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