Not Fearing in an Age of Anxiety

A Tribute to the Oranienburger Straße Synagoge and my favourite Berlin Jews

This past week’s Torah portion, VaYelekh, offers the most important advice that the Jewish people have ever received: do not fear. Within this very short portion, we are told twice, emphatically, neither to fear nor to despair upon entering the promised land.

Our portion opens with Moses reminding the people of his advanced age (120 years) and his declining abilities (Deut. 31:2). Nachmanides understands this passage as a consoling measure to a people about to lose their beloved leader; in reassuring them that he is no longer “in his prime,” Moses is somehow offering the Israelites the comfort they need to move on and accept new leadership. The story of the Jewish people is not one of a venerated, irreplaceable leader, but one of an enduring collective. But the refrain not to fear rears its head shortly thereafter, suggesting that even this attempted measure of encouragement might not have necessarily cut it.

The imperative not to fear already appears at the outset of the book of Deuteronomy, a book which situates itself in the historical and theological liminal space of the Children of Israel’s redemption and transition into a land that will finally be theirs. Allusions to fear densely populate Deuteronomy’s many sweeping pronouncements for the Israelites. In fact, no other book of the TaNaKh, with the exception of the book of Isaiah, contains as many references to fear and fearing.

Much in a similar vein to my confusion over how we can be commanded to love in the Shema, I have long struggled with exactly how we can be commanded to refrain from fear. Moreover, the context in which this recurring commandment not to fear appears makes this ask all the more impossibly daunting: the people are about to lose the only leader they have ever known and about to inhabit an entirely new land.

How are they – or we – to understand the Biblical injunction against fear?

To answer this question, I returned to Yochanan Muffs’ phenomenal Love and Joy: Law, Language, and Religion in Ancient Israel, which tackles these very concerns. The Torah’s understanding of love, Muffs explains, is truly a covenantal one which is pragmatically-concerned. Indeed, we cannot condition ourselves to feel on command, but we can express love and fulfil that divine commandment through our positive actions. Similarly, we can approach the commandment not to fear not so much by repressing the deep-seated fears in our hearts, but by confronting and practically breaking free from those fears. We must face precisely what terrifies us – consider it biblical exposure therapy.

Taken in this light, we can now understand why and how Joshua was deemed worthy to succeed Moses as the leader of the people as they enter the promised land. In the episode of the 12 spies entering the land of Canaan (Numbers 13:1-33), Joshua was one of only two spies who expressed the resolve to enter the land, despite its intimidating qualities. Joshua refused to succumb to fear. It is precisely this resolve which has enabled centuries of Jews to persevere, no matter their lot and very legitimate fears.

I want to tell you about a modern-day Joshua, someone who forever changed the way I think about bravery and strength. This is the story of Leo, my survivor cousin of very blessed memory, whom I found upon graduating college and moving to Germany.

My senior year at Northwestern University, I was thrilled to learn that my Fulbright and DAAD research fellowship applications to Germany had been accepted. When I shared the news with my parents, my father mentioned in passing that we once had relatives who lived in Berlin, where I’d be based, but that he believes they have since passed. The last correspondence, through mail, was in the late 60’s, between my paternal grandmother and her Berlin cousins. The letter was shortly after my grandparents’ visit to said relatives in Berlin. Evidently they had survived the war in Poland, where they were born and raised, and then fled immediately after the war to Germany, where they started a major jewelry store chain.

Being the good millennial I was, I dutifully took note of these scattered hints and took to google. Perhaps I could find some remaining German family? I found the name of their jewelry store, still under their (less common) family name. All that was listed under the contact information was a fax number. In my then-awkward German, I proceeded to rattle off an introductory note, explaining that I was about to move to Berlin and would love to meet them, if they are still there.

Sure enough, I heard nothing back. I assumed new management had since taken over but kept the iconic name of this jewelry chain, which I later learned was the Tiffany’s equivalent of Germany.

Fast-forward to two weeks before I am slated to move to Germany. Much concerning the move was still very much up in the air, including housing. I happened to be visiting my parents, when suddenly at 4am, the phone rings. My mother appears in front of my bed, holding up the phone. “This must be for you.” And sure enough, on the other line, was the gruff, Polish-German-Yiddish-inflected voice of my 85-year-old cousin Leo.

I could hardly believe it. I could barely even understand what he was saying over the phone. When he mentioned he had housing for me, I was sure I was hallucinating. But I was lucid enough to jot down his son Marcel’s email address so I could follow up.

The day I arrived in Berlin, Marcel insisted on meeting me. Marcel is Leo and Helen’s younger son, then in his 40’s. In his car, he had stashed away sets of dishes. “These are all new. We can tovel these. I know just the place,” he said to me. We soon started talking about contemporary Jewish music, about which Marcel knew an impressive lot. “This is so surreal,” I kept thinking. Who would have thought I had German cousins?

Marcel first brought me to meet Leo and Helen at their store on Kurfürstendamm in the western part of Berlin. With absolute delight and great emotion, they both embraced me and welcomed me to Berlin (after first asking me, “do you know Barbara??” they had just attended a Barbara Streisand concert and were excited to give me the play-by-play of what she performed). “You will worry about nothing here. We will take care of everything,” they both reassured me. And sure enough, they absolutely did. Leo and Helen were very much surrogate parents to me, so much so, that they would call me if they had not heard from me late at night, to make sure I was okay. As a researcher conducting field work in ethnomusicology and thus frequenting a number of late-night concerts in a variety of venues, this would sometimes be very humorous, but always incredibly sweet. They were extremely protective of me.
Safety was a great concern to Leo and Helen, I would presume as a response to their very difficult childhoods as survivors. But at the same time, they did not let fear control their lives.

In fact, Leo’s big advice to me always was not to fear. “Die sind nur Menschen!” (“they’re only people”), why be scared. I can still hear him saying to me with his characteristic twinkle in his eye, usually while chain-smoking. In Leo’s words, I heard echoes of 11st century Spanish Jewish philosopher Bahya ibn Paquda’s teaching that we should be ashamed for G-d to see us fearing anyone but G-d. I’ve always been something of a worrier, and hearing Leo say this was so liberating, especially coming from a person who during the war was imprisoned three times by Polish soldiers who brutalized him mercilessly. But Leo fought back, undeterred, using all 5”3 of his might to push forward and fulfill his every dream. Along with his three older brothers and his mother, all of whom survived, he arrived in Germany with nothing but an abandoned motorcycle he had found, and his tremendous will to live.

– – – –

There are many stories I could share about Leo, but to illustrate just how epically cool he was , I’ll share a favourite anecdote:

As I mentioned in passing above, without me even asking, Leo furnished me with a place to live upon arriving in Berlin. It was an apartment opposite Berlin’s largest opera house, the Deutsche Oper (or, as my very dear friend Ben, who was also in Berlin on a Fulbright, and with whom I had moved to Germany, liked to call it, the Deutsche Opfer, meaning “the German victim,” with its excessive flashiness, which he would liken to the exterior of the West Hartford JCC). The apartment belonged to one of Leo’s best, longtime friends, whom he had known since before the war. Herr Jungmann had since made Aliyah to Israel. But to keep collecting his pension from the Germany government, he needed to retain his address. And so he needed someone to collect his mail. I rose to the challenge and enjoyed what felt like an extended Weekend at Bernie’s with an absurdist twist.

The apartment had everything I needed and then some, with some curiously excessive, ornate, old-school furniture crammed in. Not so much my aesthetic sensibilities, but hey, the price was right.

That winter, Ben was cast as the lead in a new, German-language production of Stephen Sondheim’s Company, directed by our good friend, the thunderously talented Martin G. Berger. All of us being ridiculously young and without resources at the time, Martin’s art crew assiduously surveyed any landscape we encountered for possible props and set-design items. Upon viewing the Persian rug in Herr Jungmann’s apartment, Martin requested to borrow it for the show. Not thinking much of the request, I agreed to lend them the carpet for the production.

Soon enough, the show was up, over at the Kulturhaus Spandau Freilichtbühne an der Zitadelle, a giant outdoor amphitheater in a western neighbourhood of Berlin. And, of course, it rained. With a vengeance. Despite the inclement weather, Ben was singing his heart out, contending valiantly with the set’s rotating bed, stripping down to his underwear, while belting out ‘Being Alive,” (all in German, remember!) as the lightning flashed and rain poured down, and all I could think was, “Oh my G-d. The rug.”

Indeed, the rug was maximally soaked. Knowing very little about how to care for upscale Persian rugs, I immediately consulted with a local Persian rug dealer, who explained that treating a water-logged Persian rug was no simple ordeal. He asked to look at it and could give me a better estimate of how much I’d have to shell out to treat it. What I also did not anticipate was just how heavy the darned thing was. We lugged it on the S-bahn and looked like some poorly-conceived performance art project ourselves. I vaguely recall us possibly also lugging the rug to the musical director’s aunt’s apartment, where she always did his laundry, but no dice.

The big shock was when, after already having taken in the rug for treatment, the Persian rug dealer shared with me his appraisal of the rug and how much treatment would cost. There was simply no way we were going to be able to afford this. How on earth did I get myself in this pickle? Moreover, how would I ever tell Leo about my negligence with his friend’s rug?? I felt absolutely horrible.

We brainstormed a number of alternate plans, including trying to retrieve the rug and schlepping it out to a remote facility on the edge of Brandenburg. I was vetoed. Meanwhile, it just kept raining in Berlin. How would we even transport this thing back, even once we paid for its wildly expensive treatment? This was not going to end well.

Pacing the apartment, I rehearsed how and what I’d explain to Leo. Martin and Ben tried to calm me down, but to no absolutely avail.

After very much dreading the moment, I swallowed hard and told Leo about everything that happened.

His reaction?

He shook his head and laughed. “Keine Sorgen!” (no worries) he responded, reminding me that the dealer is also only a person, as he produced the exact sum requested of us from his pocket. “I’ve got this.”

This was vintage Leo. Putting everything in perspective and prioritizing what really matters, namely family and love. In teaching me how not to fear, Leo also taught me how to love.

By reminding ourselves of our own smallness and limitations as people, we can also remind ourselves of the importance of humour and acceptance. By reminding ourselves of what it means to survive, we can learn volumes about the importance of loving. Leo and Helen loved me unconditionally. They never even asked for “proof” that we were related. I was family, and that was all that mattered. It didn’t matter what I had accomplished on-paper or in-person, or which schools I attended, or my lifestyle and values, they just accepted me as I was. Having lost so many loved ones, they knew exactly what it meant to enjoy the gift of family. You don’t ask questions about love, you just do, you act, and it’s always the right choice.

I think about Leo, especially this time of year, when I reflect on our first Yom Kippur together, when Leo reserved for me the seat his very dearly beloved mother Tema would always occupy at the historic, Orthodox Joachimstaler Synagoge to which he and his family had long belonged. Situated in a courtyard in west Berlin, the Joachimstaler synagogue had amazingly survived the war, given its protected interior location.

Normally I attended services elsewhere. On a typical Shabbat, I trekked across town to the Masorti-affiliated Oranienburger Straße Synagoge, where I often read Torah. Leo was always very understanding and supportive of my interests. While he himself did not frequent egalitarian services, he appreciated my choices and even gifted me a stunning high-modernist-looking silver yad from Russia. Later, I had a friend who is a museum curator appraise it and learned it is actually a couple of centuries old.

Meanwhile, Ben and I would regularly attend services in that Masorti minyan, which met in the dome of that iconic building in the Mitte neighbourhood of Berlin, and it always felt so historically-charged to be praying there. I had to grow accustomed to the metal-detectors and aggressive security they always had planted at their synagogue’s entrance, but after this weekend, I am glad it is there.

My heart goes out this week to our sisters and brothers and especially my dear teacher, friend, and colleague, Rabbi Gesa Ederberg, at the Oranienburger Straße Synagoge, as they process the trauma of last weekend. May G-d bless and protect you and reverse every curse aimed at your direction into an eternal blessing. May Judaism continue to flourish in Germany, and may your example of fearlessness stand as an example and an inspiration to us all. Deutschland trägt Kippa.

The author (center), Rabbi Raysh Weiss PhD, with Rabbi Gesa Ederberg (left) and Rabbi Susan Grossman PhD (right) (Chicago, 2018).
Leo, the author, and Ben in front of the synagogue Leo attended as a child
(Dąbrowa Tarnowska, Poland, 2007)
About the Author
Raysh Weiss, Ph.D., is the rabbi of Congregation Beth El of Bucks County, PA. (Author photo by Ann Silver)
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