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Friday, June 5, 2020

Czech Republic surprises with Jewish treasures

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A tight budget, an embarrassing exchange rate and exponentially expensive flights — it's a tough time to be an American, and an even tougher time to be an American traveler. But it's still possible to enjoy a first-rate European experience while keeping travel costs reasonable.

The Czech Republic's strong cultural balance between bustling urban life and calm rural communities features a wide variety of tourism options, from breweries to castles to Jewish ghettos. Major cities like Prague and Pilsen are ripe with history at nearly every corner, and Jewish tours offer everything from the construction of the second-largest synagogue in Europe to the creation of the mythical Golem.

Birthplace of Theodore Herzl, Franz Kafka and Sigmund Freud, this increasingly progressive country is trying to shed the specter of the Nazi and Soviet occupations and embrace its Jewish past and present to bolster tourism, an important part of its national economy. (Full disclosure: The Journal took part in a Jewish Heritage trip sponsored by Czech Tourism.)

Divided into three main regions — Bohemia in the north, Moravia in the south and Silesia in the East — the Czech Republic provides travelers with an opportunity to savor both metropolitan grandeur and bucolic settings. While prices aren't cheap, U.S. tourists will appreciate favorable current exchange rates with the Czech crown that keep hotel and food costs comparable to a comfortable domestic getaway.

The Bohemian city of Prague features an abundance of landmarks — the Charles Bridge and Prague Castle — a rich arts tradition and deep Jewish roots.

The Jewish Museum in Prague is not a physical entity, but rather a collection of gothic and Moorish revival synagogues in Josefov, the city's Jewish quarter, and its Old Jewish Cemetery, with tilted, crumbling tombstones — some more than 600 years old. Synagogues on the tour include the Maisel Synagogue, Spanish Synagogue, Klausen Synagogue and Ceremonial Hall and Pinkas Synagogue. Inside, the sanctuaries display hundreds of artifacts, including refurbished Torah covers, silver yads (Torah pointers) and other ritual artifacts.

Prague's Jewish Museum, which attracts 500,000 to 600,000 visitors each year, honors the past while also helping to support the country's Jewish future. Much of the museum's revenue aids funding for the Federation of Jewish Communities of the Czech Republic, which compensates Holocaust survivors and develops programming for young people, executive director Tomas Kraus said.

The area's two active synagogues, the 13th century Old-New Synagogue (Alt-Neu Shul) and the High Synagogue, are not on the museum tour itinerary, but public tours are available through the Jewish Museum for an additional fee.

In the Old-New Synagogue, the great Rabbi Judah Loew is rumored to have created the Golem, the mystical monster intended to protect the Jews of Prague from anti-Semitic attacks in the 16th century. When the Golem became increasingly violent, Loew struck a deal with the oppressors and destroyed his creation by simply rubbing out the first letter of the word “emet” (truth) from its forehead, leaving the word “met,” meaning death. According to the legend, the whereabouts of a Golem remains unknown, but many believe it's still in the synagogue's attic.

Multiple tourist shops have capitalized on the Golem myth and feature a hefty inventory of miniature dolls sure to satisfy anyone's souvenir needs.

Outside the Jewish quarter, the beauty of Prague is best experienced through a walk from Prague Castle to the scenic Charles Bridge and into Old Town Square, a site featuring street entertainment and dining, particularly the traditional staple of Czech cuisine — beef goulash.

Bohemia is also home to Europe's second-largest synagogue, The Great Synagogue of Pilsen, which features a variety of architectural styles ranging from Moorish to art nouveau. The synagogue was built in 1892, a time when the city of Pilsen's Jewish population was about 5,000.

Jiri Lowy, vice president of the Pilsen Jewish Community, says that the synagogue is now mainly used as concert hall for a community of about 100 Jews and a museum for tourists.

Pilsen is also known for its world-famous brewery, Pilsner Urqell, which dates back to the mid-19th century. Beer has been a part of the city's history since at least the 13th century, and Czechs revel in their country's branding as “the beer-drinking capital of the world.” National consumption is so pronounced that bottles of beer are often cheaper than bottled water.

To complement tours of Prague and Pilsen, a trip to the outer towns of Moravia provides insight into the origins of the nation's smaller Jewish communities.

The Jewish Quarter of Trebic, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is made up of 120 homes along the bank of the Jihlava River. While no longer home to an organized Jewish community, Trebic maintains its Jewish cemetery, a renovated synagogue-turned-museum and a recently discovered mikvah.

Non-Jewish villagers of Boskovice and Mikulov have taken it upon themselves to preserve the memory of their once-thriving Jewish cultures. These righteous guides provide tours of old synagogues, buildings and cemeteries. Boskovice, set in the Drahanska Highlands, features one of the largest cemeteries in the Czech Republic.

While the Renaissance town of Telc has a Jewish cemetery but little significant Jewish history, its main square — which is more of a triangle, some locals joke — has been preserved as a UNESCO site. Pastel-colored shops, packed together like crayons tips sticking out of a box, line the square's cobblestone roads.

Important for any Czech travel itinerary is Terezin, the former ghetto-like concentration camp and Holocaust memorial. The bricked fortress, dating back to the late 18th century, was built as a military prison. Within the compound, yellow walls, topped with barbed wire, skirt the smaller, more severe prison section of the ghetto.

A day trip to Terezin offers an important contrast to an otherwise colorful land whose people recognize the importance of commemorating Jews who lost their lives to Nazi oppression. Even as the country continues to find its footing after the fall of the former Soviet Union, the mood of the Czech Republic reflects an overall optimism as the reality of its own independence becomes more engrained.

Although cultural and religious restrictions are a thing of the past, the Czech Republic is still healing from the hard lessons experienced by previous generations. Britney Spears billboards, nightclub strobe lights and soccer regalia indicate that young Czechs believe in a future filled with opportunity. The graffiti on the walls speaks to a love of pop culture rather than a culture of hate.

The birthplace of the Golem and pilsner beer is a destination that brings together Jewish and non-Jewish culture in ways that exceed Western expectations of a gray, downtrodden nation. Rich in artistic, architectural and historical heritage, the country pays dividends with its vibrant Bohemian skylines and fertile Moravian countryside.

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