When I first planned our one-day stopover in Prague (on the way back from our two weeks visiting our two new grandchildren and their parents in Israel), I sensed that language would be an issue. This would be my first visit to a country where I did not know the language at all and could not deduce meaning from seeing its words. As we made our way through the airport it became real, and even more so as we sought, and then entered, our taxi.
Our cabbie’s English was so limited that I tried to think of connections, so I eventually took a shot mentioning Czech NHL'ers -- and as it turned out he was familiar with players like Jaromir Jagr because he played with him in a league in his nearby hometown.
We were up early for our only full day in Prague, and of course, our primary destination was the Jewish Quarter. We took the train part way, using the two free vouchers supplied by our hotel -- for 24Kc (Czech crowns) each, which at 22Kc per dollar, is only a little more than $1 per ride!
After some misdirections we found the train station. We chanced upon a vending machine -- a soft drink was 25Kc -- so how could I turn down such an inexpensive drink? Then we entered the train station. The escalator, heading down was so fast and so steep! I think the 24Kc was for the scary ride!
As you surely will recall, Prague (then in Czechoslovakia) was behind the “Iron Curtain” under Soviet dominance from the end of WWII until the 1990’s. In particular, you may remember, as I do, the bubbling uprising to throw off the USSR in 1968, which was brutally crushed by the Soviets and their tanks.
Prague was a significant city during the Middle Ages, and Jewish life in Prague is documented as far back as 900 CE, with significant settlement in the 15th and 16th centuries. The Czech language is Slavic, part of Polish and Russian culture. For Jews, life in Prague was relatively middle class, especially contrasted with Russian and Polish Jewry, who in part were under the limitations of the Pale of Settlement and significant popular and government-initiated anti-Semitism.
Marian and I walked toward the Jewish Quarter, just north of the Old Town, near the Vltava river. What we first noticed was its varied architecture, including a variety of colors. Compared to Paris, Prague was far, far less ornate, far less ostentatious, with few statues. Prague seemed to me modest, attractively so. Prague is relaxed, easy, chill -- the people moved about casually, the traffic was moderate with no honking to be heard. Old Town Prague was charming, with its shops on the ground floor of enclosed apartment buildings and moderately winding streets.
One sight in particular caught our eye. The display looked like Jenga (the game in which one pulls out a piece of wood, until the losing competitor topples the edifice), but in reality it was a series of hand-painted bricks. What also caught our eye was the number of bricks with either Hebrew writing or Israeli or Jewish symbols. The purpose of the bricks was to raise money for people with mental challenges. We made a donation and I painted the name of our six grandchildren in Hebrew.
After our longer-than-expected walk, we finally reached the Jewish Quarter, and outside an historic synagogue I spotted a man and his wife, he with a kippah, speaking English. (Until that point I had not worn my kippah.) I asked about kosher eating and he gave us a brochure from CHaBaD in Hebrew. We chose one of the restaurants and later saw this couple there as well. As we were finishing our falafel, a man and an older women, apparently his mother, entered, and we conversed a bit. A few minutes later they were sitting at our table and we spoke for 45 minutes or more. It turns out that the woman was the wife of a rabbi with whom I had had some contact from Morashah /UTJ. In fact, one of my colleagues is the current Rabbi of that shul in New Jersey. Jewish connections are truly statistically unbelievable!
We saw several synagogues. One, not in use, had inscribed on its walls thousands of names of those who were murdered by the Nazis. Another is in use for Shabbat.
The self-guided tour included the Chevra Kaddisha building, filled with museum artifacts explaining its work, such as washing vessels and the bier on which the body is placed. Nearby is the old cemetery. Notables buried there were a famous 16th century rabbi, known as the Maharal, and Franz Kafka. The headstones, some going back more than 700 years, were worn down to a point that the engraving could not be made out, and many others were inclined either due to natural causes or vandalism.
The Jewish Quarter is noticeable (the numbers on the clock below are Hebrew letters), compact (within a few blocks), and easily tourable. I was told that the overwhelming number of tourists to the Jewish Quarter are not Jewish. There are many shops selling Judaica. Prague has several kosher eateries/restaurants, and even a local Slavic dessert called Trdelnik, a cone-shaped fried dough coated with sugar into which ice cream or other filling is set. Marian and I shared one with banana ice cream and banana slices.
After our tour of the synagogues and cemetery we ate dinner in a CHaBaD restaurant which was a bit refined, and therefore a little pricey. The food was good. Two things in particular made it interesting: One of our servers looked Asian, but she spoke English, and Hebrew as well. As it was not crowded at 6 pm, I asked her when the diners tended to arrive, and she responded "After Minchah (7:30)," in perfect Israeli Hebrew, “meen-chah.” I asked her how she learned to pronounce it so well and she told me a bit about her life. She was from Kazakhstan, where her parents still live. She studied diplomacy and then earned a law degree, in Moscow. Coming to Prague, she said, is not such a stretch, because of the Slavic commonality. She added that table-waiting is her second job; she is a graphic designer, and has a sister who lives in Hoboken, NJ.
After Minchah and Arvit in the next room, we left, walking a bit along the main river, and then found our subway home. As we got in line to get our tickets from the vending machine, the man ahead of us was fumbling his money, so he stepped aside, and then after we purchased our tickets, he approached the machine, only to be 1Kc short. He asked if I had change, but I gave him the 1Kc. He was grateful and we began talking, and a few minutes later we saw him and his wife as we waited for the same train, and got off at the same stop. He told me he was from Holland, but his accent was harsher, so I thought maybe he was German or Austrian; as I had on my kippah, he knew I was a Jew.
We chatted a bit more and he revealed that he was from Iraq and his wife from Morocco. But even more that he was a Kurd, and we had a commonality. Kurdish aspirations have been unfulfilled by the international community due to other political considerations, and he spoke favorably about the Jews. I love meeting people and hearing their stories and hopefully spreading a little peace.