High ceilings marked the grand room. The space called out history, communal gatherings, meetings, celebrations. On this night, the auditorium-like room, stage at one end was filled. The crowd dressed in an old-fashioned, timeless style reminiscent of the ‘40s. We had traveled back in time. It was if the Shoah had never happened. Music played – instruments – maybe klezmer – with a contagious spirit. And at the front of the room on that nearly empty stage sat a gold Chanukiah, waiting to be lit.
The year was 1990. Prague was marking one year since the Velvet Revolution. Freedom was new. Hints of the Soviet past stood aside fledgling commerce. Pepsi bottles lined the windows of gourmet stores. One restaurant – perhaps a Communist leftover – only served chicken and beer – not even bread of potatoes. And the city, not yet touched by tourism of the West, was still magic, falling snow adding to the effect.
First year rabbinic students in Jerusalem, Barb and I were traveling during Chanukah break. The Middle East was on the cusp of what would be the Gulf War, with Sadaam Hussein ready to attack, so we headed out of the region to Prague, Vienna and Berlin. That morning, Shabbat, we’d headed to the Altneuschul for the service. We sat in the women’s section, a cave-like room lined by white plaster walls which had a small opening toward the main part of the sanctuary.
After the service we ran into some folks who said “Come to the Chanukah party tonight!”
We figured, “Why not?”
Barb and I did not know what to expect as we entered the Jewish Town Hall that evening, the sixth night of Chanukah. The room was filled with people and a captivating purity to the celebration. People were welcoming and pleased to tell their stories. When the candles were lit, their light called out a freedom I had never known, a freedom precious, new and not taken for granted.
Twenty-five years later I realize my naivete, unaware as I was of the challenges and threats experienced by those I met, or of the importance of their narratives. The image of that room, the stage, and the Chanukiah inspires me still. The experience informs my understanding to this day, certainly impacting subsequent trips to the former Soviet Union to teach Jews who, too, were newly free and overjoyed to learn and celebrate. None of that freedom came easily.
I was but an observer to that freedom. Now to explain its significance to my children who light candles with their own naiveté