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.