By Kayla Green
Tucked away in the snowy cobblestone streets of Prague’s Jewish Quarter stands a synagogue that is as old and significant as it is beautiful. With its high, pointed brown roof and few windows, the Old-New Synagogue maintains old-world style without revealing its true age; built between 1270 and 1280, it is the oldest synagogue still in use in Prague. It defined the Jewish Ghetto, survived the Pogroms and the Holocaust and continues being used today. Embedded in the Shul’s ancient walls lies the history of Prague’s Jews, making it a riveting symbol of the community’s remarkable past.
From the beginning, the Old-New Synagogue reflected the troubles of the Jewish community in Prague; hardships and anti-Semitism hindered the process of building the synagogue in ways still visible in its physical structure. Because it was illegal for Jews to hold jobs when the synagogue was built in the 13th century, they had to employ Christians to build their house of worship. As a result, the synagogue’s Gothic style included vaulted ceilings whose beams intersect in “cruciform” (the form of the cross). The Synagogue added an additional beam so the intersecting lines would form something that resembled an asterisk rather that a cross, exemplifying Jewish techniques for complying with the law while remaining true to their Jewish identity.
Between the 15th and 16th centuries, the Old-New Synagogue experienced more changes, but this time it was from the community itself rather than from outside. Jewish women, who at the time were not allowed in the all-male congregation, demanded a space to accommodate them for prayer. Architecturally, it would have been impossible to add a balcony or another floor, so an oblong room was built alongside the Synagogue in which the women could watch the sermons through a window. Unfortunately, the delicate Gothic structure would not permit windows large enough for all patrons to get a complete view, so the “windows” more closely resemble holes, about one foot tall and two feel wide, placed at eye-level. To this day, women who attend service at the Old-New Synagogue can be found, faces pressed against the window, prayer book clutched in hand, straining to hear the words of the Rabbi. The dedication of these women, who strictly believe and observe words they strain to hear, provides a fascinating insight to the history of the Jewish women’s movement, demonstrating how the Jewish people have adapted to new ideas, accommodating change yet stay true to their beliefs.
In the main room, what appears to be a heavily vaulted chest conceals the true treasures of the synagogue and represents yet another example of the challenges of Prague’s Jewish community. This chest is in fact a locked closet that was created to hide Torah scrolls during Pogroms, a constant reminder of the history of persecution.
While the architecture, closet and women’s gallery are all essential to the preservation and adaptation of Prague’s Jewish community, they are not the only protectors of the Jewish people present in Old-New Synagogue; the building was also said to be the home to the mythical Golem, an animated being in Jewish folklore. Rabbi Judah Loew Ben Bezalel, the chief Rabbi of Prague in the late 16th century was said to have created a Golem out of clay from the banks of the Vltava River and brought it to life through rituals and Hebrew incantations to defend the Prague ghetto from anti-Semitic attacks. The legend adds a mythical layer to the already complex and awe-inspiring Synagogue. Though the Golem is rumored to have been driven out of the Shul’s attic during the reconstructions, it is certain that even without it’s mythical protector, the Old-New Synagogue will continue thriving and prospering, much like the community it represents.