I spoke a few weeks ago, at the beginning of this trip, about the unique experience of returning over and over again to the same city. Paris is especially unique in this sense for me as I not only have visited several times but also lived there for a time. Prague, however, where I spent a couple days last week, was never a city to which I expected to return.
I first visited Prague when I was seventeen on a youth group trip through Eastern Europe and Israel. I instantly fell in love with the city. The history was fascinating, the architecture beautiful, the people friendly. There was just some unidentifiable charm that drew me in immediately. Whatever it was, I couldn’t stop praising the city to my mom when I got home. It was certainly not due to any lack of love for the city that I never thought I would return. It was simply not an idea that crossed my mind (then again a return trip to Europe was still a barely conceivable thought, if anything, at that point in my life).
My how things can change. About three years later I was living in Paris and a couple of my friends invited me to go to Prague for the weekend. I didn’t even need to think it over. Another great weekend. Another new way to experience the city as we focused more on strolling and site-seeing rather than the Jewish history and Museums. The timing of the trip was perfect (if we ignored the biting cold) as we also got to visit the Christmas Market – and we all know how much I love markets!
After this visit to Prague, my mom was emphatic that she wanted to go there herself and determined that it would happen. We discussed it when she came to visit me in Europe at the end of that year but it wasn’t a reasonable destination with the other places we had chosen. This year she would hear no excuses, we were going to Prague. I was a little more hesitant to return this time, certain that I had seen it all (this is silly, I don’t think this is actually ever possible anywhere). But it was her trip and her decision. I think some part of me did still want to go back also, at the least to simply see if it still met the expectations of my memories.
It did. I finally got to return to the synagogues and Jewish cemetery, while there which were still as awe-inspiring as I remember. The Old New Synagogue is definitely more old than new and quite the thought-provoking building to wander through, although a little tight and crowded with all the other tourists and groups. It is still used for services today, amazingly, and is the oldest active synagogue in Europe (built at the end of the 13th century). The other synagogues (there are several), many with exhibits about Jewish history and artifacts, are also worth visiting. Don’t forget a stroll through the cemetery either. It is truly moving (and a little eerie) as you walk through the rows of headstones piled atop each other and leaning into one another. It feels as if you’re walking through history.
We also attended Friday evening services as we had in Budapest. We considered going to the Old New Synagogue but went instead to the Spanish Synagogue, which today is actually host to a more ashkenazi and reform community. The Rabbi said that they usually manage to make Minyan (a minimum of 10 adults, or ten men in more conservative communities) but often don’t have many more people than that. For this reason, he said, they always enjoy having visitors (probably one of the easiest synagogue’s to find and get into in my Europe experiences). And they were certainly not lacking in visitors that night! In addition to my mom, me, and a couple other americans we met before the service there was a large group of Iranian Jews (on some organized trip it seemed) as well as many other travelers whose origins I did not learn. The Rabbi led the service in English as the language which the majority of people understood. The service was especially enjoyable as we got to share our different tunes and traditions and also found several that we all knew. Before going, we had expected a simple, normal service, but we got so much more thanks to the unique and varied community we shared the evening with! I repeat myself from my last post : wherever you go!
As for those of you who are less religiously inclined or interested, don’t worry, Prague wasn’t all Jew-stuff. We also did our fair amount of window shopping, (of course). I’d never had reason to explore the shopping areas of the city and was quite surprised by what they had to offer (the only person to get any clothes from Prague, however, is my newborn niece – and she wasn’t even there!). I’d also never realized that the region is so well-known for garnets. The shops were everywhere, and they had some truly beautiful pieces!
We also paid a quick visit to the castle, although it was too late for us to actually go in by the time we made our way up there. The clock tower in the old square is another must. I was hoping to catch the little show when the clock strikes the hour, unfortunately it was too crowded for us to see. If you have the chance, it’s a fun and quick thing to stop by and see, though. As is the church on the other side of the square. Both are absolutely beautiful buildings, the church is especially amazing when lit up at night. No need for a Disneyland in Prague, it’s already got it’s own fairy tale castle right there!
Overall, even after three visits I’m still enjoying the city. Each time has been special and different in it’s own way. Will I return once more to this beautiful city? It’s hard to say. Probably best to not make any guesses or assumptions on that front. I suppose only time will tell!