Smetteneh is sour cream in Yiddish, but Prague is far from sour
After attending the Frankfurt book fair, http://www.buchmesse.de/en/fbf which is actually a publishing convention minus writers, I settle in to begin a new chapter
of my life in Berlin. Taking my photos to be developed, I meet a new friend, Karen, ironically I know two other Karens. I often meet people with the same name in threes.
Unlike the other two gals who are German, this Karen is American, originally from Washington, D.C. She has come to live in Berlin with her husband, a French Canadian cinematographer.
That same afternoon we go for coffee and she spontaneously invites me to her home that weekend.
On Saturday I arrive with apple strudel and my favorite vanilla ice cream, by Movenpik.
There is an easy flow between us, by the end of the night her question puzzles me, “You know a lot of Jews don’t you?”
Remembering Mrs. Rubin, my friend Beverly’s mother from adolescence, “they have been instrumental in my life.”
“I thought so, there is something about you that is soulful, I see it in your eyes, a depth of some kind. Next week is Yom Kippur; my husband will be out of town, he’s gone for stretches of time. He’s not Jewish and won’t participate in Jewish things. I’d like to go to a synagogue in the East- will you join me for services?”
“I’ve only been to a Passover Seder. What do I need to know or do?”
“You don’t have to do a thing. It begins with Kol Nidre, the night before is Yom Kippur, it ushers in the holiest day of the year, traditionally a fast day. We begin with dinner. Be here by 4:30, we’ll eat and services start at 6.
For dinner, Karen serves chicken and makes a blessing over the wine.
We enter a cavernous red brick synagogue on Rykestrasse in a courtyard and I’m amazed that the Temple is still intact with what seems to be much of the original exterior. Inside, I look around-only a handful of humble worshipers. How could they stay and why after having survived hunger, treachery and disease? Were they left behind, forgotten?
The ark and bimah are tremendous, ornate marble columns and balustrades. A deep balcony, swathed in stone and supported by low Romanesque pedestals, runs along the flanks of the building. There’s also a choir loft and an organ. “This Temple resembles a church.”
Karen looks at me and says “Jews had to identify with the culture, as a way to survive.”
“So what’s the significance of this day?”
“All vows, obligations and oaths are absolved and forgiven.”
“Individuals and God.”
If it’s Jewish to make a deal with God, I’ve been doing that kind of bargaining my whole life. That night I go home and journal the experience feeling as if I have lifted and mended a piece of my heart.
Two months later vacationing with Werner in Prague it’s the eve of the New Year. We walk through the cobblestone streets of the historic Old Town Square and head for the famous Charles Bridge. The charming streets are lined with quaint old buildings straight out of a Grimm’s fairy tale. Most would believe that Paris is the most beautiful city in Europe but I can’t agree after having seen Prague. Both cities share great architecture, character, layers of history and a river that divides the city. At night Prague is illuminated in golden hues that give the Art Nouveau buildings a beautiful cast that make me feel I’m walking on a stage set. I also don’t see a speck of trash or graffiti. Even the pavements are decorated with colored mosaics.
After a long morning of walking and almost hobbling from the bumpy cobblestone streets, we go to lunch and encounter crowds of Italian tourists. The waiter comes over to greet us and after a few minutes of placing our order, he comes back to tell us that the trout I ordered is no longer available.
“Fine, do you have any soup” I ask.
“Certainly, Mademoiselle” he says in very clear English.
“I’ll take a cabbage soup, but please make sure it has plenty of vegetables,” I add.
Ten minutes later, he appears again. I begin to think; now what?
“My regrets, we are out of cabbage soup.”
“In that case, I’ll take chicken noodle.”
“We haven’t any chicken today,” he says.
Knowing the Czechs have the same fatty rich diet as the Germans do which lacks vegetables, I order what I believe may be stocked in their pantries.
“I’ll have potato soup.”
“We are out of potatoes.”
In my mind, this is beginning to sound like the I Love Lucy episode where she, Ricky and the Mertzes on their road trip to California have a hard time finding accommodations. They locate an Inn only to find one selection on the menu.
“What do you have?”
“We have cheese, ham and bread” he says.
Werner sensing my frustration and knowing that I don’t eat ham says, “A cheese sandwich for the lady and a ham sandwich for me.”
After lunch, we find a shop with records, books, and postcards. The man behind the counter is dressed in a sport jacket with suede patch elbows like a Professor taking notes behind the counter. Werner speaks to him in English and the man shakes his head, indicating he doesn’t understand. He tries German– still no luck. I speak to the shopkeeper in my broken German and we have a conversation, albeit a brief one, we understand each other perfectly!
“What did he say” asks Werner.
“He said we could look around if we wish, the maps are in the back of the store.”
The shopkeeper disappears into the stacks. When he is gone, I look through a pile of CD’s in a box on the counter. I choose one by Smetana.
The shopkeeper returns and unfolds a map before me of Prague, he begins to circle areas, “You find interesting,” he says in broken English.
Werner and I leave and locate a cozy bench to study our map. We hear music being spilled out from a nearby open window, a piano is being tuned.
Prague is a city in which classical music is the core of all life, untangling the emotions, like the air one breathes, it’s to be inhaled, and it is– either in chamber music by way of the city’s churches or street musicians or simply by what we’re listening to now, someone tuning and then playing a piano.
We head pass Josefov Street, the Jewish Quarter, a neighborhood of the past, to visit the sixteenth century Pinkas Synagogue http://www.jewishmuseum.cz/en/apinkas.htm but our timing is off, a man with a lined face and shriveled body meets us at the gate “Geschlossen.”
“The names of the Bohemians killed in the camps are painted on the walls” I tell Werner. Curious, he replies “we should try to see it, we’ll come back.”
That night we go to see a cabaret, it promises food and wine and a glass of champagne to ring in the New Year. We are served an open face sandwich as an entrée. I look down at my plate– biggest difference between Paris and Prague– in Paris you dine, in Prague you don’t. No doubt, I will live on stale cheese sandwiches during my stay.