Jewish in Germany

I can count the number of times I’ve cried during prayer. Before Friday night, that number was one. At a Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) event when I was in college, we said the mourners’ prayer aloud, which I had never done before. The mourners’ prayer is recited by those people Judaism strictly defines as mourners, and then only under certain pre-conditions. To say this prayer was to move our remembrance in a direction I had not been before and have never forgotten. Until Friday night, that was the only time I’d cried during prayer.

Last Friday, I went to Erfurt, the city (population 214,000) nearest my small town (population 65,000). Erfurt is home to the only synagogue in the state of Thuringia. The presence of police were the first clue that I was in the right place, and it was only then that I noticed the Hebrew words and large Jewish star above the door. A couple was sitting in the park across the quiet street, the man wearing a kippah (or yarmulke if you prefer, though that spelling has never made any sense to me).

I sat on a nearby bench and waited. When they got up, I followed them inside. I gave my name and some general information to the elderly security guard who clearly knew everyone who was expected that evening; their names were on a list in front of him and he crossed them off as each one arrived. He pointed me towards the rabbi, with whom I’d exchanged emails the previous week. We talked for a moment and then he offered me a siddur (prayer book) with translations in German or in Russian. I’d been told that most of Erfurt’s Jewish community is comprised of Russians who left Russia around the time it became Russia. The small Jewish day school I attended as a child was much larger in the mid-nineties for the same reason.

In the few minutes before services were due to begin, elderly men talked to one another, some in German and some in Russian, others switching back and forth. One man read a Russian newspaper. The few women chose seats in one of the two reserved sections and some of them smiled at me. I wondered at the worlds these people have seen, to have come from wherever they came from, and the forces of the universe that brought them here, to the most unassuming shul I’ve ever been in. Three white walls, one blue wall, decorated windows, large wooden benches, the Ark where the Torahs are kept, the Ner Tamid (Eternal Light) that I always take a moment to look at where it hangs, as always, above the Ark.

The rabbi told me he’d announce the page numbers and he did, in German and then in Russian. But I didn’t need the announcements. It seemed like no one did. There’s a regulars crowd at every shul and this was clearly it. All of the prayers were said in the order that I know, as they always are. The beauty of Ashkenazi Judaism is that I knew all the variations of all the tunes, as well. I knew this to be true as soon as the first page was announced and the singing began.

And I knew some other truths, as well, as soon as I started to cry.* The tears surprised me, and the welling in my throat while writing this has surprised me.

Had you told me, at any prior point in my life, that I would be in a shul in Germany davening Kabbalat Shabbat, praying to welcome the Sabbath, I would have laughed. Had you told me that I would be in a shul here in Germany davening Kabbalat Shabbat and that the first moment of prayer would have brought tears from a reservoir I didn’t know I had, I would have given it a moment’s thought, looked for the place these tears came from, and concluded that it didn’t exist.

I would have been wrong.

When I spoke to the rabbi after the service, he understood what I was trying to say. He filled in “here in Germany” before I got to it.

Yes, here in Germany.

Before I moved here, my mum lamented that it had to be here, Germany. My sister had only good things to say about her travels and my brother had only the opposite. My grandparents likely had opinions but kept those opinions to themselves. My surname is German, as I keep being told. My family is not. It takes so little time to explain that here, far less time than it has taken anywhere else. I am living in a town that has tiny historical signs across the street from buildings that Hitler built, both to educate and inform and to prevent bad actors from demanding these places. I am living in a town that has a park dedicated to witnesses of the Holocaust and that’s all that each massive portrait of an elderly man or woman says: Zeuge. Zeugin.

Yes, here in Germany.

Knowing this, I stood in shul and, during the first moments of prayer for the second time in my life, I cried.

*Just to paint a picture that will properly capture this moment in time: I was crying while trying to sing and I was wearing a medical mask, as required indoors in Germany during the Covid-19 pandemic that has now stretched on for a year and a half with no sign of letting up. This left me reluctant to remove the mask to wipe my eyes and blow my nose lest I look ill. I was a guest, after all! I thought of comic strips and couldn’t help but laugh inwardly.

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