We took a lovely walk to a nearby park mid-morning in sunny Prague for our meditation today. Some sat on benches others on the grass near a gorgeous fountain. There is something to be said about meditating outdoors, feeling into the sensations of the sun on your face, the wind in your hair, the noise of the cars driving by and the people walking around having conversations in Czech. You would think that with all this noise it would be more difficult to go deeper, but the opposite happened. It became easier to focus and to remain as the simple observer of all that was arising within and without. Of course we ended the meditation with a stroll around the park.
Our guided tour began in the afternoon with the delightful Sylvie (our beloved guide in the Czech Republic.) Today we visited Golden Prague, including different neighborhoods, a fabulous little outdoors market that also had music and people dancing on the grass. On a day as hot as this was, picnicking in the middle of the city in this gorgeous little park was the thing to do. And the local food they sampled at this market was incredible. It was hard to get back on the bus, I can tell you that.
But as beautiful and picturesque as the neighborhoods of the “new” city of Prague (as opposed to walking the old-city and the Jewish Quarters yesterday,) I couldn’t help but noting how, each time we turned one corner, Sylvie kept mentioning all the Jewish businesses, schools, offices, and homes that used to be on this street or on that street. How such and such Jewish family owned this apartment building, how the Kosher market used to be at this address, how there used to be a Synagogue there but now it’s a public school. Then we went to the old Jewish cemetery in the “Wine Hill” neighborhood (they tried to grow wine there before the city expanded and the hills saw their vines make room for more lucrative real estate.) What was left of the cemetery was barely a quarter of what it once was, and that quarter only survived because the main leaders and famous families of Prague were buried there. The three other quarters were desecrated and bulldozed out by the communist regime to make room for an ugly radio tower that never worked as such but is so massive that it came to host an observation deck and restaurant on top of it (a la Space Needle,) and mostly serves now as a cell phone tower. And beside it a large parking lot. Underneath? The bones of hundreds or thousands of Jews.
Between this afternoon’s revelations, and the fact that all the synagogues still standing in Prague have more or less all become museums six days a week and are only used as synagogues for the few hundred Jews that attend them once a week on Shabbat and twice a year for the High Holy Days; I have found myself reflecting on the nature of the Jewish community of Prague in 2015. Sylvie told us that, in her estimation, between 5 and 6,000 Jews remain in Prague. There were about 92,000 Jews living in Prague pre-WWII (20% of the total population). To put things in perspective, the Jewish population in Seattle today is about 64,000; and that’s after a 70% jump over the past decade or so. Not every Prague Jew was exterminated by the Nazis during the war. Some 20,000 survived. Most escaped, left Czechoslovakia. Many emigrated to Palestine or the US.
Now there are 5 or 6, 000 Jews left with very fragile roots. Few of them are descendants of old Prague families. Most of them are emerging still from decades of Communist Regime, and have remained either atheists, self-proclaimed agnostics, or are trying to find their way between Reform or Orthodox versions of this very tentative re-birthing of Judaism. They live among the ghosts of empty Jewish Prague, and go to synagogues (where they can barely get a minyan together) that are now museum sites. It feels to me as if these 6,000 Jews live, themselves, in a Jewish museum that tourists from around the world tread through by the thousands day after day after day. How do you create community in this context? How do you create identity in this context?
There is a Hebrew expression that says: “Hazman Katzar, v’ham’lacha merubah – The time is short, and the work is great.” Such is the work facing this fledgling community. Perhaps, we too, could lend a hand. After all, we share many of the same challenges and, personally, I felt a deep resonance with their struggle.
Though our group only has one more day left in the Czech Republic, something is telling me that I might find myself back here sooner than I thought. I hope, next time, that you will be on that plane with us.