My Prague Mitzvah

The Old New Synagogue (Czech: Staronová synagoga; German: Altneu-Synagoge), also called the Altneuschul, situated in Josefov, Prague, is Europe's oldest active synagogue. It is also the oldest surviving medieval synagogue of twin-nave design. (OEyvind Holmstad Photo/Wikipedia/CC3.0)

Editor’s Note: Guest contributor David Kwechansky has a long professional relationship with our webmaster, Steve Lubetkin. They first met when Steve was doing public relations for Conrail and NJ Transit, and David was seeking an opportunity to ride on a legendary electric locomotive. You can hear more about that experience in this podcast Steve produced with David.

I first arrived in Prague on July 19, 1969, to see the only eastern European city the Allies did not bomb and visit its ancient Jewish heart. Prague’s Jewish community town hall has two clocks, one with Hebrew letters instead of numbers. Naturally, that one turns backwards.

Prague’s prominent Jewish history was why Hitler chose it as the site for his future museum to the eradicated Jewish people. Its famed oddly jumbled Jewish cemetery includes the revered tomb of Rabbi Low. Torahs and artifacts looted from synagogues and homes by Nazi troops were sent there to be stored pending eventual exhibit. Today they are displayed in that town hall as a Holocaust memorial and mournful tribute to Prague’s decimated Jewish population.

Europe’s oldest continuously operating synagogue is in Prague. The oddly named Old-New or Alt-Neu shul was built in 1270 and already in use for over 200 years before Columbus set sail. Seeing it was high on my list but an entirely modern experience awaited first.

On my flight from Athens, in a noisy early ‘50s Tupolev Tu-104 of Československé Aerolinie, the people I sat with amicably introduced themselves. Jiri and Maria Kral spoke good English. We chatted as best we could over the din of jet engines inside the wings next to the cabin. Jiri was chief physician to Czech international athletes and had been attending a conference.

After arrival they graciously invited me to their flat for dinner the next day. I gladly accepted to further enjoy their company and also to share an historic occasion. Around 10 that evening, July 20th, Apollo 11 was to land on the moon.

After an excellent meal we sipped slivovitz while watching the lunar doings on TV. The state network carried the live Houston video feed but with audio muted and a Czech voiceover. The Kral’s best attempts at translation were falling short, so Jiri said let’s take a walk. We strolled a few blocks to the nearby main studio, where he had connections. There we watched a monitor with the original audio into the wee hours.

At the Old-New shul the next day, open to visitors although services were only held on Shabbat, I talked with a docent who spoke passable English. Their Siddurim were shabby so I asked why they don’t get new ones. He explained the Communist government’s policy of official atheism prohibited importing any sort of prayer books. Places of worship were officially only of cultural and artistic interest. That’s like restaurants officially only being open to admire food.

This oppression stirred something in me and I decided to somehow help if I could. Three years later I added a return to Prague to a tour of Austria, Hungary and West and East Germany. In part it was for my new wife to see Prague, in part because I had an idea—a pretty daft one, thinking back on it, but an idea.

At a Jewish book store on Van Horne Ave near Lavoie I explained why I needed Siddurim small and light enough to readily pack in luggage. After raised eyebrows and looks that said “Are you nuts?” the store recommended a hand-sized edition on ultra-thin paper meant to be carried around. It looked as right as I was likely to find so I bought 18 of them…of course 18.

I had no real idea of what might happen should this contraband be found. One could hardly enquire ahead at the Czech consulate in Montreal about the penalty for smuggling in prayer books. We assumed they would be confiscated and perhaps we’d also be denied entry, but prayer books are not drugs so arrest seemed improbable and we opted to take our chances.

We bought two light zippered suitcases, divided the books between them and packed clothes sparingly hoping to keep within the 20 Kg baggage allowance. There was no strategy as such to get the books in the country. I simply hoped for token inspection such as what I’d already seen Czech border police give Western tourists. My first entry in ’69 at Prague’s Ruzyne airport was little more than a glower, a grunt and a stamp.

The trip began in Vienna. We enjoyed the sights and foods for three days before picking up our rental car, a VW 1600. This was a new model, bigger than a Beetle. In VW fashion the trunk was in front and the air cooled engine in back, but the 1600’s larger size allowed for a shallow extra storage space above the engine. In effect the car had two trunks. We decided to put the books in the odd back one and headed for Prague.

Our passports with visas from the Montreal consulate were in order and the Avis rental contract handy for inspection, so I thought we’d clear with little fuss. However traffic was sparse just then so maybe the guards were bored, but for whatever reason they decided to check us out.

While we sat in the car guards opened both doors and peered around inside. Another opened the front trunk. I could just see what he was doing through a gap under the raised lid. He unzipped our bags but did not paw around much that I could tell. They entirely ignored the back of the car. Apparently word had not yet reached Czech border control that this VW had a trunk at each end. Finding nothing of interest they closed up, said Děkuju (thank you in Czech), lifted the barrier and motioned us through.

We waited to get a few Kms down the road before letting out happy whoops that we’d pulled it off. That guard’s token luggage inspection would likely have missed the books even had they been at the bottom of the bags, but we felt a whole lot less tense with them not in there.

The next day we brought them to the Old-New synagogue. The docents grinned with delight to get the first new Siddurim in ages, even if compact ones, and handled them in a manner more befitting porcelain.

They asked us to please return for Shabbat services. We’d still be in Prague then so we gladly did, and they honoured me with the first Aliyah. Chanting those familiar bruchot on that ancient Bima after my Prague mitzvah felt more meaningfully Jewish to me than my Bar Mitzvah.

I will always have a soft spot for charming Prague. That’s where I saw men land on the moon and where I landed Siddurim for the oldest shul.

About David Kwechansky 1 Article
David is one of 4 children of a Montreal family. His Russian-born father owned a candy factory. His mother was one of 10 children of Russian émigrés from Uman. Being a railfan led him to an early job with Canadian National in passenger marketing research, an area he enjoyed. To broaden his experience, in ‘70 he joined the marketing research department of a packaged goods firm where he learned to moderate focus groups. After further experience in brand management, in ’76 he ventured on his own as a focus group specialist and moved to Toronto where most clients are located. For 38 years he did studies across North America for a diverse clientele, retiring in 2014. He has 2 daughters, 2 sons and 6 grands. David likes planes as well as trains, is a baseball fan, enjoys photography and cooking, has collections of antique cameras and pre-1960 rail and air timetables and has travelled globally.

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