Saturday, February 23, 2013

#100: Purim comes to Prague

I learned on Facebook that the kindergarten at Akiba Schechter is about to celebrate its 100th day of school, which I remember as being a Very Big Deal from when I was five. The participants in the thread were discussing possible items that students could bring one hundred of in order to mark the occasion (I don't remember what I brought, though probably something like 100 M&Ms, or 100 paper clips). On the same day as I read that conversation, I realized that my next post would be my one-hundredth blog post since starting when I went to Israel three-and-a-half years ago. One hundred is a pretty special number, so I knew that the hundredth blog post had to be pretty special. Purim is special, so I guess that works.

And so I bring you....Purim in Prague! [Plus a couple other things. Like snow and glass harps.]

It all began last weekend, when I bought all the ingredients for Dad's/The Bubbe's hamentashen recipe. Because I knew that if I bought them, I'd have no choice but to make the dough and filling! So on Wednesday I got my hands dirty and did all the patchkey-ing that comes with kneading dough by hand. And since don't have a food processor either, I chopped the raisins, prune, and walnuts as best I could for the poppyseed filling. On Thursday night, my roommate Sara and I made them--they weren't exactly the same as at home (for one, I forgot to glaze them) but still, they were delicious!

[This is not about Purim.] It snowed today! A lot! I'm not the best at estimating depth, but I'd say by the end of the day there was probably at least 5-6 inches. For the first time this year, I got to see a substantial amount of snow falling from the sky. It was quite exciting, and justified my decision to wear my hiking boots to shul with my dress. My friend Gaby, who is studying abroad here on another program, got this picture of me eating snow off a car on our way from services to Kiddush-hopping/Shabbat lunch. (Shabbat lunch, by the way, was wonderful. There's an Israeli man who has lived in Prague for quite a while, and his brother and his band was visiting Prague this weekend and they sang the most beautiful harmonies to Shabbat songs!)

[The following video is not about Purim either, but it's something cool I saw.] The "Czech buddies" (Czech students who live with us) organize Czech Tables a few times every month, and you can go to as many as you want. In theory, it's supposed to be an informal gathering at a cool local place where you can practice your Czech, but in reality is just a way to hang out with people and get the program to pay for things. This afternoon I went to the Grand Orient Cafe, which is located in the House of the Black Madonna, a cubist building constructed in the early 20th century. (If you're interested, the crepes I got there with hot raspberry sauce, vanilla ice cream, and whipped cream were delicious.) On my way to the cafe from Shabbat lunch, however, I passed this guy playing wine glasses:

Okay, back to Jew-y things.

The Masorti (Conservative) community has services every Friday night, which I'm really glad I found out about because the Old New synagogue has tiny holes for the women to look through. No fun. Somehow I got myself into "interning" for Masorti Prague Abroad, helping organize and publicize events for students here for a semester. This Shabbat was the first time we had an event (services followed by dinner at the Dinitz kosher restaurant. Such good food!). For the first time ever, I led Maariv, and this was what I got to look at as I led! It's the Vysoka (High) Synagogue in the same building as the Jewish Town Hall. This weekend was actually a Double Shehecheyanu for me, because I also read Megillah for the first time! (Last year doesn't count, because it was three verses.)
Besides Gaby and me, the other person to read Megillah was Shumi [Insert Last Name], who used to carry Shlomo Carlebach's bags for him. I'm not sure what his story is, but he seems like an interesting guy who I'll get to know more, because he seems to be around all the time. There was also a wonderful Israeli family visiting Prague this weekend who invited me for a meal when I go to Israel to visit Naomi, et al. over Passover!
Except for one kid and a few scattered adults with masks, the four of us were the only ones who dressed up for Purim. Maybe costumes are not a thing in Prague? (Though we found out later, at the community's Purim party, that that's not true. So many just no one wore costumes to our service). The four of us are all studying abroad here on three different programs.  It was great to meet some students from other study abroad programs, because mine is so small and it's nice to expand the circle a little bit, and I think that my "internship" (yes, the quotation marks are there for a reason) will help me meet more people than I would have otherwise met.

In case you couldn't tell what my costume was from the previous picture, it's my usual: pregnant religious woman. Comments/questions I received: "Is it real?" "Is it by King Achashverosh?" "Wait, you weren't like that this morning!"

After the reading, Gaby and I headed downstairs to check out the community's Purim party. Our first site: The Tall Man playing violin. Later in the night, he danced to the music of the jazz band playing upstairs, and it was hilarious to watch because it looked like his "knees" were always buckling backwards. 

A Purim spiel, as performed by Divadlo Feigele, a children's theater company formed about 30 years ago in the Jewish community! This is the scene of the beauty contest, where King Achashverosh is picking his new queen after throwing Vashti out of the palace. In the red is Esther, and next to her Mordechai is trying to convince her to put herself in the running. The little girls are the princesses, and there are also hand-puppet/marionettes!

The whole cast of Divadlo Feigele. 

Obviously we couldn't understand many of the actual words that were spoken in the spiel, but it was really cool to be able to follow nonetheless, because we're so familiar with the story. The video below is the scene where Haman is forced to lead Mordechai around on a royal horse wearing the King's clothes proclaiming, "This is what is done for the man whom the king wishes to honor.":

Gaby and I decided to venture upstairs, and what we discovered there was the real party! Karaoke, a bar, and lots of local Jews our own age (who knew those even existed!?). After a while we noticed this bizarre portrait of Franz Josef, the last monarch of the Hapsburg Empire. He was relatively tolerant of the Jews (we just read his edict of "semi-emancipation" of the Jews in one of my classes), so I guess that's reason enough to have a portrait of him? The room, one the fourth floor of the Jewish Town Hall, was quite extravagant--red wall-papered wall, gilded paint, big crystal chandeliers....
The flutist (floutist? flautist?) was excellent! I don't think I've ever heard jazz flute before, and if you haven't either you should take a look at this (short) video:

Gaby and I with Rabbi Michael "Einstein" Dushinsky. Rabbi Dushinsky (he goes by "Dushi," which sounds like another word that's not so nice) is quite a character. He's also the one who helped me learn the part of the Megillah that I read.
And the Purim fun only continues tomorrow! I'll get to hear Rabbi Dushinsky read Megillah, and then there's a Chabad Purim Disco (???) tomorrow night that I think I'll go to. I'm not sure when I'll do my reading, but it'll get done. 

Friday, February 15, 2013

Český Krumlov: a little fairy-tale town

This post is a few days late; I never realized how much I rely on my computer until it died! I took it to a repair place earlier this week and they told me my motherboard was dead. But he fixed it in one day and now I have it back!

Last Sunday, my program took us on an overnight trip to a town in southern Bohemia (pretty close to the Austrian border) called Český Krumlov. It dates back to medieval times, and was once the seat of a pretty powerful autonomous region, but now it's pretty much a tourist haven because it's one of a few towns whose medieval history--castle and all--has really been preserved. And yes, it really does feel like you're walking around in a fairy-tale. A lot of these pictures are going to be similar, but the castle (and views) were so pretty that I had to take lots of pictures, and it was hard to pick my favorites. I'll try to label the sections so you can skim through if you want.

My first view of the castle. This is what I looked out upon from my room in the adorable B&B we stayed in. Somehow, Zuzana (my Czech roommate, who I roomed with on the trip) finagled getting us the best room in the house, complete with a Jacuzzi hot tub (which we didn't use).
On our way into the castle complex for a tour. Unfortunately, many things are closed during the winter (including the castle's interior and the super-cool-looking puppet museum!), so we didn't actually get to see what the castle looked like on the inside. Instead, we got to tour the newly constructed "Castle Museum," which has a lot of artifacts but isn't nearly as cool as being inside a real castle. 

Detail on the painting. Apparently, this was in horrible shape as recently as about 20 years ago, and they've done a lot of restoration work to get the town to the tourist attraction it is today. Český Krumlov is actually a really interesting town from a social perspective: it is often looked to as an example of ideal relations between Roma and white ethnic Czechs. The Roma have lived in the town for decades, and when the municipality decided to start restoring its historical value after the fall of Communism, they contracted the work to a local Roma-owned company, which is still responsible for most of the upkeep. But it looks like there's still a ways to go in the Czech-Roma relationship.  

More details. Also, every single tower has a clock on it. 

After our tour ended, we had about an hour-and-a-half before we were supposed to meet up at Eggenberg Brewery for dinner. I took the time to go wandering down a little path I'd seen earlier, and found myself in an entirely separate section of town with many little bridges crossing the river (which is pretty narrow at that point). This is from the first bridge. [After I got back from wandering, I went back to our hotel room and took a hot shower to make up for all the times our hot water broke mid-shower at our apartment. And because I was half-frozen.]
From the second bridge.
And on my way back into the main part of old town. 

We got to climb up the castle tower, and this is the view looking down. If you look on the right-side background, you'll see the chapel on the Mountain of the Cross that I hiked to with some friends on the second day of our stay (pictures later in the post).

For some reason, the view reminds me of the children's book Brave Irene by William Steig (and read by Al Gore?). 

The monastery-on-a-hill is in the background here, too.

So picturesque! If the sky had been blue, it really would have been right out of a fairy-tale.

Walking through the castle museum we came upon this; fine, so some religions do the whole relic thing and the ancient Egyptians mummified their dead...but what you don't know when you just walk by this lady is that she's not actually just a lady, she's a body reconstructed from the bones of numerous dead people! Ichsa!

The. Best. Toilet. Ever.
This is the interior of the Castle Theater, one of the oldest preserved ones of its kind. All of the scenery is hand-painted on canvas and stuck onto wood. There are rolling mechanisms that allow them to do a scenery-change that takes all of six seconds, and we also got a demonstration of how they would have made it sound like there was a thunderstorm--there's a thunder-making machine (basically, you roll a wooden gear on the ground), a machine that makes the sound of wind by capturing air and whooshing it out, and a big barrel filled with beans that gets rolled to sound like rain pelting down. In order for the theater to be called a "theater" and not a "museum," they are required to hold performances a couple times a year, though the moisture from lots of people packed into the auditorium is bad for the scenery preservation. It was also freezing in there, and I thought I was going to get frostbite on my toes. 

Passed this frozen laundry on our hike up to the monastery, one of the few things on our hastily-prepared guide sheet that was actually "open" in the winter. During the afternoon we had some free time to wander, and a group of five headed up to the top of the mountain (by Chicago standards) in the distance.

Halfway to the top! Right about here the "path" became even less of a path, and none of the snow was melted. Needless to say, none of us was wearing the best shoes for the adventure, although no one fell!

Almost there! Look how well the trees frame the monastery.

First view from the top. 

There's the castle!

ME! (Duh) with the castle in the background, from the top of the Mountain of the Cross.

Looking down on the old city of  Český Krumlov from up at the monastery.
Let if be know that this view of the castle and church tower is what I got to look down upon while I almost got frostbite on my rear-end [yes, nature called while I was on top of the hill/mountain].

CET paid for dinner and two drinks per person (.5 L of beer is a standard drink) at the Eggenberg Brewery on Sunday night. They also promised "revelry and merrymaking" with a "live gypsy band." The music was a bit different than what I was expecting, based on the songs on Puntamayo's Gypsy Groove CD, and I'm pretty sure they just played the same song over and over again. Still, we had a lot of fun and everyone got up and started dancing.
The door to a craft store. These are paint tubes in the shapes of fingers. Weird.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

An Assortment of Unrelated Things

I've been doing a lot of wandering around the city, which I think is my favorite thing to do anywhere. There's so much more that you get to see when you just go walking around with no plans--you can go at your own pace, and duck into any building or side alley that seems promising. The other day, I stumbled upon an old (11th century) rotunda church, one of three in Prague--I'm going to try to figure out when they hold services, because I think it would be so cool! I've gotten to check out a lot of antique shops and bookstores with books to rival Princeton's rare books collection. The best part is turning down side streets that look straight but then I come out somewhere completely differently from where I expected and have to find my way home from there. Below are some pictures from some of the less obscure wanderings. 

As I mentioned in a previous post, the masopust celebrations of the Bohemian Carnevale are currently taking place in preparation for Mardi Gras and Easter, despite the fact that the country is pretty atheist. But I guess by this point it's sort of like Christmas in America: they've been doing it so long that they forgot the origins, and now it's so ingrained in society. I passed this pig hanging near one of the outdoor tchochke (spell check?) markets, and only realized later that it must be related to the masopust celebrations. Pig slaughters are a thing here.

In case you really wanted to see the other side of the pig....

According to the sign, this is the house where Kafka was born--it's right off the corner of the St. Nicholas Church on Old Town Square. Still can't figure out why the only indication of Kafka's birthplace is written in Hebrew; maybe they don't want non-Jews to know? It also doesn't seem to be very well marked or publicized in other places on the building. 

Sign outside some pub--that dude with a beer belly really makes you want to go there, right?

Walked past this 20-foot high door and did a double-take. Yes, those are fist-sized heads going all the way up. Some of them are turned at awkward angles, and it's really creepy. 

One night last week I passed a sign that said "Jazz Republic; free entry" and pointed to the subway entrance. I followed it and, low and behold, in the subway station, there's a great jazz club with live music and no cover every night! It's a funny place--mostly local Czech jazz musicians play there, but there's an American flag on the wall. The drinks are way overpriced, and it can get a bit smoky, but I've already been there twice and plan on going back soon.

The first REAL street art I've seen in Prague! The Lennon wall is an exception, because it's basically designated as an area for street art. Other than that, the graffiti is pretty uninspired--mostly just words spray-painted haphazardly and without any artistic motivation. This was great, though. I found it on my wanderings near the river, a 4 minute walk from my apartment. 
Two good street art finds within 10 minutes of each other? Good day! This one is kind of funny--on the left it's a cow, the middle is an owl (I think? Maybe a fish?) and the right is a chicken.

And I finally made it to the Dancing House, which is also only a 9-minute walk from my apartment.   It was designed by a Croatian-Czech architect in collaboration with Frank Gehry, which brings me to my latest theory: Frank Gehry is going to dictate everywhere I ever live for an extended period of time: Chicago's Millenium Park bandshell is Gehry, as is the Lewis Library at Princeton, and now here in Prague! Gehry, tell me where to go next! (I guess he has to get something up in Israel, ex-post-facto?)

Some more of the Dancing House. 

I just think it's so funny next to all the beautiful old baroque buildings.

And one with the Vltava River--the Dancing House is on the end.

Tomorrow we're going on an overnight trip to a medieval-era town called Český Krumlov, which was described to me by one of my professors here as "the Disnleyland of small-town Bohemia," because its promoted by UNESCO and has thus made a point of catering to tourists. Still, I'm always up for castles and moats, and it should be a lot of fun!

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Playing catch-up: Bohemian Carnevale, the National Gallery, and the Charles Bridge at Twilight

It's been a rough week for me in terms of modern amenities: our apartment's hot water sort of exists sometimes, and my computer is currently "taking a break" (which might end up being permanent). No hot water is a good excuse for not showering, right? As for the computer issue, it's been a bit difficult but hopefully I'll be able to figure out in the next few days what my next step should be. Luckily, my roommate Vanessa is letting me use her computer, so I won't get any more behind on my blogging!

To make up for the delay in this post, it's extra long, super colorful, and jam-packed with videos (four of them!)!
There's a two-week long "Bohemian Carnevale" going on right now that apparently is a vestige of when Czechs were actually a religious (Catholic) nation. It's basically, as I understand it, a huge celebration leading up to Lent. In practice, it's a huge party with lots of parades and costumes and masks and performances. These "horses" were among my favorite--I'm not really sure how they work because, as you can see, the legs of the people "riding" the "horses" are on the outside of the I'm not sure what's connected to the stilts! There's definitely not another person inside there. Thoughts?

Petting my favorite horse--we match!

They really do a good job of imitating the way that real horses look when they walk; I'm still impressed when I watch this video.

High-five for the shorty!

Low-five for the super-shorty :)

This was probably the weirdest thing I've seen so far. The program for the Carnevale advertised a "racing of the golden pigs." I was really hoping that there would be real (golden) pigs set loose in Old Town Square. Alas, golden pigs are probably as rare as red heifers. 

Just thought this was really cute and/or belonged in some sort of weird absurdist magazine or something like that. 

They are literally running across the square with pig heads on.

I really wanted to dance with the bear, but I was too nervous to cut in.

I guess there can only be one sun, and since the real one wasn't  shining, this  really tall one on stilts took over (with the astronomical clock tower in the background).

As advertised on Facebook :)

Classic tourist picture, since everyone should have one. I'm really good at asking strangers to take pictures of me. 

This weekend, all of the branches of the National Gallery (seven buildings in total, I think) were free. I still haven't really figured out why, but I didn't argue. Instead, after coffee with my Czech roommate Zuzana (of Belgian chocolate fame) I walked her to the train station because it was a beautiful crisp winter day with the first blue sky I've seen since being here. Then I headed out to the Sternberg and Schwartzberg Palaces in the Prague Castle complex, both of which are branches of the National Gallery. For the first time, I brought Aunt Emily's camera with me and got to play around with it a bit, though I have a lot to learn!

The view from the top of the Prague Castle complex. Red roofs have cleared a spot in my heart right there next to beautiful doors. 
This is the first building in the Castle complex, complete with guards outside and a beautiful view of the city below.  I didn't realize how surreal it looked until I saw the picture on the screen.

In the Schwartzberg Palace, I was very pleasantly surprised when I walked into one of the gallery rooms and heard notes of music wafting through the air. Then, of course, I saw the crowd, and pushed my way to the front of the room so I could see what was going on. Still not sure why there was a concert in the gallery, but I'm not complaining! It was beautiful background music for looking at the art. 

There was also dancing!

Coolest thing ever: a spork (middle) from the 17th century! And it's foldable! Someone want to get this for me for my next hiking trip?

Upon leaving the gallery, I saw a huge line and figured I should get in because whatever they were waiting to see was probably cool. Finally I got the woman in front of me to explain, using hand motions and sparse English (felt a little like being a Chalutzim counselor) that the attic of the palace had recently been restored and contained the collection of Czech armory. This is the guns/rifle can't really see any of the guns in this picture, but I thought the reflection was really cool. 

Instead of taking the tram back from the Castle, I decided to walk because it was still beautiful out and the sun  was about to set. I passed this adorable little bakery that looks as authentic as it professes to be, though it's right by the Charles Bridge so who knows.

Looking east from the Charles Bridge.

The Prague Castle at twilight

From the Charles Bridge

With one of the Charles Bridge statues in the foreground
And, of course, a shoutout to Charlotte Sall--thank you for being my first Skype date since I've been here!