Sunday, February 19, 2006

 

Dear Everyone,

 

Some of you must be thinking that we have fallen off the end of the earth; it has been so long since we have written. My apologies: life has been very full here, and I have had (and am still having) trouble with my scanner putting some pictures on my website. Still, I’ve decided to write even though the pictures aren’t ready yet.

 

Jewish Prague

 

We live on the edge of the old Jewish Quarter. This had been the ghetto, though there were no walls around it. It was, by common consent, razed at the end of the 19th century to make room for the construction of a new fin-de-siŹcle city. As a result, the buildings all are from that period and it seems that each building was just built in another style. The architecture is fascinating though it often has the feel of a stage set. Fortunately, there are not too many tourists here, yet. The rebuilding plan, however, kept the old synagogues and the Jewish cemetery. The newer part was built on a raised street level to prevent periodic flooding from the river but the older Jewish part was kept at its previous street level. There is, thus, a juxtaposition of the old, at a lower street level, and the new, at a higher street level.

 

One of the new streets, Paris Street, is the most elegant in town with Hermes and similar such stores. God, with a consummate sense of humor, however, has put the Alt/Neu Schule, the oldest synagogue in Europe, at one end of this street and the Lubavitch facilities at the other end! We visited both communities the first Shabbat. The Lubavitch called me to the Torah right away but the Alt-Neu Schule is something special. It was built around 1253 and is still standing. It is an old gothic structure, a little like very small gothic churches of the period. The monks who built it, however, went out of their way to eliminate the symbolic crossing of the arches. It had no women’s section; what is there now was built later and it is separated from the main sanctuary by a wall some 24 inches thick with slats in it -- a little like archers slats in the walls of castles. Ursula, who doesn’t mind separation of women and men in services, thinks this is a little excessive; so do most of the women in Prague. The Alt/Neu Schule also has in it the 1716 copy of the banner of the Jewish community that was first granted in around 1577. This banner has the first occurrence of the hexagram, the six pointed star, as a “Jewish” star. Before 1577, it was simply a geometric design without any specific Jewish content. After that date, it represented the Jewish community, eventually becoming the Star of David of the Zionist movement, the yellow star of the nazi era, and the star on the flag of the State of Israel. It is very moving just to be in the presence of this banner.

 

The seats of the Alt/Neu Schule are around the walls and so there are only enough for about 60 men; the rest just stand and mill around. The rabbi preaches in Czech, does not wear a tie, and in general gives the impression of someone who should not be the rabbi of the synagogue of what was once the center of the Holy Roman Empire. There is also a very nice young Israeli rabbi and his wife, and I hope to get to know them better. I like being in the Alt/Neu Schule. The building has a presence about it. One can sense the distinguished scholars as well as the many observant Jews who lived and died in this community. I go Friday evening and Shabbat morning. For daily prayers, the Alt/Neu Schule minyan meets in an adjacent synagogue. We went twice to the Friday evening meal sponsored by the Jewish community: not recommended; the food could be better and there was no singing. The only other kosher restaurant is excessively expensive but we may try it when our friend, Benny Hary, gets here.

 

The general Jewish community, as some of you may know, is wracked by internal fights: the orthodox think the rabbi is not orthodox enough and the liberals think he is too orthodox; the liberals themselves have several prayer groups that don’t talk to one another and there is a group of secularists that doesn’t want to have anything to do with religion. In addition, there were about 100,000 Jews in Czechoslovakia before world war II. Of  these 80,000 were deported and killed while about 4000 returned; another 20,000 fled. The nazis confiscated everything. Then came freedom from 1945-1948. Then the communists came and confiscated everything again. When communism fell, the new government decided to give back all the pre-war Jewish properties. The Czech Jewish Federation was created and that body received all the properties, which includes a lot of real estate scattered throughout the Czech Republic in many towns: apartments and stores, as well as synagogues and cemeteries. The income from all this is controlled by the Federation and allegations of corruption are rife. There are only about 1500 people involved in this complicated situation. Before I came, several people suggested that I mediate all this; however, it is, as I suspected, much too complicated and much too deeply rooted. Meanwhile, we have met some members of the local community and, aside from the “problem,” they are very nice.

 

When the ghetto was torn down, the community organized a Jewish Museum to house the memories. It is, thus, the oldest Jewish community museum in the world. When the nazis came to power, the Jews persuaded them to use the Museum as a repository for the holy objects of the race that was to be exterminated. The full collection is so large it cannot be shown and “spectacular” is the only work for it. (Those of you in Atlanta who remember the Danzig Exhibit will have a taste of what this is like.) We took a tour of the Jewish Quarter with our group and saw this museum which is housed in several synagogues, the walls of one of which has been inscribed with each and every name of a person deported from Czechoslovakia; very moving. And then there is the great Jewish cemetery of Prague. It was in use for centuries and, since one could not buy more land, soil was brought in and people were buried one on top of the other. In places, there are twelve layers of graves. Our guide estimated almost 100,000 people buried in this small space. Among them are some very famous people, including the Maharal of Prague, its chief rabbi for many years. The presence in the cemetery is what is amazing: so many people there ranging over so many generations! Unfortunately, so many Jewish European cities, especially in eastern Europe, are a combination of museums and graveyards.

 

Jewish Prague is known for its golem, the humanoid figure created from clay and sustained by the Name of God in its mouth. According to the legend, the golem protected the Jews but then turned against its creator. This is the beginning of the “Frankenstein” legend. Ostensibly, the original golem was created here in Prague by the Maharal and, when he destroyed his golem, he put it in the attic of the Alt/Neu Schule and forbade anyone to go up there. Scholarship has shown that the Maharal story is a 19th century fiction and that it has no connection whatsoever with the Maharal or Prague. Notwithstanding this, there is a veritable golem industry here for tourists. Because I am teaching Jewish mysticism in Prague, I decided to examine the golem texts with my class. They have been very patient as we went through them. Basically, there is a second-to-eighth century text called Sefer Yetsira that describes how God created the world by combining the letters of the Hebrew alphabet. I published a translation and commentary to this text in 1978. The verbs in the text, however, can be read in imperative form; i.e., the text can be read as a manual on how to create the objects listed in it, including a human body. The commentative tradition on the text seems to have read it that way. So, we ploughed our way through Sefer Yetsira and I showed how the text could be read to create a golem, though that word does not occur in the text. Sefer Yetsira can also be read as a manual for mystical trances. In any case, I pointed out to them that they are probably the only people in Prague to have actually studied a series of golem texts and, indeed, they may be the only ones to have done so since before world war II.

 

Cultural Prague

 

We have been to so many concerts that I have trouble remembering them all. We heard a string quartet do a very good performance of Mozart and Dvorak in the baroque church of the Clementinum. We heard a stunning concert of songs sung by Gabriela Benackova, a Czech singer of world-renown. And we have been to the opera many times. We saw the marionette version of Don Giovanni that was not so good because the staging puts the puppeteers on stage destroying the magic of the puppetry. We saw “La Traviata” and “Nabucco” at the State Opera. It was very classical opera: good (though not, great) voices, very good costumes and scenery, no acting, no movement. Still, it is Verdi and it was well done. We also saw two back-to-back performances of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute.” The first was at the State Opera and it was like the Verdi. The second, however, was at the Estates Opera and it was very imaginative in its staging. There was a ballet company present which danced the Overture and performed through some of the early arias. The latter was very interesting though a little distracting from the music and the singing. There was no stage curtain, only a very large set of silk fabrics suspended from the roof of the stage that were manipulated to create a curtain effect. The scenes of the priests were handled as if they were communion scenes with bread and water. Similarly, the passage through fire and water looked like a baptism. The costumes were modern. The language was Czech (the language of the State Opera was German with the Czech on a screen over the stage – I can pick out certain words). I was wondering how one sings a language that seems to be 90% consonants. It can be done; one sings the vowels though the rhythm is not always the same as the music, that is set to German, and there are a lot of ts and ch sounds. We have to go back to see it again. The voices were quite good and there was more, but not enough, acting. Ingmar Bergman’s film of “The Magic Flute” is my standard and, there, the action is very close up and personal.

 

People who live here dress for concerts though the tourist concerts are much more informal. We made a mistake one night and went in our informal winter clothes. Ursula was so embarrassed that she wouldn’t come out for intermission. Opera is also very civilized here. One hangs up one’s coats. One eats a snack and drinks champagne or wine. And, for us, we are twenty minutes by foot from the State Opera and six minutes by foot from the Estates Opera. We walk everywhere and it is a pleasure being without a car and so close to everything.

 

We have begun our museum visiting. We saw the spectacular exhibit of the stage jewels of Maria Callas. They were made here in Prague and, of course, they are crystal, not precious stones. But they are stunning. One of them was so resplendent that they had to dismantle part of it because it was causing problems with the television cameras. And her magnificent voice was in the background of the exhibit. We also saw the fine collection of decorative arts. The Franz Kafka Museum on the riverbank proved to be very strong. It captures spatially and visually all the dislocation and alienation that informs Kafka’s writing. Walking through the exhibit actually disorients the visitor. There is lots more to do.

 

We have also visited shops and found a terrific toy store. Prague is the center of the European toy industry and the puppets are particularly famous. There is a lot of glass and crystal around, this also being a Czech and Slovak specialty, with a very good shop right next to our apartment.

 

We have found all the shops in our neighborhood that we need. Strangely, there is no such thing as a hardware store. I can get along in my Czech and Ursula gets along with charm. She does speak a few words of Czech but I think it is roulette whether “Good bye” or “Thank you” will come out. People appreciate the effort. The weather was very cold, minus 28 Fahrenheit one morning, so we bought me a fur hat. I look rather funny in it and will post a couple of pictures.

 

Trips

 

We went for several days to Israel to see our new granddaughter, Yocheved, Jonathan and Rachel’s daughter. The birth, so I gather, was difficult and Rachel really needed a few days to rest before going home. By the time we got there, she was feeling much better and they received us very warmly. The baby is cute. She was big at birth and remains so. She has reddish hair. We were even able to arrange for Philippe, Nili, and Keren Amalia to visit, and we have pictures of the cousins and the various generations of the family which I will put up on my website as soon as I can.

 

We also, of course, visited Keren Amalia and her parents. The baby is very, very sweet and has just reached the age where she can respond to attention that is given to her. She smiles and is so quiet. Nili is a superb mother and gives Keren all the attention she needs; the rest of the family has learned to be on Keren’s schedule. Philippe’s furniture from New York had arrived and it was good to see everything again. His furniture from Atlanta arrived after we left and now he and Nili must decide how to arrange things. The apartment will be just beautiful. We look forward to seeing everyone again, probably in late spring after we are finished here in Prague.

 

I will go to Brussels to visit Raphael and his parents in early March while Ursula will visit her mother. We talk to Benjamin every day and hear about Raphael’s doings. He loves school: Montessori at 1 ½ years, and he is quite mischievous – for those who know Benjamin, this is no surprise. Benjamin sent us a wonderful picture of Raphael standing in front of the television that is on a bookcase above his head. Raphael is looking up adoringly at a VHS recording of Murray Perahia playing. Raphael has been listening to Murray since he was in utero.

 

We also took a day trip to Terezin. This was a garrison town on the northwest Czech border meant to protect Bohemia (Czechoslovakia) from the Germans. During world war II, the nazis emptied the town and filled it with Jews. It was a ghetto without walls and there was a lively cultural life as well as a school for children there. The nazis used it as a picture town to show that concentration camps were not bad at all. However, Terezin (Theresienstadt, in German) was built for 5000 people and, in the nazi time, it contained 60,000. The hygienic conditions were horrifying, disease was rampant, and so on. It was a very personal trip for us because Ursula’s paternal grandmother, Marie Haas Noether, was deported from Freiburg am Breisgau in Germany to Theresienstadt even though she was a cripple, and she died there. After seeing the town with our very good guide and visiting the Museum, we were taken to the archivist who promptly found Ursula’s grandmother in the files. We now know exactly what day she arrived, which transport she came with, her personal transport number, which house she lived in, and we have a record of her death certificate (she died of pneumonia). At the same time, we found the records for Marie’s brother-in-law, Ursula’s great uncle, Eugene, and we know his dates of arrival and death, his transport number, etc. We were also able to find the records for the mother and sister of Moshe Leshem, a long-time friend. On the way out, we stopped at the crematorium and said prayers for everyone.

 

This week we have friends coming from Amsterdam for a few days. Then, off to Switzerland for a few days. We return in time to teach and then Benny Hary comes and we will go with him to Berlin. We return for a concert sponsored by our friend, Henriette, and to teach, and then off we go to Vienna. We return to teach and then off to Salzburg. This will be March.

 

Closing

 

While I was in Israel several years ago, I conceived the idea of bringing together all my essays on “philosophic mysticism,” a type of mysticism that I named decades ago. Maimonides is the example par excellence of this. I did so, and Bar Ilan University Press will publish it. In the midst of all our goings on, the galley proofs arrived and I had to take out a few days to read and correct them. They have been sent back and the next set, which will be the actual page proofs, should arrive this spring. Another book is being born. I am also working on having my book, “The Banality of Good and Evil,” translated into French. I have a grant from Emory to do the translation and Editions du Cerf, which published “God at the Center” in French, is interested.

 

The email continues to flow. Plans for the fall semester are in movement. Life moves very quickly. Much love from both of us to all of you. U&D