'Hevra kadisha' building, Prague 521.
(photo credit: laura ben-david)
It took us 15 years to make one spontaneous decision to fly off for the weekend
to Prague. My husband and I chose Prague over Greece because it wasn’t going to
rain there. We clearly paid little attention to the temperature predictions,
choosing a record-breaking cold spell as the ideal time for our weekend getaway.
Freezing temperatures aside, we gave ourselves a 48- hour crash course on what
to do in Prague, and took off.
Among the highlights that people
recommended we see were the Old Town, the Prague Castle, the Jewish Quarter and
a day trip to Theresienstadt concentration camp. After much contemplation we
opted not to include Theresienstadt in our itinerary. As guilty as it made me
feel, we were “on vacation” and wanted to do “fun” Prague. Besides, it would
have had to be on our last day and we didn’t want our trip to end on that sad
note. Thinking we could put the Holocaust out of our minds, we embarked on our
Prague adventure beginning with a walking tour of the Jewish Quarter led by a
gentile tour guide.We entered the Maisel Synagogue, the first stop on
our tour. Right near the Old Town Square, the synagogue is a beautiful baroque
building that was built in the 16th century.
Inside I was somewhat taken
aback to discover that the pews and other standard synagogue furnishings had
been removed, replaced with glass cases and shelves filled with various
synagogue- related artifacts from Prague. Renata, our tour guide, proceeded to
explain the uses of the various Jewish ritual objects, describing the Jewish
life cycle. No matter that we are Orthodox Jews who could dance circles around
her descriptions; she was determined to share her knowledge of each Jewish
Always one to enjoy a museum, especially a Jewish one, I
shifted gears and began reading the descriptions beside many of the items,
imagining the original owners in a time long gone. In the gift shop I noticed
the book Fireflies in the Dark that showcases art by the children of
Theresienstadt. I could not even look at the book without crying so I put it
down and moved on.
We then went to the Pinkus Synagogue, which also
turned out to be a kind of museum.
Except that there were no shelves or
glass cases in this museum; only names. The names of every one of the 80,000
Jewish victims from Bohemia and Moravia were painstakingly inscribed by hand,
covering every wall of the synagogue, including their dates of birth and death,
if known. I found my eyes drawn to years of birth, unbidden, seeking out the
names of murdered children so they could be remembered, hoping not to find them,
and shedding a tear for each child that I did – and there were so
At this point, barely an hour into our tour, it was quite clear
that however incredible our trip to Prague would be, it would certainly be
bittersweet. I understood that everything Jewish in Prague – in all old European
Jewish communities, for that matter – has undertones, even remnants, of the
Holocaust. We did not need to go to Theresienstadt to feel this. It was embodied
in most everything Jewish we encountered. If nothing else, then by the fact that
there was so much that was Jewish, and yet so few Jews.
We explored the
Moorish-designed Spanish Synagogue, ironically built by Ashkenazi Jews, which
houses an amazing collection of objects from the Jewish life cycles, from brit
mila to burial, all on display. Renata insisted on “teaching” us everything she
knew about Jewish life. It was absurd; like a schoolteacher trying to teach
Romeo and Juliet to Shakespeare.
“We’re the real deal,” I thought,
politely holding my tongue and allowing her to give the requisite explanations.
At one point, as I saw a group of clearly non-Jewish tourists gaping at the
displays, I wanted to shout, “Hey, we’re right here! You don’t need to look
behind the glass; look at us! We’re living all this! It is our life!”
night we bundled up against the frigid weather and went back to the Jewish
Quarter for services at one of the few active synagogues. Though the
century-old, simple but elegant sanctuary was sparsely filled with people, there
was every type of Jew imaginable, from the most assimilated to the most devout.
They were all sitting together, side by side, singing the same familiar
liturgical tunes I knew from my childhood. Unbidden, I felt tears escape my eyes
yet again. In this unfamiliar city, thousands of miles away from any place I or
my family ever lived or would even consider living, I felt strangely at home.
More than that, looking around at the incredible mix of Jews assembled, I felt
that we all belonged together. We were all members of the same club, assembled
at a remote chapter. It was an awesome realization, the consciousness of which
seemed to open the door to my emotions which had been unlocked and ajar from the
moment we set foot in the old Jewish Quarter of Prague.
I knew that
Hitler’s intent had been to create a museum in Prague dedicated to an extinct
race. Therefore, rather than pillage and destroy Prague as he did to 153 other
cities of Bohemia and Moravia, he carefully preserved it as a collection spot
and future museum for the thousands upon thousands of treasures that were stolen
from the destroyed Jewish people. In fact, when I saw those treasures exhibited
as part of the Precious Legacy Exhibit in a New York museum years ago, the seeds
were planted in my heart for this eventual trip. Though the losses of the Jewish
people in the Holocaust were unspeakably heart-wrenching, Hitler’s ultimate goal
was thankfully not realized and the Jewish people are alive and
Ironically, though, the Jewish Quarter of Prague did indeed become
a Jewish museum.
I couldn’t keep my mind from racing as we sang the
prayers in that lovely old synagogue – with the very congregation that prays in
the famous “Old-New Shul,” the oldest synagogue still in use in all of Europe,
though we prayed next door due to the building’s inadequate heating and the
bitter cold. I thought of how oppressed the Jews of Prague and all of Europe
once were, the sheer devastation and loss, and now seeing Jews of every
background, united in prayer, in the very place that was slated by Hitler to be
a remembrance museum to an “extinct race.”
Then I thought of modern day
Jews living in places such as the US and Israel. How lucky are they – are we –
to be living with such freedom; freedom to choose how we want to express our
Jewishness – or not to. So free, in fact, that we’ve forgotten that people who
choose differently than we do are Jews just the same. They are simply surrounded
by the trappings of their choices. You see, Hitler had one thing right. A Jew is
a Jew, no matter how much they may express their Jewishness or how desperately
they may try to run from it.
Being in Prague taught me a lesson. Too much
freedom can sometimes be its own prison. When we make choices, we naturally
exclude that which we did not choose. We can become trapped in our own version
of what’s right and what’s wrong. We see this in all areas – religious and
secular, Right and Left. In Prague, the playing field is leveled. More than six
decades after 80,000 Jews from the region were murdered for being Jewish, the
sparse Jewish population remaining there has minimal freedoms about how or where
they practice their Judaism. A typical minyan of Jews there generally has one
common denominator: they are all Jews. No matter how they dress, if they are
Ashkenazi or Sephardi, hassidic or secular or any other possible permutation of
Jewishness. They are Jews, and that is enough.
A trip to Prague manages
to imbue this feeling into all who visit. If we brought home just one souvenir
from Prague, it should be knowing – and believing – that all Jews are just
If we can all live by this rule, we will never let another
synagogue turn into a museum. The writer is a blogger and author of the book
Moving Up: An Aliyah Journal, a memoir of her move to Israel. She has spoken
about Israel and aliya all over the United States and