Let me just say this: I’ve never been to Prague. Much to my dismay. I think I flew over it once, on my way to Israel. And I’ve read some Kafka. (He drives me buggy. Bad joke.) But I’ve never visited the Czech capital.
At the same time, I’ve always been interested in cemeteries. I know that sounds somewhat depressing. Having written about local Jewish cemeteries over the years (including the really old, compelling ones in eastern Baltimore and Baltimore County), I think such final resting places can tell you a whole lot about communities and their history and sense of priorities. Plus, they can be aesthetically fascinating.
As a result, I was mesmerized by the documentary “House Of Life: The Old Jewish Cemetery in Prague,” which will air next Monday at 10 p.m. on Maryland Public Television (Channel 67). I was fortunate enough to receive an advance copy of the 54-minute film, and I was impressed by what I saw.
You wouldn’t think a doc about an old graveyard halfway around the world would be all that interesting, and maybe even more than a tad morbid, right?
Not so. This film is about the living. It’s a celebration of life and culture, and of being a Jew. After all, we’re still here, and so is the old Jewish cemetery in Prague.
“The film is really about the survival of the Jewish people,” Mark Podwal, one of the documentary’s creators, told me last week. “The cemetery is a metaphor for the Jewish people. The fact that the old Jewish cemetery survived intact—despite pogroms, fires, floods, plagues, Nazis, communists—is a miracle.”
Indeed. The cemetery, which dates back to the 16th century, is the home of approximately 12,000 tombstones, but as many as 100,000 members are believed to be buried there, on various different levels of earth. It just confounds the mind. You can see how you could spend weeks or months there, just walking around, reading the stones and looking around, and still not see nearly everything.
The Prague cemetery is haunting, to say the least. But its allure stems largely from its austere and brooding ambience, with its thousands of gravestones seeming to grow like wildflowers and inhabiting a beauty, grace and poetic asymmetry of their own. And of course the history there – Prague’s old, once-vibrant Jewish ghetto, the great Rabbis of the Middle Ages, the folklore, the legends, the Golem tale—is amazing.
It goes without saying that Prague itself is absolutely gorgeous. The filmmakers brilliantly marry images of the cemetery with scenes of the city today, reflecting the deep relationship and synergy between the two.
Mr. Podwal made “House Of Life” with Allan Miller, an Academy Award-winning documentary maker, with narration by actress Claire Bloom. One particularly amusing and bizarre passage in the film is when a Prague resident, a woman in her 60s or 70s, recalls the days after World War II when people used to have sexual escapades in the cemetery. (Do these people have no respect or sense of propriety? Does that really turn them on? Can’t they get a room somewhere?)
So why should someone in Baltimore watch this film, or even care about the old Jewish cemetery in Prague?
Mark Podwal, a New Yorker, puts it this way: “I want people to see what the Jewish people experienced in Europe. The cemetery serves as the focus of all this history, for us to tell these stories about what happened around the cemetery.”
These stones speak to us, about ourselves and our faith and tradition. This film is a revelation, the next best thing to going to Prague and seeing the cemetery itself. Check it out.
For information about the film, check out houseoflifefilm.com/ .