Are You Awake?

Hey. Are you still awake? / Yes.


I’m scared. / Of what?


Does it matter? / Yes, it matters.


Aren’t you scared, too? / Of course.


Of what? / I asked you first.


I’m scared of being alone. Saying or doing the wrong thing. Being inadequate. Failure. Forgetting something important, like who I once thought I wanted to be. Having no one to love and no one to love me. Getting so lost that I can never find my way back. Having to watch someone I love suffer, without being able to help. / I understand.


And you? / I’m afraid of not being afraid.


That sounds clever. Too clever to be true. / It is, though. True. 


You’re afraid of not being afraid? Of being free from fear? / Yes. Shall I tell you a story? To explain what I mean?


Is it a true story? / All stories are true. If it isn’t true, it isn’t a story.


Okay. Maybe that will help. / All right. Here it is.


Once, years ago, I knew a man. He lived in Prague, where I had gone to do research for a year or so. A mathematician, he was quite old when I knew him. I asked him how old, but he loved riddles, this man. And he had a way of responding with an answer to some other question, one that you had not asked.


Maybe you’re thinking that it would be frustrating to converse with a person like that. Someone so evasive. Always holding something back. It wasn’t though. On the contrary, I was intrigued by him and sought him out. He let me buy him lunch at a tavern that had opened for business in the Middle Ages. We were there often.


He talked to me about the history of the Jews in Prague. I heard about the first to settle there, in the same year that Cairo saw the building of its very first mosque. The arrival in Prague of the first Crusaders. The burning of the Jewish Quarter and the oldest synagogue in 1142. The Third Lateran Council of 1179, which cautioned Christians against touching Jews. The ghetto that developed on the right bank of the River Vltava, close to the Old Town Square. The Fourth Lateran Council of 1215, which mandated that Jews wear distinctive clothes and prohibited them from holding public office.


He seemed to know everything, this man. The terrible pogrom of Easter 1389. He told me that a survivor, a rabbi, later wrote about it. I looked it up at some point. It begins with a quote from Numbers: “All of the suffering that has found us.” And then he asks: “Can one tell all that has happened to us?”


Later, in a more tolerant era, the first Hebrew press. Jewish mysticism and intellectualism. The arrival in Prague of Jewish refugees from elsewhere in Europe. A rabbi known as the Maharal, who authored more than 50 books and is supposed to have created the Golem, a clay creature he brought to life to protect the Jewry of Prague.


He told me about other Jews of that time. A man who was a mathematician, historian and astronomer. Another who was the first Jew to be knighted. A philanthropist named Maisel, who used his wealth to improve the lives of his fellows Jews in Prague, and also donated Torah scrolls to Jewish communities around the world, including Jerusalem. By the early 18th century, Prague was home to more Jews than any other city in the world.


The Edict of Toleration in October 1781. Temporary civil equality granted to Jews in 1849. The ghetto abolished a few years later. The advent of Zionism. German-speaking Jews in Prague, in the early 20th century, who became famous writers: Kafka, Brod, Werfel. By the 1930s, 92,000 Jews were living in Prague.


At least two-thirds of these perished in the Holocaust.


Later, under Soviets domination, synagogues were destroyed and Jewish cemeteries closed. In 1968, after the USSR sent troops to crush the Prague Spring, thousands of Jews left Czechoslovakia. A new era of oppression began. The Holocaust could not be mentioned. Jews hid their identity so well that only after 1989, as a result of the Velvet Revolution, did some people learn that they were Jewish.


Today about 1500 registered Jews live in Prague, he said. Maybe 5000 altogether.


At one of our lunches, I asked him to tell me more about the Golem. What powers was it supposed to have had? He answered with a riddle. He asked me what word I thought that the rabbi had put on the forehead of the Golem …


And? Did you guess? / Yes, I did.


What was it? / Supposedly it was emet. The Hebrew word for truth.


I don’t understand. / The Golem was inhuman. The Golem was invulnerable. The Golem was fearless. And the Golem’s forehead was emblazoned with the word “truth.” What does that tell you?


That suffering is our lot. That it would be inhuman to experience no fear. That by accepting that we do not know and cannot know any absolute truth, we are able to preserve our humanity and save ourselves. / Yes.


What happened to the Golem? / He went berserk, so the rabbi smeared clay over the first letter of emet.


So what does met mean? / Death. In Hebrew, the word for death resides within the word for truth. Now go to sleep.



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