medieval sculptures, carved into the corners and cornices of virtually every structure, follow your path as you tread down the ancient cobblestone streets. There is much here to appreciate and be amazed by, from the historic Charles Bridge connecting the old and new city, to the spectacular ninth-century Prague Castle – the largest in the world – to the magnificent Astronomical Clock on the Old Town square, which chimes each hour to the accompaniment of bugle players and quaint mechanical moving figures.
Yet just beyond the imposing facades, in the silence of the narrow alleyways and in the shadow of the towering spires, I hear the voices of the past. Echoes of the Jewish communities that once filled these same streets, the men and women who long ago built grand synagogues and vibrant houses of study led by world-renowned masters of Torah and Talmud. Echoes of a rich and robust Jewry that persevered under the worst of circumstances, enduring centuries of both enviable achievement and desperate anxiety, until they were finally snuffed out, along with the other major centers of European Jewry.
The first stop on our trip is the ancient Jewish cemetery in the heart of Josefov, the Jewish Quarter. Because the land allotted to the Jews was woefully insufficient to bury their dead, there are at least seven layers of graves lying deep beneath the surface, where as many as 100,000 people are buried. But while the graves are invisible, the tombstones are ubiquitous, and stretch as far as the eye can see. They stand as silent, solemn witnesses to the past 1,000 years, from the time Jewish settlers first came to Bohemia, and they testify to a nation within a nation that included every conceivable vocation, from salesman to seamstress to scholar.
The greatest of these scholars was Rabbi Yehuda Loew, the famed Maharal of Prague (1525-1609). In lesser intellectual circles – and certainly among the tour guides peddling fantasy to wide-eyed visitors seeking same – he was the progenitor of the Golem, a clay figure brought to life in order to protect the downtrodden disciples of the Maharal.
Incessantly preyed upon by the locals, the city’s heretofore defenseless Jews could count on their very own superhero to come to their rescue at the slightest sign of a new pogrom.
As the legend goes, the Golem overstepped his bounds one day and had to be de-humanized (not all that unknown a phenomenon in medieval Europe) and locked away in the upper attic of the Altneu (Old New) synagogue.
He has not been heard from since, though a nearby restaurant – whose specialty is pork sausage – bears his name, and I overheard a guide telling his audience that, during the Nazi occupation, an overeager SS man tried entering his chambers, never to be heard from again. Would that it were so.
The synagogues of Prague are unquestionably stunning, though spiritually sterile. The Spanish Synagogue, which rightly bills itself as “the most beautiful in all of Europe,” is a marvel of Moorish design, flourished with arabesque and oriental motifs. Built in 1868, it is now part of Prague’s Central Jewish Museum and, because it is acoustically perfect, holds weekly classical concerts by members of the Czech National Symphony. We attended one such concert. The program said Vivaldi and Ravel were being played, but I closed my eyes and heard only Kol Nidre and Kaddish.
The other synagogues are no less impressive, each highlighting a different chapter in Prague’s rich Jewish story. The Maisel Synagogue, done in baroque style, recounts the checkered history of the area’s Jewish population which, at its height between the world wars, numbered 360,000 souls. Alternately invited and evicted, the Jews lived at the whim of the duke or deacon of the time, forced to pay heavy taxes and, for many years, restricted to a Chinese-like policy of only one son per family. The Klausen Synagogue, down the street, holds a well-done exhibit on Jewish life from cradle to grave, as well as a tour of the holidays of the Hebrew calendar.
Most striking in these houses of worship is the sheer amount of Jewish artifacts on display, the greatest collection anywhere on the planet. For it was here that Hitler planned to build the Museum of the Extinct Jewish Race, where he would showcase to the world a once-proud civilization that he and his “thousand-year Reich” had expunged from the Earth. And so he shipped tens of thousands of items – from circumcision knives to menorahs to Torah scrolls – to Prague, storing them in the synagogues, which he spared from destruction. Twelve years after his murderous reign began, Hitler was gone – along with almost all of European Jewry – leaving the holy silver artifacts orphaned and terribly alone.
Which brings us to the Pinkas Synagogue, a place that haunts even the most stoic of visitors.
There, on its whitewashed walls, are catalogued 80,000 names of Jews who perished in the Holocaust; 153 communities of Bohemia and Moravia that vanished into nearby Terezin (Theresienstadt) and the ovens of Auschwitz. The sheer volume of names and dates overwhelms you; you are helpless, speechless in that sea of red and black that surrounds you. And the ghosts are all around you.
As you walk among the sites of Prague, the Jewish presence is everywhere – and nowhere. Flanking the Astronomical Clock are four figures representing the four faces of Fear, one of them being Greed, represented by a bearded Jew in the tall hat which Jews were forced to wear. And in the center of the Charles Bridge is the infamous statue of Jesus on the cross with the Hebrew words “Kadosh, Kadosh, Kadosh – Holy, Holy, Holy” encircling him. Though the current spin is that a Jew, centuries ago, spat on the statue and so was forced to supply the golden Hebrew lettering, one suspects that this was just another way of taunting and tormenting the powerless Jewish populace.
While there are several kosher restaurants in the Jewish Quarter, and Chabad struggles valiantly to provide a working synagogue – three of the four days we attended services, we brought the minyan to 10 – the vast majority of the Jews in this place are ethereal, their spirits floating from shul to deserted shul, pleading with us to ignore the glamorous facade and recognize the overwhelming tragedy that befell Jewish life in this place, when the world that once was, became eradicated forever.
After four days of walking with ghosts, I board a plane to return to the place where Judaism is alive – and generally well; the place where, for the rest of time, Jewish history will be played out in the flesh, in all its vibrancy and vigor. The place I thankfully call Home.
The writer, who leads Jewish tours around the world, is director of the Jewish Outreach Center of Ra’anana; [email protected]