Old Jewish Cemetery in Josefov
The entrance to the Old Jewish Cemetery is through the courtyard in front
of the Pinkas Synagogue and the exit is near the door to the Klausen Synagogue.
The cemetery opens at 9:00 a.m. and it is best to get there early since
this is one of the biggest tourist attractions in Prague. Men are required
to cover their heads before entering the cemetery. Any kind of head gear
is fine, including baseball caps, and paper hats are provided for those
with bare heads. If you want to visit the Old Cemetery, but not the synagogues,
you can buy a single ticket, which is good only for admission to the cemetery,
at any of the ticket booths located at the synagogues. No photography is
allowed in any of the synagogues, but photographs of the cemetery are permitted.
In the picture below, you can see some of the more elaborate tombstones
with inscriptions in Hebrew detailing the lives of the more prominent Jews
buried here. Ropes along the walkway prevent the hordes of tourists from
tromping through the jumbled tombstones.
Narrow walkway with Pinkas Synagogue in the background
Many well-known Jews are buried in the Old Jewish Cemetery, but the famous
writer Franz Kafka is not one of them. The Old Jewish Cemetery was closed
in 1787, almost a century before Kafka was born in 1883. Kafka died at
the age of 40 in 1924 and is buried alongside his parents, both of whom
outlived him, in the New Jewish Cemetery in the district of Zizkov in Prague.
The most famous grave in the Old Cemetery is undoubtedly that of Rabbi
Judah Loew ben Bezalel, whose tombstone faces the path that you see to
the right in the photograph above, and is shown in the photograph below.
You can see a bit of the path on the extreme left of the photograph. In
the background you can see the Ceremonial Hall which is near the exit of
the Cemetery. The Renaissance tomb of Mordechai Maisel, who built the Maisel
Synagogue, is about ten meters to the southwest of the Rabbi's grave.
Tombstone of Rabbi Judah Loew (1525 - 1609)
Rabbi Loew (sometimes spelled Löw) is revered as the legendary creator
of the "golem" which is the Jewish version of the Frankenstein monster,
although golem stories predate Frankenstein, going as far back as the 5th
century. Rabbi Loew lived in the 16th century but the legend of his creation
of a monster from the mud of the Vltava river in Prague only dates back
to the 18th century when the story was first told. Yossel, as the golem
was called, came to life when the Rabbi placed a shem in its mouth.
(A shem is a tablet with a Hebrew inscription.) Yossel is said to have
aided Rabbi Loew in his struggle with the anti-Semites in the court of
Rudolf II, the Hapsburg Emperor who was then the ruler over what is now
the Czech Republic, but was at that time part of the Austrian empire. In
his book "The Golem," Elie Wiesel wrote that Rabbi Loew was called "the
Maharal" which means "most venerated teacher and rabbi." Wiesel wrote that
the Maharal and Emperor Rudolf II met on the Charles Bridge in 1583 and
the king invited him to his court, which he had just moved from Vienna
to Prague. They became friends and Rabbi Loew became a Hofbefreiter Jude
or "Court Jew" who was frequently able to intercede on behalf of the Jews
who were being routinely persecuted at that time.
Legend has it that the golem finally ran amok and the Rabbi had to interrupt
his Sabbath service in the Synagogue to deal with it. His congregation
kept repeating the verse in the psalm that they had been reciting until
the Rabbi returned. To this day, at the Old-New Synagogue, a line in the
Sabbath service is repeated in memory of this event. The end of the golem
came when the Rabbi removed the shem from its mouth; he allegedly carried
the remains of the golem to the attic of the Old-New Synagogue where they
supposedly reside to this day. After visiting the grave of Rabbi Loew,
tourists can buy a golem statue from one of the souvenir stands along the
street where they exit the cemetery.