Monday, July 2, 2007


Miriam and I arrived in Berlin around mid-day. The ride there was easy—we stopped in Hannover to change trains. She mostly slept; I mostly wrote and watched the scenery. When we got there, Ingrid, Miriam’s sister’s godmother, who acts as an aunt or a second mother, met us and gave us the key to her apartment. We made our way to the place, in south-east Berlin, in an area that is a bit dicey—as Ingrid described it, it is not a slum, but could become one at some point. Ingrid lives on the second floor of an apartment building that has seen better days—the paint is peeling a bit, the floors are worn. Her apartment is directly above a little Turkish lunch place from which Miriam and I got more Turkish pizzas. Several men sat around tables outside and from inside Ingrid’s apartment, we could hear them talking all day and into the night. They were the one with no visible means of support. Ingrid’s apartment, in contrast to the stairs, was bright, open, and clean. One room serves as a living room/dining room; the other as a bedroom/office. Both are large and airy. In addition to the shelves of books, there were interesting pictures on the walls, rocks of various kinds, small and interesting knick-knacks. Even after several days, new things kept catching my attention.
Miriam and I shared her bedroom; she slept on the couch one night and at her partner’s house the other two nights. She and Gerhard have been together for a quarter of a century. They lived together for fourteen years, then she decided she needed her own place and moved out. They spend weekends together and are obviously quite devoted to each other—they just don’t live together.
Ingrid is small, with short, straight iron-gray hair and small, round glasses. She smokes a bit, but was very, very considerate to do so outside, or with the smoke blowing away from others. Everything she does is with gusto and she takes pleasure from everything, large or small. It is all “schoen.” She is apparently less neat than her mother, but from my sloppy American perspective, she was always cleaning—tidying the dishes, wiping non-existent dust from a container, noticing a scrap of shmutz on the floor and immediately wiping it away. It didn’t take very long, but it was a level of noticing/action that was awesome to behold.
Despite feeling really crummy, Miriam wanted to take me off to the Neue Synagogue. So off we went. It is an tremendously impressive building—its reconstructed dome stands out over the city. But it is protected by policemen day and night, as is the Orthodox shul down the road. Bags are security-checked when entering. Made me feel very uncomfortable. We wandered around a good deal looking for Jewish Berlin and every place we wandered was closed or under construction. Finally, we found a place for a cup of coffee and sat down. We had been hearing different languages all day, but it was there that I heard “ma nishma?” (how’s it going?)—Israelis meeting in Berlin.
That evening was very tired—we ate at home and Miriam told Ingrid of her pregnancy. Such pleasure!
Next day—Friday—we spent in Ingrid’s car criss-crossing Berlin, much of which was under construction. St. Hedwig’s church; Humboldt University, Pergamon Musuem. Monuments don’t tell the story of a city though. Nevertheless—rough impressions.
In the square in front of Humboldt University (yeah, I keep thinking redwoods, too), a square of glass about two feet by three is inset in the bricks. Look into the glass and there is a room with plain white bookshelves, all empty. It was hear that the Nazis burned books.
There is a memorial to all the war dead. It is an empty room with a mother holding her dead son and weeping.
The memorial to the Jewish dead just pissed me off, at least as a memorial. I’ve heard about it—rows of pillars of different heights on ground that undulates down. It is very moving to walk through—a very isolating and meditative place. However there is NOTHING that says Jewish, Holocaust, or anything else. It is one of those pieces of abstraction that lose all meaning. I’m sorry, but I simply don’t believe there are universal symbols that work for all human beings and trying to create that is arrogant. Bah, humbug!
The Permagon Museum is, like the British Museum, a place that holds some amazing artifacts from Babylonia and Greece. A complete altar with fantastic carvings of gods and goddesses. Some really, really cool mosaics. I don’t think I had really appreciated how very small are the pieces that make up mosaics.
The Permagon Museum also had the entire entryway to Nebuchadnezzar’s city (some of it reconstructed). Lions everywhere, as well many other animals. So the lions represent Ishtar, who is a might and powerful goddess. The other animals are Marduk, a god who is one of those combination beasts: scorpion, snake, and I can’t recall what all else. I knew that Esther was Ishtar and Mordecai was Marduk, but I hadn’t realized just how powerful the Babylonian gods were and so how much of an “up yours!” the Purim story was toward the Babylonians. Yes, Dave, I know you think the ending is bloody, but come on! With heroes like these guys, how can you not like it?
Friday night, after some backing and forthing, I took Ingrid up on her offer to take me to services. It was so wonderful, both to be among other Jews in a country that felt so free of Jews, where I felt like such an oddity. To hear the Hebrew, be able to follow it. My Hebrew is quite good, so I could follow the words despite the German-accented Hebrew, catch on to the unfamiliar melodies, and make my way from page to page without a lot of difficulty. (This brings home how important a good Jewish education is—had I been less familiar, it would have been tough sledding. Reform Jews have an obligation to teach more, simply to remain part of the whole Jewish community!) I really missed my community, missed my family, and at the same time, felt more at home, more understood, than I had since I had left California. Following the service, I took Ingrid out to Kadima, the Jewish style restaurant next to the synagogue. There was a long table next to ours filled with Jews from the service. After some time, I realized that they were lesbians—very much reminded me of the people I knew from the Bay Area, right down to the baby with two mothers. It was then that I realized that “egalitarian” in Germany was code for “gay and lesbian.” Well, it turned out to be more complicated than that, but I found that out the next day.
Saturday, Ingrid went off to a Social Democrat convention, Miriam stayed in bed (a very good thing, indeed!), and I went off to brave Berlin all by myself. The day was a complete success—which is to say, I didn’t get lost and accomplished everything I tried to do.
I made it to services in good time. The congregation was clearly for Germans, but welcomed English-speakers, so one of the choices for prayerbook was Sim Shalom, my personal favorite, and the Chumash was “Etz Chaim,” also my favorite. All good, and then I was given an aliyah, which was a nice honor. The Torah reading was great—I got lost in following the portion and it was Balak, the story of how Bilaam blessed the Jews, instead of cursing them (his words are used to open the service: Mah Tovu). It was also during the Torah reading that I realized how distinctive the American accent is—I knew immediately which people were Americans and was right (one a guy from the East Coast, the other a woman from St. Louis). The service was all the sweeter because a couple had been married the previous week and there was a special blessing in their honor.
Following the service, there was a full Kiddush lunch, complete with the seven marriage blessings for the couple married the previous week. I talked with the Americans a bit (there were actually four at the service—a college student entering his junior year at Brandeis who was doing an internship in business, the woman from St. Louis who taught singing to elementary school students and had the most nasal, grating voice I have ever heard—and no, I don’t understand how those facts go together—and whose Hebrew name means “dawn star” and she took it because it came to her in a dream, and the guy from DC, who taught music as well—played lots of instruments and had supported himself as a one-man band, and was in Germany to learn German—it’s what he does with his summers.
At the end of the Kiddush, the DC guy asked if he could tag along to the Jewish Museum with me—fine. And the young couple and friends of theirs from Amsterdam were heading that way and asked if we wanted to tag along. The Amsterdam couple, who are getting married later this summer, turned out to be very interesting. She is getting her master’s in cultural anthropology (her thesis is on Jews in New York and opinions about Israel. Turns out that within the community there is diversity, but there is pressure to present a united front to the non-Jewish world. Uh, and in what way is this news? There are pretty interesting questions this raises—why would that be the case? How does dominant society’s reaction to Israel affect how Jews present their opinion? How does that case compare to other issues in the Jewish community? How about other differences historically?). She thought it was pretty amazing that I was a grad student at Berkeley. But most interesting is that in fall of ’08, she’ll be a rabbinic student at UJ in Los Angeles. So I got her email and will definitely be in touch.
As we walked, I talked to the recent bride, who told me about the community. Turns out that this is the only egalitarian synagogue in Berlin. In all others, men and women sit separately. This one is the only one with a woman rabbi, which is somewhat controversial. And it is a synagogue for the unconventional, hence the gays and lesbians, but also a fair sprinkling of converts, as well as many Russians, and Americans visiting or living in Berlin. The rabbi trained at JTS in New York, so there is a reason much of the service was familiar. So what I got was not precisely German Judaism. Am I sorry? Not really. I needed something familiar at that point in the trip and was glad to get it.
The DC guy and I continued on the route to the Jewish Museum. At checkpoint Charlie, he became engrossed in reading the history of Berlin in the Cold War. I was less engaged, so we parted. Impressions of the Jewish Museum
Really interesting medieval to pre-Modern period, complete with representations of the kind of trade goods Jews traded, household items and so on.
A few people—Gluckl of Hameln, Moses Mendelssohn—received a lot of attention.
The architecture of the building has been criticized—it is jagged and you begin by climbing to the top and then walking down through two floors of Jewish German history. I found the nooks and crannies to add interest—I never quite knew where I was going, but there were always directions if I needed them.
The museum is designed with three axes: continuity, which shows Jewish life in Germany through the centuries; Holocaust, which is really a memorial, ending with a tower of silence; and exile, showing where German Jews went. Again, there was that balance between the longer history and the Holocaust.
At the end of the museum tour, I felt that Jews in Germany have never been German; they have always been other. This is not new information, but the museum, precisely in trying to show how Jews have always been a part of Germany also showed how they were not.
Fassbinder wrote a play that showed a modern Jew in a way that, some said, was anti-Semitic. I’ll look the play itself up later (no internet now), but the museum showed a documentary about the uproar surrounding the play. Many, many people in Germany protested. Only 23 seats were sold. Jews took over the stage and an argument debating whether the play should be seen or not took place. Ultimately, it was not produced at that time; I don’t know whether it has been put on since.But the arguments surrounding it are still going on in other ways. Fassbinder, as best I can tell, argued that the offending character, a creep who was Jewish, was not reinforcing old stereotypes, but simply a character in the play. The problem is that writing is not simple. It uses culture, history, the discourses of past and present. Good writing isn’t accidental; bad writing shouldn’t be produced. So I find Fassbinder’s arguments to be disingenuous or naïve at best—if the offending character was a Jew there was a reason for it. And for his supporters to say that Jews shouldn’t protest is also ignoring history and culture. But the arguments on both sides are important—they show up in how minorities of all kinds are portrayed in the US, in the Muslim cartoon controversy, and in some of the debates around Israel’s position in the Middle East.

No comments: