Travelling: Berlin - Livre d'Or








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livredor
Travelling: Berlin
Tuesday, 11 November 2008 at 12:24 am
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I'm back from an intense and enjoyable weekend. I've been out of touch with the Progressive world outside my own community for a number of years now, due to living too far from London or any of the other major centres. One of which is Berlin. When I heard of a joint conference between the British, German and Israeli young adults Progressive Jewish groups in Berlin, I decided I really ought to be there!

The conference very much lived up to my expectations: I met some really great people, and caught up with the renaissance of Progressive Judaism which has been in full bloom while I've been living in a cave (or rather, in tiny, out of the way communities that barely have a Progressive presence). The content was a bit summer camp-ish in a way, a bit cheesy at times, a bit childish at times, academically mixed, but there's all the difference in the world between cliquey teenagers who despised me for being uncool, and adults genuinely interested in their fellow human beings.

I'm oddly half-connected to the Jewish world; I didn't really know anyone there, but I had second-degree connections to a frightening proportion of the participants (from 17 countries), so I had a fantastically impressive record at Jewish geography! The first person I spoke to said she thought she recognized me, but couldn't place me, and she mentioned a brother and sister who were practically my cousins when I was a kid, being the children of my dad's oldest friend. So we managed to figure out that we played together a quarter of a century ago, and at that point discovered we'd been randomly assigned to share a room.

I attended a general overview of the current situation in Israel, presented by Paul Liptz, who left Rhodesia (as it then was) to volunteer to defend Israel in the Six Day War, and subsequently became a social historian there. He didn't say anything very startling but drew together various disparate ideas. And it's always good to hear someone who can give a firsthand account as well as an academic perspective, a Progressive Zionist who believes passionately in Israel but is aware of the less than utopian reality.

R Hillel Athias-Robles presented a story from Cervantes which almost exactly parallels a talmudic legend, as well as some more or less dubious evidence that Cervantes might have been a marrano or secret Jew. Certainly there was marrano influence on the Spanish golden age novelists, but I remain sceptical about whether Cervantes himself could have come from that background. Claiming that Quixote is the Hebrew phrase "Ki shoteh", what a fool, is as daft as claiming that Shylock is "kol ish", everyman, written backwards (which I've also heard).

A couple of very small text study sessions, R David Wilfond on Psalm 126 (was supposed to be about Jerusalem in the psalms, but we only really had time for one very short one which we discussed in a lot of detail), and R Walter Rothschild on this week's Torah portion, which is also the piece I read for my bat mitzvah. R Wilfond made a very interesting point about those who sow in tears and reap in joy, that after a lean winter you would weep at putting your only food store in the ground when your children were hungry and you had nothing else to feed them but that same seed. Also mentioned that the reference to Jerusalem as "the place where I will put My Name" may be related to the three valleys which from the air form the letter shin, the initial of an old name of God, Shaddai. R Rothschild's shiur was a bit disorganized and we ended up doing a lot of just discussing anything and everything, but I felt at the end that I'd been using my brain seriously.

R Magonet showed a bunch of clips from old musical films about sets of three people, as an introduction to three faiths dialogue. Very cute, but perhaps not so profound. It was kind of cool to sit and watch a long excerpt from The wizard of Oz (the bit where Dorothy sets out on the Yellow Brick Road and meets her three companions) and then attempt to subject it to rabbinic analysis... I am coming to admire R Magonet more and more the more contact I have with him; he in some ways doesn't take himself too seriously, but he's a major formative influence on the Reform movement both religiously and intellectually. He spoke at Limmud last year about how he decided as a young man to consciously reject the sort of emotional manipulation which many young, charismatic Jewish leaders indulge in. So when he speaks, he makes himself almost invisible so that the audience focus on his ideas, and only afterwards do you realize you've just heard something brilliant. I think that's the real virtue of tzniut, modesty, not making sure men can't see women's elbows.

Unquestionably the hardest part of the weekend was one of the leaders speaking of his experience as a gay teenager in Costa Rica: he was forced through aversion therapy and then pushed into becoming Orthodox (his background was Progressive) in the hope that strict religious rules would cure him, and finally into marriage at a young age as a last resort. This guy was born in 1980. Somehow the monsters of previous generations are still around; the audience of liberal people mostly around his age could only stare at him in sheer horror. One of the older rabbis responded in a very unhelpful way, by making not exactly jokes, but slightly mocking comments about some of his congregants who are trans, and complaining that he didn't have anything against gay people but there was something worrying when Progressive communities have gay members in far greater proportions than in the general population. Lots of other people jumped on him while I was still trying to formulate a sentence, which is somewhat comforting, but.

The gala event was a comedy group, Conflict Relief, who did a series of skits about the middle east conflict. I was very unconvinced that this had any hope of ever being tasteful, but since the troupe included an actual Israeli and a Palestinian, as well as an English Jewish actress and an Egyptian, I decided to give it a chance. They were trying very hard to make tasteful jokes about this material, and did sometimes manage black humour rather than offensiveness. The funniest skit from my perspective had an Israeli soldier trying to get an elderly civilian out of a building that was about to be bombed, but having enormous problems communicating with no common language. Some of the humour skirted very, very close to being homophobic, though; coming straight out of the previous session into this comic show, I was not in the best headspace to appreciate jokes about how soldiers pretend to be tough but are actually really effeminate.

The services were just perfect. I haven't been in a position for years to regularly attend the kind of service I most connect to, so this weekend was a real homecoming. Unison singing, fully participatory, clear traditional framework that is enhanced by meaningful, thought-provoking modern readings. The music for the services and other parts of the weekend tended towards the cheesy American pop Debbie Friedman style, which is not my favourite thing, but at least it's accessible and really encourages people to join in and sing with gusto and really create an atmosphere.

Part of the reason for the weekend was to mark the 70th anniversary of Kristallnacht, both with a direct memorial service and by defiantly hanging out in Berlin being dynamic and building a vibrant Jewish future. So on the Sunday, participants chose between a tour of the Jewish museum, a visit to the Holocaust memorial, and a tour of Jewish Berlin. I chose the last, partly in hope of laying the ghosts of my first experience of Berlin where I was really freaked out. It was certainly interesting and informative, but confirmed my impression that Berlin has Holocaust memorials proliferating like tribbles all over the place. Pretty much every major civic building was a deportation centre, and every place with the slightest Jewish connection is a place of destruction, and it seems that the civil authorities want to put plaques and memorials on every single one of these. The site of the oldest synagogue in Rosenstraße has a memorial commemorating a collection of non-Jewish German women who protested against the imprisonment of their Jewish husbands and teenaged children so effectively that they got the Nazis to relent and release the prisoners rather than sending them to concentration camps, an incident I hadn't previously heard of. Even the plaque marking the residence of the first woman rabbi of modern times, and the site of the famous Hochschule itself, referred to the murder of the first and the dispersal of the second.

I think it's a good thing that the Holocaust is being remembered and memorialized rather than written out of history. I was impressed to note posters for wide scale civic events marking the Kristallnacht anniversary, not just Jewish ones. But it's a bit disturbing just how much Berlin seems to be almost fetishizing the Holocaust and making it so dominant in the identity of the city. Though Germans are exquisitely good at tasteful and moving memorials, there seem to be more of them than is entirely called for. I was also brought up short by the concept of a seventieth anniversary; I'm used to the idea that the war was about 50 years ago, but suddenly time has passed and it's 70 years. I don't think there will be an eightieth anniversary on any significant scale; we're already at the point where the last few eyewitnesses are very elderly.

Our group's Kristallnacht ceremony was for me the weakest part of the weekend. They were trying to strike a balance between grieving for the dead, and expressing hope for the future in spite of the blackness of the past, and it didn't really work. I think they should have stuck with chanting the memorial prayer and Kaddish; the haunting clarinet solo was ok as many people really do need music to connect emotionally, but the cheesy rock song about planting seeds of hope really didn't fit. And making a mosaic image of a synagogue out of pieces of broken glass was sort of a clever idea in theory, but in practice not a very sensible activity for sixty people to try to engage in simultaneously. What happened was that people got bored and started drifting away or into chatting about other topics, so the atmosphere of the service was completely lost and it felt very anticlimactic both as an ending to the ceremony and an ending to the weekend.

The weekend really did leave me feeling refreshed and uplifted and really optimistic about the future of Progressive Judaism! There are some really awesome rabbinical students and engaged, young lay people at the moment, and what's going on in places like Poland, Germany and Russia is really stunning. You've got tiny communities of people rediscovering tenuous Jewish roots or even coming to Judaism for no reason other than getting excited about it, and they're really flourishing, and doing so in the places where devastation of Jewish life was most acute.


Whereaboooots: Berlin, Germany
Moooood: refreshedrefreshed
Tuuuuune: Sleeping at last: Keep no score
Discussion: 10 contributions | Contribute something
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cartesiandaemon: default
From:cartesiandaemon
Date:November 11th, 2008 12:05 am (UTC)
31 minutes after journal entry
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*hugs*
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From:rav_hadassah
Date:November 11th, 2008 01:14 am (UTC)
1 hours after journal entry
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Thanks for sharing that!

Your weekend sounded really cool and I am glad to hear European Progressive Judaism is alive and kicking!

Yay Judaism!

P.S. There's a Dutch-German movie called Rosenstrasse about the events you described. I can highly recommend it. They might have it at the Judiska Forsamlingen library. Who knows.
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(no subject) - daharyn (11/11/08 04:32 am)
livredor: likeness
From:livredor
Date:November 11th, 2008 08:23 am (UTC)
8 hours after journal entry, 08:23 am (livredor's time)
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The way Americans remember the Holocaust is very different from the way Europeans remember it (I'm talking outside the Jewish community, here), because they don't have to deal with guilt. What happens in Europe is probably more analogous to how American society deals with things like Native American history and the history of slavery. The topics aren't avoided altogether, but they're often not handled well, from the point of view of communities who continue to be affected by these events.

The impression I have is that it's still considered unseemly to mention the Holocaust, at least as anything more than an abstract "tragedy", in Austria, Poland, Norway, Switzerland and other places. The Netherlands has Anne Frank and a community effort to remember the gay victims, which doesn't seem to happen much elsewhere, but I have the impression that it's more about what the evil Nazi invaders did to us rather than really confronting the Dutch role in events. The Baltic states haven't dealt with history at all and there's a great deal of near-officially tolerated denial, though I think the official line is that it was the evil Nazi invaders who incidentally killed a lot of Jews along with all the poor suffering Lithuanians. The only other example I know from the former Soviet bloc is from that novel Everything is illuminated, which implies that in the Ukraine there is very little acknowledgement of the past, but I have no idea how accurate that is. I don't know what kind of commemoration goes on or doesn't in the Czech Republic or Hungary. France is a mess in several ways when it comes to ethnic relationships, though I think they do make some effort at officially commemorating what happened.

Germany has always been more willing to confront the issue than many other countries, doing things like paying reparations and having quite draconian laws against denial, but I think it's only in recent years they've started actually dealing with history in detail. Most of the Holocaust memorials date from the last five or ten years.
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lethargic_man: serious
From:lethargic_man
Date:November 11th, 2008 12:48 pm (UTC)
13 hours after journal entry, 12:48 pm (lethargic_man's time)
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R Hillel Athias-Robles presented a story from Cervantes which almost exactly parallels a talmudic legend

Did he do his African one as well?

Unquestionably the hardest part of the weekend was one of the leaders speaking of his experience as a gay teenager in Costa Rica: he was forced through aversion therapy and then pushed into becoming Orthodox (his background was Progressive) in the hope that strict religious rules would cure him, and finally into marriage at a young age as a last resort.

Eeek! I'd no idea he'd gone through all that. (I know he'd been Orthodox, but I'd assumed that was his background.)

So on the Sunday, participants chose between a tour of the Jewish museum, a visit to the Holocaust memorial, and a tour of Jewish Berlin. I chose the last, partly in hope of laying the ghosts of my first experience of Berlin where I was really freaked out.

And how much did it succeed in this aim?

Even the plaque marking the residence of the first woman rabbi of modern times

As opposed to...?

it's a bit disturbing just how much Berlin seems to be almost fetishizing the Holocaust and making it so dominant in the identity of the city.

I didn't get that impression at all when I was there. (Indeed, the Berlin Wall seemed to loom more prominently over the city's history for me than the Holocaust.)
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livredor: words
From:livredor
Date:November 11th, 2008 04:34 pm (UTC)
17 hours after journal entry, 04:34 pm (livredor's time)
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R Athias-Robles did talk a bit about some African stories, yeah, but for one thing we didn't really have time to get into them, and for another most of us found the parallel unconvincing; the fact that speech can be both wonderful and harmful is an obvious part of human experience, so two stories about servants buying tongue as both the best and the worst food feel like a coincidence. Where have you encountered him? Limmud? I didn't realize you knew him, as I wouldn't have expected you moved in the same circles Jewishly.

I really can't fathom how a mother of a troubled teenager could respond to his admission that he might be gay by deliberately sending him to the most homophobic environment she could find! (It's kind of interesting historically how there came to be a Progressive community of Dutch Sephardi origins who had ended up in the former Dutch colonies in the Caribbean, when most of the Dutch Sephardim completely ignored the haskalah.) The tale we heard about the charedi world was really terrifying too; apparently up to a third of the yeshiva boys had some homosexual leanings. They were either sleeping with eachother and then fighting the rest of the time because they so despised other boys for causing them to sin, or using the mikveh literally as a bathhouse for random casual sex encounters with other men. So it's even worse than just being homophobic in the abstract, and makes Steve Greenberg's life history sound positively Edenic. And the story of the shidduch, marriage and divorce is terrifying too; there are three daughters, the youngest of whom is two, he's not allowed to see because the charedi community bullied his ex-wife into kidnapping the children to get them away from him after he admitted to being gay. But at the same time, they wouldn't let the couple divorce but tried to make them reconcile for the sake of some perverted concept of "shalom bayit". Eventually they obtained a divorce by going to the Satmar Chassidim who were willing to take a fee and turn a blind eye, though they shouldn't even have jurisdiction over a couple from a completely unconnected community. This all happened a couple of years ago, not in the 1950s!
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lethargic_man: serious
From:lethargic_man
Date:November 11th, 2008 08:47 pm (UTC)
21 hours after journal entry, 08:47 pm (lethargic_man's time)
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[R. H A-R]
Where have you encountered him? Limmud? I didn't realize you knew him, as I wouldn't have expected you moved in the same circles Jewishly.

He's turned up to Moishe House a few times, and even taught there once or twice.

The tale we heard about the charedi world was really terrifying too; apparently up to a third of the yeshiva boys had some homosexual leanings. They were either sleeping with eachother and then fighting the rest of the time because they so despised other boys for causing them to sin, or using the mikveh literally as a bathhouse for random casual sex encounters with other men.

*boggle*

And the story of the shidduch, marriage and divorce is terrifying too; there are three daughters, the youngest of whom is two, he's not allowed to see because the charedi community bullied his ex-wife into kidnapping the children to get them away from him after he admitted to being gay.

:-(
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livredor: teapot
From:livredor
Date:November 11th, 2008 09:26 pm (UTC)
21 hours after journal entry, 09:26 pm (livredor's time)

Berlin

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I do hope that in future I'll be able to go to Berlin and experience it as a vibrant, interesting modern European city, now that I've actually intentionally gone round all the sites where terrible things happened to Jews to get it out of my system. But I think I won't know until a future visit. I agree with you that the Berlin Wall is also a big deal, and frankly I don't find all the military paraphernalia the most tasteful type of souvenir either. But it doesn't bother me on quite such a visceral level, for obvious reasons.

(I refer to R Jonas as the first modern woman rabbi because it's arguable whether people like Beruria were rabbis or not. The fact she didn't get the title isn't evidence, as neither did Hillel in so many words. And she had the functional role of a rabbi in many ways, so I'm agnostic about it.)
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From:curious_reader
Date:November 12th, 2008 07:29 pm (UTC)
1 days after journal entry

Re: Berlin

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I saw Hillel at Limmudfest because I had paid job there. I only managed to go to half of his session. I worked all day in the creche. I hadn't got much from intellectual sessions I was interested in.
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livredor: words
From:livredor
Date:November 12th, 2008 07:52 pm (UTC)
1 days after journal entry, 07:52 pm (livredor's time)
(Link)
Yeah, working at Limmud is tough, but it's obviously better than not being able to afford it at all. I did it a few times when I was a student.

I think I confused the issue by talking about Hillel the rabbi from the Talmud in the same post where I was talking about a particular modern rabbi whose first name is Hillel! The point I was making is that not everybody in the Talmud has the title "rabbi", but we still refer to them collectively as "the rabbis"; the women mentioned didn't have the title rabbi, but that doesn't prove they weren't rabbis.
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