CHANGE UNIVERSE: Magazine Jewels
PragueJanuary 21, 2008

Josefov: The Jewish Quarter

Share this post:

Pin it on Pinterest Share it on Google Plus

"Prague. Religions get lost as people do."  --  "The Trial"  Franz Kafka

Tonight, I bought tickets for a concert in the Old Prague Spanelska Synagoga, the Spanish Synagogue. 'Jewels of the World and Czech Classics': Mahler, Bloch, Ravel, Ben-Haim , Bernstein and Bruch -- all Jewish composers. To stay in the mood, I decided to spend my day in Josefov, the Jewish quarter in Old Prague.

While the city holds an allure to worldwide literati and coffee connoisseurs, I particularly chose to have my breakfast coffee at the charming and atmospheric Frantz Kafka cafe. Prague café culture was a pivotal element in his life and an inspiration to his writing.

It was in the Prague café culture that Kafka experienced something of a religious awakening to his Jewish heritage. (Marilyn Bender describes the personable and café-hopping Kafka in Franz Kafka's Prague: A Literary Walking Tour.) The characters in his novels and short stories are often coffee drinkers. So what were Kafka's coffee preferences? While I look at all his portraits on the wall I wonder if he 'd take it with cream and/or sugar? Unfortunately, the answer to this question remains elusive. The main street of Josefov is Parziska, an elegant avenue of designer's shops, flashy restaurants, expensive cocktail bars which leads from the Old Town square down to the river. Russian tourists, wearing some type of unidentifiable furs, stroll around Cartier display windows and chic Italian Cremeries.

This is all, however, in sharp contrast to the rest of what once was Prague's Jewish quarter. The spiritual heart of Josefov, Staronova Synagoga the Old-New synagogue, stands on a wedge of land between Maiselova and Parizska. Built around 1270, it's the oldest surviving synagogue in Europe. Legend has it that the foundation stones were flown over by angels from the Holy Temple in Jerusalem on the (al-tenay in Hebrew) that they should be returned on Judgment Day, hence the name Alt-Neu in German or Old-New in English.

After standing in a long line in the cold weather, I present my ticket (in Prague, except for breathing, you must buy tickets for everything you do, for photographic permits and even to shop!) and I finally get into the small stone entrance hall with Hebrew writing encrypted in the wall.

While I try to figure out their meaning, (straining my poor memory of elementary Hebrew studies in Milan) an old lady explains out loud with a strange Yiddish accent, that the ticket I bought is not valid for THIS synagogue but for all the other ones belonging to the Jewish Museum, whose original aim since 1906 was to preserve valuable artifacts from the Prague synagogues that had been demolished during the reconstruction of the Jewish Town at the beginning of the 20th century.The museum includes a total of 4 synagogues: Maisel synagogue, Klausen synagogue, Pinkas Synagogue where I am going tonight, the Spanelska synagogue, the former Ceremonial Hall, and the Old Jewish Cemetery.  She sends me quickly back to the ticket window.

Back in the synagogue's lower vestibule, this time holding tight the right ticket in my hand, the old lady accepts the ticket but says "No Photos!". I explain, irritated, that I have a permit to do so. Without answering me, she turns away to intercept a South American young man who also bought the "wrong" ticket.

In the center of the main hall of the Old-New Synagogue is the Bimah, which is like an elaborate wrought iron cage. Above the Bimah hangs a remnant of a red flag with the Star of David, the Jewish symbol. In 1357, Charles IV, the ruler of the Holy Roman Empire at the time, allowed the Jews of Prague to have their own city flag. This is the synagogue which Franz Kafka, the famous writer, attended when he lived in Prague; his Bar Mitzvah was held in the Old-New Synagogue.

On the west wall of the main hall, there is a glass case shaped like the two stone tablets on which Moses chiseled the ten commandants. The case is filled with tiny light bulbs which light up on the anniversary of someone's death if the relatives have paid for this feature. One of the lights is for Franz Kafka.I look at the the seating arrangement along the walls, the synagogue has retained the original seats. I recall images of my own father, sons, grandfather, and great grandfather who I never met, all sitting one next to each other, singing the Maariv (evening daily prayer) like this place was just one more synagogue in a neighborhood in Aleppo, Beirut, São Paulo or New York.

I felt there was no difference being a Sefaradi or a Jew from Prague. With this thought, I rushed out and headed to the Pinkas Synagoga at the end of Maiselova street. After all, the ticket bought yesterday will allow me free access today. Pinkas Synagogue was the private house of the Horowitz family in 1492. At that time it was a small building at the edge of the Old Jewish Cemetery, forming part of the house : U Erbu. In 1519 the house of prayer was inherited by the ambitious Aron Meshullam Zalman Horowitz, one of the leading figures of Prague.

Here, the line to get in is also very long, and the cold is still making its unwelcome presence known. Last year at this time, I was in Rio De Janeiro enjoying the burning sun on Ipanema beach. A red-cheeked man with a white mustache and a checkered wool hat, older than the lady in the Old-New synagogue, is telling me in English (resembling more of Czechoslovakian) that the ticket I bought is not valid. "Why sir? It's the Jewish Museum ticket!" The reason is that the ticket expired five minutes ago and I must buy a new one.

With a new valid ticket in my hand, I cross the late Gothic style building complemented by rich stone-cut decoration on the Holy Arch and Bimah, adorned themselves with traceries and withered pinnacles. The most sophisticated feature of decoration in terms of style is the front portal, which is rendered in the usually pure forms of the early Renaissance. A forged Rococo grille decorates the Bimah , its side section features motif of the Star of David with a medieval Jewish hat -- the symbol of the Jewish community in Prague.

Among the members of the Horowitz family there were a number of rabbis and scholars who devoted themselves to the studies of Jewish mysticism -- the Kabbala. These include Shabetai Sheftel ben Akiva Horowitz and Isaiah ben Abraham ha-Levi Horowitz. After several floods in 1758 and 1771, the vestibule, Arch and Binah got damaged and remodeled in the Baroque style in 1820.

Other major reconstructions took place in 1954-59 where the synagogue turned into a memorial to the nearly 78,000 victims of the Nazi Genocide of the Jewish population of Bohemia and Moravia. Their names are arranged in alphabetical order on the basis of communities and families and inscribed on walls of the vestibule, the main nave, women's nave and gallery. I realize looking at these white walls filled with firm and well designed orange, red and black letters, that the victims lost the anonymous impersonality of numbers and regained their human quality .

On my way, the old Jewish cemetery is placidly waiting to be visited. As a daughter of a Cohen (Great Priest) we don't have the habit to go. I just content myself with taking a few pictures from afar. My camera and I (with a permit in my pocket), witness with respect and distance, how the memorial synagogue and the neighborhood of the Jewish cemetery symbolize the unity between of those who lost their lives victimized and their mystical ancestors. Dinner tonight is at the hotel room. It's Shabbat.

I ordered the King Solomon's Shabbat Meal Box with a bottle of Kosher Baron Aaron Gunsberger 1999 wine. It will be delivered shortly before sunset at the time of the candle lighting, which should be at 3:55 pm. It's my day of rest. I need to reflect on my new year in Prague.

Malher's sublime movements reign supreme among a piano, a flute, a baritone and a violoncello. Arabesques of stucco, gilt and polychrome motifs are the main feature of the Moorish style employed in the second half of the 19th century of this synagogue. My eyes gaze through the Ark the east section of the synagogue building, while a piano and a violin echo highlights of Ravel's Rapsodie Espagnole . I envision myself resting under the Alhambra canopies in Andalusia this summer. What a day...

What a Shabbat, what an evening....the gentleman was right tonight. Music is a universal language, religions too. The city of Prague, Gustav Mahler and obviously Kafka know better that anyone else that it's a metamorphosis' desperate ode to life and innocence.

Joelle's Picks:

The Cafe:

Café Franz Kafka , Široká 12/64, Praha 1, Metro: Starom?stská /Tram 17, 18, Open 10am-10pm daily

The Restaurant:

King Solomon restaurant by Aron Gunsberger - Rated by square meal top 10 ethnic restaurants 1999,2000,2001, Glatt Kosher, Le Mehadrin Certified, Di Ro Pe Grand Award Wine Expert Award. Široká 8Prague 1 Tel + 420 224 818 725, Fax + 420 274 864 664 e-mail solomon@kosher.cz The Jewish Museum: For tickets :U Star Skoy 1, Prague. Tel 1 221 711 511

Subscribe to the Joelle Magazine Newsletter
About the newsletter