(April 20, 2016 / JNS) By Eliana Rudee/JNS.org
On the first day of ulpan (Hebrew-language immersion school), I met Naomi in a get-to-know-you game.
“Where are you from?” I asked her. She said the answer was complicated—it was basically everywhere in Canada (where she was born and raised) as well as the Czech Republic, where her parents were from and where she took care of her sick grandmother a few years back. I immediately connected to Naomi, realizing her caring nature and uniqueness of taking time off from university, dropping everything, and moving to another country in your mid-20s to take care of your grandmother. I knew she would become my friend. When we placed in the same ulpan class, we got to know each other well and learned a lot about one another’s families.
Naomi’s grandmother passed away during the second month of ulpan, and Naomi went to the Czech Republic for the burial. I comforted her and took notes for her in class. After this, I often heard Naomi speaking on the phone in fluent Czech, and after her calls, she would tell me about her friends in the Czech Republic. She spoke about the Czech Republic often, and after hearing about the people, food, and cheap prices, I told her I’d love to go there someday, to which she replied that next time she goes, I would be invited. Many travel-oriented promises between friends tend to go unfulfilled, but a month ago, when Naomi told me that she would be going for her friend’s birthday, she suggested we go together. So we booked a ticket for a week in the Czech Republic, and two weeks later, we were there!
For the first four days of our trip, we went to the village where her grandmother had lived, Jablonné, just a 10-minute drive from Germany. Naomi’s friends in the Czech Republic are mostly middle-aged women who were friends and informal caretakers of her grandmother. Although much older than Naomi and I, they are very fun and we had a great time together. We stayed in an Airbnb-type place, which made our clothes smell like cigarettes for the rest of the week. We worked remotely in the mornings (which wasn’t a huge loss because the weather was overcast and sometimes rainy for most of the trip), but met with Naomi’s friends in the afternoon. The friends were amazing! They were curious about our lives in Israel, incredibly hospitable (every time we walked into their homes, they were cooking something new for us), and simply kind.
The food in the village was amazing and cheap—a meal at a restaurant, plus a beer, cost around $8. The most popular dishes: chléb (bread), guláš (gulash), knedlo (bread-like dumplings), smažák (fried cheese), klobása sausage, bread, and pastries. Did I mention bread? There was a lot of bread in every single meal.
The village was scenic, to put it mildly. The houses were small, but reminded me of what it would be like if I were to go back in time. There were green fields aplenty, a castle just a short walk away, and a beautiful church. In the village, nobody spoke English. Naomi translated everything for me and did a great job, so I could truly get to know her friends. I did end up learning some important words in Czech, although the language proved very difficult to learn, let alone pronounce.
Whenever I told people that I was living in Israel, they thought it was very cool. Unlike many places Israelis travel to, there was no hesitation to say that one is Israeli and/or Jewish. The Czech people seemed interested in the Jewish faith and in Israel. In fact, the two countries have great bilateral relations. And yet, there were many cultural differences. Everyone was on time (including the tram system, which was great)!
After we left the village, we traveled by bus to Prague. We noticed security and policemen everywhere. Although we were used to this in Israel, we didn’t expect it in the Czech Republic. Apparently, security has been quite high since March’s Brussels bombings.
In Prague, we did all of the touristy things: the Prague Castle, a Sandeman tour, the Lennon Wall, Café Louvre, drinking beer, shopping, the Charles bridge, and the Jewish Museum. At the Jewish Museum, our tour guide was an 88-year-old non-Jewish man named Jaroslav Safránek. He noted that his wife has a Jewish father. Right before Jews were deported from Prague during World War II, a priest baptized her and changed her last name. Her father was deported to the Terezin concentration camp. Jaroslav said that working at the Jewish Museum—now for 26 years!—was his way to learn about his wife’s religion and history. One part of the tour that stood out was the synagogue. The walls were inscribed with names of Jews from Prague who perished in the Holocaust. The names covered too many walls to count. In one room, there were drawings that children made in Terezin. One section featured pictures made by children expressing their hopes to immigrate to Israel. As someone who made aliyah myself, leaving behind a stable home and family members who love me, this was a good reminder of my privilege as an American Jew (and now an American-Israeli Jew) in the 21st century. It was also a good reminder of the eternal nature of Jewish hope to return to our historical homeland.
In the Prague shopping malls, Israelis were everywhere. At nearly every store we entered, we heard Hebrew. We saw many Israeli families who came for a weeklong trip. One very cute 8-year-old Israeli girl came up to me, telling me that our shoes matched and that this was her first time on a plane. Israelis love to travel and shop.
But I digress. I’m under the impression that shopping was not the only thing that brought Israelis to Prague. Indeed, it was just a $300 round-trip ticket and a quick three-and-a-half-hour plane ride. But I think the reason why there were so many Israelis there is simply because Israelis LOVE to travel. Israelis are disproportionately represented in terms of their overseas travel. In fact, the first thing many Israelis do after they get out of the army and work to save money is travel abroad.
Traveling to a new country outside of Israel was a great experience. I felt very much at home with so many Israelis by my side. Now, as I write this column on my way back to Israel, the plane is full of Israelis, and the Czech workers seem very overwhelmed with the pushing going on here. Just as I was getting used to politeness…
Eliana Rudee is a fellow with the Haym Salomon Center and the author of the “Aliyah Annotated” column for JNS.org. She is a graduate of Scripps College, where she studied international relations and Jewish studies. Her bylines have been featured in USA Today, Forbes, and The Hill. Follow her column on JNS.org.