Inside the Spanish Synagogue

I have a new design project that seems interesting. It’s a competition between five designers to create a new identity for the Prague Jewish Museum. What makes this especially compelling (beyond the fact that it doesn’t involve selling sneakers, or producing Flash banner ads with involve breakdancing clowns, or adding a Miffles stream-of-consciousness feature) is that the fact that the Prague Jewish Museum isn’t just a museum per se but rather a group of six interrelated historical sites in the Old Town. So, it’s like designing (or trying to design, anyway) an identity for a considerable chunk of the Josefov district.

This is what differentiates the Prague Jewish Museum from all others, I would say: Berlin might have a cool Daniel Libeskind-authored concept, another city might have a great exhibits, or artefacts (or actual Jewish people living in the city, for that matter, something Prague essentially does not have)… but Prague is the only city I know of that can bring an actual historically-preserved Jewish Quarter to the table. Famously, the area was left intact by the Nazis during WW2 following Hitler’s chilling decree that it should remain standing as a ‘monument to an extinguished race’. Interestingly, though, when I met the museum directors to discuss the logo project, they were eager to dispel the general misconception that this marked the beginning of the attempts to preserve the district (which would make Hitler the de facto founder of the museum, in a weird way… so you can see why they were eager to correct this notion). Actually, the preservation effort had already begun in the beginning of the 20th century, when urban renewal projects in the New Town started to prompt concern about the potential destruction of synagogues and artifacts contained within.

This is a architect's sketch of the above-mentioned cool Berlin concept. The museum's logo is simply this distinctive shape.


Anyway, my strategy this time is to avoid all attempts at ‘creative thinking’ and go straight for a trusty cliché. So, I’m thinking: a star of David… but instead of the star having points, each point will be a well-recognized Prague tourist site, such as the Charles Bridge or Prague Castle. It can’t miss!

One fun thing about this project is that I’ve been furnished with a pass to all six sites and a special form granting me permission to take photos (as to gather fuel for my awesome and mysterious ‘creative process’, if you will). On the downside, this entails setting foot into the utter tourist INSANITY that is happening at all times but especially during the springtime in the Old Town Square. It’s indescribable: a constant rate of chaos and oblivious people with backpacks bumping into each other in narrow spaces that you COMPLETELY forget about the existence of if you’ve lived in Prague for a while. Still, it’s well worth it for the chance to see these sites again, and also for the opportunity to ham it up and self-importantly brandish my photo permission at the smallest of pretexts.

I used my ‘press pass’ to take the photo at the top of this post, which is the ceiling of the Spanish Synagogue. I would love to post a bunch more photos, but worry that I will get in trouble for abusing my photo privileges. (It seems to me that the ceiling is known and photographed enough that it shouldn’t be a problem to post this one lone shot– if you are a director for the museum and reading this and thinking about getting angry at me, please consider this logic.) The artifacts on display inside this building included lots of lovely old book covers (my favorite!) and also a few sample bills of the special worthless ‘funny money’ that was issued to Jews inside the ghetto (back when Josefov was a walled-in apartheid zone). The text on the bills was, of course, written in German (naturally… but still strange to see) and really did look like Monopoly money.

However, my vaunted ‘press pass’ did not allow me the exalted, unmolested status I’d hoped for. The photo at the top of this post was taken milliseconds prior to me being subjected to a lengthy and melodramatic plea from the security guard not to take any more photos. This despite the fact that I’d already shown her my pass and she’d already okayed it. Apparently, her thought process was that she first accepted my right to take photos but then freaked out when she realized that the Synagogue was full of people (as it always is, duh) who were likely to take my lead and start trying to take photos themselves. Therefore, her appeal to me was delivered not on the grounds of museum policy, but rather as a sort of desperate personal favor: Can’t you come back on Saturday instead when I’m not here? You’re making my life harder! This, I must opine, is a classic example of the old-school Communist generation mindset at work: the beleaguered functionary’s total inability to consider both sides of an equation and make everyone’s interests meet within a given dynamic. Go do your job!, I considered hissing at her, but in actuality wilted under the barrage of her long, insistent pleas (delivered exclusively in Czech, what’s more– maybe that’s part of what wore me down) and just made little sketches of whatever else interested me.

Shot of the Ghetto funny-money discussed above, taken by somebody else (i.e. not me further abusing my photo pass)

Crimson Tide

Few topics can numb my buns like a discussion of how some social networking platform is or isn’t changing the cultural and/or political landscape around us. I can’t explain my disdain in rational terms– it’s more like there’s just this big, bored, empty thought bubble that appears over my head whenever the subject is raised. I guess this ennui is best expressed by an article in the Onion brilliantly titled, ‘New Social Networking Site Changing The Way Oh, Christ, Forget It‘.

So, I was surprised to recently encounter two new pieces of commentary on this subject that actually engaged my interest and/or taught me something new. The first was Malcolm Gladwell’s denigrating comparison of the so-called Twitter Revolution to a real bona-fide revolution, the civil-rights movement (this I found mainly revelatory for its explanation of how heirarchically and militantly structured the civil rights organizers actually were). The second was ‘The Social Network’, which I got to see last weekend in a rare case of a U.S. movie being screened in Prague almost synchronously with its stateside release. (In this case, some weird film club got a hold of a copy with Czech titles and screened it as part of their tenth anniversary party. I didn’t understand all of the festive ramifications, but I was glad to get to see it…. plus, there were lots of whisky shots distributed during the film).

I hadn’t been terribly interested in seeing a highly-fictionalized account of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg until I read the David Denby’s review that comes as close as a Denby review possibly can to enthused RANTING and RAVING about a movie. And, indeed, it is as good as advertised– the pacing and writing are both excellent, such that I was totally riveted the entire time. Most impressively, its a rare example of a Hollywood movie that handles an overtly moral subject with sufficient complexity – no hamfisted good-versus-evil dramaturgy– without wussing out and denying it sufficient gravitas and force.

As Denby notes, the movie also does a great job illustrating the pressuring and potentially-alienating atmosphere of Harvard University. Now, as the only one out of the three people who write for this blog who didn’t attend Harvard, maybe I’m the wrong person to comment on this. But, the film is set in the exact same years when friends of mine were there and I was occasionally loitering around on campus hanging out with them. Mainly, the malice and pent-up rage evident in some of characters in “The Social Network” reminded me… not of people I personally met, thank god… but of a string of scandalous and disturbingly violent incidents that unfolded during those years.

Principally, there was the case of Sinedu Tadesse, an Ethopian biology student who became increasingly unhinged and in 1995 murdered her roommate and hanged herself in the dorm room they shared in Dunster House– the same house that most of my friends there inhabited. At the time, I remember that part of the lore around this was the fact that the culprit was so socially alienated that she gave herself ‘assignments’ in how to socialize and graded herself accordingly– a strange and tragic attempt to impose an academic structure on mastering human relationships. Articles written on the case at the time (principally, a New Yorker article by a woman who went on to write a full length book on the subject) confirm this to be the case, and also paint the sad episode of Tadesse sending a strange beseeching letter to individuals that she picked out of the phone book in search of friendship. At the time, I also remember thinking that perhaps the muder of her roommate was inspired by a competitive desire not to let the roommate benefit from a semester of automatic straight A’s that you’re always rumored to receive if your roommate commits suicide. (Has anyone ever confirmed this, by the way, or is it just an academic urban myth?). But, it turns out that her roommate was the last person to serve as a friend to the culprit, and when she eventually announced her desire to live with some other girls, that served as the final social betrayal that pushed Tadesse over the edge.

Halfway Heaven: Diary of a Harvard Murder, the aforementioned book by Melanie Thernstrom, generated mixed reviews to put it kindly (apparently, she gets carried away in a kind of blunt good-versus-evil moralizing that her reviewers object to, which I guess brings this blog post around full circle somewhat)… but one thing that every reviewer seems to find illuminating is the emphasis placed on Harvard’s apathy and insensitivity to the whole matter, particularly to the increasingly evident signs of instability in the culprit in particular and its lack of psychiatric support for students as a whole.

Incredibly, this jarring murder/suicide transpired in the same year that Harvard accepted a young woman named Gina Grant and then generated enormous negative publicity by rescinding the acceptance after it came to light that Grant had apparently murdered her mother several years earlier.

Macalester College– the humdrum, plain-Jane school I attended– was completely lacking in this kind of drama. In fact, the school had singularly failed to do anything noteworthy at all until it recently made its way into Jonathan Franzen’s newest novel Freedom as the alma matter of the fictitious main characters. I suppose I should have taken this relative lack of sociopathology as a positive indicator at the time, but I think I wanted to be part of some more unhinged and psychotic atmosphere back then, and the morbid news streaming out my friends’ college only succeeded in arousing my envy.


Lately I’m getting more and more emails that contain a quick line of conciliatory auto-blather at the bottom like this:

Is this a new “thing”? (Yes, I’m squinting and making quote-mark signs in the air right now). What could possibly be the value in this? Imagine extending this same convention to spoken conversation:

“Hey, I’m ordering food– you guys want anything? Please do not hesitate to ask me if there are any questions or queries regarding the preceding question.”

“No, Dan– we’re fine.”

“Alright, back in a few minutes then. Please do not hesitate to ask me if there are–”


El Pato Falso

This is my publicly-accessible business registry information as retrieved from the web site of the Czech Statistical Office. The line I’ve highlighted in yellow shows my previous address in U.S. Everything’s okay through street, street number, city… until you get to ‘Spojené státy mexické,’ which is ‘United States of Mexico’. ¿ Um… que ? That’s right: according to the Czech Statistical Office, I’m Mexican. I guess the person entering my info saw the ‘San Francisco’ part and felt confident completing the rest of the entry on the basis of logical association.

This is exactly the sort of situation where I ought to get busy leaping headlong into the pool of Czech bureaucratic magical realism to resolve the error this right away but instead will summarily ignore until it jumps up to bite me in the ass at some key moment (‘Señor Mayer, we cannot remove your appendix until this discrepancy about your home country is resolved‘). On the other hand, maybe it’s better that I at least wait until I’m done with the design project for the Czech Burritos– that would be a suspicious contradiction to try and explain away to the authorities. I guess one humorous silver lining to the whole situation is that my son is now officially ‘Czech-Mex’, according to the powers that be.

What I did on my vacation

Before I moved to Central Europe, I never really thought about the words vacation and Polish border fitting into a sentence together. But in fact, that sentence precisely describes what we’ve been up to for the past five days (and, by extension, why I haven’t posted anything here for several days).

It’s interesting how much moving here has changed my sense of proximity and orientation to this part of the world. When I lived in the U.S. and travelled to Europe from time to time, I used to think of Prague as an exotically eastern location, slightly beyond the outer edge of what’s known and familiar (known and familiar being, I suppose, Western Europe), a gateway to a mysterious land of slavic spires and Orthodox churches. Or something like that. Anyway, now that I’ve lived here for three years, Czech Republic feels overwhelmingly central, for better or for worse– as its best, cozily and conveniently in-the-middle-of-things; at its worst, boringly midwestern. So, within that new framework, driving to Poland spent somewhat like when I was in college in Minnesota and we used to drive to Wisconsin on beer runs. (For more on this European nations = U.S. states analogy, see this post).


Our five days were spent with friends in this renovated old hunting lodge just over the border (the first time, incidentally, that my three month-old son has been abroad), re-christened the Saraswati Hotel by its current owners, Raj and Kamila. Raj is an American of Indian descent; Kamila, Polish– I imagine that this combination must give them a pretty distinct pedigree among hotel proprietors in Poland. Gratifyingly, Raj told me that the lodge had been converted to Communist offices when they bought it, the upstairs subdivided into innumerable dinky offices that were promptly torn down. Leave it to Communism to bureaucratize even the most scenic of places.


Raj has also built a complete recording studio in a nearby farmhouse (shown above). This was visually interesting to me, in part because the structure itself so clearly retains the character of farmhouses found all over Poland and Czech- such that you could almost picture a babushka peeling potatoes in the main room- and yet was filled with state-of-the-art sound boards and pre-amps and general recording gadgetry. Also, there was this incredible-looking harpsichord sitting in one of the main rooms (shown poorly in this photograph, unfortunately):


The event was a week-long get-together among a bunch of musician friends, including a troupe of players from the Warsaw Opera. In fact, everyone there was an accomplished musician except for me and my family, who were egregiously freeloading off the creative vibes. Of course, the great thing about hanging out around musicians is that they’re constantly expressing their enjoyment of things in musical terms, whereas I can only express myself through sarcasm. I particularly enjoyed a surprise midnight baroque extravaganza staged for Kamila’s birthday. The weekend in general reminded me a tad of the Simpsons episode where Homer achieves his dream of working at a bowling alley but then has to quit for financial reasons: as he trudges back towards the power plant, his depressed bowling-addicted co-workers are heard in the background: ‘I’m depressed… What should be do?… I know: let’s bowl!’ followed by happy cheers and sounds of bowling. The vibe with the musician troupe had the same feeling, except with ‘Let’s make music!’ interjected at every opportunity.

Finally, there are a few interesting things to check out on the way:

1. Disused Poland/Czech border checkpoint. I love abandoned checkpoints. This one was fully operational as recently as 18 months ago, creating a thriving and pointless bureaucratic traffic jam. Since Czech and Poland joined the Schengen area (the mass of Western and Central European countries that have open borders) and closed their checkpoints, all that’s missing is some rusting girders and tumbleweeds. It was more romantic and lonely on way up when we passed through this point in the rain; unfortunately, I only got around to taking pictures on the way back when it was sunny… so, I converted them to black-and-white as a compromise:



2. Ještěd. This nutcase sci-fi observatory (pronounced ‘YES-shtead’) sits on one of the highest points in the Czech Republic, just over the border in Liberec. It looks just like something out of one of those 1950s visualizations of the future where everyone takes their own aircraft to work and talks on TV telephones.


Also, some pics of nice countryside on the Czech side of the border (a bit blurry, as they were snapped from a moving car):



Fun with bribes

I’ve always been fascinated by the protocol of petty bribes: the folded bill nonchalantly inserted into a functionary’s pocket, the suavely encoded ‘suggestion’ indicating what the bribe is for. One of my unrealized goals in life is to subtly condescend to someone by pretending to try to bribe them with a one dollar bill. Imagine your friend drags you to a posh nightclub that you don’t want to go to anyway and the doorman refuses you entry because you’re wearing sneakers instead of fancy shoes. Theatrically slip him a crumpled $1 and conspiratorially murmur, “My friend George Washington would like to join the party,” then enjoy the series of expressions that pass over his face as he realizes that you’ve essentially tried to buy him off with a candy bar.

In the Czech Republic, these ‘My friend so-and-so…’ lines take on an added dimension because the historical figures printed on Czech bills have biographies that are both more dramatic and obscure than their American currency counterparts. Imagine the fun/confusion that could result  from slipping someone a 100 crown note (equivalent to five dollars) and indicating, “My friend Jan Komensky would like to come in and develop a language where false statements are impossible.” Or: “Excuse me, but I think my friend is late to his defenestration.” A Tomas Masaryk would set you back about $250, but you would get to say, “My friend would really like to join the League of Nations.”


Czech currency, incidentally, is really beautiful–  I will be sad when it’s eventually retired in favor of the Euro. The very first Czechoslovakian bank notes (along with the first stamps) were designed by the great art noveau artist and Czech patriot Alfons Mucha.