Tag Archives: Judaism

Travel Guide: Bratislava

Bratislava marked the end of my winter adventure through Switzerland, Austria, and Slovenia (with a brief stop in Italy). By the time I got there, I was used to the cold and the short daylight hours and I was also very glad to meet up with a friend the day after I arrived.

One of the important things I learned on this trip is that driving in Europe requires a vignette, basically a road pricing sticker that includes road tax and can vary based on roads driven and distance. The cost of a vignette is quite reasonable but the fine for not having one is rather steep. Turns out I’d been pretty lucky because I didn’t learn this until I’d been driving around for five days. After buying an online vignette for Slovakia, one of the few countries that allows this, I took back roads out of Maribor back into Austria. As I drove through a vineyard on a road with one and a half lanes, a border official waved and that was it. I do very much like this about Europe. Shortly afterwards, I stopped to look around.

The winding, twisting, narrow roads led into small towns with winery after winery, each clearly visible on the surrounding hills. Thinking of the lives that had been built here gave me pause.

Getting to Bratislava was simple but getting into Bratislava was a little more complicated and I marvelled at how people had navigated before technology. I was more than happy to park the car and leave it for the next two days. Getting around Bratislava on foot is very easy and there’s extensive public transportation.

I was staying across the street from Bratislava Castle, the grounds of which are open at all times. I walked through it that afternoon and again the following morning.

Bratislava Castle was first built in the ninth century but the current version was rebuilt beginning in the 1950s. Today, there are museums that are open to the public, as well. I was more interested in the garden . . .

. . . and the churches and other buildings located just down the hill. There were real signs of life and ideas here, which I always enjoy seeing.

I took a quick walk through town to get my bearings, surprised at how very few people were around. I was also surprised at the number of hipster establishments that didn’t seem to match the atmosphere. The streets were really quiet and the sky, no longer the bright blue of Slovenia, gave the city a feel of being tucked into winter. Although I couldn’t tell you why, I got the impression that Bratislava could be a very stark place and it did not feel like anywhere I’d been before.

The UFO bridge certainly added to that impression.

But then I stepped inside a brewery (and then another one . . . and then another two the next day) and I found all the people. They were laughing and talking and joking and almost no one was looking at their phones. This was very, very different from what I see in Asia and I felt suddenly warmer for being around people who were interacting with each other and the space around them.

The following day was one of walking and wandering. I met up with a friend and it was great to have the company and to share this new experience. We walked through the old town and quarters of grand buildings . . .

. . . through the city to visit the Blue Church . . .

. . . and took a short walk from the Blue Church to the site of Bratislava’s only remaining synagogue.

Earlier that day, right next to St. Martin’s Cathedral in the old town, we’d seen an exhibit on the street about the synagogue of Bratislava that, despite protests by the community, had been torn down in the 1960s to build the UFO bridge. Bratislava has a long and extensive Jewish history and there were historical markers about it around the city, including a museum dedicated to Jewish culture.

We also walked across the Danube River . . .

. . . and found ourselves in a park that must have been a relic of Bratislava’s communist history. Imagine the stories these benches and trees could tell! Or the last people to sit here. Who are they? Where are they?

Just across the street from the Presidential Palace, we saw another relic of communism – a fountain that had once clearly been a showpiece but was also in disrepair.

Another notable element of walking around Bratislava was the graffiti tagging everywhere. I felt a real lack of reverence and desire to be heard and I liked that attitude very much. Things that have been needn’t always be. And Bratislava was a little bit of everything.

The next morning, it was time to go but I really wasn’t ready to leave just yet. Instead, the last day having a car made it possible to visit Devín Castle, a stone castle located 10km from Bratislava. It was built in the thirteenth century and was then destroyed by Napoleon’s army in the early 1800s. The sun had come out again but the wind was really strong. It was easy to see why this castle had been built up on a windy hill at the confluence of the Danube and Morava rivers.

Thanks to a photo exhibition, I learned that the Iron Curtain had run directly in front of the castle to separate Bratislava from Austria across the river. I knew that the Velvet Revolution, the history of which Bratislava is very proud, had toppled communism here but I didn’t know that the Iron Curtain was a physical structure. In school, we’d talked about it as a concept, not as something tangible. Learning about that was really powerful and reminded me again of how much I don’t know.

After the cold wind, the obvious choice was to stop for some hot wine once more before the last part of the journey, which would again follow Austrian wine roads because they’re so much prettier than the highway.

And then all too soon, the car was dropped off and I had far too much time to kill at the airport. As is my habit, I drank a hot chocolate and reflected on the roads travelled. I had seen parts of the world that I’d never really imagined seeing and I honestly felt the growth in myself as a person. When I moved to Malaysia in 2014, I never would have known how to go about a trip like this. And here I was with all clothing in my pack worn twice like it was nothing. It has been a long road to get to this point and that I cannot forget.

Sometimes the world feels right to me and over the last few weeks it had. There is solace in that feeling. There is solace in knowing there are places out there where the world feels okay. Thank you, world.

A Yom Kippur Reflection

The year has turned and
so far
it looks a lot like this one.
The year has turned and
I want a
to open my arms and send out a

To you.
Whoever you are.
Wherever you are.
I wish you
in the year ahead.
in your mind and in your
whether you find it in
mountains or
seas or
a cup of coffee or
a hug from a friend.

I wish you
today. Right now.
Tomorrow is a new day.
An unknown
Wake with this

And wake well.
Live in peace.
Live well.


Rebecca Michelle

Antisemitism Among the Internationally Minded

“How much is a taxi to the airport? I have to pay it myself. My school doesn’t give me a per diem.”
“Oh that’s too bad. Why not?”
“It’s a Jewish school so they’re stingy.”
“Well that’s how they make all their money.”

And then we made eye contact and she looked away.

My only contribution to this conversation was the interjection, “Hey!”. I’m not sure whether it was enough. I’m never sure.

I’ve spent the last three days at an IB professional development workshop for the DP Psychology course that I teach. People came from all over – Singapore, Indonesia, China, Nepal, India, New Zealand, Hong Kong, and Abu Dhabi were represented among 24 psychology teachers. And that’s just where they teach now; where they’re from is a completely different list.

Context is important here. What I like most about the IB, and what gives me legs to stand on when discussing controversial topics, is its mission:

The International Baccalaureate aims to develop inquiring, knowledgeable and caring young people who help to create a better and more peaceful world through intercultural understanding and respect. . . .
These programmes encourage students across the world to become active, compassionate and lifelong learners who understand that other people, with their differences, can also be right. (emphasis added)

To this end, the IB highlights international-mindedness throughout its programs, though the way this actually looks is heavily discussed and debated. The point, however, is that this is who we’re supposed to be as an IB community. We’re supposed to be internationally minded, emphasize intercultural understanding and respect, and accept difference.

I’ve seen antisemitism all over the world and it no longer surprises me. But I was taken aback to see it in a woman about my age, also a traveler, who teaches a psychology course that includes a sociocultural unit. She’s obviously frustrated at having to pay for what was likely a required workshop, so I’m not questioning that. Frustration is why she made the claim – we blame others when things that we don’t like happen to us. My question is why the claim was antisemitic in the first place.

Since she teaches at a Jewish school, she knows more than nothing about Judaism and she knows Jewish people. She likely has Jewish friends, even if they’re friends just at work. This means that I can’t use ignorance as an explanation, which is usually the excuse that I give people. Ignorance is lack of knowledge or lack of information and that’s clearly not the case.

As a teacher of psychology, she is familiar with Henri Tajfel’s work on social identity theory, which, ironically enough, stems from his experiences of persecution during the Holocaust. In short, we compare ourselves to others and categorize ourselves into groups in order to boost our self-esteem. “We” are the in-group and “they” are the out-group. “They” are this and “we” are not. “We” do this and “they” do not. Etc.

Much of our group categorization is unconscious. We are not necessarily aware when this happens because the brain naturally categorizes things in order to simplify and streamline our thinking. As a teacher of psychology, she knows about cognitive biases, which are mental shortcuts that the brain uses to make sense of the world around us. We’d never be able to make any sort of decision if the brain first had to process every possible option.

Stereotypes are also linked to implicit associations, generalizations that the brain makes based on patterns. Again, we don’t realize this is happening. Harvard University’s Implicit Association Test, which I do with my students, can be enlightening. Sometimes these associations, or biases, have little impact on our interactions with others but sometimes they can be quite significant. As I discuss with my students, having implicit biases is normal. Checking yourself when you come to a snap judgement is what it means to be mindful before acting.

To summarize, it is troubling to me that a psychology teacher in a global program with a mission to value international-mindedness, intercultural understanding and respect, and acceptance of difference made an antisemitic comment. I don’t have an explanation for this teacher. She should know and teach everything I’ve just described. And if she hasn’t been doing that, we just spent three days discussing it. She should understand this in her own life and adjust accordingly. And maybe she will.

So why the antisemitic comment? The nagging voice in my head says that some people are just antisemitic. Some people are just racist, biased, discriminatory, prejudicial, xenophobic even when they know better. Sometimes this comes from fear or uncertainty. Sometimes this comes from prior negative experience. (As one of my friends would say, “Sounds like textbook human.”)

Haven’t an explanation doesn’t rectify or excuse the behavior, but perhaps it can suggest ways that allow us to respond constructively. And perhaps, since this woman didn’t check herself but was ultimately checked, this particular comment can be a learning experience.

It is heartening that no one else in the room engaged with her comment at all. The conversation moved on immediately, which is a perfectly appropriate response once someone speaks out and the other backs down. It seems plausible that most people in the room recognized the bias, prejudice, and stereotype behind this comment and knew it to be wrong. In light of that, maybe we’re doing okay at building a better, more peaceful world.

But in light of that, we cannot pretend the work is over.

Courage is the price that life exacts for granting peace. – Amelia Earhart

An olive tree in Neot Kedumim, Israel – March 2017