Have you ever wanted to learn about Prague’s Jewish history and culture? Then a visit to Prague’s Jewish Quarter, or Josefav, should be on your itinerary. You will view houses of worship – synagogues – that are hundreds of years old. You can explore one of Europe’s oldest Jewish cemeteries. And, you can tour a museum, filled with thousands of Jewish objects, that the Nazis intended as a place to display the artifacts of an exterminated people.
Prague has a long Jewish history; Jews have lived in the city for centuries. Most of Prague’s Jews lived in the Jewish Quarter, which also served as a Ghetto or segregated neighborhood. The Jewish Quarter is located on the east side of the Vltava River, not far from the shops and restaurants of Old Town Square and Wenceslas Square. The Jewish Quarter is within walking distance of many tourist attractions, and the Staromestska metro stop is nearby.
The Jewish Museum is a must-see. Founded in the early part of the 20th century, the museum originally housed artifacts from local synagogues. Later, during the Nazi occupation, the museum became a German showcase for looted Jewish objects. Today, the museum’s collections include textiles, metal, manuscripts and art. Admission to the museum will also admit you to other attractions in the Jewish Quarter.
There are six synagogues in the Jewish Quarter. The oldest is the Old-New Synagogue, built in the 13th century, and a fine example of Gothic architecture. Visitors should be on guard for an appearance of the mythical Golem, a creature raised from the earth by Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel, Prague’s Chief Rabbi in the 16th century, to defend the city; according to legend, the Golem’s remains are in the attic. Other synagogues include: High Synagogue; Klaus Synagogue; Maisel Synagogue; Pinkas Synagogue, now a memorial to those lost in the Holocaust; and Spanish Synagogue. The Old-New and High synagogues still hold Orthodox worship services.
Near the Old-New synagogue is the Old Jewish Cemetery, one of the oldest Jewish cemeteries in Europe. It is the final resting place of Rabbi Loew and Mordecai Maisel, founder of the Maisel Synagogue and once Prague’s richest man. Interestingly, because the cemetery had very limited space, bodies were buried vertically.
Before leaving the area, plan to spend some time at the home where writer Franz Kafka was born, and be sure to check the time at the Jewish Town Hall – the clock has Hebrew letters instead of numbers and runs counterclockwise.
Finally, after visiting the Jewish Quarter, don’t miss a chance to stroll across the famous Charles Bridge and tour Prague Castle and the St. Vitus Cathedral. Another popular destination is the Terezin concentration camp, located sixty kilometers outside Prague.
Although there are relatively few Jews living in Prague today – less than 5,000 – the Jewish Quarter remains the center of Jewish life. The area’s rich religious and cultural history is on full display; make sure your holidays in Prague includes a visit to the Jewish Quarter