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.