I have to admit that I am disappointed in Michelle Obama.
Before she started doing all this fancy traveling around Europe and giving out iPods and whatnot, I thought she was a pretty good woman and a pretty good role model. She’s trying to raise two girls normally (two girls who have almost been made into Beanie Babies) and is trying to keep her marriage to the man who is now seen as a Messiah in 80% of the world, sane. She also happened to have graduated from both Princeton and Harvard. And, she has killer brows, something I can only dream of and ask Hannukah Harry for.
OH MY GOD WHAT IS THAT ON MY FACE. IT LOOKS LIKE A CATERPILLAR THAT’S EATING ITSELF.
But, as admirable as Mobama is to stalwart feminists like me , she messed up bigtime in Prague this week. Barry was there to lay the smack down on nuclear weapons proliferation (“I state clearly and with conviction America’s commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons” while, obviously, not committing to getting rid of ANY of our own arsenal because that would clearly be a violation of brinksmanship, etc.) Mobama was taking a little stroll down Jew Lane in Prague’s Old City .
I haven’t written too much about Prague before, except to say that I became engaged there. Essentially, the reason that I decided to go there with Dan is that I read a Michael Chabon essay on the city and how romantic it is and how there are all these vaudeville shadows and you how can feel echoes of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and that it’s essentially like The Illusionist (coincidentally, one of my favorite movies and soundtracks) on Crack. Plus, there are tons of dead Jews in Prague, which appealed to my sensibilities of Wanting to See Dead Jew Historical Sites and Keeping True to Our People.
Chabon wrote (in an essay that’s interestingly enough not available online anymore) about how he walked with his wife through the Jewish cemetery and he felt the wisps of his ancestors in the gravestones, how quiet it was there in the early morning fog, how he walked on the cobblestones and how Prague felt like a lost cause for Jewish life of any kind, desolate. I wanted that same kind of melancholy, artistic experience, walking through the fog and mist with Dan, thinking about how thousands of years of history went into the city of Prague, drinking Czech beer at dimly-lit cafes, and pondering, much like Kafka, how bleak and romantic, and mysterious life was in Eastern Europe. In short, when I packed my writers’ pen and all the Victorian suffering I could muster, I had the following image in my mind:
Also this one:
Unfortunatley, that is not how it played out at all.
First of all, even though Dan and I went in May, before the tourist season was supposed to be underway, there were HORDES of people everywhere. It was as if Disneyland suddenly opened up shop in Bavaria and all the American tourists jumped on the NeverNeverland ride to CzechCity. Prague is, for sure, no longer an undiscovered jewel, but now is actually a bachelor party stop for British guys. Fabulous. That bridge shot I was envisioning in mind first?
Here it is. I felt deflated, as if my imagination, hopped up on Michael Chabon’s Viagra for my Jewish/writing identity, had suddenly run out and deflated. I was in a tourist trap. All of Prague had been overrun, already discovered, and the Czechs hated the company. Everywhere, they spoke both English and Russian, but I got the sense that they didn’t like their city being overrun any more than we did.
We saw some stuff like this:
that made me wonder where on earth we could travel to to, you know, escape America. And pretty much all of Prague was like that. The architecture everywhere was breathtaking and we could feel the history with every footstep. But it was just so crazy overrun with people that I felt bad. I felt like Michael Chabon had dicked me over and allowed my dream to die. But, ok. A country needs to make money, to develop, to cultivate Western roots and ideals in order to grow to capitalism after so many years under Soviet occupation (did I mention they HATE speaking Russian in the Czech Republic?)
Ok, so I continued to maintain hope for the Jewish quarter. No one cared about it, right? It was still some small, left-alone place with just a couple hundred Israelis coming every year, right? No. The Jews in Prague have sold out big time. There are three really old synagogues in the Jewish quarter (plus the fourth one where we got engaged, which was actually the best out of all of them.) All of them in some way capitalize from the Holocaust. Throngs of tourists line up and you have to buy a kippah to get in, donating money to the Synagogue Repair Fund, or whatever. There is a slick line of operation and the Jews (or Czechs disguised as Jews) take your money coldly and methodically and let you through one by one like a theme park ride. Then, once inside, you see the names of all the dead written on the synagogue walls, not in a deferential way, but in one that is clearly trying to make money off of our misery. Here’s the bimah where the Jewish rabbis suffered. Here’s the name of Rachel Hayyah Liebowitz, who died in Auschwitz, and here’s Moshe Zalman whose family was killed by Gestapo officers fighting in the Czech resistance movement, and here are 80,000 other names, written just to show you HOW MUCH we suffered. Oh, here are the walls. They’re peeling. Coincidentally, we’ll need money to repair them. Here, at the bimah, is a transparent box full of $1 and $10 bills of other American Jews who have been here and feel really, really bad. Now, give money to us.
If you miss the opportunity to give money here, you can go through the cemetery, where there are dozens of other people, going through like a waiting line to get into the bathroom, without any privacy, just being shoved through. Look, the cemetery is dilapidated too, so you can give some money because how sad and cool is it that there are piles of Jews all in one place? Oh, don’t forget to leave some spare change on the way out. Oh, and here’s the synagogue gift shop, where you can get a map of the ghetto. Let me casually point out some other Jewish sites you can go to, either by yourself, or with a tour guide. And isn’t the old Jewish town charming? Let’s sell you hundreds of useless, shitty tchotchkes that have pictures of the Star of David on them, or are mezuzot, or are dreidls, sold by Czechs who don’t even know what they are and just want to make some money off of rich Americans. Oh! And if you’re interested, how about a bulk rate to see all the synagogues and the suffering at once? Because we offer it! Suffering! Synagogues! Kippot! Crass! Crass! Crass!
I pretty much have never been so disgusted with portrayal of the Holocaust or European Jewry in my entire life.
Mobama was not.
Michelle Obama’s whirlwind tour of Prague turned into a love affair with a city and its people. “I’ll be back,” she said.
Mrs. Obama then spent two hours touring the Jewish Quarter’s synagogues and unique cemetery. Her visit included a stop at the Pinkas synagogue, whose walls bear the names of more than 80,000 Czech Holocaust victims — including the ancestors of Madeleine Albright, the Czech-born former U.S. secretary of state.
Leo Pavlat, director of Prague’s Jewish Museum, said Mrs. Obama liked the inside of the synagogue — “especially the exhibit of children’s drawings from the Theresienstadt ghetto.”
There were a few somber moments at the tiny cemetery, jammed with some 12,000 family gravestones crowded into a little garden near the Vltava River, and about 100,000 dead buried in several layers beneath them.
Mrs. Obama stood briefly by the oldest gravestone — that marking the resting place of poet Avigdor Kara, who died in 1439 — before moving to the grave of the legendary 16th century rabbi Yehudav Loew, considered one of the greatest Jewish scholars and philosophers. In keeping with local custom, she placed a prayer on a piece of paper and weighted it down with a little stone.
I can’t believe Mobama fell for the Jew guilt, and I’m sure, gave money to them. It is definitely one thing to memorialize the dead, as they do in most of the concentration camp sites in Poland, which don’t charge money and are simply stark monuments to the worst in humanity. It’s another to make a huge tourist exhibit Disney-type wonderland out of it.