Sunday, July 27, 2014

Traveling to Prague - the Jewish Quarter, the Ghetto, the Old New Synagogue and the Golem

As a history junkie, I was over the moon for our trip to Prague. While there are thousands of things to see (and eat and drink) in this amazing city, my favorite by far was our tour of the Jewish Quarter, or the Josefov in Czech. We hired our extremely knowledgeable guide, Barbara Freund, through Wittman Tours ( and I highly recommend taking this 3-hour walking tour. Without a knowledgeable tour guide, fluency in Czech and/or Hebrew, or a deep knowledge of Jewish culture and history, a lot fascinating sites can easily be passed by without realizing it.

The Jewish Quarter today.
For instance, the tour began in front of the Inter-Continental Hotel, a super-posh looking accommodation filled with business suit types and a very expensive crystal store in its lobby. In fact, this hotel stands in one of the most expensive parts of Prague, surrounded by Bulgari, Swarovski and Prada stores. As the tour began, it was hard to believe that this had once been the cramped, squalid and poverty-stricken Jewish ghetto. Who would have guessed?

The Jews of Prague had not always lived in the flood zone of the nearby Vltava River. Historians believe that they had lived nearer to the castle, far from the destruction of the annual deluge. However, in 1096 as the first crusaders marched their way through Prague on their way to relinquish the Holy Land, they commenced a pogrom which pushed the surviving Jews to settle into the somewhat safer region outside of the four other Prague sections (the Castle Quarter, New Town, Old Town and the Little Quarter).
The entrance to the Old New Synagogue with Barbara

So why does Josefov look so different today - even more elegant than some of the historically prosperous quarters of Prague? Between 1893 and 1913 the ghetto was largely demolished (with the exception of the synagogues and the Old Jewish Cemetery) and rebuilt after the city model used for the reconstruction of several other European cities such as Vienna and Paris. This remodel gave one of the poorest and most destitute parts of Prague the Victorian appearance it has today.

The Old New Synagogue
Inside the Old New Synagogue
The Old New Synagogue, built in the 13th century and boasting an impressive and interesting early gothic architecture, is the oldest, continuously active synagogue in all of Europe. A few interesting legends surround the Old New Synagogue. One legend states angels delivered stones from the original Temple of Jerusalem to Prague for its construction. These stones are only temporary on loan, however, on the condition that when the Messiah appears, they will rise and return to Jerusalem to rebuild the original temple.

Another popular legend of this Old New Synagogue involves a creature created out of clay and stone to protect the Jews of Prague by Rabbi Loew from anti-Semitic violence in the 16th century. The Golem, a creature who literally obeyed instructions given to it and searched for those with evil thoughts, eventually went on a murderous rampage and had to be destroyed. It is said that they pieces of the shattered Golem are kept in the attic of the Old New Synagogue, waiting to be reconstructed if the need arises.

He's watching you...
The Golem today remains a popular cultural figure, if a bit kitschy. Here is a picture of Nick hanging out in the relaxing “Golem Garden” of our hotel, Hotel Hastal. Well, he’s relaxing as well as he can lounging next to a potentially sociopathic mythological creature.
Side note: I highly recommend the Hotel Hastal – it has an extremely interesting history of its own, once being the site of espionage and a regular hangout for such artists as Alphonse Mucha and Franz Kafka. Plus, very nice staff and free wine and coffee 24/7 in the lobby!

General tips if you go:

1) Wear really, really good shoes for this walking tour. The cobblestones in Prague are killer, even for these well-traveled feet.
2) Bring a bottle of water. Restaurants charge even for tap water and Prague does not have as many free flowing drinking fountains as other European cities.
3) Always carry 10 Korun and 20 Korun coins with you. Once free, public toilets are now pay-to-pee. Many of these places will also take Euro coin, but it will cost you about twice as much.
4) Get a map ASAP.  Seriously.