Vol 1, No 8, 16 August 1999
I D E N T I T Y:|
Bringing Up Jews in Bohemia
The onset of spring coupled with how far north we are has meant that Sabbath has been starting later and later. It doesn't get dark until 7:30 at least, and it's already 10:30 or so by the time the Orthodox boys have finished with shul and dinner and are mellowing out, hanging in an alley kitty-corner from the Stary Hrbitov - the Old Jewish Cemetery, where Avigdor Karo, Rav Jehuda Lev and thousands of other patriarchs are buried.
Shabbos on the sly
The visiting Israeli rabbi-in-residence, who has been here a year and a half so far, walks by and asks in English if everyone's coming up. Mostly there are yeses, but when the rabbi is gone, Vaclav whispers something to Honza, who hands him a phone-card and watches him disappear into the night.
"He needs to call home," Honza explains to me. "His parents are not so religious, and if he doesn't call and tell them he's spending Shabbos out, they will be mad."
Vaclav is 13, and with the exception of the rabbi's son, he is the youngest of the Czechs at Shabbos tonight and the youngest of the regulars at synagogue.
There are roughly 1300 registered Jews in Prague - the Prague Rabinat estimates that there are an additional 1000 to 2000 who have not registered with the Jewish Community - although some sources put the figure as high as 6000. These are mostly older survivors of the Holocaust and Communism.
In 1989, the Velvet Revolution signalled not only the downfall of censorship and Communist persecution in the Czceh Republic but also the end of Judaism as a recognized enemy of the state. Rabbi Ephraim Karel Sidon, who had been one of the signatories of Charter 77 and later escaped to Germany, became something of a national hero.
It is always dangerous to identify a group as a generation. Inevitably, the first thing that happens is that people start disassociating themselves from it.
Those Jews who returned to practicing their religion above ground during the latter years of Communism, and then after November 1989, are part of a worldwide return to traditional Judaism known in Hebrew as Baal Teshuva, literally a "master of the repentance." In Judaism, observance is characterized by the 613 Biblical commandments, or mizvot. Rabbi M Teitlebaum identifies an observant Jew according to two characteristics: abstinance from work on the Sabbath and the dietary laws of kashrus. In reality, being baal teshuva entails more an embrace of the Biblical commandments than any particular regret of past actions.
A second wind
Prior to 1989, it was hard enough to access the Jewish community in the Czech Republic, let alone become a part of it. Today, although the population has not quite returned to its 1930s numbers, it is not dying out either.
The 8:00 am daily prayer, shacharis, traditionally mostly attended by Holocaust survivors (whose collective health is steadily waning), has been revitalized by the attendance, in force, of a new group of 20- to 30-year-olds, educated with Jewish Community grants in Israel and Budapest. The recent return to Orthodoxy has brought with it an influx of members, crowding traditionally neglected activities (last Purim, the Community festival's activities were standing-room only) and gradually opening of the closed doors which have long characterized Jewish Prague.
Still, all this pales in comparison to the Community's main benediction to its members: food. Every day from 11:30 am until 2:00 pm, the Community cafeteria serves lunch, cheap even compared to the average food prices of the Czech Republic's sluggish economy. The Community leaders operate the restaurant and sell the 25-crown tickets partly as an incentive for Jews in Prague to keep kosher, partly as a way to provide the Community with a standard meeting-place.
Though the majority of diners are survivors (and in Prague, anyone older than 50 is a survivor), a quarter of the restaurant is informally reserved for college students, and it is here that anyone under the age of 30 congregates. This daily meal is by far the most accessible and most frequent convocation; so much so that when filmmakers were interviewing for a recent documentary about the Prague Jewish Community, they used lunch as an opportunity to snatch up interviewees.
What the filmmakers were focusing on at the time was the gap between the older and the younger generation. For 15 minutes they questioned Elie Hanek on the subject. He mostly shrugged them off - and understandably so: "What do I want to talk to the old people here for?" he said afterwards, referring to the miniature grannies who float in for their reduced-fat peas-and-carrots meal and fade out again.
Struggling with secularism
In turn-of-the-century Prague, one of the major social issues of the time was the dichotomy between Czech and German culture. The Jews, who in the Czech lands had traditionally had a strong affiliation with German culture, were torn on the issue, and this division fostered strong anti-Semitic feelings among the Czechs. After 1945, most of the non-Jewish Germans were exiled from Czechoslovakia; most of the Jewish Germans had died in the gas chambers. Then came Communism, which quashed any religious feeling left in the country.
The Chief Rabbi of Prague, who was a secular novelist and playwright in the 1960s before undergoing his own teshuva in Israel and Germany, is one of only a few parents of the twentysomethings who can be found in synagogue regularly. Ask any of the younger generation of Czech Jews if their parents are religious, and the most emphatic reply you will receive is an indifferent shrug. As Jakub explains: "My parents grew up under Communism. Religion was not the most pressing thing on their minds at the time."
Similarly, Jiri is probably one of the only black-hat Lubavicher Chassidim in the world to live in a house without a kosher kitchen. In his parents' house his particular lifestyle choice is still seen as a passing phase.
Lenka also concurs with the general feeling: "This is probably the most secular country in the world, I think," she concedes one day at lunch.
Sabbath in Prague is different than anywhere else. For one thing, on many days, the Community is dependent on the steady stream of tourists to fill the ten-man quorum required to start services on time. For another, Prague is a city of 1.5 million inhabitants spread across a space two-thirds the size of New York. On account of this sprawling geography, and because real estate in the Jewish Quarter is among the most expensive in the Czech Republic, hardly anyone lives near the synagogue. Most congregants take public transport after shul on Friday nights - a practice condemned by several Orthodox Jews and only recently officially ratified by the chief rabbinates of Prague and Moscow.
Officially, taking a tram is not using electricity (and thereby does not violate the Sabbath, according to Jewish law); the main problem lies in the prohibition against carrying tram-passes, or anything else for that matter. Rigid observance of Jewish law combined with a less-than-rigid interpretation thereof characterizes observance here more than anything else.
But, as is customary for the Prague Jewish community, this too serves as fodder for more stories and jokes. "We just sneak onto trams, usually," explains Iva, who lives near the airport in a small 2+1 apartment that would be upwards of a two-hour walk to synagogue.
A return to orthodoxy
Two hallmarks of the Czech Jewish community are adaptation and compromise. Before the Second World War, there were 13 synagogues in Prague, only one of which was Orthodox. Today, the sole remaining functioning synagogue is an Orthodox one, and the majority of the Jewish population either identifies itself as Orthodox or fumbles with the terminology. The alternatives are Bejt Simcha, a reform group comprised of "people who don't like the Chief Rabbi," and Beit Praha, an "open Jewish community" which conducts its services in English. Almost the entire Czech Jewish population identifies itself with respect to the official (Orthodox) Jewish Community - either in accordance with it or in opposition to it.
More difficult to pinpoint is the place of non-Jews in the Community. Officially, only Jews are allowed to attend Community events. However, the reality is that events are not what hold the Community together; and besides, again, there are loopholes. Several prominents in the Community are themselves converts; among them Moishe, the sole supplier of kosher wine in the Community, and Rabbi Sidon himself, along with his current wife.
Within the, predominantly Orthodox, Community observance consists of more than proscriptions; more often than not, it entails prohibitions. This encompasses everything from not talking in the WC to not touching members of the opposite sex, aside from one's own spouse. In some of the largest Jewish communities around the world, the latter has taken on a kind of tantamount immediacy: the National Council on Synagogue Youth (NCSY), the largest Orthodox youth group in America, termed it "shomer negiah" and started an active campaign against it. Traditionally referred to as yichud, or modesty, this practice applies in theory to every situation. For example, a man may not be in a room alone with a woman who is not his wife and may not listen to a woman singing live.
An emerging trend
Despite such strong prohibitions, several factors indicate that Judaism has recently emerged as a trend. Its trendiness is visibly evident all around Prague: in the increased translation and sale of Jewish-themed books in Prague bookstores, the popularity of the Czech band Shalom and the institution of the Judaic Studies Major at Charles University. Along with these popular manifestations, there has also been an influx of curious non-Jews into the Community itself, which it has tried its best to ignore.
Nonetheless, a number of non-Jews remain in close proximity to the Community. In social circles, they are welcomed, mostly as friends-of-friends and with the fact that they are not Jewish taken for granted and ignored up to the point of specific rituals.
Rabbi Sidon's particular reputation of fundamentalism is well known and well evidenced. The standard perception of it within the Jewish Community in general is that of a as-strict-as-possible adherence to Jewish Law above all else. But, of course, he is an Orthodox rabbi, and overindulgence is his profession. The Community also follows a strict adherence to the Law. But now that much of the Community is comprised of Jews-by-choice, people who have discovered Judaism and appropriated it, the religion itself has become much more susceptible to interpretation and much more adaptable to people's individual lives.
During this year's celebration of Lag B'Omer, a holiday in which Jews traditionally retreat into the mountains and feast, everyone in the younger generation got on the metro and headed out to a forest on the outskirts of Prague. There, they started a bonfire and had a traditional Czech barbeque. Later in the evening, when the wind started whipping up like Prague winds tend to do, everyone huddled close together, men's shoulders touching women's, and sang Hebrew folk-songs that turned into Czech folk-songs and then into some hybrid of both.
Matthew Roth, 16 August 1999
Many of the names in this article have been changed.
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