Rather fanciful tales put a colorful spin on the origins of some buildings in Prague’s historical Jewish Quarter
Legends in the Czech lands also include the Jewish community, which up until World War II had a large presence in Prague.
Prague’s Jewish Quarter was a booming district back around the time of Emperor Rudolf II, who respected the community’s mystical traditions based in the Kabbalah. The tale of the Golem is well-known, but there are some others.
Two of the Jewish Quarter’s synagogues were founded with gold coins with mystical origins — at least according to folklore.
The Maisel Synagogue was founded with money from a successful businessman. The legend and history differ quite a bit — with the true tale being rather mundane. The legend, though, is another story completely.
A learned rabbi named Yitzhak was headed back to Prague by night through the forests that used to stand not far from the then rather small city. He saw a strange flickering golden light and had his driver stop. The rabbi quietly found a vantage point, and witnessed an unbelievable scene.
Some woodland elves were counting out gold and silver coins from a wooden box. The rabbi pounced on them, saying he was entitled to the coins since he caught them. The elves explained that was not the case. Those rules applied to leprechauns, who lived far away, and only during rainbows.
One elf was rather rude, telling the rabbi the gold wasn’t meant for him, and to mind his own business.
Another was bit nicer and told him that the fortune was intended for someone else in the Jewish sector, but not him. The rabbi asked if he could trade some of his gold coins for the magical ones. Reluctantly, the elves agreed and let him take home three coins, and told him everything would become clear after his daughter was married.
Yitzhak wrapped one of the coins in old butcher’s paper and left it on his doorstep so he could watch secretly for whomever found it. That person, the rabbi thought, would be the intended recipient. A young boy found the first coin. Yitzhak repeated the experiment again, and the same boy took the second one.
On the third night the rabbi went up to the boy, who said that the coins and their location came to him in a dream. The boy’s name, it turns out, was Mordechai Maisel. His parents were blacksmiths, and not very well off. His father had gone blind from his work, and needed constant care.
Yitzhak didn’t tell him about the elves. Instead, he asked the boy’s parents if he could see to the boy’s education, and the parents agreed, but only if the boy continued to help his father between lessons.
Over the course of time, Mordechai and the rabbi’s daughter fell in love and wanted to marry. To almost everyone’s surprise the rabbi agreed, even though Mordechai, while educated, was still poor.
Some time passed, and no elvish treasure showed up. The rabbi began to think he was duped, and grew increasingly angry. He even returned to the forest to look for the elves, who were nowhere to be seen.
In a foul mood, the rabbi threw the young couple out and told them to make their own way. Mordechai went into business selling ironware and was at first moderately successful. He tended to give away as much as he earned, as he understood the plight of the poor.
One day a man came into his shop, desperately needing some items for a journey. The man left a wooden chest as a pledge, and promised to return in a few weeks. The weeks turned to months, and Mordechai finally opened the chest — finding the elvish treasure.
He used the money to build a new synagogue, and to fund other projects that were beneficial to the community. Rabbi Yitzhak’s daughter finally was married to a wealthy man, but the rabbi didn’t benefit as the rift between the father and daughter never fully closed.
The second legend involves the Pinkas Synagogue, though it has not aged quite so well.
Some four centuries ago, a devout pauper named Pinkas ran a rag shop that barely made ends meet. A local nobleman would stop by and see that he had enough money for food for his family. But Pinkas always looked up and thanked God for his blessings, and never said thank you directly to the nobleman.
This went on for years, until just before Passover when the nobleman usually gave Pinkas money to have a proper Passover celebration. Finally, one year the nobleman claimed to be having his own economic trouble and told Pinkas to ask God directly for help, and see what happened.
Pinkas was worried that he wouldn’t be able to celebrate Passover according to the prescribed traditions. He was up late reading religious books and hoping to find an answer when he heard a small drunken group outside his house. Suddenly, his window broke and he found the body of a dead dressed-up monkey on his floor.
The monkey turned out to be rather heavy. When he shook it, a gold coin fell out of its mouth. Pinkas and his wife cut the monkey open and found more coins. Apparently the poor animal had choked on them. The couple kept the coins, got rid of all trace of the monkey and fixed the window, so nobody would be any the wiser.
When Passover was about to start, the nobleman stopped by to gloat, hoping Pinkas would still be begging for help. Instead, Pinkas had laid out a fine table, and he and his wife were well-dressed.
Pinkas told the nobleman about the source of his good fortune. The nobleman was shocked, as he used to have a pet monkey, but it was missing. The nobleman’s driver reluctantly admitted that the monkey had died, and he and his friends decided to scare Pinkas with the monkey’s corpse, as Pinkas no longer had the nobleman’s good favor.
Apparently the monkey saw the nobleman test gold coins by biting into them and tried to do the same thing. Pinkas offered to return the coins, except what was already spent, but the nobleman declined as he saw God’s hand at work. The driver was punished for his part in the affair.
With some luck and hard work, Pinkas was able to turn the handful of coins into a small fortune. He used some of it to build the Pinkas Synagogue, and some more to build housing for the poor.
Both the Maisel Synagogue and Pinkas Synagogue exist today in Prague, but their tales of origin are quite ordinary.
The Maisel Synagogue dates to the time of Emperor Rudolf II. The wealthy merchant and community leader Mordechai Maisel acquired a lot of land in 1590, and got permission to build a synagogue in 1592. The source of his wealth is unknown, which likely fueled the supernatural speculation. The cost of the synagogue was 12,000 dinars.
By the time the synagogue was built, Maisel was married to his second wife, Frummet.
The original structure was larger than the one that exists today. The architect was Judah Coref de Herz, and construction was supervised by Josef Wahl. The building had three naves, with one for women, and was in the Renaissance style.
Maisel bequeathed the synagogue to the Prague Jewish community, but legal issues around his estate dragged on for decades after his death in 1601.
A ghetto fire in 1689 damaged the building, and the repairs were not as lavish as the original construction. The resulting synagogue was only two-thirds the size of the original.
It was renovated in 1862–64 and again from 1893–1905, when it was widened and remodeled in the neo-Gothic style. During World War II, it was sued for storage of items stolen from Jewish families by the occupying German forces. After the war, it was turned into a museum for Jewish artifacts. It is now part of the Jewish Museum in Prague.
Of the lavish decorations and furnishing for the synagogue, only a pearl-decorated curtain and a covering for the Torah survive from Maisel’s time.
Maisel also funded other works in the Jewish ghetto, including the Jewish Town Hall, built in 1580. Maiselova Street, where the synagogue is located, is named after him.
The Pinkas Synagogue is the second-oldest synagogue still standing in Prague. The late Gothic-style, founded by Aaron Meshulam Horowitz, dates to 1535, and was expanded in the early 1600s. An even earlier Pinkas Synagogue is mentioned in 1492, though few details are known about that one.
The building was probably named after his Aaron Meshulam Horowitz’s grandson, Rabbi Pinkas Horowitz. The place of prayer for the Horowitz family was located near a ritual bath, as well as the Jewish Cemetery. The late Gothic synagogue was restored in 1950–54. Due to its location near the waterfront, it has been damaged by flooding many times, and was in danger of being torn down on several occasions.
Between 1955-1960, two painters, Václav Boštík and Jiří John, turned the synagogue into a memorial with the names of nearly 77,297 Jewish victims of the Holocaust from Bohemia and Moravia. After the 1968 Warsaw pact invasion, the memorial was out of public view for a quarter of a century. It was renovated and reopened to the public in 1995. It is also currently part of the Jewish Museum in Prague.
In The Tarot of Prague, you can see a different building in the Jewish Quarter on the background of the Five of Cups. The Ceremonial Hall of the Prague Jewish Burial Society is now used as an exhibition space. In addition, a statue of Rabbi Loew can be seen on The Hierophant.