‘I’ve never been in a mosque!’ may not be what you would expect to hear inside a synagogue, even the synagogue-turned-Museum at Eldridge
Street (www.eldridgestreet.org) in NYC’s Lower East Side. But last Sunday, my tour (as docent) was transformed into magical conversation as early 20th century Jewish immigration history blended with 21st century European.
My four Swiss and Swedish, non-Jewish, guests battled the weather on this blustery cold Sunday for a trip far from the maddening crowds of midtown. Why? Why visit this synagogue/museum, and invite discussion ? Granted, it’s a beautiful, inspiring source of immigrant (Jewish) history, and (optimistically) a certain destination for traveling American Jews. Interestingly, I often guide non-Jewish Europeans interested in historic and Jewish sites.
Touring a synagogue, they said, was a welcome treat. Zürich and Stockholm (as in much of Europe) synagogues are barricaded. Jewish history, and especially the Holocaust are
topics of regular dicussion – in the news and studied at school; visiting a synagogue and talking with Jews, seems a natural part of this education.
We found ourselves, having that rare conversation: open and honest, intimate, yet anonymous (names seemed unnecessary) between Jew and non, American and Europeans. A seeming gift as my quickie 20-minute overview expanded into an hour-long discussion of religious and global sociopolitical issues.
What did they want to share? Discussing religious – and immigrant issues in Europe today is complicated: both countries claim large and growing Muslim populations – typically, they said, not discussed.
Yet my ‘guests’ wanted to talk about this issue and more. They want to visit synagogues, mosques. Our conversation reminded me how present Jewish history is where Jews are largely absent.
The three Swiss visitors told of millions of unclaimed (Jewish) dollars quietly ‘absorbed’ by banks, until loudly – and scandalously –
Zürich, with Switzerland’s largest Jewish population ( 18,000, Wikipedia) , has a sizeable, easily identifiable Orthodox population. With twelve synagogues ( Google) there are Kosher supermarkets while others have aisles of kosher food. A fan of (kosher) red horseradish sat in front of me.
Our Swedish conversant had taught in a school with a Jewish ‘half’. Stockholm’s Jews, ‘blend in’. Few are identifiably Orthodox. With no ethnic registration in Sweden, the halakh-icly (Jewish mother) Jewish population is estimated (Wikipedia) around 20,000. Neutral during WWII, a further search found anti-Semitism a growing problem in Malmo, Sweden’s 3rd largest city (an interesting, yet scary read)(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_the_Jews_in_Sweden).
I asked if there was a public Menorah at Chanukah/Hanukkah like in Zagreb (with 1,500 Jews) . Laughing, they questioned the Ch vs H pronunciation – the guttural Ch rumbled easily from their European throats. No, there is no visible celebration. The Swiss woman saw her first ‘Festival of Lights’ notice here in NYC, ten years ago.
In my post ‘Holiday Lights in Zagreb’ notice the picture of ONE small corner of ONE decorated window acknowledging Chanukah, and, the identity challenge for Jewish and Muslim kids who don’t celebrate Christmas. The Swedish woman shared (some) Muslim’s had Christmas trees for their kids – a gesture of belonging. (Check out the post ‘A promised Krakow story’ about Slawek’s experience.)
Up in the women’s section, the two men and two women naturally sat on either side of the aisle . Naturally, as one man said, the men and women sat separately (like Orthodox Jews) in his small town Swiss Church.
Religious similarity? Do excuses for war cause humans to search for differences?
There was competition for which country was changing more due to immigration: Sweden: 1 in 8 is an immigrant. Switzerland: 1 in 7. As diversity increases, does tolerance?
How do we broaden our tolerance, make it part of Homo sapien DNA? Can teaching respect drive hate crimes to extinction?
Classroom learning is a good start. But is there any substitute for open, honest, face-to-face conversation like the five of us shared? Our conversation was another reminder that people want to talk and learn about issues of religion and identity.
My challenge: searching for ways to safely carve out time and emotional (listening) space for conversation.
Wishing you a week filled with unexpected and open conversation!