A Concert at the End of Prague

This happened several years ago, in several places that probably don’t exist anymore, and I’m doubting anyone in the story will ever read this. If you are, I can only tell you that what you did, I appreciate more than you can know, and I only regret I couldn’t track you down to tell you that in person.

For a year I lived in Prague. I was living deep in the middle of my own thoughts, desperately wanting to find my own inner Kafka, kind of suspecting that even Kafka didn’t really want to find his inner Kafka. Eastern Europe appealed to me, part because of its historical Judaism, part because it was just so damn vampiric.

I signed up for a study-abroad program — because my American school didn’t have a program available in the country, I enrolled directly in the Czech foreign-student program. Several students from another program were on my flight, a more lavish American program, staying in dorms that faintly resembled hotel rooms. We were housed in the more modest Czech student dorms, a fake-wooden-paneled Communist affair with mattresses stuffed with sawdust and a single receptionist posted at the door — the same blank-faced woman sat there, day and night — who did not know, or steadfastly refused, to speak English.

We were a motley crew: a handful of Americans, one or two representatives from an assortment of European countries, and several Finns. Weirdly, they all were Czechophiliacs, knowledgeable in both the country’s history and its contemporary culture, as though a whole gang of the coolest kids in Helsinki’s premier art school all climbed on a plane one day and, to their mutual surprise, found that they’d all bought tickets for the same place.

There was also one Czech student: she was half-Finnish, half-Czech, enrolled as an exchange student but studying both languages on a level the rest of us would never achieve. Not only did she know about our temporary adopted home with the ease and fluency of a native (after all, she was), but she had a wordless coolness that fueled and penetrated every group interaction we had with this nascent culture, from buying tram tickets to buying supplies for the dorm kitchen. (Seeing the amount of bottled water we purchased, the supermarket clerk said something too fast to catch, and she and Mariane both burst out laughing. “What is it?” insisted Reettta, her closest friend, one of the Finns. Once we were safely outside, Mariane told us: “She said water is a waste for you. Beer is less expensive, and it will help way more with your comprehension of Czech.” She wasn’t wrong. Ounce for ounce, beer really was less expensive.

Only a week or two into our new lives, a dictum came, issued from Mariane: We were going to a concert that night. Ivá Bittová, a Gypsy violinist, was performing. The show was at a small indie-rock club on the outskirts of town. We would leave straight after classes, since it was on the other end of town from our dorm. We would sit in a bar near the show until it was time. Sitting in bars was the Czech national occupation. Partly for the cheaper-than-water beer, partly because it was a well-known statistic that most of their famous artists had died of absinthe consumption.

We waited in the bar. We left as soon as Mariane said it was time. We ended up getting to the club over an hour late; we’d missed most of Ivá Bittová’s set. We saw a piece of one song and the entirety of her final number. For the former, she was going crazy on a violin, hacking at the strings with her bow to create a trippy, acidic sensation like a time machine with a hangover. For the last song, she dropped her violin and played a series of plastic child’s toys.

There was nothing to do but sit tight and wait for the next act. Unlike American music clubs, they came on in no time at all. It was a five-member band, all women, called Zuby Nehty — literally it meant “teeth and nails,” from a Czech expression that, Mariane told us, is more fully “hanging on by my teeth and nails,” that you can’t take it anymore.

They sounded, if this means anything to you, like a mix of Operation Ivy and They Might Be Giants. They were a bleating flute, a ridiculously staccato crackling guitar, drums and drums for days. They sounded funny and wry, even if I couldn’t understand most of their music, and the parts that I could — a king defending his castle? birds flying around your mind? — clawed at the skin of logic. Most of my class left. By the end of the night I was a convert.

**

Later I learned that, before Zuby Nehty, most members had been in a band called Dybbuk. “Like the Jewish demon?” I asked. “No, not Jewish,” my friend told me. “No, but a dybbuk is from Jewish mythology.”

I told him how a dybbuk was the spirit of the unquiet dead, left on Earth to try and rectify something about their life. He said this sounded like a Czech folktale. I nodded, wondering what other secrets this city held for me.

**

I stayed there most of a year. Seasons changed, the place thawed. Throughout it, the soundtrack was my Zuby Nehty cassette, bought that first night. I was beginning to memorize the songs — not the words, but the sounds the words made. School ended, and I stayed. I worked as a translator at a Jewish travel agency that took foreigners on day trips to concentration camps.

One night, a few weeks before I left, I was hanging around the college and saw a flyer for a Zuby Nehty show. It was in Prague 6, the district where I lived, and it was only 100 crowns, about 4 dollars — cheap for me, but a legit expense in the former Communist bloc. V sobotu večer, it said, Saturday night, at 1900 in the evening, which would’ve been fine — except, I realized, after thinking about it nonstop for my entire day at work, that it was summertime. Saturday night, Shabbos didn’t end until after 10 pm. Or, as they said in my new life, 2200.

I decided to go anyway. I had nothing else going on, nothing that was more important than seeing Zuby Nehty, at any rate. I wouldn’t break Shabbos. I’d just stand outside. If they were anywhere near as loud as I thought they’d be, I would have no problem hearing.

The concert was farther away from the center of town than I lived. My dorm was in a field, next to an ancient monastery named Břevnovský Klášter. In the basement of the dorm was a weird nightclub, Klub Hvezda, which was an American Wild West-themed disco club. Late into the night you could hear the steady thump made for thumping bodies.

I set off in the opposite direction of my usual tram, past the Klaster. Streetlights were rare and frequently burnt out. The address was inside a complex of warehouses and industrial-type factories, the kind with pipes snaking up and down the walls. One of those buildings was Angel Bakery, which made the only kosher black bread in Prague. I’d been eating it nearly every meal since I got here. Setting the chemical plant where it was born felt like a weird closure, not warm at all, but an ending, a sad reminder that soon I would be back somewhere I could buy any kind of bread I wanted and none of it would taste so good.

I was early. The place looked like a community center or a Kiwanis club, homely and formal. It looked official, but way too official to host a raucous bacchanal. From inside the doors I heard the squeal of feedback. Something possessed me, I felt as though I could just walk in, right now was before the curtains were up, it wasn’t officially a concert yet. Maybe I could stroll in, say to the band Jo, jak se mame, můžu s vámi pověsit, and they’d say sure, why not, and I’d be with Zuby Nehty, watching the show from backstage, bypassing the matter of the hundred crowns.

No.

I don’t know what stopped me, the fact that it was still Shabbos or my own intrinsic shyness. But the fact was, I just took a seat by the wall, pulled my knit hat down a little farther on my forehead, and waited.

And listened.

People rolled in. They paid at a fold-up bridge table at the door and disappeared inside. Those people were so cool, beautiful sleek women and men with eternally prepubescent mustaches and fuzzy Weird Al perms, all wearing garish thrift store clothes, or maybe here they were fashionable, or maybe they didn’t care if they were fashionable at all, they were just what the people wanted to wear. I couldn’t tell if this was a teenage punk scene or an adult professional artist scene or something else. This was Prague, people didn’t have jobs.

At some point sitting there, I looked up at the walls. This was the weird part. Hanging from the rafters were tall rectangular tapestries, in equally bright colors. Each had, in Hebrew, the name of one of the Twelve Tribes, the names of Jacob’s sons in the Torah. Each tapestry depicted, or I think it depicted, that tribe’s animal and its profession, Dan as a seafarer, Issachar with an open tome. I didn’t understand how those banners had gotten there, and to this day I still don’t. There was, to my knowledge, only one central Jewish community in Prague, and all its branches were way on the other end of town — the official (Orthodox) Prazky Obec, and Bejt Praha, the liberal one, even any American or Israeli expats wouldn’t have been able to find their way here. Could they?

Suddenly I wasn’t the only one sitting against the wall. A kid a year or two younger than me, maybe seventeen. Pink hair, chubby face, a minor treasure chest of piercings.

Čauves!

Čau, co tu děláš?

Čekám na začátek koncertu. A ty?

Čekám na poslech kapely, samozřejmě.

Jenom na poslech?

You’re only waiting to listen? he’d said — to me and to a crowd of his friends who’d formed around us.

He’d caught me. I didn’t want to admit I wasn’t going in. I’d thought maybe I could drift off, the kids would enter the concert, I’d excuse myself, say I’m joining you in a minute, then stay outside. Already the audience sounds were swelling inside. The show was going to begin. You could feel it.

In my impromptu Czech, I explained — I’m Jewish, we don’t carry money on Sabbath, I really only wanted to listen, it’s the essence of the music anyway. They nodded, they listened. In Judaism we have a concept of kiddish Hashem and chilul Hashem, always wanting to appear holy, to never look like cheapskates or jerks in front of non-Jews, lest they think all Jews are like that. I feared I was manifesting the second. When I spoke, I tried desperately to be the first.

I finished.

Ty ses Američan? one of the friends asked — a lithe blonde, the sort of girl who’d be on the cover of a fashion catalogue in the States. Here, it was just another look.

My face flushed. I’d been caught.

No, I ventured.

No anglické nebo no české? said my original friend. “English no or Czech no?” In Czech, no was short for ano, which meant yes.

Ano, I said. Guilty as charged.

There was a murmuring, a few cools. The crank of a guitar inside. The band was starting. They went in.

Outside, through the doorway, I saw the sky, fresh and black, glittered with stars. It was a new week. Shabbos had left me, and my music had come.

I listened to the first song, the second, the third. Paní II, one of my favorites. From my little stoop, I danced sitting. So good to hear, like an old friend.

Someone materialized from inside. It was Pinkhead, my original contact. I motioned to him, go back inside. Don’t waste your show.

He shook his head. He held out his hand. In it were a handful of 10- and 20-crown coins. They had all pitched in.

I didn’t want to take it. In a few months I’d get a new afterschool job. I’d be making $15 an hour, more than these kids would make in a week, a month. I didn’t want to take their money. My Judaism was my crutch, my weakness. It wasn’t their fault or their responsibility.

What was the bigger chilul Hashem, to take it or to not?

To say, no, I don’t want your money, or to dance like a wild rabbit in a rabbit hole full of mysterious creatures? To say I still have no idea how I got here, but deep at heart, I’m a wild thing just like you?

I opened my palm. I followed him in.


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Photo by Al Case