Jewish Prague: Rich history, fine museums, meager numbers

Jewish Prague: Rich history, fine museums, meager numbers

Community needs ‘outreach to build committed core’

The author in the courtyard of St. Vitus Cathedral in Prague. Photos courtesy Alan Richman
The author in the courtyard of St. Vitus Cathedral in Prague. Photos courtesy Alan Richman

first visited Prague in 1966, when it was still under communist rule and the country’s name was Czechoslovakia. Although the sun shone just as bright, the mood of the city was somber, serious, noirish — as if I had stepped into a 1940s black-and-white foreign-intrigue movie.

There was little variety in consumer goods. It seemed that almost every resident had a well-made raincoat, all dark blue and all in the same design. Fresh produce was scarce. And at my “first-class” hotel, the carpeting was worn out, the towels mismatched.

I’ve been back three times since — in 1998, 2008, and this past September — and each time I’ve been impressed by the strides the city has made to put itself on a par with the great capitals of Western Europe.

But Prague has something that many other European cities lack. It was never heavily bombed, and so its central, older area is an almost intact rendition of art and architecture stretching back more than a thousand years, rife with historic, religious, and cultural sites. For Jewish visitors, it has even more: centuries of rich Jewish history and arguably the finest Jewish museum in the world. What it does not have is a large Jewish population.

“Our best estimate is that the Holocaust, plus escapes from Nazism and communism, legal emigration to Israel and other destinations, interfaith marriage, conversion, and other factors removed 90-95 percent of all Jews from the lands of the Czech Republic between 1933, when they numbered about 117,000, and 2016’s official total of 3,900 self-identified Jews,” said Tomas Kraus, executive director of the Federation of Jewish Communities in the Czech Republic (FJC).

A Hebrew clock in Prague’s Jewish Town Hall.

Interviewed at his Prague office, Kraus told NJJN that that statistic “is not a realistic figure”; to reach what he called “a more meaningful total” requires going “beyond what is recognized by halachic law.” During 50 years of communist hegemony, he noted, “religions of all types were vilified, and as recently as 2015, some 72 percent of all citizens opted out of any religious affiliation.”

The Institute for Jewish Policy Research counts the Jewish population in four overlapping segments: the 3,900 core Jews; 5,000 people with a Jewish parent; the 6,500 members of the “enlarged” Jewish population — the core plus all others of Jewish parentage, as well as non-Jewish household members (spouses and children); and “Law of Return” Jews, those eligible to claim Israeli citizenship, numbering about 8,000.

Using these more generous designations, there could be anywhere between three and five times as many Jews in the country as there are in the core, Kraus said — perhaps about one per thousand in the total population of 10.5 million, with about half living in Prague, the seat of Jewish communal life.

Kraus emphasized that being Jewish in the Czech Republic is different from being Jewish in the United States or most other countries. “Here, there is government-recognized official status for the Jewish community, the same as there is for the Catholic community.” This means that a major role of the FJC is as “the voice of the Jewish communities,” Kraus said, interacting on policy matters with such agencies as the interior ministry and the police.

Because of land restrictions in Prague, Jewish graves were buried layer upon layer for centuries; as headstones were added, there was no way to keep them all upright and in line.

“Prior to 1938,” he continued, “there were 156 registered Jewish communities in what is now the Czech Republic. Today, there are only 10. All told, the Holocaust claimed more than 80,000 known Jewish deaths.” The names of virtually all the victims are inscribed in the walls of Prague’s Pinkas Synagogue, along with the communities they came from and the dates of their birth and death.

The synagogue is one of six major elements of the museum. The others are the Spanish Synagogue, built in 1868 and where Reform Jews hold a kabbalat Shabbat service on Friday evenings; the Maisel Synagogue, which houses a permanent exhibit of Jewish life in Bohemia from the 10th through the 18th centuries; the Klausen Synagogue, where in the 16th century Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel, creator of the legendary Golem (the animated artificial man created from clay or mud), established a yeshiva; the Ceremonial Hall, an imposing early-20th-century neo-Romanesque building that was the historical home of the chevra kaddisha (Jewish burial society); and the Old Jewish Cemetery, with tombstones dating to 1439, and where land restrictions caused Jews to bury their dead as many as 12 layers deep.

Two other Prague shuls, though not officially under the museum’s administration, require a mention. The Gothic-style Altneuschul (Old-New Synagogue), at more than 700 years old, is Europe’s oldest active synagogue; the Jerusalem, or Jubilee, Synagogue, built in 1906 in the Moorish Revival form, is the city’s largest.

More than 80,000 names of Czech Holocaust victims are inscribed on the walls of Prague’s Pinkas Synagogue.

Few places hold regular services. “Religious observance was always lukewarm among Prague’s Jews, even before Hitler,” Kraus said. “The culture is mostly German, and German Jews tended to be integrated into the majority society with relative ease — until the Shoah.”

Following the war, a significant percentage of survivors left Czechoslovakia and went to Israel, the United States, and other destinations. In 1948, when the communists assumed power, official policy reinforced many of the remaining Jews’ indifference to affiliation and tradition. Intermarriage was common, and many if not most Jews eschewed ritual practices altogether.

Henrietta (not her real name), a 59-year-old tour guide, considers herself Jewish, but is not a registered member of the community. “I identify with my Jewish ancestry, on my mother’s side,” she said, “but I grew up with no training or home traditions. I do have a mezuzah on my door frame, but I also decorate for Christmas.

“Some of my Jewish-American tour clients can’t understand what it was like for me — growing up in a communist society. They admonish me for not being eager to jump into Judaism.” What they don’t get, she said, is that in 1990 when the communists were replaced, she was already in her 30s and knew “nothing about how to be Jewish.” Besides that, she was married to a non-Jew; their two children, she said, “were told of their Jewish background but were never taught anything formally.”

Inside the sanctuary of Prague’s Altneuschul (Old-New Synagogue),
Europe’s oldest active synagogue.

Today, the Hotel King David, within walking distance of Old Town Square — the significantly historic square in Prague’s Old Town quarter — claims to be the only kosher hotel in Prague. “We are glatt kosher, feature a kosher buffet restaurant, and we even have mikvas for both men and women,” said Abdo Shamekh, the hotel’s food and beverage manager, who was interviewed while setting up the sukkah for two sold-out seatings of a first-night Sukkot dinner. Kashrut is under the supervision of mashgiach Rabbi Eliyahu Rotenberg, of Israel, who works with Prague-based mashgiach Benyamin Yedvab.

“We can and do get everything we need” in kosher food, Yedvab said, “but it is not always easy. Most dairy items are of local origin, but we have to import high-level kosher chicken and beef” — from England, France, and Poland.

Unlike many other European nations, some of which have been flooded with Muslim refugees, the Czech Republic is not greatly troubled by anti-Semitic or anti-Israel behavior.

“Our country has always been pro-Israel, dating back to 1948,” Kraus said. “What is desperately lacking here, however, is outreach that would help us build the committed, participating core. Specifically, we have to find more effective ways to attract secular Jews, Jews without matrilineal descent, and Jews from mixed marriages.”

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