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.
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?
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.