Directing a virtual JCC, one woman is making Jewish Prague the envy of its neighbors
PRAGUE — In the spring of 2020, Pavlina Sulcova had scarcely settled into her new job as director of a fledgling JCC in Prague when the coronavirus pandemic hit, sending her would-be members into enforced lockdown and putting plans for a brick-and-mortar community center on hold.
Negotiations for a grand space in a classic, 18th-century building in the center of Prague’s Old Town were at an advanced stage, but Sulcova’s vision of a community center complete with a garden, atrium, and kosher Israeli restaurant was getting farther and farther away as lockdowns were extended.
Sulcova and the private Israeli and Czech backers propelling the JCC project had hoped to bring the city’s small Jewish community of 7,000 together in a cultural space beyond denominational Judaism. They also hoped to cater to an Israeli expat community with few other local options.
Thinking on her feet, Sulcova decided to take activities virtual — sort of.
To support up local Jews who were forced to celebrate the Passover Seder alone at home, Sulcova released an illustrated children’s book that also functioned as a Haggadah. Alongside the Czech-language book, she also provided an array of entertaining online educational programming.
The book, entitled “Are We There Yet Moses?” was such a success — it ended up winning a Most Beautiful Czech Books of 2021 award — that an accompanying board game about the Israelites’ 40 years wandering the desert followed. The book sold out its initial run of 1,000 copies and Jewish communities in neighboring Hungary, Poland and Slovakia want to see it translated.
Last month saw the release of the book’s sequel, “Here We Are, Moses,” a guide to modern-day Israel.
Other JCC programming coordinated by Sulcova under her brand Judaism Fun Again includes a podcast on Bible study and a series of short kids’ videos on Jewish holidays. The World Jewish Congress and Joint Distribution Committee, in addition to the Czech Culture Ministry, provide project-based funding, and Sulcova also relies on crowdfunding to help stay afloat.
Even so, she told The Times of Israel from her homey closet-sized office in the Prague Creative Center that serves as her one-woman base of operations, surviving on a shoestring budget is a minor miracle.
“Our creative partners get paid, but they’re definitely not in this for the money,” Sulcova said. “It’s more of a labor of love and a product of networking with people who care about our mission.”
The 44-year-old Sulcova lived in Israel for 10 years, where she worked in cultural programming for the Czech Embassy. Upon her return to the Czech Republic, she oversaw the Prague Quadrennial of Performance Design and Space.
Sulcova recently returned to the Jewish state, bringing her longtime collaborator, illustrator David Kalika, on his maiden voyage there, to research and take photographs for their second book, “Here We Are, Moses.” The pair spoke to The Times of Israel via telephone last month, just ahead of the book’s release. The following interview has been edited.
The Times of Israel: So, how did you get the idea for this newest book?
Pavlina Sulcova: It’s a sort of sequel. We started with “Are We There Yet Moses” and the game, and we were digging more into the whole topic of the Exodus from Egypt and what happened there and how the Jews complained, and we felt like we wanted to explore a bit more. At the same time, we also wanted to do something on contemporary Israel. So we did our other projects, and this idea didn’t go away. I was also approached by the Israeli ambassador here because she liked the first book, and she said, you should do a book about Israel. And we actually got funding for it, so we started working on it and we went to Israel. I’d been there before, but it was David’s first time, so it was a nice combination seeing the reactions and new experiences of someone being in Israel for the first time.
And what’s the book about, exactly?
Sulcova: It’s a comic guide to the Promised Land even for the completely ignorant.
We used the same characters from the previous book, and they’re going to Israel for a holiday. So that’s the basic plot, but we also incorporated Moses into it, because we learned from the previous book that we need someone to ask the questions, and then we need a wise figure to answer them. And because you always have this “Israel Startup Nation,” I felt like Moses could travel in time thanks to some Israeli innovation, and he would finally see the Holy Land, because he hadn’t seen it before.
They see kibbutzim, Caesarea, the Kinneret [Sea of Galilee], the Golan Heights, all the bunkers and tanks. There are all kinds of situations, and you also learn something about the places — you learn about the history of kibbutzim, and wars in the Golan Heights, and these kinds of things. So it’s a mix of fun encounters through travel in Israel, while also adding factual information in an entertaining way. And then they go visit the Dead Sea, and Masada, and Jerusalem, so it’s a mix of places — but it’s not really a guidebook, it’s more like an entertaining story, and you’ll also learn something.
How was your trip to Israel?
David Kalika: Israel is a beautiful, colorful, problematic country. I’m a typical Czech, because in Czech nobody knows anything about Israel, but everybody loves it.
Sulcova: It’s true, Czech Republic is supposed to be the most friendly country toward Israel.
Kalika: And if I’m supposed to say something that I know about a place — like for France, I’d say Eiffel Tower, then for Israel it would be Jesus Christ, the Western Wall, and from the news, videos of military attacks, and that’s all. So everything was a big surprise. Pavlina told me that Israeli Jews aren’t exactly like the Jews from Prague. About lots of things she told me, “You will see, you will see.” I got there, and I was like, “What the hell?” [Laughing.] I saw.
Sulcova: He knew a bit before we went, obviously, but also we agreed that he wouldn’t prepare for the trip. It was sort of an experiment because I wanted to take advantage of the fact that he’d never been there, so it was really like a true exposure and first-time reaction.
Kalika: Many of the stories in the book come from my real experience.
Did anything in particular surprise you when you got to Israel?
Kalika: The first surprise was in my city, when we got to the airport for our flight to Israel, and I saw an armored military car parked near the boarding gate, and I was like, “What?!”
Sulcova: They also did a security interview for everybody at the gate, and they sometimes ask you funny questions like how many candles do you light for Hanukkah. But the funny thing is that David and I actually did a Hanukkah video last year, so it was like a review, and we were answering according to the video, and we were laughing about how the video was also useful to help people get through security with El Al.
David, did you get the hours-long security check some visitors complain about when entering Israel?
Sulcova: They were actually nice to him. They were kind of not nice to me, and I was traveling with an Israeli passport. They gave me some guilt for having the passport and not living there, so I had a hard time and for him they were nice.
Kalika: They asked me how many languages I know, and my answer was… one? And they were like, “Really? Are you sure? Not German, not Spanish? And how many passports do you have? Only one?” And I was like, “Yeah, I’m from the Czech Republic, I’m sorry, only one.”
Sulcova: In our Israeli circles we joke about having more passports than pairs of Adidas.
And what was your experience like once you were inside the country?
Kalika: Israel is a tiny country, but so different from city to city, from kilometer to kilometer. You have Tel Aviv, which is like a small Manhattan, Jerusalem is like a historic movie, the Golan Heights is like a science fiction setting. But what was interesting for me is that I never felt in any danger, I always felt safe.
Sulcova: It’s true, because we traveled a lot, and on the first day we were in Tel Aviv, so it was like coffee places, and the beach, and Berlin-style bars and stuff. And then we went to Jerusalem and it’s just, the different kinds of people you meet. We also did a trip up north and one down south, and I just remember, we were coming back from a kibbutz in the north back to Tel Aviv, and it was kind of like a culture shock, coming from the Galilee and quiet, and nature, coming back south past Herzliya to all this high-tech. It’s a big change. It somehow even felt a little unpleasant, in a way. So it’s also a way to look at it, how diverse the atmosphere in the country is.
Could you tell us a little bit about the book’s message?
Sulcova: Despite the fact that Israel has many sympathizers and that people like the country, many people are confused about the conflict, and wars, and it’s so complicated. The idea was to bring it closer to people — to kids, to make it entertaining for them, but also to adults, to learn a bit in a fun way.
And also, when I was in Israel I was working at the Czech Embassy, and I’d see tourists and sometimes I’d travel with delegations, and they often had very little knowledge of Israel, but they were interested. So with the book, we wanted to present the country from our perspective. Israel is an interesting and complicated country with so many sides, and as a topic it can get pretty heavy — there’s no such thing as a funny book about Israel in Czech. And we did want to show the humor.
There are so many heavy books about Israeli history, and politics, and conflict. This was just like, let’s take a trip and see what it has, including birdwatching, and the kibbutz movement, or all these connections that you sometimes don’t realize in Europe, like all the Christian sites as well, like the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and all the “Life of Brian” moments. These were also inspirations for us — we saw “Life of Brian” recently, and “The Simpsons” episode where they went to Israel, so these inspired us to deal with Israel in a funny way.
Kalika: The book has a few layers. First, it’s a typical children’s story, on another level it’s a guidebook, and on another level, it’s a funny book about a complicated topic. We also have things in the book that cater to people with different levels of familiarity with Israel — for example, there are some “inside jokes” for those who have spent time in Israel.
Your last book was a Passover Haggadah that can be used at the Seder. Is this sequel geared towards any community or demographic in particular?
Sulcova: I think this book is for a wider audience. The Haggadah was also well-received by non-Jewish readers because it was telling the general story of the Exodus and also came with Seder instructions. So I’d say the primary audience for this is Jewish, but it isn’t limited to them — like anyone who likes comics, who likes to travel, who is interested in Israel, there are no limits to who can read this.