Sidra Noach, a novel about Prague’s Jewish community in the time of floods

David Jan Novotný: ´Sidra Noach´

In the summer of the 2002, Prague was hit by one of the worst floods in the city’s history. The swollen Vltava inundated parts of the historic centre, including the Jewish quarter, which had to be evacuated. This dramatic scene is the setting for the new Czech novel Sidra Noach by David Jan Novotný. The name comes from the weekly readings from the scripture. As it happened, the story of Noah was read in the synagogue just as the waters began to recede.

David Jan Novotný, photo:
In more than a thousand years of its history, Prague’s Jewish community has been stricken with many calamities and disasters, both natural and man-made. Prague Jews faced pogroms, expulsions and total annihilation, while the ghetto has been flooded and destroyed by fires. The terrible floods of 2002 were the inspiration for a new novel, Sidra Noach by David Jan Novotný.

“It was very simple because I have survived many floods – on the Orlice and Labe rivers, and in 1997, there were big floods in Moravia, if you remember. That inspired me because I asked myself, ‘what is worse – disasters and tragedies caused by nature, or those brought about by people?’ You can answer for yourself.

“Water has not memory, it knows no anger. It’s H2O and nothing else, just like earthquakes, volcanoes, and so on. But tragedies caused by human beings are worse; water does not make distinctions between you and me, between black people and Jews, Catholics and Protestants.”

The novel Sidra Noach tells the story of 10 men in Prague in the summer of 2002 who are in one way or another affected by the floods. They all have to leave their places in the Old Town, and find themselves in a temporary refuge in Vinohrady, in a higher part of the city.

“It is also a parable; I have lived in Prague’s Old Town, in the Jewish Town, for decades now, and I went through the floods – we all had to move onto the hill to the Vinohrady neighbourhood. That was one of the themes – how it all happened. We all felt like we were on Noah’s Ark, because we survived the floods there. When we came back, the Old Town was damaged, and I began thinking about the story, figuring out the plot and so on.”

One of the 10 main characters is an elderly man named Avi Kolmann. He lives in an apartment overlooking the Old Jewish cemetery which he must leave when the whole area is evacuated. But it is not the first time he has had to leave in haste.

“Avi Kolman glanced at his watch, put the kettle on for coffee, and began meticulously packing. It was the third time in his life that he packed so early in the morning. In 1938, he managed, thanks to his dad, to get out of the country in time, but not far enough. National socialism caught up with him, his mother, father and brother in Hungary from where they went straight to the camps in Poland. But he was lucky and survived, as the only one.

“In 1968, he also managed to get out of the country in time. He was fleeing just like his father once had, with his wife and two sons, but this time somewhere far, far away, out of reach of International Socialism. This time around they all survived. He didn’t think that fleeing his home because of the floods, and only to another neighbourhood, Vinohrady, and on his own, was that bad.”

The men who end up sharing a place during the floods come from all walks of life. Some are old, some are young; some have lived in Prague all their lives while others spent part of their lives abroad. Author David Jan Novotný says none of them are based on real individuals, although he did use certain features of people he knows.

“For example, you know someone who is boring but he has a great mind. You can take some character features from two or three people, for instance, and create a composite character. It’s the same like in photography – you create a new image from different parts. And I work like that – from various features I build a new character. That helps a lot because I cannot describe all the people I know.”

Floods in Prague in 2002
The two totalitarian regimes of the 20th century left deeply tragic marks on Prague’s Jewish life. The community was nearly destroyed by the Nazis, and when the Communists took over just three years after the end of the war, many people didn’t want to draw attention to their Jewishness, and assimilated.

The novel Sidra Noach touches on an interesting phenomenon that appeared after the fall of communism: many young people wanted to reclaim their heritage. But according to the Jewish law, or Halacha, only children of a Jewish mother are considered Jewish; everyone else has to convert.

“It’s a specific problem here in the Czech lands. When people from Israel or the United States come to the synagogue here, they realize that when men are called up to read from the Torah, I’d say maybe four or five out of seven are called ‘Ben Abraham’. You know what that means – they are giurniks, or converts. They made the conversion because their fathers were Jewish but not their mothers.”

Mr Novotný says many people from abroad have no idea why there are so many Czechs who converted to Judaism. He included the issue of children of Jewish father and gentile mother in his book because it personally concerns him.

“In the past 60 years, the society was mixed. Many Jewish men intermarried, and after 1989, many young people began to search for their roots, and made the conversion. So it’s very specific to the Czech Republic, and people from the US don’t really understand what’s going on. It’s very difficult to explain this problem to them.

“For me, converting would be a double problem. But you know, after 37 years, I’m not going to leave my Catholic wife. I’m therefore not Jewish according to the Halacha. But in my religion, I’m Jewish. I’m of Mosaic religion.”

The Old Jewish cemetery in Prague
Those temporarily displaced in the novel are all Czech – with one exception. A Belorussian math teacher, Avram Brodski, moved in Prague in the 1990s with his sister, Tamara. Back in Belarus, the character would be confronted with anti-Semitism. But in Prague, it’s his Russian accent that provokes attention.

“In Prague, Avram Brodski did not have too many problems with where he was from and with the way he talked. But sometimes someone did let him know what they thought of him because of his accent. Back home in Belarus, they would from time to time call him a miserable Jew. Here, he would sometimes be called a miserable Russian. He did mind the former; he could not care less about the latter. He was not miserable and he wasn’t Russian, so what.

“His sister Tamara dealt with it in her own way. When she came to Prague three years ago, and started speaking Czech with her Russian accent, she was trying to convince everyone she did not come from a Russian-speaking country, but from the Balkans. No one fell for it. The southern Slavic accent is different and everybody can tell. They also asked, ‘Who would call a girl Tamara in the Balkans?’ No one. Because it’s a Russian name.”

Unlike Jewish communities in Berlin and Vienna, Prague did not experience a massive influx of Jewish people from the former Soviet Union. But David Jan Novotný says some of his friends have had the same experiences.

“A couple of years ago, I heard from a Jewish actress who comes from Russia, ‘in Moscow, they called me bloody Jew. Now they call me bloody Russian. And I smile, because I’m not Russian, I’m Jewish’. It’s funny: I know many people from the former Soviet Union, Russia, Belarus, and so on. They live here, they work here and study here. They first wanted to go to Israel, but they stopped in Prague.”

Mr Novotný says that those who stayed here like it because there, many people from Russia are not really Jewish, they just have Israeli passports. They are also afraid of terrorist attacks.

“They live in Prague, I have a couple of friends who speak with the funny Russian accent, and I think that they are happier that in Belarus or Russia, or Slovakia by the way.”

Sidra Noach is like a diary of events that ten men experienced during that one week in 2002 when flooding hit Prague. There are not many female characters in the book; the life of Prague’s the Jewish community is recounted almost exclusively through the eyes of men. David Jan Novotný says he could not really help that.

“You know, it was a problem for me because I have a tough time writing female characters. I don’t really understand the woman’s soul. It’s a mystery I can only describe superficially. I know nothing about it. I only know one woman, my wife of nearly 40 years, and my sisters. But I’m not going to write about them.

“But there was also not much space for women – the book is about the ten men, the minyan – the quorum of men needed to pray on Shabbat.”

Along with a lack of the female factor comes, in my opinion, a lack of realism of sorts. Some of the characters are very realistic, and the author has managed, to a great extent, to steer clear of the usual clichés found in Jewish-themed books. The humour is very original and personal dealings of the men are far away from the typical genre images. But there is no villain. In fact, all the main characters, different as they are, are genuinely good people.

“Maybe it looks unrealistic. When I meet the people in the synagogue, some of the may have done something bad. But I don’t make any research what they’ve done. Everybody sins. You can bet that if I write about the people two or five years after the floods, they will be different. But back then, they were in Noah’s Ark, and they survived. They lived in peace at that moment. They might have changed later, I don’t know.”

In Sidra Noach, the Ark transforms into an apartment in a building in Vinohrady that was confiscated from a Jewish family. But Rudolf Reich, another of the ten men, got it back after the fall of communism. He wants to set up a kosher guest house in it but has to deal with tenants who were given flats in the building during communism, and refuse to move out. One of them is a former officer of the communist army, a man called Jirásek. At one point, Rudolf Reich comes to his wife Milena, a nurse, with a plan.

“‘It looks like a war is going on. Patients are sleeping in the halls, half of them were brought in without documentation, it’s a mess,’ sighed Milena Reichová. ‘And some of them have nowhere to go after they are released.’ ‘Well we can put up some of them downstairs in Jirásek’s place.’ ‘Oh, please, drop it.’ ‘Why should I drop it? That idiot lives there on his own, so what?’ Rudolf Reich shrugged his shoulders. ‘If we move in his comrades….’ ‘Leave that, Rudi.’ ‘Look, that dimwit is not at home anyway. He’s at his cottage outside of Prague, so what the heck?’ Rudolf Reich sat back with his hands behind his head, and looked at the ceiling. He was imagining his wife, a nurse, lining up her patients who were to be released, asking them which of them was a communist with nowhere to go. When some of them came forward, she’d tell them she had a place for them. And the released comrades, cured of their ailments but not of communism, then, together with the former artillery man Jirásek, set up a revolutionary cell on the first floor of his building. One deluge replaces another.”

On Friday night, David Jan Novotný goes to the Old New Synagogue. On Saturdays, for the Shabbat service, he walks a bit further away, to the Jerusalem Synagogue in the New Town. There, on the first Shabbat after the floods, all the various congregations came together to listen to the weekly Torah portion. As it happened, the portion, or Haftorah, that was read on that particular day was the story of Noah and his ark.

“It was the same Haftorah like in the novel, I can show it to you in the prayer book. It was a big surprise for me. I said to myself, that can’t be just so simple, maybe it’s sign. I don’t know, I cannot explain it myself. But it’s true.”