A few days ago, Gail and I had the pleasure of worshiping at our renovated Beth Israel synagogue building in the style of a 1st cent. Palestinian synagogue. The transformation is stunning and, in my opinion, well done. Its new architectural layout, though new but really old, symbolizes “community” much better than the previous one.
The words “new” and “old” hold a special meaning for me as they send me back to my native country and its special Jewish heritage.
As you know, I am a native of what was Czechoslovakia before WW II and is now the Czech Republic. Its capital Prague, or in Czech Praha, is often considered the most beautiful city of Europe. No exaggeration here!
We, Czech Jews, or better, the few of us who survived the Holocaust, have the honor of boasting to have in Prague Europe’s oldest active synagogue, known as the Altneuschul or in Czech Staronova synagoga. The building was completed in 1270 which means that it has been standing there for many centuries before America was discovered.
The synagogue was originally called the New or Great Synagogue, but later, when other synagogues were built in Prague in the16th century, it became known as the Old-New Synagogue or in German or Yiddish Alt-NeuSchul.
But there is another explanation for the name that is more intriguing. This other explanation derives the name Alt-Neu from the Hebrew al tnai which means “on condition that….” Notice the similarity of pronunciation: Alt-Neu and al tnai,
Where then do the Hebrew words come from and what is their meaning? According to legend, angels brought stones from the destroyed Temple in Jerusalem to help with the building of the Prague synagogue “on condition” or, in Hebrew al tnay, that they be returned when mashiach-Messiah comes and these stones will be needed for the rebuilding of the Jerusalem Temple.
Which of the two interpretations of the synagogue’s name seems correct in your opinion?
The Prague Alt-NeuSchul is also renown for housing under its roof the body of the lifeless Golem, the robot constructed by the synagogue’s famous rabbi called the MaHaRal which is an acronym for Moreynu HaRav Loew, meaning “Our Teacher Rabbi Loew. “ The legend has it that Rabbi Loew made the Golem, a huge powerful robot, to protect the Jewish population of Prague during pogroms.
As my mind wanders back to the Alt-NeuSchul in Prague, I am especially attracted by the Hebrew inscription on one of its stucco walls. There, in Hebrew, we read, shiviti adonay lenegdi tamid, which means, “I will hold Adonay before me always” or, “I place God before me always” ( Psalm 16:8).
This text is often written on meditative representations on tapestries, decorative plaques or on an illustrated page in the siddur or prayer book. It is this text that has inspired me to make the many dozens of mezuzot (plural of mezuzah) that now adorn the entrances to many a Jewish home here and elsewhere and even some of the door frames of our newly renovated Beth Israel synagogue in Asheville.
So why mention all this here and now? Because our synagogue, just like the one in Prague, has now become an Old-New synagogue, an AltNeuSchul and, as some of you know from many a dvar Torah or sermon I have given, and from my memoir published on my 90th birthday and beautifully celebrated in this place of worship, I am a secular Jew, but a Jew! When I contemplate this beautiful text that carries in its heart the name of Hashem, I think not of God as a person but rather as a metaphor for all the Jewish values we Jews admire, honor and try to act out in our lives.
The Altneuschul in Prague has been an active place of worship for almost one thousand years. As a place of worship it has inspired tens of thousands of worshipers and tourists. I am sure that the world has greatly benefited from its existence. It is my hope that our Asheville AltNeuSchul will do the same for our community and the many visitors who worship with us over time.
It is my hope that the Prague synagogue’s inscription shiviti adonay lenegdi tamid will guide our Jewish peoples’ lives and bring a bit of tikkun olam or “repair of the world” to our local society and beyond.