Hanukkah Miracles: Germany

How do we relate as contemporary Jews to the idea of spreading “the miracle” of Hanukkah? Is the “big idea really to perpetuate faith through the story of an inadequate flask of oil lasting eight days? What does it mean, a miracle? In Einei Hashem: Contemporary Stories of Divine Providence in Eretz Yisrael, Dr. Meir Wikler speaks of how Rabbi Chazkel Levenstein of the Mirrer Yeshiva used to encourage his students to maintain a diary on what appeared miraculous to them in daily life. To provide miracle examples, I wish to bear witness to some of what I find to be miraculous that can be experienced in Germany today, of all places.

More after the jump.
For a first miracle, take the very existence of Hazzan Jalda Rebling, a cantor with an exquisite voice and deep soul, who heads a Jewish spiritual community, Ohel Hachidusch, in Berlin, Germany. Hazzan Rebling travels widely as a Jewish teacher and spiritual leader, during my visit she was invited to lead the first egalitarian service in the traditional Jewish Community of Hamburg. It was the first time that Kol Isha, the voice of a woman, was heard in prayer in the J├╝dische Gemeinde Hamburg. (Hamburg also has a small reform shul – mostly Jews from the NIS, and a very tiny Masorti group.)

When Hazzan Rebling, a graduate of the Aleph Ordination Program, brought me to her community, Ohel HaChidusch, it was to the environmental gardens they have developed just outside of the city. These immaculately tended vegetable fields and contemplative flower gardens astonish and delight. Her group appreciates and follows the principles of eco-kosher — care for the quality of life of farm animals, care that health and habitat-endangering insecticides not be used, care that any who labor are honorably compensated. I was impressed by the depth of engagement of her congregants during the workshop that I offered on the mitzvah of Teshuvah, actions which turn us toward healing of damage in our relationships – to self, with others, community and God.

Hazzan Rebling’s congregants – young families, mid-life folks, and elders, reflect the burgeoning miracle of twelve congregations now in operation in and around Berlin, three egalitarian and the rest are technically Orthodox, although primarily serving non-observant Jewish immigrants from the NIS.

Hazzan Jalda (pronounced Yal-da) Rebling has her own miracles. The daughter of Holocaust survivors, she was born in Holland and from age 2 she was raised in East Germany. Her mother and her mother’s sister had the heart-breaking tasking of telling Otto Frank, among many, based on what they’d witnessed in Bergen Belsen, that Anne Frank would not be returning to him. In 1978, Hazzan Rebling’s mother, Lin Jaldati, a famous yiddish singer – brought Jalda up on stage with her to read from the Diary of Anne Frank. They traveled around the world with this program in memory of what would have been Anne Frank’s 50th birthday – from Yad VaShem in Jerusalem through to Hebrew Union College in NY.

As an artist and Yiddish singer, long before her ordination as a Hazzan in 2007, Jalda Rebling was able to travel, like many east German artists, but without her first two children, born in 1974 and 1976. The youngest was born after the Berlin Wall came down in 1990. She created an international Yiddish festival in 1987 in East Berlin. And co-created a Yiddish Theater in Berlin proper in 1994, after the fall of the Berlin wall. More miracles!

When Hazzan Rebling walked me through Berlin’s oldest cemetery, the strength she drew from telling stories of her family killed in the Holocaust, that, too, was a miracle.

Out and About in Jewish Berlin

One night, my hubbatzin and I dined glatt kosher at the Jewish community center’s restaurant in Berlin. After the Holocaust, who’d have thought there would be a kosher restaurant in Berlin? Miraculous! The following Friday night we walked to a Berlin synagogue for a different taste of Jewish life and were astonished to find the historic building of the Pestalozzistra├če Synagogue packed with people. The comprehensive Berlin Synagogues website mentions it has separate seating for men and women; and an organ and mixed choir. Packed why? – for a bat mitzvah! A bat mitzvah in Berlin, Germany? In Berlin where signs at the older train stations literally show how many Jews were daily deported in small groups to death camps (so as to not attract notice or disturb elderly patrons)! “Jewish grandchildren who live in Berlin,” an Israeli guest declared to me, “now that is a miracle!”

The bat mitzvah at this synagogue was led by Rabbi Tovia Ben-Chorin (who recently rededicated Berlin’s oldest Jewish ceremony, the one mentioned above). Here women were seated on the perimeter and men in the center rows. A male rabbi and male hazzan presided. For much of the service the bat mitzvah girl, in short sleeves and a short skirt, was silent beside them on the bimah (stage at front of a synagogue). She delivered the haftorah (a traditional prophetic text) and gave a talk that had women buzzing with approval in German all around me.

Soon, a kind woman from the row behind me, began translating into my ear. She said the rabbi then blessed the bat mitzvah girl in many ways including to have children, who perhaps the board would allow by then to chant Torah, as they had not allowed her to do so! This was so different to Hazzan Rebling’s congregation, Ohel HaChidusch, “where a full range of gender equality is evident as a core principle.

During my training at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, I learned the first Reform congregation within Judaism was established in Germany (Hamburg) in 1818. Hazzan Rebling took me on a walking tour which included the house where the first known woman Rabbi lived, Regina Jonas. Another miracle! Long before our battles to enter the rabbinate here in the United States, this woman, Regina Jonas was ordained a rabbi in Germany by Rabbi Max Dienemann. He did so in 1935 when he was executive director of the Liberaler Rabbinerverband (Conference of Liberal Rabbis). Rabbi Jonas was not strictly Reform, she preferred to work from within halachah towards modern values and deduced equality for women from within rabbinic sources rather than seeing as legitimate to act from outside them. I commend the biography Fraulein Rabbiner Jonas: The Story of the First Woman Rabbi by Rabbi Elisa Klapheck.

More miracles. Did you know the first bat mitzvah classes and rituals were at Reform congregations in Germany and elsewhere in Europe before World War II? Photos of these classes are on view in the Jewish museums. Judith Kaplan Eiseinstein’s much-lauded modern American bat mitzvah was unique because she went to the  Torah solo, rather than having a ritual with all the girls in a religious school class. All these major shifts are, in the face of history and tradition, to my mind — miraculous! Al ha nissim we sing on Hanukkah — “about the miracles.”

Danger or Miraculous Opportunity?

In most of Europe, Jewish citizens warned me not to walk about in a kippah, a yarmulka, the beanie-like head-covering that symbolizes our intention to live mitzvah-centered lives. Hazzan Rebling explained that “Berlin is a safe city for Jews.  A very very few attacks came from Intifada-playing Muslim kids.” wanting to be visible as a Jew, but not a target, of late I almost always wear, with the intention of subtle recognition and contact with Jews world-wide, a necklace with a charm made in gold of the word ahavah, “love,” given by my husband as a Mother’s Day present. Few can read it, some ask what it stands for. Which brings me to this article’s final miracle.

So there I was, standing sandwiched between mostly drunks on a train in Berlin. There were almost fiercely rowdy folks among them, all en route to a major soccer match at the city stadium. Scary but not as scary as a brutal-looking “skinhead” sitting at a tangent to where I was standing. He stared fixedly at my necklace. I complimented him on the quality of the rose-bedecked girl’s name tattooed amidst a variety of skeletal death heads.

He looked sad and responded: “Nicht. (“Not.”)”

I replied: “Es ist schwer, die liebe.” (It’s difficult, love.) (Hoping my Yiddishized German would be understandable.)

He didn’t respond.  

Throughout the ride the strong young man continued to stare at my necklace. Touching the necklace charm I asked: “Sie haben eine frage zu meiner chachkeh?” (Roughly means: Do you have a question about my ornament? Chachkeh is YIddish; I didn’t then know that a necklace in German is a “kette”.)

The stranger next to him shook her head and pointed a finger at me as though warning me for me not to go there. The fellow looked at me, “Nicht verstehen.” (Don’t understand.)

So, I tried again in English, “Do you have a question about this?” and I touched the necklace’s charm to indicate the subject of the sentence.

He responded in English with a strong German accent: “I saw something like that somewhere once…a photo of a great aunt…well maybe sort of like that.”

I decided to explain, feeling safe on this particular topic in the tight crowd: “It means love in Hebrew. My husband gave it to me.”

His eyes flew wide open: “Ein Yude?!” ([I wondered did he mean – Your husband is? Or you are? Or, perhaps his relative having something with these letters might mean that even his is? At least in part?] A Jew?! I looked him straight in the eyes, held out my hand to him palm up, in peace and replied simply: “Jah.”

The young man’s hands remained folded as he fell utterly silent and inward. At the next stop, the woman next to him dashed through the opening train doors so quickly that I barely saw her break through the crowd. A belching mid-life drunk, wearing a soccer shirt, immediately took her place.

I returned a soft gaze to my tattooed conversant, taking in the details of three beautifully rendered swastikas. Finally he looked up at me and extended his hand, his shake was unexpectedly tender. He then added: “Would you like my seat? I’m sorry I didn’t think of that sooner.” As fate would have it, just then my stop, titled Zoologischer Garten came. I bid him “Danke” and exited the train to be on time for an appointment.

The necklace worked it’s subtle purpose well during our two and a half months teaching in Europe. Conversations would strike up in restaurant lines, the beauty parlor and elsewhere, when people asked its meaning and they realized I’m a Jew. The awareness would evoke spontaneous apologies and confessions. It sometimes took a long time to get places because discussions would go so deep that we’d forget to stop. Absolutely always, I was treated with kindness and respect. Miracles! Everywhere miracles.

What are the miracles you have witnessed in Jewish life? Consider sharing them around your Hanukkah lights each year.  

Reframing the Hanukkah Christmas Dilemma

Rabbi Goldie Milgram

In memory of my father Samuel Milgram and his birthday on the third Hanukkah Light

When almost all your congregants raise their hands to the question “Do you have a Christmas tree up this season in your home?” it’s quite unsettling for a rabbi. This happened to me back in 1989 in a rural pulpit. The Hanukkah-Christmas dilemma full-blown. What to do, if anything?

A creative program came to mind during a night of troubled dreams. The president of the congregation, ever a supporter of my tendency towards R&D on behalf of the Jewish future, organized everything perfectly to my specifications. And the congregants came, almost all of them.

More after the jump.
First, we set up the synagogue president’s dining room perfectly ready for Passover.

Then we set up her basement, perfectly ready for Christmas with a whole set up borrowed from a pious Christian neighbor.

Then we set up her den with menorah, dreidl, Hanukkah decorations and foods.

Perhaps you can intuit why this particular set-up, a month before Hanukkah and Christmas which fell close together that year.

Bringing in the Light of Spiritual Intimacy and Understanding

As each couple arrived for the program, they received a questionnaire suggesting they go to the Passover room, if raised primarily Jewish, and the Christmas room, if raised primarily Christian. And there to sit quietly and sing along with the music, look at the tree, the art, the food, allow memories to arise and then answer a series of questions.

To the best of my recollection the questions were:

1. Please list all holiday and religious symbols in this room and  their meaning to the best of your knowledge.

2. Make a list of those with whom you’ve primarily shared this holiday with over the years and how that is for you.

3. What are your favorite foods for this holiday?

4. What are your most and least favorite customs and practices for this holiday and why?

5. Is this a holy day for you and what makes it holy for you?

Now, if you are in the Passover room please go to the Christmas room and vice-versa, turn this page over and answer do the same as you did here, answering the questions as well for that room as duplicated on the other side of this page. When you have been to both rooms, we will meet up in the Hanukkah room for a discussion of our findings, three couples will explain why they either a) have a Christmas tree and a menorah in their home, b) have only a menorah for this season c) have neither. We will conclude with a Hanukkah teaching with Reb Goldie.

What Do These Symbols Tell Us?

It was so moving to watch laughter and tears flow softly as congregants moved from room to room experiencing the differences among the holidays. The sharing was profound and interesting. What does the wine mean on the seder table? Jews would say joy, several Christians reported it symbolizing the blood of their Lord Jesus. Wine in Judaism actually symbolizes the joy of the gift of life, the life-force itself.

The painting of Jesus on the Cross that we were given to put up in the room with tree, presents and carols, Yule log (both aflame in fire place, and a yummy cake), Wassail bowl, etc. Jews reported sadness and some fear at seeing a young Jewish man dying a horrible death as a religious symbol, Christians reported the symbol of what their Lord Jesus did for them that their sins might be forgiven.

We listened to each other, educated each other, forgave each other our misunderstandings, appreciated fears of loss of identity, of family connections and histories, made room for respective persecutions across the ages. The power of Passover, one of our major holy days, became so palpably meaningful it seemed to all present. Dealing with the bitterness of slavery and taskmasters of old, within and present employers on the metaphor level. The importance of a holy day that values the tears of effort and pain shed on the way to eliminating slavery. Breaking the bread of affliction, the matzah over our hearts to led in the Light of healing…and so much more.

Balancing a Festival against a Holy Day – Ahhh, We Get It

Christmas tree envy was indeed described and receded as the program progressed and a striking concept emerged through our studies. The Hanukkiah, the menorah, is mentioned twenty-seven times in the Torah. Precise details of its construction are given when Moses is alone on the mountaintop, listening to G*d and seeing the Architect’s vision (Exodus 25:31-40). The menorah, then, becomes a symbol of this listening and holding of the Light of awareness that began for him at the Burning Bush. The menorah’s original shape is, indeed, that of a tree.

More on Menorah as Inspiring Metaphor

Torah (The Five Books of Moses) is called a Tree of Life and is made of the original light filtered, condensed, formed into creation, and encoded in letters dancing with energy. The menorah symbolizes the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden, the awareness it only takes one person of vision to lead the way to face the pharaoh’s of our times and all times, the menorah is our Burning Bush. Its light is God as Torah, filtered through the prism of your soul and actions, focusing us on the mission of the Jewish people, to live mitzvah-centered, rather than self centered lives.

The original menorah had seven branches. The Hanukkah menorah has nine, to commemorate the Maccabees’ eight day festival for rededication of the temple, plus one extra branch for the shamash, a helper candle to ignite the others.

What about the miracle of the cruse of oil lasting eight days? This and many other stories arose long after the event, entering the realm of our tribal sacred myth. The Hanukkah menorah, however, does recall miracles-that there was enough “oil,” then and now, enough of the Jewish soul left after so much assimilation and trauma, to rededicate ourselves to the covenant of living as Jews. Even today a huge menorah engraved with scenes from Jewish history stands outside Israel’s parliament, an enduring symbol of that dedication.

The Seleucid Empire, part of the Greek Empire and its intent for homogeneous practices among its citizens, had enacted edicts prohibiting Jews from living our Torah. We were prohibited at peril of death to observe the sabbath, have a Jewish name, keep separate milk (the gift of life) from meat (life taken away), and worse. Hanukkah also symbolizes the courage it takes to trust and maintain our ways. We are one of the longest continually existing peoples on the planet with much of depth, importance and beauty to transmit across the generations. We exist for a purpose.

On the Roman arch of Titus, commemorating the conquering of Jerusalem, the Romans are shown carrying off the menorah in triumph. Those Romans didn’t know that the most precious part of all had been left behind, carried in the soul-sparks of our people, every one of us a branch of a hidden menorah, carrying the light of Torah.

Through our congregation’s program and studies we became a menorah of community in the room; each soul a candle burning brightly with a vision of God’s light coming into us as inspiration for living mitzvah-centered lives.

Making Each Night of Hanukkah Remarkable

We began to brainstorm how to make each night of Hanukkah a gift of awareness, spiritual growth, family and friend connection, and caring beyond our immediate circle. Jewish families, someone noted at that program, tend to randomly come home with gifts for our children throughout the year. Those presents are one way we show love and recognition of the interests and abilities of our child. On Hanukkah, we realized, the present is how we receive and utilize the light of Torah.

To transform from consumer consciousness to mitzvah consciousness on Hanukkah, over the years with communities, we’ve brainstormed:

On the first candle of Hanukkah some of us venture with into attics, closets and garages to find surplus things – bikes, tv’s, vcrs, computers; and after school and before lighting the menorah, brought these goods to family service professionals who know those in need…

Some of us focused on saving energy and care for the planet by putting in more efficient light bulbs, having energy audits, doubling up on blankets and lower thermostats for another day of Hanukkah…

Some hold an Israel arts evening as the Hanukkah candles glow, each family showing something they’ve acquired to symbolize the miracle of Israel realized in our times in their hearts and homes….Some also hold out a light to the Palestinian and Israeli peoples and hold a Hanukkah fundraiser for joint learning centers and summer camps…

The fifth candle might include an invitation to bring a photo of Hanukkah family times past, to tell and video stories of those no longer with us whose lives added light to our own… Some consider our own inner light on Hanukkah, is our spark dim or bright? What do we need to do to heal in order to become better able to serve and savor in this life?

By the sixth candle some of us take our tzedakah boxes (where we regularly drops coins and bills to accumulate for charity) and open them to count what has accrued over the year for distribution. Each person brings information about a good cause and those present become a holy allocations committee, sometimes adding Hanukkah gelt – funds dedicated with care on Hanukkah…

The seventh candle might involve bringing a menorah, candles and home-made latkes over to share at a shelter for abused women and children, homeless persons, or a home for elders…

The last night of Hanukkah, as eight lights blaze in the menorah sometimes we do an Internet search on the meaning and places in Torah and Jewish literature and history of  our Jewish names and make or give a piece of jewelry to honor the freedom we have to hold those names dear…

The eighth night is also a time to dream of peace and good lives for all, to discuss and donate to causes that work for education, well-being, the environment and peace. The root letters of Hanukkah come from the term for education and dedication. All ages who can be present for such discussions increase the light of understanding and let it fuel constructive action.

How the Christmas Tree Question Received Closure

My first pulpit showed me how to cast light on making Hanukkah spiritually meaningful. On the Shabbat of Hanukkah they brought their handmade menorahs from a congregational workshop and in front of the lights dedicated themselves to advancing their learning and practice. Each year I taught a series on one of the ten major aspects of living a mitzvah-centered life – Prayer, God, Torah, Shabbat, Hebrew, Halachah (guidelines), Mitzvot (actions to engage in and refrain from), Life Cycle Rituals, Peoplehood and Hebrew, our sacred language wherein so much wisdom and light abides. These teachings became my first three books.

My first congregation’s farewell service to launch me into a new career chapter as a seminary dean offered closure on the original Christmas tree question. After a quilt with a square of learning from each family was presented as part of the ritual, the president asked, “How many present put up a Christmas tree for the family at your home on the holidays?” As I recall, one new member family and one long-time member family raised their hands. I encouraged them to go to extended families for Christmas with love and joy, bearing and receiving gifts if that is expected. Their own homes had become Jewish homes with a tree of the light of Torah, the menorah at the center of their holiday season.

Blessings this Hanukkah to experience and increase “de”-Light.

See the Reclaiming Judaism Website for books by Rabbi Goldie Milgram.