History meets modernity at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, Germany. Photo by Sebastian Niedlich/Flickr, cc by-nc-sa 2.0
Several recent incidents in Berlin have escalated tensions between Muslims, Jews, and the city's secular majority. Over a month ago, a rabbi wearing a kippa, or yarmulke, was beaten by four "Arab-looking" youths after being asked if he and his daughter were Jewish. Public outcry led to a large demonstration in support of Berlin's Jews, including a flash mob of Jews and non-Jews wearing kippot.
Tensions escalated days later when a second incident, in which Jewish school girls were harassed by a group of youths that included a girl wearing a head scarf, led to an exchange of harsh words between Jewish and Muslim leaders, though in neither case were the attackers caught or identified definitively. After being advised to urge greater religious tolerance, Muslim leaders denied responsibility for the attacks and pointed out their own experiences of intolerance in the city.
Then on Yom Kippur, two more anti-Semitic incidents took place — the first when a young white man threatened a local Jewish leader and told him to go back where he came from, and the second when a mother and her daughter were forced out of a taxi after telling the "German" driver they were going to synagogue. Diedre Berger of the Berlin office of the American Jewish Committee has now intervened, asking the German government to develop an action plan to combat anti-Semitism.
Meanwhile, a contrasting alliance between Jews and Muslims has formed in the aftermath of a regional court ruling against circumcision. Government and religious leaders, including Chancellor Angela Merkel, have denounced it and announced plans to create government regulations allowing circumcisions to be performed. And in Berlin, a demonstration against the case featured Jewish and Muslim leaders "united for circumcision," according to a headline in the Tageszeitung. Religious leaders at the demonstration welcomed the chance to work together — despite current tensions — against what they consider to be the greater adversary of secular intolerance toward religion.
It was against this background that public attention shifted to the global conflict over the anti-Islamic film, The Innocence of Muslims. In Berlin, right-wing nationalists announced plans to bring American pastor Terry Jones to Berlin for a showing of the anti-Muslim film, but the government blocked his visit, and the event did not take place.
Observant Jews and Muslims constitute small minorities in Berlin, though people of Turkish descent number around a quarter of a million. The Jewish community of Berlin has about 11,000 active members, a fraction of the city's total Jewish population. Self-identified Christians are more numerous, but even they are greatly outnumbered by non-practicing and unaffiliated Berliners. In a city famous for decadent nightclubs and countercultural artists, religion has become a kind of curiosity.
The recent "Long Night of Religions" featured open houses at sixty-five different religious organizations, ranging from Buddhist and Muslim to Quaker and Sikh. A smaller event featuring Christians in particular, the Berlin Festival of Churches (with an appearance by pop-star-turned-Christian Nina Hagen) followed two weeks later.
All of these stories have received significant attention in local and national media.
But "religious" issues can only be understood in the larger context of "secularized" Berlin. What other factors divide and unite Berliners? How do conflicts and alliances between religious minorities reflect dynamics within the majority? Political, economic, social, generational, and aesthetic divisions are obvious, but economic and cultural indicators suggest that the greater sources of division remain the Cold War and the two World Wars in which Berlin was a geographic and political center.
Berliner Walter Benjamin (1892-1940) identified the culture of distraction as a key political feature of modern life. Debates over how to memorialize the past, renovate neighborhoods and public places, and manage economic changes preoccupy Germans ambivalent about the image and swelling budget of their capital city. It is no wonder that a city so burdened with history succeeds so well at providing diversions, from new beach volleyball venues to all-night techno parties. But without a broad discussion of German and Berliner identity, the status of minorities here remains uncertain, leading Jewish leader Charlotte Knoblauch to ask, "Do you still want us Jews?"
For residents still grappling with a catastrophic modern history, the concerns of Jewish and Muslim minorities could either serve as an interesting distraction or a chance to examine the markers and dynamics of "secular" identity in Berlin.
Brian Britt is a professor in the Department of Religion and Culture at Virginia Tech. His most recent book is Biblical Curses and the Displacement of Tradition. He is currently a guest fellow at the Zentrum für Literatur- und Kulturforschung in Berlin working on a book about Walter Benjamin and religion.
This essay is reprinted with permission of Sightings from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.
Jewish law requires that all synagogues have windows. We’re not supposed to pray in separation from the world; we’re supposed to pray with the world, conscious of its cycles, in a space that invites connection with them. Unfortunately, most authorities interpret this rule as permitting synagogues to have windows that never open — windows that seal congregants in an air-conditioned bubble, even on days when outdoor temperatures are moderate.
Synagogues, like other houses of worship, are no different from the majority of our secular spaces. Our default building methods presume round-the-clock mechanical air circulation — windows do not open, and natural cooling designs like cross-ventilation, high ceilings, porches, and recessed doors and windows are quaint rarities. The official guided tour of Washington DC’s National Building Museum, built in 1887 and inspired by Michelangelo’s church architecture, features the building’s ventilation system literally as a museum piece. Visitors are informed that the building’s great hall was designed to “create a healthful building with plenty of fresh air” — but in step with the times, the days of natural airflow there too are gone.
Like many Jews, my only visits to synagogue are during the High Holy Days, which begin next week with Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. This is also one of the periods when the ubiquity of air conditioning saddens me most. It saddens me because of the sheer waste. It saddens me because I like to wear white linen to usher in the holiday and walk to services carrying nothing, rather than packing layers fit for the tundra as I do when I go to the office, the megaplex, or the airport. And it saddens me because sealed windows separate me from the signs and wonders with which nature beckons me to contemplate the very same lessons that are at the heart of what Rosh Hashanah is all about.
For me, this is a holiday that is centrally about the cycles of life. On eve of Rosh Hashanah, we eat round rather than braided challah bread. We pray to be written in the book of life, recognizing that we are only passing through on this earth, that the length of our stay is out of our hands. We offer gratitude for each of the gifts with which we have been graced, apologize for taking them for granted and for any harm we may have caused, and promise to do our best to take better care.
Is there a season that more aptly reminds us of these most universal of teachings? The smell of crushed leaves. The shortening of days. The air that doesn’t know what it wants to be — dry one moment, cool the next, like a balmy lake with icy flows that tickle your toes. The sky when it turns into a luminous cobalt dome, infinite but somehow also sheltering. The Hebrew sources speak of chupat shamayiim, the canopy of the heavens. Since 2001, when I wake up and see this ethereal shade of blue, a shade that appears only now, in September, the words that flit across my mind are: it’s a 9/11 day.
Autumn invites us to surrender to the fact that all things come to an end, and to hold this truth with tenderness, with awe.
So as I swaddle myself in my woolen layers — in synagogue, at work, in the supermarket — I wonder whether I am the only one who dreams of a world with open windows. Is 24/7, year-round conditioned air really a choice that we as a society actively made, or did it creep up on us? Who wants this? The AC lobby? The military industrial complex?
Or perhaps this is a gender issue? For one, women are generally more sensitive to cold than men. More importantly perhaps, and here I’ll speak only for myself, my growing appreciation for nature’s cycles coincided with the acceptance and even delight I discovered when I started paying attention to the changing moods and rhythms of my own cycle.
Ani Difranco begins one of her songs with these lines:
Somethin' about this landscape
just don't feel right,
and lit up all night.
Like we just gotta see how comfortable comfortable can get,
Like we can't even bring ourselves to sweat.
The song goes on to tie over-airconditioning with consumerism, conformism, and pollution. It ends with a call to women. “O women, won't you be our windows,” sings Ani. “Show us we are connected to everything. Show us we are not separate from everything.”
Some see Judaism as an essentially patriarchal religion. Like all religions, it has many faces. The Judaism I am drawn to puts love of women and love of nature at its center. It gives us words and customs that can help us practice non-attachment and humility, to see ourselves not as masters but as stewards.
Rosh Hashanah starts on the new moon. It is the darkest night of the month, but also the time when the stars shine at their brightest. We can still catch a glimpse of the show if we turn off the lights even from inside our air-conditioned bubbles, but a different sort of communion is available when we revel at the constellations while breathing with the night.
Shari Motro is a professor of law at the University of Richmond. She is currently on sabbatical in Jerusalem, where she is working on a book based on her article "Why I Left Israel, and Why I'm Going Home."
Three years ago, on the ninth anniversary of 9/11, my friend Frankie began losing her mind.
The cancer steadily worked its way through her brain, though she remained conscious and aware almost to the end.
This is a day for remembrances. But even on a big day, there are other things that happen, known to few. These are opportunities for quiet contemplation — a private, sacred space amid larger, more public, observations of mourning.
It was Frankie’s third encounter with the disease. First, there was breast cancer. Then it moved into her reproductive organs, with long rounds of chemo and radiation. She and I volunteered at the same meditation center, and it seemed a small thing to lend a hand, especially since I was just a few blocks from her in Williamsburg, Brooklyn: picking up groceries, doing a bit of laundry. Frankie lived in a second-floor room of a brick house on the verge of ruin, run by the Addams family.
Frankie was a painter who grew up in an intellectual Jewish family. One brother went mad, dying in an institution, and the second stopped speaking to her. A sister phoned intermittently from far away, talking only of herself. When I started helping her, Frankie was working on a series of stamp-sized watercolors because that was all she could manage. When I admired the tiny paintings, she said I could have one.
Frankie learned I was a writer and asked me to read to her from my book. I had written a novel and, like most authors, could barely stand a word from my own pages; it felt like being trapped in traffic in a carload of people with whom I’d spent far too much time already — siblings or coworkers, all of us on a road we’d been down before.
Against my better judgment, I started reading. Frankie closed her eyes and listened. Her cats, terrified of strangers, sat under the bed. I read of an Asian American family in Ohio, of a trip to China. Later, Frankie would tell people that she loved the sound of my voice.
Months went by. I carried gallons of lemon-lime Gatorade up the stairs; it was one of the few things that didn’t make her nauseous. We became friends. She told me to keep writing, and I believed her.
But Frankie also infuriated me. I learned that she was alone and had no money due to a series of bad decisions, which she continued to make. She was a terrible procrastinator, not wanting to do boring work though she needed the money; she wanted her mother and father to swoop in and save her though she was almost 70, her parents long dead.
When she got better, she still wanted me to read from my book, but I put my foot down. “You’re a big girl,” I told her. “You can finish it yourself.” Yet the bookmark remained in the place where her cancer went into remission.
I realize now that I wanted her to finish the book — for me. I wanted her to try, to make an effort. But she didn’t and, after several years, became ill again, going quickly into hospice. When I visited, we just sat. I held her hand. She would wake, greet me with pleasure, then slip away again as though under a tranquil sea.
When she died, two of Frankie’s old friends came from New Mexico and, along with her health care proxy, cleared out the apartment, taking away her paintings and ashes for safekeeping. They put down the surviving cat, which was very sick and frightened. I never got the little watercolor she’d wanted me to have, and I don’t know what happened to the copy of my book.
So on this day of remembrances, I have my own private one and my own sacred space: of being with Frankie in the cool autumn twilight in Abingdon Square, West Village, on our last outing together. I had signed her out of the nursing home, and we sat on a park bench across the street, watching a multitude of dogs go by. “I love this light,” she said.
It’s fitting, I think, that Frankie never found out what happened at the end of the book. That way, in her mind, all things are possible, even in the face of the unimaginable.
I’ve added my sacred space to the Asian American Arts Alliance’s Locating the Sacred Festival project. What's yours?Andrea Louie is the author of a novel, Moon Cakes, and co-author of an anthology, Topography of War: Asian American Essays. She is executive director of the Asian American Arts Alliance.
Submitted by Trent Gilliss on Fri, 2012-09-07 10:35
During the past week, we watched and listened to a half-dozen or more "secular sermons," as Alain de Botton calls them, from The School of Life in London. These are weekday or Sunday meetings that are rich with singing and presentations by Mr. de Botton himself, as well as a wide array of outside speakers from all types of disciplines. Our task: to find about a minute of audio from one of these secular sermons that gives listeners a more visceral sense of what he's describing:
"We've had terrific success by hosting what we're calling secular sermons. Why are we calling them sermons? It's to try and suggest that listening to them is not simply going to be an intellectual exercise, you know, fascinating little bit of knowledge, a way to show off to friends about new stuff you've learned. It's actually going to be something that will hope to steer how you live. So it's didactic, you know, it's explicitly moralistic not in a kind of starched, Victorian way, but in the best possible sense. It exhorts you to a kind of better, fuller life and why not? Why should these pretty quite nice maneuvers only be the preserve of religion? As I say, they really are for all of us.
We ended up excerpting part of neuroscientist David Eagleman's lecture on "being oneselves." Dr. Eagleman holds joint appointments in the Departments of Neuroscience and Psychiatry at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas, and is the founder and director of the Initiative on Neuroscience and Law. In this secular sermon, he focuses on how our conscious mind represents only a small portion of who we are: "It turns out that almost everything that you think and do and you act and you believe is generated by parts of your brain that you don't have access to."
He follows by saying that each person is not one singular body, but an amalgamation of many parts that are competing with one another. He likens our brains to conflicted democracies engaged in these internal battles with each other: emotion versus reason, how we make decisions in time and the appeal of right now, and the moral contracts (check out the part about the "Ulysses contract" at the 30-minute mark!) we make with ourselves.
"And I think the thing for all of us to think about, all the time, is how are we lashing ourselves to the mast. We all have weaknesses and things that we want to do better. And as we come to understand more about ourselves, there's this issue of what can we do to — to combat this? How can we really think hard about structuring things in our lives so we don't do the wrong things? And I think this gives us traction, you know, understanding what's going on under the hood gives us traction on old philosophical problems and ways to think about things.
Just think about the concept of virtue. I think that virtue has to do with the battles between these populations. If you've got a real drive to do something you want it so badly and yet you override that with more long-term decision making, with the parts of your brain that care about the deferred gratification verses the parts that care about, I want it right now. If you have that battle and you're successful, I think that's what we mean by a virtuous person. . . .
I think virtue comes at people's point of struggle, right when the parliament is sort of evenly balanced and they have real decision to make there about which way it tips."
In the days leading up to the Republican National Convention, Krista Tippett interviewed Joanna Brooks as Mitt Romney was about to become the party's presidential nominee. We followed up from our previous conversation to see if circumstances had changed since the primaries. Ms. Brooks says that Mormon culture continues to be stretched in interesting ways, deeper than politics.
» A White Knuckle Moment for Mormons(Aug 15, 2012)» read more and listen(mp3, 5:19)
Another white-knuckle moment for Mormons this year surrounding the comments of theologian and Brigham Young University professor Randy Bott. The outcome prompted the LDS church to take an official stand on racism
» Politics and Moral Bearings(Aug 15, 2012)» read more and listen(mp3, 5:40)
How faith should inform politics, "In the public sphere religion has been weaponized around a very few political issues."
» Mormonism Emerges from Isolation with Growing Pains(Aug 15, 2012)» read more and listen(mp3, 4:31)
The role of the internet on reducing cultural isolation and how Mormons deal with the new pressure to be open.
» On Balance, Media, and Religion(Aug 15, 2012)» read more and listen(mp3, 5:45)
"I've also weighed the balance between projecting a hopeful positive progressive Mormonism and the reality that in many places, that kind of Mormon experience is not available to people."
» Finding Latitude in Mormon History(Aug 15, 2012)» read more and listen(mp3, 3:11)
"An expansive hopeful Mormonism finds latitude for expression within and without the LDS church corporation. The more latitude we can find in our own history to tell our stories, the more hopeful I think we can be."
Submitted by Trent Gilliss on Tue, 2012-08-28 07:54
"I’m a snowboarder—that’s probably my biggest hobby. I’m also into this really interesting podcast ‘On Being.’ A journalist [Krista Tippett] interviews everybody from a man who changed his life through his relationship with animals to this guy who studies creativity in the brain. It’s fascinating."
Submitted by Trent Gilliss on Fri, 2012-08-24 13:36
My first year in college, I was dubbed the "singing freshman" because I used to regularly and vocally sing as I walked around campus. Some people looked at me askance, but I always wondered why they weren't singing. I never thought my non-conventional, self-expression would connect me to Hasidic Judaism until I encountered the teachings of Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer a.k.a the Baal Shem Tov (which means Master of the Good Name).
The Baal Shem Tov was a Jewish mystic and teacher who lived in the late 17th and early 18th century Ukraine. He revolutionized Eastern European Jewish culture and changed the course of Jewish history. He founded what is now called the Hasidic movement and taught God could be known not just by the elite, but by all people through "serving God with joy." Ordinary mundane life, he taught, could be revealed as sacred and awesome through "raising the sparks" of our everyday actions with godly intention. A Hasid was someone who went beyond the letter of the law and lived life fully. Part of his practice was a form of ecstatic singing meditation that would bring the singer to a state of dvekut, a "union with God." He taught that "through music you can reach joy and dvekut with the Infinite One, blessed be He.” These sacred melodies called niggunim were and still are sung around Shabbat tables, and at other sacred gatherings around the world.
This niggun called "Shalosh Tinuous" ("the three stanzas") is one of the most famous Hasidic niggunim. The first stanza was composed by the Baal Shem Tov, the second by his student and successor Rabbi Shmuel Dov Ber who is known as "The Maggid," and the third stanza by Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, a student of the Maggid who founded the Lubavitch movement.
Ecstatic music has always been a part of Jewish spiritual practice. The Book of Samuel describes that part of King Saul's transformation from an ordinary man into a king was that he would “meet a band of prophets coming down from a high place with a lute, a drum, a pipe, and a lyre before them; and they shall prophecy: and the spirit of the Lord will come upon you, and you shall prophecy with them, and shall be turned into another man.”
When I get deep enough into a niggun, all my thoughts settle and quiet down, I remember my Godly soul, and it feels like I am no longer singing the niggun. Rather, the niggun is singing me.
Special thanks to Nichoach Chabad for the recording.Ethan Stephen Press lives and works in Jerusalem, Israel. You can read more of his work on The Huffington Post.
With Mitt Romney on the verge of becoming the Republican presidential nominee, the media has been focusing in ever more tightly on the LDS Church and the Mormon faith. And Joanna Brooks has become a go-to voice during our national inspection of Mormonism during this election season. Particularly in the last month. She's been featured on CNN, cited in a New Yorker piece by Adam Gopnik, and most notably appeared on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.
If there's one thing Jon Stewart does superbly, it's poke fun at his Jewish upbringing — especially when he's counseling Joanna Brooks on her "baby" religion of Mormonism. It's a fun, lively conversation in which the author of The Book of Mormon Girl discusses the fears, tensions, and survivalist instinct of Mormons of today.
For a more in-depth conversation before Ms. Brooks hit the national spotlight, listen to her hour-long conversation with Krista Tippett. You'll be moved.