Mrs. Albright: You Can Be Proud of Your Centuries of Jewish Ancestors
In the current flood of press comments on the revelations that Mrs. Albright—the new Secretary of State—has Jewish ancestors, it has been reported that she seems quite a bit shaken up by the revelations. She is quoted to have said, "It is the duality I will have to live with for the rest of my life." References are made to her "Jewish roots" and her "Jewish ancestry." Such expressions seem to remove her from her true identity. Her mother, grandmother and no doubt all the mothers before them, were good Jewish women. In Jewish law, you are a Jew when your mother is Jewish—in her case, there is no evidence of a single Christian in her family tree. So, she is 100% Jewish.
To be a Prague or Bohemian Jew is the highest badge of honor and pride. No European Jewish community had a more glorious history, albeit sprinkled with much suffering meted out by the Christian church. Jews came to Bohemia almost 800 years ago, and despite occasional expulsions and book burnings, they reached unmatched heights in the religious, cultural, financial and political world.
The pride of Prague Jews in their ancient history was driven home to me during a visit to Prague on Purim. Different from most other communities, where the Megilah is read on the 14th day of Adar, in Prague, as I found out there, they read it on an additional day, Shushan Purim, the 15th of Adar, to prove according to Jewish law that Jews lived there already in a walled city, in the days of Joshua of the Bible.
During these many centuries the Jews of Prague produced the greatest minds in science, astronomy, Talmud, music, literature and statecraft. Tycho de Brahe, the Danish born astronomer, lived in Prague in the 16th century in the company of the brilliant Jewish astronomer David Gans. Jewish soldiers defended Prague against the onslaught of the Protestant Swedish armies in the 30 Year War. (As a reward, the government gave the Jews the so-called "Swedish flag" still displayed in the Altneuschul.)
The brilliance of mind of the great Prague Talmudists are of course legend: The Maharal, the Maharal, the fabled Rabbi Yehuda Loew ben Betzalel (reputed creator of the Golem), Yeheskiel Landau (Node Biyehuda), David Oppenheimer (statesman, Talmudist, book collector), Rabbi Lippman Heller (Tosfot Yom Tov), Rabbi Zerach Eidlitz (Talmudist, astronomer and mathematician), Rabbi Jonathan Eybeschütz (Talmudist, kabbalist, community leader)—all scions of the academies of Prague. In the field of every science and art, Prague Jews excelled. Franz Kaflka, the eminent modern novelist, was a product of Prague, and so was Gustav Mahler, the composer.
Is it surprising that Mrs. Albright mirrors the same qualities of the heritage of this overwhelming cultural inheritance, which is still so strong to this day? The charm, wit, intellect, acumen of Mrs. Albright can therefore be traced to this enormous Jewish patrimony so typical for Jews of Prague and Bohemia. She has every reason to be immensely proud, and the American people should be grateful to benefit from her, as Secretary of State, with such a rich store of the highest degree of culture and diplomatic skill.
It is interesting to note that past generations of leading Prague Jews excelled in statecraft: Rabbi Wolf Wertheimer and Rabbi David Oppenheimer were outstanding court Jews who carried out great political missions. When Empress Maria Teresa (1717-1780) issued an edict for the expulsion of Jews from Prague, the Court Jews of all European countries united—a first in Jewish history—under the leadership of the leading Prague Jews, to oppose the edict and achieve its cancellation despite enormous obstacles. The heritage of such diplomatic acumen is certainly a good antecedent for Mrs. Albright.
I own Hebrew books printed in Prague before America was settled by Europeans. From the beginning of the 16th century, Jewish book printers were actively printing Biblical and Talmudic books in contravening the Papal edict by Pope Clemens VIII to have all Jewish books confiscated and burned!
Among the many fascinating Jewish monuments in Prague which have survived every misfortune in history, the most gripping is without a doubt the Altneuschul built over 800 years ago. This unique structure, following the Gothic style, seems to hold the very spirit of the vanished generations. I would recommend Mrs. Albright to pay a visit to that fabled building and steep in the message of the past centuries. It will be an experience which—next to visiting the Wall in Jerusalem—remains unforgettable for life!
But, I think we who are proud of our Jewish heritage—regardless of the sufferings we have endured—should welcome her back into our fold with joy and love, and assure her that it is not a burden to be Jewish, least of all to be a Czech Jew.
The Jews of Czechoslovakia—mainly Bohemia and Moravia but always centered in Prague—had an outstanding history of religious, intellectual, financial and political and military achievements. The Jewish ties to Prague are simply overwhelming. The Jews lived there for centuries and their fate was always closely tied in with the history of the city as a whole. Of course, tales about the Golem and the Maharal ("Der hohe Rabbi Löw") are part of the Czech patrimony. The nearby Jewish town hall, from the 1700's complete with a clock which runs "backward," reminds the visitor of the "Node Biyehuda," Rabbi Yehezkel Landau. The nearby cemetery is a unique site in the Jewish world. Hundreds upon hundreds of ancient Jewish tombstones—some stacked one upon the other—bespeak past generations of great Rabbis, community leaders, and scholars. The tomb of the Maharal is at the center of this, one of the most important sites in Jewish Europe. Of course, pilgrims constantly go there to pray at his grave.
The Jewish Museum is a very hallowed structure—it was started at the command of the Nazis, as a "memorial" over the "perished" Jewish people. Hundreds of Jews were ordered to arrange all exhibits describing the Jewish ceremonials during the year. Many of them hoped to be spared death, but in the end, all were gassed. Maybe Mrs. Albright's ancestors were among them. One display is especially significant: the white cloak of Shlomo Molcho, a Portuguese Jew forced into conversion, but who, in the 16th century had re-converted to Judaism, and followed David Reubeni, the pseudo-Moshiach. Molcho was burnt at the stake by the Church when the Christians feared that his conversion to Judaism would lead to a mass movement to Judaism among the Christian population.
The Jews of Prague were known for their advance science of astronomy. The Christian astronomers such as Tycho de Brahe learnt their science from Jews.
Prague had enormous collections of Hebrew books. The famous David Oppenheim, rabbi and book collector, left behind more that 6000 volumes when he died in the 18th century. These books are now in the Bodleian Library in Oxford.
I own many manuscripts written by brilliant Talmudists who lived in Prague. Some I have published, some still await publication. All bespeak an unbelievably high level of intellectual brilliance, and religious piety. Prague sent many of its rabbinic personalities to other countries to lead the Yeshivot there. Thus, Prague could properly be called an "Ir v'em be Yisrael," a town and mother in Israel.
The war put an end to this precious community. Yet after the war, it was revived. Czech Jews were extremely important in helping the young State of Israel to defend itself against the murderous onslaughts of Arabs. The famous Czech heavy Skoda industry contributed weapons and planes to the fledgling country. Since the Czechs themselves had successfully achieved independence from the Habsburg empire of Austria-Hungary, under the leadership of the great Czech patriot Thomas Mazaryk, supported by President Woodrow Wilson, they knew how to appreciate the efforts of the Jews to recreate their own independent state. They had full sympathy with the Jews, and felt complete solidarity. I am sure that these memories will find an echo in Mrs. Albright. She will understand the danger of harboring the Nazi Sudeten Germans inside the country, who therefore had to be deported. The parallel with the murderous Arabs with aspirations to undo Israel should thus be clearer to her.
Again, welcome back to your exalted Jewish roots, Mrs. Albright.
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