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.  

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