Monday, July 28, 2014

Traveling to Prague - the Spanish Synagogue and the Old Jewish Cemetery

Travelers should note that it is really hard to take good pictures inside of any of the historical landmarks of Prague; there are signs posted at nearly every entrance expressly forbidding it.  And while flash photography can not only affect priceless works of art after time, hundreds of tourists blasting about with blinding pops of light is super annoying.  I try really hard not to be "that guy." Plus, you're missing the incredible experience around you!

In all of the places that we have traveled, cameras and photography have largely been a non-issue.  Not the case in Prague - bring on the crackdown!  If you even begin to reach to your pocket to pull out your cellphone to check the time, be ready for a fervent docent to swoop down upon you screeching, "NO PICTURES!"  And yes, they are that polite about it.  They have one job to do and, by God, they will complete their task.  Those steely-eyed old ladies can see into your tourist soul.

However, the outside is fair game as were a couple of the less-strict sights.  So I've decided to share a few more of our experiences of Prague in which I was able to get some good footage.  Of course, you are always welcome to friend me on Facebook or private message me for some of the not-so-great, accidental pics that may have been taken whilst I was checking the time, but they really don't do any of these places justice.  I find that it is rare when pictures do.  

One such site that I will mention of which I do not picture here is the Spanish Synagogue.  The website for the Jewish Museum of Prague has a decent, although tiny picture of the interior here.  It is an amazing Moorish, golden, flashy synagogue organ? Yep, the inside of this reform synagogue, built in the 1860s, actually looks a bit more like a church. Interesting side note, since it is forbidden to play music on the Sabbath, the synagogue had to hire a part-time organist, František Škroup, who would later become the composer of the Czech national anthem.

Although the decor of this synagogue would put a Las Vegas casino to shame, the most interesting part (in my opinion) is the collection of pictures on display of the ghetto before the reconstruction and some of the historical information about Jewish families at the time.  In 1787 Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II passed Das Patent über die Judennamen.  Under this edict, Jewish families were assigned permanent Germanic last names for the sake of taxing purposes. Many families today can trace their lineage directly back to Prague and the surrounding area due to this event.  Unfortunately, since the names were assigned by government officials, not all of them were flattering (such as Lüger - literally "liar" auf Deutsch) and many families had to slip the officials a bribe to obtain a favorable last name or save precious pennies to change a particularly bad one.  

Franz Kafka Monument
Getting a good pick in.
Directly outside of the Spanish Synagogue is a fantastic monument to one of Prague's most famous writers, Franz Kafka. If you've never read Kafka, I highly suggest him if you are into surreal, mind-bending satirical lit.  Standing at the statue and turning 180 degrees, you'll look at the building in which Kafka spent most of his life. Turn around another 90 degrees and you'll likely see a tourist picking their nose.  Again, I try not to be "that guy."

Winding down my little tour of the Jewish Quarter, I really recommend taking a stroll through the Old Jewish Cemetery.  It really is unlike any other cemetery I have ever seen. Having only so much land in which to bury their deceased, the Jews of Prague had to improvise. The result is over 300 years of graves built one on top of the other.  The grave stones were shifted, a new layer of dirt was added, and the new burial took place.  It is estimated that nearly 100,000 people are buried within an area about the size of a very small parking lot and some plots are upwards of 12 graves deep. 
Old Jewish Cemetery

Atop the tombstones, mourners have left small bits of paper with prayers written on them or stones - signifying that one with a heavy heart can leave some of the weight behind.