A Passover Experience

By Sherri W. Morr

What started out to be Passover in Prague, ending up being Easter in Eastern Europe. I have never seen such attention to Easter. The decorations, the proliferation of Easter eggs, everywhere. Who knew? Certainly in my experience in America, I just do not have any sense of so many Easter decorations. In all three cities I visited, Budapest, Vienna, and Prague … there were fairs, parades, outdoor festivals and flea markets. Children were wearing yellow ribbon crowns, Easter eggs were for sale the way we here in America see XMAS decorations. Just as light poles and street lamps in the U.S. are decorated in Xmas lights, there, ribbons, collages and streamers of eggs were visual no matter what road, or what street. The Easter eggs were hand painted, decorated in spring colors. Made of porcelain, ceramic, quilted … all stunning, and with an eye to creative design. Most had ribbons attached, and were sold individually, and also displayed as hanging mobiles. True collections of spring.

The second most pervasive memory is the name of the Ronald Lauder Foundation & the Estee Lauder Foundation. At every Jewish site, in all three cities, their name is prominent. Whether it was the archives in Prague, the Jewish Museum in Vienna, or the museum in Terezin, the Lauder name is prominently displayed. At the Great Synagogue in Budapest, the guide pointed out the permanently reserved front row, for when the family attends services. No one else is allowed to sit there. Ever. She told me that the daughters of Mr. Lauder now run the Estee Lauder factories (her exact words). Somehow my recollection of these daughters in photos in Town & Country does not conjure an image of them managing factories.

I had traveled with a tour group, not one of the Jewish heritage type tours, but one that had more general sights, with enough free time to program my own Jewish interests. I had also followed one of the NYT  “36 hours in Prague.” So I felt pretty secure I could handle my own interests. The make up of 26 people were interesting, not Jewish except for me, and one other woman who said she was more of a peripheral Jew. Two couples were Christian fundamentalists, originally from the Dominican Republic, now living in Miami. Both somehow immediately picked up on my Israel connections, and every morning said, Shalom, and how they just “loffed” Israel. Two other women had met as college roommates at Wellesley in the early 40s, and commented how the few Jews (“there were quotas, you know,” they said) at Wellesley had to room together. Another man asked if I had a position on the Palestinians, and at the conclusion of a synagogue tour said, “Boy, you Jews sure get yourselves in a lot of hot water.”

I went to Shabbat services in Vienna at the Orthodox synagogue. A stunning original building from 1846, the men were downstairs, and the women upstairs. Security was very tight, and I had been instructed to have my passport with me. When the guard looked at my passport, with all the Israel entries, and the stamp for when I visited Dubai (ah that was when I was on my way to Passover in Uganda), I was led inside to a private room, and faced a grilling similar to what we experience at the El Al terminal at JFK, or at the airport in Tel Aviv. What is the name of my rabbi, do I speak Hebrew, what Jewish holiday is coming soon (I was expecting the dada doom melody of the Jeopardy to begin at any moment)? Finally I was let in; a man pointed me towards the stairs, and so much for my welcome. Upstairs there were around 15 or so women, downstairs double the number of men. Shachris was being led by a small choir, and the rabbi was constantly shushing, and knocking on the bima for quiet. The men were posturing, adjusting and readjusting their talisem; were all talking, loudly whispering actually, to each other, kissing on both cheeks, shaking hands.

An elderly looking man who was turning 90 was given an aliyah, so more talking, and singing. It was very sweet.

By the end of the Torah service, I had had my fill. Upstairs in the women’s section, all the seats have locked stands in front of them (think school desks from the 1950s). They open with a key, and inside are kept siddurs, tanachs, Kleenex, chap-stick, whatever. I know the contents because I was able to see inside those that were open. Not getting this at all when I first got there, I took a seat, but was immediately asked to move by a not so friendly woman, implying this was someone’s seat. So of course I moved, but where to move to? I chose another random locked seat, but again another woman asked to me to move. Finally a nice lady took rachmonas on me, and escorted me to a seat where she said the lady did not come on Shabbos. I could sit here she said. Fine. But what was I supposed to do about a siddur? Soon, the same woman came over and brought me a siddur. I felt like I needed a shower (or stiff schnapps) after all of this being in the wrong place. There was no commentary (in any language) … they went straight from shachris, to the torah service, then to the haftorah. So I went downstairs, walked around a bit, saw display cases of antiquities, plaques of names of those who had perished in the Holocaust, and saw the social hall set up for Kiddush. Several long tables, each with a small basket of fruit, one piece of cake, and a few Mandelbrot. As I was leaving I noticed a bulletin board where a small poster was advertising Sam Edelman of SPME was to speak there.

My guide in Prague who showed me around the Jewish quarter said that Hitler had decided to leave the synagogues as they were, so people would see what the Jews were about, “when he was done with them” (again, her exact words). I had initially thought to not go to Terezin; I had been to Poland, to Krakow, to Auschwitz. One doesn’t need much more. But for some reason I changed my mind, and hooked up with a tour that had many American Jews, and young American students on Passover break from Israel. I kind of hooked up with a family from Brooklyn who were in Prague seeing their daughter. Even though I was in the country side of Prague on my way to a Nazi fortress, I felt much more at home. Terezin on a sunny day was quite charming if you can believe I am saying that. The town square looks like any other small town meeting place. It’s when you get to the original fortress, and then to the areas cleared of original residents to make a huge model Jewish ghetto that the squeamish feelings begin. The fortress was a very terrible place where even in the early 30s writers, activists, artists were put in prison, tortured, and put to death. The children’s artworks we see in either Yad Vashem, or the US Holocaust Museum, were actually created when the Nazis had to open the camp to show the fine treatment of the ghetto inhabitants. It’s not as though these children had arts and crafts in a regular basis. Their creations are both stirring and poignant. Death marches took place from Terezin, and transports to death camps. There is a small sign in the town that points to the crematorium. The material said Jews were not executed here, but after being killed, that’s where their bodies were taken, and burned.

I did attend two Seders, one connected with something called Bet Simcha, made up of Prague residents, and the other Chabad. The family from Brooklyn convinced me to go with them, saying it will be fun. And it was. That Chabad, they know how to put on a good time!

I visited many museums, palaces, opera houses, and houses of government. I went to a concert of Ava Maria renditions, and also visited a Cuban night club with salsa and flamenco dancing in Prague. I saw Franz Kafka house and the Freud residence where for a time Theodore Herzl also lived. The women’s attire in Vienna was stunning, yet the other countries lacked much style in my humble opinion. These may be poor countries, but the grandeur, and elegance surely makes a regal statement. The public transportation systems were to be admired, and many people asked me about “your President.” Desserts and bread were the best, although the predominance of pork and wiener schnitzel will not be missed. In Budapest I was quite happy to walk by Hummus House, a chain of Middle Eastern food run by, of course, Israelis.

I am really glad to be home, blessed to know that my children are alive, well, and flourishing. I am grateful to know of the Lauder family, and am more steeped than ever in my belief than ever that the Zionist dream, the state of Israel exists.

Sherri has spent the last several decades working & consulting in the nonprofit community community as a fundraiser, a teacher, and trainer, currently as principal in MORR Fundraising Inc, a private consulting firm. She is currently the West Coast Director for the University of Haifa and previously was Director of the Western U.S. at the Jewish National Fund.