The Old Synagogue in Plzeň, Czech Republic, built in 1859, is now part of a community, heritage, and memorial complex. It provides a relatively rare example of a two-storey women’s gallery, which the architectural historian Samuel D. Gruber describes and analyzes on his blog.
Sam visited the synagogue in early July, while on a Jewish heritage road trip in CZ and Poland with Jewish Heritage Europe Coordinator Ruth Ellen Gruber. They visited more than 30 synagogues, as well as Jewish cemeteries and other sites.
These included the three synagogues in Plzeň, a beautiful town (and home to Pilsen beer) about 100 km west of Prague.
The Old Synagogue, still in occasional use by the small Jewish congregation, was restored to pristine condition in 2010-2014 and is now part of the 10 Stars network of revitalized Jewish heritage sites around the country.
Designed in neo-Romanesque style by Martin Stelzer, the Old Synagogue is situated in the garden of the Jewish community building and is not visible from the street.
In his blog, Sam Gruber describes the architecture of the Old Synagogue, and discusses the two-story wooden women’s gallery. The Jews were expelled from Plzeň in 1504 and only allowed to return in the early 19th century, and the gallery’s size seems to indicate that already by the 1850s the community “had – or expected – a substantial number of women attending synagogue (on the Sabbath? only of holidays?).”
The galleries themselves had flat floors with no slope, and solid parapet walls shielded them form the main sanctuary space. Presumably the women sat on benches, and if these were set directly on the floor then only women at the parapet – who craned their necks or were standing – would get any view of the ceremony down below. The women were in the synagogue but not of the synagogue. From these galleries and many others it was almost impossible to see or hear anything of what went on below, and it can get very hot and stuffy the higher one goes.
It is possible that women had their own prayer leaders, known as firzogerin, who led prayers for women in the weibershul (women’s gallery) , This is known to be the case from other 19th-century synagogues, as is described by Pauline Wengeroff in her memoir. This is also the period when printed prayer books for women became increasingly accepted and popular. Fanny Neuda published her popular collection of prayers, Stunden der Andacht: Ein Gebet- und Erbauungsbuch für Israels Frauen und Jungfrauen zur öffentlichen und häuslichen Andacht (Hours of Devotion: Book of Prayer and Edification for Jewish Wives and Young Women) in 1855, just two years before the Plzen community began construction on the new synagogue. This was the first such book written by a women for women in German, not in Yiddish. The book was published in Vienna and went through many editions.
Watch a video of the restoration of the Old Synagogue, with attention paid to the restoration of the two-storey galleries. Unlike the two-storey galleries in the earlier synagogue in Brandýs nad Labem (also now part of the 10 Stars network) — which had been destroyed and were then rebuilt in the restoration — the galleries in Plzeň were intact but in perilous condition.
The galleries in the Old Synagogue now the 10 Stars exhibition on Jewish traditions.
The Old Synagogue today forms part of a heritage, Jewish community, and memorial complex. In 1875, an “Auxiliary Synagogue” was built next to it, connected to the Old Synagogue by a stone staircase. This synagogue was used as a storehouse after WW2. Today only its outer walls remain. In 2002, the space was transformed into a Holocaust memorial that personalizes the Shoah by inscribing the names of the more than 2,600 local victims on stones placed in what had been the sanctuary.
Both of these synagogues — hidden away in the Jewish community courtyard — are far less known, and far less visited than the city’s twin-towered Great Synagogue, one of the largest synagogues in Europe, built in 1892 and now one of Plzeň’s standout city landmarks.
Used today as a concert hall and cultural space, the Great Synagogue is scheduled for renovation, to begin later this year or in 2019, mainly of the interior, where much of the painted decoration, and the organ, are in disrepair, despite partial restoration of the building in the 1990s.