With the discovery of Jewish art and culture my heritage became more significant.
Franz Kafka Memorial. Unusual Sculpture in Jewish Quarter, Prague.
In January 2019, I with my daughter, Ariel, took an intensive tour of our European Jewish Heritage. Oddly, we did not go to visit the birthplaces of my parents—Bialystok in Poland and Zaslav in the Ukraine. Those areas had been cleansed of Jews, and their habitats and synagogues by packs of aggressors ranging from the rage of Cossacks, Germans, Russians, and the denizens of the locals.
My daughter sensibly planned the trip to dock in Vienna and Prague where we would tour cities which were not ravaged as much by the Second World War. The older areas with historic buildings and décor survived. Vienna had indeed considerable damage, but Prague’s Jewish identity was well preserved in its original synagogues, clogged Jewish cemetery, and relative tolerance of Jews settlement before the war and afterwards.
We wanted to visit the synagogue services but had not known that it required a security check that would last over three days. The Jews in Vienna still felt vulnerable especially because the synagogue had been attacked by terrorists some years before. In addition, we discovered that the Jewish population who returned to Austria after the war truly loved Austria but were still suspicious of the Austrians.
Despite this feeling and the limits imposed by security issues, Vienna unexpectantly laid the foundation for our emotional preparedness.
To my surprise, the Museum of Art and Industry primed my mind for discovering my heritage in a prism that eliminated emotions of past prejudice.
The entrance to the building is designed to open one’s emotions to freedom and inspiration: the floor of a chamber supports an array of yoga pads that covers an estimate of 90 square yards. Sacks suspended forty feet in the ceiling were filled fill with air and then released it in a synchronized pattern. One can time breathing in harmony with these “lungs” on high. There are many visitors on the floor in silence breathing with you. It reminded me of a religious séance or a Zen Buddhist meditative experience. By shutting your eyes, you are encouraged to feel that you are entering a new universe. Breathe in, breathe out. For me, this was the threshold for choosing many paths in my mind’s roundabout to my past.
As a Jew whose parents had suffered greatly in pogroms, and relatives who had been murdered in the Nazi death camps, Europe was identified primarily by the Holocaust. I was brought up identifying its history with anti-Semitism. Norman Cohen’s magnum work, The Pursuit of the Millennium argued that “the ideologies of Communism and Nazism, dissimilar though they are in many respects, are both heavily indebted to that very ancient body of beliefs which constituted the popular apocalyptic lore of Europe.” His compelling thesis was driven by the view that European history which began after the fall of the Roman Empire was relentlessly the engine of genocide.
Vienna and Prague softened my negative views of Europe. I came to admire the history of the Jews who despite their oppression created an admirable civilization for themselves and with others. Despite their travails, they carved out their own worlds of beauty, joy, and even creativity.
Prague introduced me to the history of the Kabbalah or Jewish mysticism in early European history. The exhibition of the lives and the texts of these orthodox Jews revealed the achievements and strength of this community despite being cursed as threatening aliens. They produced exquisite artwork of sculpture, silver engravings, textiles, glass, music and synagogue architecture equal to the best in Europe.
I had always been infatuated with the writings of Franz Kafka who was a Prague native. I looked forward to touring his memorial museum. I could have spent a lifetime reading manuscripts, looking at old photographs, and talking with the docents. Especially significant for me was to learn that though he wrote in German, he disliked that language and preferred Czech. I read a letter where he expressed his anger toward the German language, particularly in the word for mother which sounded so cold and so unemotional. In his writings and use of language he epitomized the archetypical Jew who precariously balanced on two worlds.
The Museum’s commentary on Kafka’s The Trial, explained that this work was a Kabballah parable employing a mystical base to relate philosophical issues of life and death. A passage from Kafka has become part of my lifelong journey: “No matter where we are at the end of our lives, never let it be said that we wished for the beginning, and in the beginning of our lives, never wish it would end.” For me, the meaning of this was that the purpose of life was living fully without remorse.
This medieval statue represents the connection between the body and the soul. Kafka’s statute in the prompts’ title features Kafka on the shoulder of a headless body. a body. This symbolic representation of the body draws upon the mysticism of Jewish spirituality. My trip into the past circulated around to appreciate my own upbringing in the faith, culture and mysticism of Judaism.