Sunday, April 5, 2009

Prague -- Michelle Obama Visits the Jewish Quarter

Photo (c) Jewish Museum Prague

While President Barack Obama held his political meetings, his wife Michelle became the latest of the millions of tourists who have visited Prague's famous Jewish quarter. She was accompanied by two of her husband's top advisors, both of them Jewish -- Rahm Emanuel and David Axelrod -- and also met local Jewish leaders.

Here's the press release put out by the Museum:

The First Lady of the United States, Michelle Obama, accompanied by the US president’s chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, and David Axelrod, political consultant, visited Prague’s Jewish Town today. Mrs. Obama first looked round Pinkas Synagogue, where she honoured the 80,000 Jewish victims of the Shoah from Bohemia and Moravia, whose names are inscribed on the synagogue walls. After listening to an exposition on the prayer house’s history, the First Lady was particularly interested in the story of the children’s drawings from the Terezín ghetto, over 200 of which are on display on the upper floor of the synagogue. Michaela Sidenberg, the Curator of Visual Arts at the Jewish Museum in Prague, said: “In preparing the museum tour for the First Lady, our starting point was what Michelle Obama has indicated several times in the past, namely that in her role as First Lady she intends to devote herself also to supporting programmes that focus on child education and on the importance of parents’ involvement in the education process. I believe that the experimental educational programme that the avant-garde artist Friedl Dicker-Brandeis (1898–1944) organized in Terezín and the children’s story itself were of great interest to the First Lady. In addition to the copies of artworks on display in the permanent exhibition, Mrs. Obama also had the opportunity to see an original collage by Marie Mühlstein (1932–1944), who, like the majority of children imprisoned in Terezín, did not survive the Nazi persecution.” After her tour of Pinkas Synagogue, the First Lady then went to the Old Jewish Cemetery, where she stopped by the graves of important figures from Prague’s Jewish history: the scholar and poet Avigdor Kara, whose tombstone (dating from 1439) is the oldest in the cemetery; the distinguished patron and mayor of the Jewish community Mordecai Maisel (d. 1601); and the renowned rabbi and Kabbalist Judah Loew ben Bezalel – Rabbi Loew, also known by his acronym MaHaRaL (1525?–1609) – who is the most important figure buried in the Old Jewish Cemetery and who died exactly 400 years ago. Following the old Jewish tradition, the First Lady placed a kvitl – a folded piece of paper with a personal wish – on the rabbi’s grave. Leo Pavlát, the Director of the Jewish Museum in Prague, added: “It is a great honour for us that Mrs. Obama chose to visit Prague’s former Jewish Town among other sights of the city. This testifies to the uniqueness of the Jewish monuments and to the important role that an awareness of Jewish culture can play in education, the promotion of tolerance, democracy and the sharing of human values. We co-operate with a number of institutions throughout the world and along with Prague Jewish school and kindergarten receive support from the U.S.-based Ronald S. Lauder Foundation, which is of great importance to us. We are pleased that Mrs. Obama also expressed interest in this area of our activities.” After visiting the Old Jewish Cemetery, the First Lady then went to the Old-New Synagogue, which is the oldest European synagogue that is still used for religious purposes. She was greeted there by representatives of the Czech Jewish community: the Chief Rabbi of the Czech Republic and Prague Efraim Karol Sidon, the Chairman of the Federation of Jewish Communities in the Czech Republic Jiří Daníček, the Executive Director of the Federation of Jewish Communities in the Czech Republic Tomáš Kraus, and the Chairman of the Jewish Community in Prague František Bányai with his wife. Looking round the interior of this unique Early Gothic building, Mrs. Obama’s interest was captivated particularly by the historical banner of the Prague Jewish Community with its emblem, the adornment of the Torah Ark and the seat on the east-facing side, which according to tradition belonged to Rabbi Loew. The Chairman of the Jewish Community in Prague František Bányai commented: “Mrs. Obama was probably pleasantly surprised by the atmosphere and history of the Old-New Synagogue. Her visit was a quite extraordinary event in the synagogue’s more than 700-year history.” The First Lady of the United States was presented with a Kiddush cup and memorial medal for the 700th anniversary of the Old-New Synagogue by the representatives of the Czech Jewish community and several publications by the Jewish Museum.

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