Bejt and Switch
A duck lands in the Vltava in Prague.
For more splashy pictures of the Czech Republic, click here.
There’s a lot about religion I dislike: the sectism, the hatred, the jihads, the hypocrisy, the difficulty in changing any of the doctrines that no longer apply, the literal interpretations. The list could go on for eons. But no matter how flawed it may be, for better or worse, religion is a fact of life.
Since graduating from high school, I’ve been to synagogue maybe a dozen times. I suspect it’s actually less than half that, but I do strange things when I’m not of my right mind. Still, for all the complaining I do about religion and all the jokes I crack about being a Jew, Judaism and my heritage is important to me.
When I started this journey, I told myself I’d make it to Shabbat services every Friday once I reach Europe. In addition, I’d be able to catch the high holy days of Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashana in Prague and Berlin respectively. Oktoberfest threw a wrench in that, as I waited on Berlin and chose Munich and annual festivities over the traditional apples and honey of the Jewish New Year. Still, I was determined to make it to temple in Prague.
The Jewish history of Prague is what made this a destination for me. My next tattoo, one I had initially planned to get before embarking, is of the Golem, a Jewish myth that found a home with Rabbi Judah Ben Loew in Prague. Though the term “ghetto” is from the Italian meaning foundry, the most famous pre-Holocaust ghetto was in Prague, now known as Josefov after Joseph II, the Holy Roman Emperor who emancipated the Jews in 1781. Sadly, much of the quarter was demolished around 1900 in an effort to modernize, leaving six synagogues, a cemetery, and the name as the only vestiges of what once was here.
I feel disheveled and unworthy of services, least of all the high holy days. It’s not as though I’d have good clothing that fit me at this point even if I had packed some. I merely have a pair of oversized dress pants, my belt cinched tightly to hold them up, a black long-sleeved shirt from Old Navy that looks nicer than it probably should, and a kippah that I bought in Israel that, childishly, takes on the appearance of a circuit board on a cursory inspection. On the upside, Yom Kippur is the Day of Atonement, so as long as I apologize for the crappy clothes, me and God are all good, not that I’m a theist.
As the sun began setting, I hustled over to the temple. Now I’m wheezing from my cold and sweating slightly despite the chill of night. The man at the door tells me I’m still a half hour early.
The Spanish Synagogue is one of the six still surviving synagogues. On the outside, it’s barely noticeable unless you’re looking for it. Next to it stands an old church, its cobbled walls drawing attention away from the meager designs of the synagogue. Between the church and the Spanish Synagogue is a small statue of Franz Kafka. At least, I think that’s what it is. The statue says Franz Kafka and the mosaic it stand on is of a cockroach, though what a little man riding an empty suit could signify is lost on me.
I wander around holding my kippah on as I wait. In transit, my yarmulke has warped and flattened, no longer forming perfectly to my head. About ten minutes before the doors are supposed to open a group of college age kids arrive. Three girls are wearing miniskirts, so I know I’m not the only one suffering from inappropriate wardrobe issues.
“I wonder if I need two forms of ID,” one of them says. Her accent is distinctly New York. I’m not good enough to pinpoint where, exactly, but she’s got East Coast Jew written all over her. All three of the girls do.
“You should be fine with just one picture ID,” replies the boy. I can’t tell where he’s from based on his accent.
“Oh, good. Cause I forgot my passport,” says the girl.
“I’ve only got my student ID, I think,” says one of the others, digging through her purse.
“Oh god, I’m so stuffed,” says the third, her face contorting like a muppet as her New York accent spills out. “I’m sure that’ll be fine,” chimes the boy. I have my IDs, but now I’m curious.
“They check IDs?” I ask.
“They did when I was here for Rosh Hashana,” says the boy. “Well, not here as in this temple, but here as in Prague.” I pull out my wallet and start digging through for my license. “Are you here as part of a study abroad program too?”
“Nope, just traveling.” A line begins to form at the door. Security is patting people down and checking IDs. As we converse, I find out that one of the girls is attending CU, an odd coincidence to say the least.
“Maybe I shouldn’t have eaten so much,” says the muppet. “You’ll be glad you did tomorrow,” says the other New Yorker.
Yom Kippur is a day of fasting. From sundown to sundown nothing is supposed to cross my lips. I never fast for Yom Kippur. I probably would this year except I’ve been sick. I barely ate today and there’s no way I can do that two days in a row.
I get the requisite massage as I enter, my body apparently free of anything worthwhile. The inside of the Spanish Synagogue is a masterful and gilded space. It’s not huge, barely matching the size of Temple Sinai in Brookline, the small synagogue I attended during high school.
“You should take a picture while you have the chance,” says the boy. “They charge a ton if you come back during visiting hours.”
“I don’t feel comfortable doing that.” I don’t. On holidays and Shabbat, I’m not even supposed to flip a light switch or pick up a piece of trash let alone take a photo. It’s poor form. I may be a bad Jew, but I’m a respectful bad Jew. The boy tells me his name, but my mind isn’t all there and its gone as soon as he says it. I tell him about some of the places I’ve been. “Did you go to Israel?”
“No, I didn’t have time.”
“Have you been before?”
“Yeah, I went when I was 16, but it’s been a while.”
“You should go back. You could do it for free with birthright.”
“No, I can’t,” I tell him. Birthright Israel allows Jews aged 18-26 to visit Israel for free for a short time. “I’m 27.” He looks confused.
“I thought you said you graduated a couple years ago.”
“I did. I was 25 then.”
“You’re really 27? You don’t look it.”
“I’ve been sick,” I snap back.
“I meant I thought you were younger.” It’s the second time this trip someone’s said that and it’s unnerving. I’ve always passed for older than I am. When I was a counselor at 19, the kids would guess that I was mid to late 30s, so actually seeming younger is strange.
The place grows hush as the rabbi walks out. There’s a woman standing to his right and a man in a suit that looks like your average East Coast Jewish community leader behind him. The rabbi, who reminds me of Bruce, a friend of my father’s and a rabbi from New Hampshire (now in Florida), steps aside and gives the podium to the suited man.
At first I was stunned at how well the suited man spoke English. He introduced himself as the president of Bejt Praha, the congregation hosting services at the Spanish Synagogue, and explained that Bejt Praha is a collection of ex-pats and Americans abroad as well as some Czechs who wanted American style Conservative services.
SIDE NOTE: At one point, Judaism was a single religion. In the 1400s, Judaism, already in the midst of the Diaspora, found itself split between Sephardic (Mediterranean) and Ashkenazi (Eastern European) Jews. Even with the divergent populace, regardless of how observant one was, a Jew was a Jew. Historically, there were on occasion movements within Judaism, such as the cult-like Sabbatians or the minimalist Karaites or the Pharisees, but the movements weren’t considered denominations. Though some denominations reject the Judaism of less observant groups, Jews don’t refer to their branches as sects, rejecting the idea that we are not one people. The basis for Reform Judaism, the most prominent liberal and progressive denomination today, began with philosopher Moses Mendelssohn in the Enlightenment, when Jews were finally freed from the ghettos and allowed to join society at large. At the same time, the birth and establishment of Orthodox Judaism as a counterpoint in the 1700s, eventually spawning Ultra-Orthodox (or Haredi) Judaism and Hasidic Judaism, a variation on Haredi that embraces Kabbalah as canon, led Reform Judaism to firm up its tenets toward the beginning of the 1800s. Toward the middle of the 1800s, German Jews developed Conservative Judaism to split the difference. It’s likely the closest to traditional Judaism out of any denomination and reflects this by having the name M. In the last 100 years, Reconstructionist Judaism, in which the community decides which tenets to follow (rather than the individual in Reform and God in Orthodoxy), and Humanistic Judaism, which is a nontheistic denomination (they don’t involve God, but they also don’t deny God’s existence) that attempts to preserve culture and history, grew out of attempts to reconcile modern science and philosophy with Judaism. In all, the different denominations of Judaism are myriad, and even within a single denomination traditions and services can differ greatly.
The Rabbi, the president says, is visiting from the states. It’s a bit of a disappointment, to me. I had hoped my experiences would be of the local Jewish culture, and while this is certainly a local congregation, the services aren’t the Czech services I had wanted. Of course, had I gone to a more religious service, I might not even have been let in due to dress code.
The woman on stage translates everything into Czech as the rabbi speaks. A few times, she stumbles and the two of them laugh. The Rabbi talks about the music of Yom Kippur most prominently. Most people are familiar with the wistful minor and diminished chords used in Fiddler on the Roof. The majority of traditional Jewish music is within these constraints. Oddly, it’s the sorrowful Day of Atonement which features the same songs in major keys, lively and upbeat compared to the rest of the year. The Rabbi never gave an explanation why this is, but it’s something I had noticed before but never really thought about.
The service zips. My Hebrew reading comprehension is better than I remembered, though I still don’t understand most of what I’m pronouncing. For the most part, I mutter to myself quietly, as I’m embarrassed by my lack of skill with the language. Every time the rabbi tells us to continue on our own, I barely finish a paragraph before they’re on to the next section as group.
Before I know it, it’s over. All in all, the whole thing took 45 minutes. It’s dark when I leave, but I feel upbeat, scooting down the streets. I’ve fulfilled one goal for my stop in Prague. Tonight I’ll sleep well. Tonight I’m a better Jew than I have been in years. I’m still a bad Jew, just a better one than a few hours before.