Prague — (JTA) — When the novel “Altschul’s Method” hit the shelves in Czech bookstores this March, it was hailed as a brilliant political and psychological thriller combining elements of science fiction, alternate history and Jewish mysticism.
But it became a true literary sensation when it was revealed a week later that the book’s supposed author, Chaim Cigan, was a pseudonym for Karol Sidon, the longtime chief rabbi of Prague.
Sidon had explained that he was writing under a pseudonym mainly to draw a distinction between his literary work and his duties for Prague’s Jewish community.
“Such writing does not befit a rabbi,” he told a Czech news website.
“Being a rabbi has its limits,” Sidon explained in the interview. “I won’t lie; I wanted to quit some time ago and it will happen sooner or later.”
But it was more than a passion for literature that led Sidon to step down as chief rabbi in June, earlier than he had planned.
His resignation came amid reports that he had separated from his third wife and become engaged to one of his former conversion students.
Sidon’s departure marks the end of an era for the Prague Jewish community. The first post-communist chief rabbi of Prague, Sidon, a former dissident, symbolized the revival of Czech Jewry following decades in which religion was suppressed.
“His arrival at the post was crucial for the community,” said Charles Wiener, a former executive director of the Prague Jewish community who lives in Geneva, Switzerland. “All institutions in then-Czechoslovakia were in the shadow of communism and collaboration, and suddenly someone came who had not been collaborating but was in fact thrown out of the country by the communist authorities.”
But Sidon leaves behind a divided community struggling to overcome a conflict in which he played a prominent role.
The combination of a generational gap, religious disagreements, accusations of cronyism and personality conflicts contributed to intracommunal tensions during his tenure. A decade ago, Sidon was even removed from his post when a new communal leadership took charge, only to be reinstated when his allies regained control of the community.
In the wake of Sidon’s resignation, his friends have been notably quiet. Sidon and several other community leaders declined JTA’s interview requests.