Late in the afternoon during our first day in Prague, my wife and I ventured into Old Town, one of the many areas in the city that contain major cultural attractions. In front of one of the churches, we approached a scruffy young man with a sign indicating a free walking tour. He said that he was waiting for another couple to join him momentarily.
In the meantime, he wanted to impress upon us why we were fortunate to have chosen him as our guide. Unlike other tour agents, he was born in Prague and has lived there all of his life, amassing a wealth of in-depth knowledge about the historical roots, branches, and even twigs of the city.
My wife, sensing that he was a blowhard, quickly began to lose interest and slowly slid into the background. I, on the other hand, indulged him throughout his blow-by-blow account of Hitler’s cleverly contrived annexation of the Sudetenland. I wasn’t sure if he was very well informed: he kept turning his head away from me to search for that elusive couple and any other potential clients, so much so that I couldn’t hear everything that he was so intent to tell me. And boy was he intent. It seemed as if it was his mission in life to enlighten me and at the same time to snatch up more recruits. I was getting dizzy watching him throughout his jerky monologue.
Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed that my wife started to move further away from us. I got the hint. When the desperate fellow wasn’t looking at me, I took off. But he twisted his head around in time to see a sliver of me as I, with my wife, tried to escape. As he plunged toward us, we managed to squeeze into a crowd and lose him.
It wasn’t a very heroic retreat, but where my wife goes, I go, and she rarely leads me astray.
When we go back to Old Town, I wonder if we will run into—or run away from—that tour guide again. Perhaps he’ll find a new haunt. Perhaps he’ll be at the chiropractors. His neck must be awfully sore from constantly scanning his prey.
St. Vitus Cathedral: a One-Way Street
The foremost attraction at the Prague Castle is the Cathedral of St. Vitus. As in St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna, you can see a portion of the church without buying a ticket, as we did yesterday during our orientation to the castle compound. Yet a partial view of such a monolithic church isn’t sufficient. Today, along with thousands of tourists, we saw the real deal. St. Vitus is a very unusual cathedral. Along the bottom half of the sanctuary, there are surreal, psychedelic stained glass windows alternating with traditionally representational tableaux.
Off to the side behind a door, my wife and I sat in a small chapel that featured a startling bas relief of three main figures: Jesus unconscious on the cross, with his mother Mary and Mary Magdalene on either side beneath him. Jesus is emaciated. He has just a smidgen of flesh on his rickety rib cage. His mother is dejected. She looks downward. But Mary Magdalene adoringly, almost voluptuously looks up at Jesus as if she senses that his death is only temporary; his glory is forever.
Normally, a magnificent altarpiece is the focal point of a sanctuary, but not at St. Vitus. Considering how spacious this gothic cathedral is, the short, plainly adorned altarpiece portraying a nondescript Virgin Mary is almost unobtrusive. But behind the altarpiece and overshadowed by it is a baroque silver-coated extravaganza. Two huge angels hover in mid-air, holding red drapery above the statue of an oversized saint (St. John of Bohemia) who is kneeling on a bier upheld by two other angels. He is cradling a cross that looks like a sword and contains a large figurine of the inlaid body of Jesus upon it. This monumental scene could have served well as the centerpiece of the Cathedral.
Further on in the back of the Cathedral is a richly paneled chapel containing wall-to-wall paintings, the upper portion devoted to St. Wenceslas, the patron saint of the Czech nation. The décor resembles that of a palatial museum touting a precious exhibition room rarely found in a church.
The worst unusual aspect of the Cathedral has to do with the staff. As my wife and I were near the end of our visit, we wanted to go back to see a few more items. An officious attendant with the bearing of an undertaker said no, you must go forward; you can never backtrack in the Cathedral. That’s the rule. We were shocked. We told him that this so-called policy is absurd. My wife especially was outraged. She tried to argue with the man, but he would not budge, literally. He stood before us, blocking our way back. He replied, “No, no, no Madame. I’m only following orders.” (Come to think of it, this guy used not only Adolph Eichmann’s oft-repeated excuse; he also looks like him.) And then he told a whopper: “All churches are this way, everywhere.” What rot! Not one of the churches we had visited in Vienna or Salzburg had this inane precondition, whether we paid to get in or not. In any case, as another attendant began to join the fray, we exited.
I wonder if there is a patron saint of mindless bureaucrats.
A Night at the Opera
Last night, my wife and I attended a performance of Mozart’s Don Giovanni given by the Prague National Theater Opera Company at the Estates Theater in Prague, the same venue where Mozart conducted the 1787 premiere of Don Giovanni. In fact, the Estates Theater is the only opera house still standing where Mozart was the maestro. The Prague National Theater Opera Company performs only at the Estates Theater, and appropriately their repertoire is primarily Mozart operas.
The theater itself is a marvel to behold. It has four wrap around balconies in an intimate setting, two people to a booth. The décor is highlighted with original 18th century trimmings, including carved arabesques and angels that also enclose either end of the compact orchestra section. The name of the theater may have changed over the years, but astoundingly, nothing in its interior has been altered since Mozart’s time. And to perform Don Giovanni in modern dress would be unthinkable, even sacrilegious.
The performance of the opera last night was a fitting tribute to Mozart. The two main divas had rich, strong, vibrant, and enchanting voices: Donna Anna (Marie Fajtova), and Donna Elvira (Alzbeta Polackova). Being in the fourth row, I could feel their provocative singing reverberate within me. The two male leads, Don Giovanni (Svotopluk Sem) and his comic sidekick Leporetto (Jan Stava) had equally powerful and expressive voices even when bantering at the back of the stage, a tough feat for a baritone and a bass, thanks to their own talent plus the wonderful acoustics of the Estates Theater.
It wasn’t just the singing that delighted me. The acting, not always a forte for opera stars, was superb. Every emotion from moral indignation to mock heroics, from self-aggrandizement to self-pity, from sweetness to sass, felt authentic, true to form.
It is difficult to hold an audience’s attention during recitatives, which many opera goers have little use for: “Give me melody or give me death.” Each member of the cast, however, put so much passion into the recitatives that these plot segments were almost as riveting as the arias, duets, and quartets.
It would take countless bravos to fully show my and my wife’s appreciation of Don Giovanni at the Estates Theater. We just found out that before we leave Prague in a couple of weeks, this same opera group will perform Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro.
At a matinee price of only $30 apiece for a seat up close, my wife and I will promptly get tickets. Not just promptly but first in line tomorrow when the box office opens.
My wife and I have had problems trying to figure out how to get an overview of Prague, with its sprawling Old Town, New Town, Lesser Town, and outlying towns, all of which have incredibly numerous and worthwhile cultural attractions, hundreds in fact, according to some travel websites. Well, there are guided walking tours, hop on and off bus tours, boat tours, city tours, and random self-walking tours. My wife and I prefer the latter approach and have succeeded with it in every other country we have ever visited, from Mexico to Israel.
But so far in Prague, we have been struggling. But today, we got a much better grip on how things are situated. I had recently read about the lofty views of the city from the Petrin Tower in the Lesser Town. After scouring the public transportation map, I discovered that it was fairly easy to reach that site: 16 stops on tram 9 to Ujezd, a short walk to the funicular at the base of the Petrin complex, and another short walk to the 299 stairs or to the lift at the base of the Tower.
Once at the top, my wife and I had 360-degree views of every part of Prague that we had intended to visit. Now it all fit together. It actually wasn’t as helter-skelter as we had imagined. We could see where Old town, New Town, and the Lesser Town began and ended, where the major churches, castles, palaces, and museums were located in relation to one another, and how the bridges intersected with various regions of the city.
We are now no longer intimidated by Prague, whose major attractions admittedly are more widely spaced than those contained in a smaller city like Salzburg and a larger one like Vienna.
One drawback to the Petrin Tower is that it is so high. If you have vertigo, beware. However, it could be worse. Except for a few open windows for picture taking, the lookout is enclosed by glass not just to ensure safety but to at least somewhat alleviate vertigo.
Another concern is that the tower moves slightly when people tramp up and down the stairs. (My wife and I took the lift. Most folks, regardless of age, climbed the stairs.) If you have motion sickness, you could get a little nauseous.
I have both vertigo and motion sickness. While my wife and I were at the Tower, I did get a little woozy, but I managed pretty well during our half-hour visit. The majestic views sufficiently sustained my interest so that I thought less about my queasiness. And knowing more about the layout of the city was well worth some stomach discomfort.
So if need be, take your trusty Dramamine and sally forth to the Tower.
The first synagogue my wife and I visited in the Prague Jewish Quarter, the Pinkas Synagogue, was an unexpected downer. All the walls were filled with thousands of the names of Jewish innocents from Bohemia and Moravia who were killed in the Holocaust. My own surname was occasionally included in the listings. One or more of my ancestors could have been among those victims—my family tree is pretty sketchy.
I didn’t realize that this synagogue is actually a museum, as are most of the other synagogues in the Jewish Quarter that contain an assortment of Holocaust-free Judaica, from wedding dresses to funeral shrouds. Nor does the Jewish cemetery relate to the Holocaust; the gravesites are pre-19th century. The Maisel synagogue was closed for renovations. Why couldn’t the Pinkas synagogue have been shuttered instead? That way, I wouldn’t have been painfully reminded of the Holocaust on a day that wasn’t supposed to deal with such horror: Our trip to the Terezin concentration camp was planned for a later date.
Speaking of Terezin. After I had managed half-dazed to make my way through the walls of names, I went upstairs. My wife was already there, looking at children’s drawings of life at Terezin, the Nazi’s showcase concentration camp, whenever the Red Cross entered. So now I had to face hundreds of drawings composed by some of the 150,000 ill-fated children at Terezin? I was so repulsed that after spying a couple of drawings, I bolted from the synagogue.
I was in a funk until from a nearby courtyard I heard a Hebrew melody that I was very familiar with. As I approached, I saw a group of ultra-orthodox young men clasping one another’s shoulders and singing joyously. I couldn’t help myself. I started chanting too—but from a discrete distance: They wore long-sleeved white shirts, long black pants fringed with tzitzit and black shoes. I was dressed in a colored T- shirt, shorts, and running shoes. Regardless of how I looked, I edged closer to my tribe, continuing to sing with them, even if at times I was a beat behind because I only vaguely knew the tune and the words. It was so heartwarming to be a part of this Jewish world that the heartbreaking images that had disturbed me earlier no longer mattered.
When we were done, the young men started dancing together. I figured that our camaraderie was over. I was wrong. Suddenly, one of them pulled me into the group, and I hectically but happily swirled around with them until I got dizzy. But there was to be another exchange before I had time to rest. The same fellow who got me to dance took me aside, tied tefillin (phylacteries) to my arms and forehead, plunked a yarmulke on my head, and urged me to recite two of the most sacred Hebrew prayers, the Shema and the V’ahafata from Deuteronomy 6:4. I knew both of them relatively well from memory, but when I did slightly pause, he quickened the pace by reciting the holy text along with me.
The same unsolicited encounter occurred in Venice a few years ago when a Hasid in the Jewish Ghetto yanked me into a prayer room, adorned me with the proper tools, and hovered over me as I a little nervously said the obligatory prayers that every devout Jew (I have never been that devout) is expected to recite at least three times every day. Thanks to the Hasid’s perhaps divinely inspired intervention, I rededicated myself to my faith outside of a temple setting.
In both cases, I got recharged by participating in a Jewish community so far from home. The rest of my visit to the Prague synagogues was pretty upbeat. It got even better when my wife told me that those drawings I had stiff-necked avoided at the first synagogue were not composed by the children at Terezin but by non-Jewish students who had visited that concentration camp on an educational tour. What a magnificent internalization on their part! When my wife and I go back to the synagogues (we have a week pass), I will make time to give those drawings my full attention. Then I will truly be ready to undertake my own journey to Terezin.
The Virtues of Getting Lost
Today, my wife and I had a flexible plan: we were to explore as much or as little territory in the Lesser Town as we wanted. There was no agenda. All we had to do was get off a tram near the world renowned pedestrian Charles Bridge, cross it as it spans the Vltava river, and end up in the Lesser Town.
The tram dropped us off at the prearranged stop a few blocks to the bridge. I saw a tower in the distance that looked like the entrance way to the bridge, as I explained to my wife. She was skeptical, but followed my lead nonetheless. When we got to the tower, there was no bridge and no river. We were in an unfamiliar area, but of course we must still be going in the right direction because I saw a street sign indicating that I was in Charles Square, and if there is a Charles Square, there must be a Charles Bridge close by, no?
In the meantime, we stopped to enjoy the new sights. The coal black, unadorned formidably wide City Hall Tower in Charles Square was just as imposing as the ramparts next to the Charles Bridge. Within the city square were a series of parks dotted with radiant flower beds and equipped with a kids’ playground. And with a few statues and a couple of fountains, you have a delightful oasis in the middle of a big city.
A majestic church loomed across the street from one of the parks. We just had to take a look. It happened to be the Jesuit Church of St. Ignatius. Its sanctuary was replete with the kinds of ornate paintings, sculptures, and decorative accoutrements that characterize baroque churches—with accompanying angels, saints, the Virgin Mary, and the crucified Christ.
But this church had two curious items that I had never seen before. To the left of the entrance is an alcove filled with bas relief cave-like stones. Two female statues are encapsulated: a lovely woman in richly colored clothing kneels before the starkly pure white Virgin Mary. Both women look alike. Is it possible that the tableau portrays Mary before and after the Annunciation? I’d like to think so.
On the right hand side of the sanctuary there is a two-part painting. In other European churches that I have visited, crucifixion scenes uniformly depict Jesus as haggard, almost cadaverous—not so in St. Ignatius. Here on the cross, Jesus is handsome and well-muscled, sure of himself, at peace. On the other hand, in the bottom half of the painting, hordes of tormented people are engulfed in flames, frantically reaching out towards the cross. It is uncertain if they will be saved or damned. This odd painting is unnerving, to say the least.
After leaving St. Ignatius, my wife and I continued searching for the Charles Bridge. On our way, we noticed another church that looked big enough to be a monastery; and so it was: Emmaus Benedictine Monastery. Always curious, we entered. What a contrast to the ultra-opulent Benedictine monastery we visited in Melk, Austria, and how different from its neighbor church, St. Ignatius. Here, most of the interior walls are bare. A few of them have patches of paintings faded over the centuries. In one room, the main feature is a meager metal cross hanging on wires. In another, there is a nondescript wooden cross fastened to a wall. The last room we visited, the imperial chapel, is more decorative, with earth toned textured walls and two delicately drawn 18th century paintings of various saints facing each other. To the right of this area is a recent, incongruous addition: an abstract mixture of a red and white towering blob.
The exterior is just as strange to me as the interior. On one side of the church, the ancient walls are badly scarred and chipped. They need lots of repair. On the other side, a two-pronged modernistic spire juts out. It was constructed after the Allied bombing in World War 11 destroyed part of the monastery. From the travel brochures, I knew about that addition and had long anticipated seeing it. I was glad that I now had the chance to view the soaring spire in person.
It was getting late in the afternoon. We still hadn’t found the Charles Bridge. We finally realized after consulting with the woman at the front desk of the monastery that we had been walking in the wrong direction ever since we got off the tram.
We eventually made it to the bridge and the Lesser Town, but we had little time to really appreciate the sights. We’ll go back next week.
In the meantime, we had the opportunity to extensively cover Charles Square and a bit beyond. I don’t know if we would have gone there before heading for Budapest next week. I’m happy that we did. It was like unearthing hidden treasures.
Two Men Who Had an Impact on Me
Yesterday I had memorable encounters with two different men. As my wife and I were almost done with our tour of the Prague Jerusalem/Jubilee Synagogue, a few ultra-orthodox Jews from Israel came in. One of the men began quietly chanting Hebrew prayers at the bema. He had a very pleasant voice. When he was done, he went up to the balcony and began singing more passionately. In fact, he sounded like a full-fledged cantor. He stopped for a moment while his wife took some pictures of him; then he resumed with equal fervor, occasionally pausing for a photo op or perhaps a video clip.
My wife encouraged me to ask him if he knew the renowned cantor from the Jerusalem Great Synagogue, Chaim Adler, whom we had religiously heard at Friday night services when we stayed in Jerusalem last year. The man, who it turned out didn’t understand any English, vigorously nodded. Then he started speaking to me in Hebrew. I caught only a word or two, but I wasn’t dismayed at all. I was honored that after I interrupted his chanting, he desired to converse with me. Curious about his wondrous talent, I repeated the Hebrew word for cantor, and pointed at him. He shook his head but seemed pleased that I thought that he could be a chazan. As he began singing once more, I stood next to him. I felt rooted in my heritage being so close to this man that I would not budge until he finished his sublime chanting. Just as he started to leave the balcony, he touched his heart and said “Ani Avraham”—I am Abraham. I replied, “Ani Schlomo.” He responded with a gleam in his eye, “Melech”—for King Solomon, my namesake. I vigorously nodded. That was the end of our encounter.
Abraham was such an inspiration that after his group departed and the synagogue was empty, I walked downstairs, faced the Ark, and without thinking, sang in a booming voice the Schema, translated as “Hear oh Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one; praised by His name forever and ever.” What a rush! My spirit was soaring, thanks to Abraham.
My other encounter wasn’t as life enhancing, but it too boosted my adrenaline. Late at night, as my wife and I were stepping off the tram next to our apartment, a tall, young, burly man smelling of booze, growled at me in Czech. I was behind my wife, who was slowly getting off the tram—she has a bum knee. Perhaps not satisfied with her progress, the man started to push me so hard that I might have fallen against my wife, with both of us crashing into the pavement. Without thinking, and with unexpected force, I shoved the guy right back so that he stumbled off the steps to the left of my wife, missing her completely. Checkmate! Luckily for him—I was feeling invincible—or for me—he was much bigger and younger than I am—instead of confronting me, he just straightened himself and walked away, never looking back.
My wife was amazed that I had the nerve to mess with the bruiser; she was also delighted that I had protected her from getting hurt. I’d like to think that the surge I had from being in the presence of Abraham gave me the strength to ward off the menacing man on the tram.
I was my wife’s hero that night, just as Abraham was mine earlier at the synagogue: just another astonishingly strange day in Prague.
As my wife and I toured Namesti Republiky area in New Town, we visited the unorthodox Church of the Holy Cross.
In many Prague churches, the confessionals are finely hewn and burnished black, double-wide and double sided, with no doors or drapery for privacy. There is an abundance of them in each church; in fact, I once counted 14 confessionals in the San Salvator Church. And they are strategically placed in the sanctuary (although I once saw a few of them outside in a church courtyard) so that you can’t miss them. The Church of the Holy Cross is an exception. There are only three narrow confessionals tucked away on the corner opposite the entryway. The wood is ordinary, utilitarian, certainly not a work of art. And there are doors to seclude each penitent from onlookers.
Most Prague churches have decoratively painted walls and paintings or frescoes on those walls. In the Church of the Holy Cross, except for one wall hanging, a blown-up picture of the image of Jesus on St. Veronica’s Handkerchief, the colorless interior walls from floor to nave are blank. There is not one painting in the sanctuary.
Every church in Prague has an array of baby angels. Not so at the Church of the Holy Cross. There is only one baby angel; it rests in a recess on one side of an unusually unornamented brass-colored organ, the plainest organ so far that I have seen in Prague.
Many other churches in the city place the Madonna somewhere in the Altarpiece. Not in this church. Here, the Virgin Mary is depicted elsewhere in two statues; in both instances she is cradling Jesus, once when he is a baby (to the left of the Altarpiece) and once after he has died (the Pieta is to the right as you enter the sanctuary).
Jesus in the altarpieces of dozens of churches I have visited in Prague doesn’t look any older than 40 or so, and in most of them, he is portrayed dramatically, whether he appears to be virile or cadaverous. In the large altarpiece of the Church of the Holy Cross, however, Jesus seems to be a weary old man, expressionless, almost a nonentity.
By citing all of these differences, I have not meant to disparage the Church of the Holy Cross. For example, the statues of Mary and Jesus are extraordinarily expressive, especially the heart-wrenching Pieta. But there is one thing in this church, one that I haven’t seen in any other church so far, that greatly disturbs me. To the right of the Altarpiece there is a statue of a proud middle-aged priest curling his arm around an innocent-looking handsome male adolescent. I and my wife both detected a smirk on the priest’s face, perhaps even a leer. The young man seems oblivious to any potential danger, but I felt unnerved. Perhaps I overreacted. The tableau might be harmless. I might well be off the mark: just because pedophile priests have abused so many altar boys over the years, the statue should stand on its own merits, unblemished by any bias. Nonetheless, I was compelled to check the back of the statue to see just how close the priest’s arm was to the young man. I had hoped that there would be even a little room between the two figures. Maybe then I would be less uneasy. But instead what I found was that all of the priest’s hand was firmly clasped onto the young man’s back. I had a righteous urge to wrest the priest’s hand away from his unwitting ward. How’s that for objectivity? In any case, I abstained. But in my funk, I did think that the, at best, inappropriate statue could well represent something unholy about The Church of the Holy Cross.
Christian symbols are so prominently displayed throughout Prague that it is sometimes difficult to determine if you are entering a church or an information center. The other day after my wife and I were had toured the grounds of a monastery in Lesser Town, we came to an impressive building on a steep incline. On its facing was a large statue of the crucifixion.
It could well have been a church, although it wasn’t listed as such in my comprehensive guide, Tracking Prague’s Religious Architecture.
Even though we had other sites on our agenda, I was curious enough to trudge up to the structure. When I got inside, I saw a reception desk manned by a uniformed clerk, not a cleric. Strewn about the lobby were pamphlets about things to do in Prague. This place wasn’t a church—it was a hotel.
The ACLU and the Americans United for the Separation of Church and State would have much to do in Prague, where the secular and the sacred intertwine.
Because the local grocery store has a meager selection of wines, I had to walk some distance to a Walmart-type Superstore to replace a bottle of wine that our home-exchange host had left for my wife and me. The store was huge. I figured that instead of searching for wine in the maze of aisles marked with incomprehensible Czech lettering, I’d ask for help. A young lady who was stacking groceries used a lot of hand gestures to guide me to the wine, but after I still looked confused, she kindly escorted me to a section at the far end of the store. When she left, I started to search for a bottle of Yellow Tail Cabernet Sauvignon with the tell-tale picture of a kangaroo on it. Sounds like a snap, eh? Wrong!
There weren’t just a couple of shelves containing wine: there were aisles and aisles of myriad types of wine organized according to no plan that I could fathom. The Yellow Tale label was as hard to find as Waldo in a tall thicket. I scoured the area a few times without any luck. Finally, I spied a Yellow Tail insignia, but it was a merlot, not a sauvignon. By this time, I was ready to get out of this hodgepodge of wines. Then as I turned around, I saw my long-sought after wine on a lower shelf. There was only one bottle left. Relieved, I grabbed it as if it were precious cargo.
When I got back to the apartment, I told my wife about my little adventure. She listened attentively but said nothing. The next day after when she went shopping at the same store, my wife confirmed that I wasn’t exaggerating. There were hundreds, perhaps thousands, of bottles housed in an area almost as large as an ABC store. Incidentally, the superstore had liquor as well but hardly as much as the monotonous stacks of wine.
If there is any truth to the saying In Vino Veritas, then this superstore has enough wine to correct all the falsehoods in the world.
The Glory of Stained-glass Windows
On our last day of sightseeing in Prague, my wife and I visited two magnificent gothic churches: the Church of St. Peter and St. Paul in the fortress of Vysehrad and Ludmilla Church in Vinohrady. Both of them contained my favorite sight in any religious edifice, superbly etched stained-glass windows with Biblical tableaux.
It took a while, however, to get a chance to enter these two churches. After strolling through the abundant scenic vistas at Vysehrad as we approached the church, we stopped at the cemetery where the classical composers Antonin Dvorak, Bedrich Smetana, and Joseph Suk are buried. There are so many kinds of statues (from small busts to monoliths) and odd-shaped decorative headstones (from stone toadstools to towering marble slabs) that we spent at least an hour browsing about at the cemetery.
By eleven o’clock, we were ready to enter the church. But it was temporarily closed for a wedding. It would take at least two hours for the preparations, the wedding ceremony, and the cleanup aftermath before the church would reopen. We were sure glad that we weren’t with a tour group. The delay could have caused havoc in its regulated and regimented schedule.
For the duration, my wife plunked herself down at a café for one of her daily doses of cappuccino while I prowled around the grounds. Two hours later, we were allowed to enter the church. We were not disappointed. At St. Peter and St. Paul’s sanctuary, there is none of the baroque bravado and arrogance of the first gothic church we visited in Prague, St. Vitus. Nor is there the grandiosity of the superabundant treasury at St. Loreto; the few treasures at St. Peter and St. Paul’s while not ostentatious are elegant. In fact, everything at this church in Vysehrad is tastefully done: the pastel Art Noveau paintings of saints on all of the pillars, muted frescoes of New Testament scenes on the upper levels of the nave, the intricately folded cloth wrapped around the thighs of Jesus and the undulating folds of Mary’s robe as she encompasses Jesus on her lap in the marble Pieta, and in another Pieta, this one wooden, the unusual portraying of Mary covering her face with both of her hands in quiet anguish. Even the obligatory baby angels are unobtrusive and miraculously attractive. The silver-plated altarpiece primarily devoted to St. Peter and St Paul, with the Crucifixion placed above high above them, while relatively ornate, is not gaudy.
Perhaps it was the time of day and the intermittent cloud cover, but there was a breathtaking contrast between the ten intensely colored stain-glass windows and the subdued colors of everything else in the sanctuary. Each one of the thirteen-paneled spotlighted windows (three of them behind the altarpiece) gleamingly displays a different Gospel scene that is so realistically drawn that you think that you are a part of the drama. Right above every one of these depictions is a sharply detailed picture of the church’s spire. The top and bottom sections of each window consist of various arabesques that look like the coruscating fragments of a kaleidoscope. What a sight! It rivals the Tribes of Israel stained-glass windows at the Hadassah Hospital in Israel that I marveled at last year.
Before my wife and I attended a service at the Spanish Synagogue that evening (it was an ecumenical day for us), we had some spare time. So we get off one stop early on the metro to explore an area we had never seen before. The moment we exited, we saw in the distance the gothic church in Vinohrady that was unfortunately locked when I and my wife chanced to come upon it last week.
We noticed that some stragglers from the five o’clock mass were leaving the church. That was our cue. We rushed into the church before the doors were locked. When we looked up, an array of stained-glass windows greeted us, windows just as incredibly brilliant as the ones we saw in Vysehrad. Even though a couple of priests were making final preparations for their departure and two cleaning ladies were mopping up the aisles, we kept looking at the stained-glass, awestruck as ever. We had no time to enjoy the rest of the church, but that didn’t matter. The sights above were paramount. The windows were designed similarly to the ones at the St. Peter and St. Paul Church; the only obvious difference was there weren’t so many of them. When we sensed that it was time to go before we might be unceremoniously escorted out, we tried to exit from the front where we had entered. The door was locked, as was the other two adjacent to it. Undeterred, we tried to locate another way out. Before we could find one, a young man told us to follow him. He flew towards a side door, opened it, and we followed him out. Then he disappeared.
At the end of our stay in Prague, we were entranced by two places with magnificently glowing stain-glassed windows. What a treat! I hope we will have such brilliant success in Budapest.
Synagogue Insecurity in Prague
In Prague, one doesn’t just walk into a synagogue a few minutes before services begin. The door is locked until a lay leader or rabbi arrives. At that time, a security team begins to screen members and visitors. I wasn’t aware of this precaution until last Friday night.
While my wife and I and a few other people were waiting for the Spanish Synagogue to open, a young man wearing a yarmulke, dressed in fatigues, and carrying an oversized backpack approached us. He wanted to know when services were scheduled to begin. I told him that according to the security guards, there had been a slight delay. The young man dropped off his backpack a few feet from us and then moved to the side. I never considered that he might have been a terrorist either ready to watch a bomb explode from a timing device or ready to detonate it himself. I found out later on that my wife had some concerns about the backpack, but I remained oblivious to any danger.
After the two security guards who were milling around the synagogue noticed the backpack lying next to the synagogue, they immediately picked it up and demanded to know who had left it there. We all pointed to the young man who was standing nearby. The guards questioned him and seemed satisfied with his answers. Then they asked all of us for identification (passport or some official ID) and searched all of our belongings. I guess they weren’t too thorough because they did not find a sharp kitchen knife that my wife had squirreled away in her fanny pack in case we wanted to cut up some fruit. I had forgotten about the knife altogether until my wife enlightened me after services. I’m glad that I didn’t know about how perfunctory security had been in rummaging through my wife’s stuff. If they were so lax then, I would have wondered all through the service how exhaustively they had searched the suspicious backpack.
I understand that going into a synagogue or even wearing Jewish insignia can be risky business in some parts of Europe. That’s why top-notch security guards are needed. I hope these men and women who protect Jewish interests are better trained than the two security men who failed to uncover my wife’s potentially deadly weapon.
If the Israelis had given these security guards a basic proficiency course in how to handle a fanny pack, never mind a backpack, I doubt this kind of error would have occurred. In the meantime, I’d sack the security team.
Continuation of the Spanish Synagogue Vignette
Once we got situated in the Conservative synagogue, it felt heartening to see a good number of people congregated in the small sanctuary. The ultra-casually dressed lay leader was also very pleased that he had at least the required amount of people for a minyan (10). Except for a few stray personal and procedural comments in English—the Spanish Synagogue caters to English-speaking Jews—the lay leader conducted the service solely in Hebrew, as one would expect in a Conservative synagogue anywhere in the world.
I had a hard time following the text because the lay leader read so rapidly and sometimes forgot to tell us what page he was on. Some of the songs were unfamiliar to me as well. But when there were a few hymns that I knew well, I sang lustily but a little flat, my nemesis when I chant prayers either seated in the congregation or when I conduct services at my home temple.
In the middle of the service, the lay leader (I guess he liked my voice) asked me if I was a professional singer. I was taken aback. No way, I told him as I blushed a bit.
At the end of the service, just before the Kiddish, the chanted blessing over the wine, the lay leader asked me if I would do the honor. I accepted and figured that I could, as I usually do, look at the Hebrew while I sang. I have trouble memorizing anything longer than a few words long. Oh no, he said. Just sing spontaneously; forget the book. Luckily, when I faltered, he softly sang along with me. I did a decent job, but I would have been much more expert if I had the Hebrew in front of me. But I wasn’t too troubled: I mellowed out after I drank the extra-large glass of wine that the lay leader had provided me as I began the Kiddish.
I learned a lot that night. No matter where I am when I travel, if I go to a synagogue and if I sing loudly enough to attract attention, I’d better be prepared to have the Kiddish or some other traditional prayers memorized, just in case I am singled out to lead a chant. If I can’t do that, I have another option: sing with less zest. I’d rather not dampen my enthusiasm, so it looks like I’d better infuse my memory with some high octane.
Two Operas in Two Days, What’s not to like?
It’s not hard to figure out how much it would cost to get a prime ticket to see a high-quality opera in America: at least one-hundred dollars. But in Prague during the last two days my wife and I spent there, the National Theater Opera Company’s matinee performance of The Marriage of Figaro cost us thirty dollars apiece; and for only fifty dollars apiece, the next day we attended an evening performance of the State Opera Company’s Rigoletto. In each case, we had choice orchestra seats in the third row.
In The Marriage of Figaro, the cast, besides having superbly nuanced voices, played the comic misadventures of the sets of fickle lovers to the hilt. In fact, at one point, there was a food fight with real food flung with so much verve that some of it landed in the orchestra pit and at the side of the aisles.
In the tragic Rigoletto, the hunch backed court jester, Rigoletto, had magnificent emotional surges as an outcast, a protective father, an avenger, and a broken man who inadvertently causes his daughter’s death. In all of these encounters, he incredibly stretched his baritone range to the max whether he was satirical, submissive, fearful, wrathful, or piteous.
To see on two consecutive days two tremendously performed operas was a fitting climax to our stay in Prague. And in each case, the two venues, the Theater Estates and the State Opera House, were studded with just the right amount of baroque atmospheric trimmings to enhance our enjoyment of the operas.
We will be in Budapest for the next and last three weeks of our European vacation. I wonder if Budapest can match the architectural and artistic marvels of Prague. After the glorious esthetic sendoff the two operas afforded us in Prague, it might be a tough act to follow.