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Monday, April 30, 2012

Krakow's Jewish Ghetto

One thing that becomes abundantly clear when you are on a WWII trip through eastern Europe is that the Germans were ruthless when they occupied a city. They really had no interest in anything but themselves and their agenda. When we got to our fourth occupied city, there is no way to avoid that conclusion. They sussed out the easiest part of the city to wall in, kicked out it's current inhabitants, and placed Jews there. What's the problem? The Kraków Ghetto was formally established on 3 March 1941 in the Podgórze district, not in the Jewish district of Kazimierz. Displaced Polish families from Podgórze took up residences in the former Jewish dwellings outside the newly established Ghetto. Meanwhile, 15,000 Jews were crammed into an area previously inhabited by 3,000 people who used to live in a district consisting of 30 streets, 320 residential buildings, and 3,167 rooms. As a result, one apartment was allocated to every four Jewish families, and many less fortunate lived on the street. The Ghetto was surrounded by walls that kept it separated from the rest of the city. Former occupants of the Podgórze neighborhood had to find another place to live. Probably without any of their valuables.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

The Adventures of Tintin (2011)

Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson could not be accused of abandoing their inner child at too early a date. They are perhaps the dream team for taking an iconic comic book character and bringing his essense and spirit to an animated movie, which has a well written script, and I have no doubt that the action is state of the art technology (which is largely wasted on the likes of me). I love Tintin. He was created by the Belgian comic artist Georges Remi in 1929 under the pen name Hergé. He is a crime-fighting boy journalist of unknown age with immediately recognizable upswept and red hair. Accompanied by his intrepid dog Snowy, Tintin is smart, unflappable, and inventive in his seemingling self-appointed quest to solve riddles and righting wrongs (with little outside help and no adult supervision). The story and the movie so accurately capture the spirit of the original that it is a joy to watch if you have that connection. In my household, we have that connection. We even visited Château de Cheverny in the Loire Valley, which is the house that Marlinspike Hall is based on (and does not play a role in this movie, but is prominant in other Tintin adventures). The house is also famous because King Henri II gave it to his mistress Diane de Poitiers (who was a major piece of work in her day), but that is another story altogether. So we are big fans. The movie works without that emotional attachment and it doesn't dissappoint if you do have it. It is not 'Best Movie of the Year' material, but it is a very enjoyable walk down childhood memory lane.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Krakow's Old Town

Kraków Old Town (Stare Miasto) is one of the most famous old districts in Poland today and was the center of Poland's political life from 1038 until King Sigismund III Vasa relocated his court to Warsaw in 1596. The entire medieval old town is among the first sites chosen for the UNESCO's original World Heritage List, inscribed as Cracow's Historic Centre. And with good reason. I had already been to several UNESCO World Heritage sites on the same trip, and this one still came out at the top of the list--it is spectacular.
Medieval Kraków was surrounded by a 1.9 mile (3 km) defensive wall complete with 46 towers and seven main entrances leading through them. The fortifications around the Old Town were erected over the course of two centuries. The current architectural plan of Stare Miasto – the 13th-century merchants' town – was drawn up in 1257 after the destruction of the city during the Tatar invasions of 1241 followed by raids of 1259 and repelled in 1287. The district features the centrally located Rynek Główny, or Main Square, the largest medieval town square of any European city. There is a number of historic landmarks in its vicinity, such as St. Mary's Basilica (Kościół Mariacki), Church of St. Wojciech (St. Adalbert's), Church of St. Barbara, as well as other national treasures. At the center of the plaza, surrounded by kamienice (row houses) and noble residences, stands the Renaissance cloth hall Sukiennice (currently housing gift shops, restaurants and merchant stalls--we bought fabulous fur mittens and some small souveniors in various shops and stalls there) with the National Gallery of Art upstairs. It is flanked by the Town Hall Tower (Wieża ratuszowa).
We only had one dinner on our own in Krakow, and we chose to eat at Wierzynek. It was established in 1364, and is reputed to be the oldest continuously open restaurant in the world. It was built by a king on the occasion of his daughter's wedding, and when those festivities died down, it became a restaurant. Some restaurnts do not maintain their quality over time but not so with Wierzynek--it was considered the best restaurant in Krakow by the prestigious Michelin Red Guide and mentioned in one of my son's favorite reference books, "1000 Places to See Before You Die". The atmosphere is undeniably elegant, and the food was fantastic.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Van Gogh: The Life by Stephen Naifeh and Gregory White Smith

Vincent Van Gogh is an extraordinary artist about whom everything seems to be known. His brilliant work and tragic life, combined with a paper trail of letters to his art-dealer brother, Theo, have made him a recurring subject for art historians, biographers, filmmakers, and mental health professionals since his death at a young age from a gunshot wound in 1890. So why a new version of Van Gogh's life? Two years ago, the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam — which maintains a vast archive as well as an art collection — published a six-volume edition of about 900 letters, freshly translated, annotated, illustrated by 4,300 images and available online. Drawing heavily on the letters and the museum's resources, Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith have written the most extensive biography of Van Gogh. A tour de force beginning with his parents' family tree and ending with speculation about who fired the deadly shot, it's an enormous achievement. So big, in fact, that the notes — about 5,000 typewritten pages — were published separately online--so do not be comforted that there are a couple of hundred pages of notes at the end of this weighty tome. They were published elsewhere. Desperate for the comfort of family and community, the rewards of an honorable career and, finally, a way of making art that would fulfill his life quest, he was so needy, demanding and unstable that he repeatedly crashed and burned. The authors' thorough probing of Van Gogh's relationships with family members, artists, business colleagues, models and Sien Hoornick, a prostitute who lived with him in the Hague, can be painful--and lengthy--to read. His journey from youthful sketches to electrically charged canvases is equally fraught with impossible dreams and self-doubt--read all about it in this well written and thorough biography.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Driving through Slovakia

The new face of Eastern Europe is that it is part of the Euro zone. The last time I crossed from Hungary into Slovakia, which was in 2005, there were border crossings to be dealt with. No more. An even bigger change is that Slovakia is now on the Euro. That is a surprise. When I was here last there was a lot of speculation about why Slovakia would want to become an independent nation. Not that there was much animosity between the Czech Republic and Slovakia—there wasn’t. The separation of Czechoslovakia from the Soviet Union was called the Velvet Revolution, and the two halves of Czechoslovakia shared a similar if not exactly common language. They were not historically one country though. Czechoslovakia was created in the aftermath of WWI, and did not represent a united vision of two people striving for one nation. To make matters worse, all the resources flowed through Prague, so there was a sense of less control over their own destiny on the Slovak side of the fence.
When Slovakia split off a couple of years after the Soviet it was called the Velvet Divorce. Slovakia had less resources at the time and yet it appears that they had more ambition. Their GDP has been amongst the best in Europe in recent years, and they made the hard changes that they had to make in order to become part of the Euro zone. The Czech republic, on the other hand, has struggled with worker productivity and not been willing to do what it takes. Driving across Slovakia reminded me of Serbia. Well cultivated land (Wikipedia says 40% of the total land in Slovakia is under cultivation), neat houses and farms, and while towns do not look wealthy, they do look well tended. We stopped at a ski resort for lunch and the lifts were open, the restaurant was packed with people, and there was an air of prosperity. Not to mention the best apple streudel that we had all trip.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

My Week With Marilyn (2011)

This movie is based on memoirs by Colin Clark. In 1956, Marilyn Monroe came to Britain to make the ill-fated comedy 'The Prince and the Showgirl' at Pinewood Studios with Laurence Olivier--portrayed in glorious performances by Kenneth Branagh and Michelle Williams as Olivier and Monroe. The whole movie is seen from the standpoint of the film's star-struck third assistant director, Colin Clark, son of the great art historian Kenneth, and younger brother of the notorious Tory MP Alan. The movie-mad kid had manged to get a job in Olivier's production office, been hired as a go-for on the movie, and something in him caught the eye of Marilyn herself. With her genius for enslaving dazzled men to a courtier's life of gallantry and self-abasement, she made him her confidant and helpmate. Eddie Redmayne does a very good job as Colin, but the scene is utterly stolen from him in various ways by the two above-the-title players. Branagh is tremendous as Olivier: this is a part he was born to play. However, in art as in life, Olivier's spotlight is taken away by Marilyn, played terrifically well by Williams. The film shows how sexual intrigue can be such a compulsion on a film set that it must always find an outlet somewhere, somehow. Everyone might have expected a sexy spark between Olivier and Monroe but it was not to be because they were both so needy, both so used to adoration. So the sexiness is displaced on to the hapless Colin himself. Lucky him. The story is an old one, but it is well told, and the acting is sensational. Add to that the location. Filming took place at Saltwood Castle, White Waltham Airfield, and on locations in and around London. Curtis also used the same studio in which Monroe shot The Prince and the Showgirl in 1956. This is not a movie that will teach you anything but it is fabulously fun to watch.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Raoul Wallenberg in Hungary

Wallenberg is a Swede who came to Hungary amidst the German occupation. At that point, 400,000 Hungarian Jews had already been transported to Auchwitz in an astoundingly short amount of time. There was not much in the way of non-Jewish resistance to these deportations, although at that point it was abundantly clear that Germany was losing the and Hungary would go down with it. The Swedes had been issuing Swedish papers to any Hungarian Jew who could show a Swedish realtionship. Wallenberg took it one step further. He brashly and openly issued papers to any Jew, regardless of their background.
He flashed a lot of money around to make this possible, and that certainly helped with his success, although he was clearly a wanted man. He bought a section of Budapest, declared it under Sweidsh control and protection, and housed Jews there. It probably wouldn't have worked for a long period of time, but again, Hungary had been a German ally until late in the war, so the occupation came at the very end. Short term solutions were what was needed. Wallenberg is credited with saving tens of thousands of Hungarian Jews, an impressive feat. He was not rewarded for his heroism. He was captured by the Russians, and died in a Soviet prison in 1947 at the very young age of 34--at least that is what was reported. his body was never returned to Sweden, and his family continued to look for him for years to come. His parents tragically committed suicide after hunting for him for years after the war.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Red Hook Road by Ayelet Waldman

This book could be titled "Those That Were left Behind". The opening chapter is about the weddning of John and Becca. Neither family is all that pleased with their offspring. Becca has dropped out of a music conservatory to return to Maine, and John is a man who works better with his hands than with books. He works in a ship yard and is lovingly--and expensively--restoring a yacht. Becca's family is from Manhattan and John's is from where Becca's family summers in Maine. Her family mourn her dropping a career and his wish he had fell for someone more like them. But a marriage made of poor choices (ie. love over all else) is the least of these family's problems. En route to the reception, the bride and groom are killed in a car accident. The really hard part is having a shared history that you haven't even gotten a chance to get over your bad feelings about. The two mothers, Iris and Jane, had a working relationship. Jane cleaned Iris's house. The awkwardness of their children marrying did not help them in their grief after their deaths. The two younger siblings who are left behind also have to find their own ways. They are the most interesting characters in the book. So it is a story of how to move on, and the many odd directions that moving on can take. The writing is crisp and clear. It rings true, and there is an attentio to social detail that is rare. This is not a particularly sad book, given it's main events--but there is the underlying element of tragedy that pervades the lives of those who are left behind.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Holocaust Memorials Hungarian Style

This stainless steel weeping willow is in the courtyard behind the Douhany Synagogue. It was created by Imre Varga, and it is an unusual and peacefull homage to the more than 400,000 Hungarian Jews who were murdered by Nazis during the German pccupation of Hungary during WWII.
I think this sort of memorial, where there are individuals represented, is very powerful for me. It allows for a sense of the magnitude of the disaster.
The courtyard at the Dohany Synagogue was once the witness for many deaths in the Jewish ghetto--either by murder or by starvation and disease. The photograph from the time of the Soviet liberation of Budapest (known in the history books as the day of occupation--non-Jews did not come to feel liberated by the Russians, it turns out) depicts this. Now, there are grave markers devoted to the memories of those who died there.
One monument that I found very powerful in person (and less so in photographic form) were bronze shoes at the endge of the Danube. These are meant to remember that during the German occupation, the Hungarian fascist Arrow Cross Party came to power and carried out violent attacks against the Jews. So many Jewish men, women and children were shot and thrown into the Danube River, it was said that the river water was red. THe shoes are a poignant way to condemn those actions by Hungarians against fellow Hungarians.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Heroes Square, Budapest

Hungary has been occupied on one level or another for much of it's history. It was part of the eastern migration of the Roman Empire, and until the end of the Soviet Union in 1989, Humgary has had, shall we say, mutliple foreign influences. So when we pulled up to a massive monument called "Heroes Square", I wondered what you might have had to do to get on the pedestal there.
The central site of the hero's square, as well as a landmark of Budapest, is the Millennium Memorial (also known as Millennium Monument or Millenary Monument) with statues of the leaders of the seven tribes that founded Hungary in the 9th century. These guys look their age, and they look like they come from a tribal background. They have a decidedly Asian look about them. When we were souvenior hunting later in the day after we saw this monument, we were attracted to depictions of one of these seven heroes. I wouldn't have pegged them as Hungarian, but they were defintiely cool looking.
The other heroes who ring the huge square (located at one end of Andrássy Avenue, which is a high class neighborhood in Pest) are less clear cut in their heroism, and in some cases less permanent. The monument was built in 1900, when Hungary was part of the Hapsburg empire. Some of the original heroes date from that time, but when the monument was damaged in WWII, and in the rebuilding process, the Hapsburg heros were not replaced. The hotel we stayed at in Budapest had different floors named after different heroes, and our floor was named for Béla IV. he is the king who rebuilt the country after the Mongols came through, and that is the sort of heroism that gets you onto the platform in Heroes Square. You have done your best with a bad situation.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Budapest from the Danube

I am not much of a water person. Even though I grew up close to the ocean, and I do love a good beach walk, it is not vital to my happiness, nor do I seek it out. On the other hand, I have done two trips that invovled being on a river for over a week (two great rivers--the Mississippi and the Rhone) and very much enjoyed river travel. So I should not have been surprised by how much I enjoyed watching Buda and Pest from the Danube.
The first thing is that a river view is unique. You get an entirely different view of things from the water, especially when you are in a city and it is really not possible to just stand on the other bank and get the same perspective. I think the Parliament building is most spectacular from the river view. The Chain Bridge is more interesting when seen from the water than from the road.
But the thing that I love best about being in the water--whether it be on a large vessel or in my kayak--is that it is peaceful (especially when you are not paddling). Even for a brief time--we were on the Danube for about an hour, no more than that. You watch the city roll by at a leisurely pace and it gives you time to think about what you are seeing and absorb it a bit. The Danube is a beautiful river, and spending a small amount of time contemplating that is well worth it.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Great Synagogue, Budapest

One of our guides along the way said that what he admired about Jews was that they builr what they could afford. If the temple was big, the congregants were rich. He was speaking in contrast about the Orthodox churches in Poland and Ukraine, where the town is almost in ruins, but the church is large, elegant, and has a gold dome. The guide felt that the priorities of a people who feed themselves before they put gold on the roof spoke to him.
Well, the community that built this synagogue, also known as the Dohány St. Synagogue (dohány means tobacco in Hungarian, so in Yiddish it is the Tabak-Shul), had some serious cash. It is one of the largest synagogues in the world, even today. It was designed by a Viennese architect, who imported the Moorish turrets that define the temple's skyline from North Africa. It was built in the late 19th century and Herzl was a congregant here. It was spectacularly restored after Russia bowed our of Hungary, and is stunning, in a slightly overwhelming and church-like fashion.
The thing I liked most about the synagogue--apart from the charming gift shop run by Lucy, a woman who still designs ceramic Judaica today, was some of the decorative detail on the outside of the building. It gets lost, overwhelmed by the sheer size of the building, but it is these details that make the final structure special.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Hungarian Passover

Since we are right on the heels of Passover, I want to highlight the exhibition in the Jewish Museum in Budapest. It is located next to the birthplace of Theodor Herzl, and while the museum occupies only four rooms it contains an impressive visual overview of the long history of Jews in Hungary. The square, domed building was designed by László Vágó in 1932.
The artifacts on display, which thankfully survived the war by being stored in the basement of the National Museum, include Sabbath and holiday items (including fine examples of Herend porcelain Passover plates), ritual objects and cultural objects of daily life. In the table setting for Passover, an illustrated Haggadah is open to the 10 plagues, and fine porcelain is on the table.
This seder plate is particularly unusual--it demonstrates fine silversmithing but also a bit of whimsy. I have never seen anything quite like it. The porcelain seder plates are spectacular--gorgeous colors, fine workmanship and put mine to shame. But this one raises Passover to the level of a hoiday to look forward to. The silver figures awaiting their bundles--maror, haroset, and egg, bitter herbs--look expectant and ready to hold their ceremonial burdens. So lovely.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Back to Budapest

It is a joy to go back to places that I have loved on previous visits. New Orleans comes immediately to mind. I have been there a dozen or more times, but I eagerly anticipate each trip there. Happily, returning to Budapest did not disappoint--other than that it was far too short a visit. My youngest son said as we were rolling into town, "When can we come back?" I replied that I did not know, that at some point in the future we might return. His response made me laugh and pause to think: "I don't want to leave until I know when I am coming back." That is true love of place.
So what is it about the city that causes one to fall so completely for it? It is an old city. The Hungarians appeared in the late 9th century. After the Mongol invasion (Hungary is a much invaded nation) in 1241-42, the Buda castle was fortified and on the left bank Pest emerged. In the 13th century Buda took over the role of Székesfehérvár as regal seat, thus becoming the country's leading town. The castle was enlarged and reshaped and churches were erected (Matthias Church, Maria Magdalena Church). It was under King Matthias that the Buda castle had its golden age. It was in this period, too, that Pest equalled Buda after it had recieved privileges from the king. Today, Pest is the happening side of the Danube--you make money and you spend it in Pest. The Buda side of the river is more beaucolic. It is hilly and elegant to Pest's hustle and bustle. Somehow the combination works. It is not as easy a city to get to know as Prague, but that makes the returning to it all the more attractive.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Working Mothers

Frank Bruni weighing in over the weekend on women who stay at home and apparently need to be defended tipped the scale for me. Now men who aren't raising children feel qualified to get indignant. That's it. I am up on my high horse. Really? The argument that women who take care of children and run a household are working too is news? Where have people been the last 20 years? Duh they are working. But--and this is a big but--women who stay at home aren't the majority of women raising children in America in the 21st century. Parents who stay at home, regardless of gender, have very different lives than those who juggle home and work life. It is just not the same. One is not inherently better or more laudable than the other. But to equate them is to miss the reality for women right now. Let's get back to the real question and stop dilly dallying around with something that is not the issue. Does Romney resonate with women? Why or why not? Being tone deaf to issues related to money and privledge should be the headline. His wife not only stayed home to raise her children, she stayed home after that was accomplished. They did not require her income, nor did she seek that experience. Does her circle of friends include middle income women raising children under ten? Is she a reasonable source of information about what matters to the majority of women of voting age? It is lovely that he is so loyal to his spouse of 40 plus years, but does he need to cast a wider net? I am sure he is relieved that for once, he is not the butt of the media feeding frenzy, but let's get back to the real questions.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Czech Glass

Bohemia , now part of the Czech Republic, has been famous since the 13th century for its beautiful and colourful glass. According to Wikipedia, the history of Bohemian glass started with the abundant natural resources found in the countryside. Bohemian glass-workers discovered that comboining potash with chalk created a clear colourless glass that was more stable than glass from Italy. Bohemian crystal emerged as distinguished in its qualities from the glass coming from other places--a gorgeous glass without lead.
Bohemia turned out expert craftsmen who artfully worked with crystal. They became skilled teachers of glass-making in neighbouring and distant countries. By the middle of the 19th century, a technical glass-making school system was created that encouraged traditional and innovative techniques as well as technical preparation. Glass artisanship remained at a high level even under the Communists because it was considered ideologically innocuous--and remains today. Such beauty!

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Cory Booker--Leaps Burning Buildings in a Single Bound

At a time when we are being bombarded with politician's negative messages about each other, and are saddled with a Congress that cannot put aside personal gain to do the work they were elected to do and are amply compensated for, it is nice to have someone in public office who seems laudable. Mayor Booker has a commitment to social justice that is remarkable. Mayor Booker is in the news because of personal bravery, but in looking a little closer at his life, he is really remarkable beyond having run into a burning building to save the life of a neighbor. He grew up in an educated upper middle class home in a part of northern New Jersey that I lived in briefly. He parlayed his strong academics and athletics into an education at some well known institutions of higher learning--which is laudable, but not for bravery. The thing he has done that astounds me is that he lived in Brick Towers in Newark. Brick Towers is one of dozens of low income housing projects that were built between 1940 and 1970 that have been a spectacular failure. And very dangerous. Most third world countries are far safer on a day to day basis than inner city American housing projects of that era--and they will hopefully be a thing of the past. Brick Towers was torn down, but not before Mayor Booker put in major time living there. He is a star to watch. In terms of the burning building news, he is doing a good job there as well. He is acknowledging the danger and putting it into a framework in which to deal with it. When you deliver psychological first aid, the first step is help people plucked from the jaws of death to be thankful that they made it out of the situation alive. Glory in that for a awhile. The second step is trickier, and the timing is different for everyone. That is to start dealing with the terror, so that it doesn't take over your life. Mayor Booker has surely been in situations where he feared for his life before, but maybe not one that didn't involve human-controlled risks. A fire is not something you can talk your way out of. Mayor Booker played football at Stanford and was an All-Pacific Ten Academic athlete--he thinks fast and has good instincts as well as the gift of charm, but still, a fire that is engulfing a building has to be a scary opponent. In any case, he is publicly acknowledging his fear and in that process, starting to deal with it, put it in the place that it belongs in his mind. That process is different for everyone, but the people who do best with it not only talk about it, but try to find some good in it. The experience made them stronger rather than weaker, more resilient rather than less so. Even in fear he is an excellent role model.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Black Light Theatre, Prague

Black Light Theatre (in Czech černé divadlo) is a theatrical performance style characterized by the use of black box theatre augmented by black light illusion. This form of theatre originated from Asia long long ago. It is a technique that can be found in many places around the world, but it has become a speciality of Prague. I recommend trying it once to see if you like it. The advantage is that it is absolutely not necessary to speak Czech, which is a language that I find hard to master even the simplest of greetings in. So it is a foriegn theatre experience that is accessible. The distinctive characteristics of "black theatre" are the use of black curtains, a darkened stage, and "black lighting" (UV light), paired with fluorescent costumes in order to create intricate visual illusions. This "black cabinet" technique was used by Georges Méliès, and by theatre revolutionary Stanislavsky ( a name I know more through comedians making fun of him, than by his technique, but he is an icon in 20th century theatre). The technique, paired with the expressive artistry of dance, mime and acrobatics of the performers is able to create remarkable spectacles. Some might find it too silly, or too slapstick for their taste. But it is worth one viewing, because it is unlike any thing that I have seen in person.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Terezin: Fortress Turned Concentration Camp

This was the first concentration camp that I visited on my tour of Eastern Europe. It was not my first concentration camp--that was Dachau, near Munich. It was my first brush with how the Germans globally operated during WWII, and it struck a chord of what evil lurks in the heart of man, even in the modern era. It started off as a fortress, built for troops. In the late 18th century the Habsburg Monarchy erected the fortress, as well as a large walled town directly across the Ohře River, near its confluence with the Elbe River, and named it after Empress Maria Theresa (a poor legacy for her, as it turned out). Construction started in 1780 and lasted ten years. The total area of the fortress was 3.89 km². The fortification was designed in the tradition of Sébastian le Prestre de Vauban. In peacetime it held 5,655 soldiers, and in wartime around 11,000 soldiers could be placed here. During the second half of the 19th century, the fortress was also used as a prison.
The Germans were not unique in their ideas about how to use Terezin. During World War I, the fortress was used as a political prison camp. Many thousand supporters of Russia (Russophiles from Galicia and Bukovina) were placed by Austro-Hungarian authorities in the fortress. Gavrilo Princip, who assassinated Franz Ferdinand, Archduke of Austria and his wife, died there of tuberculosis in 1918. During WWII, the Gestapo concentrated Jews from Czechoslovakia, as well as many from Germany, Austria, the Netherlands, and Denmark. More than 150,000 Jews were sent there (remember, a place designed to house many fewer), and although it was not an extermination camp (at first) about 33,000 died in the ghetto itself, mostly because of the appalling conditions arising out of extreme population density--disease and malnutrition abounded. About 88,000 inhabitants were deported from Terezin to Auschwitz and other death camps. At the end of the war there were 17,247 survivors. Today, the military barracks are a place to see what Nazis did, but the town is trying to regain footing as a city. Such a difficult legasy. People were ejected from their homes by Germans, and now they are trying to overcome poverty, isolation and their ignomious past. Such a very sad place to visit.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Persian Haroset

My friend Loraine makes this wonderful haroset that is somewhere between the straight-ahead apple and nut Ashkenazi haroset and the Sephardic date haroset, and very complicated tasting. Here is why--there are many ingredients, and some of them make you scratch your head a bit, but somehow all together, they taste fantastic. 25 dates, pitted and diced 1/2 cup unsalted pistachios 1/2 cup almonds 1/2 cup golden raisins 1 1/2 peeled apples, cored and diced 1 orange, peeled and diced 1 banana, sliced ~1/2 cup sweet red wine ~1/4 cup cider vinegar 1/4 tsp. cayenne 1/4 tsp. ground cloves 1/2 tsp. ground cardamom 1/2 tsp. cinnamon 1/4 tsp. black pepper Put nuts in a food processor and pulse. Then add the fruit (the smaller the size you start with the better) and the spices. Pulse until a uniform size. Add the wine and vinegar until a pasty consistency is achieved. Adjust seasonings. Makes 5 cups.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Esther Scrolls, Jewish Museum, Prague

Unlike the ceremonial scrolls, private scrolls of Esther, from which the participants of the Purim service follow the reading of the book, may be decorated. Illuminations for the Book of Esther appear in medieval Hebrew codices, but the earliest decorated scrolls to have been preserved come from 16th century Italy. The Prague Jewish Museum collection contains about 20 scrolls of Esther with ornamental or figurative decoration. For illuminated scrolls, the decoration consists most often of a plant ornament, sometimes with animal figures and signs of the zodiac or architectural elements. But for the two scrolls of local provenance, dating from the 18th century to the beginning of the 19th, most of the Prague Jewish Museum’s illuminated scrolls are probably from Italy and date from the 17th and 18th centuries, with only two of them clearly Czech in origin.
On both of my visits to the Prague Jewish Museum these scrolls stood out as exceptionally beautiful--there were three on exhibit each time, and not the same three. I would love to see an exhibit of all 20 scrolls, and a catalog that showed all of the illustrations.

Monday, April 9, 2012

St. John of Nepomuk, Charles Bridge, Prague

Charles Bridge (Karlov Most) is a famous historical bridge that crosses the Viltava river in Prague and named for the city's inspirational medieval leader, the man who really put it on the map during his lifetime, and most impressively, for centuries to come. Back in King Charles' times, this was the main pedestrian route linking the Old Town with Mala Strana, and then onto Prague Castle. The bridge is decorated on each side by 30 baroque statues that are impressive, and one of which is said to be able to give you good luck. I love the Charles Bridge, and it turns out, I am not alone. The streets going from the Old Town to the bridge were not at all crowded when I was there last month, but the bridge itself was if anything, more crowded than when I was there in the summer.
My favorite Charles Bridge story involves John of Nepomuk, who was a priest in Prague under King Wenceslas IV (son of Charles IV). The Queen made a confession to John of Nepomuk. Unfortunately for him, the King being a very suspicious man, pressed John of Nepomuk for the Queen’s confessions which John of Nepomuk would not reveal, not even to the King (perhaps the Queen revealed something in her confession that the King should not know). John of Nepomuk was executed by being thrown into the Viltava River from the bridge and drowned as punishment for his refusal to the King. So sad, right? Well, he achieved sainthood, if that is any consolation. It is thought that touching his statue, or the marker of where he went into the river, or on the statue of him on the bridge, can grant wishes and good luck to the person who rubs it (not hard to figure out where to rub--the bronze is rubbed clean in those spots).

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Asparagus with Orange-Pecan Pesto

Adapted fromt he new Mario Battali cookbook, and it is stupendous. Salt 2 pounds medium asparagus, thick bottom ends snapped off 2 oranges, preferably nice and juicy 1/2 cup chopped pecans 3 garlic cloves 2 Tb sugar 1 cup plus 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil 1/4 cup plus 2 Tb freshly grated Pecorino Romano Directions: Bring 8 quarts of water to boil a large pasta pot. Set a large ice bath nearby. When water comes to a boil, add 2 Tb salt. Add the asparagus to the boiling water and cook until just softened, 1 minute. Using tongs, transfer the asparagus to the ice bath. When it has cooled, drain and set aside. (This stops the cooking process and keeps them bright green) Juice one of the oranges, removing any seeds, and set the juice aside for later. Chop what is left of the juiced orange — pith, rind interior fruit and all — along with the remaining orange, (again removing pits) and place the chopped orange in the bowl of a food processor. Add the walnuts, garlic, sugar, 1 cup of the olive oil, and 1/4 cup of the romano to the processor, and blend until smooth. Transfer the pesto to a bowl, and season it with salt and pepper to taste. If it’s too thick, add up to 1/4 cup of the reserved juice to loosen it up. (This pesto will last up to one week in the fridge if you cover the surface with a layer of oil.) To make the citronette, place the reserved orange juice and the remaining 1/4 cup olive oil in a small bowl, and whisk to form a thin emulsion. Arrange the cooked asparagus on a serving platter, and spoon the walnut-orange pesto over the stems. Drizzle the orange citronette over all. Sprinkle with the remaining 2 Tb pecorino and serve.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

The Descendants (2011)

George Clooney continues to impress me. He has dodged the 'just another pretty face' moniker and gone for some very gritty roles. In this one he faces multiple personal challenges and comes out looking human. Here's the scenario as it quickly unfolds in the film: Clooney's Matt King is a workaholic casual Honolulu attorney. He doesn't like to brag, but he is descended from royal blood: His great-great-grandmother was a Hawaiian princess who married a haole (white) banker and passed on a beautiful and very large parcel of real estate in Kauia to her heirs. As the man in charge, Matt must decide which of the developers to sell it to (for some reason, keeping it is not an option) to please an army of cousins, led by a weedling Beau Bridges. Matt has more personal issues than just his extended family to worry about--his nuclear family is coming apart at the seams. A boating accident has left his neglected wife, Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie), in a coma and left Matt (who is hard to find as a parent) in charge of their two daughters, neither of whom is doing all that well. They are Scottie (Amara Miller,), who is all of 10 but has quite the mouth on her, and seen-it-all Alexandra (Shailene Woodley), 17, who is reckless with both boys and drugs, which has landed her in boarding school. Just when Matt steps it up as a husband and father, he gets round two of adversity, first when he's informed that Elizabeth will never come out of her coma, and then when Alex tells him that his wife was cheating on him. So what does he do? He decides to go visit the land he has been left in charge of deciding it's fate and to confront the man his wife has been having an affair with. Since his kids know about the affair, he includes them in the trip (we have to cut the man some slack in the judgement department--his wife is dying), and along the way they try to figure out how to live without the wife and mother that they share, and how to move forward as a family. It is a wildly successful contemplation of how to deal with loss in the modern era (taking economics out of the equation). The best movie of 2011 that I have seen.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Passover Post Eastern Europe

Wow. We have a lot to be thankful for. This passover I am not just celebrating an ancient escape from slavery. I am taking stock in the value of a nation where there is a separation between church and state. Long may it continue to reign. Two things threaten what is special about religious freedom in America. The first is politicians who vow to end it. These are the same guys who seem hell bent on taking us not just back to the Constitution, but to the first century. Admittedly, life was good for them then--they were completely in charge. What is not to like? Well, how about the fact that civilizations do best when their women are educated? Not a compelling argument for that crowd, I am afraid. They want their cake and to eat it to--go back to the morays of the first century, but don't forgo your Blackberry and your iPad when you take us back to an era where slavery was the norm and you could stone your children to death for disobedience. The other threat to religious tolerance is radical Muslim doctrines being mistaken for mainstream Muslim religious beliefs. When those who would have Obama out of office declared him to be a closet Muslim, the answer should have been "So what?" But it wasn't. Attaturk, the man who founded the secular state of Turkey, took a page out of the American constitution. He made government adamantly secular. As we celebrate Passover and Easter this weekend, may we also praise a country that allows those two celebrations to be held side by side uneventfully.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Holocaust Memorials Czech Style

Sadly, there is a lot to memorialize in the Czech Republic related to the Holocaust. The war that swept through all of Europe, and beyond, had an early start in what was then Czechoslovakia. As early as March of 1938 Germans asserted control of Sudetenland, to be followed by Moravia and Bohemia, and the end did not come until the war itself ended--six years is a long time, and a totalitarian regime without morals can do a lot of irreparable damage in that amount of time. So how to remember those who perished at that time? There are so many. And no graves are known for the vast majority of them. How to do that any kind of justice is very hard.
The Czechs have struck me as an artistic people--which is a big help when it comes to making things right in a monument. Prague is such a spectacular city, both in the architecture that remains from it's medieval roots to have it has grown organically and beautifully through each era since. So it is not surprising that they have poignant and tasteful memorials for those who were systematically murdered by Nazi armies. I like the simplicity of these memorials, and the ability to place stones of remembrance on them, in a way that enhances the beauty of the piece, is especially appreciated.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

The Artist (2011)

I had the benefit of hindsight when I saw this movie, but I agree, it is a remarkable piece of film work. A must see. The Artist sounds like a fairly difficult sell. A full-length black and white, silent movie is not everyone's cup of tea. I heard that people who were unaware of these two factors demanded their money back on m ore than one occasion. But make no mistake, the film is as good as any cinematic experience gets--it is just different from what you might be used to. The Artist is a charming, and incredibly clever homage to the Golden Age of silent film: as authentic and believable as if it were made circa 1927, right from the opening credits. Jean Dujardin’s George Valentin, an homage to the mega-stars of the silent period, has the whole Hollywood world on their knees before him – the film subsequently charts his peak, before the advent of the talkies arrives, and he finds himself cast out overnight in favor of the new breed of speaking stars. Along the way he meets Berenice Bejo’s Peppy Miller, a wannabe who miraculously finds her way to stardom through him. Jean Dujardin, a stalwart of French film, offers a personification of Golden Age charisma and panache. He is breathtakingly good as Valentin, in both the high moments, when his flamboyant swagger disarms, and the lows, when the tragedy of his fall requires a more humanist side. Alongside him, and also brilliant is Berenice Bejo as the young starlet who represents Hollywood’s new direction, whose ability to segue from moxy to pathos, combined with her striking beauty, make her a genuine leading lady, who will no doubt now find herself inundated with job offers. Both actors are charged with convincing the audience using only facial expressions and movements. Dujardin in particular is a master of expression. Finally, the music is fabulous. It was put together with artisan precision by Ludovic Bource in far more testing circumstances than “normal” films require. For The Artist, Bource had to capture the feel of the era, to pinpoint the spirit of silent film, as well as capturing the essence of each character, and trying to convey the emotional bent of each scene; heavily referencing major film composers of the 1920s as well as working closely with the director pre- and post-edit to make sure the score fit the visuals like a second skin. He was appropriately awarded with an Oscar for his efforts, but it makes the film.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Jews in the Czech Republic

The short answer is that there aren't any. That is a slight exaggeration, but not by a lot. There are 3,000 people in the Czech Republic who are identified as Jewish--and the definition is not strict. Almost all Jews are in mixed marriages, and the basic criteria is that you have a Jewish grandparent. While I was in Prague, we had the chance to meet with a member of the Jewish community. She is personally very active in Jewish education, but sad fact is that there arent' that many people to educate. Many synagogues do not even hava torah, despite the fact that there are numerous Czech torahs that survived the war. The other sad part is that the Jewish Quarter in Prague, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, speaks to a large and thriving Jewish community before WWII. The Spanish Synagogue, the most elaborately decorated of the synagogues that remain, has nightly concerts. Culture abounds in modern day Prague, that is true. But there are likely to be as many people of Jewish ancestry who are visiting this fair city than who live there. This may indeed be a very good entry into the Ottoman Empire followed by the Austro-Hungarian Empire countries that Hitler left behind. If you look solely at the effect on the Jewish population, he was very successful. Gorgeous synagogues, beautiful cemeteries, no living Jews. So while discrimination is not alive and well in the Czech Rebuplic, it is not an exaggeration to say that there arent't many people it would apply to

Monday, April 2, 2012

Returning to Prague

Such a lovely walking city. Last time we were there we stayed in the old city, called Staré Město. This time we were in Nove Město--which, contrary to how it sounds, is not all that new. I returned as the first stop of a tour of Eastern Europe that was primarily focused on the Jewish experience there. Which means you are necessarily focused on the Holocaust. Not too uplifting. So in order to balance out the emotionally traumatic, there were days devoted to other aspects of the cities we visited. And we started in Prague. Such a lovely city. Our bus rolled into the hotel mid-day and we, in true organized tour fashion, had a walking tour of the Prague Castle and surrounding area.
We hadn't gone there when I was in Prague before, so it was nice to be someplace new, but best of all you get an incredible view of the city from high above. Prague is charming. The buildings are nicely preserved--people started living on both sides of the Vitava River in fortified settlements as early as the 9th century, and in the 14th century Charles IV inspired a medieval urban landscape that influenced all of Europe. It is a marvel. As early as the Middle Ages, Prague became one of the leading cultural centers of Christian Europe. The Prague University, founded in 1348, is one of the earliest in Europe. The milieu of the University in the last quarter of the 14th century and the first years of the 15th century contributed among other things to the formation of ideas of the Hussite Movement which represented in fact the first steps of the European Reformation--which is why parts of the city are UNESCO World Heritage Sites today.