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On the Trail of the Golem

The history of Prague seems tailor-made to appeal to a vast number of my personal obsessions, among them my fascination with the history of magic and alchemy and the story of Rabbi Loew and the golem. Modern Prague has not failed to capitalize on this history of mystery and magic, as places like the Museum of Alchemists and Magicians prove. Fans of weird and mystical history owe a debt of gratitude to Emperor Rudolf II, the 16th century Holy Roman emperor who, because of his own obsession with the occult, turned his home base of Prague into the capital of European mysticism and alchemical pursuits. Rudolf II’s endless quest for the Philosopher’s Stone, as well as his craving for a potion of immortality, brought such notable alchemists as Edward Kelley and John Dee to the city, not to mention Jewish mystic Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel.

Born sometime in first quarter of the 16th century (sketchy records place the year somewhere between 1512 and 1526), Loew was from a successful family. His uncle Jakob ben Chajim was Reichsrabbiner of the Holy Roman Empire, sort of the liaison between Judaism and the Holy Roman authority in Europe. Loew’s brother was a well-respected rabbinical scholar as well, but Judah Loew himself never received any official or organized religious training, rising instead through the ranks on the might of his own keen intellect and appetite for study. Aside from holding several positions of authority within Jewish communities, he became a notable commentator on The Talmud, as well as on other philosophical discourses and studies of the books that form the basis of the Jewish faith.

But it was his knowledge of Jewish mysticism — the Kabbalah (not the version that sold magic water and bracelets to gullible celebrities in the early 2000s) — that brought him to the attention of Emperor Rudolf. In 1592, Rabbi Loew had an audience with the superstitious emperor, who counted the well-known Jewish leader among the great alchemists of Europe. It is his association with alchemy and Kabbalah that also resulted in Loew’s name being attached to one of the most famous legends in Prague, and around the world thanks to the popularity of a movie based on it (which I wrote about for The Cultural Gutter, in case you are interested).

Visitors to Prague can today trace the history of Rabbi Loew through the still existent monuments, sites, and buildings associated with him. The Old New Synagogue, where Rabbi Loew presided, still stands. Loew’s grave is in Prague’s Old Jewish Cemetery. And a statue of the legendary rabbi — a naked woman draped around his leg, because why not — stands watch outside of the Prague City Hall, along with one of Prague’s other great legends, the Iron Knight.

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The Old New Synagogue

Unfortunately for the value-conscious, visits to both the Old New Synagogue and the Old Jewish Cemetery require a ticket, and it’s rather an expensive ticket. The Old New Synagogue you can enter by itself for 200 CZK (around $10), but that’s a lot of buck for very little bang once you get inside. You would be better off standing outside on the street and reading the legend of the golem. If you want to see the Old Jewish Museum and Rabbi Loew’s grave, however, there is no getting around paying for a ticket. You can catch glimpses of the cemetery from the street, but not of Rabbi Loew’s final resting place.

And to make matters worse, knowing perhaps that the cemetery is the main attraction, the group that manages the historical properties in what was at one time Prague’s Jewish ghetto will not let you purchase a ticket just for the Old Jewish Cemetery. It is included only as part of a pricy 480 CZK package deal — and to rub salt in the wound, you also have to pay an extra 50 CZK fee to take photos in the cemetery (though no one ever checked, so I reckon you could be sneaky in this regard, if you don’t mind the wrath of God or whoever might enforce the photo fee).

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Anyway, griping about the price aside, your tour begins at the oddly named Old New Synagogue. This where Rabbi Loew presided, and as the legend goes, the golem was hidden in the attic of this temple. Completed in 1270, it is currently Europe’s oldest continuously active synagogue (older ones have been demolished, though, at least one is older but did some time as a Christian church) and draws its ungainly name from either one of two sources. As the one story goes, it was originally called the New Synagogue, but once it had been around for a long time and newer temples had been constructed, it pulled the holy equivalent of a 60s pop band called The Originals discovering there was already a band called The Originals, and so deciding to call themselves The New Originals. That is to say, it became the Old-New Synagogue.

A slightly more fanciful tale keeping more in line with the legend of the golem and the mysticism that surrounds Rabbi Loew is that the name of the temple was, in Hebrew, At-Tnay Synagogue, meaning the “conditional synagogue. In this story, the building was constructed using stone from King Solomon’s temple, and eventually the synagogue would be dismantled so those stones could be returned and used in the construction of the new Temple of Solomon. However, the Hebrew word “at-tnay” was mistranslated as “alt-neu,” meaning “Old-New.” Whatever the case, and regardless of whether or not the golem is quietly slumbering in some hidden nook, the Old-New Synagogue has survived a miraculously long time, escaping destruction during both the original demolition of the Jewish ghettos and occupation of Prague by the Nazis during WWII.

Prague City Hall

Pragues Nova Radnice, or New City Hall (which is in Old Town), is flanked on two corners by two of the city’s most famous legends. Obviously, the one is Rabbi Loew, or we would not be mentioning it in this article. Contrary to what you may read elsewhere, the second statue is not the rabbi’s fabled golem (though it is frequently mistaken as such, as far back as 1938 and by a number of publications that should know better); it is, instead, the Iron Knight, an altogether different legend and a curious choice to stand guard over your city hall — though I guess given the curse that was placed on the knight, he has ample free time to keep an eye on things.

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Both Rabbi Loew and the Iron Knight statues were designed by Art Nouveau designer Ladislav Saloun and sculpted by Eduard Zvelebil in early 1910s, at the dawn of Czech independence. While other artists working ont he city hall building opted for more classical figures, Saloun felt that the Iron Knight and Rabbi Loew communicated the true spirit of Prague. In his own words:

“On the other side, I couldn’t have placed a better figure than that of the learned and mysterious High Rabbi Loew, who incorporated everything that the most noble old ghetto of Prague produced. Rabbi Loew was a symbol of the ghetto to me, and also a symbol to me was the figure of a little girl who is freed from the oppressive fetters of clothing and holds out to her great father a rose, from which breathes the breath of death. For just as this beautiful child caused the death of Rabbi Loew with her fragrant flower, so the new period of freedom unwittingly crushed with the breath of its young life the old relics of bygone days. This also marked the end of the Prague ghetto.”

Although Saloun’s statue does not come to life and defend Prague’s Old Town from drunk Brits stumbling into Thai massage parlors, it did have something of a golem-esque adventure. In 1940, when the Germans swept into young Czechoslovakia and declared it part of their territory, the Nazis demanded that the statue of Rabbi Loew be destroyed. Rather than comply with the order, Saloun spirited the statue away (or as close to “spirited” as you can when something weighs as much as a giant stone statue) and hid it in his home. In 1946, with the Nazis soundly defeated, Rabbi Loew was returned to his rightful spot on the corner of the city hall building, and there he has remained, one of the most famous symbols of Prague.

Old Jewish Cemetery

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The bittersweet specter of death that looms around Rabbi Loew’s statue makes visiting his actual grave the obvious final stop in our walking tour of the history of the golem. There are so many legends associated with Loew, so many fantastical tales of wizardry and mysticism and strangeness, that one can easily forget that he really did exist, and alchemy and magick aside, was a noted and revered Jewish scholar. He is interred in Prague’s Old Jewish Cemetery, which you must pay to enter and photograph, as I mentioned earlier. But of all the sights in Prague’s Jewish Ghetto, the cemetery is worth the price. It is an almost frantic jumble of headstones and sarcophagi dating as far back as the early to mid 1400s. Some 12,000 headstones are crammed into a relatively small footprint, and while there are no hard numbers, because of the layered nature of the burials and the fact that only the wealthy and notable have tombstones, there are an estimated 100,000 people from some seven centuries in the cemetery.

In old racist literature, most infamously the anti-Semitic hoax The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, it was claimed that secret caves and tunnels beneath Prague’s Old Jewish Cemetery was where the Jews gathered to discuss their plans for dominating the world. They might have consorted with Catholics and slurped the blood from the slit necks of proper Christian babies down there as well — or maybe that’s Jack Chick. It’s hard and not really worth keeping all those bigoted crackpots clear. Although soundly and unequivocally proven to be a hoax authored in Russia sometime between 1897 and 1903 to stir up anti-Jewish sentiments, everyone from Hitler to modern-day racist blowhards still cite the thing as if it truly was a collection of minutes from clandestine meetings beneath the Old Jewish Cemetery.

Among the most notable, of course, is Judah Loew ben Bezalel, who rests in a stone sarcophagus about 2/3 of the way through the walking tour of the cemetery, right up against the narrow sidewalk that winds through the jumbled gravestones. The cemetery is an overwhelming place, a contradiction, both quiet and contemplative as well as riotous and confusing because there’s just so much. I’ve never seen a place quite like it, and despite the unwelcoming price tag of entering, it was one of my favorite of all of Prague’s on-the-beaten-path tourist destinations. For me, someone who has no Jewish heritage (of which I know anyway — seems like we discover something new every year, though) but plenty of Jewish friends, who lives in a city in which Jews have played a major role in our history, and as one who has been in love with the golem legends since I first saw Der Golem while I was in elementary school, being able to stand there in front of Rabbi Loew and touch his grave was quite an experience (I’m not sure if I was allowed to touch it, actually; tradition says one should write a prayer on a piece of paper and place it near his grave).

My Golem and Me

So how did Rabbi Loew’s name become associated with the legend of the golem? Well, it’s no surprise, really, given how much weird, wizardy stuff is already attributed to him. It seems more or less historically accurate that he spent time as an alchemist in the employ of Rudolf II. Less historically accurate: that he was able to take a pestilence spell cast against the Jews of Prague and throw it back into the face of the villainous sorcerer who first cast it, or that the rabbi constructed a magic castle to which h could teleport for important meetings with heads of state of notable magicians. Attributing the creation of golem to him seems obvious given his role as both a defender of Prague’s Jewish population and a major figure in the history of mysticism and the Kabbalah.

As for the golem itself…who knows where it’s slumbering? When the Nazis entered (but failed to successfully destroy) the Old New Synagogue, they apparently never found the attic in which the golem supposedly slept. And the fact that the Nazis didn’t — or couldn’t — destroy the temple helped rekindle interest in the golem. In Michael Chabon’s novel, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, one of the characters even seeks out the golem in hopes of reviving it to help fight Nazis. The attic is still there, but the stairway to it is cut short, and no one is allowed up there — to protect the sanctity of the golem’s bedroom, perhaps, or possibly for insurance reasons. There used to be a large golem statue in Prague, but that had to be hidden away thanks to another threat: intellectual property lawsuits, brought by the artist who claimed to own that particular iteration of the golem.

As an alchemical aside, you might also squeeze in a visit to Speculum Alchemiae, the recently opened museum dedicated to an underground alchemists’ lab and network of tunnels leading from Prague’s Old Town to as far as the castle (which I’ll cover in more detail later). Did Rabbi Loew walk those old stone tunnels? Did he ply his wizardly trade beneath the streets of Prague, rubbing elbows with Emperor Rudolf II and his alchemist contemporary, Edward Kelley? Did the golem plod down those dark corridors on its solemn quest to defend Prague’s Jews and inspire the makers of Frankenstein? Following in the footsteps of Rabbi Loew and the golem was an excellent way to pick up histories of Prague, its Jewish population, its most famous legend, and its bizarre history of mysticism.