Posts Tagged With: synagogue

Agog in Prague

Prague is a strikingly beautiful city, albeit a little heavy on the whole Medieval Catholicism thing. It has park areas like this:

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…as well as densely packed looming Gothic edifices like this.

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The bridge in that night photo is the Charles Bridge, the main pedestrian thoroughfare between the Old and New Town areas on the east side of the river, and the more modern areas to the west. It is lined with ominous saintly statues and throngs of tourists.

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But it is not the only bridge into the old city, and by crossing a little further to the south you get a great panoramic view of the river and the Charles Bridge connecting the two halves of the city.

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The river is dotted with pedal boats, as you can see; the unseasonably warm sunny weather brings them out in droves, a celebration of the most inefficient form of transportation known to man.

Our first destination of the day, about a 20 minute walk from our flat across the Charles Bridge, was the Jewish Quarter. Tiny — perhaps 700 meters on a side (less than half a mile) — it houses five synagogues and an ancient Jewish cemetery. The usual starting point when touring the Jewish Quarter is the Maisel Synagogue, because the tickets are sold there and because it houses a display of artifacts and an historical narrative of the history of the Jews in Bohemia. Short summary: restrictive laws and humiliation, occasional easing, relocation, re-imposition of restrictive laws and humiliation, enlightenment and false hope, expulsion, return, pogroms, re-relocation, re-enlightenment, World War II. Today there are somewhere between 4,000 and 10,000 Jews in the Czech Republic, about half of them in Prague.

The most venerable of the synagogues is the Old New Synagogue, so named because it was the New Synagogue in 1270, later superseded by a newer New Synagogue a mere three hundred years later. So it became known as the Old New Synagogue, primarily due to a failure of imagination. It is tiny, with thick stone walls, and it is still in use.

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Our next stop was the Pinkas Synagogue, known for its Holocaust memorial, which, in the philosophy of the Vietnam Memorial in Washington DC, is little more than a compelling list of names on the walls: 78,000 of them, sorted by the neighborhood from which the Jews were taken, then alphabetically within the neighborhood, then by dates of birth and death. In most cases the date of death is unknown, and so the date is the last day on which the victim was seen alive. 78,000 names on a wall is a lot, and the emotional impact grows as you move from one room into the next, only to be confronted with more names, row after row after row of them.

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Adjacent to the Pinkas Synagogue, appropriately enough, is an old Jewish cemetery, densely packed with headstones pointing at random angles. (In the 2 x 2 grid of photos below the color one, you can click on the thumbnails to see larger images.)

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And now to answer the question that you, if you are a nerd like me, have been wondering about for 40 years, namely: did Mr. Spock’s “live long and prosper” Vulcan salute really come from a Jewish priestly blessing? Answer: yes, and here is your proof (beside the fact that actor Leonard Nimoy actually said that this was the case):

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Alice, being generally estranged from popular culture, pointed this and a couple of similar headstones out to me and asked, “What’s the weird hand gesture?” I informed her that it was the Vulcan salute, which she did not feel fully answered the question, and which required additional explanation.

We left the Jewish quarter and walked the short distance to Old Town Square, dominated by the much photographed city hall and overseen by the statue of Bohemia’s favorite saintly regent, Good King Wenceslas. The Christmas carol notwithstanding, Wenceslas was actually a 10th century duke. His 17-year reign was marked by the usual political intrigue and minor military skirmishes, and he was considered neither particularly saintly nor un-saintly at the time. However, in the year 935 he was murdered by his brother, Boleslav the Cruel, whose name is so cool that I am thinking of changing mine.

Nobody liked Boleslav — he might have considered a different nickname — and so a retroactive cult grew up around Wenceslas, and he was deemed a martyr. The Holy Roman Emperor Otto I posthumously conferred the title “king” upon him, somebody wrote that Christmas song a couple of centuries later, and bingo, the guy is a pop culture icon.  In my opinion there are better ways to achieve popularity than being run through by a lance at age 35. In any case, here is the square and the town hall. I have no idea why Superman is in the foreground, a little left of center; Alice speculates that someone lost a bet.

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Part of the reason that we went to the main square, besides finding an ice cream vendor, of which there are fortunately many, was that it is just around the corner from Prague’s famed 600 year old, 2 1/2 story tall Astronomical Clock, which I mentioned yesterday.

And now a brief diversion. If you have been following this blog for a while, then you may recall that if there is one single word that can be applied to Alice’s and my travels to the great cities of the world, then that word is…. scaffolding. Yes. As soon as we book a trip, some mysterious omniscient organization — possibly Interpol, or the Illuminati — notifies the authorities at our destination so that scaffolding can be erected before our arrival. I suspect that they take it down as soon as we leave. You name it — the Parthenon, the Via Veneto, Big Ben, Notre Dame — we have seen them all, covered in scaffolding. (The Eiffel Tower is a freebie because it sort of is scaffolding.) I am quite convinced that if someone had somehow figured out how to put scaffolding around blue-footed boobies and Darwin’s finches then our trip to the Galapagos might have been a very different experience. So with that background information, here is Prague’s famous Astronomical Clock as we beheld it this afternoon:

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Sigh. It is of course supposed to be back in place some time next month.

Well, the only way to sublimate our disappointment at this turn of events was to go the Sex Machine Museum, right down the block from the afflicted clock.

What? You mean you’ve never heard of Prague’s Sex Machine Museum? Housing some 200, um, devices spread out (so to speak) over three floors, the museum’s reviews range from “must see” to “tourist trap”, but for ten bucks we thought it was a hoot. If you can get through this place without laughing out loud at least once, there is something seriously wrong with you.

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This being a mostly family blog, and me not wanting to be banned by WordPress.com, I can’t show photos of most of the exhibits; X-rated barely describes some of them. But I will make one or two observations. First, it is clear that late 19th and early 20th century sex devices had a distinctly…. how shall I put this…. “industrial” aspect to them. Yes, “industrial” is definitely the word.

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There was one mid-19th century item, which I couldn’t get a good picture of, and which I probably wouldn’t show anyway, that — I am not making this up — was steam-powered, using a coal-fired boiler. No kidding, this thing belonged on a narrow-gauge railroad track, and definitely not anywhere near anyone’s genitals.

But my absolute favorite — and possibly the best best museum exhibit in the history of time — was this remote-control Ukrainian sex toy from the 1960’s:

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Seriously, this is an erotic device. It positively screams, “Defend the Motherland!” Or more likely, moans.

At this point, the astute reader may have noticed that in the space of a few hours we visited a Holocaust memorial, followed by a visit to a sex machine museum. I know what you’re thinking, and you are probably right: we are going to burn in Hell. But we will deal with that later, because we wanted to finish our afternoon by visiting Franz Kafka instead. More accurately, we went to visit Franz Kafka’s head. Or still more accurately, an 11 meter tall steel statue of his head.

As you can see the head comprises a number of horizontal slabs — 42 of them, to be exact — which rotate to cause the head to metamorphose into random shapes. Or rather, they are supposed to. No one seemed to know when this action would take place; there was no information to be found about it online — randomly? On the hour? Or what? — and the speculation arose among those of us waiting patiently for something to happen that the thing was no longer functional.  There is some circumstantial evidence for this because if you look carefully you will see that the slab corresponding to the middle of Franz’s nose is out of position. All I can tell you for certain is that we waited for 45 minutes for something to happen, and nothing ever did. The experience was…… Kafkaesque. Hmmm.

Giving up, we made our way back to the our flat, rested up for a couple of hours, and had an elegant dinner at a nearby restaurant, supposedly one of the best in Prague, that specializes in duck, plus the kind of meals where the animal’s head is hanging on the wall. It was excellent. (We both had the duck.) Tomorrow is our full day guided tour, so I’ll report back.

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Categories: Czech, Europe | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Czeching In

Sorry, no photos in this entry… we arrived in Prague late yesterday afternoon, met with our tour guide, and had dinner. We haven’t had the chance to do any real tourism — with accompanying photos of course — so that will happen today.

We have a full-day city tour booked for tomorrow with a private guide, a genial former organic chemist named Martin, whom we met through a friend of a friend. Turns out he’s a pretty well known guide and is mentioned in travel guru Rick Steves’ best-selling guide to Prague. (And needless to say, Martin’s been flooded with bookings since being cited in Steves’ book, so we’re lucky to get him.) We met him for drinks yesterday evening to plan out tomorrow’s tour and also to give us some ideas for today’s walking around so we don’t duplicate the sights on two consecutive days.

Immediately following drinks with Martin we promptly went out and got scammed in order to have a complete travel experience. We have experienced three scam attempts on this trip, and saw through the first two of them. They were in Paris and easy to spot. On our first day, some young guys with fake laminated IDs tried to “help” us buy tickets in the Metro. Alice almost got taken in but I saw through it and shooed them away. Three days later a guy on the Quai d’Orsay (the tree-lined sidewalk that follows the left bank of the Seine) “found” a massive fake gold wedding band on the path, declared that it didn’t fit him, and tried to sell it to us.

But last night was the perfect storm, when we were tired from a day of traveling (that included some glitches) and unfamiliar with the local currency. The Czech Republic, though a member of the EU, still uses its own currency, the koruna, at about 21 to the dollar (25 to the euro). We only had euros on us so I withdrew a few hundred dollars worth of koruna from an ATM on a busy street. A few seconds later, a guy offered to break a bill for me, since the ATM only dispensed large notes. He offered four 500 Kč bills (worth a little under  US $25 each) for my 2000 Kč note, and in my fatigue I did not ask the obvious question: Why would anyone want a larger bill for smaller ones? You almost always want to go the other way around. So I went for it, and — as I learned about an hour later when I tried to spend one — the 500’s were fake. I’m out a little under $100 but at least got a story to tell out of it. The irony is that the fakes do not even resemble actual 500 Kč  notes. (Though of course at the time I did not know what actual ones looked like.) Not-particularly-close inspection reveals that the writing on them is Cyrillic (instead of Czech) and declares them to be 500 Russian rubles. But they’re not that either. They’re basically realistic props, complete with embedded strip and watermark. Oh well. At least it was a more interesting scam than the attempts in Paris, and I have four fake banknotes to show for it.

So welcome to Prague. We are staying in a large, utterly beautiful apartment a very short walk over the Vltava River, the body of water where vowels go to drown. The apartment is at least 1000 square feet (93 sq meters) with high arched ceilings and thick painted stone walls; it is a renovated very old building. The flat is owned by an artist — a photographer as it happens — and so is beautifully decorated as well.

Prague itself is a very compact, walkable city whose architecture has preserved a lot of its 18th century character. Because of this, it is a popular movie filming location. It stood in for Vienna in the movie Amadeus — the actual Vienna being too modernized and too expensive to film in — and is the go-to Generic Eastern European City in any number of spy movies, e.g. The Bourne Identity.  It’s got a population of 1.3 million — and had 6.6 million foreign visitors in 2017. That’s not quite as lopsided as Iceland, but it’s close. There are a lot of tourists here, Germans being by far the largest group, with the US and UK in second and third place.

The city is loosely divided into four districts, being the “Old Town” and the “New Town” on the east side of the river and the “Little Quarter” and “Castle Town” on the west. We’re staying in the Little Quarter, a few minute walk over the Charles Bridge from Old Town. Our apartment living room faces north towards Castle Town: from our window we can see the imposing Prague Castle, a gloomily imposing 9th century edifice that houses the president of the country and was the former seat of power of the Holy Roman Empire. (Fun historical fact: the Holy Roman Empire was neither holy, Roman, nor much of an empire. But it shows the importance of branding.) The castle also has the distinction of being the largest castle in the world, sprawling over 17 acres (7 hectares) not counting the exterior grounds. God knows what the heating bills are like.

Our plans today are relatively modest. We’re going to walk into the Old Town and visit the tiny Jewish Quarter, which has five synagogues including the most famous one: the “Old New Synagogue” (it’s a long story), which is the oldest in Europe that is still in use. And, being an astronomer, I feel compelled to make a pilgrimage to Prague’s famed Astronomical Clock, which is over 600 years old. It shows the Moon, the Sun, assorted astronomical information, and the appearance of a proper 500 koruna banknote.

Categories: Czech, Europe | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Fez: Painted Pots, Nonexistent Jews, and Oh My God What Is That Smell?

Long day today and an early wakeup tomorrow for the long trip across the Atlas Mountains to the Sahara, so this post is likely to be longer on pictures than the usual mordant commentary. And because it is late I am probably not going to be doing a whole lot of proofreading,  so be prepared to endure a heavier than usual dose of Autocorrrect Surrealism.

Before I begin, though, I need to correct an error in yesterday’s post that Alice discovered. It appears that I killed off Moulay Ismail’s imprisoned architect for the wrong reason. He was executed not because he claimed he could build a greater-than-12,000-horse stable, but rather because he said he could build a better city gate. So now I have set the record straight, not that this helps him.

I also want to make a retroactive addition to yesterday’s narrative, because we had a very interesting encounter in the hills that I forgot to mention. I did say that a number of farmers make a hardscrabble, living coaxing olives and hazelnuts out of the brown  hillsides, but I neglected to mention that snails were also on the menu; the Moroccans inherited that particular culinary quirk from the French, and also consider them aphrodisiac for God knows what reason. So bags of snails nagging by roadside stands is a strangely common site, like this:

I also neglected to mention that a conversation with one of the roadside farmers led to an invitation to walk down the steep dirt path to his home for a visit; he lived with his mother in a small cluster of one-room buildings, very dusky and a little primitive inside but not altogether crude: he had a two-burner propane stove, well water, and electricity. He also had a wife, who had decamped to Spain because, well, it was nicer there. He was saving up money to join her, but in the meantime his companion and farm hand was Mom, whom you see here. She had been married off at 12 years old and had three children besides our hazelnut farmer. The two of them were very gracious to us.

I mentioned that we visited Momo’s apartment and met his family, and told you that his wife Amal had prepared a sumptuous snack table for us. I wanted to include a photo of said pastry extravaganza but had trouble uploading the image, which I hereby offer for your enjoyment. The incidence of diabetes in this country is very high, which is no mystery whatever. Moroccans love their cakes and cookies and are diabetically good at producing them.

 

I also tried to convey a sense of our centuries-old riad, and described how the owner greeted us in the atrium and told us about the history of the place. Here is a photo of that scene. It in no way resembles a Holiday Inn. Our room is on the top floor, and directly above us is a terrace that offers a spectacular view of the city.

Fez is the oldest city in Morocco, and because it sits among the hills there are a few places — not just our riad rooftop, from which you can enjoy a panoramic view of it. Here is one taken from across town.

If you were able to zoom sufficiently far into this picture one of the things that would strike you is that every, and I do mean every, home has a satellite TV dish on the roof. The paraboloids are so ubiquitous that they are sardonically referred to as Moroccan Mushrooms. I found their ubiquity a little odd: with such rampant poverty, how is it that everyone can afford satellite TV? The answer, explained to me by our local guide, lay in a factoid that I offered a few days ago, namely that Morocco has no intellectual property laws. That means that any enterprising electronics technician with a grounding in cable box encryption and a touch of piratical larceny in his heart can build a bootleg cable box that can receive and decide the satellite signal, and sell said box for a couple hundred dollars. That may sound like a lot but it’s a one-shot deal: you save up your dirhams until you can buy one of those bootleg set-top boxes, and you are set forever: 1200 channels and no monthly subscription fees, forever. And that explains why those dishes are everywhere.

Armed with that particular useless bit of knowledge (useless to us, but very handy for the locals), we set out for our day tour of Fez. The city really has three parts: the medina in the old city, which dates from the 9th century (that is really old, people!); the so called New City, which is a still-wet-behind-the-ears 700 years old; and an actual modern downtown area. Our first stop was the Ibn Danan synagogue (there is one other) in the so-called mellah, or Jewish quarter, of the New City. It is small and no longer functioning as a place of worship, maintained instead for historical purposes through various grants. Here is our local guide, the very articulate Hisham, showing us the Torah scroll. (The scroll, though real, is no longer consecrated and cannot be used in an actual service.)

I assume that there is some kind of selection effect at work since we are an American tour group (despite my being the only Jew in it) but I continue to be bemused by the astronomically disproportionate frequency with which the Jews pop up in our tour guide’s expositions and in our sightseeing. It seems like we are constantly hearing about one  or another Jewish quarter, or synagogue, or historical personage, or edict, or what have you, such that an uninformed tourist might reasonably conclude that Jews make up about 10% of Morocco’s population instead of the actual 0.008%. Strange. And it is also a result of this phenomenon that every time something about Morocco’s Jews gets mentioned, everybody instinctively turns to me for more information as though I were somehow automatically imbued with this knowledge by virtue of having been Bar Mitzvahed 49 years ago. (News flash: I wasn’t.)

Anyway, having satisfied our daily Moroccan Jewish History quota, we moved on to a pottery collective. It is a collective created for the purpose of preserving the craft, which used to be handed down from father to son but is now threatened by globalization, the figurative sons now being more interested in more 21st century pursuits. Here is one of the potters at work:

There were a lot of beautiful things been made, and of course being sold: tile tables and fountains, and all manner of pottery even including — wait for it — mezuzahs. (For non-Jewish readers, that is the usually oblong religious talisman placed on the doorframe at the entrance to Jewish homes.) We were walked through the grounds watching men of various ages mix clay, fire pots, lay out tile mosaics, etc.; women were employed only in the pottery painting stage. At the end of the tour we were inevitably led to the gifts shop, which I will grudgingly respect for having high quality stuff. Our credit card balance did not escape the gift shop unscathed.

From there we moved into the Old City, dominated by the medina. Like the other medinas and souks we have visited, this one was a crush of humanity and an assault on the senses, this one even more so that the others because of its partially ceilinged and thus more claustrophobic quarters. Its size distinguishes it as well: we were told that there were 62 miles of streets (!) and that if we became separated from the group that we should not wander around to try and find our guide, but rather should stand still and wait for him to backtrack to us. Otherwise the risk was that one would end up wandering the maze forever, lost in sensory overload until eventually giving up and opening a bakery. Anyway, here are some scenes of the medina. First, the crowd itself:

And that is a wide part of the street. The danger — and I am not kidding here — is that the density of people is so high, and the streets so narrow, that there is an actual risk of being run over by a donkey carrying some merchant’s wares, like these guys carrying tanned animal hides:

And here is a fish merchant. Notice the shark’s head, standing on end at lower right.

And now a butcher. Yes, that huge grotesque thing hanging in the foreground at right is a decapitated camel’s head. Yes, they eat camels. No, we haven’t tried it. The heads make great Christmas presents, though.

As I’ve mentioned before, the medina is a 360-degree assault on all five senses, very alien but oddly exhilarating. But the hubbub is punctuated by unexpected islands of serenity, small quiet mysterious alleys that radiate off the Main Street and force you to wonder who lives their and what they do. I was photographing one of these, all in shades of white and gray, strangely bleached in comparison to the riot of color elsewhere, when a young boy jumped out of nowhere into the frame, grinned at me, and disappeared again. Here he is:

Our meandering a through the medina led us to a leather tannery (and store, of course). The store is at street level, and the owner asked us if we wanted to go upstairs to see the tannery itself, which of course we did. Before marching us up three floors, though, he handed each of us a sprig of fresh spearmint plant without explanation. Its utility became nauseatingly self-evident as we climbed the stairs, the stench of dead meat and ammonia growing unbreathably stronger with each step. Sure enough, by the time we reached the top we were holding the spearmint beneath our noses on every other breath to keep from gagging; we needed it like a scuba diver’s air hose. It was by a very wide and unpleasant margin the worst thing I have ever smelled.

And here’s the punch line: the actual tannery works are at street level behind the building. That is, we were going up to the roof to get AWAY from smell. Variously holding our breath and breathing therough the spearmint leaves, we took our photos looking down on the operation while trying not to imagine what the odor would be like at close range. So here is the view, which I assure you does not remotely convey the experience, for which you should be very, very grateful. In fact, benign words like “smell”, “odor”, and “aroma” are entirely unequal to the descriptive task. “Stench” starts to approach the concept but still falls a long way short; the English language needs some altogether new word to describe the olfactory sensation. Something like “glarrrrghblechomygodgag”, which I admit looks a little Welsh but which is definitely moving in the right direction. See what you can come up with. (I can hardly wait to read the comments section of this post.)

Photos taken, we got the sales pitch back in the store. The leather goods were indeed beautiful and the prices reasonable but by no means negligible. Alice came close to buying a jacket but eventually decided against it, apparently emotionally wounding the salesman to the point of suicidal depression as he followed us out into the street and down the block.

Our final stop before dinner was at a madrasah, which is to say, a religious school. The madrasahs serve as both schools and a sort of community center and are deeply rooted in history. The one we visited dated from the 14th century, spectacularly ornate with calligraphic carvings and geometric colored tiles tesselating every square foot. They were in remarkable condition after 700 years, especially considering that the courtyard is open to the elements at the top. Here we are in the front courtyard:

We ended the day with another home visit, this time to a delightful middle class family living in the modern downtown part of the city. Father was a waited and had to work, and so we had dinner with mother Hadija; her 23 daughter Loubnna (in her second year of medical school); her 22 year old daughter Fatima (studying economics), and her 15 year old son Otman (high school). Their English was pretty good, especially Loubnna’s, though we occasionally fell back on French. They were more than gracious, very warm and welcoming and eager to share their lives with us and ask about ours. We were there for about two hours and enjoyed every minute of it. I took some pictures of them, and they of us, which Fatima wants to share through Facebook. So I guess I am about to become Facebook friends with a 22 year old Moroccan girl. (The 23 year old, Loubnna, says that medical,school keeps her way too busy for Facebook.)

And that was our rather long day. Tomorrow may be even longer, most of it on the us as we head to the desert. I suspect that Internet connectivity may be spotty for the next four or five days, but I’ll do the best I can.

Categories: Africa, Morocco | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

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