Friday, August 21, 2015

The Jews of Prague (Part 1)

We don't get out much - at least from a vacation perspective. The last time Rena and I actually traveled on a vacation away from home for longer than a Shabbat took place on our Aliyah pilot trip, more than seven years ago. So when I turned forty a few years back we decided that we'd go away for a short trip. This spring, we finally made good on that decision and booked a trip to Prague.
Rena had the foresight to book our stay at the only kosher hotel in Prague - the King David (highly recommended). That was a particularly good choice, as the options for kosher food are incredibly limited, and it was great to start the day with a good kosher breakfast. No, it wasn't an Israeli-hotel kosher breakfast, but it was close. It was also great to have a minyan without having to look that far.

Prague is beautiful - clean, interesting, European, and a great place to walk around. Interestingly, there really isn't a Jewish community in Prague to speak of. It's basically gone, and hopefully never coming back. I see no reason to rebuild a destroyed Jewish community. Yet, Jews were everywhere, and our portrayal wasn't particularly flattering.

The Prague Astronomical Clock
Take the clock. There's a very famous clock Astronomical Clock in the Old Square in Prague that's a gathering point for tourists who come to watch the show of the clock striking each hour. It really is a show, and it's also a pretty incredible feat of engineering, as it was first build in 1410. After we settled into our hotel, it was one of the first thing that we saw.

Of the many fascinating aspects of the clock (it tells time in three different ways, including sha'ot zmaniyot!), there are also figures standing at the sides of the clock representing different human traits. Standing at the two sides of the clock are four figures (you can see them here): Vanity, death, the miser and the Turk. Sounds nice. Except the "Miser" isn't known as such. Here's how he's described not on an official tourism website:
The Prague Astronomical Clock is located close to Old Town square and it is one of the city major attractions. The clock has been in the square since 1410 and it is a very special clock since it was used not only to indicate the current time, but also the month and the day of the year (and the name you should give to your kids depending on their birthdate), moon phases, zodiac information and much more. The clock also depicts different figures like vanity, death, a Jew and a Turk. Finally, at every hour, two doors open on the clock to show the 12 apostles and a man dresses as a pageboy plays a horn from the top of the clock tower. Make sure you are nearby the clock in time, the show is very fast!
For hundreds of years, next to the Turk (not a complimentary sculpture) stands a miserly Jew (you can see him standing to the left of the clock in the picture above). The four figures stand as a religious warning about the passage of time, as an admonition to onlookers to use their time well: don't waste your time with silly things like vanity, as death nears ever closer with every tick of clock. The same goes for the Turk (who clearly symbolizes violence and vulgarity). And finally, don't be consumed with money, as is the miserly Jew, who cares for nothing but his bag of gold.

I can't say that I found the stereotype surprising. Bigotry is what it is, and I guess it's no different now that in was six hundred years ago.

Welcome to medieval Prague.