Wind drove rain pellets through their thin coaks.
"Identification?" A young man confronted them; his arms crossed. " Your passport, please?"
The visitors looked quizzically at each other, digging into their pockets to retrieve wallets.
"Never argue with guns," said their glance, skimming over the holsters on the guards' belts that championed billy clubs and handcuffs. "Guilty until proven innocent," flashed the other's reassuring smile. "Never mind, business as usual."
The man scrutinized the names: Elias Poutnik from Bohuslava and Jesus de Santos of Santa Maria.
"Okay, over here. Open your bags," rasped a voice. Security men, built like tanks in blue jumpsuits, stopped them, pointing their metal detectors at the backpacks.
Shrugging nonchalantly, they unslung their bags, hefting them onto the rollicking table.
"Sorry, everyone gets checked. You know about Madrid last week. We can't tell you're not Palestinian terrorists. You could be terrorists."
The man flashed a torch inside their backpacks, pointing them aside to the guards. The guards grunted, brusquely sweeping over the pair with their wands. A long line of people waited patiently to be searched and frisked. Patted down by yet another pair of hands, a bystander opened the doors when the guard nodded approval. Finally, they were inside.
A double row of elaborately carved pews huddled in semi-darkness. Above the glow of exotic candlelabra, the tapestried walls glowed wth delicate stencil and gildwork..The younger man sighed in awe, surveying the splendor: the ornate laquerwork enhanced the balcony supports, black marble pillars with trailing goldleaf supported the baldachin, and soaring above his head, the tracery of stained glass in the cupola. The leaves of the gingko tree twined the walls. Intricate geometric patterns repeating stars encased in stars, spread across the walls in unending rhythm. Brought from Spain, the style of the Allahambra honored those persecuted by the Spanish Inquisition, finding refuge within the walls of Prague-- a wonder hidden in the dingy streets. Here, people had gathered for more than a thousand years--the oldest house of prayer.
The call to prayer intoned, focusing their attention eastwards as they recited words repeated over centuries since the time of wandering in the desert. Evening enveloped them with the soft words of the Hashkivenu,
"Cause us, our father, to lie down in peace, and rise again to enjoy life. Spread over us the covering of Your peace, guide us with your good counsel and save us for the sake of Your name..."
The speaker coughed, "Why do we celebrate, year after year, our departure from Egypt? Pesach is the celebration of freedom-- man's liberation from bondage; however bondage be defined. It is a turning from paganism to monotheism, the courage to break old habits and the faith to follow the Pillar of Light in the desert. Each year we ask four questions and drink four cups of wine. We fill an extra cup for Elijah to welcome him. Will he come? Rich and poor alike are commanded to celebrate it. We should open the windows to invite the poor for they suffer the bondage of poverty. We should search through city streets, bringing them in to share the joy of freedom and having a loving Father who leads his children into the Promised Land. We are commanded to remember the stranger in the land, because we were strangers in Egypt. What does it mean to be a stranger in a strange land? Do we welcome strangers?"
The speaker droned on. With the conclusion of the evening service, came the announcements: Seder, Monday at 6pm, please make your reservations.
The crowd gathered around the kiddush table while the wine was blessed. Volunteers were nominated for hamotzi, the blessing over the bread. It proved tough to tear, veritable hardtack for desert conditions, possibly lasting for forty years. Eventually the members of the crowd drifted off into separate directions.
"Satisfied?" the Elias asked his companion. "I believe this was built over the Altschul in 1894, but I'm not so good on details. The Nazis planned to use it as a Museum for the Extinct Race. Shall we go?"
Discussing weekend plans, they exited, agreeing to visit St Thomas. Palm Sunday is a big event, complete with processional led by a donkey.
Sunday morning, two tourists appeared before the massive portals of St Thomas, the Agustinian bastion in Malostrana. They watched the processional crossing St Charles Bridge, but caught in the crowd of tourists, they lagged behind and were late. The priest was already escounced in his chair and the beggar was sitting on the cold flags before the door when they arrived to peer through the grated windows. Timidly, de Santos pushed the door open. His camera bumped uncomfortably on his chest.
"Shhht," hissed a huge man with his finger on his lips.
A small man with rodentlike face scurried to the door, "Sorry, no tourists allowed," he pushed the door closed on their faces.
Stunned, the two stood there looking at the heavy wooden door. Elias glanced at his friend. "Shall I try? Slovak or Czech?" he asked and pushed the door open again.
Rodentface reappeared hissing in an unfriendly manner, "Mass is ongoing..." Elias countered in Czech, sticking his foot in the door and propelling de Santos through the narrow opening.
"So much for suffering the little children," he muttered under his breath as Big Bear waved them to the side. They remained in the shadows, watching the service. Occassionally the door cracked open, only to have Rodentface charge round to shove it shut on the curious tourist.
Mass over, the emerged. Elias looked at his friend thoughtfully, "You know what Moses said when he encountered the bush?"
"Hmm," replied de Santos.
"God was in this place, but I never knew it."
"Certainly, I must say, I felt rather unwelcome," Jesus replied.
"Shall we investigate the Seder?"
"Oh dear," Jesus said, "Now you know why the Messiah sits at the end of the world and weeps."