Why shoe shopping in Berlin can be spiritual

Have you ever finished one phase in life and had no clue what would be next?

I recently finished a temporary job, moved back to my parents’ house for the summer, and was completing my final BA term papers. And I had no idea what was next.

So I decided that by the time I finish my papers, life would lead me in the right direction, and I would discover my next chapter. Sure enough, it did and I did.

While writing my papers I met a friend at a wedding. She told me about her Shlichut (an outreach program of overseas cultural emissaries) in Munich, and interested me in applying as well.

The next morning, with nothing to lose, I called the person in charge. One day later, I found myself interviewing for a one-year Shlichut in Berlin.

Everything happened very fast. I finished writing my papers, hastily packed my belongings, and ten days later was on a plane, on my way to Berlin.

That doesn’t mean it was an easy decision to go to Berlin. In fact, I had mixed feelings. On the one hand, I really believe in Shlichut. In 2014 I was sent by the Jewish Agency and Bnei Akiva to Boston for a year. This experience gave me a whole new perspective towards life and the different Jewish communities around the world. On the other hand, I had made a decision I would never go to post-Holocaust Germany (although I hadn’t considered these circumstances).

Arriving in Berlin was fascinating. I thought I would have to get used to hearing German, but everywhere I go I hear many different languages such as Russian and Arabic.

When I lived in LA, South Africa and Boston, I could always understand the language. But when you don’t understand the written and spoken language all around you, it can be alienating. And of course, it makes it exceedingly difficult to communicate. I often resort to sign language to help make my point, which apparently cracks Germans up and is a great icebreaker…

The culture here is totally different. Free. Young. Artistic. Hipster. You walk down the street and feel like you can be whoever you want to be, without needing to fit in or conform.

In a way, there isn’t really a specific “society” to conform to. Unlike Israel, you don’t feel judged or categorized. No one is trying to box you in, which is quite liberating.

My friend told me that on Purim he dressed up as a pirate and got on the underground train. He felt as if it’s normal to be dressed up as a pirate on a weekday. He didn’t even get any weird looks!

Over the past month, I have had the opportunity to meet people from all walks of life, people with different beliefs, professions, personalities, and cultures.

For me, it was particularly fascinating to discover different Jewish backgrounds, and experience holidays and traditions with varies people for the first time.

A young woman who has become my friend approached me on Erev Yom Kippur and told me that she had decided to fast for the first time. I was very excited. She then said, with worry, “Adi, I don’t have the proper shoes for this holiday.”

For a moment I wasn’t sure what she was talking about. She then added, “Shoes without leather.” Growing up Orthodox means you often perform rituals automatically. You don’t always stop to think about things that have become routine. And so, I was caught off guard.

Oddly, this conversation about shoes was both spiritual and moving for me. Having the opportunity to experience something that is so familiar to me with someone else for the first time was intense. The next day we went to Primark and bought “Yom Kippur” shoes together. We spent the next 24 hours together fasting and praying.

During Sukkot, I went on a SANDEMANs tour (Free walking tours around Europe). Hearing the tour guide’s perspective of the Second World War and Holocaust while seeing the monuments was very moving. His main narrative concerned giving a face and identity to the numbers.

Living in Berlin gives me a whole new perspective on the restrictions Jews had prior and during the Holocaust. Not being allowed to ride a bike, go to a café or sit on a bench don’t seem as significant when it’s told from a distance of time and place. It’s different when you’re in Berlin.

Never in my life have I owned a bike. Yet three days after arriving here I bought a bike at the Flea market at Mauerpark. Sitting at a café is a daily ritual with the Berliners (especially when beer is cheaper than water). Suddenly history has a whole new meaning. The urge for freedom is understood from a different perspective.

In Berlin of 2017, it seems that all people want is to live and let live.

About the Author
Adi Levitz recently finished her Bachelor's degree at Bar Ilan University, majoring in Political science and communications. Currently, she is in Berlin for the next year on Shlichut with the organization Torah Mitzion. She sees herself as a curious person, who doesn’t take reality as it comes, but asks questions and seeks her own path as a Jewish Orthodox woman.