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The Mystery Of Prague’s Missing Vav

The glistening golden letters around the statue of Jesus have always been a matter of controversy for Prague’s Jews. The statue with the letters raised around it is a central feature on the Charles Bridge, the bridge that spans the Vltava River, joining the two halves of Prague.

It was built in Prague’s golden age by King Charles I, the Czech king who went on to become Charles IV of the Holy Roman Empire. The bridge is one of the artistic wonders of Prague, a city full of crowds admiring the statues of saints and kings bedecking the sides of the structure, long since converted into a pedestrian avenue. But the statue of Jesus has long been the center of contention.

In 1696, the Prague authorities accused a local Jewish leader, one Elias Backoffen, of blasphemy. As his punishment he was ordered to raise the funds for the purchase of gold-plated Hebrew letters, to be placed around the head of the statue and spell out “Holy, Holy, Holy, the Lord of Hosts,” the Hebrew prayer from the Kedusha. The inscription was a symbolic humiliation and degradation of Prague?s Jews, who were forced to pay for a set of golden letters referring to God and hung around the neck of the statue of Jesus.

And there they have hung ever since. Today, in post-communist 21st century Prague, some find the residual symbol of humiliation irritating. Others at least want it moderated and placed in historical context. A few years ago some local Jews requested that tables and placards be set up alongside the statue, explaining to passersby the history behind the letters, and pointing out that when Jews recite the same words they are not referring to Jesus. The mayor of Prague agreed, and even offered to foot the bill. Local Catholic officials approved the idea. Tables were set up with ecumenical fanfare and goodwill.

But today the placards and tables with the explanations have long since disappeared. Alongside the statue there is a Dixieland band playing New Orleans classics, but in Czech. Another group nearby plays Czech folk songs, and hustlers try to sell “art” to tourists. The golden letters are still there. Well, all except for one. The vav in the middle of the Tetragram name of God has disappeared. Despite the bridge being under 24-hour-a-day electronic surveillance, someone, somehow, removed the letter vav. So the golden letters now read “Holy Holy Holy YHH of Hosts,” essentially rendering the inscription into Hebrew gibberish.

* * *

The temperature is hovering around the freezing point and there is a hint of snow in the wind, even though it is still early November. Prague this time of year is colder than Moscow.

Every major city in Europe has its Jewish sites that attract Jewish tourists. But Prague is unique in that the major focus of interest for gentile tourists coming to the city is the old Jewish Quarter. Other than Prague Castle itself, Jewish Prague is the “must see” in every tourist book. There is no other city outside Israel where this is the case.

Organized groups of Jewish and non-Jewish tourists crowd the synagogues and the Jewish structures left in the Old Town Jewish quarter. The old Jewish cemetery also attracts the tourists. The gravestone for the Maharal, Rabbi Judah Loew (1525-1609), the great kabbalist and Torah commentator, has become a shrine of sorts for the gentile tourists. They, and perhaps some poorly-educated Jewish tourists as well, leave notes and coins on the grave. One tourist explains to her boyfriend that this is the famous rabbi who manufactured the Golem of Prague. The what? asks the boyfriend. Sort of like Frankenstein, she explains, as I eavesdrop and cringe.

The Golem legend has become one of Prague’s calling cards. There are cafes, restaurants, and shops spouting the name “Golem.” Bookstores sell Golem books in Czech and other tongues for children. Czech tourist guides tell their flocks the Golem story and take them to see the Maharal’s grave and the Altneushul, the “Old-New Synagogue” of the Maharal, known in Czech as the Staronova Synagoga.

The Jewish Quarter has completely recovered from the Prague floods of August 2002, when the entire area was deluged by a “once in 500 years” flood. Actually, serious floods seem to be more common than that; one in 1890 knocked out three arches from the Charles Bridge, but not the section with the Jesus statue and the Hebrew letters. Some of the synagogues and restaurants have black markers on their newly repainted walls, showing the height of the 2002 waters.

There is a generation gap in the Prague Jewish community, but one unlike those elsewhere. The Old-New Synagogue of the Maharal holds a mixture of visitors and local Czech Jews, with the visitors growing in number over Shabbat. A group of French Jewish teenagers comes in Friday evening, while the other visitors are Americans or Israelis. Hebrew becomes the lingua franca (you?ll excuse the term) in the synagogue over the Sabbath. During weekdays, the tourists thin and the Czech Jews remain.

But concentrating on the local Czech Jews alone reveals something intriguing. They are almost all between the ages of 20 and 45. My guess is the average age is 28. There are almost none older than 45. I am used to being one of the “youngsters” at my home shul in Haifa, the criterion for which is anyone below age 60, but here in the Maharal synagogue I am an indisputable geezer.

The young Czech Jews in the synagogue vary, some dressed in ordinary street clothes, others with long beards and wearing black haredi-like coats and hats. They could pass for Chabadniks, but, while Chabad does have its own minyan in Prague, these are not Chabadniks. They all seem to have become religiously observant before Chabad opened its local center here.

Daniel, one of the Chabad-like dressers, is a second-year Jewish Studies student at Prague’s prestigious Charles University. He explains that the older Czech Jews are not religious and do not come to the synagogue. If they officially join the Jewish community organization, it is usually more so to enjoy social services. His own parents have never been in a synagogue. The same is true for most of the other observant young Jews in the congregation.

Though a Jewish day school has opened in Prague, all of the young Czech Jews in the congregation attended ordinary secular schools as children. I ask Daniel how he explains the three dozen or so young Czech Jews who are the backbone of the Maharal synagogue. He thinks it is their own form of ?youth rebellion,? reacting to childhood under communism. Other Czech youths found MTV. These found Judaism.

The older generation prefers non-Orthodox forms of Judaism or secular lifestyles altogether. Some have joined with non-Czech Jews living in Prague to form a Conservative-Reform congregation that meets in the somewhat misnamed “Spanish Synagogue,” not a Sephardic congregation at all, but named after the gaudy Moorish-style of architecture of the building.

But the generation gap among Czech Jews formally belonging to the community expresses itself not only in divergent attitudes towards religion. A major internal conflict broke out just a few days ago in the Prague Jewish community. The younger members were upset that Tomas Jelinek, the chairman of the community, was attempting to “water down” the level of religiosity of the community. Some charged he was playing to the less-religious older generation, trying to build his base of support among them, but alienating the younger members. A week before my visit, he was formally voted out of office, but refused to step down, claiming the vote was not according to proper protocol.

I ask Daniel what he knows about the missing vav. ?What, it is missing?? he asks. “It can’t be for very long. It was there just a few days ago.”

“My bet is the Chabadniks got it,” conjectures his friend.

* * *

Next to the ark in the Old-New Synagogue is the actual chair on which the Maharal once sat. It is numbered “1″ of all the numbered seats, but no one dares sit in it. On the wall across the room is a reproduction of a set of rules and regulations for the synagogue implemented by the Maharal. The original structure was built without any women’s section. Later the Jews applied for permission to expand the building. But the Prague city engineer would only permit a new section surrounding the main room with the old walls remaining fully intact and in which narrow peepholes were built through which the women can attempt to glimpse.

The upper part of the structure has been rebuilt. There are acronyms of prayer sentences and psalms painted along the upper walls. In one area there is a painted slogan reading that the walls herein shall forever remain white. It refers to a medieval pogrom in Prague, where the blood of congregants murdered by the thugs was spattered on the walls. A mysterious door with iron rungs leading up to it sits near the top of the building on the outside eastern wall. Some say the remnants of the Golem are up there.

Jews first lived in Prague starting in 970 CE. In the eleventh century they concentrated in what is now the Old Jewish Quarter, and over time this became a walled ghetto. Prague Jews were victims of Crusader violence. Local Czech pogromchiks wiped out the Jewish community in 1389. Things began to improve under Charles IV, the very same king who built the bridge with the missing vav.

Jews generally prospered under the Habsburg dynasty. By the 1700′s, Prague was home to the largest Jewish community in the world, and Jews were a quarter of the population of the city. Besides the Maharal, the Prague Jews produced many noted rabbis, mathematicians, industrialists and astronomers. After emancipation from the ghetto, the Jews contributed to Czech culture, with Franz Kafka being just the tip of the iceberg.

There are almost as many houses in Prague claiming to be places where Kafka lived as there are farmhouses where George Washington slept. There is a Hebrew clock tower in Prague and one sees Hebrew inscriptions on walls. A wrong turn on a walk Friday night takes me down an alley where I find myself in front of the home of the composer Bedrich Smetana. Not Jewish himself, Smetana nevertheless contributed unwittingly to modern Zionism. Naftali Herz Imber was so enamored by Smetana’s “Moldau” that when he composed the words to “Hatikva” he co-opted the melody.

Most of Czech Jewry was annihilated during World War II, at Terezin and elsewhere. Many of those who survived left after the war. For the next two generations Czechoslovakia was a Communist prison camp. Judaism was suppressed by the Sovietized state.

Ironically, the country is filled with Jewish artifacts that survived the war. The Germans had collected Judaica from the countries they conquered and concentrated them in Czechoslovakia, intending to create a museum of an extinct people.

* * *

It is well over four centuries since the legendary Golem of Prague walked the city’s streets and then vanished. A statue of the Golem stands at the entrance to the Jewish Quarter of Prague.

And the golden letter vav from the Charles Bridge? How did it disappear? Where is it now?

You wouldn’t be alone if you suspect that maybe the Golem of Prague has it.

Steven Plaut is a professor at Haifa University. His book ‘The Scout’ is available at Amazon.com. He can be contacted at steven_plaut@yahoo.com.

About the Author: Steven Plaut is a professor at the University of Haifa. He can be contacted at steveneplaut@yahoo.com.


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