Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Thoughts About Cantors Assembly Germany (and more)
Cantor Jack Chomsky
Originally given July 2012 in Columbus, OH

Three years ago, I spoke from this same pulpit about what was then a recent trip to Poland. I wonder if I struggled then as much as I did this week to figure out what to say after the experience.

It’s the same story and it’s a very different story. It’s the same story because there was great Jewish life in Poland and then there was murder—on an inconceivable scale, although we have worked very hard to try to comprehend the scale of that murder. It’s a different story because Poland is mostly a graveyard of Jewish life

In Germany, there were a half-million Jews prior to 1933. Over half emigrated during the early years of
Nazism, and we know what happened to so many of the rest. The stunning and unexpected development is that the Jewish population of Germany now is in the vicinity of 200,000—and Germany is the ONLY growing Jewish community in Europe. Much of this growth stems from the large influx of Jews from the Former Soviet Union. Germany has ENCOURAGED this immigration, and many people have been happy to take advantage of the opportunity to move to a more promising economic environment along with freedom in almost every conceivable way (from a place where they were living in relative economic hopelessness and great uncertainty about the nature of social and political life).

At the same time, there are a significant number of Jews arriving in and staying in Germany from the “free” Jewish world—especially Israel and also the United States.

That’s the back story to this journey. Now, put on your safety belts as I take you through a virtual slide show of this Mission. I think I took over 2000 pictures on my travels, and it is by reviewing a few of those that I get some sense of what I saw and felt, and what it might mean.

Here are some snapshots. . .

Photo of Bielefeld Synagogue

I was able to arrange to be a guest of an outlying Jewish community for the Shabbat PRIOR to our Germany mission, for which Susan and her mom joined us. So on Friday morning, June 22, I flew from Tel Aviv to Berlin and then took a 2 ½ hour train ride west of Berlin to the city of Bielefeld. Bielefeld is a city of about 325,000 people. Its Jewish community numbered 800 in 1933. There were 12 survivors after the Holocaust. Its negligible Jewish population has now been swelled to a few hundred because of immigration from the Former Soviet Union. I davened in a beautiful sanctuary in a charming building—given to the Jewish community by a Protestant congregation—with about 40 people on Friday night and on Saturday morning.
The LEADERS of this congregation are people who have been around Germany for a generation or two —or have come from Israel. The MEMBERS are primarily the Russians who have come to Germany seeking greater freedom and opportunity. What amazed me about our coming together for this Shabbat: I am the grandson of people (on my father’s side) who left Russia and Ukraine for opportunity in the United States in the first decade of the 20th century—PRIOR TO the creation of the Soviet Union! The people that I was davening WITH left the same part of the world AFTER the dissolution of the Soviet Union! For most of us in this room, the Soviet Union was the feared counterweight of the United States for most of our lives. Yet there we were together on either side of that history. And what were we doing? What were we singing? How were we praying? Using the melodies and style of prayer developed in GERMANY prior to the birth of my grandparents. The legacy of Lewandowski, the great composer of Jewish music, and the melodies of German Jewry, are being revived in THIS place by a completely new cast.

Snapshots – Berlin.
Brandenburg Gate


               Remnants of the Berlin Wall

When I re-arrived in Berlin on Sunday, I walked around the part of the city in which my hotel was located, and looked over some well-known sites—the Brandenburg Gate, the Holocaust Memorial, and displays and remnants of the Berlin Wall.

I thought that maybe I would daven minchah alongside that Holocaust Memorial—but then decided that it wouldn’t be an appropriate place to pray: that even though it wasn’t ITSELF a place of death, it had no life to it.

Memorial to the Jews of Europe

It WAS a place to sit and think a bit, but not a place to pray. Days later, when we came back in our touring, I had the opportunity to briefly pass through the display underneath the 2700 deathly slabs—a display that puts the memorial in a necessary context. I know that at least some people see the Memorial and have no idea about the exhibition underneath it. I’m not sure whether it needs better signage; whether it is the intention of the designers that people see it either way or whether they consider the underground display an important part of the experience. I WILL say that what’s above ground has much more meaning if one experiences the display underneath—and that I hope that many or most of those who see the memorial experience “what lies beneath the surface.” (Some indications seem to suggest that about 1/3 to ¼ of the people who visit the site go through the underground display.) Moral of the story: If YOU go, don’t miss what lies underneath.

As I wrote on my blog, it has been my experience that SMALLER displays tell the horrible story of the Holocaust better than larger ones. There is one wall of photos and information—probably about no more than 50 yards of space—and at the end of that wall is a perpendicular wall with 6 photos (very large) of 6 very different kinds of Jews. Each with a name, and information as to the person’s fate. This is a picture I’ll always remember—and I suspect the same is true for the majority of people who walk through this place.

Historical wall beneath the Holocaust Memorial

Perpendicular wall—6 faces, 6 lives

Snapshot—Grunewald Station—15 kilometers drive from the Neue Synagogue—the magnificent synagogue of Berlin.

Grunewald Station, Berlin

From this station, Berlin’s Jews were deported from 1941 to 1945. A memorial (two different kinds of memorials actually) has been built alongside the infamous Track 17—with metal plates showing how many were deported each day. My photos show days when 50 were taken. . . days when over 300 were taken. . . days when 1000 were taken. . . and a day when 1160 were taken. All in a day’s work. All within the city limits of Berlin. The station still operates today.

Snapshot--You think it's good to be a dog in a Jewish home?  Germans love and cherish their dogs.  I saw dogs on trains, dogs in parks, dogs on the street, big dogs, VERY big dogs, and some little ones.  No cats.

Snapshot—Home plate in the sidewalks. On my first day wandering around Berlin, I noticed that the standard sidewalk design incorporated a 5-point element along top and bottom edges –connecting to squares that appear as diamond-shapes (another baseball reference) alongside. Made me feel relatively at home.

Which reminds me of another snapshot: In Bielefeld, I twice passed a van with a splashy logo that said “BaseballMinister.com” What was THAT about? Well, I checked it out on the web and it turns out that it’s the online shop for baseball and softball equipment. You can get a pretty nice-looking Rawlings outfielder’s glove for 50 Euro. Which is a stupendous price. Much better than the deal I got at Dick’s at Easton!
Snapshot—Rykestrasse synagogue. Thursday night, the opening night of the Mission. A gloriously beautiful synagogue; a reminder of what was.

I was honored to chant a German setting of Shehecheyanu—elegant but simple, to start the proceedings. Our opening lecture by Professor Stephen Berk.

Then a beautiful service and a mini-concert. The beautiful singing of the choir—comprised of semi-professionals from California and professionals from Berlin was indeed breathtaking in this acoustically luxurious space that demanded and rewarded slower tempos and delicious harmony. This service and concert and the Friday night service at the Berlin Konzerthaus in particular helped people who didn’t even think that they LIKE Jewish choral music to understand why this music was and is great, and how hearing it done beautifully brings one closer to God. I know this because people like Susan and Addie and Rosalie told me so!

Snapshot—the same, as I find myself in tears at hearing a Jewish prayer sung in German on Thursday night—and some of the original Lewandowski compositions that I met as a choral singer in a Providence, Rhode Island synagogue when I was in college. Knowing that there was a directness in meaning to these compositions and their performance in the local language and in the place of their origin that was lost for 75 years but almost regained in these moments.

After the opening program at Rykestrasse, we went out for a nice dinner—Susan, her mom (Rosalie/Bubbie) and our daughter Addie, who was staffing the trip with Ayelet Tours.

Snapshot—the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Berlin, where on Friday morning we are visited by US Ambassador to
Germany Philip Murphy and German State Secretary Emily Haber. Her appreciation of the difficulty of our mission is so genuine and so quiet that it was worth the trip.

Snapshot—The Neue Synagogue in Berlin—not new at all, of course—the remaining shell of a palace of a wealthy Jewish community—the home of Lewandowski.


Parts of it have been restored in glory—but it is no longer (except for an upstairs and/or around the corner place) used for prayer. Parts are a museum to the Jewish life of Berlin and Germany. How haunting to stand and look out at the footprint of the building that is missing—and to see for the first time a photograph of what’s missing.

Snapshot—At the Gemailde gallery, Berlin’s traditional art museum. Looking at room after room of Christological art—feeling lonely and somewhat accused in the process. And then trying to figure out what it is that the priest is holding in a painting by Juan de las Roelas (1558-1625).

From a distance, it appears to be a cellphone—a flip phone. Upon closer inspection, it appears to be—a flip phone.

No matter how much I enlarge my photo, I can’t figure out what this could be except—a flip phone.

Susan is enjoying some of the paintings in the adjacent gallery. I call her over, and ask her to look at the picture. What’s that, honey? Unquestionably. . . a flip phone. Ah well, this is a mystery to be solved later. (Check with Carole Genshaft on this one?)

(Note -- I checked with Carole Genshaft, a friend who is one of the top people at the Columbus Museum of Art.  And my search continued to an art historian of some "high ranking."  He said that it was what some had surmised -- a missal -- a small Bible.  Which makes sense, but no matter how many times I look at the picture, I can't see anything but a cellphone.) 

Snapshot—At the Berliner Dom, one of the largest in Europe.

A concert begun by cantors in tallitot sounding Shofars and singing Psalms antiphonally with the host choir—back and forth in Hebrew and Latin. Greetings from the President of Germany.

(Photo is not the President of Germany, but rather a Church dignitary)

What would Martin Luther, whose statue looks down on the proceedings, have said? Said one prominent colleague: Here’s to you, Martin. (Actually, it was much much less polite than that.) Concluding this program with 125 people at the front of the church—cantors and the cathedral choir—singing Jewish music together—Lewandowski.

Snapshot—that reminds me that on Shabbat afternoon, I wandered around Old Town Bielefeld (remember my trip to Bielefeld) and noticed that there was a concert of music at the local church. I went in and was stupefied to find LEWANDOWSKI—the same Lewandowski—on the concert program. Did they have any idea who this guy was, or what it meant for this to performed in Bielefeld for this cantor in 2012?

Snapshot—Munich—The Olympics site. The paradigm of gorgeous athletic facilities, of the expenditure of millions (now billions) of dollars in architecturally memorable fashion—sullied by the terrible murder that happened there in 1972.

Standing in silence and in prayer at the memorial on the Olympic grounds to the Israeli athletes and German policeman who died in the Black September terrorist attack.

Snapshot—Video—A long morning spent at Dachau—20 kilometers from the main train station in Munich. The paradigm of concentration camps. A place where we DID on this occasion daven; visit its barracks and gas chamber and crematorium—or what’s left of them. A place where we performed songs and readings appropriate to remembrance.

Where my colleague David Lipp sang in German and in English the Dachau Lied—the defiant hymn of its prisoners. Where I held the Torah as colleague Simon Spiro chanted El Malei Rachamim—[the memorial prayer] God Full of Mercy. What kind of rachamim—mercy—is evident when you stand in such a place? Yet we still DO stand today. Sometimes a prayer is a request or an appreciation. Sometimes it may be a statement of defiance or an accusation.

Snapshots—Stolperstein – stumbling blocks. As I have remarked that the simplest Holocaust museums may be the most effective, perhaps these monuments are the most effective—just a cobblestone-sized plaque in the sidewalk noting the name of an individual. When they were deported. What was their fate. Alice Levitin, who traveled with us in this mission and sang with us, found these remembrances of her great grandparents in Berlin. I found these in various places around Berlin. There are more than 20,000 of these in various cities and in various countries.

I found myself, a couple of days after the official end of the mission, “unexpectedly” in Austria. I had sort of taken a bit of an oath against visiting Austria, because the role of Austrians as great supporters of the Nazi cause has always been underpublicized, and they have absolutely declined to accept responsibility for their role. And you surely remember how they came to the defense of Kurt Waldheim, rather than casting him out. Salzburg was just a short train trip from Munich. And it wasn’t, after all, Vienna. In any case, I felt a little better about the enterprise when we literally stumbled over Salzburg’s stolperstein—7 stones near the center of town—remembering 4 members of the Bonyhadi family, and 3 others as well.

Daniel, Ludwig, Gertrude, Edgar, Anna, Johann and Natalie: the crimes against you did not go unrecorded. You are not completely forgotten. And we carry on the life of the Jewish people today.

Snapshots in Munich—our hotel loaded with Muslim and Arab guests. An interesting mix, them and us. A few of them apparently looked on with some interest at our Tuesday night impromptu celebration. Many hijabs were to be seen not just in the hotel but around the streets of Munich.

Tuesday night celebration at Sophitel Munich

Snapshot—Colmar, France—one of the early stops in the post-mission family vacation Rhine River Cruise. What would a trip to France be like without a snooty waiter? After unbelievably slow service, he snorted “zees is a restaurant, not a fast food.” I keed you not!

Snooty waiter is actually behind David (Susan’s brother) in picture on left!

A digression before the final photo: Prior to the Germany trip, Susan and I had the amazing opportunity to attend the Shimon Peres Presidential Conference in Jerusalem—a gathering of 5000 people from around the world, the 4th such annual gathering. I’ve got 40+ pages of notes from THAT experience that I need to unpack after I’ve finished processing my more recent adventure—and I hope I’ll be able to talk about that at some point as well. But one sentiment that came across repeatedly—from President Peres and from others—is that we must KNOW history and RESPECT it—but we mustn’t be paralyzed by it.

If ANYONE were ever entitled to be paralyzed by our history, it would be the Jewish people. But thank God and thank the wisdom and energy of our people, we have NOT been.

Snapshot—After the mission—this, I think, is the summary photo: We are in Speyer, a stopping point on our Rhine River Cruise that I hadn’t thought about. Who thinks about Speyer, even if they’ve heard of it? Speyer was one of three prominent German Jewish enclaves in the Middle Ages. The others were Worms and Mainz. Together, in Hebrew, the letters of their names spell “ShUM” – which is the Hebrew word for garlic and is somehow a mnemonic for this era of Jewish life—an era that was distinguished by great culture, as well as the source of many of the melodies that are at the heart of Ashkenazic worship. You may not have even heard of or contemplated the Jewish life of Speyer or Mainz—though you may WELL have heard of Worms, as Rashi –yes, RASHI—studied and taught there. ShUM—Shpeyer, Worms and Mainz—are a cradle of Jewish life as deep as the cradle that was burned in the Holocaust. And these Jews were also driven out in their time—having flourished in the 12th century. From 1195, things turned quite bitter—with Jews accused of the blood libel, tortured, burned at the stake—expelled for good in the 1430s.
But the PHOTO that sticks with me is #3938—in the file called River Cruise Day 4.

The photo is of the mikvah—the 12th century mikvah so much larger and more elegant than any of the historic mikvaot I’ve seen in Jerusalem or in Israel. When I say PHOTO of the mikveh, I mean that I have taken a photo at the bottom of the stairs in which a beautiful pool of living water – mayim chayim – sits. The stairs, built in concrete, have an elegant spiral descent.

I know that my ancestors lived in this place a THOUSAND years ago—that then, like today, they were AT LEAST the equals of their neighbors in learning, in commerce, and in living decent, moral lives as individuals and in community. I know that they were wrongly accused, driven out and persecuted. I know that, centuries later, the same or worse happened to other distinguished communities of Jews.

But I know that I stand today as a witness that we stand in some ways stronger than ever—or at least as strong as we can be. And I am grateful that I was able to walk down these streets, to look people squarely in the eye, to assert that I am the proud descendent of these Jews—and to call one and all to witness that we WERE there, and we ARE there, and it is our right to be ANYWHERE—especially in any land in which our people have lived, and especially in the land of Israel.

I have chosen to reclaim the culture and history of my people in places from which they have disappeared through no fault of their own. And I am glad to have done so. And I will continue to do so. And I invite you to do the same.