Jewish Prague

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The Prague Jewish Ghetto also experienced its golden age at this time.

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The emperor confirmed the privileges of the Jewish people, and during his reign the Jewish Quarter (today’s Josefov district) flourished like never before.

The Maisel, Pinkas and High synagogues were built at that time, as well as the town hall and many other private and public buildings. Prague was home to famous Talmudist schools, and eminent literary and scientific works originated here. Hebrew printers also had their presses here. The most prominent figure of Jewish Prague at that time was Jehuda Liva ben Bezalel, also known as Rabbi Löw and famous as the creator of the mythical Golem. Although he spent only part of his life in Prague, he is buried in the city’s Old Jewish Cemetery.



Photos: Prague’s Old Jewish Cemetery (© Thinkstock), High Synagogue (© City of Prague)


Jewish mystical tradition describes the Golem as a sculpture animated by man. The idea of a clay figure brought to life has its origin probably as far back as ancient Egypt, where it is recorded in a literary tale from the second half of the 6th century BC. The Prague Golem, however, is one of the most famous earthen figures. Allegedly, it was created it in the late 16th century by the Jewish Rabbi Jehuda Liva ben Bezalel to protect the Jewish town from Christians. The Golem was animated after the insertion of a shem – a paper with the name of God written upon it – into his mouth, and he would only obey whoever inserted the shem. The destruction of the Prague Golem is connected with a legend telling how the rabbi forgot one day to remove the shem from the Golem’s mouth before leaving for the synagogue, and because the Golem did not have specified work to do, he began smashing all the precious statues and furnishings in the rabbi’s house. A frightened maid ran into the synagogue and begged the rabbi to put an end to the rampage. He shouted at the Golem to stop and took the shem out of his mouth. And because it was removed on the Jewish holiday, the Golem crumbled into dust. A legend says that the Golem was stored in the attic of the Old-New Synagogue, where since that time no one may enter. Permits for exploration have been given to only two people – in 1920 the Golem was sought unsuccessfully by the journalist Egon Erwin Kisch, and in the 1980s, Ivan Mackerle search for it with the help of georadar. The figure of the Golem continues to live, however, on the pages of books. The most famous rendition of the Prague legend is a novel written by the Prague Jewish writer Gustav Meyrink



Photos: Rabbi Löw and the Golem, Old-New Synagogue in 1836


The creator of the Golem is buried in Prague’s Old Jewish Cemetery, which miraculously has survived through pogroms, wars and slum clearance. The tombstones are covered with blessings for the deceased, called prayer stones, and some of the headstones dating from the 16th century also have special symbols whose meanings have not yet been fully deciphered. Most common are animal s – a lion, fish, deer or bear. When you find the grave of Rabbi Löw, place your piece of paper with a message asking for help and a prayer on his headstone. According to legend, your every wish should be fulfilled.

Einstein, Kafka and playing the violin


Prague also provided refuge for one of the greatest thinkers about the mystery of the cosmos: Albert Einstein. The most important physicist of the 20th century arrived in Prague in April 1911 to lecture at the local German university about theoretical physics. His stay in the city on the Vltava was very beneficial for Einstein, because here he could finally devote himself exclusively to scientific work. He spent one and a quarter years in Prague, and during this time, as he himself acknowledged, he covered a significant portion of the way toward his general theory of relativity. He summarized his gratitude to Prague in the preface to the 1923 Czech edition of Relativity: The Special and General Theory: “I am delighted that this little book is now being published in the national language of the country where I found the concentration necessary to gradually shape the core idea of the general theory of relativity, which I had already conceived in 1908, into a more definitive form.”



Photos: Albert Einstein (1921), Franz Kafka (1912)


Einstein published eleven of his works during his stay in Prague. But his life certainly did not revolve only around gravity and the theory of relativity, as confirmed by an account of his other activities. In addition to the music circle of a chamber quartet, where the eccentric professor relaxed by playing the violin, he used to be a guest at a society of philosophers’ table at the Café Louvre on Národní street and at Berta Fantová’s salon, where he met with Prague’s intellectual elite. Other frequent visitors included the writer Franz Kafka. No record of the meeting of these two giants has been preserved, so we can only conjecture about what the topics of conversation might have been and if their encounter was mutually enriching. The very idea is so alluring that it is hard to resist. The Czech poet Jiří Karásek of Lvovice even saw a typical feature of the local atmosphere in it:

"Prague is the only city where you feel that you could meet someone so strange, so fateful for you, that you would suddenly be standing helpless before his power, his influence.”

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