Thursday, February 24, 2011

A Jew in the Churches of Europe

By Seth Rau

As I travel around Europe, it is almost necessary to visit the main church or churches in every city. While it is something that I do not mind doing since most of the churches are very impressive both on the interior and the exterior with large, opulent stained glass windows, it honestly does make me a little uncomfortable from time to time. Since I am not Christian, do I really fit into Europe? Even if Europe is far more secular than the US, is there really a role for me in Europe as an active Jew in 2011? While these questions are fairly rhetorical, I am going to try to answer them.

Starting here in Freiburg, Germany where I am based for the semester, the town seal is the St. George’s cross, which is the same cross as on the English flag. Many European Flags have the cross on it but most people view the flags as part of the history and values of the region rather than as religious symbol. The same logic applies to most major churches. The M√ľnster here in Freiburg is pretty much a museum even though it does hold services daily. While most of the visitors are Christians, they come to look at the stunning architecture instead of visiting this sight as part of a religious pilgrimage.

La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona where I was this past weekend takes this idea even further. This monumental cathedral that was designed in 1882 is still under construction and will likely be under construction for at least another twenty years. Famous architect Antonio Gaudi designed much of the exterior and by the time of its completion at some point in the middle of the century, it will have18 towers where it currently has 8. While there are scenes of the Nativity and the Passion on both sides of the Church, it still does not feel like a church with its futuristic design. It is truly a beautiful building and I considered my visit there a Barcelona highlight.

So getting back to me, I do feel a bit uncomfortable inside a church especially upon seeing the alter, but I have been enough churches now where it no longer really bothers me. However, I feel as though I have to downplay my Judaism whenever I am near a Church especially in Germany. I know most of the time there is no direct threat to me, but at the end of the day, there is still a seeping feeling that I really don’t fit in over here. Even though I am a part German and I dress relatively like a German, I know that due to my religion, I won’t just be like everyone else here.

While I do occasionally go to Shabbat dinners at a local Jewish family’s house and there is a synagogue in town (I have not made it over there yet but I will do so before the end of the semester), I am more removed from my religion over here than I expected. There are other Jewish students in my program and even though I don’t think I am a very religious Jew, I seem to be the only person who is trying to organize any sort of Jewish activity. However, I am more than okay with this situation. I came to Germany to learn about Europe, a Christian Europe, where the Jewish heritage is often ignored except in the context of the Holocaust.

These issues are bound to come up even more in the next few weeks as the Carnival season comes into high gear across Europe. While I am excited to see the masks, parades, food, and general joy associated with this season, I know it will be weird not knowing many parts of the basic storylines behind this season and the festivities. I suspect that while I will enjoy this season in Freiburg and Basel, Switzerland, it will confirm to me that I am really a bit different from the average person on the street. During our orientation, a trainer said it takes 12 years to truly learn a culture and I have a feeling while I have not yet experienced actual religious cultural shock that it may be coming in the near future.

P.S. For first time readers, I keep my full blog here, and I am actually having an amazing time in Europe despite the slightly somber tone of this post.  

Friday, February 18, 2011

Quito, Ecuador

by Gabriel Lewenstein

Gabe on the Equator
A few weeks before I left to study abroad in Quito, it dawned on me that this
would be the first time in my life I wouldn’t have easy access to other Jews. Never mind Shabbat services or Seder, what would I do for a whole semester without kosher jokes or Mel Brooks references? I wasn’t sure what role I wanted Judaism to play in my life here. Should I wait a while before mentioning my religion to my Catholic host parents? Should I refrain from making every Jewish reference I thought of? Would I enjoy Shabbat services with the small Jewish community here? Would I cease to eat slowly on Friday nights?

Despite these questions, I admit that one of the first things I did when we got the list of people in the program was scan the list for “–bergs” and “–steins” (For the record, all of my guesses were right, plus one girl with a less stereotypical last name). On the other hand, I didn’t want Judaism to be the only way I connected with these girls, so I decided to wait until it came up naturally. Sure enough, Day 3 found “Rachel” and I leaning in to sound out the Hebrew in a septa-lingual ancient bible.

There are definitely times when I feel a little lost without my usual Jewish bubble, like when Taio Cruz’s “Dynamite” came on in a bar, and I realized no one else was singing the Maccabeats version. But it’s also been very interesting to talk with people who have varying levels of understanding of Judaism. I’ve explained to my host parents a few basics of the religion, and clarified that we do not, in fact, believe in Allah. I’ve talked with a Catholic friend about how it feels to be, or even pray, in a church. And I’ve spoken with one girl who, as one stop on her spiritual journey, spent some time as a Messianic Jew.

More recently, I’ve ended up connecting with the roughly 120 family Jewish community in Quito. For the past two weeks, I’ve gone to Friday night services, which have been, predictably, both familiar and strange. Most of the songs and tunes are the same as Hillel or my home temple, and the Jewish population is much whiter than the average Ecuadorian, making me stick out less. But entering any new community is a little awkward at first, and it’s strange being in services when I don’t know anyone and they don’t know me. Slowly though, I’m starting to get to know the community through rides home from services, going to a discussion night about Anti-Semitic political cartoons from Arab countries, and recognizing at services the guy who owns the bagel shop down the street from my house.

A photo taken by Gabe of the beach town of Canoa, Ecuador
I’m still figuring out my Jewish identity here, to be sure. And it stills makes me sad when no one understands my references to Annie Hall or Seinfeld. But things have progressed pretty well so far. Tonight, I promised my host parents I’d cook them some traditional Jewish food sometime. Any suggestions?