I have to admit I was intrigued by the bare-chested Facebook photo of the hot Cantor, who flies in frequently from Tel Aviv to lead the gay-friendly Shabbas ceremony held monthly in Berlin. The event, called LSD, does not refer to a psychedelic substance, but is rather an acronym for “Let’s Start Davening”. Davening means “recitative prayer”, and this what happens during the Kabbalat Shabbat, or ceremony to receive the holy Friday eve.
The crowd is not simply composed of expat gay Israelis, but also families with children, old Berlin Jews, and curious young people of all faiths. An Israeli artist, who has lived in Berlin for five years, turns to me and he says, “In Israel this wouldn’t work: there wouldn’t be this mix of people. It would be stiffer and more self-conscious, especially among the gay men”. The evening is remarkably inclusive in yet another way: I was not asked once whether I was Jewish.
We sit in a circle, each with a glass of wine, and join in the guitar strumming, singing, ‘aie yai yai-ing’, as castanets and shakers are passed among the children. The Cantor, Ariel Pollak, sits nimbly at his small harmonium, decorated with interfaith symbols of the Christian, Islamic and Jewish traditions. The friendly ruckus gives a dissonant texture to the proceedings.
The Cantor describes the evening as “semi-religious”, and opines that “the centuries since Enlightenment have not erased what came before: man is a highly religious being, and needs spirituality”. “Love songs” are recited, and my neighbour whispers to me: ”Do you understand Hebrew? I’m surprised that the songs are so religious. They are stirring up all sorts of things in me, precisely because I am from Israel and chose to leave”.
At this point, I notice two police officers through the windows, inspecting the exterior staircases and the balconies. I’m put on edge, and find myself entertaining paranoias of which I didn’t think myself capable. Only earlier this month the Charlie Hebdo massacre and the related face-off in a Parisian Kosher supermarket ratcheted tensions sky-high. Finally, an officer peeks through our door, and shuts it again, perhaps not wanting to interrupt the dozens praying inside. Curious, and just a little bit alarmed, I quietly nip out, and ask them, ”Is everything OK?”
The two officers, uniformed in padded riot gear, are smiling and looking relaxed. They say, “No, no, we are here to tell you everything is OK”.
I stand bewildered until a couple from inside join us. They have called the police because they saw someone on an upper balcony looking down into the celebrations, with something in hand that was longer than a cigarette. It turns out that there was no threat.
“Better to control such things”, we agree.
But later I see there’s a movie theatre located on the upper level. I had seem plenty of cinephiles there, smoking, waiting for their showtimes. And I blame myself for my burst of paranoia.
The police hang out, patrolling the different levels of the building, until the ceremony finishes. I feel a strong conflation of historical moments. There is the police security that reminds me of arrangements in the State of Israel. But the security is here in Germany, where tonight’s event, as a continuity of Jewish life in a country with a history of mass murder, represents a bright candle in that darkness. Then the historical moments intermingle with the present intense discussions of the “Islamist” threat in Europe. I sense another danger: are we really going to allow ourselves to live in Europe the way they they live in Israel?
The singing continues, and, the whole time, I have a strong desire to leave.
Then suddenly, the Cantor directly addresses the issues on so many people’s minds. He talks of the importance of playing Jewish music that has its origins in Arabic music. It has a broader meaning given what’s happening in Europe regarding terrorism, he says, “it reminds us of times when our two people had better relations”. He is frustrated that many secular people think religion is the root problem of extremism. He presents a metaphor that he learned from his rabbi: “the religions are like the organs of a body: all of them keep the world going”. I can entertain his ecumenicism, but don’t like the way the metaphor continues––perhaps he intended it to come out differently––when he says that one of the organs, Islam, “has cancer”.
I strongly disagree with this comparison and am not the first person to think that the extremism of so-called “Islamism” has little to do with Islam. The metaphor does not help distinguish the two sufficiently. I think of the brother, of the police officer Ahmed Merabet killed in the attacks, who said: “My brother was Muslim – he was killed by false Muslims.”
There is a moment for private prayer, and the Kiddush (sanctifying prayer over wine) is said before the meal. There’s plenty of drink, with the Cantor joking it’s traditionally important to drink a full glass between almost every song. The result is lots of circle dancing and more aie-yai-yai-ing. The mood is lightening. The police officers have thankfully disappeared. Everyone moves on to the vegetarian potluck, having pitched in with food and a bottle of wine. The children race around the room, and the men sit perceptibly nearer to one another.
At the end, in a fit of creative silliness, a group of Israeli guys start playing with a bag of Tortilla chips and place “Startillas of David” (as a friend names them) on their tongues. “I wonder if there’s an expat gay Jewish night in Mexico City? Just like there’s in Berlin?”, he laughs.
I feel a sense of pressure lift as we walk in a large group through Weinberg Park to invade the local gay bar. Berlin is unseasonably warm outside. On our way, the men debate how much they liked the evening––for many it was their first time, “LSD virgins”, as they put it.
One says, “It’s beautiful: it’s the way all religion should be: queer, open, accepting. This is the model for Judaism”.
Then his compatriot answers, “But why do we need the religion at all? Can’t we just have had a concert to feel togetherness? You should read more Christopher Hitchens“.
Three of them then discuss whether any of them would go back to Israel, and not one says yes.
I start to ask myself why I attended. Is it simply because I hoped to check out some hot guys? No, not really. I have a few answers: Because I am interested in the continuity of Jewish life in Berlin as a historian. Because I admire the openness: the intersection with queer Berlin, the feeling that Jews of many stripes can thrive in diaspora.
But I wonder whether I am seeing the event critically enough––as my Israeli friends might. I grew up Catholic, and if I were presented with a charismatic, ecumenical, guitar-strumming, ceremony in the faith of my childhood I would have an intensely negative reaction, and run quickly away, dubious about the nostalgia of those who wish to hold on to the trappings of religion without fully swallowing the pill. I cannot escape my own position: that I come to this event as faithless, skeptical, and agnostic.
But I am left in a quandary: to what extent should I criticize? Intransigent secularism, we have seen in France, finds no common ground. There are those who take great meaning in a collective demonstration of faith, even if I do not. This evening in Berlin (leaving behind the metaphors) seems the most harmless expression of this spiritual desire––nostalgia? ––folly? ––need?