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Jon M. Sweeney | Michal WollJanuary 24, 2011

Clearly the anticipated answer to “Where did you go on your honeymoon?” was not “Prague.” Our friends, perhaps expecting us to name the Caribbean or some other lush, fun place, always responded, “Why there?” The city, well known for its beautiful architecture, significant culture scene and dramatic post-Communist evolution, was on both my wife’s and my own short lists of must-sees.

Michal and I left for Prague in early May, looking forward to the cool, damp weather that marked the low season in Eastern Europe. In our living room the week before, we marked fold-out maps from Time Out; I located English-language used bookstores and bakeries. She circled veggie restaurants and bicycle rentals.

These were in addition to the obvious landmarks we wanted to see, which included numerous churches and synagogues. Prague has an extensive history of religious events, people and places, including an extant Jewish quarter. That was appealing to us, religious couple that we are.

One cannot visit a major European city without coming face to face with such history, essential to the fabric of the human story. But as Americans, it can be confusing: Our history simply is not as long, and we have never lived through an era when the religious establishment was inseparable from the government. One still feels both elements in Prague. The most prominent feature of the central city square is a towering statue of the 14th-century reformer Jan Hus. The tourists were so plentiful around Prague Castle we could hardly get near it. We were hoping to see the great St. Vitus Cathedral, seat of the Archbishop of Prague, which is attached to the castle and from which Czech presidents still rule.

We also made a conscious choice not to visit a nearby concentration camp—for a variety of reasons. First, Michal, who is a rabbi, had visited it once before. Second, this was our honeymoon, and the solemnity of such a place did not fit with the celebration of our visit. Third, Michal’s preference was to focus on the rich heritage and living tradition of her people—rather than their suffering. So, map in hand, we set out to explore Prague and revel in uninterrupted time together.

Touring Churches

The first church we visited was one of two St. Nicholases in the old city. The nave contained a gift shop, a series of large, propped-up posters with the history of the place in three languages (Czech, German, English), stacks of pastel fliers advertising the church’s nightly Baroque music concerts and a person sitting at a desk prepared to sell us tickets to that night’s offering. The sanctuary was roped off, as if no longer in use. We quickly discovered with sadness that most of the city’s churches, and a synagogue as well, held communal activity only when hosting Baroque music concerts. It was fascinating how many different houses of worship could simultaneously present a night with Vivaldi with holy artifacts useful only as lovely concert backdrops.

The cavernous Church of Our Lady before Tyn offered a more austere experience: dark Gothic columns set off by equally dark icons depicting the suffering Savior. These unnerved both of us, for different reasons. I found them bleak and depressing, while Michal just found them inexplicable. We saw a depiction of the baby Jesus looking oddly emaciated. We had paid a fee to enter the sanctuary—something we are usually loath to do. But there was no service time when we might have entered more prayerfully.

The Baroque, gilt, colorful excess of the Loreto Church, near Prague Castle, offered a bit of relief from the medieval dark in Tyn. Chapels, monuments and paintings of a plethora of saints, primarily women, were there “to encourage the masses to return to and understand the beauty of the church,” as a brochure ex-plained. The church was bright, full of displayed treasures and streaming visitors. The story of St. Agatha, new to Michal, was creatively on display. Agatha, an Italian, was martyred in the third century during the persecution ordered by the emperor Decius. At the church gift shop we were disappointed to find no postcards of the statue of two chubby cherubs frolicking with a platter holding Agatha’s breasts. (I was glad I had broken the rules and taken a photo on the sly.) Yet we still had not seen a place where people actually pray.

We wondered if these were active, worshiping churches. They did not appear to be. By this point we realized how uncomfortable being tourists was for us when it came to religion. We were exposed to plenty of history, art, architecture and organized tours in a variety of languages, but it all felt empty. We began to yearn for signs of religious life and for the sense that others were engaging with the spiritual, the symbolic or the sacred in these places.

A Search for Worshipers

The Alt-Neu Shul (Old-New Synagogue) was the one house of worship where religion could be felt. A simple stone and wood structure built in the late-13th century, it is the oldest active synagogue in Europe. Worn wooden benches that had clearly supported many bodies gave it an atmosphere of gravity and immediacy. I asked Michal to translate the Hebrew inscribed on the wall above either side of the Torah ark. One text, from the Talmud tractate Berachot, said: “Know before Whom you are standing.” The other was Psalm 16:8: “I place God in front of me always.” I could begin to hear and feel the community praying in that space, just as they have done for seven centuries. I turned to Michal and said, “I would like to pray here someday.” Michal took a step back and pointed to the four-inch slits high in the foot-thick concrete walls. “Those are the windows to the women’s section, the only place where I would be welcome,” she said.

On our way out a young woman asked us in simple English if we had any questions. Michal inquired about one of the Hebrew acronyms on the side wall, and the woman recited another line of the Psalms in lovely Hebrew. We complemented her fluency and inquired whether she was a member of this Jewish community. She shyly replied that she was only an employee.

The Jewish Museum, across from the Alt-Neu Shul, offered little to suggest the presence of modern religious life. From reading some of the descriptions in the display cases one might think that Judaism existed only in shtetls long ago: “Rosh Hashana was a time when Jews would….” Other practices were described that Michal assured me had not been practiced in centuries, even in the most strictly observant communities. Mostly it was Michal’s delight in the timeless scrolls and books that gave some life and sense of continuity to the ancient tradition; to use a common Yiddishism, “Only the ones who know will know.” We could not help but wonder how the throngs of tourists, few Jews among them, would even understand, from their experience of the museum, that there is contemporary Jewish life and practice in Prague.

On Friday night, weary and damp from a full day of walking the city, we located a basement apartment in a commercial district where the liberal Jewish community gathers each week. There was neither gilding nor cherubs; the only music came from the voices of people singing and praying in a mix of Czech, Hebrew and English. There we met Eleina once again, the employee of the Old-New Synagogue, who greeted us with a sweet smile of recognition. How unusual it must be for one of her museum customers to show up to pray on the Sabbath! Later, as we walked back through the city square, past the Astronomical Clock and Jan Hus, we realized that for an hour or two we had felt at home.

How Was Your Trip?

What is the point of visiting these old synagogues and churches? They are fine places to learn about history. They are often gorgeous, ornate and unusual. Sometimes you can pay an additional fee to take photographs to show your friends back home. But ultimately this seems like little more than nostalgia. Those with an abiding interest in being a part of religious life today would rather spend time in places of worship—even basement apartments—where congregations gather and people pray that connect us in the present and point to a better future.

When friends asked, “How was your trip?” we would smile and say “Great!” recalling the joys of being together and the disappointment and ambivalence about much of our experience. Many of the stops on the tourist trail had left us dissatisfied, but we found what we needed.

is the author of many books, including Light in the Dark Ages: The Friendship of Francis and Clare of Assisi and The St. Francis Prayer Book. is a Reconstructionist rabbi who serves the congregation of Beth Jacob in Montpelier, Vt.

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