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Sunday, October 02, 2022

Traveling Jewish in Germany

As noted in my previous post, these travel log postings will be thematic rather than chronological. Today I want to respond to questions I’ve been getting about traveling Jewish in Germany. I don't have a lot of photos to share this time. Watch for them in the future!


Was it hard to find Kosher food?

This is an interesting question. For those who don’t need, it can encompass both locating Kosher restaurants as well as identifying what foods at a grocery store are Kosher. 

In short, it was quite possible to find Kosher food in Germany, but we needed to learn how to do it.

The major cities do have Jewish infrastructure that makes this seem easy in theory. However, we couldn’t rely on just walking into Kosher grocery stories and having things go easily. We flew into Frankfurt, planning to go to a Kosher grocery store before having to learn a new system of locating Kosher foods. However, we didn’t realize that, along with half of Europe, the owners of this Kosher store were on vacation during August. So we took the soy jerky and granola bars we had packed from home and decided to try our luck as we started on the the road trip portion of our trip. 

In Europe, the system for Kashrut works a little differently than in the U.S. Instead of looking for Kosher symbols on packages, we learned to use an app. You scan a barcode and the app will tell you whether something is or isn’t Kosher, or will say it’s unlisted. If unlisted, it directs you to answer 5 questions by scanning barcode, ingredients, name of the item and listing the store where it came from (if possible). A rabbi will respond in about 45 minutes with an answer. We ended up using that a lot in hotels that had packaged yogurt, and then would know when we saw that yogurt again that we could eat it. 

Having to learn this new system was part of the travel fun for me. While Naomi and Uri were packing up a hotel room I might go to a nearby grocery store and start foraging for the family, reading the German labels, using the app and generally trying to plan ahead a day or two at a time. 

Having had that experience with the first Kosher grocery store, we were pretty anxious to reach Munich early enough on Friday to find the store in that city too. There was only one near our hotel and we called twice to be sure we understood the hours. It was a tiny store with mostly Israeli food and a few things I didn’t quite recognize. I ended up using four languages there — English, German, Hebrew and Yiddish — for different things. I wanted to know what those “donut-looking” things looked like in the freezer so I asked if it was sufganiyot, the Hebrew used for donuts at Channukah. There were two young Chasidic-looking girls helping there and I heard them talking with some delight about how I had asked that question. 

Finally, there were also some Kosher restaurants in the three cities we visited. Since we spent most of our time in Berlin we went to one restaurant more than once because it was just a few blocks from our hotel. (The other was an absolute delight with this cauliflower dish that I just couldn’t get enough of, but it was a little more out of our way.)

Did we ever feel unsafe as Jews?

No. Quite simply, no. It didn’t come up at all. 

However, safety is clearly on the mind of the jews who live there. Security was really tight at the two shuls we went too, one in Munich and one in Frankfurt. The Munich shul has a relatively new building built on the site where a much older shul had been destroyed on Kristallnacht. To access this you go through a security system in a community building, then descend stairs to an underground tunnel that then brings you up into a giant box on the other side. I call it a box rather than a building because you can’t see out any windows on the walls. The skylight is magnificent and the interior is beautiful, but from the outside the place looks like kotel-style bricks all around and a giant 10 commandments structure that opens up to let congregants out at the end of the service. We wondered about the architecture. Was it meant to look like Tefillin? Like Israel? Regardless, the message was, “Don’t mess with us. No one is getting in here!”


As noted above, one of the things I really enjoyed on this trip was simply figuring out how to do things like shop for my family. Another trip like that was when I decided in Berlin that it was time to do some laundry. I ubered to a laundromat and had to work very hard to lean how to get things working. When one of the washers got stuck I started to panic and shyly asked for help from the only other person there. Turns out he was Canadian and after we pried the machine open we ended up chatting for the duration of my dryer cycle. It was a relief to connect with someone new exclusively in English and to compare notes on what we’d discovered about Germany. He’d been living there several years already working on a special project as a science in the university. His time there was coming to an end and he shared with me that he was glad to return home more permanently to his partner. I’m not exactly sure how he said it, but it was clear he was outing himself to me as gay. 

When I shared with him about the road trip portion of our trip he commented on those being more conservative areas. 

“Yeah,” I commented, recognizing what we had discovered just a day before. “When we arrived in Berlin at the train station it was like arriving in New York. So we were wondering… where we were before in those little towns? Alabama?” I then outed myself as Jewish and he told me to keep an eye out for brass plates on the sidewalks. These plates I now know are called Stolperstein. They designate homes of Jews who were murdered during the Holocaust.

Here lived Karl Gumbel
Local/Deprived of rights
fled and then died

It’s jarring to find these plaques while going about daily business. You can’t ever forget what happened.


Shul number 1

I shared above a description of the Frankfurt shul we attended. We went on Friday night and Saturday morning. Two major things stood out for me there. 

First, mwhen we arrived I was hyper-conscious of not wanting to take anyone’s seat. Naomi and I chose a spot, but then any time another woman came in I paid close attention to see if there was a chance we were sitting in her regular place. 

Instead of siddurim, most of the people on Friday night had these little Kabbalat pamphlets. Some were Hebrew-German. Many were Hebrew-Russian. An older woman came in with hers and we made eye contact, but I quickly established that it wasn’t because I had her seat. She came over to me instead for help finding her spot in the “siddur.” I tried to speak to her in German but she responded, “Ukraine.” 

I had to turn away for a minute, somewhat stunned in the realization that she was likely a refugee and hiding my instantaneous tearing up. I composed myself quickly, then helped her find her page and gestured for her to sit beside me. She clearly wasn’t very familiar with the service at all, but loved the singing. We tried again a few times to communicate. In addition to English, I offered my limited German, Hebrew, Yiddish and Spanish. No luck. She offered me Russian, French and Italian. In the end, about the only thing she could words we were actually able to exchange were her saying, “Mein Mann” and pointing out her husband to me. At the end of the service we hugged and laughed at having made some kind of friendship even without language to help us do so. I’ll never know for sure whether she was visiting, passing through, recently turned refugee or what. But I was grateful for the common non-language of simply sharing a Shabbat service to bring our connection.

The second remarkable experience I had in the shul was simply reading the parsha. The Chumash was translated in German and the parsha was Vaetchanan. This means that while reading the translation I got to experience something akin to actually reading shema and the ten commandments for the very first time. Sometimes it feels hard to pray to a Gd that’s invisible. But then suddenly to say in a new way, “Mein Gott” feels so sincere that I was driven to Daven with a bit more sincerity. 


Shul number 2

We went to the Baumweg Synagogue in Frankfurt. It was enormous and the women’s section upstairs was so hot that I actually thought I would faint a few times. (They handed out paper fans.) The acoustics were such that the chazan’s music was lovely, but I barely understood a word of either the Torah reading or the rabbi’s speech. As impressive as the building was, I didn’t personally feel too connected there. It did remind me a bit of the architecture of the shul I used to attend years ago in Portland, OR before it modernized. 

One last thing I appreciated, though, in both these shuls was a song that they sang after davening that I’ve never heard anywhere else. Apparently it’s part of the weekly service after the Torah reading. So beautiful. I would gladly listen to Avinu Shebashamayim on a regular basis here in the U.S. too. The link I have there is for a version that's a little over the top. Enjoy it anyway!


One final note about Shabbat in Germany. Here I’m returning to the first shul in Munich. I’ll write later about the wonderful things to see in the old town and viktualienmarkt where we stayed in Munich. As Shabbat began to wane, U and N were sitting in the courtyard of our hotel, talking and playing cards. I got antsy (as I do) and went out walking. The streets that had been filled earlier with hundreds of tourists were emptying now, but there were still a few street musicians. I’m still not certain of this, but that accordion player on the corner was doing something eerily familiar. I didn’t want to get too close since I had no money to offer, but I circled around nearby, dodging behind some of the food and grocery booths that were now darkened for the evening.  Could he really have been playing Kol Nidrei?


That pretty well summarizes what it meant to be Shabbat observant in Germany during this trip. A future post will include more connections to Jewish history.


Tuesday, August 30, 2022

Why I Went To Germany

     I guess it’s time I explain. 

Every time I’ve told a Jewish friend that my family was going to Germany, the friend has responded with a double-take.

“You’re going where?”

Before the trip I responded to this a little resentfully by saying, “There’s more to Germany than the Holocaust,” and then I’d explaim a little of our itinerary, glossing briefly over the stops that had to do with Nazi or concentration camp history. I know that for most of my friends, Germany can only be associated with those horrors. When I was dismissive of that association, I wasn’t really giving the whole picture of why it feels different for me.

The person in my family I most associate with World War II history is my Opa. He was my dad’s dad, and he was a German Jew. He loved his childhood home and he loved the German language. As a result I didn’t grow up with the knee-jerk reaction that so many others do against Germany. Instead I learned the language and found it easier and more fun than Hebrew or Spanish. It didn’t really matter what associations came with each of those languages. German was the one I could actually speak a little with someone. It was the one with the funniest books and even animated show “The Pappenheimers.” My public high school German teacher, Herr Curtis, was the best language teacher I ever had, and on this trip I began to remember the songs we always sang on Fridays as well as the history he taught us so passionately about things like The White Rose resistance group and about the Berlin Wall. 

So what drew me personally most to Germany was a relative who had a major impact on my life, and then by extension, a teacher who nurtured a connection to something my grandfather loved. 


With those things in mind, I’d like to share a bit with you about our trip, and in order to bring the most meaning, I will be sharing thematically rather than chronologically. The first half of our trip was a road trip through southern Germany into Bavaria. The second half we just stayed put in Berlin. I’m going to start the story here because this is the piece most significant around my grandfather.

My Opa was a student in Gymnasium (secondary school) when things started to get scary in Germany. His Uncle Walter took him in in a house south of Berlin in 1927. My Opa wrote about it in a memoir, describing the house as a beautiful little villa. He would only live there a few years, but described those as some of his happiest. Ahead of our trip, I took a chance and wrote a letter to the address in my memoir. To my surprise, I received a reply and was able to arrange to see the house in person!


So Tuesday night of our Berlin week, we took an Uber south to Paul Krause Strasse. Just as my grandfather had described, there was a little alleyway with bushes that looked like tiny trees, and then a beautiful “hauschen” (little house) as Uncle Walter had described it ironically. It wasn’t so much that the house was large as that it was regal with a tower and a gorgeous view of garden and the forest beyond it. The family that welcomed us in spoke English well enough that I didn’t try my German (at least at first). They were as eager to learn from me as I was to learn from them. Cornelia and Joachim showed us an album of old sepia photos of the house. They used it as a reference to share changes in the house. For example, the wall has been shifted in the place where a “haus frau” would have made her appearance when serving the evening meal. Now that stairway is obscured. In another photo, a woman is sitting in a parlor. They asked if I knew who she was and we are now researching it. They showed us the maid’s room (something that always interests me in these kinds of houses) and how the master bedroom and bathroom were closed off, leaving us to speculate together as to what she did for a bathroom. They showed us renovations such as how the attic that once was only storage now is a beautiful office.









All of this was exciting for me as I merged my Opa’s writings and my imagination with what I actually saw in front of me, but I also wondered what it meant to these strangers to have me show up there. When I first sat down with them they clarified, “Your grandfather was Jewish?” Well, yes, and that means that at some point, this house that had been purchased honestly by this family in the 1980’s had essentially been stolen. 


As the Nazis took power, Opa’s Uncle had the foresight to cut his losses and get out of town. He was wealthy and smart enough to keep a lot of that wealth in foreign banks. So since it was illegal for Jews to sell property, he handed his keys over to his friend and took his family away to Mallorca. As far as I know, he never got compensation for his house. 

Since this experience I’ve wondered if the family was afraid to have me show up at their house. Did they fear that I would demand it back? I’ve also learned now about government restitution. My dad says Opa was offered a check years ago and turned it down. I want to learn more about this.

In any way, just to tie up at least a little of my Opa’s story, after leaving Berlin, My Opa made a life with Uncle Walter in Mallorca at a stationary store. Later he moved again and joined the American army. By then, with all his experience and knack for learning languages he became translator and was referred to as “Webster” whose American colleagues found his English to be better than their own. This aspect of him is something I’ve been thinking about a lot the past few years as I’ve started to wonder if maybe I’m better at languages than I’ve ever given myself credit for before. But that will be a discussion for another post. 

Stay tuned…


Tuesday, May 17, 2022

And then it hit ... continued

 On further reflection, that last post doesn't say much that I haven't said elsewhere.

-I get sick

-I have trouble resting

-I feel bad about missing work

The thing I want to add here is that this isn't just any sick. This is the big one, the one that has completely changed the world we live in and has sown division among us. So one of the tricky things has been for me to even believe I have it. Another is that my second-guessing thoughts are about asymptomatic people who say it's no big deal. Then my brain goes to numbers of people who've died. 

I found myself watching this entire series of "Explaining the Pandemic to my Past Self." I don't think I'd have a brain for it most of the time but suddenly it was really important to me to take a step back and see where I'm holding in this hold timeline. 


And then there was this too:
That's all I could handle of thinking about what we're living in now. After that it was time to go read. That's the other thing I want to say here. I've been battling my "should"s all my life. The past week and I have I keep thinking I should go work on report cards, and then I keep discovering I just can't yet. I'm learning to trust myself a little better. It's harder than it sounds, but I have a beginner's mind and can always learn a little more.  




And then it hit

I've been really missing my blog. I've been thinking about it regularly and today is the perfect day to write what I'm up to.

So here we've been in the pandemic now for over 2 years. The anxiety of wondering how things would go if it came to our family has been a lot. The shoe finally dropped for me in the form of my catching COVID. So far my family is perfectly fine, thankfully.

I won't go into all the details, but I do want to share where I'm holding today. Last week on Monday I was already feeling ill. I was certain it was allergies. I got a PCR Tuesday night which is when I tested positive. The remainder of the week was spent in bed with bad cold/flu symptoms. 

Over the weekend I started to really recover. U kicked me out of the house to take a walk when he saw me fidgeting. Sunday afternoon I continued to push myself. I did a few loads of laundry (which means using stairs a lot) and went for two walks, one short and one long. The shorter one winded me, but later the longer one (15 minutes) was great. 

By evening, though, I was short of breath and realized I might not make it to work Monday.

Sure enough... Monday was a fight to breathe. My doctor put me on steroid inhalers and, by afternoon when it still wasn't resolving, prednisone as well. 

The day felt like a giant panic. I was so frustrated with my inability to control the day for my students. The tightness in my chest led to natural panic too. All day my colleagues told me remotely to stop worrying, but I couldn't. My supervisor talked me down from worrying about the whole week and told me to take things one day at a time. 

Today's another story. I'm still needing to go slow, to respect both my lungs and the effects of the medicines, but I feel more ease about doing so. I'm starting to trust more to my colleagues and am most grateful for the ones who are actively communicating with me. 

(I'll make a note of that. Could be others would like the same from me when are situations are reversed. I'll try to ask in the future.)

This certainly brings up memories of when I had cancer, of when I've had to take care of myself differently, but I accept those memories fairly comfortably. It doesn't hold the same darkness or worry that it once did. 

I'm worried about tomorrow. I don't know how to judge when I'm ready to return and I don't know yet what my plans will be for my students (or what to just turn over to others), but I'm feeling more like maybe I can wait and see. 

Yes, I can take it one day at a time. Thanks to the person who told me to do that. And thanks to her too for letting my students call me and wish me better. 

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Friday, October 22, 2021

18 Years

Some of the events that happen in our lives are celebrations. Others are losses. (Some a combination of both.) A few of them mark turning points in which somehow everything fundamentally changes. Becoming a parent might be one of those, for example. It was hard for me to remember anything that happened before the day Naomi was born without some feeling that it all happened in another reality. 

For me, another one of these events was the day I became a cancer patient. In ways I can't even pinpoint, I was a different person before that time than I am now. It's 18 years today since I took on the additional mantle of becoming a survivor. I'm glad to still be here. I'm glad to have you know me as I am now. 

Sunday, April 25, 2021

A Calm COVID Sunday

It's a quiet rainy day today, perfect for keeping me focused on household things like cleaning instead of eagerly wanting to rush out and spend my energy. 

All is generally well in my immediate world -- no crises of my own, but between my Caring Bridge updates, the awareness of some suffering that a friend at work is going through and an email I got last night from someone special who has lost a dear one to COVID, I feel acutely aware of pain floating in the halo around my own world. 

I am often affected by others suffering. Sometimes it activates me. Other times I'm crippled by it or become tense in its vicinity. Today I'm trying to marinate in the calm of my own home and nurture myself to be a solid witness for others. 

Sunday, February 21, 2021

Purim and Simcha during COVID

A year ago on the Jewish calendar, our world turned upside-down. We expected this to a certain degree. The month of Adar that brings in the celebration of Purim, is a month that commemorates the euphoria of the overturning of a death sentence when Haman is hung on the gallows he built for us. “Vehanofochu”-- upside-downness -- is the theme of the day.

Last year’s Adar, however, was also accompanied by another turning upside-down. As before a hurricaneor snowstorm, people hoarded toilet paper, prescriptions, food and water and listened to the news of the mysterious virus coming closer and closer to our shores. The last large gathering my family attended in 2020 was the Megillah reading. When Naomi and I each took our turn to read aloud to the congregation, we watched our friend sanitizing the yad, the small pointer used to help us keep our spot while chanting aloud the story of Esther and her triumph, a tiny gesture that would be magnified in the coming weeks as we learned to wipe down everything we touched.

The next day at school was costume day. Administrators filled the day with programming for the 
students while we teachers met in panicked meetings, deciding what assignments to send home. The Jewish day schools were waiting for the final say on whether we’d go on lock down, no one knowing how long. It could be a week or two, maybe more, we were told, and we quickly copied papers and stuffed them into folders for our students. There was an online program called Zoom we would be using to direct our students towards their work. We were offered a video to help us learn its features.

How little we knew about the changes coming. Since that time, the entire world has learned new ways of living, adjusted to changes in our life and has adopted the annoying catchphrase “new normal.” In my own school we taught out the remainder of the school year on Zoom, and my family mourned the cancelation of summer camp and visits to both sets of grandparents. We nested at home, learned how to function online, set a new rhythm of visiting friends outdoors and made decisions about what outings were safe enough, or warranted risk, or weren’t important anymore.

My colleagues, friends, and I have all been coping with this in different ways. For me, I’m fine most of the time, until I’m not, and sometimes have just shut down thoroughly in a state of trauma, becoming distracted or tired suddenly the way I did after the day, years ago, when my house was broken into, or like the time I was attacked by a dog.

In this month of Adar, when we are asked to express joy, there are some who just aren’t feeling it. I know it feels phony, sometimes, to smile when there is so much pain, uncertainty, and fear. It’s not uncommon to hear the metaphor of wearing an actor’s mask — showing the world your happy face while inside you only feel a frown.

Purim, though, celebrates the wearing of masks and turns it into something holy. We wear costumes that have the potential to translate a part of our inner selves into the language of the outside world for all to see. If we show what is inside of us, it is entirely possible we will show our pain. However, isn’t it also possible that the smile we’ve been showing on the outside, could also then be directed inwards and, with the fire of true joy, actually ignite something so that true joy is on the inside too?

Happiness and joy are not the same. Happiness is a feeling that implies everything going right and us being grateful for all that is good. Joy — simcha — is about something that is more nuanced and deeper. Joy is the realization from deep in the gut that the world still is, regardless of anything that has come in the way. A simcha, besides meaning joy, is the name for a celebration — a wedding, a birth, a bar or bat mitzvah. These days inevitably include some sense of loss… the ancestors who aren’t there to celebrate with us, the knowledge that this day comes only once, the wisdom in knowing that none of us will live forever and that’s precisely why this moment matters. One Simchat Torah — a day whose very name is about simcha — I danced with the Torah on behalf of my friend who I knew was dying. I dance with the Torah every year, but that year it meant more. Sorrow + the continuation of life’s cycles = Simcha.

There is no contradiction in celebrating during a pandemic or in being commanded to find joy on the day that might have marked our destruction. In this year, many have died and all of us have suffered. This is the very thing that will make us sing louder, pray harder and dance more.

Thursday, October 22, 2020

Remission Anniversary #17

Life during COVID starts to feel routine: the mask wearing, smearing of purell of cracking hands, obsession and tension of listening to the news. I never thought I'd adjust to returning to school, but we're doing it.

There are times, though, when it feels like the earth has cracked open beneath my feet. 

My dad had surgery on Monday. It was necessary because of the radiation he 22 years ago when he had cancer. It saved his life, but eventually wore down his heart. So this week they opened up his heart to fix it. 

He survived.

And 17 years ago today was the day my doctor said I was in remission from cancer. 

I had survived.

Most of the time, we just live out our routines, with or without drama. This week is different for me. I'm getting up in the morning, teaching, going home, but I feel like I do it while balancing on a tightrope over a canyon that somehow wasn't opened before. 

Opening up. A canyon. A heart. 

Holding onto a rope. 

Tuesday, August 25, 2020

Shofar

It's always fitting that the month of Elul and the beginning of the school year align. Elul is a time of returning to Gd as we prepare for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. It's a time to re-commit to what we know to be true, and to lay bare our vulnerabilities.

Returning to the classroom brings the same drive. If a person doesn't feel vulnerable and afraid with the abstract concept of facing Gd, they certainly can while counting down the minutes to prepare a classroom, welcome a new set of students and preparing to face any number of challenges and tension that a new school year has in store. 

This year is no different, but the stakes are higher. It's so much harder to plan now, what will the year look like? What sudden shifts will we need to make? What an awesome responsibility to be a captain on a ship in these waters for a group of vulnerable children who might not only be afraid of the voyage, but might demonstrate their anxiety in all sorts of ways that make the navigation that much more challenging.

In 30 minutes I'll be "back at school" but starting the day from my couch and attending first meetings on Zoom. Strange. I'll go to school but be asked to distance from colleagues. Strange. I will bring back with me some of the books I brought home when we went virtual, but not many of them. I don't want to have to lug them back again afterwards. Strange.

I'm also blowing shofar daily for myself and family, driving our experience of Elul and drawing down strength from above. Not so strange. 

But powerful. 

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Saturday, August 22, 2020

How To Be A Teacher During the Summer of 2020

Step 1: Collapse

Despite all your years, and all of your experience, you started from scratch, you gave it your all during the time of year when you were supposed to be winding down. You deserve this.


Step 2: Veg

Whatever way works for you...


Step 3: Worry

If you aren’t good at this, try taking stock every day of every symptom you might have. Make sure to read articles about well-meaning selfless people contracting the disease and dying fast.


Step 4: Commiserate

Make sure every conversation includes words and phrases from the following menu:

“What is the _____________(Governor/principal/president/camp office) thinking?”

“How am I supposed to... 

Mask

Plexiglass

Social distancing

Antibodies

Fatality


Step 5: Revisit steps 3 and 4. 


Step 6: Learn

You’ve provided yourself on professional development courses or classes every summer. You need it again more than ever. 


Step 7: Practice

Classes taken, what new skills do you need? Schoology? Google Tools? 


Step 8: Reignite

Visit Pinterest such as the beautiful beach scene classroom created by the teacher who put colorful umbrellas on top of the new plexiglass surrounded desks. Don’t read the downer wet blanket comments from people who are still on Step 4.


Step 9: Inspire

Don’t let someone else put out your flame. Share your enthusiasm with others. Fake it until you make it if you’re still lagging behind. Commit to protecting your own health as you blaze forward.


Step 10: Teach

This is what you’re made for. This is what you love. This is what is needed.


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Tuesday, August 18, 2020

End of August

 My former writing group invited me back for an August Write-A-Thon. Write something every day. I'm sharing this one here:


End of August

Yesterday I saw an airplane, the kind of airplane I usually would have boarded by now to visit my parents across the country. 

Tonight I went for a walk on my street, the same neighborhood I’ve walked almost every day for the past six months. I heard crickets, the same kind of cricket sounds I usually hear by now when we meet up with my college roommate from out of state and go camping, a camping trip we promised ourselves annually as soon as I moved to the east.

Just now I had a hug, a hug I’m grateful for, from my husband, the only person allotted to giving them to me right now. 

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