Considering German Jews

Considering German Jews

The Phillippson Bible’s title page

Spätzle, weiner schnitzel, stuffed cabbage, and German chocolate cake are on the menu for Shabbat dinner on May 1 at Temple Emanuel of the Pascack Valley in Woodcliff Lake. It’s all part of the shul’s weekend exploration of German Jewish heritage.

German Jews are known not only for their signature cuisine, however. They tend to have a reputation as “yekkes” – obsessively punctual, punctilious, and a touch pompous.

The shul’s Rabbi Benjamin Shull admits he bought into that stereotype – he is the descendant of Lithuanian Jews – until he discovered through genealogical research that he, too, has German-Jewish ancestors. So do about a third of his regular congregants.

In addition, about 18 months ago he found a rare 19th century German Bible in the congregation’s library, and that piqued his interest in pre-World War II German Jewry.

So Rabbi Shull put together a committee of two, both of whom have German lineage, to organize German Jewry Weekend, offering food for both thought and stomach.

“I think a lot of us have ambivalence toward anything German,” Rabbi Shull said. “But today we can see Germany is friendly toward Israel and it has a reconstituted Jewish community. Also, much of modern Judaism’s progressive movements originated in Germany, and I thought it would be interesting to learn more about that, not only for the past but for the future, too.”

The weekend, open to the community at large, will kick off at 6:30 Friday night with the optional dinner; the full menu also includes potato latkes and braised cabbage. Reservations cost $25 for adults and $15 for children 10 and under.

At 7:30, Dr. Frank Mecklenburg will discuss German-Jewish legacy and why it should be preserved.

Dr. Mecklenburg, a Berlin native, is not Jewish. He is the director of research and the chief archivist of the Leo Baeck Institute in New York, a research library and archive that documents the rich history and culture of German-speaking Jewry going back to the Middle Ages. “We encourage people to bring family documents for Dr. Mecklenburg to look at,” said Rabbi Shull.

Shabbat services at 8:15 will be highlighted by a panel discussion with four local residents born in Germany: Margo Berger, born in Halle A-Saale, who now lives in Hillsdale; Berta Fromme, originally of Bad Cannstatt and now of Park Ridge; Kurt Rosenberg, born in Hessen and now a Ridgewood resident; and Arthur Hirschberg, a native of Hachenburg who moved to West Orange from Paramus.

Congregants will have had a chance to see a video of interviews conducted with these panelists by the synagogue’s fourth-grade religious school class. The children asked them about their lives in pre-War Germany and their memories of fleeing the Nazis.

“Interestingly, most of them came from observant families in smaller towns, whereas we usually assume most German Jews were assimilated,” Rabbi Shull said. “There are some fascinating stories here.”

At 9:15 that night, people will have an opportunity to pose questions to the panelists at an oneg Shabbat.

German Jewry Weekend will continue on Sunday afternoon, May 3, with a 3 p.m. talk by Rabbi Dr. David Fine of Temple Israel in Ridgewood. An adjunct professor at the Abraham Geiger College, a liberal rabbinic seminary at the University of Potsdam in Germany, he will speak about German Jewry today and in the future. A rabbinical intern from the Geiger School recently began working with Rabbi Fine at Temple Israel.

“We will also hear from some members who have visited Germany within the past couple of years and learn about their experiences as Jews returning to their familial home,” Rabbi Shull said.

The congregational library’s German Bible is a family edition of the famous Ludwig Philippson translation, which originally appeared in a three-volume set published in Leipzig in 1858 and is believed to have been the Bible from which Sigmund Freud was educated as a child.

Philippson, a Reform rabbi who trained as a classicist, presented the sacred text alongside commentaries and some 700 illustrations and wood engravings informed by the natural sciences, ethnology, archaeology, and the history of art. This unusual volume helped spur Rabbi Shull’s “pet project,” discovering more about life for Jews in Germany.

“It is time for us to reevaluate German Jewry and German Jews,” Rabbi Shull said. He added that he is still in the midst of discovering distant relatives who once lived, or live now, in Germany.

German Jewish Weekend is sponsored by Ori Eisen in memory of Rabbi Matthew Kanig. Temple Emanuel is at 87 Overlook Drive in Woodcliff Lake. For more information, call the shul office at (201) 391-0801.

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