Tag Archives: Judaism

Travel Guide: Leipzig

Many years ago, so many that I don’t remember quite when it started, I fantasized about moving to Europe and travelling around by train. Each time I have had the opportunity to sit on a train with a book in my hands and watch the world go by, I have smiled at the hopes and dreams we have when we are young. And then, this time, it happened: I have moved to Europe and I was travelling by train.

Located in the state of Saxony, Leipzig was first known as a merchant town in the Middle Ages. It later became the centre of East German life after the Second World War, and is now a home for history and culture, telling a story a thousand years old. It’s an hour and twenty minutes from Weimar on the regional train (no changes) and slightly faster with the ICE train (but there’s a change in Erfurt). A city of 600,000 people, Leipzig made for a nice change of pace and far broader food choices.

I left early and arrived just after 9am, which gave me time to get a coffee and something to eat before joining the free walking tour (I have so many good things to say about this in so many cities). It’s always a pleasure to wander, but wandering becomes something different when you know what you’re seeing. I will not relay the history of Leipzig here, but I will say that much of the old town has been reconstructed because two-thirds of it was destroyed during the war.

Leipzig University is a good example of the story architecture can tell. There was once a church here, the Paulinerkirche, which was destroyed in 1968. The reconstruction pays homage to what was while honouring the different values university communities often hold today.

Another prominent church is Nikolaikirche, which I came across on my own before our tour guide explained Leipzig’s experience as part of the German Democratic Republic (former East Germany). It made my heart soar when I first saw it, and even more so when I learned that this church was the site of the peace marches that signaled the end of communism and the beginning of a new era of life and politics. I have a great appreciation for any religious community that stands for what it preaches – justice, peace, and a better world for us all.

This mural tells the story better than I can:

Through a discussion with the tour guide, I learned that Leipzig has the largest Jewish community in central Germany and that there is also a tour of Leipzig’s Jewish history. I will have to return for this because it’s only offered once a month, so in the meantime I walked over to the Holocaust memorial. Situated on the site of the old synagogue, this memorial brought to mind not masses, but individuals. The modern restaurants and apartment buildings surrounding it demonstrate what I continue to find the most fascinating aspect of humanity – the world turns and life goes on.

Later in the afternoon, I walked south into a neighbourhood called KarLi, nicknamed for its main street. It did not surprise me that this is where many students live. Students have a way of developing areas to suit them, or perhaps it is the neighbourhoods themselves that have called students there. I currently live in a student neighbourhood and while my annoyance at their penchant for late hours is a clear reminder that I have left that world behind, I am grateful for the positivity, energy, and spirit that comes from being young and imaginative. These are, after all, the people who make the world go round.

I saw many examples of activism throughout Leipzig and that was heartening. There’s a lot to be active about right now, and while I’m aware that actions speak far louder than words, most actions begin as words. Even a whisper is better than standing idly on the sidelines.

My time in Leipzig lasted just over 24 hours. I was glad to be around more people, hear more languages, and taste different food. I appreciated the time in a new place, the ease of travel, and the excitement of learning something new. Leipzig is just down the road and there’s a literary festival in March – I suspect I’ll be back.

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.

What I’ve Learned from Plants

We had a beautiful rain Saturday night, a rain that I caught just at its hinted beginning while on my bike, a rain that I felt even while safe on the balcony. The rain cooled the earth, soaked into the soil, and was then gone from the sky, moving across vast oceans.

The following morning I was delighted by some new shoots from the seeds that I planted last week. I watered them, noting how the plants closest to the edge of the balcony were still a tiny bit damp from the rain. After a trip to the nursery for fertilizer and potting soil I cleaned up some dead leaves, planted new seeds, and basked in being part of the cycle of life. 

I used to get upset when my plants dropped leaves, used to ask what I was doing wrong. But I have learned a good deal over three years with this little garden of potted herbs and leafy, occasionally flowering plants. I have learned through the experience of people who have brought plants to life for much longer than I, and I know now that plants are hardy and wise. It is a pleasure to watch as older leaves fall to make room for new ones and to know that when herbs go to seed, they grow again. 

Sometimes the plants need more water or more space, but sometimes it is less water and bit of coaxing. They have taught me to be patient, to watch, to listen, and to look. These are active processes. Plants require that we care and cultivate and nourish. These are verbs. Verbs are actions.

And I wonder: If we cared as much for people as we do for our plants, if we cared as much for the Earth herself, what kind of world could we build?

These are the reflections brought to my mind on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement that comes ten days after Rosh Hashanah, the New Year, on the Jewish calendar. This new year is one that needs us to take action, to care, cultivate and nourish, to love. Many of us need to heal, need this year to be better than the last. 

What if we gave more to the people in our lives than we took? What if we expanded this awareness to acquaintances, or people we know only by sight, or simply the people we pass by in our daily routines? 

Do we dare go further? 

Could we act with awareness of people we’ve never met in places we’ll never see, people who have names we’ve never heard and speak languages we didn’t know existed? 

And further still, to the Earth herself?

A new year can be seen as an opportunity for deep introspection of who we are, who we want to become, and the world we want to create. My dreams for this world are simple in the sense that they exist in color and are textured with wind and water, mountains and stars. Any child could draw this, and then might add the people that I see smiling and holding and loving. 

But these dreams are impossible if I’m dreaming alone.

The solemnity of the Jewish calendar at this time of year, the emphasis on the collective and on one’s responsibility within it, reminds me that every time we water a new seed, smile at a stranger, hug a loved one, or share food with others, every time we partake in creating a better world, we are no longer dreaming alone.

Shalom aleichem, peace be upon you.

Some of my plants – September 2020