I am writing this at about 11pm on Friday night after another truly amazing day. We all got a good night's sleep, and started the day with a lovely buffet breakfast in the hotel. This morning, the Festival organizers offered all participants a three hour guided bus tour of Berlin, and many of us took advantage of that. The tour truly gave us a real flavor of the city, its history, and its many parts. We began on the former west side, through the east side, with the Jewish cemetery as our ultimate destination. This is a fascinating city with a vast array of architectural styles, old and new, and the modern and the historical standing side by side throughout. As we crossed from east to west, the change in architecture and general development was quite apparent. The west is modern and what we would consider "western" as New York, Paris or London. Immediately upon crossing over to the former east side, the architecture became far more industrial and utilitarian. There has been much development in the former east side so that part of the city is still changing, but much of what was there before the wall came down still remains. Berlin is also a huge city, and it can take quite a while to pass from one end to the other. There is no shortage of traffic, either. The tour was a wonderful opportunity to see all parts of the city and get a good overview and understanding.
Our final destination was the Jewish cemetery to visit the grave of Louis Lewandowski. This is a truly beautiful, and very old, place. As we entered, there was a beautiful memorial to the victims of the Holocaust, and we all gathered around a cantor as he recited kaddish for the victims of the Holocaust. As he completed his prayers, the Jerusalem Jewish Mens Chorus broke into a spontaneous rendition of "Ani Ma'amin", followed by everyone joining together to sing Hatikvah. To say it was emotional is not to begin to do it justice. Then we proceeded to Lewandowski's grave. Each choral group then (also spontaneously) sang a Lewandowski piece in front of the grave marker, which was also a powerful experience for all.
We had a bit of down time after the tour, and in the afternoon we were all taken to the Pestalozstrasse Synagogue for the opening ceremonies of the Festival. The synagogue choir performed several Lewandowski pieces and were a joy to hear. There were speeches, some but not all of which were in English, by the various organizers and some local dignitaries. This was followed by Kabbalat Shabbat services. It was truly a mind boggling event to look around and see hundreds of people from four continents all coming together for this experience. For me, the "aha" moment was when the cantor began to chant the V'Ahavta prayer. As we all joined him, I was suddenly struck by the power of the idea that these words, and this tune, are recited just the same by all Jews all over the globe, and that Jews from four continents could come together and all have those same words and melody engrained in their DNA. Other tunes may vary from shul to shul, and country to country, but that prayer is a constant for all of us, and has been since the very beginning. Talk about power.
Services were followed by a return to the hotel and a lovely shabbat dinner. There are certainly moments where confusion reigns, and one of them this evening turned out to be that they didn't have nearly enough tables and chairs in the dining room to accommodate all the attendees. Most of Zamir ended up eating our meal standing up at a long, tall serving table that had been intended for beverage service, but we took it in stride, and with laughter, and had a wonderful meal together. Naturally, the meal ended with a good deal of spontaneous singing, and Josh even got us all up and dancing around the room while singing a niggun. It was a time of great unity, and it was very special.
A bunch of us took a walk around the neighborhood after dinner, but the weather has turned colder and it was raining, so that put a bit of a damper on that. I broke off from the group for a while, and as I was walking, the rain turned to snow, and it was absolutely beautiful. This is a beautiful city, and at this time of year the holiday (Christmas) decorations are everywhere, which makes the city look festive and beautiful.
So as I say, it was quite a day. Besides all that, here are some random observations about Berlin:
1. Despite the "Hogan's Heroes" era stereotype of Germans being precise and prompt at all times, we are finding that they are actually not so precise or organized, and often not on time. Just like the rest of the world.
2. The traffic here is insane. At least on our buses, it seems to take forever to drive even a reasonably short distance.
3. Germans must always be cold, because the temperature of every interior location I have been to (starting with the Lufthansa flights and consistently since) feels like it's about 85 degrees. I am constantly roasting indoors.
Tonight I am blogging from a public computer, so I am unable to upload any photos, but will do so when I can. Tomorrow evening we do our second concert, at the Jewish Museum, and I am very excited about that.
So for now, good night, sleep tight, and pleasant dreams to all.