The Prague Blog- Dr. Davis' Sabbatical in Eastern Europe
"Week of February 23, 2020"
Sunday: "The cat." We spent last Sunday travelling, and I arrived in Prague with the worst case of jet lag that I have ever had, which I blame on our cat. On account of our cat, we needed to get people to stay in our house, to feed her, and on that account we stayed up Saturday night cleaning. Sunday we didn't sleep, because we were flying. Monday because of the time difference. Tuesday night I got some sleep.
Monday: "The apartment." Our apartment is above the Cafe Scarabeus, owned by our landlady, who has a PhD in (?) art history, and which features a museum of
marionettes; next door is the Cukrarna (= cafe) Alchymista. We are living carless, so we walk a lot, and our neighborhood is at the top of a hill, so I have already dropped seven pounds, and my joint pain has cleared up.
Tuesday: "Shopping." So far we have bought: cucumbers (okroka) and oranges (pomeranci) at the supermarket that is 7 minutes away, butter (maslo) at the health food store 5 minutes away, bread (chleb) at the kosher bakery downtown (25 minutes; all times are by foot), beer (pivo) at the Korean convenience store that is one minute away. We are also one block from the soccer arena. Go, Prague Sparta !
Wednesday: "My office." I am in the Faculty of Arts building on Celetna Street, in a super-touristy part of the Old City, opposite the Chocolate Museum, which appears to be combined with a Wax Museum in a way that I don't understand; and down the street from the Torture Museum, which I am planning to skip. (Also the Sex Machine Museum.) The building was built about 1360, with cool Gothic arches and suchlike; there are also newer parts, naturally, many from as late as the 1700's. I don't actually have an office, I have a desk in a sort of departmental library, together with about ten other people, the entire Near Eastern department, all in one room. The library is strong on books, in genuinely a lot of languages, both European and Near Eastern, from about 1890 until 1939; and then it has just about nothing from 1939 until about 2000.
This is the huge wooden gate which is the front door or possibly the
back door of the Faculty of Arts building.
Thursday: "More shopping." IKEA. An hour away by tram and bus. Shopping for kitchenware, mainly, also a umbrella (destnik). It rains here a lot; it is raining now. On the bus back we saw the Liben synagogue, once a major local synagogue, now locked up and the windows are broken.
Friday: "Finally, the old Jewish Quarter." Our adventure on Friday was complicated, and all is well, but it involved a security guard, some knives, and two people got wounded. Well, perhaps that gives the wrong idea. The knives were our own, the wounds were self-inflicted, superficial cuts. Perhaps I would do better to say that the adventure involved the rabbi's secretary, myself, and my wife, all together in the mikvah next to the Prague Jewish Cemetery. Well, perhaps that gives the wrong impression too. (The Prague Jewish Cemetery is of course where the Elders of Zion have their annual get-togethers, but that's just a coincidence, say I.) Better to say that it can be tricky to prepare for Shabbat in foreign countries, and leave it at that.
Shabbat: Went to the "modern" synagogue, built in the 1800's. About forty people, all locals except us and one other, in the little room, not in the very grand main sanctuary. Discovered during the kiddush (chocolate cake, Becherovka liqueur, herring) that all of the local Jews who now look and sound quite Orthodox grew up without any Jewish connections at all; many are converts; one used to be a Jesuit. Those were the highlights of the week. Next week, I meet my students.
"Week of March 1, 2020"
This week, four main things happened for us. One, tea in the coffee museum. Two, I met my class. Three, we picked up our lítačky (singular: litačka, pronounced Lee-tahch-kah). Fourth, I walked to the university and got lost.
Tea in the Coffee Museum. As some of you will remember, our landlady, Katerina, besides renting out our apartment, runs a café, the Alchymista, and also, in the
same building, next to ours, a museum of marionettes. (The Czechs seem to have no tradition of hand puppets.) And also a museum – also in the same building – of coffee. Her grandfather was in the coffee business, Katerina explained to us over tea on Monday.
In the meantime, the Holocaust is never far away: Katerina’s second grandfather, she told us, saved between 1000 and 1500 Jews before the war. An unsung hero, he was the honorary consul for Panama, a position that allowed him to write visas for Jews fleeing the country. She keeps his log of all the names. During the war, he was sent first to Terezin, and then to Mauthausen, where he died.
Google Translate fails Medieval Hebrew. On Wednesday, my class met. We are in the seminar room next to our department library. There are five students, four Czechs and one exchange student from Spain. The students are all fluent in English, and the Czech students have excellent Hebrew, but the Spanish student knows no Hebrew at all. So this is a classic differentiated learning problem, and (not knowing the exact mix of students before class), I went with giving all the students a Hebrew text plus the Google Translate translation into English. Google Translate works badly translating from Hebrew to English, and from medieval Hebrew to English very badly; there were about forty errors in 129 words, and even the Spanish student had no trouble spotting some many obvious errors (it was written in 1520; it doesn’t mention “superheroes”) and beating Google.
For next week, we will be looking at a Hebrew poem from Italy, also from about 1520. Medieval poetry is even harder for Google Translate than prose. It gets four words right out the first twenty-five, and then (I have never seen this before) gives up entirely and refuses to even guess at what the end of the poem means.
Our Founder. The day before class, I walked to the university and got lost in the university building. The architect of the building, if there was one, which I am beginning to doubt, seems to have specialized in mazes. I have new sympathy for Kafka. Anyway, in some hallway that I don’t think I could find again, I ran into a statue of Our Founder, King Charles IV. I have no idea who the other man in the photo was, perhaps a student. I put him in the picture to give an idea of the size of the statue, because the photo is very small, but the statue is nearly life-size.
The Litačka and Letna Plain. Last but not least: the litačka. This was Thursday’s project. A litačka is a sort of an
ID card, which you can buy from the City which gives you discounted fares on the public transportation, and some other discounts and saves you having to buy a ticket for each ride. Having now paid about thirty dollars for free public transportation for three months, though, it is not clear to me how much I will walk any more, since I want to get my money’s worth. But I did walk downtown last week, actually on the same day that I got lost in the building.
Here is the view from about a third of the way of the way there. The steps lead down to the bridge.
Week Three: Purim and Pandemic"
I am writing this letter on Monday night, which is erev Purim, the evening of Purim, and which is also, depending on how you think about it, the day that Italy extended its virus lockdown to the whole country, or the day on which the Dow Jones lost 2000 points. So it is a happy day, because of course Purim is the happiest of all days in the Jewish calendar, but maybe not really. [PS. Wednesday AM (March 11): All the museums, schools etc. are now closed down; the university is open, but the students have been sent home, and my class today won’t meet.]
[As of yesterday:] Daily life in Prague is still entirely normal, except that most of the tourists cleared out over the weekend. There are still a few left – I passed a Spanish group today on Celetna Street, as well as a French couple and a few little groups of American; and a British couple asked us which tramline to take; but many fewer than last week.
The most important event of my week was the Hebrew paleography seminar at the University, but I will put off writing about it until next week. The seminar meets every Tuesday evening, and it deserves its own letter. Paleography is the science of reading old handwritings and old manuscripts. Not to be confused with paleontology, which is the science of dinosaurs. Fewer bone fragments, more scribal abbreviations.
I will write about Purim though, and also about knedliky, which are Czech dumplings, and about the Prague Sparta soccer team, whose stadium, some readers may remember, is about half a block from our apartment here.
Purim: There are several different times and different places where they read the Megilah, that is, the Book of Esther, in Prague, but Susan and I went to the reading in the Hoch Shul or the “High Synagogue.” It is called that because it is on the second floor, what the Europeans call the ”first floor”; it is in the same building as the JCC, in the Jewish Quarter. Technically, they are two separate buildings; the JCC is in the “Jewish Town Hall,” which is famous for having an old clock tower, with the hours of the clock marked by Hebrew letters; but there is no wall between the two buildings any more, and they use the same doorway.
I should mention incidentally that the clock of the Jewish Town Hall is one of two famous clocks within roughly a five minute walk of each other, the other one being the “Astronomical Clock” on the Old City Town Hall. (Prague, like New York City, was originally, in technical terms, several different “cities” that later merged, the “Jewish city” being one of them, each with its own “Town Hall.”) The Astronomical Clock is much older and much fancier, and has a neat thing that happens when it rings the hours, when the statues of the twelve apostles march by a window, sort of like a cuckoo clock of apostles, only much bigger and older and fancier; and it also shows the twelve signs of the zodiac and some other things on a complicated system of dials. The Jewish clock is just a clock, except it has Hebrew letters instead of Latin ones. Susan and I watched the Astronomical Clock do its thing a few days ago: it was four o’clock, although I don’t remember what day it is. I mention all this because it is still the only actual touristy thing that I have done here yet.
Susan on the other hand has started to visit museums, including (to date): the Music Museum, which features, among many other musical items, a piano once played by Mozart; one of the museums in the Prague Castle; the Coffee/Marionette Museum next door, which I wrote about last week; and the National Museum of Agriculture, which is also very close to our house, and has a very interesting and worthwhile exhibit about, naturally, agriculture.
Anyway, the Megilah reading and the Purim celebration were in the Hoch Shul and the JCC. The Megilah reading, by one of the Prague rabbis, was perhaps the
fastest or else the second fastest Megilah reading that I have ever heard, twenty four minutes start to finish, but also one of the best. Highly expressive and beautifully articulated. And the shul itself is also very beautiful , dominated by a huge ancient wooden ark (18th century ? I am just guessing; you could Google it), with a beautiful very modern curtain (2007, if I am deciphering correctly the hidden message woven onto it).
he Jewish community had a Purim party, meanwhile, in the social hall/restaurant, with a Purim spiel by the kids, and a band, and a sort of a talent show. The highlight of the part we were there for was a woman singing “Bei Mir Bist Du Shayn,” in the English version popularized by the Andrews Sisters in the 1950’s. Courtesy of a fellow academic, we drank a Le-Chayim in the café, which is in the balcony area. (Czech zemské vino: very good. Tomorrow, which is Purim day: beer.)
Lots of the people there were dressed in costume, kids and adults both; I recall a couple of Star Wars characters, and a man in a kefiyeh, and a princess or two. A couple of masks; our landlady would have been glad; she is a mask maven as you might recall. I wore my “Praha” hat, which I never wear otherwise, because it says “clueless tourist” from a mile away, and attracts pickpockets; and my new Praha AC (=Athletic Club) Sparta scarf, which I bought specially for Purim in the team’s brand store next to the stadium.
I have also learned what I believe to be the team’s current slogan – it is anyway on their posters, whether or not it is an official slogan – which is: Ambice ! Respekt ! Odvaha ! Tradice ! Odvaha is “courage,” and ambice, I am assuming, is “ambition”; I leave the others for Google Translate. Sparta, I discover, is the “non-Jewish” (not to say “antisemitic”) Prague team; in the mythology of Czech soccer; their rival, Praha Slavia, are the “Jewish” team (as well as, currently, the more successful team); so it was quite the disguise.
Last but not least: knedliky, that is, dumplings. In the same room where the Purim party was, with the woman singing “Bei Mir Bist Du Shayn,” there is a sort of restaurant that operates each week day, but only for lunch. The food is kosher, and the restaurant attracts a mix of Jewish tourists and members of the local Jewish community or their friend ; Susan and I went there a few days ago, and it was mainly locals.
There isn’t a menu in the sense of different foods that you choose from; in that sense, it is not exactly a restaurant, and more, sort of, a communal dining hall; but they serve different meals different days and you can see in advance what will be served and plan your schedule accordingly. The day we went, the menu was garlic soup and beef stew, both very nice, and the beef stew came, supposedly, with dumplings (knedliky in Czech), and actually with four slices of what looked very much like thickly sliced white bread. Susan and I spent part of the meal discussing whether these were in fact “dumplings,” that, knedliky (Susan’s view, since the menu clearly said, beef stew with dumplings); or whether (this was my view) the kitchen had for perhaps mysterious reasons been unable to cook dumplings that day, perhaps because one of the ingredients was missing, or one of the cooks, and had replaced the dumplings with thick slices of white bread, which were certainly tasty, and served the same purpose relative to the stew.
They were, of course, dumplings. We watched a YouTube video (on the “Czech cookbook” channel) after we got, a fourteen minute video that showed how you
make knedliky. You slice them – traditionally, with a thread; there is also a utensil called a “dumpling turner” that no proper Czech kitchen is seemingly without. The knedliky are in the shape of sausages or salamis, that is, cylindrical with rounded ends, and not the shape of what my mother called knedlach, that is, matzoh balls, which is to say, spherical; and you leave the knedliky to rise, which accounts for the bready consistency, and is, again, quite different from matzoh balls. So that is the story of the dumplings, and the scarf, and the clock, and Purim, and the pandemic; and next week, God willing, I will write about paleography.
Week Four: The Charles University Hebrew Paleography Seminar
The situation here in Prague today (Sunday, March 15, when I am starting to write this) is that everything is closed. The restaurants can only serve takeout. Last Tuesday was the last day of in-person classes at the university. As of yesterday, there were still a few tourists. For example there were a bride and a groom on a honeymoon, who were taking selfies in a wedding dress and a tux. But most of the streets downtown are quite empty, and some were completely empty, in the middle of the day. I have always felt a little that Prague is a city that is full of Jewish ghosts, a feeling that returned to me now.
Some other time I will write more about the pandemic. This time I will write about one of the highpoints of my month here, so far, namely the Charles University Hebrew Paleography Seminar.
The time and the place: Tuesday, March 10, 5:30 PM, in the department library, in the university’s medieval building. It was sunset; the Jewish holiday of Purim,
happiest of days, was in its last moments. The University had announced that all the students must go home after classes that day. Outside, a city of overwhelming beauty, bracing for the plague. The last class ended, the students said goodbye and departed for their homes, the librarian Jakub (right) waved goodbye and left too.
And at this bewitched moment, the Hebrew Paleography Seminar assembled. Six of us in all. Three MA students plus two professors (three including me): Pavel Sládek, who is the chairman of the department and an expert on early modern Judaism; and Olga Sixtová, who is an expert in Hebrew printing and manuscripts and Hebrew scripts. Some of the students in the group are not taking the seminar for credit, but only for the love of Hebrew. One works for the Prague Jewish Museum. One of them plays in a klezmer band. Hebrew paleography is the study of old Hebrew scripts and handwriting. The method of study is that the professors bring in photographs of Hebrew manuscripts, and we go around the table and everybody reads and translates (“distributed practice” as we say in the ed. business). Professor Sixtová, who is a genius at this particular line of work, helps everybody else. Everyone spoke English, for my benefit.
We all sat down. We were all seated around the little seminar table in the middle of the room, surrounded by some of the smaller bookcases. Volumes of Eliezer Ben Yehudah’s great Hebrew dictionary looked down on us approvingly. Not to mention the many shelves of Arabic dictionaries -- Arabic-English, Arabic-Czech, Arabic-German, Arabic-Russian and so on, including no less than a first edition of Edward Lane’s great dictionary, from the 1860’s. (Lane lived in Egypt for many years, and died before finishing his dictionary; it only goes as far as the letter lamed. When I was in college at Brown, one of my teachers, Professor Toomer, who was trying to teach me how to read Arabic, once took me into the bowels of Rockefeller Library just to show me Brown’s copy of Lane’s Dictionary, and tell me the story.) Also a Hebrew Bible concordance that once belonged to Heinrich Brody, who was chief rabbi of Prague in the 1910’s and 20’s. (Some other time I will write about Brody’s Gratz connection.) In honor of Purim, I gave out some hamantaschen that my wife had baked – apricot and poppy seed.
The previous week we had looked at two manuscripts in two different scripts, a seventeenth century manuscript in an Ashkenazic script, with bad spelling, and one in an Italian script written in a beautiful hand. The second text was a letter written in 1603 by the famous Italian rabbi Leon Modena to the even more famous Maharal of Prague, who would later be the hero of the famous legend of the Golem of Prague. (Prague tourism, I have to say, is much less Golem-crazy than it used to be. But Maharal was a very important rabbi quite apart from the Golem story. Professor Sládek is an expert on Maharal.) The letter involves a complicated story of a Jewish woman in Venice who took out a loan, and then died; and now the creditor is trying to collect from the son, who is in Prague (bottom, right).
The trouble with Hebrew scripts is that so many of the letters look like so many other letters. Resh looks a lot like dalet, and the zayin like vav, and bet like kaf. My
father once wrote a little essay, I think mainly for his own amusement, called “My fifty year struggle with Hebrew.” He must have been a little younger than me when he wrote it, because his struggles began when he first learned the alef-bet, when he was seven. Indeed his troubles went back, my father wrote, to the Seven Days of Creation, when the angel Othiel was put in charge of creating the twenty-two letters. Othiel, alas, although an excellent angel, was a bit short-sighted; moreover, on that particular day he had misplaced his spectacles, and so he created Hebrew letters that can only be told apart with the help of a magnifying glass. But the students of the Charles University Hebrew Paleography Seminar were used to all of this. They knew all the little tricks of the seventeenth century scribes. They had no problem with vav’s and zayins (or dalets and zayins, which look the same in some other Hebrew handwritings). They knew all about scribal abbreviations and ligatures (a ligature is when two letters are connected, like in cursive). They know that alef-lamed is sometimes one letter, and that an abbreviation after a name usually either means that the person is dead (ז"ל, z”l or זלה"ה ) or alive (יצ"ו, yts”u or some others).
All of that was the week before, and so I was not surprised this week when the students made short work of the new text. It was a difficult text by a Prague rabbi from the 1600’s, whose biography I spent many years studying and writing, Yom-Tov Lipmann Heller. (bottom left) I was reminded, on that night of memories, of Rabbi Braude’s Mishnah class, which I started going to when I was fourteen, and went to on and off until I finished college. Rabbi Braude was the rabbi of the Reform synagogue in Providence, Temple Beth-El, and a Hebrew scholar who translated a number of ancient midrashic collections into English. His Mishnah class met in the attic of his house, which he had fixed up as library, crowded with little revolving bookcases. The group, when I was there, consisted of me, some rabbis, and the founding and most devoted members of the group, who were a Benedictine monk named Brother Caedmon, and a retired Catholic bishop, Bishop Ansgar. We would each read and translate, in turn, and Rabbi Braude would explain and comment on the text. The brother and the bishop were always extremely well prepared; they had started with the first Mishnah of the first tractate, and over many years studied the entire Mishnah and started again at the beginning.
Back to Prague. At the very end of the class, in the last minutes, after finishing with the Heller text, we switched to a different text. It was a page from the pinkas, the register of the Jewish community of Kolín, a town not far outside of Prague. Our text was a little ruling from 1782, stating that the communal government of the Jews had declared that Jews were forbidden to play games such as cards or bowling or billiards. (“Trouble right here in River City.”) The text was in an Ashkenazi hand, by a talented scribe, but in the ungodly mixture of languages that scribes of those days preferred: Hebrew plus Yiddish with a little German and a little bit of Aramaic. They gave it to the youngest of the MA students: read and translate. She worked through it quickly, with a few hints from Professor Sixtová.
As the ancient rabbis say, To what may this be compared ? משל למה הדבר דומה ?. It is like if you were invited to go bowling, and you have some idea that some of the people there might be good at it; but gradually you perceive that everyone is throwing nothing but strikes and spares. Or if you prefer it is like you are travelling in a forest at night, and you see a house with a candle in the window.
We locked up and went out into the night.
Week Five – Lockdown, Walks, More Hebrew Manuscripts, and a Poem
The news of the last week, obviously, is that the city and the country and much of the world are shut down because of the coronavirus, and I am shut down too. As of tonight (Sunday night, March 22) about 1000 people in the Czech Republic have been diagnosed with the virus, 74 have been hospitalized, and one has died, a 95 year old man.
The first time that I ever heard of Prague or Czechoslovakia was in the summer of 1968, the tragic end of the so-called “Prague Spring.” My parents had rented a house near the beach, in Cape Cod, and they were listening to the news on the radio. Russia had sent in tanks to crush a Czech uprising. I was eight years old; it is the second political event that I remember. (The Six Day War was the first, the year before, when I was seven.) I remember mainly not understanding what it was about; I think that I knew by then what tanks were, but I was quite confused by the whole thing, and uncertain why my parents seemed upset about it; I did however pick up that we were rooting for the Czechs, which I suppose was the lasting lesson of the event for me.
I have been observing the “social distancing” rules, and I haven’t been outside much. We are almost perfectly socially distanced here, because we know so few people; it reminds me a little of summers in graduate school, when sometimes I didn’t speak to a soul for weeks at a time. Sometimes I look out my front window, at the building across the street and the people going in and out. IT has a sign, “Ortopediské Pomůcky” (“pomůcky” are devices or aids; I haven’t looked up “ortopediské,” but I have a guess what it means); but basically it is just an apartment building. Sometimes I look out my back window, where there is a private garden, with a flowering tree, and black-and-white magpies, and sometimes ducks.
On Saturday, Susan and I had lunch with the Conservative rabbi here, Rabbi Hoffberg, a very fine lunch of Moroccan meatballs and Thai chicken wings. Rabbi Hoffberg lives
downtown, near Wenceslas Square (Václavské Námĕsti); he met us at a statue of King Wenceslas riding an upside-down horse (right). This was after the order that
prevented us from going to synagogue that day (but it did not prevent Rabbi Hoffberg, because he was a member of the synagogue, whereas we were mere tourists). But it was before the order that no one could visit friends; that was not until Sunday.
On Sunday, Susan and I went out for a secret expedition through the Bubeneč neighborhood of Prague, where all the embassies are. We are about a block, it turns out, from the Russian Embassy, which is a huge mansion, with a large grounds; and we saw the embassies of Kuwait and Algeria and Lebanon and Slovakia and so on, all very elegant. We also went past the Russian Cultural Center. Since we are not supposed to be just walking around like tourists, our “cover story” was that we were on our way to buy food, and we did stop at a little grocery. All of the little groceries, including this one and the one nearer to our house, are owned by Vietnamese immigrants.
Between the Russian presence, and our secret mission to scope out the embassies, and hiding in the apartment, and the empty streets, and the masks that everyone has to wear, and the strict rules, I am beginning to feel a bit like a character in a Le Carré novel.
Our neighborhood, Letna, is between two parks, sort of like the Upper West Side of Manhattan. We are in a bend of the river, with the river on both sides and the two parks next to the river on each side. Towards the city is Letna Park (Letniské Sady), which I have mentioned, and on the other side is Stromovka Park, which has ponds and a little restaurant, now closed.
On Wednesday, Susan and I walked through the Stromovka Park to a little island in the Vltava River, called Cisarky (Imperial; Cisar = Caesar) Island. It is about a twenty minute walk away from us, maybe a mile or two miles from downtown; it is strangely rural and peaceful, with open fields and horses in a corral, and wild birds. From there we walked back into another neighborhood, near the big hospital, a very urban neighborhood, where we went to a big supermarket (“Kaufland,” a German chain I think), and bought, among other items, a large package of toilet paper.
My colleague Olga Sixtová, of the Hebrew paleography seminar, continues to send me photographs of manuscripts. One manuscript, which is in Oxford, records a bad dream that a Rabbi Yisroel Hutter, had in a little Czech town in 1728. He dreamed of two prominent local Jews who had recently passed away, and he asked them (in the dream, he tells us) why they had not prayed for him as they were supposed to do. And they didn’t answer him, but they nodded. And then another man (also dead ? not clear to me) came along and told the other two others that they should pray for Rabbi Yisroel, and they nodded again. My theory is that in waking life, Rabbi Hutter had gone to the graves of the two men and asked them to intercede for him in Heaven, and he had assumed (in his waking life) that the ghosts had done that for him, but the dream indicated that they hadn’t yet, so it was a bad dream. But they seemed to agree that they were going to now, so it wasn’t all bad.
On Saturday, we walked through Bubeneč again, this time past the residence of the American ambassador, the Villa Petschek. Villa Petschek has a fascinating history: Petschek was a Jewish banker, who fled the country in 1938; and then during World War Two and the Holocaust, the house was taken over by the German general in charge of Prague; at the end of the war, it was occupied briefly by Soviet troops; and then the American government bought it. When I was in Prague the last time, in 2013, I stayed in the residence for a couple of days, as the guest of Norm Eisen, who was the American ambassador at the time, and whom I know from college; we were in Professor Neusner’s Talmud class together. Norm researched the history of the house while he was living there, and then wrote it up as an excellent book: The Last Palace.
I will tell you the story about Norm (well, about him and about his successor as ambassador) that Rabbi Hoffberg told us. Norm is Jewish, and he keeps kosher, and
while he was ambassador, Villa Petschek had a kosher kitchen – in fact, two kosher kitchens, the large kitchen for big affairs, downstairs, and a smaller (not small, just smaller) kitchen upstairs. So Norm decreed (the story goes) that the downstairs kitchen would be the meat kitchen and the upstairs kitchen would be the milk kitchen, and he trained all of the staff – none of whom were Jewish – about all of the rules of keeping kosher. All good. A year after my visit, Norm’s term as ambassador came to an end, and President Obama appointed a new ambassador, also Jewish, Andrew Shapiro. The Shapiros also keep kosher. But Mrs. Shapiro (this is how the story goes) didn’t want to shlep downstairs every time she wanted to cook meat, so she rearranged the upstairs kitchen so that she could cook both meat meals (fleishigs) and dairy meals (milchigs) there. It’s a big kitchen, as I said. The staff came to her, embarrassed, but insistent: Dear Mrs. Ambassador, you are certainly free to rearrange the house however you please, it is your home, but as far as keeping kosher, our view is that the upstairs kitchen is just for milchigs.
The bookstores are all closed, but there was a book-trade kiosk in the park, where people leave books they want to get rid of, and take books for free that catch their fancy; I had picked up a volume of nineteenth century Czech poetry (in Czech, that is). Over Shabbat, I spent quite a bit of time working on translating a poem by the nineteenth century Czech poet, Jan Neruda. (Not to be confused with the 20th century Latin American poet, Pablo Neruda, no relation.) It is called the “Ballad of Charles IV,” who as readers of this blog will recall, was Our Founder, the medieval king who started Charles University, and for whom it is named.
Quite a few of the words in the poem were not in my Czech-English dictionary, but roughly it is a conversation between King Charles and his page, while they are drinking a bottle of wine. I am quite a connoisseur of wines, says Charles (I am paraphrasing, but I am pretty sure that is what he says). Each wine has its own very distinctive character; this wine, for example (pour another cup, page, would you ? and drink up !) is the very first of the new harvest, and it has a sharp taste at first, but then it mellows on the tongue and becomes sweet (milý – dear, beloved; I am not sure what it means as a descriptor for the taste of wine). And the courtier (? I think) answers that the Czech people are just like this wine, they have a very distinctive soul, a little rough at first, perhaps, but then full of … well I am not sure, because I had trouble translating the last few lines. “Neodtrhneš” was not in my dictionary, so I am not actually sure what the Czech soul is like, according to the character in the poem, but a “trh” is a market and the prefix ne- means un-, so I think that he might be saying that the Czech soul is not yet fully grown, not ready for market (this is still the Middle Ages, after all), or something like that.
Anyway, that is as far I have gotten in studying Czech. My Czech is not ready for market, I think. A little rough, but it is getting better.
"Week Six: Back Home"
The day before we left Prague, we visited the Castle. As I have said, I did truly very little tourism during my six weeks in Prague. In spite of living not more than twenty minutes by foot from the Hradčany, the Prague Castle, I had not visited it. I had seen it of course, from a distance, many times; it towers over the city. But I hadn’t gone there, until now, when I couldn’t possibly get in. The castle was closed, like the rest of the city. We went up to the side gate, where the little bridge is, and where the guards are sitting who tell you that the castle is closed. It was our tribute, maybe, to the generations and centuries of Prague Jews, indeed of Prague commoners of every sort, who also could see the castle every day, and also couldn’t get in.
A few days before our visit to the castle, we made a last walk downtown, to the University, to return the books that I had borrowed from the department library. The
Old Town Square was almost completely empty. The Astronomical Clock chimed the hour; two last tourists watched. Another couple took selfies next to the statue of Jan Hus. (Jan Hus lived around 1400; he was a religious reformer, and a major Czech national hero. He was also the rector of the Charles University.) No one was at the department office, except for one of the Hebrew paleographers, Tobiaš Smolík, the one who plays clarinet in a klezmer band. Tobiaš’s band, called the Schimmerle Klezmer Kabaret, is about to release a CD, to be called “Der Štrúdel.” Here is a video of Tobiaš and his band playing in a venue in Trebič. (right, click the image for the video)
Some of you will recognize the song that the band play in the video (after the intro): in the US, it goes by the name of “Bar Mitzvah Mazel Tov,” and (as I learned it, in college), it has the following words: “Bar Mitzvah Michael mazel tov ! Bar Mitzvah Michael mazel tov !” and so on. (Obviously one adjusts the lyrics to suit the exact occasion.)
Olga Sixtová, of the Hebrew paleography group, sent me the link to a digitized manuscript from the collection of the Prague Jewish Museum. She told me the story of the manuscript. One day a Czech couple, from a village in the south of the country, showed up at the Museum. They had found an old book in their attic, they said. Would the Museum be interested in it ? The Museum was indeed very interested in the manuscript, and purchased it. It is a collection of kabbalistic and magical texts and recipes from the late 17th century. It includes a unique text by one of the greatest kabbalists of that period, who was briefly also the chief rabbi of Prague, Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz, called the Shelah. (He is the ancestor of many Jews today, including some of the Horowitzes; he once appeared to me in a dream, as I may have mentioned.) At the end of his life, the Shelah moved from Prague to Israel, and wrote this letter home, with some useful advice about how to travel to Israel (through Egypt) and what to bring (a warm quilt; Jerusalem can be cold).
Here is a short list of places that we planned to go during this sabbatical, and where we did not go: Trebič, where Tobiaš once played with his klezmer band; Kolín, where in 1782, careful readers of this blog may remember, the Jewish council banned bowling and billiards; Olomouc , at the other end of the Czech Republic, where I was going to give a lecture at the Palacký University (founded in 1573, and home of another very fine Jewish studies program);
Leipzig, where I was going to use a library; Israel, where we were going to visit family and friends. Instead, here is a list of places where I spent more time than I expected: the left-hand corner of the couch in our living room. Also: the communal recycling bins half a block down Jan Zajic Street, where we live. Our apartment has its own private bins for paper and plastic recycling, but to recycle glass or juice or milk cartons, you have to go to the corner, and to recycle metal, you have to all the way down, around the corner to the street that the soccer arena is on, Milada Horáková Street.
On Shabbat, the same day that we walked to the Castle, the day before we left Prague, I read some poems by the 20th century Czech poet, Ivan Martin Jirous, translated into English. It is called My itinerary has been monotonous for quite a while; it was a going-away present from Olga. Jirous was a political prisoner under the Communist regime in the 1970’s and 1980’s; he wrote the poems in prison.
The poems, as might be imagined, are mostly quite bleak, except for series of funny lullabies that he wrote for his two daughters. They are enlivened by the poet’s intense spirituality. Many of the poems make reference to the martyrs of Czech history. Jan Hus was burned at the stake. Milada Horáková, whom they named the street after, was murdered by the Communists in 1950. Jan Zajic, whom our street is named after, died, was a college student who, I was disturbed to learn, martyred himself by dousing himself with gasoline, as a protest against the regime in 1969.
The first poem in the book includes a Jewish reference; Jirous asks to be given the Shem of the Golem. This is an allusion to the famous legend of the Golem of Prague; in the legend, the Shem is a scrap of parchment, written with God’s Name, that Maharal, the chief rabbi of Prague and the great kabbalist, placed in the Golem’s mouth to bring him magically to life. The allusion is also to the author’s unique mode of submitting his manuscript to his publisher. Jirous, the introduction tells, wrote his first group of poems in tiny letters on a tiny scrap of paper, and one of the poet’s friends, another prisoner, hid it in his mouth, and passed it along to a girlfriend, who was not a prisoner, in a kiss.
Our trip from Prague back home to Bala Cynwyd, Pennsylvania, is almost 40 hours, door to door, including a layover in Dublin of a little less than 20 hours. We caught one of the last flights out of Prague. There was almost no one in the Prague airport at all. We went through Dublin on our way to Prague, as well as now going back. Flying in, our arrival was in the middle of the night, about four o’clock in the morning, and the airport was bustling with tourists and commerce. Now it was empty at noon. On the tarmac, as we were taxiing for our take-off, a jackrabbit scurried across.
I have written most of this segment as we fly 38,000 feet above the North Atlantic Ocean. I will finish it tomorrow.
The medical authorities in the Czech Republic have been doing quite well combating the coronavirus. The Irish authorities, not as well. I will not speak about the authorities in the United States. On our plane from Dublin to Boston, about five hours in to a seven hour flight, a man started coughing. He had self-quarantined in the back of the plane, which was empty, but he kept walking back and forth, coughing, to his wife who was in the front of the plane. To quote Bilbo Baggins, "I feel that we are going from the frying pan into the fire."
Good news: My publisher has written me that my book is set to be published in three weeks. The cover is done; the index is done, everything is finally done; they have sent it to the printers. Other good news: one of the doctoral students in my program at Gratz is ready to defend her thesis and graduate. Third piece of good news: I read on the Internet that book sales are up.
We are now back home. The tenants have departed; the cat is flourishing. She greeted us at the door, and seemed not unpleased to see us. We sat down to eat the last of our airline meals, kosher turkey sandwiches from a caterer in London. Practicing social distancing only to a limited degree, the cat jumped up on the table, but retreated to the far end and curled up in a ball.