30 January 2019

The Synagogues of Prague,
3, The Maisel Synagogue

The Maisel Synagogue was built in 1590-1592 and acquired its neo-Gothic appearance at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

During my visit to Prague last week, I visited about half-a-dozen or so of the surviving synagogues in Josefov, the Jewish Quarter in the Old Town in the Czech capital.

Despite World War II, most of the significant historical Jewish buildings in Prague were saved from destruction, and they form the best-preserved complex of historical Jewish monuments in the whole of Europe.

The Jewish Quarter has six synagogues, as well as the Jewish Ceremonial Hall and the Old Jewish Cemetery.

The 16th-century Maisel Synagogue on Maiselova Street has survived fires, the Nazi occupation of the Czech lands, the Holocaust and post-war neglect, and is now a modern museum.

The Maisel Synagogue was built at the end of the 16th century, which is seen as the golden age of the ghetto in Prague. Since then, its appearance has changed several times and its appearance today is neo-gothic in style.

The synagogue was built in 1590-1592 on the initiative of the Mayor of the Jewish town, Mordechai Maisel (1528-1601), the renowned businessman and benefactor of the ghetto. He acquired the site in 1590, and a year later the Emperor Rudolf II granted him permission to build his own synagogue. Maisel’s important position at the emperor’s court probably helped him to gain this imperial permission.

The Maisel Synagogue was designed by the architect Judah Tzoref de Herz and built in the Renaissance style by Josef Wahl in 1592. It was consecrated on Simchat Torah, 29 September 1592, and over the next century it became the largest and most impressive building in the ghetto.

Mordechai Maisel left the synagogue to Prague’s Jewish community in his will. But after his death in 1601 all his possessions, including the synagogue, were confiscated, despite an imperial privilege allowing him to make bequests in his will. His wishes were only fulfilled after a number of court cases that lasted several decades.

The Maisel Synagogue was severely damaged in the great fire in 1689 that destroyed much of the ghetto. It was rebuilt hurriedly, and as a consequence lost one third of its length.

Inside the Maisel Synagogue, which now serves as museum (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

The synagogue was rebuilt in 1862-1864 to plans by the architect JW Wertmüller, and again in 1892-1907, at a time when all the Jewish Quarter went through a major urban renewal according to the design of the architects Alfred Grotte and Emil Kralicek. The synagogue acquired two narrow side wings and its neo-Gothic portico extension, with a central layout and three entrances with pointed vaults.

The main nave of the synagogue and all the interior details, including the Aron-ha-Kodesh or holy ark holding the Torah scrolls, were redesigned in neo-Gothic style too. However, the south side façade, part of the aisles and the women’s galleries on the ground floor and first floor were untouched in these adaptations.

During the Nazi occupation of the Czech lands, possessions confiscated from members of the Czech Jewish communities were stored in Maisel Synagogue.

After the World War II, the synagogue became a depository of the Jewish Museum in Prague. It was restored in the 1960s, and an exhibition of silver Judaica was located there from 1965 to 1988.

The synagogue was forced to close because conditions could not be improved due to financial problems. However, the ‘Velvet Revolution’ made the restoration possible. The synagogue underwent total restoration in 1994-1995 and was opened to the public in 1996.

The Maisel Synagogue was restored once again in 2014-2015. It belongs to the Jewish Community of Prague and is administered by the Jewish Museum in Prague as a part of its exhibitions.

Today it houses an exhibition, ‘Jews in the Bohemian Lands, 10th to 18th Century.’ The exhibits include the tombstone of Avigdor Kara, a rabbinical judge who died in 1439. This was the oldest tombstone in the Old Jewish Cemetery in Prague. Avigdor Kara was the author of the elegy Et Kol ha-Tela’ah, ‘All the Adversities,’ that tells of the Prague pogrom in 1389. It is still recited on Yom Kippur in the Old-New Synagogue.

The synagogue also serves as a venue for cultural events, including concerts, readings and one-man theatre.

Windows and arches in the Maisel Synagogue (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Previously: The High Synagogue

Next: The Klausen Synagogue.

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