From Germany to Jerusalem
From: Alli Allen in Atlanta, Georgia
I very much enjoy your weekly emails and would appreciate getting your opinion on an idea that my family is considering. For some background information: My mother was born in Germany and escaped when she was 9 years old with her parents one week before Kristallnacht. Unfortunately, her grandparents, aunt and other family members perished in the Holocaust. The synagogue where my mother went to school as a young girl in Stuttgart was bombed in WWII but has since been rebuilt. Now, sixty years later, my son will have his bar mitzvah in 2 years. We are entertaining the idea, if it is possible, of returning to Germany to the very same synagogue and conducting his bar mitzvah there. Of course, G-d willing, my parents would be there with us making the experience all the more meaningful. What are your thoughts? To us, this would be a way of expressing the fact that despite all the attempts to wipe out the Jews of Germany, we have survived and thrived and are returning as Jews with the freedom to do as we please. I don't know whether it would be objectionable for us to have his bar mitzvah in Germany, and I would appreciate getting your thoughts on this. Thank you very much.
I completely empathize with your feelings. While I always knew part of my father’s family came from Germany, recently, after much research, I found out from exactly which town (also in Southern Germany, near Stuttgart). In order to reconstruct, and thereby reconnect to my German-Jewish roots, I obtained many primary resources including maps and pictures, which culminated in documentation regarding the house in which my family lived, the (Kristallnacht-rebuilt) synagogue in which they prayed and the (desecrated) cemetery in which many were buried.
Eventually I had an opportunity to be in Europe, and I made my way to Hechingen. Traveling in a rail car seven hours through Germany while appearing so conspicuously Jewish and being stared at by many of the Germans (and Arabs) was a very eerie and uncomfortable feeling. On the other hand, being received so graciously by my helpful German host, and visiting places so meaningful to me, was very heart-warming and moving.
Still, I don’t think one has to go there in order to demonstrate one’s Jewish pride and freedom, and specifically on an occasion of Jewish significance. The Nazi/European persecution of that period extended beyond the Jews of Germany; and by the same token, Judaism never held any religious attachment to Germany or any other nation of exile. Jewish resilience in exile is not expressed by returning to one geographical location or another once the storm of persecution has passed, but rather by returning to Judaism wherever one ends up. For this reason, Judaism in America is flourishing.
Therefore, considering that in Germany you have no family, no friends and no rabbi, where you will have logistical problems with kashrut and Shabbat, and all this in a synagogue which may be more of a museum than a shul, and may not have a minyan or kosher Torah scroll - I think it’s better to stay home. There, you’ll share this very important occasion joyously with your family, friends and congregation, and your son will enter Jewish manhood with self-confidence and self-respect among loved ones, in a setting where he can perform his first mitzvot meticulously rather than having to compromise or cut corners. Celebrating the bar mitzvah where you are, in an established Jewish community with all that entails, is not only better from a Jewish perspective, ultimately it’s a greater expression of Jewish pride and freedom as well.
This does not mean that you shouldn’t take your son and parents to visit Germany another time. From an historical and Jewish point of view, this may be very educational, meaningful and moving. After all, I feel fortunate that I had the opportunity to do it, and I’m glad that I did. But having been there and knowing what it’s like, I would never want to celebrate a joyous occasion in such Jewish eerie-isolation.
That being said, there is another possibility. While I wrote above that Jewish resilience is not about returning to a particular place, there is an exception – the Land of Israel. Even though we were so viciously persecuted and exiled from that land, Israel is eternally central to Judaism and a Jew must hope, pray and strive to return to our nation’s home. In my opinion, observing your son’s bar mitzvah in Jerusalem, near the location of the Holy Temple, would better realize what you expressed: “Despite all the attempts to wipe out the Jews of Germany [and may I add, despite the attempts against all Jews in all times and places], we have survived and thrived and are returning as Jews with the freedom to do as we please [may I add, Jewishly, in our own Land]”. If this is at all possible, you might consider visiting Germany on your way to the bar mitzvah in Jerusalem – this would certainly enhance your feelings of liberty from persecution and exile to Jewish pride and freedom.