Tony’s Alternative Guide to Prague » The Jewish Town of Prague (Josefov)

The Jewish Town of Prague (Josefov)

The Jewish Town of Prague, originally located between Charles Bridge and Old Town Square, was the most important Jewish settlement in the Czech Lands. As the years went by, the original settlement evolved into a full-size Jewish city with its own administration and judiciary. Today, this part of town is called Josefov (roughly, “Josephstown”).

Although Prague Jews had to live within the walls of the ghetto, limit their contact with Christians to trade only, and wear markings on their clothes, the town prospered and attracted Jewish immigrants from all over Europe. At one point, the Jewish Town of Prague was the largest Jewish settlement in Europe and a cultural and economic hub for the Jewish people.

Prague’s Jews owed their comparatively good fortune mainly to good relations with the Kings of Bohemia, who provided a number of privileges uncommon to Jewish ghettos, as well as royal protection, in return for loans on favorable terms.[1] A testament to the high status of the Jewish Town is the construction of the Old New Synagogue in the last third of the 13th century; the edifice was built by master masons from the Royal Lodge, the King’s own builders. Today, the synagogue is the oldest one still standing in Europe, and remains an active place of worship for Prague’s Jewish community.

Jewish Museum in Prague: Ceremonial Hall

Jewish Museum in Prague: Ceremonial Hall

Town residents lobbied the Crown to evict all Jews from Prague, on account of their (evidently successful) economic competition with Christians.

This effort nearly succeeded in the 1540s and ‘50s, when Jews were formally exiled from all of the Kingdom of Bohemia. Fortunately for Prague’s Jews, the situation reversed in the late 16th century, when Rudolf II, Holy Roman Emperor, became King of Bohemia and, like the Emperor Charles centuries before him, fell in love with Prague to the point he decided to name it his capital.[2] This act made Prague once again the center of economic and cultural development; among other things, Rudolf restored the ancient Jewish rights in the city. The population of the Jewish Town rose by a factor of several, and there was large-scale construction going on. This period saw the building of the Maisel, Pinkas, and Tall Synagogues, as well as the Jewish Town Hall and a number of public and private buildings.

Many of the Jewish Town’s most famous residents lived during this era, mostly artists and scientists. Examples include the chronicler David Gans; Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel, the Maharal (“teacher”, “scholar”) of Prague and, according to legend, the creator of the Golem, the mystical automaton popularized by the later literary works of Gustav Meyrink; and also Rudolf II’s “court Jew” and, in modern terms, “personal asset manager,” Mordecai Maisl, then the richest man in Prague short of the Emperor himself, and a major patron and builder in the ghetto. Others included Joseph Solomon Delmedigo, a noted astronomer and mathematician, student to Galileo himself, and Jacob Bashevi, the first Jew ever to be made a peer (i.e., elevated to the nobility) of the Habsburg Monarchy. The graves of all these men may be found in Prague’s Old Jewish Cemetery.

View from the Old-New Synagogue

View from the Old-New Synagogue

During the reign of Mary Therese, in the 1840s, Jews were again banished from the land. Their position improved after Joseph II’s Enlightenment reforms. These, combined with the “Year of Revolutions” across Europe (1848), finally gained Jews full political equality and the right to live wherever they wished, i.e., outside ghettos. However, those same events led to the gradual decline of Prague’s Jewish Town: Those Jews who could afford it wasted no time leaving the crowded, none-too-sanitary ghetto for better neighborhoods, and the former ghetto became a regular slum, taking Jewish and Christian poor alike. The Jewish Quarter was incorporated as part of the City of Prague in 1850; the new borough was named Josefov (Josephstown) in memory of Emperor Joseph II, the man whose reforms emancipated the local denizens.

The neighborhood fast began to deteriorate and became a hive of criminal activity. So, despite the objections of experts, the Prague City Council decided in the 1890s to demolish and rebuild almost the entire ghetto. Through this, Prague lost a unique architectural complex; a number of synagogues, townhouses, and palaces were demolished. Only six synagogues remain from the old Jewish Town today: the Old New, Klausen, Pinkas, Maisel, Spanish, and Tall Synagogues, along with the old cemetery and the Baroque town hall. Even so, this tiny sliver of what the Jewish Town once was is among the most valuable cultural heritage of European Judaism.

1906 saw the founding of the Jewish Museum, which was tasked with preserving the surviving objects of historical and artistic value from the demolished houses and synagogues. The museum’s collection is the largest and most important Jewish historical collection outside Jerusalem.


Notes:

[1] In the Middle Ages, Jews across Europe were banned from a great many professions. One of the few professions they were allowed was banking – considered somewhat distasteful by Christians, mainly because its central concept of interest offended the Catholic clergy, which maintained that “time is God’s” and therefore should not be monetized by charging interest for time passed on a loan. As a result, many Jewish families over time built up considerable fortunes through financial services. A continued embarrassment in European history is that whenever national funds were running low – often in times of war – the local sovereign was prone to find Jewish banking, in other times so useful to the Crown in question, suddenly distasteful, and confiscate said fortunes for the State. The Jewish term for this was “pogrom,” a word with a Slavic root shared with the modern words for “disaster” in Czech (modern Czech: “pohroma”) and other Slavic languages. Pogroms also often included mob violence against Jews.

[2] The Holy Roman Empire did not have a permanent, formally-recognized capital. This usually meant that the imperial court travelled among the “Imperial Cities,” of which there were more than a dozen all over the large polity. However, if an Emperor wished to adopt a “personal capital” for the duration of his reign, he was mostly free to do so. When done, this typically conferred considerable prestige and wealth upon the city so chosen. Prague was chosen twice, first by Charles IV in the mid-14th century, and again by Rudolf II in the late 16th century. Both were periods of exceptional prosperity for the city, and the Kingdom of Bohemia in general.


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