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.
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.
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.