For the fourth time in two years, I have just spent a chunk of time in Europe. One month this go-around: England, France, and Germany (other recent trips included Spain and Italy). There’s no compelling reason I haven’t sent dispatches from these journeys, other than, perhaps, European travel lacks the shocking novelty of some other places where I have spent time (even as it is still wonderful and evocative). This letter skims a few thematic resonances that echoed through the most recent trip. I send it in the context of the Jewish New Year – for Jews the holiest season of the year, a time for reflection, renewal, remembrance, and rebirth.
(In Paris, preparing for a week in Germany…) With an unexpected surge of emotion, I realize I will be in Berlin for Rosh Hashanah. Back in the United States I might or might not attend services; I’m haphazard about this, influenced some by scheduling vagaries but more deeply by the waxing and waning of my Jewish religiosity. But this serendipitous timing seems too rich an opportunity to avoid. It summons in me something primal and tribal, an identification with Jewishness that surprises me in its ferocity. I scope out some possibilities online (I’ve heard that people used to plan things before the internet existed, but I don’t believe them) and email a few friends who may provide helpful leads. It reminds me of a moment ten years ago, when it happened I would be in Hawaii for Passover and I wanted to attend a gay Jewish seder. Someone suggested I telephone the Reform synagogue in Honolulu for guidance. The secretary didn’t know of anything, but it was enough that she answered the phone with a cheery, “Temple Emanu-El – Shaloha.”
(While still in Paris…) This fine autumn morning I play tourist, which I can tolerate in small doses, and wander over to the Cimetiere Pere Lachaise. I am surprised to see a section of obviously Jewish graves, recognizable both by the names of the deceased (try Jacques Finklestein or Mordechai de Montaigne) and the carved stars of David on the gravestones. But that’s not why sightseers throng to this celebrated Parisian cemetery, which is a who’s who of famous dead French people (plus foreigners deemed to have made a “significant contribution to French culture,” among them Isadora Duncan, Maria Callas, and Jim Morrison). The cemetery offers a map of well over 150 late luminaries. Colette’s rather plain tomb is on a busy walkway; Frederic Chopin has a more serene resting spot on a lovely, tree-shaded hillock; Marcel Marceau’s grave is, well, quiet. Several graves have become de facto shrines. Oscar Wilde’s, now “protected” (some say desecrated) by plexiglass sheathes over the beautiful statuary, is covered with hundreds of multi-hued lipstick kisses. But it is Jim Morrison’s grave that offers the deepest, and strangest, sense of pilgrimage.
Here’s what I saw at Jim’s grave the morning I was there: three punk tattooed Goths with pierced lips, black clothes, and zebra-bleached hair taking photos of each other on a pink iPad. A sexy 20-something couple making out and groping each other, as if invisibly cloaked by their passion. Perplexed middle-aged tourists scrunching their faces, snapping digital photos (always snapping photos, everyone, everywhere), turning their maps upside down to plot their way to George Bizet or Simone Signoret.
Jim’s grave and surroundings are strewn with cheap plastic flowers, candles, and decals. Graffiti are scrawled all over the nearby crypts, which are ancient and gloriously decrepit, with rusty intricate metal doors and weeds growing from their roofs — a strange juxtaposition for the multi-lingual, handwritten elegies: Hey Jim — Light My Fire. hello i love you. Ciao Bello. You still touch me, baby.
What would it be like, I wondered, to be buried next door, perhaps in the crumbling mausoleum of Famille LeCleurg (if I can even read all the fading letters right)? Or how about the equally forgotten Madame Gambier, whose ignored tomb people step over to pay homage to the now legendary shooting, shooting up star, whose grave alone conspicuously lacks the French inscription, “concession a perpetuite”?
The sexy couple still make out, as if trying to set a record. At one point he takes out his camera – oops, he accidentally let a moment of his life pass by undocumented — extends his arm, and videos himself and his partner, deftly avoiding any interruption of their long deep French kiss (it’s kind of appropriate – the French part, I mean). She’s very beautiful. He’s a nebbishy geek (okay, maybe a really lucky nebbishy geek). Do they have any inkling, I wonder, they will not always be young? Concession a perpetuite, indeed.
If he were to look up from his plain grave (far less fancy than those of his neighbors) on this fine fall day, through the detritus of the tributes and trinkets, past the cheap metal barriers that keep the crowds at bay, Jim Morrison would see, high above, a small patch of blue sky peeking through the crown of a copse of old trees, the foliage still vibrant yet tinged with the first mortal hints of the changing season, standing guard like patient, bemused angels.
(England, before Paris: A day-trip to Stonehenge with my friend Andy). The oldest graves at Pere Lachaise can’t hold a candle to Stonehenge. Neither, for that matter, can Judaism: Stonehenge probably predates it by at least 800 years. Judaism wins for longevity, Stonehenge for antiquity.
Stonehenge is one of those monuments, like the Taj Mahal or Eiffel Tower, that is so recognizable and iconic that prior to seeing it, you think it will disappoint. But the opposite happens. The visual is familiar enough that on first encounter, the real thing offers a flash of grounding and reassurance, even relief. Our lives are so saturated in images and simulacrums that contact with any original masterwork allows a comforting, if fleeting, glimmer of orientation in the long human parade. (But hey, if you don’t want or need this, check out one of the full-size Stonehenge replicas around the world, including several in the United States, sculpted from everything from foam to old refrigerators).
I had been to Stonehenge once before, in 1980 (and now it looks barely a day older – better than botox). Never mind the hordes of day trippers, or the corded barrier that stops you from getting too close: It is still stunning in its beauty, mystery, and sheer accomplishment. How did it get there? Why? It makes no sense, in terms of how the stones were transported and raised, the precision of its astronomical calculations, its aesthetic grandeur.
My friend Andy wanted some pictures of us together. He and I aren’t boyfriends, but we are close enough to prefer pictures taken arm in arm. Perhaps because he lacks the requisite arm length or dexterity of the nerdy studmuffin at Pere Lachaise, several times he asks other tourists to shoot us with his camera: a father with small children, an adult mother-daughter pair, a young couple. Everyone warmly obliges. It doesn’t seem to matter that we are two men arm in arm, pretty obviously gay. I feel a twinge of self-consciousness, but the photographers seem not to. The mother-daughter pair is eager to chat. The young father waits patiently to get just the right angle.
The Stonehenge monoliths still stand 4500 years later, as if nothing has changed. Thirty years after my first visit two poofs can now ask anyone to take their photo, nobody misses a beat, and it’s as if the world has been made anew.
(Friday, September 14). I celebrated my 54th birthday in Hamburg at a big, splashy party. Okay, it wasn’t a party for me, and I was the only one there not speaking German, but it was a fine celebration nonetheless.
I was visiting a friend Sebastian, whom (like Andy) I hadn’t seen for years. Kristine, an old teacher/supervisor of his, was celebrating her 70th birthday. I was invited to tag along. Based on an email misunderstanding, I was prepared for a low-key, alternative evening; I pictured (why?) Kristine as an ageing hippy, long grey/white braids, bad teeth, smoking hand-rolled cigarettes, hosting a gathering with cheap wine and homemade tabouli, probably sitting on cushions on the floor. And if all this had happened – at least I would have been dressed appropriately.
Instead, Sebastian and I pull up in a driving rain to the swank Hamburger Segel-Club, an elegant sailing venue on Hamburg’s big lake. Kristine, and all the other women, are decked out in black cocktail dress finery, the men mostly in suits. The obviously well-to-do guests –- not unusual in this prosperous, well functioning city – seem friendly enough, but given their disconcerting habit of speaking in German, it promises to be a long night.
My mistake: it’s a great evening. As the champagne flows, language barriers melt; it turns out several of the men have English nuanced enough for rich conversation, and am I imagining this, or has my German comprehension noticeably improved after just one stinging glass of schnapps? After a sumptuous buffet dinner, a DJ begins spinning American rock and disco classics. The small dance floor quickly fills with drunken middle-aged folks dancing as we drunken middle-aged folks do when given the opportunity: with exuberance, defiance, the sweet embodied memory of what once was, and a false, even delirious, sense of victory. Gay, straight, German, Jewish, pious, agnostic — it makes no difference. The war is sure to be lost, but this battle, this ecstatic moment, is ours, and for now that is enough.
As if I need a reminder that I am clueless about the larger workings of things, the DJ throws on a Doors gem. My birthday is ushered out to Jim Morrison’s silky promise, “I’m gonna love you til the heavens stop the rain” as one of the guests snaps a photo of the smiling, sweating dancers on her pink iPad.
So, Rosh Hashanah in Berlin. My online search suggests that finding a queer Jewish English-speaking service might indeed be possible. Berlin is gay enough, and Jewish-centric enough, that unlikely combinations exist: the queer Israeli-led group Meshugge Berlin hosts hot dance parties; there’s even a club of gay Jewish psychologists. But my parameters are a bit too specific, and so instead I choose a congregation that although Conservative is progressive in its social stance; the rabbi and cantor are both female, prayer books are available in German or English, the service itself is primarily Hebrew, and everyone is warmly welcomed.
“I choose a congregation” – this itself amazes me. There were over a dozen options: Judaism is thriving in Berlin. Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, anything. At least three services were recommended as being English-friendly. The one Sebastian and I attend is in a synagogue that miraculously survived both the Nazi and Soviet eras. It was torched and vandalized during Kristallnacht, but not demolished. It is now a museum and just one of several synagogues that tourists regularly visit, its location explicitly, conveniently highlighted on street signs around the city.
Berlin as a city seems in the midst of a dual-prong lovefest: the romance of its reunification, and its (seemingly) mature commitment to transparency and openness in the face of its fascist past. A powerful “monument to the murdered Jews of Europe” and holocaust museum occupy a full city block next to the Brandenburg Gate, the symbolic heart of the city; a nearby second monument specifically commemorates Nazism’s gay victims. City sidewalks here and elsewhere in Germany are studded with stolperstien, small brass plaques naming and commemorating Jews who lived or worked nearby. The ambitious Jewish Museum is one of Berlin’s prime tourist sites. This ethos of openness and transparency reaches its apex, literally, in the dramatic glass dome that graces the Reichstag, the reclaimed seat of the German government.
The Rosh Hashanah service itself was beautiful, imbued with heightened meaning simply because it was so matter of fact. One highlight was the prayer, Aveinu Malcheinu (our father, our king) recited only on the holy days. The full version, as was offered in this service, is a long list of supplications, protections, and requests for forgiveness from God. We’d chant in Hebrew, and I’d follow the text in English.
At one point the prayer implores God to defeat those who wish harm to the Jewish people. As at other times this Rosh Hashanah morning, chanting this I am moved to tears. I cry for the haunting, ancient beauty of the plaintive melody. I cry for the hollow absurdity, in 21st century Germany, of beseeching God to protect us from our enemies. And I cry in marvel at our stunning collective human intuition for redemption, survival, and renewal, which is no less our birthright and legacy than our capacity for the atrocious.
And so to all – here is my new year’s wish to you for peace, health, and happiness. Danke. Merci. Shaloha. xo, Steve