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For These I Weep

August 1, 2008

I didn’t want to go to Theresienstadt, I told my wife. We would have only a few days in Prague, and for once, I wanted to walk the streets and see the museums without that seemingly inevitable dose of Jewish death that every visit to Europe seems to mandate. To my amazement, she agreed. We’d obviously see the Jewish quarter, with its famous cemetery, the Alt-Neu Shul and more, but we could let Theresienstadt pass this time.

Yet, as they say, the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry. Mine started unraveling on Tisha B’Av. For years, we’ve been hearing Eichah, the Book of Lamentations, in our local synagogue. This year, though, we finally decided to join our friends who’ve been reading Eichah at the Sherover Promenade, overlooking the Old City and the Temple Mount. If you live in Jerusalem, I finally figured, why sit in a small synagogue when you can be outside, gazing at the very site that you’re mourning?

There were hundreds of people on the Promenade, and the view of the Temple Mount was as stunning as always. But still, something was making me uncomfortable. Yes, you could see the Temple Mount from where we were, but you also couldn’t help but notice the new, rebuilt city of Jerusalem, as well. The hotels, the YMCA tower – all the famous landmarks of modern Jerusalem – were fully in view, lit so brightly that it was impossible not to dwell on them, too. And from that vantage point, Jerusalem just didn’t seem the destroyed, abandoned, demolished city that’s described in Lamentations. Even as we were still reading the words, I could tell – it was harder than it had been in previous years to get into the mood of utter devastation. There was something cognitively dissonant about the whole thing. And I wondered – is this the way to commemorate Tisha B’Av? Is this the place to be reading, “For these things do I weep” (Lam. 1:16)?

If we’re mourning the loss of Jerusalem, does it really make sense to sit where you can’t help but see that while the Temple is gone, Jerusalem has been rebuilt? Somehow, the Temple Mount and the rebuilt city in one shared view didn’t seem to fit the tenor of the evening. Next Tisha B’Av, I decided, I’ll skip the Promenade, and just head back to shul.

But the night wasn’t over, and along with one of our sons, we decided to go to the panel discussion we’d seen advertised in the paper on “The Sins that Preceded the Ninth of Av,” i.e., the social ills that led to the destruction of Jerusalem. There were several hundred people assembled in the courtyard of the Nature Museum, seated on chairs, and dozens more in the back and on the sides. The vast majority were people in their 20’s and 30’s, it seemed, but many were even younger – it seemed that Avi knew half the people there. There was discussion of the treatment of potential converts to Judaism (a big issue in Israel now, for political reasons), some discussion of the treatment of Israeli Arabs, and a focus on the general social ills that plague us, and that, according to rabbinic tradition, were the reasons for the destruction of Jerusalem.

But again, I had the same feeling that I’d had at the Promenade. The conversation was serious, respectful and intelligent, precisely what Tisha B’Av calls for. But in the face of the sight of hundreds of young people, many religious, but not nearly all, coming to speak about ills that plague their city and their country, all in the context of having read Lamentations together, I felt a sense of accomplishment, more than one of loss. I had a feeling of the Jewish people reborn, not destroyed, and of Jerusalem alive and thriving, not reduced to ashes. “For these do I weep”? Again, I left wondering if I would do that again next year.

When Tisha B’Av ended, we flew to Prague. Like all the other tourists, we started with the Charles Bridge, Prague Castle, Old Town. Then we began to explore the Jewish Quarter, or, more accurately, the quarter which had been the Jewish ghetto before it was destroyed. Shul after shul, filled with tourists, but empty of worshippers. The cemetery, also filled with hundreds of people filing by the tombstones. But did they know anything about the Maharal’s world, other than whatever they’d gleamed about the Golem from Let’s Go Prague? Jewish life – erased but still a curiosity – had become a “must do” tourist venue, a vestige of the past worth half a day of audio-guides and a few dozen snapped photographs.

You couldn’t feel any real sense of loss among the tourists, no anguish. The Jews were like the Mayan Indians, it seemed. Gone, but still interesting. Life goes on. I couldn’t help but recall the refrains of Bialik’s poem “In the City of Slaughter,” when he bemoans the fact that despite the horror of what transpired in Kishinev, life continued apace, as if there were nothing that needed to be remembered: “The matter ends, and nothing more. And all is as it was before.”

After the cemetery, it was time for Minchah. We’d been told that there was a minyan in the High Shul, so we found the entrance, at which a gigantic blond-haired, blue-eyed “bouncer” asked us why we wanted to enter, examined our ID, and grilled us before allowing us in to pray. There was something so unsettling about having to virtually beg this Aryan fellow for permission to pray (though, yes, I understood that it was for our own safety), that even before we got into the shul, I just knew what we were going to end up doing: we were going to go to Theresienstadt.

I’d never known that Minchah could be depressing. There were perhaps fifteen men and two women, all but four or five of the worshippers clearly tourists. Without the tourists, there would have been no minyan. The glory days of the “High Shul” were long gone. The parochet, the cloth cover in front of the ark, was gorgeous. A collage of old prayer shawls, atop of which there was a Hebrew phrase, “ve-shavu vidgei ha-kodesh li-mikomam,” calligraphed as if it were a Biblical verse: “And the sacred vestments shall return to their place.”

Yes, I thought, looking at the cut up tallitot that now made up the parochet, the vestments have indeed returned to their place. But only the vestments, not the people. And in pieces, as a wall hanging. There it was again – Judaism as fragments, remnants, virtually lifeless. Suddenly, I missed the scene of that panel discussion and those hundreds of young people that had made me so uncomfortable a few nights earlier.

The next day, we headed for Theresienstadt. Terezin, an army encampment long before the Nazis turned it into the transit camp (destination usually Auschwitz) is a functioning city once again. Little did Bialik know.

In today’s Terezin, hungry tourists can eat in the “Memorial Restaurant.” The building which S. S. Officers used as a high-brow bordello, to which they whisked the Jewish women who’d caught their fancy, is still a functioning Pension, with a cute little sign adorned by a picture of a bed and silverware outside. Outside the gate of the Small Fortress, there was a canteen for the S.S. officers. Today, it is still … a canteen. We watched the people there, laughing and drinking beer, Arbeit Macht Frei clearly in their view. I asked our guide how people in the town felt about living in a place that just decades ago had been the site of such unmitigated horror. “They’re mostly just annoyed that so many tourists come by,” she said.

Bialik, again.

There was a small synagogue in Theresienstadt. It’s now abandoned, except for tourists, just like those synagogues in Prague. There are two murals on the walls, one with the phrase from the liturgy that reads “We beg You, turn back from Your anger and have mercy on the treasured nation that You have chosen.” The other read “May our eyes behold Your return to Zion in compassion.” The irony, given what probably happened to the people who so lovingly painted them, was unspeakable.

We spotted a small guestbook, so we went to sign our names. Previous visitors had written messages, and we leafed through a few pages. A group from Canada had visited a few weeks earlier, and had written, “We are a group of seventeen Jews from [Canada], proof of the Jews’ victory over Hitler.”

I was so stunned that I had to read it again. A Jewish quarter in Prague that’s virtually the “Museum of an Extinct Race” that Hitler is said to have planned to create there. A city called Terezin with its former S.S. brothel still housing guests, its Memorial Restaurant, it citizens annoyed by the tourists. Empty synagogues throughout Prague and in Terezin. What Jewish victory over Hitler?!

It was too much to bear. It wasn’t just the horrible suffering that had unfolded there. It wasn’t the crematoria (or even, I kid you not, the sign by the crematoria that read, in part, “Restoration dedicated by the XXXX family in honor of Jason’s Bar Mitzvah.”). No, what was unbearable was the was the fact that the flowers still bloom, that smiling Terezin mothers push their babies in strollers by what were the barracks in which thousands died of typhoid, and people still drink beer in what was the S.S. canteen.

Bialik was prophetic. Life would just go on. Europe’s endured the devastation, but it can’t sustain the sense of loss. America hasn’t (yet?) weathered the destruction.

We made a quick stop on the way back to Prague, a little town called Ustek, and its now empty synagogue (there are no Jews left in Ustek), beautifully preserved and restored. The same story. A pristine synagogue, immaculate, beautiful, lovingly cared for by the non-Jewish woman who showed us around. But not a Jew in sight, just two reference books for the woman there, in case she should need to answer questions – “A History of Judaism,” and “Judaism, from A to Z,” both in Czech. There you have it. An empty building, and Judaism summed up in two volumes, in case anyone should want to know more about Jewish life – that ancient relic from the past.

It had been a long and agonizing day. And as we got into the van to head back to Prague, I realized that I’d had more than enough. I just wanted to go home. In ways that I hadn’t expected I would, I missed that place where you can’t escape the vitality of Jewish life, where even when you try to mourn, you can’t avoid seeing a city rebuilt, hundreds of young people thinking and discussing.

It’s easy to focus on all the wrong things when it comes to this place we call home. It’s tempting to perseverate about the corruption, the pollution, the traffic, some crime, the conflict with the Palestinians for which there is no possible solution at present. It’s all real.

But all of that pales into relative insignificance when you think about what’s been created here. As real as those problems are, no less real is the fact that this is the one place where even when you try to avoid it, you can’t escape the practically miraculous rebirth of Jewish life. A week of empty synagogues, Judaism summarized in two small volumes, towns with no Jews and the modern city of Terezin, and there’s no escaping it – I’ll take this place, with all its challenges, worries and dangers – any day, any time. Sadly, it took Terezin to remind me that we live in a miracle.

True, it doesn’t make getting into the Tisha B’Av frame of mind terribly easy. But no matter. Next year, I already know, I’m heading back to the Promenade to read Lamentations.

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