Prague was like a different world, not at all like the little shtetl in Poland that they came from. Shmuel wasn’t used to so many people and so much hustle and bustle. The streets were all paved with cobblestones and there were even sidewalks for pedestrians. Some of the buildings were very tall –several stories high, made of brick and stone– nothing like the small wooden houses and stores of their village. Everything was much more formal, people dressed in the German style wearing suits and coats even on weekdays. And everyone was rushing. The three men in their dusty clothes from the trip felt a little out of place, coming with a wagon from a small village into this big city.
Going to Prague was like going into the past and into the future all at the same time. Jews had been living in Prague for more than 900 years, since the 10th century. It was a place where Jewish merchants and tradesmen would stop on their way back across the continent. From east and west, north and south, Prague was a crossroads. Over a period of several hundred years, some the travelers stayed permanently and settled in Prague. In the year 1178 the government had issued a decree that said that the dwellings of Jews should be separated from the dwellings of Christians by a fence or a wall or a moat. That had become the Jewish Section of Prague and all the Jews had had to live in that section and nowhere else in the city. Some of the poor Jews of Prague still lived in that old part of the city, in Josefov, the Jewish Section.
The air in Prague was heavy and humid and there was hardly a breeze, even in the early morning. The streets were busy and crowded, teeming with people scurrying about to shops and office buildings. Shlomo missed the fresh, fragrant air of his village — the smell of hay and the ripe apples on the trees in the orchards.
Even so, there was something fascinating and mystical about the Jewish quarter. Shmuel wandered about the narrow streets and found a small bakery where he had a warm roll and a glass of tea for breakfast. This was quite a treat after being on the road all week. He had been to Prague several times before, but the city never ceased to amaze him. The Jewish Section had one of the oldest synagogues in all of Europe. It was the synagogue of Rabbi Jehuda Loew ben Bezalel the famous scholar, humanitarian and philosopher. Rabbi Loew who was also known as the Maharal of Prague, had been the chief rabbi and had presided over Prague’s main synagogue 150 years earlier.
Rabbi Loew was a very great Rabbi, and some people thought that he also had magic powers. There was a story people told about Rabbi Loew, that he had shaped a Golem out of clay — a small figurine in the shape of a man. They said that Rabbi Loew brought to it to life by putting a small scroll with the ten commandments written on it in the mouth of the Golem. But one Friday afternoon, the Golem started acting wild and crazy. After that, so the story goes, Rabbi Loew had to take the scroll out of the mouth of the Golem and so caused the clay figure return to its original inanimate state. They said that Rabbi Loew hid the clay Golem in the rafters of the Alteneu Synagogue and that it is still hidden there to this very day.
Rabbi Shmuel didn’t know whether or not to believe this tale. Who ever heard of a Golem made of clay that could be brought to life? It sounded like abubbemeister – just foolish talk. But as he was thinking about this old story he scratched his head and thought, “…on the other hand, Rabbi Loew was a very great Rabbi and maybe he could really make a Golem.” “Well, enough thinking about this nonsense of golems“, Rabbi Shmuel mumbled out loud to himself, he had things to do and people to see. He finished his roll and coffee and went to his Aunt Manya’s dress shop which was just a few blocks away.
When he walked into the shop, his aunt looked up from her sewing machine and let out a shriek. She was so happy to see Shmuel who was her favorite nephew. Tanta Manya was his father’s, Rabbi Shlomo’s, youngest sister. Twenty-five years ago when she was a young woman she met her husband, Uncle Max, a wonderful man from Prague, who was in the textile business. He had come through their village in Poland one day, on a sales trip through the region. They fell in love immediately. The only problem was that Uncle Max was not so religious as her family. He was a kind and gentle man, always smiling and good-humored and he did well in his business, but his family wasn’t so strictly observant about certain religious practices. His beard was clipped short and he didn’t go to shul during the week, only on Friday night and Saturday.
Manya didn’t mind these things about Max as she herself was a rather modern woman who liked stylish clothes and was interested in worldly things, but her parents, Rabbi Shmuel’s grandparents, were at first reluctant to give their permission for the marriage. Finally, after a year of Manya begging and pleading with her mother and father they gave in. After all, Max was a fine person, a good man. He was kind and gentle and very well mannered. He made a good living and was very generous. He gave a lot of money to charitable causes. Even though he hadn’t gone to a Yeshiva, he did graduated from one of the best secular schools in Prague and he was enrolled in classes at the University. He was intelligent and very knowledgeable about the affairs of the world. He could read German, Czech, Hungarian, a little French and he even knew some English.
Uncle Max’s brother Saul had moved to America and lived in New York City, and Tanta Manya and Uncle Max had once traveled by steamship to visit him. Shmuel would love to hear stories about America from Tanta Manya. People said that the streets of America were “paved with gold” and there were so many people in New York City that they had to build houses that were six stories off the ground just to make room for all of the people who went there to live.
Even though Tanta Manya and Uncle Max had been married for more than twenty years, they were still like young newlyweds. They were still very much in love. They never had any children of their own and so they doted over their nieces and nephews, always coming to visit and bringing clothes and wonderful gifts from Prague. Tanta Manya worked with her husband in their business and she became a seamstress and then a dress designer. She made the most beautiful dresses and all of the richest women in Prague, Jews and gentiles both, wanted her designs. She would make beautiful dresses that women wore to the opera and the symphony or to fancy balls and parties. She had even been commissioned to design a wedding dress for the cousin of an Austrian princess. Soon she had several women working for her, doing most of the sewing and pressing, while she designed the dresses and cut the cloth. She used only the finest fabrics, the best woolens from England and the finest silks from China. Rifka would be so beautiful in the dress that Tanta Manya would make for her. Tanta Manya already knew Rifka’s measurements and she could have her assistants work on the dress for the next few days so it would be ready when Shmuel came back through Prague on his way back home to his village in Poland.
Copyright © 1998 Suzanne Sadowsky