The Jewish community was religious and in the final analysis also a culturally peculiar group, so that the ordinary body of Bohemian citizens felt the Jews as an alien body. On the other hand, Jewish life and property were insured through legal privilege, and the Bohemians had no say in that matter.
The Jews had come into the land and they and the land grew together. Under hostile pressure, some of the Jews went on into Poland. A number followed the rabbi of Prague, Jakob Pollak, and built a Bohemian community in Krakow.
The general situation of the land was one without comfort. The Turks threatened the borders, and Prague was afflicted with a major fire. In 1542 an expulsion occurred which affected most of the Jews. Poland and Turkey took them in. The Jewish administrator, Josel von Rosheim, was able to arrange a few matters with King Ferdinand so that two years later the Decree of Expulsion was cancelled.
At the beginning of the 17th century there were 4,000 (perhaps somewhat more) Jews in Bohemia. In 1638 Prague counted 7,815 Jews; by 1708 the number had grown to about 12,000.
The numbers also rose in the outlying provinces, the result mainly of new immigrants, with Polish and Ukrainian Jews arriving after 1648 and Jews from Vienna after 1670. The Polish immigrants were largely skilled artisans.
The Jews were engaged in 50 different professions. The goldsmiths, the tailors, the shoemakers, and the butchers had their own guilds, which watched over their interests against the Christian guilds.
The sphere of activity of the Jewish guild masters was naturally sharply circumscribed. The Jewish merchants regularly found themselves in attendance of the Leipzig Trade Fair. A few brought themselves to a great fortune, for example the banker Bassevi von Treuenfels who was promoted to the ranks of the nobility, and the philanthropist and community leader Mordechai Meisl, whose name a street in Prague’s Jewish section bears to this day.
Prague was a center of Jewish learning. The name of the legendary Rabbi Löb (Löwe ben Bezalel) [Translator’s note: The Maharal of Prague, the creator of the Golem] has even spread beyond the bounds of that particular religious world. Ephraim of Lenschitz, Jesaia Horowitz, Lippmann Heller – all had their own well-regarded community of scholars.
In Prague, David Gans of Westfalia wrote his Zemach David, both a general and a Jewish history. In the 18th century in Prague, Jonathan Eibenschütz and Ezechiel Landau labored as rabbis and men of learning who enjoyed a glowing reputation throughout the entire Jewish world. Next to Venice and Amsterdam – and for longer than these cities – Prague was a center of Jewish publishing.
“Prague blends knowledge with mysticism,” as one acquainted with the ghetto rightly observed. Naftali Kohen founded a refuge where kabbalistic conjuring was practiced, and in his private apartment in Prague there hung a talisman warding off danger of fire with scribbling on a stuffed deer’s head. It drew special swarms from Bohemian provincial cities and from Moravia.
Much of the old synagogues and Jewish houses have disappeared. It was very cramped in the Jewish city. In the 18th century there stood in the narrow little alleyways 13 synagogues and 300 residential buildings. The residential buildings were up to four stories high and thickly inhabited. The communitycounted 20,000 people.