Prague’s longtime chief rabbi leaves colorful and controversial legacy
When the novel “Altschul’s Method” hit the shelves in Czech bookstores this March, it was hailed as a brilliant political and psychological thriller combining elements of science fiction, alternate history and Jewish mysticism.
But it became a true literary sensation when it was revealed a week later that the book’s supposed author, Chaim Cigan, was a pseudonym for Karol Sidon, the longtime chief rabbi of Prague.
Sidon had explained that he was writing under a pseudonym mainly to draw a distinction between his literary work and his duties for Prague’s Jewish community.
“Such writing does not befit a rabbi,” he told a Czech news website.
“Being a rabbi has its limits,” Sidon explained in the interview. “I won’t lie; I wanted to quit some time ago and it will happen sooner or later.”
But it was more than a passion for literature that led Sidon to step down as chief rabbi in June, earlier than he had planned.
His resignation came amid reports that he had separated from his third wife and become engaged to one of his former conversion students.
Sidon’s departure marks the end of an era for the Prague Jewish community. The first post-communist chief rabbi of Prague, Sidon, a former dissident, symbolized the revival of Czech Jewry following decades in which religion was suppressed.
“His arrival at the post was crucial for the community,” said Charles Wiener, a former executive director of the Prague Jewish community who lives in Geneva, Switzerland. “All institutions in then-Czechoslovakia were in the shadow of communism and collaboration, and suddenly someone came who had not been collaborating but was in fact thrown out of the country by the communist authorities.”
But Sidon leaves behind a divided community struggling to overcome a conflict in which he played a prominent role.
The combination of a generational gap, religious disagreements, accusations of cronyism and personality conflicts contributed to intracommunal tensions during his tenure. A decade ago, Sidon was even removed from his post when a new communal leadership took charge, only to be reinstated when his allies regained control of the community.
In the wake of Sidon’s resignation, his friends have been notably quiet. Sidon and several other community leaders declined JTA’s interview requests.
Jakub Roth, 41, who served as the Prague Jewish community’s deputy chair between 2005 and 2008 and has been a Sidon supporter, said the rabbi’s resignation had long been anticipated. But he would not comment on the circumstances surrounding Sidon’s decision.
Prague Jewish leaders have chosen Rabbi David Peter, 38, to succeed Sidon. A native of Prague, Peter is an Orthodox rabbi who returned to the Czech capital in 2011 after 13 years of studies in Israel.
Sidon also asked for an unpaid six-month leave from his duties in the largely ceremonial position as chief rabbi of the Czech Republic. The head of the country’s Federation of Jewish Communities, Petr Papousek, told JTA that Sidon would return to the post after his hiatus.
Sidon, who just turned 72, is known for his scholarly demeanor and biting sense of humor. An Orthodox Jew, he focused much of his energy on encouraging greater religious observance among Prague’s largely secular Jews, who are estimated to number some 6,000, though only about 1,800 are officially registered as community members.
Sidon’s tenure has seen the growth of a small but active traditionally observant segment of the city’s Jewish community. But Sidon also has accumulated critics during his more than two decades in office.
Sylvie Wittmann, the founder of a liberal Prague Jewish congregation, Bejt Simcha, who sits on the Prague Jewish community board, believes it would make sense if Sidon retired from his rabbinical duties altogether.
“If he’s embarked on a new life, literary or private, he should pursue it,” she said. “We should thank him for his efforts. He did what he could. But a self-searching, three-times-divorced, egocentric man cannot really be considered a serious figure respected by his community or a good rabbi.”
Sidon became the chief rabbi of both Prague and Czechoslovakia in 1992, less than three years after the fall of communism in what was then Czechoslovakia. A respected writer and ally of Czech dissident and future president Vaclav Havel, Sidon had lived in exile in Germany, where he studied at the College of Jewish Studies in Heidelberg.
By 1990, Sidon’s fellow dissidents and intellectuals had replaced discredited communist-era officials at the Jewish community and asked him to take over the rabbinate. He agreed, going on to study at the Ariel Institute in Jerusalem and be ordained as an Orthodox rabbi before finally returning to Prague.
Sidon’s path to Judaism was not straightforward. The son of a Christian mother and a Jewish father who was murdered in the Terezin concentration camp in 1944, Sidon formally converted to Judaism in 1978. At that time he found himself under immense pressure from the secret police after signing the Czechoslovakian human rights manifesto Charter 77.
“What made me want to convert was my experience with the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia and with Charter 77,” Sidon told the Terezin Initiative Newsletter in 2005. “To put it short, I realized that I had a soul, and my commitment to God emerged from that.”
Although Sidon only adopted Orthodox Judaism during his rabbinical studies in Israel, his strategy for reviving the Prague Jewish community after four decades of communism consisted of focusing on observance of halachah, or Jewish religious law, and building up religious life.
In the eyes of the public, Sidon soon became the symbol of a new chapter in the life of Czech Jews and of their opposition to communism. But his approach met with opposition from some community members.
“He pushed us into an Orthodox box, which drove many people away,” Michaela Vidlakova, a Holocaust survivor and a longtime community member, told JTA in an email.
Sidon clashed with more religiously liberal Prague Jews who wanted communal recognition of non-Orthodox congregations and of those who had Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers.
Eventually the community offered those who traced their Jewish identities only from their fathers what was called “extraordinary” membership in 2003, without the possibility of running for leadership positions. By that time, however, controversies over control of the real estate-rich community’s finances and other issues had raised tensions between Sidon and supporters of Tomas Jelinek who was elected community chairman in 2001.
In 2004, Jelinek moved to oust Sidon as Prague chief rabbi, alleging that he had failed to carry out his duties.
“He wasn’t able to groom a successor, there were always problems with kosher food at the community and scores of other things,” Jelinek told JTA.
Jelinek appointed Rabbi Manis Barash, a representative of the U.S.-based Chabad Hasidic movement, to take over Prague’s famed Altneu Synagogue. But in November of that year, Jelinek suffered a staggering defeat in a communal vote that eventually resulted in him being removed as leader.
Emotions continued to run high for several months. In April 2005, members of the Sidon and Barash minyans had a fistfight during Shabbat prayers at the Altneu Synagogue.
A year-and-a-half after his initial ouster, Sidon was reinstated as Prague’s chief rabbi.
Since then, the community has become more pluralistic, with several liberal leaders having been elected to the board. At the same time, a number of people have left to form their own group, the Jewish Liberal Union.
Sidon had been planning to retire in the fall, but on June 23 the Prague Jewish community suddenly announced he would be stepping down, citing his age.
The announcement came a day after a Czech Jewish blog run by Jelinek reported that Sidon had separated from his wife and was in a new relationship.
Sidon’s critics circulated a rumor that the Prague beit din, or rabbinical court, ordered him to step down. But the court’s chair, Rabbi Noah Landsberg, who lives in Israel, told JTA that Sidon himself offered to step down.
“He sent me a letter some time ago and said he had some personal problems, and also mentioned his age. The court agreed,” Landsberg said.
Sidon’s successor will be following a rabbi who has left a large mark on the Prague community.
During his term as Prague chief rabbi, Sidon has translated a number of religious texts into Czech, including the Pentateuch, a Haggadah, a siddur, a machzor and others. He also played a major role in establishing the Lauder School of Prague, which combines kindergarten, elementary and high school, enrolling some 150 students.
“Rabbi Sidon has made the community more visible and played an important role in establishing very good relations with the country’s new democratic governments,” said Alena Heitlinger, the Czech-born, Canada-based author of “In the Shadows of the Holocaust and Communism: Czech and Slovak Jews Since 1945.”
But she added that his focus on Orthodoxy has left those who are not Jewish according to halachah not feeling completely welcome.
“It is still an issue,” Heitlinger said.
Wiener, however, said that Sidon should not be blamed for disappointing some of the more liberal members of the community.
“The problem was on their side rather than his,” he said, “because as an Orthodox rabbi, he could not have really behaved differently.”