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A Jew in Prague

by Michael Plotke

     The history of Prague is written in architecture. A thousand years of kings and tyrants, empires and occupiers, laid out along the old city streets. It is an epic and often tragic tale spanning centuries, told and retold by the soaring spires and old stone structures that speak their origins.

     In my mind, one symbol represents Prague more than any other. The crucifix. Every majestic old building is a church, cross-wielding men of the cloth glare down from their gables. The prevalence of these edifices attests to a time when Prague was a religious city, and Christianity was a fact of life. The only sanctioned, and often the only tolerated form of worship.

     This powerful cultural inheritance was shattered by Communism. Faith in an ineffable God was replaced by faith in a state, a party, and a leader. Those of Prague were a people who had witnessed first hand the evils and tyranny of Christian theology. They swiftly cast off the yoke of their religious heritage and embraced the ideals of atheism. So much so, that in the current era these churches stand empty. They are no longer a living aspect of the city but monuments from a by-gone age.

     These are my thoughts when a flash breaks my reverie. A woman is turning from me, lowering her camera. Did she just take my picture? I look around. A little girl is watching me. Her head swivels to keep me in sight as her mother strides forward gripping her hand. The expression on her face is curious. As though she can't quite figure me out. A British bloke glances in my direction then leans to offer a sly comment to his friend. They both laugh. Suddenly, my palms are sweating in spite of the cool breeze. In fact, I am altogether too hot. I try to transfer the dampness from my hands to my pants. My skull prickles inside my black felt fedora. It's like wearing a solar oven, but at least it shades my face. I squint up at the bright morning sun. Clothed in four layers including a wool undershirt and black sport coat, I feel bulky and overheated. The slight wind ruffles my beard but fails to cool me. My garb is that of a religious Jew, conspicuous among the practical jeans and t-shirts common to modern Prague. Even so, these looks are more than mere curiosity. I have been oddly dressed before. This is something new.

     In my next scan of the street, I catch sight of my good friend Nachum striding toward me. He greets me in his rushed Czech accent, pulling a bag of food from his backpack. "Here, I got you more fried bread and corn cake. Also, a salt and a pepper grinder. And some tomatoes." He pauses as I paw through the sack. "My mother doesn't know what to feed you, since you don't eat fish or eggs." I know his mother feels like she is not doing enough for her son's friend, but I'm very happy with the food. All the more so because there is nothing else I can eat in Prague.

     It's a situation resulting from adherence to strict Jewish dietary law. Processed foods must be supervised by a well-versed and pious Jew throughout production, meat is not allowed unless it is slaughtered and prepared in accordance with a myriad of detailed precepts, and dairy faces similar difficulties. In Prague, this means meat and dairy-free home cooking created from raw ingredients only. Luckily, I am just picky about my food, not finicky. Fish and eggs are out by preference, but surviving for a week on fried bread is fine.

     After stowing the food, we head out. As we walk, I mention the askance glances I've received. It comes as no surprise that Nachum's got an explanation. As a native of Prague and a professional tour guide, he understands the modern inhabitants and the historic forces that have formed them. They have a deep distrust of religion, born of abuses suffered at the hands of Christianity and years of Communist anti-religious dogma. Free now from these subjugations, they view people with faith in God as trapped by their own irrational beliefs and just waiting for the opportunity to force their insane ideology on others. I find myself nodding in agreement. The looks are mostly a mixture of worry and disgust. It is as if I am a grotesque creature to be wary of a carrier of the plague called religion.

     This conversation winds down by the time we reach the Charles Bridge. With one hand on my wallet we weave through the throngs of tourists. Nachum has warned me of pickpockets and I vigilant. Watching for unsavory characters, a costly camera catches my eye. It is slung from the neck of a lanky hipster searching for a shot. When he spots me, his expression is of astonished good fortune. Jackpot. His hand jumps to the camera which leaps to his eye. I can see the iris wink as he snaps my picture. Even as I turn toward Nachum to share a look of bewilderment, I hear camera after camera clicking in my direction. To my surprise, the look my friend returns contains only acknowledgment and resignation. He has experienced this before. Although currently sporting a backwards flat cap and t-shirt, Nachum admits that he is a frequent object of photography as well. It happens mostly on the weekly Jewish holiday of Shabbos, when he too dresses in a black suit and fedora. He shrugs as he claims to be used to it. If he is being honest, it seems you can get used to anything.

     Because I don't quite grasp why my appearance is picture worthy, Nachum explains this as well. Many of the tourist locations in Prague are historical Jewish sites, but there is a dearth of actual Jews. Up until the early twentieth century, Prague was home to a large Jewish community, and while Christians had always given them trouble, they remained a noticeable portion of the population. This all changed with the Holocaust. The vast majority of Jews in Prague were slaughtered by the Nazis. Etched on the walls of the local Pinkas Synagogue are the names of nearly eighty thousand murdered Jews. With only a short respite, those not killed by the Nazis came to face Communism with its harsh anti-religious mandates. All but a tiny portion of the scant few who remain have assimilated, until today it is an amazing novelty to see a real live religious Jew in Prague. It is certainly an oddity worthy of a photograph.

     Early the next morning I am hurrying to the first daily prayer service, the conversations of yesterday no longer in mind. But as I hustle down the path, I sense the unmistakable feeling which accompanies visual scrutiny. Looking for the source, my eyes meet those of a stooped old man. From his wrinkled countenance boils a glare of pure hatred. The malevolence in his expression is shocking. My very existence seems to infuriate him. I imagine the vile thought behind his burning eyes. "We missed one." For the rest of the day I am an emotional wreck. Nachum's only comment is "Yeah, fucking Nazis." For some reason this helps a bit, but I remain shaken.

     Three days later I am on the subway. The final time for the afternoon service is fast approaching. For a minute I sit there wondering if I should just pray late. No, I decide, packed subway car or not, the time has come. I stand and face the wall. I can feel every eye in the train tracking my movements. A little girl points at me and asks her mother a question in Czech. People shift nervously. I take three small steps backward, then forward, and suddenly I am all alone.


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