Noi6 means "the 6 of us" in Romanian.

We are five, you are the sixth one.

We thank you for joining us in our trip around the world...

Monday, September 10, 2012

Zero Percent

If you try to learn about the world, there is a small population of 13,428,300 in 2010 (0% of the total), who suffered the most and caused most of the trouble in the world. Most of them live in America and some of them live in a country called Israel. They are generally called Jews, even though what makes someone Jew can be an issue of considerable debate. There is a lot to learn about them and the best place to do it is in Prague. It might seem illogical at first, but soon it all makes sense. Hitler dreamed of a museum for the "extinct race of Jews" and apparently he chose one of the oldest synagogues in the world to house it. In an adjacent synagogue they started to pile the artifacts stollen from the population, items of inestimable value, waiting to be put on display when the Nazis would have won the war. So saved from destruction and somehow surviving the communist era, they are now available for the whole world to learn. There is a quarter in Prague Old Town that contains the Jewish Museum, unusual because it comprises a few buildings scattered over several streets in a relatively new Art-Nouveau labyrinth. There is the Old-New Synagogue, built in 1270. The ceiling is awkward, almost clumsy, it has five spikes, the builders were Christians, they knew how to built a ceiling with four beams connecting in the shape of the cross. That wouldn't have worked for a synagogue, so they added a fifth one, clumsily. Why? The Jews were not allowed to built, they had to employ Christians. Why? Asked the children, it just doesn't make sense. They were not allowed to do anything, exempt moneylending. Why? They ask again. People are stupid. That is the short answer, there is a (much) longer one.

The ceiling with five spires, credit wikipedia

Old Jewish history is a puzzle that nobody can solve. It is confused by them with what is written in their sacred religious texts, even though there is almost no historical evidence to support it. There are obviously conflicting interests in our times to support or dispel the link between the Old Testament and the real history of the Middle East. But there were some tribes living there and somehow they developed some religion, encouraged or discouraged by the interaction with all the surrounding civilizations. Skipping through Babylon, Persia, the conquest by Alexander Macedon, the Seleucid Empire established by one of his generals and so on, finally the Romans came to make some "order." The province was named Judea, at first a tributary kingdom and then under direct Roman rule. Romans had no problem tolerating various religions as long as their emperor was also worshiped like a god. For the monotheistic Judaic religion, and later for Christians, this was not something they could accept. The jews revolted in 66-73 and saw Jerusalem wiped out. A second revolt 70 years later angered the Roman Emperor Hadrian who decided to once and for all solve the Jewish problem. Many of the inhabitants were killed or sold into slavery (50,000 to Rome alone), some ran away. The province was renamed Palestina, after an enemy of the old Jewish tribes. Jews were banned from Jerusalem in 137 AD.

From then on, the story of Jews is one huge list of unbelievable and inexcusable oppression and bigotry, a shameful litany of shameless discrimination that cannot be explained or excused. The early Romans might have been admired for their pragmatism and religious tolerance, but as Christianity later became the state religion all of that ended. Official imperial decrees set the rules to prosecute the jews and the policy was to force them to convert. It was probably a great relief when the Muslims appeared in the 7th century, conquered Palestine in 636 and allowed the Jews to return to Jerusalem. The prosecution in Europe continued unabated.

The Crusaders, as early as year 1096, started their journey massacring Jews. The Jews and Arabs fought together to defend Jerusalem so they were both slaughtered by the victorious first crusaders. And then it goes, on and on for one thousand years, one massacre after another all over Europe. It was all about money? That might seem stupid until you learn that Christianity did not allow the lending of money and people charging interest were excommunicated and denied a Christian burial. The Judaism allowed the charging of interest to non-Jews and it soon became the only activity they were allowed to do. They were not allowed to own land, occasionally they were tolerated in some areas. They were heavily taxed, sometimes onerously and soon a vicious circle started. They were the only ones who could lend money, but they also needed their loans back, they needed the interest to pay the high taxes. As the kings could not have banks and make profit on lending money they used the Jews as intermediary: tolerate them and take their money through high taxes. A king or another imposed taxes on his own people, and sometime would "reward" that by expelling the Jews. There was certainly some antisemitic feeling all over Europe 1000 years ago, but the money circle amplified it all. The Jews started to be seen as rapacious moneylenders, hated by both the church and the general population. The old Polish kings who mostly welcomed Jews to their lands were under significant pressure from the Catholic Church to expel them. Legends spread about a wandering jew or about them killing Christian children to use their blood in their rituals. The Jews then became perceived as diabolical creatures who hated Christ. The image of a Jew was used to depict greed in Christian European art. At various times all over Europe the antisemitic feeling erupted in a massacre here and there. The kings or the queens used them as political scapegoats whenever they pleased. To make them easily identifiable they were required to wear special signage, a neck wooden bell, a long red robe, a patch of white of yellow cloth or, like in Prague, a yellow hat.
This was an original yellow hat, on display at Maisel Synagogue

We started our tour at the Pinkas Sinagogue, built in 1535 and a site of worship for more than 400 years. Ioan and I got little hats to wear inside and we will cary them with us for the rest of the journey. It is not an active place of worship now, it was transformed in a memorial for the 77,297 Czech Jews who were sent to concentration camps. Their names are written by hometown, family and date of birth, plus the last date known of them. The communists erased the memorial, but it was reestablished after 1989. It is a sad, sobering place where we spent a lot of time, just going from one panel to the next and reading their names. Upstairs it is the Terezin Children's Art Exhibit. Terezin was the main concentration camp next to Prague, where most of the Jews were sent and perished. Somehow, someone collected some children's drawings and they survived hidden in a suitcase. It is not art, just puerile drawing, but is emotional to walk from one panel to the next, see the simple themes and unskilled lines and realize that all those children were murdered in concentration camps. Probably they knew their fate and just spent the last moments and used the last pencil ends and papers to have a few quiet moments. They drew their families, fences, men with guns. Heartbreaking.
This little building is the Pinkas Synagogue and the drawing exhibition

Just a little part of the long lists of names

Getting out of the Pinkas Synagogue a short path took us to the old Jewish Cemetery. For centuries it was the only place where they could be buried. Reportedly there are about 100,000 people buried here, on a ground smaller than half a football field, in stacks of 7-8, the land is raised and stones go in all directions. We walk slowly through the graves, it is a unique display that is hard to comprehend.

We exit through the back porch. On the right there is the Ceremonial hall, an exhibition of burial practices (closed for some reason) and on the left there is the Klaus Synagogue, a 17th century synagogue transformed in a museum of Jewish religious practices, festivals, calendar and rituals of Jewish life. It is interesting and informative and we like to learn.

From here we visit the Old New Synagogue, the oldest in Eastern Europe. No pictures are allowed, so we take it all in, hoping to remember. It is old, really old, grave, gray and very simple. The high chairs on the walls all look toward the center Shrine of The Ark where the sacred scrolls of the Torah are held. Two old women supervise the visitors, making sure that nobody takes pictures.
The Old New Sinagogue

We finish our tour at the Maisel Synagogue, a 16th century, much nicer construction which has a different kind of museum. It talks about the history of the Jewish communities in Bohemia over a thousand years, the creation of Prague's ghetto and it has a lot on the organized discrimination against the Jews. It is informative and nonjudgmental. There is a lot to read, a few interesting objects and plenty of time to think. I finally understand some things, including why the Middle East conflict would never end. The Jews had enough and would never let something similar happen to them. The West did enough bad to actually feel guilty and support them. The Arabs don't understand why they have to be the ones compensating for all the past ills of the history plus their leaders need a scapegoat like the old European kings of the past. And on top of all comes America. The Jews are smart people and they learned fast how American politics works. Initially they were headed toward the same old, secondary rank population being thrown and abused at the whim of the times, but they soon got involved in the lobbying game and started to control all the levels of power. The Arabs would never forgive America for lying to their leaders after the second world war and forcing the creation of Israel. So there you have it, an impossible situation and several vicious circles, and I only got it after visiting the Jewish Museum in Prague.

Maisel Synagogue

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