Friday, 2 July 2021

‘A beautiful crown for the people
carried by God from birth’

The Spanish Synagogue in Prague … honoured in last month’s Czech museum awards (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

The Prague Jewish Museum has been honoured in the Gloria Musaealis National Museum Competition for the reconstruction of the Spanish Synagogue in Prague and the new permanent exhibition housed there.

The museum received a Special Award in the category ‘Museum Achievement of the Year,’ and was rated one of six top museums out of 25 entries. The awards were presented at a ceremony two weeks ago (17 June 2021).

The competition is organised jointly by the Czech Ministry of Culture, the Association of Museums and Galleries in the Czech Republic, and the Czech Committee of the International Council of Museums (ICOM).

‘We are very pleased that the jury appreciated our reconstruction of the Spanish Synagogue and our new exhibition,’ the museum director, Leo Pavlát, said in a press release.

He pointed out that most of the work on this project took place during the pandemic, ‘which caused a severe drop in income for the museum.’ The Jewish Museum is a non-state institution and must rely on its own resources, ‘even at a time of financial losses.’

I managed to visit the Spanish Synagogue during a visit to Prague before it closed to the public for 18 months. It reopened on 16 December 2020, with expanded premises and newly designed permanent exhibition that uses audio-visual material and interactive technology.

The project cost ‘several tens of millions of crowns,’ the museum said. The reconstruction provides an additional 600 square metres of exhibition space and access to the upper floor gallery area.

The new permanent exhibition, ‘Jews in the Czech Lands in the 19th–20th Centuries,’ focuses on Jewish history in those centuries and builds on and replaces the previous exhibit, dating from 1998, with ‘unique pieces of Judaica and other objects, documents, films and photographs.’

A new feature of the exhibition traces the history of Jews from 1945 to 1989 and in the period that followed, a once neglected chapter in recent Czech history.

The Spanish Synagogue was built in 1868 for the Reform congregation in Prague on the site of the 12th-century Altschule (‘Old Synagogue). The building was designed by Josef Niklas and Jan Bělský, and the sumptuous interior was designed by Antonín Baum and Bedřich Münzberger in 1882-1883.

A small park with a statue by Jaroslav Róna of Prague’s best-known Jewish writer Franz Kafka lies between the synagogue and the neighbouring Church of Holy Spirit was first built in 1346 as part of a Benedictine convent.

The Old Synagogue or Altschule dated back to the 12th century or earlier, and its story was one of tragedy piled on tragedy. The victim of four fires, the synagogue was also damaged in the Easter pogrom in 1389. It was shut down by Emperor Leopold I in 1693 but opened its doors again in 1704, only to be pillaged in 1744.

During the 18th century, the Empress Maria Theresa let the synagogue fall into disrepair. But at the end of the 18th century, the Renaissance structure was transformed into a late Gothic style building.

The Old Synagogue was rebuilt five times from 1536 to 1837. When it was renovated in 1837, it became the first synagogue in Prague to offer Reform-style services and the first in Bohemia to have an organ. Frantisek Skroup, who would later compose the Czechoslovak and now Czech national anthem, Where is my home?, was the organist and choirmaster there for almost 10 years, from 1836 to 1845.

Reticulated vaulting was added in the 1840s. But by then, the Altschule was too small for the needs of its congregation. They decided to demolish it in 1867 and replace with the new, Spanish Synagogue, built a year later.

At first, the synagogue was known to German-speaking Jews in Prague as Geistgasse-Tempel, or ‘Temple in Holy Spirit Street,’ which seemed an incongruous combination of names until I stood by Kafka’s statue between the church and the synagogue.

Prague’s Jewish community has always been mainly Ashkenazic, so the name of the Spanish Synagogue does not refer to a Sephardic presence in Prague. Instead, the name refers to the Moorish revival style in its architectural design, inspired by the Alhambraand the art and architecture of the Arabic period in Spanish history.

The Holocaust led to the deaths of two-thirds of Jews living in the Czech lands. During World War II, the Nazis used it as a warehouse for confiscated synagogue items from Czech Jewish communities. The Jewish Museum, then run by the communist state, acquired it in 1955.

The Jewish Museum, originally founded in 1906, was returned to Jewish ownership and administration in 1994.

The Museum has been overhauling its permanent exhibits, housed in Prague’s former synagogues. The work on the Spanish Synagogue is the fourth revitalisation project in this process. Earlier work included renovating the Pinkas Synagogue (2018) and the Maisel Synagogue (2015) and opening the Information and Reservation Centre (2014). The paths in the Old Jewish Cemetery were landscaped in 2013.

This Shabbat, from sunset this evening, is the Shabbat before a new month in the Jewish calendar and is known as Shabbat Mevorchim. The new month of Av begins next Friday night.

The word mevorchim means ‘they bless,’ or the congregation bless the coming new month.’ This prayer is recited after the Torah reading and before the Torah scroll is carried back to the Aron haKodesh or holy ark.

In a blessing associated with Shabbat Mevorchim, it is not the moon or the month that is blessed or sanctified but God who is praised for renewing the moon, with this following blessing:

‘Praised are you, O Lord our God, King of the Universe, who created the skies with his word, and all heaven’s host with the breath of his mouth. He gave them appointed times and roles, and they never miss their cues, doing their Creator’s bidding with gladness and joy. He is the true creator who acts faithfully, and he has told the moon to renew itself. It is a beautiful crown for the people carried by God from birth, who will likewise be renewed in the future in order to proclaim the beauty of their creator for his glorious majesty. Praised are you, O Lord, who renews new moons.’

Shabbas Shalom

The Spanish Synagogue in Prague is a Moorish-style synagogue and one of the most beautiful in Europe (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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