Josefov: Prague’s Jewish Quarter

Jewish artefact in the Spanish synagogue

Jewish artefact in the Spanish synagogue

Prague is divided into districts which are clearly marked on all the street signs. We are staying in Stare Mesto, the Old Town. Within a few streets is Josefov, the former Jewish quarter. In spite of the proximity, we have signed up for a walking tour as part of our HopOn HopOff two day bus ticket. We always hope we will hear information that we cannot find by our own exploration.

The Jewish Cemetery

The Jewish Cemetery

The tour we have is interesting, however it is only an overview introduction to the area. If we wanted to know more in depth, it would be better to take a specialised walking tour, or the combined ticket which give access to the six establishments which comprise the Prague Jewish Museum.

Spanish synaggoe

Spanish synaggoe

Nevertheless the guide gives some interesting background to the turbulent history of the Jewish population of Prague, going back centuries. Even in those times, there were restrictions on where they could live and what trades they could follow, creating an over-crowded confined ghetto area. The Jewish cemetery operated from 1439-1790. The tombstones are clustered one on top of the other. We are introduced to the concept that in Jewish cemeteries, stones are placed on gravesides instead of flowers. This custom dates back to the days when burials took place in the desert, and stones were placed on top to protect the site from scavenging wild animals. It is one of those facts that once you become aware, you start to see everywhere you go thereafter.

Central Dome inside the synagogue

Central Dome inside the synagogue

Restrictions on where and how to live were eased over time, but many people remained in the area, which had become slummy and was prone to flooding from the nearby Vltava River. Then in 1880 much of the area was rebuilt in the style of a fashionable part of Paris, and a wide boulevard running through the centre of the area is called Parizska (Paris). Some of the area is now quite gentrified and a desirable and expensive area to live.

We didn’t tour inside the six remaining synagogues. However we did attend an evening concert performance in the Spanish synagogue, built in 1868 in Moorish design. It is impressive, as you can see from the photographs. Note the highly detailed gold mosaics, which have a distinct Islamic motif feel. There is also a small exhibition around the walls of the interior. This exhibition traces the way of life of the local Jewish population and displays many precious artefacts.

And the concert? The large dome surmounting the central space lends itself to good acoustics. We listened to a small chamber orchestra and soprano, giving a mixture of classics such as Rossini, Verdi and Ravel, some lighter music such as Gershwin and Bernstein, and the finale – four pieces of Jewish traditional songs finishing with Hava Nagila. Then finally, a surprise encore of another traditional piece. A very pleasant way to spend an hour on a summer’s evening.

Third week July 2013, Garrulous Gwendoline, still in Prague

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