Plain Meanings - Complex Texts

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Rabbi Yehiel Poupko is bridging the gap between old Jewish books and contemporary realities.

Plain Meanings - Complex Texts

Jewish Germany: then and now

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I'm writing this blog from the Annual JUF Rabbinic Mission, which this year takes us to Germany and Israel.  The mission brings together rabbis, some 23 strong, from all the synagogue streams, to learn about and experience the work that JUF makes possible. 

 There are 300,000 Jews in Germany.  About 30,000 of them are Israelis who have moved to Germany because of its professional, business, or artistic opportunities.  There are about 20,000 German Jews who are mostly the children and grandchildren of East European Jews who, after the war and after the Displaced Persons camps, remained in Germany.  Then there are about 250,000 Jews from the former Soviet Union who have been welcomed and resettled by the German government.  As a group of rabbis, we came to learn about the remarkable work that the Jewish Agency for Israel and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee are doing to engage this former Soviet Union Jewish community, and to bring them the means by which to build their Jewish lives. 

We are in two Germanys.  The first Germany is Ashkenaz, the culture that gave us Yiddish and to this day defines the civilization of the Jews of Europe.  Ashkenaz is born in the Rhineland some time in the 10th century, when Jews are brought from northern Italy in order to develop the commercial life of Medieval Germany.  Among the great towns of Ashkenaz are Worms, Mainz, and Speyer.  Worms is the city of Rashi (born 1041, died 1105).  Rashi is really a northern French Jew.  He went to Worms in 1065, and there he was shaped and molded by the Torah of several magisterial rabbis.  Rashi wrote an almost word-for-word commentary on the Talmud.  Rashi made the Talmud an accessible book.  Rashi created an amazing romance with the text of the Torah. Alongside Rashi were many other great scholars.  In Worms, we remember the way they were butchered in 1096 by the Crusaders.  The glory and radiance of a great Jewish civilization and the blood price paid for its presence in Germany are ever present.  Worms is also home to an important cathedral on whose south façade is an image of Ecclesia and SynagogaEcclesia means 'the Church', and the Church is represented by a statue of a young, robust, radiant, confident woman.  Synagoga is represented by a bent-over, blindfolded woman, on whose back are the broken Tablets of the Law, the Ten Commandments, to signify that the way of the Torah is no more. Pain and glory. 

And then there is Berlin.  Berlin is the city that gave hell a native tongue.  German is the language of the Death Camps, Concentration Camps, the destruction of European Jewry.  As the poet Paul Celan wrote, "Death is a master from Germany."  Berlin was, in the 1920s, the most cultured town in the world, a magnet that drew those who wanted the finest in the sciences, the arts, culture, technology, and literature.  It drew some of the most important 20th century rabbinic figures to its university halls—to name but three: Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel; Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the late Rebbe of Lubavitch; and Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveichik.  And just a few years later, on Jan. 30, 1933, when after the unmentionable one seized control, Berlin, the city of enlightenment, became evil's capital.  In the face of such circumstances, it is probably best to say as little as possible.  What is seen in Berlin is thus inexpressible.  The city is vibrant, filled with great architecture, wonderful public art, compelling installations of all sorts.  Yet one has the sense that Berlin is someone at a masquerade ball trying to hide her former life. 

Yet, this too is not the whole story.  Berlin is home to so many compelling memorials developed by the city or by individual initiative that express German responsibility for what was done to us.  There is a formerly Jewish neighborhood in which there are some 80 signs posted.  On each sign is a piece of anti-Jewish legislation to remind those who live in the neighborhood of what the Jewish people of the 1930s were subjected too.  The Jewish Museum Berlin is brilliant in its dense ability to capture each of the phases of the destruction of European Jewry and to personalize it by giving us family history pictures of those who were murdered all over Europe and all Jewish walks of life. 

As the Hebrew poet Uri Zvi Greenberg wrote about the Jewish people: "From before my birth and after my death, tears and splendor, blood and gold." 

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