Month: December 2014

Berlin: Seven Other Impressions

To augment my musings about My Jewish Day In Berlin, here are other impressions from my trip.

1. Climb and Climb

I climbed a million stairs in Berlin. Probably—I lost count pretty quickly. From the street to my AirBnB apartment was almost 100. Every U-Bahn (Untergrundbahn or “underground railway”) station is at least another 25, more if there is a transfer between lines, which there usually is. My record was day two, when I recorded 13,142 steps by taking the 4-hour Famous Insider Tour, going up and down from the apartment twice more, and walking through two Christmas markets. I’m tired thinking about it all again.

That walking tour was one of the best touristy things I did. I got an understanding of the city’s geography, saw all of the major sites, and learned quite a bit from the guide, including finally understanding how the Russians blocked all of West Berlin necessitating the Berlin Air Lift (the city is entirely within what became East Berlin, making West Berlin an isolated little enclave—similar to how Lesotho is entirely within South Africa).

2. Christmas Markets

Drinking glühwein, staying warm

Drinking glühwein, staying warm

Before I left, many people told me about how big of a deal Christmas markets are in Germany. They are full of food vendors selling different kinds of wurst, doughnuts, spiced nuts, chocolate-covered fruits, and hot drinks. All of which are delicious. My favorite was glühwein (hot mulled wine). We need more of this in the US. All of the markets seemed to have the same vendors for both food and gifts, which few people were buying. It seems Germans go to the Christmas markets as a new place to be together and hang out.

3. AirBnB was great

It was suggested that I try AirBnB in a few specific neighborhoods instead of a hotel. This was my first AirBnB stay, and I’ll be back for more. My hostess was lovely and having someone to talk and hang out with made the trip even better. We watched a movie together Saturday night and went to a Christmas market together another night. Being able to cook myself breakfast saved money and time, and ensured I always had exactly what I wanted.

4. There’s Always Time For Chocolate

Chocolate Reichstag

Chocolate Reichstag

I took time out of my busy tourist schedule to visit Fassbender & Rausch, which claims to be the world’s largest chocolatier. I don’t know about that, but I do know about the deliciousness that was in my mug. It was like drinking a gourmet dark chocolate bar. Somehow I refrained from buying all of the pastries in the cases.

Damaged church spire

Damaged church spire

What also makes the store fun are the Berlin landmarks rendered in chocolate, such as the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedächtniskirche (Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church). The church, which was mostly destroyed by bombing during WWII (as was almost everything in the city), has been repaired but the spire has been preserved in its damaged state.

5. The Coolest Toilet I’ve Ever Seen

Neue Castle

Neue Castle

I ventured to Postdam to see Sanssouci Palace and the Neues Palais. (They are situated within a park that has beautiful gardens as well but (1) they aren’t so beautiful in the winter and (2) this turned out to be the one day on which it rained, snowed, sleeted, and hailed. I didn’t linger outside.)

The castles are beautiful and extravagant and worth seeing. In a few years, more rooms will be restored, and the tours even better.

Also worth seeing while in the park is this amazing self-cleaning toilet seat in the Visitor’s Center.  This was the only restroom I had to pay to use, and my €0.70 was well worth it. (I thought about shooting a video, but didn’t—thank goodness for YouTube.)

6. Culture

My AirBnB hostess suggested I go to the ballet, which she had just seen. It was an amazing staging of Don Juan with classical technique and modern sensibilities. It was so unusual that I was sure there would be online reviews, but I haven’t been able to find any. So just watch the short video instead. It’s worth it.

I saw a poster for Hinterm Horizont (Beyond the Horizon), a musical with English translation on a screen. You know I love a good musical. It features the music of German rock star Udo Lindenberg and it tells the story of him falling in love with an East German girl while performing there. Seems that never happened, but other pieces of the show historically accurate, such as Udo sending the East German party boss a rocker jacket in 1987. Still, the story was sweet.

The show masterfully incorporated video of the Berlin Wall and historic events, some of which I recognized, but mostly I was guessing at what I was seeing. I am sure they resonated with the Germans in the audience the way images of marchers in Selma or the crowd on the Mall during Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech would with Americans.

U-Bahn Rules

7. Lost In Translation

Because not everyone who reads this blog is on Facebook, I’m including this gem. This sign is in every U-Bahn car and along the platforms as well. My first interpretation of it was:

No eating.

No drinking alcohol.

No smoking.

Riding a horse is permitted.

8. Photos

Because I’ve learned that inserting a lot of photos into a post makes it slow to load and frustrates readers, which I really do not want to do, I’ve created a separate photo album. It also incorporates a few things I haven’t written about here.

My Jewish Day In Berlin

Day three of my vacation was “Jewish day” and I hit the big relevant sites: Topography of Terror, Jewish Museum, and the Neue Synagogue.

One vein of my Jewish identity is, “You are part of an oppressed people who exist today despite the efforts of others, from  Pharaoh in Egypt to Hitler in Europe, to wipe us out.” I’ve read a fair amount about the Holocaust and heard first-hand accounts from survivors I represented who were seeking reparations from Germany for work they performed in ghettos. I have a decent Jewish education, understanding the basics of our rituals and our history.

Putting this all together, my Jewish day was an odd one. The three places I visited contain overwhelming amounts of information. Most of it is presented alongside photos or objects, such as candlesticks or maps. I felt obligated to read every placard and view every item. But I am not the target audience of most of them.

At these three locations, most of the information seems to be presented to educate people at either end of a spectrum—those who want very in-depth information or those who know nothing. I’m definitely in the middle. I am not interested in becoming a Jewish history or Holocaust scholar. Nor do I need the rituals of a bar mitzvah explained to me.

Gluckel of Hamelin

Descendant of Glückel, dressed as her

I soon started reading only things that captured my attention. In the Jewish Museum, it was an exhibit about Glückel of Hamelin, a very successful businesswoman in the late 1600s. Because she kept extensive diaries after her first husband died, her story has not been lost or discounted, as so many stories of women’s history are.

Glückel actively worked with her husband in the gem and metals trade, then took over after he died. She maintained the business, expanded into lending money at interest, and set up a sock factory in Hamburg. She traveled throughout Europe to trade and make strategic matches for her 12 children, establishing relationships in other countries. Although her goal was to never have to rely on her children to take care of her, Glückel ended up having to live the end of her life with a daughter after her second husband, a financier, bankrupted them and then died.

Pretty cool, huh?

Neue Synagoge

At the Neue (New) Synagogue—which was dedicated almost 150 years ago—I learned about Regina Jonas, a woman who was ordained as a rabbi on December 25, 1935, in Berlin (not sure why  they chose Christmas Day).

As the Neue Synagogue was in East Berlin and inaccessible after the war, Rabbi Jonas’ story was lost until the Berlin Wall came down when people read the archives rediscovered her story. When the Reform movement in the US ordained Sally Priesand in 1972, she was referred to as the “first woman rabbi ever.” Nope.

Regina Jonas’ final thesis topic was, “May a woman hold rabbinic office?” She concluded the paper, “Almost nothing halakhically [Jewish law and custom] but prejudice and lack of familiarity stand against women holding rabbinic office.”

She nailed that statement.

At lunch the next day, I was seated near a long table of 16 grey hairs—people I estimate ranged from 60-85 years old. They were speaking German. I watched them and wondered, “Where were you during the war?” “Did you end up in West Germany or East Germany?” “How many different radical shifts in life have you experienced?” I didn’t interrupt their gathering to ask.

It was impossible to be in Berlin and not think about the Holocaust and the Cold War. I wonder whether that would change if I stayed longer or lived there.

Here are my other impressions of Berlin and my photo album.

It’s All The Internet’s Fault

I finally figured out where my time is going: it is being sucked away by the interwebs.

I was starting to get concerned. People would ask, “What did you do today?” and I would have no answer. I could list only one or two different things I had undertaken that day.

Then I realized that it’s all the internet’s fault.wasting time

Now that I have more time on my hands, I have more time to spend online. Facebook and various newsletters make me aware of really interesting articles. Whereas in the past I might have read one or two, now I read many of them (and then click on and read some of the articles featured at the bottom/side of the one I read originally—you see how this quickly can get out of hand).

The internet also is to blame for my lack of motivation to travel over the past few weeks. I spent about 10 hours online planning my 48-hour trip to Shenandoah. That ratio seems off. But there was always one more website to check and one more review to read. Exhausting.

airplane_clipart_blue_and_white_circular_sticker__35756Thankfully a friend suggested that for my next trip, I set a budget and give myself a limited amount of time to book something. What a great way to resist the black hole of the web. I took the advice and soon am heading to Berlin. A borrowed guidebook includes a suggested 4-day itinerary, so that’s another gazillion hours of planning time saved. Total internet time prior to departure: about five hours.

So I spend a lot of time reading articles online. While I haven’t made much progress on the 60+ unread books I own, in the grand scheme, this use of my time may not be a bad thing. I’m just glad I now know what I’m doing all day.

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