Monthly Archives: September 2012

Am Yisrael Chai

I am a Jew. This much I know for sure. When asked to identify myself, I respond that I am an American Jew, not a Jewish American. I agree with the morals set before me by my ancestors, by the halacha, and by the Jewish communities of which I have been so fortunate to be a part of. And yet, there is so much that I disagree with. I have spent a lot of time in the last few years trying to figure out what exactly comprises my Judaism. Especially now that I am in college and no longer get dropped off at Hebrew School or at High Holy Day Services, I need to figure out exactly how I will interact with my Jewish faith. And of course, whatever I settle on now, in my early twenties, will not necessarily be what I choose for myself in my thirties or forties.

As the High Holy Days came around this fall, whilst in Prague, I was completely overwhelmed with how to go about celebrating. Rosh Hashanah was particularly tough because our Core Course ended on Rosh Hashanah, and while I was excused from class, I felt awkward missing class so close to the beginning of the semester. So instead, I created an “alternative Rosh Hashanah.” To celebrate, I went and walked around the Jewish Quarter of Prague for an afternoon and then went in search of palačinky (pronounced palachinky) to by my way of ushering in a sweet new year. Palačinky are basically crepes with delicious fillings. And while I felt ok with my decision to forgo traditional services, I found myself actually missing the closeness of a Jewish community.

palačinky

palačinky
(pronounced palachinky)

Last night for Yom Kippur, I decided to take a more traditional approach and found a synagoge at which to attend services. I was a little overwhelmed in picking a place, but I stumbled across a website for a liberal, reform synagogue called Bejt Simcha and decided to go there on Tuesday night. Miraculously, I managed to get there without getting lost once and was welcomed immediately.

I have been fortunate to travel all over the world and have been to some pretty spectacular synagogues, but last night’s I think will remain the most beautiful, moving, haunting synagogue. Pinkas Synagogue, where Bejt Simcha held services last night, is long a narrow and in many ways resembles a small cathedral. The overhead vaulted ceiling was painted with a beautiful fresco running along the vaults, and the walls were plain plaster. But the walls have thousands of names written all over them. These are the names of the Czech Jews who were murdered in the Holocaust. They are written alphabetically by last name with the last name written in red followed by the first names, whose first letter is also in red. The names are also written with their date of birth and date of death. The resulting experience is pretty indescribable. Although there were probably only about 45 people in the synagogue, I felt like there thousands of people there. On either side of the ark are the names of the concentration camps where the Czech Jews were sent. The bima was like none that I have ever seen before. It was essentially a marble stage close to the ark which intricate iron-cast designs along the top. Whenever the Rabbi spoke or the Cantor sang, the whole room echoed and in many ways, it felt like the names on the walls were speaking and singing with them.

Pinkas Synagogue

The Names

Pinkas Synagogue

 

The services were led in both English and in Czech. There was a Rabbi visiting from Connecticut who would speak and then a woman from the community would translate what he said into Czech. I had a little bit of a tough time following along with the service because they did a lot of prayers that I didn’t recognize and I recognized almost none of the nygune (tunes) used. The sh’ma and the aleinu were the only two prayers which I was able to fully follow along. For the prayers that I didn’t know the tune, I just read the Hebrew under my breath to myself. It was an awesome and powerful experience to be in a country where I really don’t know anyone, in a synagogue that I have never been to before in a language that I definitely don’t speak and yet it was the place where I have felt most at home since I left home one month and six days ago (that long already, huh?!). At Bejt Simcha, I managed to be a fully functioning member of the community. I may not fully believe in God or all of Judaism, but I most certainly believe in the power of the Jewish community.

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Český Krumlov in pictures!

 

 
 

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Český Krumlov

This weekend I went on the first of many trips that I have scheduled for this semester. I woke up bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, ready to make the trek to Český Krumlov. Little did I know that just getting there was going to be half as exciting as actually being there…

Our bus to Český Krumlov left Prague at 11am, so we made sure to leave our hotel at 10am. When we got to the bus station, we couldn’t find our bus but just figured that it wasn’t there yet. When at 10:45 it still wasn’t there, we began to get a little worried. My friend, Laura, went into the station and showed her ticket to a woman behind the counter who promptly informed us that we were at the wrong station. We now had 12 minutes to get all the way to the other station, so the 7 of us sprinted back into the metro station, ran down the escalators, panted while we waited for the metro, and then sprinted back up the escalator (which is basically vertical and I would be willing to estimate had about 300 steps from the bottom to the top. Okay, fine. I didn’t sprint up the escalator. I climbed really quickly though!). When we finally made it to our correct bus stop, we were told that we had missed the bus by five minutes! Being the go-getters that we are, we went back into the metro station to buy tickets for the next bus out, which was at 2:30. Obviously we were not off to a great start!

6 hours later and we are just pulling into Český Krumlov. (We are now down to 6 people as one person decided that this trip was not worth all of the trouble that it had already caused.) 4 of us hop of the bus, but my friend Rosie and I remain on the bus to ask the driver if it is the right stop as I am not convinced that it is. As I approach the driver, he begins to drive away! I immediately try to rack my brain for any useful Czech, and all I can come up with is pomoc! (Help!) and Komradi tam! (Friends there!). Allow me to set this scene for you. I am standing in the stairwell of the bus screaming gibberish Czech at the bus driver who in turn is gunning the gas pedal and intermittently yelling Ne! (no!) at me, my 4 left friends are chasing after the bus and waving, and Rosie is cracking up because we have no idea what to do and this day has just been absurd. But the good news is, we all made it [eventually] to Český Krumlov, where we spent the evening have a truly delicious Czech meal, local beer (Eggenberg, which I could have done without), and walking around the Castle at nighttime!

Český Krumlov at night

Český Krumlov at night through the wall at the castle

The Vltava River, which also runs through Prague, cuts through Český Krumlov in an “S” shape, separating Old Town from New Town. As you can see from this picture, Český Krumlov is like a storybook come to life. For the 24 hours that I spent here, I was super relaxed and really enjoyed just walking around and just being in a place that felt magically stuck in time.

Český Krumlov

Český Krumlov

All over Český Krumlov, one can purchase the most amazing food ever, called Trdelnik, which are made by young, cute boys in Renaissance shirts. They are pieces of dough which are stretched around metal rolling pins, rolled through sugar, rolled again to flatten the dough, then placed over hot oil to cook. Right before they are served, they are rolled in sugar and cinnamon once more. I am sure that they are incredibly fattening, but since I am convinced that they are food from the heavens, the calories must not count, right?

Trdelnik

Trdelnik being made!

For our one day in Český Krumlov, we had the horrible/brilliant idea to rent a raft and raft down the Vltava River. According to the man who rented us the raft, it should take us 2 1/2 hours to paddle down the river, but he would give us 3 hours before he came to pick us up. Don’t worry, it took us all 3 hours. As soon as we handed him our money, he whipped out a binder with about 100 pictures in it with instructions for which side of a bridge to go under and where to avoid bad rocks, etc. I don’t think that any of the 6 of us absorbed a single instruction – whoops!

We hopped into the raft, much to the amusement of the boys assigned the task of sending us off, and then proceded to struggle to get our raft down the first bit. There was immediately a waterfall (there would be 3 total) for which we would need to navigate our raft into the little slide on the side for rafts. Miraculously, we managed to do this, but as soon as we went down, we were soaked by rapids. In September, this was a teensy bit chilly! We then continued to struggle to get our boat to go straight and tourists began to gather on every bridge that we went under to laugh at the Americans who couldn’t paddle! There were parts of the river that were super shallow (think 8 inches of water, no exaggeration. I measured!) so we kept getting stuck on rocks and had to get out and pull / push our raft:

pushing our raft

Pushing our raft through the really cold water!
(I wish I could say that this only happened once, but that would be a lie…)

As we paddled down the river, we came across a super cute little campsite which had beer, hot spiced honey wine (which is fabulous, and if anyone ever offers it to you, you must say yes!), and sausages. So naturally we stopped for close to 45 minutes (maybe that’s why it took us all 3 hours…)

campsite

The Campsite

the group

The Group (minus Annie who was the photographer) with our beers and hot honey wine!

lunch!

Lunch!

When we finally made it back to Český Krumlov, I couldn’t have been happier. I had so much fun on the raft, but about half way through, I decided I was over the boat, which made finding the motivation to paddle a little tough! We spent the remainder of our time wandering the streets, eating more Trdelnik (obviously!) and meandering into little soap shops, mead shops, and other trinket-y places.

To make sure that we made it on our bus on the way back, we got to the bus stop 45 minutes early. Little did we know that this would be yet another misadventure. None of us really realized that our tickets had assigned seats, so we all just sat together. About 3 stops later, a man, all in Czech, started yelling at me, I can only assume that he meant that I was in his seat, so I went and sat in another seat. 2 stops later, someone else came and made me move. At this point, I was standing in the aisle – there were many people in the aisle, which I don’t understand how this is legal, but Jizdenka Bus didn’t ask for my opinion – because I felt bad waking up the sleeping woman in my seat. When I realized that I would be standing for 2 hours, I decided to ask her to move. She then went to go talk to the driver, which actually is illegal, so I told her to just sit there and I promptly sat down in the aisle. Needless to say, I was happy to finally pull into our stop in Prague!

Although there were definitely some misadventures on this trip, it was a really wonderful weekend. I came home well-rested, well-fed and with many, many stories. Oh yeah, and tons of stunning pictures!

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The First Day of School

Today was my first day of school. I guess, technically, yesterday was, but I only had Czech which isn’t new, so it didn’t feel like the first day. So, as first started, today was my first day. I am taking a class called “Baroque-Classicism” Polarity in the Art of Central Europe. There are four of us in the class (which makes my and Rosie’s absence next week (we’re going to Budapest though, so can you really blame us?) all the more noticeable. Oops!), which is really nice. It also only meets once a week, which makes it even better! Basically, each week, we meet in the classroom and then go somewhere in Prague.

I am taking 3 walking classes, which I did on purpose because I wanted to get to see as much of the city as I possibly could. For the past 2 weeks though, I was a little nervous that it was going to be too much walking and I was a little worried because it would be more time spent in class than if I were not taking any walking classes. But, after having yesterday afternoon and this morning free and seeing that it was a little intimidating to find places to go and after going to the first class today, I am back to my original line of thinking, which is that 3 walking classes will be wonderful.

Today, we went to Letohrádek Hvězda, which is a star-shaped villa in Prague 6. To get there, we took two trams, the second of which we took all the way to the end. On the the trams here, there are a few seats, but most people end up standing. When an older person comes on, you stand up and give them the seat, which has led to some awkward moments when I offer the seat to someone who is then offended because you have essentially told them that they look old. Yikes. Letohrádek Hvězda, which, conveniently, means “star villa” used to be a villa owned by King Ferdinand. He eventually got bored with the place and it was used to store gun-powder. It now serves as the literature society museum, so there were some pretty neat book displays up today.

Star Villa

Letohrádek Hvězda or “Star Villa”

The interior of the villa stand in stark contrast with the plain exterior walls. The entire inside of the building is painted white, but the ceiling has incredibly elaborate moldings on it. Most of the moldings are of Roman gods. Although we had a tough time recognizing what each molding was, to the people of Ferdinand’s day, these were easily deciphered. It would be like decorating your ceiling with moldings of the Kardashians – unfortunately.

Ceiling Moldings

The center of the ceiling has a very beautiful depiction of burning Troy. All sorts of different myths are depicted and were meant to be used as instructions or a guide of how to live and behave. So maybe not like decorating your ceiling with the Kardashians…

Letohrádek Hvězda Diorama

During Ferdinand’s time at Letohrádek Hvězda, he wanted his villa to be seen by all, so it had a huge tower on top of the villa. The whole house was also painted white. The house sits on top of a hill called Bílá Hora (White Mountain) and when travelers coming from Europe were driving on the main road, they would have Ferdinand’s hunting grounds to the right and to the left, they would have this awesome, all-white, star-shaped building. But when the villa became a gun-powder storage place, being easily visible was actually a problem, so they removed the tower and the obelisk and painted the roof black. But this diorama gives you a little bit of a better idea of the shape of the villa, what is used to look like, and the floor plan.

Possibly the neatest thing to me (although this is a tough call because the moldings were just so spectacular) is how symmetrical the villa is. It is built in the Renaissance style, which calls for symmetry, but symmetry in a square building just isn’t as impressive as it is in a star-shaped villa. On the the second floor, there is no molding on the ceiling, it is just plain white cement, and when our Professor asked us where the exit was, we had to think for a minute to figure out where we had come from because each of the hallways coming off of the center looks the same!

I don’t actually have any pictures of the second floor, but it is where all of the bedrooms were. There is no kitchen in the house, because that wouldn’t work into the symmetry plan nor the aesthetic plan, obviously. But there are two staircases so that the servants could go up the stairs at the same time as the aristocrats with dinner and not be seen. There is also a cellar in the basement, which again, I have no pictures of, but there is a door going to the outside from the cellar which used to abut the road where the wine delivery-man used to drive so they would deliver wine right to the villa’s door. Talk about living like a king!

 

post script: Sorry that the picture quality is only so-so today, I only had my iPhone with me today because I didn’t think that we would be going anywhere today!

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Block Party

Let me just start with I love Prague. I know, this isn’t the first time that you’ve read this here, and let’s be real. It won’t be the last either.

Tonight we had our Opening Dinner, which is pretty entertaining given that we have been here for two weeks. But since we finished our Core Course today, I guess it makes sense.

On our way back from dinner, there was a huge crowd of people around the corner from Jerome House (our dorm / hotel, not sure if I have referred to it by name previously) listening to music. So we went over to see what was going on. It turns out that hidden next to the yummy restaurant around the corner, there is a record store and they were having a block party! It’s unclear whether or not it was to raise money, but regardless, it was really fun. There were about 60 people hanging out with some beer and wine, enjoying a beautiful night with some wonderful music. Because we live so close, we kept going in an out whenever the music was great – although I could hear the whole thing from my room, so I guess that I could have just had a dance party there… Being outside was just such a cool environment. The music was in a bunch of different languages, and everyone around us was talking in different languages. Some people stopped by a few minutes, others were there the whole time.

Since I’m not really sure what prompted this whole thing (both because I don’t speak Czech and because I missed the beginning), I am just going to look at this block party as one of the many things that I love about Prague. Where else can you come how to an outdoor gathering of great music and strangers becoming friends on a side street? I’m sure you can probably name a few places, but with my rose-tinted glasses pressed firmly to my face, I am going to say nowhere else but Prague!

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Imagine All the People

The John Lennon wall is a site that almost everyone who visits Prague takes a few minutes to go and see. And since I have been here for almost 3 weeks now without going to see it, I was getting a bit ansty. So after a yummy meal of french toast this morning, I headed out with a few friends. Right before we got to the John Lennon Wall, we got to the Lock Wall (also on my list of things to go see in Prague!)

locks

The Lock Wall
couples come to this beautiful spot over the river with their significant others and place locks on the wall. You’re then supposed to throw the key into the river afterwards. (Czechs joke that all Czech men keep two keys so they can remove the lock if need be!)

 

John Lennon Wall

John Lennon Wall
People come and write on this wall, which means that every time you come back, it’ll look slightly different!

 

group

CHP at the John Lennon Wall
(From left: Me, Annie, Jonathan, Rosie, and Laura)

 

John Lennon Wall

 

The wall is located right next to the Kampa Museum (for those of my avid followers, you will remember that Rosie and I went here during our first few days in Prague). But these babies are just the creepiest! There are 3 of them outside of the museum and why their faces are smashed in, I just don’t know! These same babies also exist on the main radio tower in Prague where they can be seen crawling up and down the tower – weird, huh?!

baby

Creepy Babies

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Yizkor

Yesterday we went on our second of four daytrips to Terezín. Terezín is a former military fortress located about 70 km outside of Prague. It is also the sight of a horrifying work camp during the second world war.

As the granddaughter of two Holocaust survivors, I have spent many years trying to learn as much as I can about the Nazis and their plan to exterminate the Jews. As a Jew, I cannot understand it, and as I human, I cannot even begin to start to wrap my brain around the atrocities. Terezín is not my first camp. During my sophomore year of high school, I studied abroad in Israel and for our Spring Break, we traveled to Poland and visited both Auschwitz and Majdanek. We also went to the town of Tikochin, which is a town in Poland where the Jews were marched into the woods and murdered over a giant mass grave. While one can never be fully ready to visit the site of a concentration camp, I at least figured that I was prepared. Boy was I wrong.

More than 150,000 Jews were sent to Terezín, 15,000 of whom were children. It doesn’t matter to me whether I used paperclips to count or football stadiums as yardsticks, the numbers of the Holocaust never make sense to me because I just can’t fathom them. At Terezín, during the first year of the war, the Jews were confined to their baracks, but as the war continued, the Nazis purchased houses elsewhere for the people of the city of Terezín. These people simply moved to their new homes and allowed Terezín to become essentially a walled-in prison-city. Terezín was not an extermination camp, but rather a work camp; all of the buildings within the city became baracks, but the Jews were still allowed to walk around freely. It is from within Terezín that some of the most beautiful and moving artwork , theater, and music was created.

Walking around the city, I had a hard time imagining this place as a work camp. Because the city remained relatively untouched, it just felt eerie. At Majdanek, there were baracks and there was a crematorium – absolutely horrifying buildings, but tangible evidence of the atrocities that had taken place. But here, in Terezín, there were pubs and an antique shop. Nothing, other than two museums, to mark what had happened here. I don’t think I fully understood what had happened in Terezín until we went to the second museum where they had a mock-barack set up. You only need to see them in one photograph to recognize the three-tier bunk-bed. That image, whether live or from a picture, will never leave you.

The part of the day that moved me the most was the art exhibit within the second museum. As an art history major, I love art – I love the message it can convey, I love how you can be transported into another world instantly, and I love how you can communicate with the artist in a way that I feel does not exist in any other medium – and after cataloging my grandparents’ mostly European art collection this summer, I feel very connected to European, mostly German Expressionist, work. So to walk through the gallery of work created within Terezín, I felt a rush of so many feelings. I felt moved, unable to breathe, as if my grandparents were there with me, as if I was there in the baracks with the different artists. I felt like I was in tenth grade and in Poland again, and yet somehow I also felt like I could have been at Terezín in 1943 and been friends with the girls in the drawings. I’m not sure that I can adequately describe my feelings in that gallery, but its an emptying, weighty, emotional one at best.

Terezín today is a creepy place. If you are ever in the market to film a horror movie, I have found your set for you. Only two of the original families that were moved out by the Nazis returned after the war. Today, it has a population of 3,121 people (according to Wikipedia), although for the life of me, I cannot tell you why they live there. There is no school in Terezín. There is not even a bookshop. I just don’t understand how people could live there because they are literally living on top of a mass grave. It would make more sense to me if either no one lived there and it simply stood as a memorial to the Jews or it had become a larger town and people had tried to move on and rebuild the town. But this in-between town, well, it’s just scary. While walking around the town at 12:30 on a Saturday, I saw no one other than other CHP students out on the streets. There was one pub open and there was a woman with clear mental illnesses meandering around the park. It was a ghost town, both literally and figuratively, and I can’t say it enough – it was eerie and creepy.

 

So as the Jewish new year begins (Shana tova!), before we celebrate, let us take a moment to remember those who are not with us.

 

 

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