Being a Jew in a One Shul Town

Rachel S. Harris
October 24, 2012
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On a trip to Munich just before the New Year, I remembered what it meant to grow up in a one shul town. I’ve lived on four continents and in more than a dozen different towns and cities, yet I’ve always managed to live somewhere where there was only one synagogue. In the only places where this hasn’t quite been the case the small community in the area still has a concept of itself as unified, that’s probably true of Munich too.

I grew up in a traditional Jewish household outside of America, which meant that we went to the Orthodox synagogue and we went every week. The fight with my father about going was routine, we children rarely won. In some of the model communities  I’ve lived in, other denominations of Judaism also had a space in which to hold prayer services within the neighbourhood, often within the same building, but other collective needs such as visiting the sick or elderly, children’s education and burial provisions were provided for by the entire community across denominational lines. To me Jews were a single community, irrespective of worshipping preferences, and you went to shul because that is how you knew you were a Jew, and how you knew other people who constituted your community.

So finding myself in Munich on a Saturday morning, I took myself off to the new Ohel Jakob synagogue, inaugurated in 2006, which I only knew about because of an article I’d once edited on the migration of Russian Jews into Germany. After an extended negotiation with a perturbed Israeli security guard, I gained access to a beautiful modernist space and a service whose tunes were those of my childhood. The bar mitzvah in full swing meant that I was seated among the jabbering chorus of French, Hebrew and English from the visitors, alongside the German and Russian of the local congregation. The familiarity of the experience was not tempered with nostalgia but with curiosity about the local variations (and a struggle to guess at the page numbers that were announced in German). I was in town for the first ever European conference on Israel Studies to be held the following week at the nearby University. It felt joyful to be Jewish in a city whose history with Jews has been so problematic both during the holocaust and later as the home of the Olympic Games where Israeli athletes were murdered.  Ah, I thought, what a wonderful blog this will make for Sh’ma.

As I left the synagogue, buoyed by a general sense of goodwill and began to head back to my hotel, I again noticed the local Bavarian dress (dirndls and leiderhosen) that I had spied at the airport. They were in shop windows and worn by young and old alike. There were formal and informal, long and short variations of the women’s dresses. It isn’t yet Oktoberfest, this wasn’t a tourist gimmick. This is the local dress, and it is back in fashion.  What I didn’t see were people of colour. It was the most homogenously white collection of people I’ve seen in a long time. There is a huge Turkish population in the city and to all intents and purposes to the visiting tourist they are invisible within the Old Town.

I was struck by this phenomenon: the presence of local Bavarian culture, and the absence of anything else. I asked the local people with whom I interacted over the coming days, including academics, about this resurgence in national fervour. I was told that Bavarians are proud of their national heritage, and seek to distinguish themselves from northern Germans by looking back at an authentic past filled with tradition and custom, a local culture connected to history and to the place. There was no sense of irony, and the depiction of an ideal Bavarian history seemed to skip over the darker spots of the twentieth century.  I began to feel decidedly uncomfortable.

Among an educated and enlightened audience engaged in Israel studies; an audience as removed from Neo-Nazi s as I am, and who would be horrified at a manifestation of anti-Semitism within today’s Germany, the nostalgic idealisation of a Bavarian past seems quizzical. If Jews are no longer the enemy within for most Germans, if they have become white, German, Bavarian even, then have Turks come to replace them in a southern German imagination. Muslim, foreign, an underclass, and do they offer a threat to German idealism? And if they do, what will it mean for them in the months and years to come.

Being in synagogue in Munich I had felt connected to the person that I am, it felt familiar and I imagined that I could find a home there. I like being Jewish in a one shul town, I know my community and they know me. But seeing the sense of community the Bavarians feel made me reflect on whether a synagogue has become a place of exclusivity rather than inclusion; as a place in which I may belong but others do not.  Is this sense of historical identity always positive, and is it possible to maintain a balance between my Jewish community and the world beyond.

For my father, who most weeks still asks me if I’ve been to shul.

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Rachel S. Harris is Assistant Professor of Israeli Literature and Culture in Comparative &World Literature and the Program in Jewish Culture & Society at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. She has published on contemporary Israeli literature and culture in the journals Israel Studies, Shofar, and Modern Jewish Studies. She has written on suicide in Israeli literature, and more recently on women in Israeli film. Her co-edited volume bringing together articles on a range of subjects “Narratives of Dissent: War in Israeli Culture and Arts” will be published in the Fall through Wayne State Press. She is also the series editor for the Dalkey Archive Press “Hebrew Literature in Translation Series” and the Hebrew editor of “The Levant Notebook” an online literary magazine bringing together Middle Eastern fiction and poetry in English translation, along with reviews, and opinion pieces on the state of culture.

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