Suddenly Sabra: Crossing bridges

Alone in Prague, I confront my unclear identity.

prague painting 88 248 (photo credit: Pepe Fainberg)
prague painting 88 248
(photo credit: Pepe Fainberg)
I'm writing these words from Prague, where I'm waiting for my travel companion from the States to join me for Pessah vacation. Though I have traveled much of the world alone - South America, the Far East, India, North Africa - this is the first time I've felt lonely. Today, I was walking along Charles Bridge - that tourist artery that links one side of Prague to the other. Suspended high over the Danube River, smack in the center of a city that oozes with history and culture, and is picturesque to boot, I couldn't pull my eyes from the people around me. As I wove my way through the throngs of tourists - passing couples, families and groups from the world over - I looked for a familiar face, or a smile. Or at least eye contact. As I passed one group, I heard familiar words. Hebrew. A Czech woman with a thick accent - that curling "r" I associate with the Russians who run a laundry across from my apartment building - was recounting Prague's expansive history to a group of about 10 Israelis. I could understand enough to get the gist of her lecture, but I couldn't quite get the details. I lingered on the edges, leaning in close, in part for the instruction, in part for the sounds of the language I have been getting more and more used to... and I suppose, too, in hopes that someone would recognize me as one of their own. It looked to be a random, loose collection of couples and one family. It wouldn't be out of line, I reasoned, for someone to ask me to join them. But no one did. And because I was afraid of being exposed as the impostor I felt like, I moved on. I happened then on an American group. I stood at the back, keeping my distance. As much as I'm lacking the language of Israel, in the States I'd always felt that I wasn't fluent in the culture. And because Jewish life in the US seems centered around the synagogue - and my mom raised me secular - I'd always felt a disconnect from the shul-going Jews I met, as well. It seemed to me, too, that many American Jews went to Jewish summer camps or day schools. My family couldn't afford either. A privileged Jewish girl from Westchester, NY, whom I met in Israel, challenged me: "So what makes you Jewish?" when she found out that I hadn't had the same synagogue-summer-camp-filled upbringing as hers. I told her that my mom was Jewish and that, in theory, made me the same as her. But clearly it didn't. As a child and teenager, I'd remained somehow different from my public-school-going Christian classmates, no matter how much I'd aped their mannerisms. I'd tried to blend in other ways, longing for the silky, straight hair that girls with names like Grace, Mary, and Kaitlin had. I chemically straightened my coarse, curly hair, but just looked like a Jewish girl with hair that was playing straight. If I tagged along with the American tour group, a silent observer trailing behind, I risked exposure yet again. So I left and continued on, alone. It wasn't lost on me that all of this was occurring on a bridge. If this were a short story, a piece of fiction, I'd think the metaphor too obvious, too heavy-handed. I'd also expect a moment of epiphany, a resolution to the character's internal conflict. She would have a revelation at the foot of the bridge as she crossed over to one side or the other, knowing where she belonged. As she at last found her place, she would feel free. The truth is, as I stepped off the bridge nothing happened. That magical moment I've been waiting for in my life - where I decide to stay in Israel forever or not - didn't come. But an Internet cafe did. I searched for a Pessah seder in Prague. I looked up the Chabad House, where many Israelis abroad go for holiday services. But I'm not Israeli, so how could I explain my presence? And what if I - someone who was raised to be "culturally" Jewish - got lost in the ritual of the seder, with neither language nor religious tradition to support me? Should I not bother going? Sitting in front of the computer, I decided that I had a right to be there, too. If worse comes to worst and I can't keep up, I'll ape the motions of those around me. I'll mouth the words. The writer, who immigrated in April 2008, is writing a regular column on her wet-behind-the-ears experiences here.