Monday, March 31, 2014

Svihov - It's Pronounced Shvi Hov With The Accent On The First Syllable

Svihov Torah
Congregation Albert

As I mentioned in the previous post, we had arranged for a rental car so we could drive to Svihov (pronounced Shvi-hov with the accent on the first syllable.) Why Svihov? Not for its historic castle but for its Jewish cemetery.

The cemetery contains burials from the 16th - 19th Centuries. The Holocaust Torah scroll we have at Congregation Albert in Albuquerque comes from the Jewish community of Svihov. Thanks to research done by others I found the GPS coordinates for the cemetery online and Google Maps took us to the exact spot.

Located downhill from a beautiful church with a perfectly manicured cemetery, the Jewish cemetery is officially listed as abandoned. But it is not abandoned. While the stone wall surrounding the cemetery is falling down, stones sit on top of some of the markers, yahrzeit (memorial) candles burned on others and it is cleared that the grass is maintained.

Most of the grave stones are unreadable and stones closest to the gate are so old that they have sunk half way into the earth. As we wandered among the graves, the history of this no longer extant community came to life. A community that rarely had more than 25 households but also served the surrounding Jewish villages, its synagogue unmaintained and torn down, the cemetery remains the last tangible symbol of an ancient Jewish presence.
One stone had a pineapple on it, a symbol of learning and wisdom. Unreadable, it may have been the grave of a former rabbi. I stood by the grave, chanted the El Malei Rachamim (God full of compassion) and recited Kaddish for the members of this historic community. (Click here to see the video)

We left Svihov and drove north to Plezn - the home of the Pilsner Urkiel brewery for a tour and lunch. As usual I remained the designated driver.

Typing in Hotel Jasmine instead of Hotel Yasmin into the GPS, the drive back to Prague took us on a circuitous route through the city, past the hockey arena as people were arriving for a game, and through neighborhoods that otherwise we would never would have seen. Prague is a city with European charm with an overlay of communist block buildings.

After returning the car we ate another excellent meal and headed to bed to get some rest before our drive to Warsaw the next day.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

We Began in Prague

After running (yes literally running) to catch our plane to London, we began what looked to be an incredible journey.

We landed in Prague on Monday afternoon March 17 and were taken straight to the hotel where we met our friends from Denver. Committed to not going to bed until a "normal" time the six of us walked across the street to what I can only describe as a British Pub Czech style. The people were local, the food was local most people were smoking, and even I liked the beer - we were not in New Mexico anymore.

The heart of the trip began Tuesday morning with the arrival of our guide Ljuba Poleva 

of Legacy Tours. I have been on lots of tours with lots of guides but Ljuba was definitely in a class by herself. Born in a section of the Ukraine that was ethnically Czech the family moved to Prague when she was a child. While in university (she has her Ph.D.) she began leading tours to earn some spare cash. The fall of communism here in the Velvet Revolution brought many changes including a rise in tourism and her career was born.

Ljuba's family is an active part of the Prague Jewish community. Her father has a reserved seat in the Alt-Neu Synagogue (more on that later) and her uncle secretly taught Hebrew and Yiddish under the nose of the Communist regime and now is on the Judaic Studies faculty of the university.

We began our day with a drive by of the Jubilee synagogue built in honor of the 25th anniversary of the rule of Franz Josef. Built after the Jews were granted freedom to live anywhere in the city it is the only one outside of the traditional Jewish Quarter and the newest of the historic synagogues in Prague.

Then we headed to the Jewish quarter. The Nazis left the synagogues of the Jewish quarter standing and for the most part undamaged. However, they took all the artifacts from synagogues from across Czechoslovakia and put them in a warehouse near Prague. After the fall of Communism the Jewish community reclaimed the artifacts, distributed them throughout the old synagogues in the Jewish Quarter turning them into museums with rotating collections.

Our tour stared at the old Chevra Kadisha (Burial Society) Building.

Chevra Kadisha Building
Included in the collection there are original paintings of the work of the Chevra Kadisha. The paintings give a wonderful representation of the life and look of 15th - 16th Century Jewish Prague.
The Alt-New Synagogue

Next was the State Jewish Museum right next door in the Klausen Synagogue followed by the Alt-Neu (Old-New Synagogue) named because it consists of 2 parts built centuries apart. This was the synagogue of the Maharal - Rabbi Judah Loew the supposed creator of the Golem in the 16th Century. Legend is that the remains of the Golem are still in the attic waiting to be brought back to life. Rabbi Lowe's seat is still reserved - no one else may sit there.

The legends surrounding the Maharal have facinated me since I heard them from my rabbi when I was a child. To see his seat was a special moment. However, the real spiritual moment in this simple, unadorned synagogue was when Ljuba took us to see her father's reserved seat number 66. As she told us about her father and how her son, his grandson, would inherit that seat someday, her emotion moved each of us.

The we were off to see the Spainish, Maisel and Pinkas synagogues all of which contain parts of the museum collection. The Pinkas synagogue is also the community's Holocaust memorial. On it's walls are written the names of every Jew from Czechoslovakia deported and murdered by the Nazi's They are listed alphabetically by last name and grouped by the city/town/village that they came from. Even though they were most likely not relatives, finding our family names on these wall established a connection with the dead.

Finally a coffee break at the new Jewish tourism office with it's interactive displays and cafe.

Our tour of historic Jewish Prague finished at the old Jewish cemetery which contains burials from the 1300- 1800's. Here are buried the famous Jews from those centuries along side the Jews who's names have been forgotten. Because of the age of the cemetery and the customs of the times, some of the graves contain 8 - 12 layers of bodies. Before we entered Ljuba told us that many young people come to the cemetery looking for Franz Kafka's grave however, he died long after the cemetery had been closed and he is buried in a newer cemetery farther from the city center. Within minutes of entering the cemetery 3 young English speaking women came up to Ljuba and asked her if she knew where Kafka was buried. The look of disappointment in their eyes was evident.
Rabbi Loew's Grave

When we arrived at Rabbi Loew's grave and I silently said Kaddish for him and thanked him for inspiring me for all these years.

After our 2:00 PM lunch our tour of Prague began. First we went to the castle home of Czech kings and presidents dating back to the 9th century. Now, most of the buildings serve as museums and government offices including the office of the President. Our tour should have ended there since it was after 5:00. But Ljuba insisted we were not done and had to walk the Charles Bridge, the oldest bridge in the city dating back to late medieval times.

On the bridge are statues representing the historic legends of Prague, great religious leaders and a crucifix with the Hebrew words Holy Holy Holy is the Eternal of Hosts.

(CalvaryHoly Crucifix - the crucifix used to be in this place ever since the time of Charles IV as the first decoration on the bridge, and it has been replaced several times since then. The sandstone sculptures of Virgin Mary and St. John were made by Emanuel Max in 1861; the current bronze, gold-plated crucifix was cast in Dresden in 1629 by H. Hillinger, and it was purchased in 1657 for Prague with a contribution of Karel Škréta. The strongly gold-plated inscription in Hebrew “Holy, holy, holy is the God of the crowds” (Kadosh, Kadosh, Kadosh, Adoshem Cevaot) located around the crucifix was paid for by the royal tribunal in 1696, according to the inscription on the pedestal, using a penalty of a Jew who scorned the crucifix. However, the legend is false; the convict was a victim of untrue denouncement. For the Jewish citizens and city visitors, this inscription is incomprehensible and it offences their religious belief; therefore there are three plates now, positioned on the 8th March 2000, with an explanatory note, and their author is sculptor Vlastislav Housa.)

After dinner it was time to prepare for the next day's trip to Svihov. We had arranged for a rental car but since we were going on toll roads we needed to buy an electronic pass only available at the Post Office. Fortunately Czech Post Offices are open from 2:00 AM - midnight (can you even imagine?). Thankfully there was a college student behind us in line who spoke perfect English who helped us deal with the Czech speaking clerk. I offered to pay the postage costs for his package but he wouldn't hear of it. His kindness was just one example of the graciousness we experienced from the Czech people.

Monday, March 10, 2014


Parents with kids in the Congregation Albert School of Jewish Studies, please join me Sunday morning from 9:30 - 10:30 to talk about our schools, the report from Debbie Niederman and anything else on your mind. 

And then you can stay for the PURIM FESTIVITIES!!!!!!!!!!!!