Shabbos Blessing- Week 39

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I am in Iceland. So far I’ve learned that I think this place is cool, and I like the airport, and someday I’d like to come back here and leave it, and when I’m half-delirious from what’s already been about 21 hours of travel I should not be dumped into a duty-free shop. Although, come to think of it, that’s probably exactly why I (and everybody else) got dumped into a duty-free shop. I bought myself Icelandic yarn, because of course I did, and birch bitters, because I was curious. There were many adorable and enticing things, but I managed to resist most of them. Now I’m sitting here, very perplexed as to the time of day, wondering if I need a coffee or a beer. I managed to sleep a fair amount, so I’m planning to try and avoid more sleeping until I get to California tonight (in some vague sense of that term).

When I was sitting in the airport in Paris for 7 hours this morning, I found myself thinking about just how bizarre they are. I wrote in my journal:

“You know, I’m basically on a moving walkway home now. Airports are airports are airports. People jostle for charging stations, and pay too much for coffee, and appreciate or bemoan the cleanliness of the bathrooms, and try to keep track of IDs and cell phones, and sleep anywhere they can. Airports are spaces outside of time and space. The accoutrement shift, but the overall place is the same. Maybe that’s why I find airports kinda comforting.”

And I do find airports kinda comforting. They’re a place where everyone is locked into more-or-less the same thing, there are huge windows everywhere you look, the signage is usually sufficient to explain what needs explaining, and they’re good at feeding you (however expensively and unhealthily). Don’t get me wrong– I’m very, very eager to get myself out of this airport and on my way to my final destination, but I can’t really complain.

This week’s blessing is the last picture I took in Israel. Behold, my stuff:

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I gave (and threw) a lot away. I left some things behind in the apartment for the next guest. I sent some things home with visitors earlier in the year. And here is what remained when I walked out the door yesterday. I may not entirely believe that I’m going home yet, but that huge suitcase doesn’t lie.

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I don’t think I should be trusted to blog in this state, so I’m going to stop. Shabbat Shalom to all, and I look forward to sharing a final shabbat blessing from America next week.

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Yom Hashoah

I got onto a train.

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It was morning. Rush hour was done. The car was still. Across from my red seat was a row of red seats, all empty.

I thought. Who are the people who could have filled these spots? 

I saw my reflection rippling in the glass. I saw other trains, not with eyes but with gut–stories told of boxcars, of standing for days, of terror, of rushing, of ending. Of a people that was mine. I looked through my reflection rippling in the glass and saw a shade of a world without my family in it. I saw myself as an empty seat.

I sat comfortably. A former Soviet City’s suburbs turned to center. I stood for my stop.

I got off of a train and stepped into Warsaw.

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I got onto a train with my father.

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We sat in plush seats. We ate Polish donuts. We drank Polish coffee. We spoke quietly and freely in English. We watched the country whisk by.

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“If things had gone differently, before,” I said to him, “You could have been Polish. I couldn’t have existed because you and Mom wouldn’t have met. But you could have been Polish.”

Before. I looked out and saw a shade of a country with my family in it, before.

A conductor came by. My ticket was wrong. I was not a Polish student. My international student ID meant nothing here. I had to buy a new ticket.

I fished out my wallet and fished out bills. I solved a problem with money. I thought of a people that was mine that would have given any amount of money to solve a problem that could not be solved with money.

I sat back. A former Soviet City’s suburbs turned to center.

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Mostly, I did not think about trains in Poland. Mostly, I enjoyed myself. My father and I ate pierogis and drank good coffee. We wandered the streets.

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We entered old synagogues and new museums.

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We paused by memorials. IMG_1282.jpg

We saw signs of a reviving Jewish community.

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The Krakow JCC

We walked through cemeteries. (Perhaps, if we had never left Poland, we would have believed that, as Cohens, we shouldn’t set foot in a cemetery. But then, if we had never left Poland, we would not be us.)

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We traveled as strangers in a country that had once been home, in a city where my Great Grandfather attended high school, in a country where much of his family later perished. It had been home. It was not any longer. My father flew to our home– to America. I flew to Tel Aviv.

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I missed a train in Tel Aviv.

The train came only once an hour. I missed it by a minute. I would have to wait. I grumbled to myself. I thought about my sore neck and long day and lack of sleep. I thought about the homework I had yet to complete. I did not think about a people that was mine that would have given any amount of money to solve a problem that could not be solved with money.

Blessed are you, Miraculous One, who has made me so free that I can forget what it would be to be anything else.

I got onto the next train. Across from me, the seats were full. I remembered the empty red row in Warsaw. I remembered my doctor in Jerusalem last fall, asking me my birth date to figure out which of the two “Emily Cohens” in his system was me.

I told him my birthdate. “There are a lot of Emily Cohens in the world,” I added with a smile and a shrug.

My doctor looked at me and did not smile. “Thank God,” he said. “Thank God.”

Blessed are you, Miraculous One, who gives humanity the wisdom to learn and to remember and to be grateful. IMG_1193.jpg

Shabbos Blessing- Week 29

This week is another “in person” blessing, because I got to spend most of it with my Dad in Warsaw! He was having a piece played at the local conservatory, and I got to tag along because Warsaw is close(ish) to Israel and cheap(ish) to get to, and I thought it would be cool to see the place and of course to see my Dad.

We had a great time, and, it so happened that the anxiety-producing stretch I’ve been in lately came to a halt the day before I got on the plane, when I got some news back. It was such a relief to be able to go into my trip calmer and more excited for the future.

I’ve definitely got reflections on Poland to share, but, as has become an unfortunate habit of circumstance lately, I don’t have time to share them at this moment. Tonight, the RRC students will be leading a shabbat service up here in Tel Aviv, and despite my lack of sleep due to a supposedly-overnight-but-actually-3.5-hour-flight this morning, I gotta get active here.

So, I leave you all with hopes for a wonderful, restful Shabbat, and this picture of my Dad and me in front of a 900-year-old set of gates in Krakow. IMG_1307.jpg

A Jaunt to Prague

Baruch atah adonai, eloheinu melekh haolam, hamotzi lehem min ha’aretz.

Blessed are you adonai our God, ruler of the universe, who brings forth bread from the earth.

To most Jews, that prayer will probably look quite familiar. It’s said around shabbat tables, before meals at camp, and, for many, before every meal that includes bread. It’s one of the very first prayers I recall learning as a child, or, rather, that I don’t recall learning because I internalized when I was so young.

On Friday night, I heard a young girl recite this prayer. She stood holding two small challahs between her palms, while the young rabbi at her side, his tallis wrapped around his thin body, shook salt onto a platter. We said “amen” and she tore the challahs into pieces, passing a tray so that all could take a small piece. The group was small– perhaps 15 or 20 people– and it was intergenerational. There were children, parents, grandparents. They gathered around a table, eating challah and small tomatoes and baguette toasts spread with cheese. A tray of small glass cups, emptied of wine, sat off to one side, remnants of the kiddush from moments before. We were in a basement of a beautiful building, a small space for a small community celebrating a very full shabbat.

On Friday night, I attended Shabbat Services at Bejt Simcha, the only Reform community in Prague. Like most Jewish communities in Europe, Prague’s Jews were decimated by the Holocaust, pulled from their homes and lives to ghettos, concentration camps, and gas chambers. However, Prague’s Jewish quarter remained intact. You might think that was luck, as, indeed, much of Prague remained intact. Instead, Hitler left the buildings and cemetery of the Jewish quarter untouched so that, after the Final Solution was complete, they could be made into museums for “extinct races.”

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Among the most chilling things I saw in Prague was this Holocaust memorial– a box filled with tefillin, each set a reminder of a life lost. 

Today, the non-active Pinkas Synagogue in the Jewish Quarter is a Holocaust Memorial, the walls of its sanctuary lined with the names of those Czech Jews who did not survive, its top floor a gallery for the artwork of children killed in the camps.

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The wall is not textured– those are all names.

But despite these names and these deaths and this tragedy, the Jews of Prague, and of the world, didn’t go extinct. Today, there are multiple active Orthodox synagogues in Prague, along with one Conservative and one Reform.

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Including this synagogue– the Old New — which may or may not have a golem in the attic. 

Bejt Simcha may be the smallest of these synagogues, but it is still a powerful force. It is a message to the fascists then and to the fascists now that, however much they might try to snuff out my people, we will always find a way to rise and to thrive and to act from simcha– from joy.

On Friday night, we concluded our service with what I think of as the “slow, dreary” tune for adon olam. Here, however, in the midst of central Europe, in a small basement with a small group of Jews, it sprang to life. For this community there was nothing slow or dreary about it. It was authentic and it spoke to a future more than to a past. Being present for it was such a gift; I will never think of this tune as anything but hopeful again.

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Hey, you’re a pretty cool astronomical clock, clock.

Music was a significant part of my weekend in Prague. The arts there are government-subsidized, which means that cheap seats are actually cheap, not $35 or more! I paid less than $10 for nosebleed seats for the opera (Die Zauberflöte/The Magic Flute) and for the ballet (Krabat).

Prague has loads and loads of classical concerts, and I went to one at St. Nicholas Church my first night. The venue was gorgeous and the musicians were super talented, but they also seemed to get that they were playing for tourists who knew very little about classical music and were thus kinda disengaged. The program should have been my first clue, but I reserved judgement until I heard folks start to clap between movements and had to suppress an urge to go up to the musicians and profusely apologize on behalf of all Americans (just for clapping between movements, because it’s not like we’ve recently done anything else we owe the world an apology for. Right? Oh wait…).

Die Zauberflöte was performed at the Estates Theater, which was where Don Giovanni had its premier back in the day. I had a standing room ticket, which I’ll admit felt rather dashingly Bohemian, as did nipping down a few rows to grab a seat after intermission.

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The ballet was a tad more spontaneous. My last night in Prague I’d thought of going to another classical concert but decided not to after the first one, so I went to the box office of the National Theater to ask if anything other than Czech-language plays was being performed that evening. The ballet was the only option, so I went for it and went in totally blind. I’d never heard of Krabat but I really enjoyed it! I kept thinking during the ballet that it reminded me of fantasia and the sorcerer’s apprentice…only to learn after the fact that the ballet and the fantasia segment were both based on the same Sorbian myth.

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Another amazing element of the opera and the ballet was the number of children I saw there! I have no idea how much is cultural versus affordability versus these particular events being more child-friendly than your average opera and/or ballet might be, but it was very notable. At the ballet I was sitting two rows up from a gaggle of boys who all looked to be about 8-11 years old and were totally quiet and respectful and seemingly interested the whole time. It was awesome.

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Look at all of these swans! So many swans! What is your secret, Prague??

Mostly I experienced Prague through walking. There was so much to see and the buildings and streets were totally enchanting. One thing that made that easy was free walking tours. Well, not exactly free– you were expected to tip– but free enough. I took a couple while I was there and found them to be a nice way to meet people, get oriented, and learn some history.

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I also walked around a bunch on my own. The nice thing about staying in a hostel was that I had an easy way to interact with people, but I also had the ability to set my own schedule. I sort of flitted in and out of the hostel crowd, joining a large group for a dinner and a pub crawl but often striking out on my own.

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Like my first morning in Prague when I got this apple cake and this gorgeous (and delicious) americano at a local espresso bar. 

I haven’t spent a lot of time traveling solo, and there are things I don’t enjoy about it (mostly, eating, since I feel super shy/awkward about going anywhere with table service alone– although on the other hand getting cheaper, more casual food saves me a lot of money), but on the whole I had a really fantastic trip. I felt like I had a very busy three days, and yet there was so so much that I didn’t get to! I will just have to go back someday.

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John Lennon wall

If you’d like to see more pictures from the trip, I put up an album here!

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