Aug. 24-28: Prague and Bat Mitzvah / by Adam Stern

Aug. 24-28: Prague and Bat Mitzvah

Air France flight to Prague went very smoothly, and the jetlag is starting to wear off. While walking to our waiting car Gabe realized that forgot his ipad on the plane. We had a very nice driver who led us back through airport security and LUCKILY for Gabe, they had found the ipad. Back into the car and arrived at our apartment in the Old Town. WOW. We all gasped when we waked in. Huge, lots of light, lots of rooms with a beautiful kitchen and relaxing living room space.

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Pictures don’t really do it justice, but it was fantastic. We settled in and unpacked for our 4 day stay and headed out into this beautiful city for some dinner. Afterwards we wondered around the main square and beautiful streets, picked up some groceries for our flat and headed back home for the night.

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Woke up, breakfast at home then off to Praha Bikes for our tour of Prague, led by Andrew our guide.

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One of Deb’s colleagues had recommended e-bikes, which was a fabulous suggestion as Prague is quite hilly.  As we climbed to the Prague castle no one was huffing and puffing, other than Debbie – turns out the electric motor on her bike was malfunctioning. This was quickly resolved while we took in a view of the city from a location that once was the sight of a large statue of Lenin. After the Velvet Revolution this was torn down, and now a large metronome stands there  - symbolizing slow movement, and that all things will pass.

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We rode through beautiful parks above the city to Prague Castle, saw St. Vitus Cathedral, the ‘fake Eiffel tower’, and Kafka Square with a very interesting statue.

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After freeing the country from the Communists, many people were upset that the Czech Republic then joined the EU. An interpretation given to us, is that the men are like the two different sides urinating on the Czech people.

We finished the ride back through the cobblestone streets (ouch) and arrived back at the bike shop. The tour was a great overview of the city.

We spent the rest of the day relaxing, wandering the streets and grabbing some dinner.

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Friday night we met Rabbi Hoffberg at the Jewish Community Centre for Shabbat services. It was just us, a gentleman traveling from NY and a local student. Very beautiful  and intimate service which we really enjoyed. Then we met up with Bubbie and Papa and headed to the Lubavitch Centre for Shabbat dinner. Not the original plan – we were not able to get a table at the other venue due to a large group booking. It was…. interesting. Absolutely packed, huge amounts of food punctuated by people making speeches in Hebrew and lots of singing. Debbie accidentally had sesame and we had to leave before the 3rd round of food. It was certainly an experience but unfortunately not really what we had in mind.

Up early on Saturday for a tour of Terezin guided by Martina, who is herself an independent filmmaker (small world). We first stopped at the train station where the deportations occurred. There is a very moving memorial made by the train tracks there now named “The Gate of Infinity” or “Brana Nenavratna” created by Ales Vesely.  There was also a very moving painting of shadows of people waiting for the train.

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Terezin was once a military fort built by Joseph II but it was used by the Nazis as a ghetto in WWII. At its peak it held 58,000 people, and only 7000 survived. They either died from malnutrition and typhus, or they were shipped to the death camps. Terezin is also notable in that it was filled with renowned intellects, artists and musicians. It was used as a propaganda tool to show the world the “fantastic” life they were providing for the Jews at the time.

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One of the inhabitants hid thousands of paintings and sketches created by the camp’s children, which were found after the war.  These are now displayed in a museum on the grounds. They show both the innocence of the children (fairytales, memories) as well as the horrors of starvation and fear of deportation.

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Although the whole experience was very moving, there were two things that most struck us. The first was that on one side of a fortress wall was a small mound of dirt that was used as a background for executions of political prisoners and Jews – while on the opposite side of the same wall was the swimming pool for the families and children of the Nazi soldiers.

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The other was a room that had the names of all the children who died there. Every corner of the room was covered in names providing a visual sense of the sheer volume of people murdered, as well as providing a way to honour the memory of each individual child .

It was a very moving but exhausting day. When we arrived home we flaked out and watched some Crazy Ex girlfriend. Then off to a nice dinner at “U Prince” on a terrace overlooking the rooftops of Prague, while we watched the setting sun.

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Sunday morning we met Bubbie and Papa at the hotel for a tour of the Jewish quarter with Daniela. For such a small city there are still many synagogues.

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We learned a lot about the history of the Jews in Prague – unfortunately the typical cycle of being accepted and welcome, followed by persecution depending on who was in power. We were most struck by the rooms that had been painted with the names of each of the 65,000 local Jewish people who died in WWII with many, many names that are familiar to us now.

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We also toured the cemetery which was very interesting. Saw how “Stern” was represented on the gravestones. 

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Daniela was an amazing guide – soft-spoken, with a degree in Jewish History and a wealth of information.

After a preliminary meeting with the Rabbi about the upcoming ceremony, we had a restful afternoon watching more Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and working on some finishing touches for Maddy’s speech and Bat mitzvah preparation.

We met Bubbie and Papa again at 7pm for a concert at the Spanish Synagogue. A beautiful Moorish building in the Jewish Quarter. The acoustics were really lovely and there were some amazing numbers, especially Summertime, Ain’t Necessarily So and Bolero. It finished off with some classic Jewish songs as well.

We then went out for a mediocre dinner and home to rest up before the big day!

Monday. The Main Event:

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Not certain that it is possible to convey our feelings around the Bat Mitzvah. We had it in the Jubilee Synagogue in a beautiful chapel. It was a small group including us, the Rabbi, the shomer of the shul, Jitka (who organized the event), Marta from the same company, and Adam the energetic and artistic photographer.

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We of course missed having the rest of our family with us for this important day. Maddy looked like a beauty (as always) and did such an outstanding, gorgeous job. We were all quite emotional. Rabbi Hoffberg said some insightful and moving words for Maddy and acknowledged her hard work and perseverance. He finished his speech by conveying to her that if she could do this, there wasn’t anything in her future she couldn’t handle.

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It was very moving to be somewhere where so many lives were lost to racial and religious persecution, and to now be celebrating here publically in a growing community. Maddy shined like the star that she is. Adam (photographer) captured some very moving moments. We all went for a beautiful lunch at Marina, said our goodbyes to Bubbie and Papa, and then collapsed at home for the rest of the day.

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