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Letter from Straubing, Germany

The click of the lock was audible. I was locked in a synagogue in Germany, and there was no way out. My heart raced. I had come there to pray and to see how these Jews in Germany pray. But I wasn’t there to get hurt.

Residents of the town had told me that there was no synagogue here, and no Jews. I was in town for two days before I discovered the old synagogue off the main square, shaded by weeping willows, with 10-foot-high wooden doors and stained glass windows.

The pews were filled with about 50 parishioners, new immigrants from the former Soviet Union, old and young. They weren’t speaking to me and they weren’t speaking German. I asked an older German-speaking woman where to find the prayer books. On purpose, even with my horrible Hebrew, I asked “Eyfo ha Siddurim?” A smile broke out on her face as she directed me to the Hebrew-only books. (How incredibly useless, I was to learn, for this non-German-speaking, non-Hebrew-speaking community.) With that, the first lines of the Shabbat service began.

The version of “Lekha Dodi” is the creaky one from my childhood, not the sensual, gyrating version from my mod Upper West Side synagogue. The lyrics were old and the voices were shaky. But I was struck how easy it was to follow the service and to participate in the music that connected me to these strangers.

Then, the announcements: First in German, by the leader of the synagogue, then translated into Russian for the rest of the congregation. Evidently, the doors were locked because skinheads had threatened to storm the synagogue during Shabbat. The mayor of the town and the state minister of the interior had offered to send police into the synagogue to protect the worshippers. This was unbelievable to me: a surreal discussion about Nazis and police protection and Shabbat, and Jews locked into a synagogue in the middle of Germany? Suddenly, people started screaming in Russian and in broken German about what should be done. “Call the newspaper!” “Have armed guards!” “Write an open letter to the community!” When the discussion eventually stopped, a blessing was made for the congregation (in the Hebrew and the German that the congregants didn’t understand). Everyone turned to his or her neighbor and wished “Gut Shabbos.”

After, through “the translator,” — a woman who’d come to Germany six months before the others––they told me their stories: “I was a judge in Latvia, now I wash bedpans in the old folks’ home.” “I was a lawyer in Lithuania with a huge practice, then things changed and there was the possibility to come to Germany. Now I work with the mentally ill.” “I was a…” the stories continued. Finally, an elderly lady with a flowered scarf on her head turned to me and said “I have a daughter in America. She lives in Los Angeles. You are from New York. Maybe you can meet her some day?” The old lady cried and hugged me, as a proxy for the daughter she hadn’t seen in years. Would I take a message to her? I said yes. Then the doors were unlocked, and people slowly left the building, following the leader’s direction to stay in groups of three or more as they entered the town square. I stood alone in the medieval square.

A few weeks later I called the woman’s daughter. We chatted like old friends, promising to keep in touch.