Thursday, August 04, 2005

Jews in Prague

Looking through my photos of Prague, the architectural difference between the churches and the synagogues strikes me. The churches are all bigger than the synagogues - especially than the Staronova (the Old-New Synagogue, the oldest in Prague, from the 13th century), the level of which is below-ground. The churches are in open public squares, obvious to everyone, with lots of fancy decoration and statues on them. The synagogues are not nearly so decorated outside, except for the Spanish synagogue and the Jerusalem synagogue (which is fabulous outside, but I didn't see the inside). When I went into the Staronova the guidebook said that in the Middle Ages the synagogues had to be built lower than the churches as a sign of the Jews' inferior status to Christians. It is really a striking architectural statement of the inferiority of Jews to Christians.

The Staronova synagogue is on top, and below it is St. Vitus Cathedral in the Prague Castle.

It is intimidating to realize in my guts that I come from a group of people who were despised and denigrated for hundreds, if not thousands of years, in the places that they called home. They were systematically discriminated against, restricted in their livelihoods, even in whether their children could marry (under the Hapsburgs, before Emancipation), prevented from living anywhere but in ghettos, their religion was denigrated, they were forced to wear special clothing to single them out for ridicule.... the list goes on and on. Knowing this intellectually is one thing, seeing it even in the architecture is another.

And it's not as if it's over. Strangely enough, tourists can go in and out of the synagogues as they wish, after having paid the entrance fees, but people who want to pray in the synagogue on Shabbat have to be inspected by guards before being allowed to enter. If one is identified as a Jew in a Jewish place there is clearly a danger of terrorism (this is not true only in the Czech Republic, for that matter - I've had this same experience going to synagogue services in Israel, for example, and when I visited Vienna a couple of years ago and went into the sole remaining synagogue, I had to show my passport and inspected by the guard). When I went on Friday night there were two guards searching bags and wanding people for weapons or explosives. And then when we entered the synagogue for the service, it was so obvious that the building had been made for a much larger congregation (this was in the Spanish synagogue, built in the late 1800s), and that we were a rather meager remnant, mostly made up of visiting tourists. The service was held in Hebrew and English, with occasional Czech translation.

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