"In us all still lives the secret alleys, shuttered windows, squalid courtyards, rowdy pubs, sinister inns — the unhealthy old Jewish Town within us is far more real than the hygienic town around us," wrote the famous Franz Kafka.
As you stroll along the ancient streets of Prague — looking into long alleyways surrounded by medieval buildings — it's easy to be transported into the Old Jewish Ghetto to which native son and author Kafka refers.
The smell of wine and cigarettes still permeates the old inns and cafes where Jewish writers once met to discuss ideas. Courtyards remain hidden between blocks and blocks of dwellings.
But, as Kafka says, from the Parisian-styled street of Parizska — with its new designer shops and swanky restaurants — to the immaculately tended synagogues, this spotlessly clean and pristine Jewish town hides its past behind a pristine facade.
The "new" Jewish Quarter is situated in the Old Town area of Prague, just beyond Parizska street and the church of Saint Nicholas. It is often flooded with visitors from all over the world.
There is evidence that a Jewish community existed in Prague from as early as 50 C.E. Their small community was destroyed some years later, and they fled the area. Around 730 C.E., a large group of Lithuanians and Muscovites arrived in Prague after fleeing persecution. They lived on land donated to them by Prince Hostivit, on the banks of the River Vltava.
These Jews were compelled to live in a ghetto that consisted of wooden cabins, little more than hovels. A wooden synagogue provided for their spiritual needs, but their community grew so large that the old synagogue was no longer big enough to contain them.
They were given more land on the right bank of the river — the area known as Josefske Mesto, the current Jewish quarter of Prague. Large wooden synagogues and houses were built from 970 C.E. The Jewish community of the town dressed in Russian style and performed Polish rites in the synagogues, some of which are still used today.
The Jewish Town is the most perfectly preserved Jewish quarter in Central Europe; ironically, this was so because Hitler planned for it to be preserved as a museum to an extinct race.
Besides the wonderful synagogues, it has many lovely ancient buildings, crystal-glass and souvenir shops, and Jewish bookshops. There's also a museum. Tickets can be purchased from the stalls below the Jewish cemetery to visit the museum, synagogues and cemetery. If you wish to take any photographs, you must pay an extra fee. The sites are closed on Shabbat.
As for the Old-New Synagogue? The entity that can be seen today was built between 1278 and 1283 to replace an original wooden synagogue that stood in the same place. When excavations began, a few prayerbooks in Hebrew and a Torah scroll were discovered. The remains of the old building were used to build the new one — hence, the name Old-New Synagogue.
The oldest synagogue in Europe, its Gothic gables date from the 16th century. In 1388, it was the scene of a horrific massacre of innocent people, as the Jewish community was murdered within its walls for refusing to denounce their faith. The attic is reputed to be the final resting place of the Golem.
Scary Story, Sacred Space
Ah, the Golem.
In 1580, a fanatical anti-Semitic priest by the name of Thaddeus tried to raise mobs against the Jewish population of Prague.
Jehuda ben Bezalel (Rabbi Loew), after asking God for an answer about how to deal with his enemy, was told how to fashion a Golem from clay. This creation was to protect the Jewish community from attack.
The Golem was brought to life using the words of God. It protected the people well for many years. By 1593, the community was no longer under any threat, so it was decided the Golem had outlived his usefulness. The rabbi ordered the Golem up into the attic of the Old-New Synagogue, and he reversed the process and removed the life force from the Golem.
The next day the Jewish community was told that the Golem had fled the town, and that it was strictly prohibited to enter the attic of the synagogue, or to store sacred books or objects there ever again.
Near to the Old-New Synagogue is the Jewish Town Hall. It has a famous clock, the hands of which rotate counterclockwise and has Hebrew letters instead of numerals, which are read from right to left.
The cemetery, located at the very center of the Jewish Town, was used for more than 350 years, from the 15th century onwards. There are 12,000 graves in 12 layers.
The best way to tour the Jewish Quarter of Prague is on foot. There are some excellent walking tours of the area, with informative guides and entry to the sites included in the price. You can sign up for a tour in the main square of the old town on the day, or book online for large groups in advance at the Web site: www.praguer.com.