Many of you have heard of — a few have even met— my dear friend Günter. Günter is a German Lutheran Pastor. To make a very long story short . . . beginning in the teen days of church youth group, he has struggled to confront the dark history of his birth nation. As a seminary student, he came to a Lutheran seminary/university near Toronto to work on his Masters degree. A college professor wangled, for me, a summer teaching spot in “Old Testament” at that very university. Günter enrolled in that class. Our friendship began as German and Jew, in some kind of dialogue working towards we-had-no-idea-what. We quickly became simply dear friends. Günter has gone on, with his PhD in New Testament, to study and teach — to seminarians, clergy, and laity alike — about anti-Judaism in sacred Christian text (especially Luke and Acts). He is a very special force for good in Jewish-Christian relations. He is my beloved friend of 40 years. And right now, I am sitting in his home in Hamburg, Germany; tomorrow I will join with 70 others of his family and friends in celebrating his 65th Birthday! Neither of us has any idea how we got so old . . . .
Last night was Erev Shabbat. Liberal Judaism was born in Hamburg. The Hamburg Temple Association was founded in 1817. That original community was decimated in the Shoah (the preferred Jewish term for the Holocaust). A revived, liberal Jewish community came into being in 2004. Günter and I headed there to celebrate Shabbat.
The community was small — less than 20 of us in total. Many of its members are Russian. Their Rabbi, Moshe Navon, was born in Siberia and trained in Israel. I don’t remember a colleague welcoming me so warmly! He insisted I join him at the front of the congregation and help lead worship. The Rabbi’s English was his least proficient language; so, we communicated mostly in Hebrew and my even-more-broken German (with my current Spanish studies swirling in my head as well . . . Oy!). As coincidence would have it, this week’s Torah portion is the opening chapters of Exodus. The Rabbi’s sermon (delivered twice, once in German and once in Russian) celebrated the many heroic women of the story, chief among them my Hebrew namesake Miriam. He kept referring to that Miriam and the one sitting there, a Rabbi!, who had joined them for Shabbat. Utterly delightful. And with all its textual references, I was even able to understand the sermon! The one in German, that is …
At the lovely Oneg that followed, Günter and Navon discovered that they have many colleagues and teachers in common. Rabbi Navon was so taken with my friend that he announced his upcoming birthday to all, and a rousing rendition of Siman Tov uMazel Tov followed!
There is a Yiddish saying Iz schwer zu zein a Yid, which translates as “It is hard to be a Jew” — a clear reference to all the tragedies of our history. But today I am feeling that it is ever a joyous blessing to be a Jew, with community everywhere and a joyful Shabbat community to share with a treasured Lutheran Pastor buddy . . . !
Tomorrow I head to Church, where Günter will be preaching. Then the Grand Birthday Lunch!
I return to Reno on Tuesday. When I’m done with jet-leg, I’ll need to prepare in earnest for Panama. Stay tuned.
In the meantime, Shabbat Shalom!