Sunday, June 13, 2010

Growing Up Jewish in South Czechoslovakia -- In Memory of June 13th

Franz Kafka's father, Hermann Kafka, had escaped a poor Jewish upbringing in the town of Wossek, about fifty miles southwest of Prague, and had made a name for himself with his successful store. He had been thoroughly assimilated, registering as a Czech national and giving his children German, not Jewish names, and looked askance at his son's fascination with what he considered "backward" and something to be discarded without a second thought. Franz brings this up for a lengthy discussion in the "Letter to His Father," complaining that what was left over of Judaism after the assimilation was an "insufficient scrap...a mere nothing, a joke—not even a joke," and that "precisely the getting rid of it seemed to me to be the devoutest action."

This "insufficient scrap" had consisted of attending temple services four times a year with his father as a child ("I don't think I was ever again so bored, except later at dancing lessons") , the first Seder meal, which degenerated into "a farce," and of course his bar mitzvah, held on June 13, 1896. The almost 13-year old boy experienced much nerve-wracking anticipation, but it turned out to be simply a matter of memorizing a couple of speeches and then a party afterward. However, on his mother's side there was a tradition of strength, learning, and discipline. "In Hebrew my name is Amschel, like my mother's maternal grandfather," who was "a very pious and learned man." There was also his mother's great-grandfather, even more learned and "held in equal honor by Jews and Christians.

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