As an Archival Ephemera Digitization and Media Specialist at the Blavatnik Archive, I regularly come into contact with the past via a process of cataloguing eclectic fragments of historical material. During a recent graduate fellowship with NYU in Prague, however, I had the opportunity to synthesize the historical past and present by observing the sites featured within one of the archive’s some 90,000 physical assets.
The Blavatnik Archive holds a physical copy of the Antiquitates Judaicae Pragenses (Jewish Antiquities in Prague), a postcard album printed by M. Schulz for the Gomel Hasidim Burial Society in Prague [c.1910]. This album, crafted from cardboard and fastened with olive green cord, contains 25 photo plates featuring several locations within Josefov, Prague’s Jewish Quarter.
The locations and structures featured within this booklet still exist today more than 100 years following the album’s printing date. Presented here are various images of the exterior of the Old-New Synagogue in Prague. This synagogue stands as the oldest active synagogue in Europe--first opened to the public in the year 1270. It was originally named the “New or Great Shul,” however, later within the 16th century and the development of several local synagogues, the name was adjusted to Altneuschul, or, the Old-New Synagogue.
The synagogue holds additional architectural significance as the oldest surviving synagogue with a medieval double-nave (see Interior Photo of Altneuschul). This double-nave was a part of the original construction, however, the synagogue continued to develop structurally into the mid 1700s. Circa 1300, the Altneuschul expanded to include a southern vestibule and western annex for women, during the early 15th century an entrance hall to the women’s section was attached, and in 1732 a northern women’s section was finalized. Combined, the completed structure is rectangular, featuring a saddle roof and Gothic-style gables (see Exterior Photo of Altneuschul and Street View of Altneuschul).
The interior of the Old-New Synagogue is similarly remarkable as it is highlighted by six bays of five-ribbed vaulting on two octagonal pillars. Twelve windows envelop the perimeter walls of synagogue as an homage to the number of tribes of Israel. The main hall is centered around a raised platform that is adorned with a Gothic-style grille, and the Torah scrolls are retained within a holy ark along the eastern wall of the synagogue. This structure held a status as the most prominent synagogue within the city of Prague. Among this synagogue’s many acting Rabbis, Judah ben Bezalel, Rabbi Loew of Prague taught here during the 16th century. His grave, seen below resides in the adjacent Old Jewish Cemetery, an additional location featured within the booklet.
While the founding date of the Old Jewish Cemetery in Prague is unknown, the oldest gravestone, amongst the near 12,000 present, is from the year 1439. A rough estimate of 100,000 Jews have been buried in this location. The disproportionate body to tombstone ratio stems from the Jewish custom of banning the removal of old graves, leading to a practice of the dead being buried on top of existing grave plots.
Of the thousands of headstones present within Prague’s Old Jewish Cemetery, a clear aesthetic division is present. Those originating prior to the 16th century are smaller in size and stylistically more simplistic. Those originating from the 17th century, however, feature baroque-style sculpting with emblems that indicate an individual’s profession, family name, and personal characteristics.
The grave of the aforementioned Rabbi Loew of Prague [1520-1609], pictured here, serves as a visual example of this latter stylistic type. Known informally as the Maharal of Prague, Rabbi Loew served as a leading Rabbi in the aforementioned city following a 20-year term as the Rabbi in Nikolsburg, Moravia. He is well known for his advancements made to the respective fields of Jewish philosophy and mysticism that have been expressed through his authoring of multiple literary works. His grave features the symbolic elements of the lion and wine grapes-- the former, an emblem of his first name, Judah, and the latter, a symbol of prosperity.
Post by Rachel Angelica Engle