A Place Like No Other–Prague’s Jewish Cemetery

The old Jewish Cemetery in Prague is among the oldest surviving Jewish burial grounds in Europe.  It sits in what is considered the best preserved complex of Jewish historical monuments in Europe, including the Jewish Town Hall and six synagogues. It is a monument to the Jewish Golden Age in Prague.   It was established in about 1439, with the last burial in about 1787.

Unique among cemeteries, the tombstones are so tightly packed that many literally rest one on top of another. The ancient trees wrap themselves around the tombstones as though born from the stone.

For 350 years the Jews of Prague were buried here. It is the resting place of Jews who made Prague their home  when Prague was the cultural center of Jewish Europe.  Especially during the 16th century, Jewish intellectuals throughout Europe gathered in Jewish Town. Many of these greats rest here, in the same cemetery that served the community in times of repression.

The cemetery is surrounded by a massive stone wall, as though the wall alone is sufficient to protect the remnants of this rich culture that extends nearly 650 years into the past.

Madeleine Albright visited this ancient cemetery on a visit to Prague in 1997.  This was not just any trip, but a pilgrimage of sorts.  Within the year, she had learned of her Jewish heritage, a heritage hidden from her family who fled Czechoslovakia in fear of the Nazis and again, years later, the communists.  When she explored the cemetery, she must have learned of the leaders buried here, who, like herself, exercised great power and influence in their times.

Secretary Albright will have been told of the first burial about April 25, 1439, of Avigdor Karo, the “chief rabbi” of Prague, a poet and a scholar of the Kabbalah.  Rabbi Karo lived through the destruction of Prague’s Jewish community in the 1389 Easter massacre in which over 3000 Jews died.  She will have been told of  Mordecai Marcus Meisel, (died 1601), a Philanthropist and leader in Prague, who lived through the persecutions of Jews in the mid-1500’s, financed the construction of Meisel synagogue in 1590-92.  Meisel built a hospital, expanded the cemetery and paved the Jewish ghetto. She will have heard the stories of Rabbi Loew Ben Bezalel, Chief Rabbi of Prague, a significant Talmudic scholar and philosopher,  buried there in 1609. Perhaps she will have been told of Rabbi David Ben Abraham Oppenheim, Chief Rabbi of Prague prior to his death in Sept. 12, 1736. Rabbi Oppenheim, a highly successful business  man, a prolific author and a student of the cabal is said to have had a library of more than  7,000 books.  Many of these books are now housed in Oxford’s library. These are only a few of the 100,00 people buried in these walls.

As powerful as these images must be, with the cemetery symbolizing both life and death, there was more for her to experience. The Pinkas Synagogue sits in the same complex.  Now serving as a museum, the synagogue’s walls identify over 77,000 Czech and Slav holocaust victims.  Among those names are Secretary Albright’s paternal grandparents.  Her grandfather Arnost Korbel, died at Theresienstadt in 1942.  Her grandmother, Olga Korbel, died in Auschwitz in 1944.

My husband I visited the Cemetery and Pinkus Synagogue in 2007.  The list of the dead is a visual testament to those killed in the holocaust.  I  cannot imagine the profound sense of loss that Secretary Albright must have felt, on seeing her Korbel names on those walls. But I wonder, what might happen if I awoke on some future day to learn, as she did, that my heritage was not what I had been raised to believe.  What if I learned I was Chinese, or African,  or Persian, or Jewish.  Would I develop a better understanding of the struggles, hopes and challenges of people of other races and other religions? Can I do that anyway?

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Madeleine Albright–Reflections on Religious Diversity in Colonial North America

A good place to start a discussion of Madeleine Albright’s book, The Mighty and the Almighty, is at the beginning.  For purposes of this post, a better place to start is page 16, page 44 in my e-book.  Here she begins her exploration of the religious differences of the earliest colonies.  This precedes  her exploration of the role of faith in the formation of our nation, the United States of America.  While much of my commentary is based directly on The Mighty and the Almighty, I explored some of her references to understand a little more indepth (I know, it is only a post!) the issues she raised.

Differences in Faith in Colonial America

U.S. History 101 teaches us that the Pilgrims came to the New World to escape persecution in Europe and to build better lives.  Secretary Albright focuses on the way the patterns of that migration, and the related early religious conflicts, impacted the development of the colonies.  It is apparent that the English, Dutch, Spanish, French and other colonists brought with them differing views of religion and that their beliefs, and the conflicts among them concerning their beliefs, helped shape the political landscape then and now.

1) The Puritans arrived in the New World fleeing religious persecution in England.  John Winthrop, Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, left England in hopes of building a community that would be a model for “how to live a righteous life,” “escape God’s judgment on the corrupt churches of Europe” and find a refuge from poverty and overpopulation in England while spreading the gospel.   Despite persecution by Anglicans in England, his Puritan colony determined to exclude from full citizenship in their community all but a select view within their own faith.

2) Roger Williams was a theologian in England. Ordained into the Anglican church, he became a Puritan at Cambridge.  Forced out of England, he settled briefly in the Massachusetts Bay Colony.  In 1636 he established Providence Plantation after being banished by the Puritans from Salem/Boston.  His transgression, in the eyes of the leaders of that community, was to oppose taking the lands of Native Americans without compensation and advocating for the separation of church and religious functions. He opposed slavery and advocated for freedom of religion for all groups–Jews, Papists and Mohammedans.  He specifically said about the treatment of Jews elsewhere “for whose hard measure, I fear, the nations and England hath yet a score to pay”.  Like-minded settlers and minority groups, joined him in Rhode Island where they found a safe haven.  (This is important to me because my ancestor, John Lewis, was a founder of Westerly, Rhode Island, formed in 1661.)  Williams is said to have established the first Baptist Congregation in the colonies.  Williams renounced the practice of taking land by force from Native Americans and, instead, entered treaties with them.

3) Reverend Thomas Hooker, a popular Puritan preacher, founded the Hartford Settlement in 1636.  He first came into conflict with other Puritan leaders when he opposed the decision of the Massachusetts Bay Colony to limit voting rights to an elite group within the Puritan faith. He drafted portions of Connecticut’s Constitution which declared the “God given” right of people to pick their own leaders.  On May 31, 1638, he presented a sermon in which he espoused the belief that “the foundation of authority is laid in the free consent of the people” and declared that “God has given us liberty, let us take it.” He also attracted followers who settled portions of Connecticut.

4) William Penn, was born Anglican.  He became a member of the Society of Friends (Quaker) at age 22.  He was imprisoned in England for his beliefs, eventually relocated to the colonies, after authoring a “charter of liberties” for Burlington Settlement in New Jersey. The charter guaranteed free and fair trial by jury, freedom of religion, freedom from unjust imprisonment and free elections. He eventually settled in Pennsylvania Province where he drafted a“Frame of Government” that addressed such rights as freedom of worship, trial by jury, free election, fair trial and fair taxes.  In addition to Quakers, the province attracted Amish, Jews, Huguenots, Mennonites and others. Penn, like Williams, befriended the Native Americans and bought his lands from them rather than taking land by force.

6) While not part of the original 13 colonies, and not a focus of Secretary Albright’s book, Catholics colonized the Southern states and California beginning with the founding of missions in the late 1400s Spanish missionaries and by French traders as early as the late 1600s.  Catholics were also among the founders of Maryland.  Identified as “papists” Catholics were subject to persecution in some colonies until at least the late 1700’s.

There is, of course, far more to this early history than I can presume to understand or to research for my brief summary.  But the ways in which the colonies formed, and the close proximity of these varied and sometimes conflicting religious communities impacted their lives and ours.  The tragedies of their time are truly that–tragedies: the introduction of slavery into the new world, the early wars with native American populations on the East Coast, and the Salem witch trials.  The great successes include, first and foremost, that the colonies became an incubator for the values important to us today: liberty, separation of church and state, freedom of religion and democracy that were nurtured and grew, for over 100 years before the “forging of one nation.”

Next:  From the wisdom of a few men, a great document. The United States Constitution.

The Mighty and the Almighty–Diplomacy and Faith

In my quest for greater understanding of the role of faith in government and diplomacy, I have focused on two books.  Senator John Danforth’s Faith and Politics and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s The Mighty and the Almighty.  Senator Danforth is a lifelong Republican.  Secretary Albright has been a Democrat since college.  Both are Episcopalian.  Each served as Ambassador to the UN.  Both advocate that people of faith should be active in government.  Both believe it is essential that there be respect for diversity both within the Christian community and that this respect must extend to those of other faiths and philosophical beliefs.

I focused on Senator Danforth in an earlier post.  Now I will focus on Secretary Albright.  She was born in Czechoslovakia.  Her father was a diplomat.  She was a child when Adolf Hitler was in power.  She emigrated with her family from Czechoslovakia to the United States after communists seized power in her homeland.  Educated at Georgetown University’s Walsh School of Foreign Service, she received her PhD from Columbia University.  Raised Catholic, she converted to the Episcopal faith and, as an adult, came to learn of her Jewish heritage.  Appointed United States Secretary of State during President Clinton’s administration, she served with great distinction from January 1997 to January 2001.

Her unique family history and academic and professional experiences give her a unique perspective on the subject of her book, the role of faith in international diplomacy.  Because of her childhood experiences, she also has special insight into what a privilege it s to live in a free and democratic society.

Secretary Albright’s book is dedicated to “those of every nation and faith who defend liberty, build peace, dispel ignorance, fight poverty, and seek justice.”  Secretary Albright weaves this dedication, and her personal family history, into a scholarly but easily readable narrative of the role of faith in the earliest years of colonial America, through the founding of the Republic and through to the challenges of international diplomacy in a nuclear age.

She discusses separately and together the roles of religious belief and morality.  Her definition of what is moral as essentially that which “we associate with good:  life, liberty, justice, prosperity, health, and peace of mind.”  She describes these characteristics as the opposite of “death, repression, lawlessness, poverty, illness, and fear.”

She worries about the dangers and challenges resulting from the increase in religious passions throughout the world.  She shares the wisdom of religious scholars that effective diplomacy requires that government leaders become more knowledgeable about the faiths and cultures of the countries with whom we interact.  She believes such knowledge is essential in our endeavors to work toward reconciliation rather than toward armed conflict.  Even as she identifies herself as an optimist, she worries “the prospect of a nuclear bomb detonated by terrorists in purported service to the Almighty is a nightmare that may one day come true.”

The Mighty and the Almighty is a goldmine for those who want a brief history of the role of religious conflict on the founding of some of the earliest American colonies, about the religious perspectives of our first four Presidents, George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison.  Because there is no way to do more than touch the surface of the issues raised by Secretary Albright.  It is wonderful material for further posts.

My Beautiful Birthday Girl: Happy 10th Birthday Lily!

Today, my little Lily turns 10 years young. We adopted her almost 3 years ago from a rescue group in Kansas City called Retired Greyhounds As Pets (REGAP). Well actually, she picked us. As our “firstborn” greyhound, she is a bit spoiled, but she is such a perfect little girl. For her birthday, she is spending the day being extra lazy, though I suppose that’s nothing new. Perhaps her goal today is to see if she can be more lazy than usual. It’s a hefty goal! But I’ll bet she can do it. For example, this is Lily on the love seat this morning…

Here are some photos of little missy and her very busy year. She became a big sister just over a year ago to our little boy, Cousteau. She made a cross-country move to California. She’s been to the beach.

It’s been a wonderful year with my little girl. Here’s hoping for many more:)

HAPPY BIRTHDAY LILY!

Enchanted Islands-Sailing Dubrovnik to Split (Part 2)

Croatia is an ancient land.  It was colonized by the Greeks and Romans–among many others–and has ruins spread throughout the islands that reflect its rich history.  A week is not enough to do more than scratch the surface of this wonderful land.

For anyone with a sense of adventure, who wants maximum flexibility experiencing a coastal civilization like Croatia,  sailing is a rewarding alternative to driving, taking a ferry or traveling on a cruise.  The experience is unique until it becomes addictive.  We travel with a small group of people, move quickly from one small port to another, and can change our plans on a moment’s notice. In Croatia we elected to sail with a full crew.  It was worth it.  Instead of preparing food, “manning the sails”, shopping for groceries, buying gas, taking on water and participating in all of the activities required to keep the Fortuna functioning effectively, we were able to spend our time enjoying the sea and exploring every harbor.

Our explorations included bumping, almost literally, into ancient carved stones.  There were also statues of more recent origin.  We were excited when we came upon this bust of Don Sime Ljubic, a leading 19th century Croatian archeologist and a native of Hvar.

One of our favorite stops was the island of Vis.  Populated by the Greeks by the 4th century BC, the island has  long served as a military outpost. Vis has been heavily fortified since the 1800s.  During World War II it served briefly as a military base for the British.  Because of the complex of caves, mines and tunnels, it was perfectly situated to serve as a submarine base for the Yugoslav People’s Army who abandoned it in the 1990s.  Closed to tourists until 1998, it is now a popular tourist destination.

The Church of our Lady of Spilica, erected about 1500 A.D. is one of the most photographed sites on the island.  It’s structure is much like those of other churches we visited, but is still unique in the way that the church appears totally surrounded by the sky, the earth and the lush greenery of palm trees, cypress and other trees.

Every town and fishing village offered the opportunity to wander through the narrow streets lined by stone houses with orange roofs. The flowering bushes and trees were a vivid contrast to the gray stone.

The harbors offer calm water for sailors, including amateurs like ourselves.  Many of the harbors were filled with working boats, owned and operated by the fishermen who lived and worked in the community.

The juxtaposition of sailing boats and catamarans with the working boats of the locals, was common.  We docked next to boats ranging in value from luxury cruisers, to motorized rubber rafts.

Generally we travelled on the Fortuna from one destination to another.  There was one special place where sailing on a large gulet was not possible–our visit to the Modra Spilja, the Blue Cave.  Discovered in 1881, it is situated off the island of Bisevo, only 5 km from Vis.  It is accessible only by a small motorized raft.  It was a choppy ride, one I would rather forget.

The reward for enduring the discomfort of the 20 minutes bumping through the water was more than worth the ride.  The Modra Spilja is literally a cave with a hole below the surface of the water.  A small opening has been drilled through the rock to allow very small boats to pass through into the center of the cave.  The sunlight that filters through the water from below makes the water seem iridescent.  The cave seems to literally glow in the dark.

The island of Bisevo is tiny but beautiful.  These barren rocks are a powerful image against the blue waters below.

After a “challenging” day of adventure, there was nothing more rewarding than stepping out of the Fortuna and onto solid land.

We spent some evenings wandering through the town and villages in search of a cafe, or just a quiet nook to sit and talk.  The spectacular colors of the flowers, bushes, awnings and even the door, made humble and affluent neighborhoods seem to blend together.

Sometimes in the evening we just wanted to look out over the water and feel totally and completely at home by the sea.

Sailing on the Fortuna gave us a unique view of this wonderful land.  Unfortunately, after an amazing week, we had to leave the Fortuna.  We landed in Split where we said goodbye to our wonderful captain, our chef, and our crew and began our next adventure.  And that, of course, is a story for another time.

Enchanted Islands-Sailing Dubrovnik to Split (Part 1)

Enchanted islands.  That is the best way to describe them.  When Terry and I left Dubrovnik to begin our week sailing the Dalmatian Coast, we expected a great trip.  But we did not believe it could match the experience we had in Dubrovnik. We were wrong. We expected to see drab buildings left over from World War II followed by years of communist rule.  We were wrong again. With six close friends, we boarded the gulet, “Fortuna Dalmata,” in the harbor outside Dubrovnik and set sail to visit islands, towns and villages as enchanting as their names suggest: Vis, Hvar, Krk, and Komiza. Our crew included experienced sailors and an incredible cook.  They made our island hopping experience as relaxed as it was satisfying. Our food was as good as we would expect in a first class restaurant.  Not surprising, since our chef’s family owns a fine restaurant in Split.  Breakfast included chocolate croissants, fruit, eggs and cereal.  Dinners included veal shank and lobster.  What could be better than dinner served looking out over the sea to the islands nearby. Only 69 of the 1000 or more islands along the Croatian coast are inhabited. The  entire coast has a rich history that extends back long before the birth of Christ.  Various islands and towns along the coast were inhabited by–and/or did battle with–the Romans, Byzantines, Ottomans, Turks and Venetians among others. Many had ruins from those periods.  The fortifications on some islands were evidence of a long history of war. The islands we visited included picturesque rural villages with basic agricultural equipment and few automobiles and taxis. Tractors were common sights.

So were donkeys.
 It was not uncommon to land on islands with Greek and Roman ruins that spoke to their influence along the Dalmatian Coast.
There were shrines and statues to unknown heros.  The sacred nature of the temples and the sculptures, both Christian and pre-Christian were apparent all around us.  The detail of the carving and the powerful portrayals of worship evidence that the populations along the coast were highly religious throughout Croatia’s history.
 The 16th century Church of Sv Nikola at Komiza dominated the hillside as it rose up from the terraced land and towers over the cypress.  It’s sleek lines and sculptured beauty seem to rise up to meet the heavens.
While the beauty of the architecture on Vis and Hvar inspired us with man’s creative spirit, we also visited islands where the natural
beauty appeared incapable of existing anywhere other than an artist’s canvas.
Each island had it’s own personality.  We could be inspired in the morning by nature and arrive in the evening on an island where the ornate buildings evidenced centuries of affluence and commerce long before the Americas entered the world stage.  As you can see, I am way underdressed for this highly sophisticated and elegant harbor town.
 Terry was similarly decked out in his favorite sailing stripes as he walked the gang-plank from the Fortuna to the dock.
As we look at the serenity of the coastal town below, it is hard to believe that only twenty years ago Croatia was involved in heavy fighting that left much of the country in shambles.  It was just as difficult to understand that this wonderful part of the world has seen far more than its share of political and military turmoil from pre-historic times to the present.

There wasn’t an island that we didn’t want to visit longer.  Many of the uninhabited islands are little more than rocky crags dotting the water between the larger islands. They cluster together like hens and chickens.

To show you even more of our favorite sites in the Croatian Islands we will post Part 2 later.

Walking the Streets of San Francisco

Meg has a J.D. in Urban, Land Use and Environmental Law. She focuses on maintaining the balance of community and environmental health, healthy lifestyles, and encouraging sustainable living.

For my birthday last summer, my Uncle John (“Tio”) made me a CD. He does this every now and then, celebrating various occasions. This CD in particular was my California-bound playlist. He and my Aunt Carol (“Auntie”) live out here, so they were particularly excited we were making the move cross-country. For my listening pleasure on the long haul to the West Coast, Tio made me a disc with 20 or so songs, every single one of them about the Golden State.

Though not every song is about San Francisco itself, many of them are about this magical city. About the peaceful, gentle people. About the music. About the protests and the peace rallies. While much of the mindset of these songs was focused around the ’70s and ’80s, you still feel the same energy and movement of the city. For example, the “World Naked Bike Tour” we saw riding near Ghirardelli Square. This group of people found a way to speak out against the consumption of foreign oil while encouraging healthy activity, all with a hippy flare. That is very “San Francisco” to me.

Before the naked cyclists, and before our delicious ice cream cones, Jake and I started the day walking around Pier 39. We were originally planning to do a tour of Alcatraz with Jake’s brother, Derek, but since Derek sadly broke his leg a few days before, Jake and I decided we would do a walking tour of the city instead. We parked near Pier 39 and began exploring from there. One of the first things we came across was the drumming team from Humboldt State University. The students were awesome drummers, the crowd was energized, and it was the perfect way to start off our adventure with an extra kick in our step.

Once we left Pier 39, we walked to Fisherman’s Wharf for a crab sandwich. Yum! I wish we had splurged the calories to get the fries to go with the crab, but we definitely made up for it when we stopped at Ghirardelli for the best ice cream cones on the planet. Then, as many of you may remember from a prior post, we saw naked cyclists! It was becoming quite an interesting day.

After dessert and a show, we looked at our walking map of the city and decided to make the trek up to Coit Tower. It was a long walk, and there were LOTS of stairs, but the view from the top was worth it. You could see in every direction. From the Golden Gate to the Bay Bridge, and back through the climbing hills of the city. We even saw a full rainbow, from end to end, springing from a pier and back down into the bay.

So, we had dessert, a show, and then a nice hike to burn off our delicious calories. We then hiked down through the many steep stairs on the north side of Coit Tower, past a quaint little cluster of apartments and a few small neighborhood gardens. We found a little oasis along those steps, where the noise was completely blocked by the steep cliffs of Telegraph Hill and the charm was maintained by the lush surrounding greenery. While I don’t know how we could possibly make a place like that work with our two greyhounds, it is certainly a peaceful nook of the city I would visit again.

It was a beautiful day, not to mention very good exercise. San Francisco has so many places to explore, and we only touched on a few them. I guess the good news is that we have plenty of time to explore the rest. Why? Because we live here!