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Gay Pride, Jewish Hope

On the day of Gay Pride Berlin, known locally as Christopher Street Day, I was invited by the rabbi of the city's newest congregation to speak during services. So instead of the rabbi’s weekly speech about the Torah portion, the … Read More

By / July 5, 2007

On the day of Gay Pride Berlin, known locally as Christopher Street Day, I was invited by the rabbi of the city's newest congregation to speak during services. So instead of the rabbi’s weekly speech about the Torah portion, the 60 or so people at the Oranienburger Strasse Synagogue got to hear about the gays. Berlin takes Gay Pride seriously. Berlin also takes its Jews seriously. The two made for an exhausting Shabbat.

The Oranienburger Strasse synagogue represents both the horrors of German Jewry’s past and the promise of its future. The synagogue was the heart of Jewish Berlin until World War II, when the building was badly damaged and its community destroyed. In 1995 it began attracting a new congregation, and finally, just last month, the community got its own rabbi: Gesa Ederberg, Germany’s only female rabbi. Rabbi Ederberg invited me and my husband, Gregg, to talk to her congregation, and we decided to speak about the connection between Judaism and gay pride.

Gregg runs Jewish Mosaic, a Jewish LGBT organization, and when it came time to deliver our talks, he spoke about Torah Queeries, Mosaic’s project to read the Torah through a queer lens. Then it was my turn. I stepped up to the bimah to talk about the Gay Pride parade that had taken place in Jerusalem two days before.

I spoke about Jerusalem Pride through the lens of A.J. Heschel’s notion that Judaism sanctifies time, rather than space. Heschel—a rabbi and activist from Berlin who fled before the war and became a luminary in American Judaism—would have been “pissed off” (yes, I said the word “pissed” from the bimah) at the ultra-Orthodox in Jerusalem, I argued. By protesting the “flagrant flaunting” of “Torah violators” in the “holy city” of Jerusalem, and threatening to do violence to the organizers of the gay parade, the ultra-Orthodox were fetishizing the bricks
and stones of the city. After all, although the ultra-Orthodox aren’t thrilled about 15,000 gays and lesbians marching through the streets of Tel Aviv, they don’t publicly and violently oppose it, because it is not in Jerusalem.

Using Heschel to slam the ultra-Orthodox in front of a liberal congregation was hardly controversial. But I also argued that Heschel would have disliked the Jerusalem Pride organizers’ insistence that they march right through the center of the city, despite how painful this was for so many of the city’s residents. A compromise had been floated to have the parade away from the city center, but the parade organizers rejected this plan. They too were putting too much emphasis on space by making the location of the event more important than the event itself.

As I spoke to the congregation, I realized that I, too, was struggling to put time before place. Earlier in the service, the congregation’s children had come to the bimah to participate in the Torah reading. There were about 10 of them, all sitting in a row, and most of them were blond haired and blue eyed. I had that moment of historical haunting that I do my best to repress when in Germany. These kids were “too blond,” “too German-looking” to be on the bimah!

But then, just as this ghost stirred, it was stilled as I noted that all of the kids wore kippot. Now here was a symbol of the new Germany I could wrestle with—children who visually represented the Nazi ideal, but who were wearing kippot and learning to read Torah in the historic Oranienburger Strasse synagogue.

Still, I struggled. When I mentioned a passage from Heschel about how “neither the Romans nor the Germans could destroy the sanctuary of the Sabbath,” I paused, thinking to myself “Did I just say the Germans tried to destroy Jews while I’m standing on the bimah of the Oranienburger Strasse synagogue, a place full of people who consider themselves both German and Jewish? OK, David, pause, think, think, say something.” I could only mention that Heschel himself, as a German Jew, must have felt as much discomfort writing those words as I did saying them half-a-century later.

I’m sure the Berlin Jewish community does not feel haunted in the same way I do. Why should they? It’s simply their synagogue. The German Jewish community is one of the fastest growing in the world and opens new centers, synagogues and schools on a regular basis. This is a community that notes the awkwardness of their space, honors the ghosts, and then moves on.

It is this community’s struggle to put the present before the past that makes German Jewry so exciting. They are able to see Germany not only as a haunted landscape, but also as a vibrant setting in which to build a new Jewish community. And as we celebrated oneg, the small lunch that follows Saturday morning services, with children running around, and high-level conversation taking place in ten different languages, my ghosts quieted and I got lost in the bold hopefulness of it all.

Space is important. The fact that this was Germany, and not just Germany, but Berlin, and not just Berlin but the Oranienburger Strasse Synagogue, is central to how I and others there experience Jewish life. But it is the time, the now, the growth of community and the possibilities of the future, that should take precedence over the haunted space in which we found ourselves. So I had another glass of wine, and left our haunted hallowed ground to go celebrate Gay Pride Berlin, another bold expression of hope that a past of hatefulness and pain can give way to a radically different future.

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