Thursday, September 3, 2009

Grave and golem

Today we have a guest post by Loren Rhoads. For 10 years, Loren edited the cult nonfiction magazine Morbid Curiosity. Morbid Curiosity Cures the Blues, a collection drawn from the magazine, is due from Scribner on Sept. 29th and can be pre-ordered on Amazon.
Jews first came to Prague as free traders in the 10th c. They lived peacefully along the trade routes below Vysehrad Castle until Christian crusaders destroyed their settlement at the end of the 11th c. Afraid to lose the money the Jewish settlers generated, the nobility invited them to shift their homes to the city's Old Town, which then became the first ghetto - 3 centuries before the word was coined in Venice. Medieval Christians believed Jews had killed Christ, and continued to use Christian blood in their rituals. The Passover lamb was considered a euphemism for Christ and it was widely imagined that unless the Jews were locked behind ghetto walls at night, Christian infants would end up on Passover plates. As the Middle Ages melted into the Renaissance, interest in the Kabbalah swelled among both the Jews and Christians of Prague. It was in this atmosphere that Judah Loew ben Bezalel (1512-1609) became chief rabbi of the ghetto in 1597. Legends sprang up around Rabbi Loew (pronounced "lurve"), who was said to be one of only four men since Adam to see the Garden of Eden. While there, he was granted the shem - the secret name of God, which can create life. When the ghetto was once again menaced due to Christian bigotry, the Rabbi and two apprentices formed a champion out of the muddy banks of the Vltava River. This artificial man served faithfully, protecting the Jews from slander and worse...until something went wrong one night and Rabbi Loew had to rip the shem - variously a clay tablet or a scrap of paper - from behind the golem's teeth.
Founded in 1478, the Beth-Haim (Hebrew for "House of Life") served as the only Jewish graveyard in Prague for 3 centuries. Penned in on all sides, the Old Jewish Cemetery could only increase in height and contains 12 layers of graves. Some 12,000 surviving gravestones (see photos above) totter over an estimated 20,000 to 100,00 burials. The most visited of these - a tomb of pink stone guarded by lions - is that of Rabbi Loew. When I visited, pebbles, coins, and scraps of paper covered every flat surface. I've read several explanations of the custom of placing pebbles on graves. The simplest appeared in Mystical Stonescapes by Freema Gottlieb: "Vegetation fades, but stones are as close as matter gets to eternity." In Old Bohemian and Moravian Jewish Cemeteries, the ritual is traced back to the Hebrews wandering in the desert after Moses led them out of Egypt. Those who fell during the 40-year trek were interred along the wayside, and those who passed the grave added a rock as a way of keeping the burial mound inviolable. While the Nazis demolished many Jewish graveyards, this one - and Rabbi Loew's tomb - was spared and was intended to become a museum to the extinct race. Now overseen by the Federation of Jewish Communities of the Czech Republic, the graveyard welcomes 10,000 visitors each year. Most bring pebbles in their pockets for Rabbi Loew.

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