The city of Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic, is not only one of the most beautiful cities in Europe, but also happens to have one of the most fascinating Jewish histories. It is, after all, the city where the robot was invented by a Jew, and where you can see a Jewish clock.
It’s also sadly a place where Jews suffered during World War II, and afterwards during the Communist era. But now Jews are at last free to not just practise their religion but also welcome other Jews to their proud city.
Getting there is not difficult either, since a number of low-cost airlines in Europe fly to the city’s Ruzyne Airport. From the UK it’s possible, with a bit of planning and flexibility, to get there and back for under £60.
The essential Jewish stuff to do:
Visit the Old-New Synagogue. Located right in the middle of the city’s historic Jewish quarter, the Old-New Synagogue was built around 1270 and is the oldest working synagogue in Central Europe. Services are still held here, so if you find yourself in Prague on Shabbat or a festival you can experience a Czech shul service for yourself. Be warned though, when they say men and women are separated, they mean it and enforce. The women’s section does not feature a gallery or a mechitza, but is an entirely separate room with jail-like slots in the walls for the women to peer through and watch the service. At times though it can be chaotic, as not everyone is reading the same prayer book, but worth the experience.
Top Tip: Take your own prayer book. They don't have many in English.
Address: Cervena Street, Prague 1
Have a kosher dinner, Czech-style. There aren’t many kosher restaurants in Prague but the best, King Solomon, serves kosher versions of Czech specialities (schnitzels, duck) as well as traditional Jewish fare. Be sure to try out the local liqueur as well. You can also pre-book your meals there – a three course menu with soft drink or beer will set you back 18 Euros or 550 Czech Koruna (about £12), making it excellent value for money. They’re open from Sunday-Thursday, and Friday nights and Saturday lunchtimes by reservation only. For more information: www.kosher.cz
Top tip: Try out the cherry flavour liqueur
Address: Siroka 8, Prague 1
Tel: 248 18 752
Take a trip to Terezin. Located about an hour away from Prague, this was a concentration camp which served as a holding camp for Jews awaiting transport elsewhere. It was also used as propaganda for the outside world, with art and music employed to try and convince people that the Jews were not being mistreated by the Nazis. There are many guided tours available throughout Prague – coaches depart from the centre of the city.
Visit the Pinkas Synagogue. Another of the shuls located in the Jewish Quarter, it recently re-opened after being damaged in the floods that hit Prague in 2002. The shul is notable for its memorial to the Holocaust victims of Bohemia and Moravia, with all 80,000 victims’ names inscribed on the walls. An exhibition of drawings from children imprisoned in Terezin is housed on the upper level. It’s a good idea to try and do this in the same day as the Old-New Synagogue as they’re literally across the road from each other.
Go to the Old Jewish Cemetery. With its slanted tombstones, this historic graveyard is like no other cemetery you’ll have seen – the oldest stone dates back to 1437 although people were buried there until 1787. Although it houses 12,000 gravestones, many more people are thought to be there since bodies were buried on top of each other in the cemetery. The most famous grave belongs to that of Rabbi Loewe, who legend has it created the Golem to protect the Jews in the Prague ghetto. In turn the Golem became the inspiration for robots.
Top tip: Place a stone on Rabbi Loewe's grave
Address: Siroka Street, Prague 1
Visit Prague’s other synagogues. The Old-New and the Pinkas are the most famous, but the Jewish quarter boasts a number of other shuls, including The Maisel Synagogue (named after Mordechai Maisel, who was a prominent Jewish businessman in Prague in the 16th Century and who built the shul), the Klausen Synagogue (which houses a fascinating exhibition focusing on Jewish customs and traditions) and the Spanish Synagogue which is an ornate Sephardi shul. You can take a guided tour of all the synagogues but if you only want to see one or two, then they can be explored just as easily.
Address: The Maisel Synagogue, Maisel Street, Prague 1
Address: The Klausen Synagogue, U Stareho Hrbitova 3a, Prague 1
Address: The Spanish synagogue, Vezenska Street, Prague 1