Thinking of Jewish Prague

Posted on by Sandell Morse


Standing in front of the Old-New Synagogue

In Auvillar, France, I mull Prague, my stop before arriving here, six nights in a city, I’d never seen, a place of myth, mystery and history. I went to Prague because so many threads of the Jewish history I’ve been unearthing in France these last six years led me there. Prague was one of the oldest and most prominent centers of Jewish culture in Central Europe. Prague was home to prominent rabbis, Jewish scholars, historians, mathematicians, philosophers, all long gone. Eighty thousand Czech Jews died at the hands of the Nazis.

After the Nazis, the Soviet Union took over Czechoslovakia, as it was known, then. The Communist regime took over the Jewish synagogues. There were no services. Practicing Judaism was not allowed.

So, what does it mean to have such a rich Jewish history without Jews? And what exactly is the meaning of Prague’s flourishing Jewish tourism? Synagogues are museums, storehouses of ritual objects, Torah crowns from Bohemian and Moravian synagogues, objects surviving, people murdered. And with so many tour guides, mostly, not Jewish, leading tourists through the Jewish Quarter, how does our history get distorted?

I buy a mezuzah in the gift shop of the Old-New Synagogue and the man behind the counter does not understand that I also want to buy the scroll that goes inside, and when my guide explains, he pulls a scroll from inside another mezuzah and carelessly places it in the box. Those scrolls are sacred texts, a reminder of God’s presence and God’s blessings. In the States, they are stored separately and handled with care. They are also expensive. To this man, this miniature scroll means nothing. And my mezuzah does not have a back. No way to keep the prayers safe. Clearly, this mezuzah is seen as a trinket, a gimmick.

In Prague, I feel a gap in Jewish history, a crater created by the Holocaust and the Cold War. A display ritual objects does not translate to an understanding of Judaism or of Jews. Nor does it obliterate prejudice, stereotyping or anti-Semitism. Jews and Jewish culture are a living thing, ever changing, every evolving. When I return home, I will construct a backing for my mezuzah which is a replica of the Old-New Synagogue, and I will fasten it to my doorpost, and this piece of kitsch will mark a Jewish house where my husband, my son, my granddaughter and I live, our roots diving down into history.

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