Monday, July 1, 2013

The Painted Synagogues of Moravia

At a sidewalk café in Vienna my wife, Ronnie, and I gorged on obscenely delicious pastries. Embarrassingly, unable to make a choice from the broad selection, we had ordered one of each.  Our tourist guide book lay on the table among the remnants of our unforgettable indiscretion. Sticky with icing, cream and meringue my index finger rested on a photo of an incredibly ornate building interior with walls lavishly decorated with Hebrew script and colorful designs.  “What’s this?” I asked Ronnie. Studying the guide book she replied that it was the synagogue in a town named Boskovice in the Czech Republic only a day’s drive away. With extensive Hebrew writing and detailed painted designs on the walls and ceiling, the little synagogue was not just unique, it was absolutely gorgeous. Having never before seen a synagogue that was even remotely similar we resolved to drive to Boskovice the very next day.
Boskovice Synagogue

Hebrew Script Ceiling of Synagogue Hallway
Boskovice is a small market town near Brno in southern Moravia. The synagogue sits among the narrow lanes of the section that was once the Jewish ghetto. Following the Holocaust there were only 12 Jewish residents in Boskovice, the last dying in 1996. The building is now owned by the Jewish Community of Brno which maintains it as a Jewish museum and venue for art exhibitions, concerts and cultural events. The gracious, English speaking, museum-synagogue director, Ondrej told us a good bit about the synagogue and Boskovice’s Jewish history. Originally opened in the mid-sixteen hundreds the building has been renovated multiple times over the centuries. By the 19th century the ghetto had an estimated 2,000 inhabitants and the synagogue grew to become a center for Talmudic study. The Hebrew text embellishing the arches, vaults and fluted columns are passages from the Torah, prayers and names of congregants, while the curling floral motifs and architectural details are typical of Moravia.
Boskovice Synagogue Sanctuary

After a spellbinding hour with Ondrej, it was late in the day. He accompanied us to a picturesque inn about 7 kilometers away. This storybook-perfect inn was a series of interconnected cottages surrounding a courtyard, all in a leafy forest with our room adjacent to a brook. True to our vision of a Moravian country inn, there was a charming dining room complete with a huge roaring fireplace where we and our new friend enjoyed a memorable evening and a bottle of Moravia’s finest wine.

At the synagogue the next morning we met Ondrej for an escorted walk around Boskovice’s once-upon-a-time ghetto quarter. As we walked through an old arched gateway he said, “This gate and the wall defined the Jewish ghetto. However as relations were good between the Christians and Jews, they both went back and forth. In fact, in many places there was no wall -- the Christian houses simply backed up to the Jewish houses.” Our tour complete, Ondrej concluded, “If you liked Boskovice, you simply must see the synagogues in Třebič and Holesove.”

Arriving in Třebič we found a bustling community centered about an oblong town garden-piazza. We set out on foot to find the tourist information bureau, intending to get directions to the synagogue. In front of us, we saw a sign pointing to “Jew Town”.  Following the sign, we headed through a dark passage between two buildings and over a pedestrian bridge crossing the bucolic Jihlava River to a hill covered with old masonry and stucco buildings. This hill with its curvy cobblestoned lanes, too-cute-to-be-true picturesque buildings and all of the charm of a Breughel painting was once the old Jewish quarter.
Třebič Synagogue
The Synagogue, dating from 1669, sits in the center of Jew Town only a short walk up the hill from the bridge. Although there are no longer any Jews living in Třebič, the city has restored the Synagogue, keeping it open as a Jewish museum and exhibition-event venue. There we met a charming young lady with impeccable English skills who, for the paltry price of 2 Euros admission, escorted us through the museum in the second floor women’s gallery and around the old ghetto. She explained that by the 17th century 60% of Třebič’s population was Jewish and the town was the center of Moravian Jewish culture. In 1848 emancipation laws freed Jews to live wherever the wished. Consequently, during the following half-century Třebič’s Jewish community declined to a couple hundred as most Jews migrated to larger cities. The handful of Jews who returned from the Holocaust had dwindled away by 1952 when the area became a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Elaborately Painted Sanctuary of Třebič Synagogue

Like the synagogue in Boskovice, the Třebič Synagogue’s walls are decorated with Hebrew text, yet the fresco wall paintings are much freer, less repetitive and geometric. Our guide explained that although she was not Jewish she was studying Hebrew with a goal of conversion to Judaism. She said her fiancé also plans to convert. They are purchasing one of the incredibly cute old houses in Jew Town where they will live after their marriage next year.

We visited six historic painted synagogues in the villages of the Czech Republic. Each signficantly different from the others, each with its own stories, each are irreplaceable relics of the area’s Jewish past. They are highly accessible from Prague where you can visit the Jewish Museum of Prague, one of the World’s most extensive collections of Judaic art, as well as four incredible synagogues. Tours and guides are available to take you to these treasures or you can do as we did: simply rent a car with a GPS and head out for a memorable Jewish vacation. The entire country is only half the size of Indiana so it’s easy going. Better yet, these are painted ladies that your wife can visit with you!

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