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Josefov (Josefov)

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Praha 1 - Staré Město

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Josefov - Jewish Quarter

The oldest Jewish settlement The Jewish settlers, businessmen, moneychangers used to settle in the area under Prague Castle as early as in the 10th century. This period is commemorated by a synagogue at Újezd in Malá Strana with the oldest cemetery (perished in the 12th century), and a little later a settlement was established by the so called Vyšehrad path (perished at the end of the 11th century during a crusade).

During the 11th and the 12th centuries, the Jewish settlement concentrated around today’s Vladislavova Street, where another cemetery was established before 1254 (abolished in 1478). The significance of this settlement gradually decreased and from the 12th century on, a new centre began to develop around the Old and the Old New Synagogue.

Jewish settlement of Josefov. The Jewish Town was, until the end of the 19th century, one of the oldest ground-plan formations in Prague, which was connected with, among other things, consistent adherence to habits, both religious and relating to practical life.

The Jews most probably came in this area from two directions; the older and more numerous settlement was from the East, Byzantium, and the younger from the East-West over the Alps. They began to settle in a commercially advantageous place between two market places - Na Rejdišti and the Old Town (Staroměstské) Square. There was a certain internal division within the settlement, mostly connected with different ways of adhering to the religious rituals, when the Eastern Jews settled around the Old Synagogue (which used to be situated in place of today’s Spanish behind the Holy Spirit Church), and the Western settled around the Old New Synagogue and nearby Josefovská (today Široká) Street. At this time, however, it was no forced ghetto, which would separate the Jews from the others. There was a similar settlement of German businessmen around St. Peter’s Church, and of Romanic ones around St. Havel.

In the 1230s, during the reign of Václav I, the whole extensive territory with scattered settlement around the Old Town Square was united by a wall, thus establishing the Old Town. Shortly after that, also the Jewish settlement was enclosed by a wall with six gates, at that time rather to protect against attacks from the outside, than to isolate the inhabitants. From the 1250s on, the anti-Jewish storms started to occur, being also the consequence of the anti-Jewish decrees of the Fourth Council of the Lateran. However, the Jews paid taxes to the king, thus enjoying his protection against pogroms, and the construction of the Old New Synagogue was the testimony of the community’s high position in the last third of the 13th century, having been built by the stonemasons of the royal smelting plant. Today it is the oldest preserved European synagogue, still used for religious purposes.

During Easter 1389, there was the greatest medieval pogrom ever, supposedly caused by a desecration of an altar bread. It was followed by great massacres, plundering and burning of the houses, when nearly 3000 inhabitants of the ghetto were killed. Avigdor Kara was one of the few survivors, a doctor and later a rabbi who composed a lament to commemorate the event, and it is still read today during the Jom kippur feasts. The tombstone of Avigdor Kara (died in 1439) is the oldest preserved tombstone in the Jewish cemetery established in the beginning of the 15th century.

In the 16th century, mostly at the time of the Rudolf II reign, economic and cultural prosperity returns to the Prague Jewish community - past Jewish privileges were confirmed; litigations between Christians and Jews could only be resolved by the royal court, etc. Before the end of the 16th century, the number of citizens increased severalfold, further building development started (Maisel Synagogue, Pinkas Synagogue, High Synagogue, town hall), there were numbers of financiers, various craftsmen, and their services have been used by inhabitants of the other parts of the city as well.

Around the mid-17th century, the development was so intense, that many began to view it as a serious endangerment of the Christian entrepreneurship, and the court thus started to strive after limiting the Jewish economy. This succeeded a hundred years later, when the Jews were expelled from Prague upon the order of Maria Theresa in the years 1745 - 8.

Their position improved again only after the reforms of Joseph II, who, among other things, also abolished different anti-Jewish orders and limitations. The order regarding forced placement of Jews in ghettos remained in action, and only the richest, most privileged individuals were allowed to settle outside the borders (such as the Progeses of Portheim).

After the Austrian constitution was set up in 1848, the Jews acquired full political equality, and they could freely move outside the ghettos.

Josefov - the Fifth Town of Prague The Jewish quarter was included among the Prague towns in 1850; it was named Josefov to commemorate Emperor Joseph II. Wealthy Jews immediately started to move into better neighbourhoods, and the former ghetto changed into a slum, regardless the religion. Yet a Spanish synagogue was built as early as in 1868 in place of the Old synagogue.

Fast deterioration, overpopulation and bad hygienic conditions lead to the approval of the sanitation law in 1893. Demolitions started four years later after the houses were redeemed, and regarding more significant buildings, only six synagogues, a town hall and a cemetery were preserved until today. Within the framework of new construction, the level of terrain was elevated first of all, to protect the territory against floods, and most new buildings were built during the first decade of the 20th century.

After the extinction of several synagogues, their former congregations united and in 1906, they built a Jubilee synagogue in the Jeruzalémská Street as certain compensation. In the same year, also the Jewish museum was established with the aim to preserve historical and artistic commemorations from the demolished houses and synagogues.

What can no longer be found in the former ghetto Zigeiner (Cikánova) Synagogue from 1613 (used to be in the internal block between the former Rabbi, today Maisel and Široká), a Renaissance palace of Jakob Basevi from 1622, his private Velkodvorská Synagogue from 1627 (used to be in the same block as the Zigeiner Synagogue), the New Synagogue (used to be at the Eastern end of Josefovská - Široká Street), and lots of romantic houses and cottages and mysterious corners.

Significant personalities Jehuda Löw ben Becalel (around 1525 - 1609) - Talmudist, religious thinker and philosopher, pedagogue promoting certain new methods in teaching and interpreting Talmud, Prague rabbi in the years 1597 - 1609. Known to wide public as the creator of the legendary Golem. Mordechaj Maisel (1528 - 1601) - businessman, patron, court Jew and banker of Rudolf II, enjoying different privileges for his services (the right to loan money for debentures, the right to build a private synagogue, to have his own banner and to ride a horse through the town as a nobleman, the right to trade freely). His name is connected with the construction of the town hall, the High (Vysoká) Synagogue, with paving all the ghetto streets, he also extended the cemetery, and had three smaller buildings erected in place of today’s Klausen Synagogue, namely a Talmudist school (yeshiva), a synagogue, and a ritual spa (mikve). Jakob Baševi (1580 - 1634) - after Maisel he acquired similarly significant position and privileges, including the position of the imperial banker and court Jew. In 1622, he was even ennobled by Ferdinand II as the first Jew in the Habsburg monarchy, and he became a man of high politics. Apart from a private palace and a synagogue, he also had a hospital and spa built in the ghetto. David Gans (1541 - 1613) - pupil of rabbi Löw, mathematician, astronomer, the first modern Jewish historiographer - the chronicle Cemach David (David’s Sprig) is a valuable resource of events Gans himself witnessed in Prague. He was in contact with Tycho de Brahe and Johannes Kepler, too.

Legends of the old ghetto About Golem: the legend has been known in different modification in many oriental nations for a long time, yet the Golem of Prague probably made it most famous. It was largely due to Gustav Meyrink, who published a novel about Golem in 1915.

Golem was a creature - an artificial human being created by rabbi Löw from clay with the help of three elements (water, fire and air). He was enlivened with a scroll containing a special cabbalist formula inserted under the tongue. Golem, who was named Josele, was very strong and could do nearly everything but speak. He helped in the rabbi’s house and also worked as a servant (shames) in the synagogue. The rabbi used to take out the scroll from his mouth during Sabbath, when working is forbidden; yet he forgot one day, and before he came back from the synagogue, Golem had destroyed everything that got in his way in a madness attack. When the rabbi took out the scroll, the body fell onto the ground and crumbled, and the mass was taken to the Old New Synagogue, where it has remained until today, as one legend says. About the Old New Synagogue: the legend says the angels have brought the synagogue directly from Jerusalem; another version says the angels built it themselves. During the fire of the ghetto in 1558, when the synagogue was endangered too, the legend says two doves appeared on the roof and kept beating their wings until they diverted the flames. The story was that those were two of the angels who had built the synagogue.

Less commonly known facts The Star of David (Shield of David): A well-known six-tail star, a hexagram having a magic significance, not only for the Jews, as early as in the ancient world. In 1354, Charles IV bestowed a privilege upon the Prague community to have their own banner, and the Star of David first appears on it as the symbol of the Jewish community. This symbol gradually rooted throughout the territory of Bohemia and Moravia; it was used in Austria from the 17th century on, and it kept spreading throughout the world. Also the Zionists struggling for the renewal of the Jewish state chose it as their emblem, and it is a part of the Israel State’s flag today.

The first seat of Prague university: next to the ghetto gate behind the St. Nicholas Church, there used to be a house of Lasarus the Jew, which was, after his death, donated by Charles IV to the Prague Technical University, and the first campus was established here, named Karlova (until then, the tuition only took place in the teachers’ homes). The university was settled here until 1383, when Václav IV bought a house of coin-master Rotlev - today’s Carolinum.


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