My Word: From Jerusalem to a Prague summer and back

Throughout our short stay – a high school graduation present to my son, who turns 18 next month – two different pieces of music constantly came to mind.

August 11, 2019 10:29
THE CLOCK with Hebrew letters and counterclockwise dial on the Jewish Town Hall in Prague, next to t

THE CLOCK with Hebrew letters and counterclockwise dial on the Jewish Town Hall in Prague, next to the Old-New Synagogue, is a salient feature of the Jewish Quarter. (photo credit: LIAT COLLINS)

It was not an auspicious way to start a three-day getaway to Prague. The plane trembled as it battled a storm clearly visible through the window. “Thunderbolts and lightning, very, very frightening,” I mumbled in a particularly apt line from Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.” But once we safely landed, I literally changed my tune.

Throughout our short stay – a high school graduation present to my son, who turns 18 next month – two different pieces of music constantly came to mind. The first was Czech composer Bedrich Smetana’s “Die Moldau,” whose central theme closely resembles the tune of Hatikvah, the Israeli national anthem; the second was “Prague,” a song by late iconic Israeli singer Arik Einstein, whose powerful lyrics express solidarity with the city plunged into darkness after the 1968 Soviet invasion.

Although there are clocks aplenty – the astronomical clock is a tourist must-see – there is a timelessness about the capital city of the Czech Republic. The cobbled streets are quaint and challenging in equal measure, but I forced myself to regularly look up. The architecture, decorative paintwork, sculptures and spires were a sight for eager eyes and reward for sore feet.

The river that runs through the country and dominates the capital has different names, the Moldau or the Vltava, reflecting the different periods of European history. “Prague without the Vltava River would be like an orchestra without its conductor,” enthuses a Tourism Ministry site in entirely justifiable prose.

Not for the first time, I wondered how Jerusalem, which according to the Talmud received nine out of the 10 measures of beauty that God gave the world, does not have a river to grace it.

We had several surprises during our brief stay, all of them pleasant – apart from the torrential rain that caught us on the last day. Even Prague residents, those who could be found in the city in the height of the summer tourism season, claimed that such a downpour was unusual for the time of year.

The first surprise was how welcoming it was. Given the wave of antisemitism that is washing over most of Europe, we were wary of what reception we would receive, particularly as my son, wearing a kippah and tzitzit (ritual fringes), was clearly identifiable as a Jew. Many people made a point of coming up to say “Shalom.” Several told us they had either been to Israel or were planning to come in the future. Together we recalled the streets and places in Israel named after Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, the founding father of the Czech Republic and an ardent Zionist, and his son, Ján Masaryk, who as foreign minister after World War II helped the nascent Jewish state survive.

There are several kosher restaurants (and even a kosher hotel) and wandering through the capital we felt entirely at ease.

The biggest surprise came from fellow travelers on our first day trip, a grand tour around the city by bus, foot and boat. A family sitting next to us on the bus spoke among themselves in a language that was at once familiar yet not immediately identifiable. The mystery was solved as we passed through the beautiful vineyards next to Prague Castle.

“How do you say this in your language?” asked Dematour Betoushana, visiting from California with his wife, Diana, and London-based daughter, Eilbret Darmoo. I soon discovered that the family, enthusiastic supporters of Israel, were exiled Iranian Assyrians who speak Aramaic, the language my son had until then used only in Talmud studies.

On the second day, we ventured out of the capital, taking a trip to Cesky Krumlov, a preserved medieval city and UNESCO heritage site, in South Bohemia. Well worth a visit, like Prague its salient features are the river and a towering castle on a hill. It’s a fairy-tale setting, but a tour of the town and castle revealed stories of ghosts and family tragedies. Among its strangest features are bears – two of them newcomers last month – who live in the moat. Inside the castle, while tapestries and paintings grace the walls, several floors are covered with bearskin rugs – with names! These are the former residents of the moat (although we were assured they all died a natural death.)

On this tour, we met two young Lebanese women more interested in Instagram photos than regional politics. Like the Aramaic speakers, we found if not a common language, at least words in common: The Hebrew “dov” for bear is “dubb” in Arabic and all of us felt sorry for the once-noble animals now spreadeagled on cold floors.

BACK IN Prague, the view – of the river, red-roofed homes and deep green foliage – was unmistakably European, but the Czech Republic has its own unique feel. During a visit to Vienna a few years ago, I was shocked to find people who consider Austria to be the victim of Nazism after the Anschluss, rather than a willing accomplice to Hitler’s crimes. The Czechs, on the other hand, rightly feel that they were sold out by the appeasement policy and refer to the Munich Agreement of 1938 as the “Munich Betrayal.” (It’s a lesson for those who believe that territory for peace is an infallible formula.)

A visit to the Czech capital would not be complete without seeing the Jewish Quarter (Josefov), sandwiched between the Old Town and the Vltava, today carefully maintained by the Jewish Museum in Prague. The six synagogues between them provide a rich and fascinating record of the history of the Jews from 965 CE, the time of the medieval ghetto and on to emancipation by the Hapsburg Emperor Joseph II (for whom the neighborhood is named) and to the darkest days of the Holocaust. The synagogues survived the war unscathed; the community did not. Hitler was responsible for both phenomena. Having determined to exterminate the Jews, he ordered that the Prague Jewish Quarter be preserved as a “Museum of an Extinct Race.”

Among the places of particular importance is the still functioning, Gothic-style Old-New Synagogue. This is where the legendary Rabbi Judah Loew (the Maharal) prayed; where the fables of the Golem – the clay figure that obeyed his commands – were born; and next to the shul is the multi-layered cemetery where the Maharal is buried. (Whether or not the remains of the Golem are still hidden in the synagogue’s attic remains a matter of speculation and the imagination of tour guides.)

The nearby Pinkas Synagogue is painfully striking. Its walls are lined from top to bottom with the names of the 80,000 Czech Jews who perished in the Holocaust. There is also a touching exhibition of children’s paintings drawn during the Shoah at Theresienstadt (Terezin). Trips to the Nazi camp where many Czechoslovakian were initially deported are also offered. We skipped that – and also declined the proffered shopping trips to Dresden in neighboring Germany.

A clock on the Jewish Town Hall community building uses Hebrew letters for numbers, but strangely, it works in an anti-clockwise mode, reading the Hebrew from right to left. Perhaps we should have expected no less in a city where Franz Kafka famously resided.

On our last afternoon, in the pouring rain, we sought refuge in Communism, as my son quipped: The Museum of Communism, that is. Here, we found moving evidence of the resilience of the Czech people, particularly in the period from the February putsch of 1948 to the Velvet Revolution in 1989. The museum shows how the Marxist dream of equality turned into the Communist nightmare (and the lethal absurdities of the Stalinist personality cult.)

Again, my mind went over the lyrics of Einstein’s “song that I dreamed of Prague, where dawn will once again break.”

We flew home just ahead of the period known as the Nine Days, leading up to the 9th of Av, a day of mourning commemorating the destruction of both the First and Second Temples.

Given its history, Prague, today crowded with tourists and bustling with life, is marvelous. Jerusalem, vibrant and ever-growing after all it’s been through, is no less than miraculous.

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