May 21, 2015

Jewish Prague

Prague is a gorgeous city.  Tourists seem to joyfully ‘float’ along the cobblestoned streets, eyeing intricately designed buildings painted in pastel hues, carefully carved and sculpted into unique jewels. Like faces, no two are alike.

Prague is also a Disney World for history and culture buffs, complete with a castle that dates back 1,000 years and a majestic, renaissance-baroque cathedral first commissioned in the year 1060.  soprano's voice trills above the cobbled street. The breathy sounds of a violin float in the air. Classical music wafts from the open windows of many conservatories all over the city.

The Old New Synagogue built in
gothic style was completed in 1270
Take a boat ride on the River Vltava and admire Prague’s shore from the water with its pretty islands and narrow Venetian-style canals. You will float under ornate bridges, past green parks and alongside soaring church spires. You can even buy a beer for a dollar, which is cheaper than a bottle of water and is half the price of a coffee. No wonder I saw Czechs drinking beer at ten in the morning.

Aside from the castle and cathedral, one of Prague’s top tourist attractions is the Jewish quarter. In this small area stand a few synagogues that are now museums,  and an old cemetery. In the Golden Age, the early 1700s, more Jews lived in Prague than anywhere in the world. And by 1708, they made up one fourth of Prague’s population.

Interior of Prague's oldest synagogue.

Jews have lived here since 970. But what did living as a Jew in Prague really mean?  The first afternoon we were there, my husband ran to find a minyan to pray mincha, but no one came except for one other tourist. What happened to the Jews?

We wandered the streets that were part of the Jewish Ghetto and through the hollowed out synagogues that once echoed with devout prayer.

The Jewish cemetery in Prague.
Today, the shuls are filled with displays of silver Kiddush cups, ornate Torah covers and old payer books. The plaques that describe these once revered Jewish objects speak as if they are no longer in use, as if they are relics. The synagogue/museums describe the Jewish holidays and explain the hallowed implements associated with each festival with a numbering system as if we were studying anthropology.

The walls of the Pikas synagogue are filled
with names of those who perished in the Holocaust.
I felt like shouting out above the hushed murmur of the tourists, “Excuse me, Jews are still here.”
I read the story of the Jews as spelled out in the museums and knew this was just part of the story. The Jews were here and now they are gone.  What really happened to the Jews of Prague?

Upon digging, I now have a more defined picture about what it was like to be a Jew in Prague over the last thousand years:

1096: Crusaders arrived, pillaging and slaughtering Jews.
1142: Siege of Prague Castle: more murder and pillaging, oldest synagogue burned down and most sections of the Jewish quarter were in ashes. Many Jews who survived were forced to convert.
1179: Church proclaimed that Christians cannot touch Jews and their already limited civil rights were further restricted. Jews forced to move their community to the right bank of river Vltava and their movements were limited. The Jews were locked in the ghetto every night.
1215: Mandated that Jews should wear distinctive clothes and could not hold public office.
1230-1530: Ghetto shut off from outside world with fortified walls and gates. Hostile mobs would often pillage and burn.
1389: Easter. Prague clergy announced that Jews had desecrated the Eucharistic wafer and encouraged pogroms, leading to ransack and murder in after which nearly the entire Jewish community of 3,000 people were wiped out.
1541: Expulsion from Prague.
1557: Another expulsion.
Spanish Synagogue in Prague.
1745 to 1748: Another expulsion, this one decreed by Empress Maria Theresa.
1780: Finally, religious tolerance while living within the  Ghetto.
1852: Jewish Ghetto abolished and relative ‘peace’ living among Czechs for 87 more years.
1939, August: New decrees against Jews enforced by Nazi officials who took over the region. Jews segregated in Prague restaurants, prohibited from using public pools and baths. Night curfew enforced.
1940, April:  Jews banned from public service. Doctors only allowed to treat Jews.
1940, August: Jewish children restricted from attending Czech schools.
1941, January: Restrictions on withdrawing money from banks, driving license confiscated and forced out of apartments into old tenement housing, Jews forced to behind sit in second tram car
1941, September: Prague Jews forced to wear yellow Star of David, synagogues closed.
1941, October: Jews banned from buying rationed foods and banned from entering many areas of Prague. Deportation of Jews begins with 5,000 Jews being deported to Lodz in Poland.  Theresienstadt transit camp-ghetto opened 60 km north of Prague
1941-44: The Nazis, along with local Czech gendarmerie, deported 73,603 Jews from Prague and other towns to Theresienstadt, sending most of them on to their death at Aushwitz.

A box, hauntingly filled with tefillin stolen
from murdered religious Jews.
I found this powerful description of the deportation from the autumn of 1941 written by Heda Kovaly:

 “The inside of the Exposition Hall was like a medieval madhouse. Several people who were seriously ill and had been brought there on stretchers died on the spot. A Mrs Tausig went completely crazy, tore her false teeth out of her mouth, and threw them at our lord and master, Obersturmbannfuhrer Fiedler. There were babies and small children who cried incessantly and just beside my parents, a small fat bald man sat on his suitcase playing his violin as if none of the surrounding bedlam were any concern of his. He played Beethoven’s Concerto in D Major, practicing the same passages over and over again.”

The horror did not end here.

1948: For the few Jews who survived, they were faced with a Communist takeover that made Jewish practice illegal.
1950: Jews branded as ‘class enemies of the working people’ and anti-semitism encouraged.
1951-1964: Jews suffered exile, imprisonment, forced labor, and, for some, execution.
2015: Around 1,000, mostly secular, religiously alienated Jews live in Prague.

Today, several of Prague's old synagogues contain many artifacts that were stolen from the Jews, then catalogued and stored by the Nazis. These objects are now part of the show called a ‘visit to Prague’ where people from around the world snap photos of mossy-covered Jewish tomb stones and admire ornate Shabbat candles that are no longer lit.

Perhaps my visit to Prague has instilled Kafkaesque thoughts (this is Franz Kafka's hometown after all), but as I was buying tickets for the Old Ghetto, I felt as if I were lining up for a Jewish Disney.  

I wanted to shout out that Jews exist outside of museums and graveyards. But I need not. I am now onboard an El Al flight en route to my home, our Jewish home. 

I am thankful to be living in a place where we live freely, flourish and pray devoutly in dynamic synagogues filled with real live, practicing Jews. And I am grateful to be finally living in a place Jews can finally call home.

May 15, 2015

A Love Letter to Israel

I received this email from a friend in Canada. I read it with curiosity, but after a few paragraphs, felt choked up. By the end, I was in tears. 

The next morning, cradling my steaming coffee, I read it aloud to my husband. Again, I could not finish it as I was choked by tears.

Here is the background. The beautiful letter follows. 

We know that visiting Israel can be transformative.
We know that when people see Israel and experience its beauty, its energy, its dynamism and its extraordinary humanity, not only do their opinions about Israel change, in many cases they themselves are transformed. 
At this time, with Israel increasingly under attack on many campuses, educational travel to Israel for students and faculty has become a central pillar of CJP's Israel Advocacy strategy. 
Recently, a group of Harvard students, of all backgrounds and faiths, visited Israel. They were led by extraordinary Israeli students at Harvard who planned the Harvard Israel Trek with the support of Harvard Hillel and leading local foundations and donors, including CJP. More than 300 students applied for the 50 spaces on the Trek, making it possible to select a cohort whose experience in Israel, seeing the country in all of its marvellous complexity through a very special lens, would have the greatest impact on campus.
Sometimes the impact of a trip like this cannot be captured in prose; it can only be captured in poetry. What follows (and linked here) is a poem, posted on the Harvard trek blog, that reflects one Harvard student's transformative experience.
The author, Oliver Marjot, is a sophomore medieval history concentrator from Guilford, England. He expected the Trek to be a confirmation of his “European certainty of your arrogant oppression.” That’s not quite the way things turned out. 

To My Newfound Love
by Oliver Marjot
I came to you, Israel, wanting to hate you. To be confirmed in my reasonable European certainty of your arrogant oppression, lounging along the Mediterranean coast, facing West in your vast carelessness and American wealth. I wanted to appreciate your history, but tut over the arrogant folly of your present. I wanted to cross my arms smugly, and shake my head over you, and then leave you to fight your unjust wars.
I wanted to take from you. To steal away some spiritual satisfaction, and sigh and pray, and shake my head over your spiritual folly as well. To see the sad spectacle of the Western wall, and bitterly laugh at your backward-looking notion that God sits high on Moriah Mount, distant and approachable. I wanted to smirk in my Protestant confidence, knowing that God is with me, even if you refuse to turn to him, standing instead starting blankly at a wall of cold stone, pushing scribbled slips of paper into the Holy mountain, not daring to raise your face, and ask with words.
I wanted to see your sights, to bask in your sun, to tramp my feet over your soil, to swim in your seas, to eat the fruit of your fields. I wanted to be amazed, to be interested, to be engaged. I wanted.
I didn’t realise you were broken as well as wealthy, fragile as well as strong. I didn’t realise that you suffer from a thousand voices clamouring in your head, and that some of those voices care about justice and democracy, and that some of them love their neighbours. I didn’t realise that a thousand enemies press on your borders, hoarding instruments of death, as chaos and darkness and madness consume the world every way you look. I didn’t realise that you care about your past - that some of those voices of yours treasure the stories of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob every bit as much as I do. I didn’t realise. Nobody told me. Or maybe they did, and I refused to listen.
I didn’t expect to fall in love with you. Your beauty caught me like a hook. Seeing you, I see what Solomon saw when he wrote about his Beloved. I see that homeland that Jesus loved. The lush green of your Galilee, the stark strength of your desert, the bare whiteness of your Judean hills. I love the Hebrew you speak, the churches your wear like flowers in your hair, the proud golden dome that crowns your head. I love the strength of your soldiers, the warmth of your sun, the joy of your songs, the peace of your kibbutzim.
This cold Boston air is a mockery of your spring warmth, and in this vast sprawl of concrete and red brick it’s no exaggeration to say that I yearn for your troubled horizons, your ancient hills. I’m not ashamed to say it. I love you.
I’m sorry I had to leave you. I know I have no right to love you. What’s ten days compared to a year, a childhood, a lifetime? Or the five-thousand year lifetime of a people? I know that you won’t remember me, that you probably barely even registered my short time with you. I’m sure my love means nothing to you amid the whispers of a million other lovers, and you’re so very far away.
But I will come back to you. I will. I’ll leave these busy, harried, Western shores, and come to you, to the East. I’ll learn your Hebrew, I’ll share your troubles, I’ll breathe your air, I’ll walk in your fields again.
I will. I will.
Until then, Israel, mon amour, my love. Until then, shalom.

Reading like a poem, this letter comes from a deep, soulful place. It is a place of connection and expresses why I too am captivated by Israel's essence and beauty. 

I hope others will experience Israel as profoundly as Oliver Marjot. It is for this reason I keep posting on my blog and sharing the incredible aspects of living here. If only the world would come here with open minds and hearts. If only. 

And this poem describes why I cannot stop walking the land. Oliver, when you return to breathe Israel's air and walk her fields, I am happy to share my favourite pathways with you.