Once Suppressed, Judaism Enjoys Prague Spring Jewish Chic Is Affecting Rock Groups to Rabbis

Article excerpt

The rock singer is dressed as a rabbi. Screaming teen-agers grab at his black frock coat. In this post-Communist nation hungry for identity, the growing phenomenon is Jewish chic.

Recently, the rock group Shalom was voted best in the country. Its name is Hebrew for "peace," and its lead singer dons rabbi garb for every concert.

The Czech edition of Playboy offers tips on preparing Jewish recipes. And Prague's new rabbi - the real one, not the rock singer - is overwhelmed by attendance at his classes on "How to Be a Jew."

Radan Salomonovic, 32, a physicist, said with a smile: "It's a big fashion to be a Jew in Prague now. I know it sounds strange, but these are strange times."

Strange times indeed when Judaism - long the object of hostility in Prague, the Czech capital - draws so many eager converts that Rabbi Karel Sidon worries about building a bigger synagogue.

Those attracted to Judaism include young people whose parents kept their Jewishness secret for fear of persecution, as well as those who have no blood connection to Judaism, such as Shalom's lead singer, who says he converted to find meaning.

In Prague's post-Communist rat race, when old structures are crumbling and the only value seems to be making money, Judaism's history and moral guidelines hold special appeal. So does the fact that Judaism was forbidden under the Communist regime. So intent were the Communists to discourage Jews, the communists stored toilet bowls in historic synagogues.

Not that such acts of hostility have stopped. The new freedom of expression that makes the resurgence of Judaism possible also has encouraged a new wave of anti-Semitism, manifested by a notice in one Prague bar that reads, "No Drunks or Jews."

Fear of such hostility had prevented Salomonovic, the physicist, from learning much about Judaism. His father had spent part of his childhood in the Auschwitz concentration camp in World War II. The elder Salomonovic wanted to spare his son from the painful burden of Judaism.

That burden seemed lighter when the Communist regime collapsed four years ago. The younger Salomonovic started talking to a rabbi about everything from faith to the similarities between the wisdom of physics and that of the Torah, the Jewish holy book. Salomonovic was fascinated.

So were hundreds of other Czechs - those with Jewish heritage, and those without. …