Josefov

The Jewish Quarter in Prague is actually the smallest quarter and is known as Josefov. Located between the Old Town Square and the Vltava river, it is completely surrounded by the Old Town. The quarter is often represented by the flag of Prague’s Jewish community, a yellow Magen David (Star of David) on a red field. Jewish people first settled in the Old Town in the 12th century and over the centuries more and more people were crowded into the area, as Jews were banned from living anywhere else. Prague’s Jews, who were always subjected to discrimination and persecution but wealthy elders, like Mayor Mordechai Maisel in the 16th century, won privileges for the ghetto by placing their wealth at the disposal of the imperial treasury. Later Emperor Joseph II lowered many restrictions, and in 1849 the Josefov new Jewish Quarter was integrated into the city. Most of the ghetto slums were demolished at the end of the 19th century. Restrictions on their movements and the trades the Jews were allowed to conduct underwent constant change.

Tip: Avoid this quarter on Saturdays, because of the Sabbath on this day.

Old-New Synagogue
Old-New Synagogue (Staronová synagóga) is Europe’s oldest active synagogue and also the oldest surviving medieval synagogue. This building with a twin-nave design and the five-ribbed vaulting of the main hall represents a unique architectural style. Completed in 1270 in Gothic style, it was one of Prague’s first Gothic buildings. A even older Prague synagogue, known as the Old Synagogue, was demolished in 1867 and replaced by the Spanish Synagogue. This synagogue should definitely be on your list while exploring the Jewish Quarter. Just next to the synagogue is the Jewish Town Hall, the seat of the Chief Rabbi.

The Jewish Town Hall
The Jewish Town Hall (Židovská radnice), dating from 1577, is an astonishing building with a distinctive green steeple. This synagogue was originally built by Maisel but was rebuilt later on and the current Baroque structure dates from 1763. Its rococo facade was added in the 18th century and is crowned by a fine tower and two clocks with Hebrew figures, the hands of which run backwards because Hebrew reads from right to left. Only the Kosher Eatery is open to the public; the synagogue is closed. Today it is the seat of the Chief Rabbi.

Klausen Synagogue
Klausen Synagogue (Klausová synagóga) is a Baroque synagogue, which was built on the ruins of a school, or klausen, and completed in 1694. When fire devastated Josefov in 1689 Klausen Synagogue was rebuilt in 1694. There is a permanent exhibition of Hebrew prints and manuscripts, an exposition of Jewish customs and traditions and also drawings of children from the Terezín concentration camp. Do not miss this synagogue where you can see a barrel-vaulted roof with beautiful interior, stuccoed ceiling ornamentation, stained-glass windows and the marble Holy Ark, made in 1696. Klausen Synagogue is the largest of the six synagogues in the Jewish ghetto.

Pinkas Synagogue
Pinkas Synagogue (Pinkasova Synagóga) was founded in 1479 by Rabbi Pinkas. The women’s gallery and council hall were added in the 17th century. This synagogue has been rebuilt many times over the centuries. After the WWII it served as a memorial to the Czech Holocaust victims. Ten years later, the communist government closed the memorial and removed the names from the wall. Their names are re-inscribed on the walls after the fall of communism in 1989. There is also a collection of paintings and drawings by 15,000 children held in the Terezín concentration camp during WW II. Recently a quite interesting fact was discovered during excavations – evidence that the site was a Jewish place of worship long before the time of Rabbi Pinkas.

The Old Jewish Cemetery
The Old Jewish Cemetery (Starý Židovský Hřbitov) dates from 1478. It is Europe’s second oldest ‘surviving’ Jewish cemetery. Some 12,000 tombstones are located here, each crammed into a tiny space, with the oldest dating back to 1439. Indeed, because it was forbidden to enlarge the burial ground beyond the walled ghetto, the Jews were forced to bury their dead on top of each other – meaning that an estimated 100,000 bodies in about 12,000 graves lie here. Among the cemetery’s distinguished stones are those of Rabbi Avigdor Kara, Mordecai Maisel, Rabbi Löw (his real name is Jehuda ben Bezalel, the creator of the Golem) and David Oppenheimer. The cemetery was closed in 1787.

The Spanish Synagogue
The Spanish Synagogue (Španělská synagóga), built in 1868, was named after its striking Moorish interior. There is an exhibition showing the life of the Jews in the Czech Republic from emancipation to the present day. It is a beautiful building with a domed ceiling, Islamic motifs and stained glass where the richness of the interior, especially the architectural style and wall decoration, is just amazing.