The article below was published in Pinnable’s newsletter in .


Prague’s Jewish Quarter

The Jewish community of Prague has been around for well over a thousand years. The Jewish ghetto, located between the Old Town Square & the Vltava river, was established in the 12th century, and provided Jews with a relatively safe place to live — from the second half of the 13th century even under the legal protection of the King, which proved insufficient against pogroms, such as the one in 1389, when several hundred residents were massacred. In the late 16th century the ghetto enjoyed its golden era, when the town hall & several synagogues were built. In 1850, the quarter was renamed Josefov, after Emperor Joseph II, who had allowed the Jews to settle outside the ghetto two years earlier. Because its wealthier residents moved elsewhere, houses in Josefov fell into disrepair & the area became an overpopulated refuge for the poor. Most of the quarter was demolished between 1893 & 1913 as part of a redevelopment; what was left were only six synagogues, the town hall, the cemetery & the burial society’s ceremonial hall.

Ceremonial Hall
The Ceremonial Hall next to the Old Jewish Cemetery

At the core of the Jewish Quarter stands the 13th-century Gothic Old-New Synagogue, the oldest extant synagogue in Europe, and the Jewish Town Hall next door, known for its Hebrew clock that moves anticlockwise. Other interesting sites in Josefov, all part of the Jewish Museum, are the Maisel Synagogue & the Spanish Synagogue, and the Klausen Synagogue & Ceremonial Hall, which feature exhibitions about the history of the Jews in Bohemia, and about Jewish customs & traditions. Inside the Pinkas Synagogue you will find the memorial to the Jewish victims of the Holocaust from the Czech lands, which includes an exhibition of children’s drawings from the Theresienstadt ghetto. The entrance to the synagogue is also the entrance to the Old Jewish Cemetery, the oldest surviving Jewish burial grounds in the world, with some 12,000 tombstones, many of which mark graves with multiple bodies stacked up to ten deep. The Old-New Synagogue & the museum are closed on the Sabbath & on Jewish holidays.

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The Old-New Synagogue (or Altneuschul in Yiddish) is inextricably linked with the legend of the Golem of Prague, a creature made of clay from the Vltava river, animated by Rabbi Jehuda Löw ben Becalel (d. 1609) by virtue of Kabbalistic theurgy. The golem was tasked with protecting the ghetto & doing heavy work, but once he started wrecking everything around him, the rabbi made him crumble into dust. Today, the remains of the golem are said to be located in the Old-New Synagogue’s closed-off attic. (And the tomb of Rabbi Löw is among the most sought-out places in the Old Jewish Cemetery.)


Located in the New Town, a 20-minute walk from the Jewish Quarter, the Jerusalem Synagogue is definitely also worth a visit. Designed by the Viennese architect Wilhelm Stiassny in a striking Moorish art nouveau style, it was built in the years 1905 & 1906 to replace three synagogues that were demolished during Josefov’s redevelopment. The shul is in active use, and hosts an exhibition about the Jewish community of Prague since 1945.


Joseph II, an enlightened absolutist, in 1782 further emancipated his Jewish subjects when he issued the Toleranzedikt, an edict of tolerance that allowed the Jews of Lower Austria to open their own schools, or to send their children to Christian schools — in order to make them ‘more useful to the state, through education and enlightenment’. Jews were also permitted to live where they wished and to enter whichever trades & professions they wanted to, and they were no longer forced to wear beards. Joseph’s edict did not grant the Jews full equality, but it did reflect a desire to integrate them into society.


Joseph II also tried to make his Catholic subjects more useful to the state, especially the monks & nuns who did nothing but eat, pray & love God. In 1782 he therefore ordered the dissolution of all religious establishments that were dedicated exclusively to the contemplative life and did not engage in any activities that contributed to the general good, such as education, tending the sick, and pastoral care. Members of those religious orders were to transform themselves into ‘more useful & more pious citizens of the state’.