Monday, April 6, 2009

Czech Republic: US First Lady Michelle Obama in Prague's Jewish Quarter

Michelle Obama, Leo Pavlat and Micheala Sidenberg at Old Jewish Cemetery, Prague; Michelle Obama at Tomb of Rabbi Loew; Michelle Obama and Prague Jewish leaders at Altneushul. Photos: Prague Jewish Museum

Michelle Obama in Prague's Old Jewish Quarter

By Samuel D. Gruber

(ISJM) We know that US First Lady Michelle Obama has a cousin who is a rabbi in Chicago, and is no stranger at Chicago's Temple Isaiah-KAM, located right across the street from the Obama's Hyde Park House. But now Mrs. Obama has added some history to her Jewish Studies curriculum by visiting Prague's Jewish quarter, and spending time at the Pinkas Synagogue and Altneushul, and at the Old Jewish Cemetery. Read the Prague Jewish Museum press release here.

I am a big fan of Michelle Obama, and not just because we are both Princeton alumni. I just think she smart, cool, elegant, beautiful and seems to know how to have fun, too. My admiration grew this week as Michelle took the time on the presidential European tour to visit some of the landmarks of Prague’s Jewish quarter. Her interest was probably a politically smart move, but I think her interest is real, and her understanding is deep enough to know that these sites – though very old – resonate with meaning and still carry great relevance today. Indeed, every generation can retell the story of Prague Jewish monuments and their history and learn new lessons. For the most part the Prague Jewish Museum and the Czech Jewish community have done a good job doing this. But in this recession, visitorship to the Museum has been down. I hope Mrs. Obama’s visit stirs new interest.

Congratulations to my colleagues in Prague - especially Prague Jewish Museum Director Leo Pavlat who was Michelle's guide, -but also to Chairman of the Federation of Jewish Communities in the Czech Republic Jiří Daníček, and Executive Director of the Federation of Jewish Communities in the Czech Republic Tomáš Kraus, whose hard work and dedication for almost 20 years laid the foundation for the "Czech Jewish Miracle," that has seen the revival of Jewish life, and also an amazing organizational commitment to the protection and preservation of Jewish sites throughout all of the Czech Republic (I had the pleasure of being in the Czech Republic a few weeks ago and seeing some of the newest achievements, and I will be writing about them soon).

Mrs. Obama visited the 16th-century Pinkus Synagogue built up against the old cemetery. It is an important example of the mix of Gothic and Renaissance styles, but today is mostly celebrated as an extremely effective and moving memorial to the approximately 78,000 Czech Jews sent to their deaths in the Holocaust. This monument – with the inscribed names and dates of birth and death of the victims, was first created in the 1950s as one of the earliest Holocaust memorials. Its form – the long lists of names - has been copied in many subsequent memorial monuments (including Maya Lin’s Vietnam Memorial in Washington, DC), not far from the Obama’s new residence. But the names were destroyed and the memorial was closed from 1968 until the Velvet Revolution in 1989. One of the first acts of new President and former dissident Vaclav Havel was to promise the memorial’s renewal – a task carried out between 1992 and 1995. I don’t know if Mrs. Obama was told all this, but the Pinkas is now a monument to Jewish life in the Prague Ghetto, a Memorial to the Holocaust and a monument to contemporary democratic ideals. The building was damaged again in the floods that hit Prague in 2003. It was quickly restored with help of local and international donors (including the Jewish heritage Program of the World Monuments Fund).

Mrs Obama spent time in the upstairs exhibitions at the Pinkas Synagogue, where copies of artworks of the child victims of Terezin and Auschwitz are on view. I am sure that she will with her many lessons – though no doubt she is already intensely aware of them – about the preciousness of children, the madness of bigotry, and power of art.

Mrs. Obama then visited the Old Jewish cemetery. She stopped at the grave of Rabbi Loew, the MaHaRaL, the most famous gravestone in the cemetery. This year marks the 400th anniversary of the death of the Rabbi Loew, and a major exhibition about his life, work and times will open in Prague this coming August (more on this later).

I hope that Mrs. Obama was also shown the elaborate gravestone of Hendl, the wife of Jewish financier (and first Jew raised to the nobility) Jacob Bashevi, from 1628. This is the only elaborate sarcophagus style tombstone for a woman in the entire Old Jewish Cemetery. Hendl was honored (as was Michele) for being the wife of a famous leader (but she may have been honored in her own right for her learning and charitable deeds). The epitaph states in part:

“…The gracious Hendl, daughter of Ebrl Gerorim, may the memory of the just be blessed, wife of the head and noble leader of his generation, k’m’r’ Jacob, son of k’m’r Abrahamb(at)’ Sche(eba), may the memory of the just be blessed. And Jacob set up this memorial I sorrow / and all the people cried and lamented / over this noble lady, our leader / buried and hidden here / gone is her glory, gone her magnificence / as the voice of the crowds in the city of the faithful / we all follow her paths / Alas! for the pious, the model of humility / virtue, chastity and purity / she left this world as pure as when she entered it / hastening to fulfill the commandments, the lesser and the greater / and ever stood in the front rank / hastening morning and evening to prayers / and her heart was turned towards God in faith / in awe, in pious modesty, with clear speech / in the order and according to the commands of Rabbi Hemenun / commandments for a light and learning for a torch / her hand stretched out, her right hand grasping firmly / …(translation from Milada Vilimjova, The Prague Ghetto (Prague: Aventinum, 1990), English edition translated by Iris Urwin, 1993), p. 178.

Perhaps Mrs. Obama was also shown the grave of Rivka, daughter of Meir Tikotin, who died in the early 1600s. She is known as the first Jewish woman author in Prague. Her works (known only in fragments) on infant and child care, and her handbook for midwives and young mothers, might resonate with Michelle in her role as “First Mom”

Mrs Obama ended her visit to the Jewish Quarter with a visit and presentation ceremony at the Altneushul, the Jewish treasure of Prague. Needless to say, the group photo was taken in the main sanctuary, with Czech Jewish leaders lined up along the north wall. As this was a visit, it was OK for Mrs. Obama to view the space, though of course no woman can enter here for prayers. I wonder if Michelle was shown the little “listening window” visible in the photo to the upper left.. It’s the window from the women’s annex.

There are many inscriptions on the walls of the Altneushul, mostly abbreviations of well known passage from scripture. I hope Mrs. Obama was also shown the abbreviation recalling Psalm 34:15: “Shun evil and do good.” This may already be the Obamas’ motto. If not, it should be.