Are you suffering from Berlin Station synagogue disorientation?
This is an obscure point but I admit that it bugged me, watching. Maybe because Olen Steinhauer had a chip on his shoulder about how German viewers of Berlin Station were going to recognize their city as it is better in Berlin Station than in the series he was trashtalking at the time. Berlin is supposed to be a character in the show, but these choices make it a sort of confusing character.
So. There’s a point in Berlin Station 1.5 at which we see Robert Kirsch (Leland Orser) going into a synagogue, and we see him looking at this exterior. (Well, it occurs to me to ask — when you saw this, did you realize it was a synagogue? Moorish architecture looking back to the Jewish Golden Age in fifteenth-century Spain was a big theme in nineteenth-century synagogue architecture in the West, but it might seems slightly incongruous today, I suppose.)
This is the Neue Synagoge in the Oranienburgerstr. in the Scheunenviertel or the Spandauer Vorstadt (depending on whose definition you use). It’s been there since the mid-nineteenth century, was heavily damaged on Kristallnacht, was used as military storage during WWII. Although the building survived the war, that part of the city, which ended up in East Germany, was heavily bombed and the GDR Jewish community of Berlin demolished everything but the façade in 1958. It was restored after 1989 and what one sees today is largely a restoration. (The actual GDR Jewish community was headquartered in the Rykestr., but it was tiny by 1989, perhaps 200 people.) Three quarters of the building is a museum nowadays. If you’re thinking of visiting — and it’s worth it; it’s a well done, if depressing, museum, like a lot of Jewish museums in Germany — be prepared to go through x-ray and security check, as you will when entering almost any Jewish institution in a large city in Germany. It’s been that way for years. If you’re going to shul and they don’t know you, bring your passport. This used to really depress me.
Anyway, so I don’t know what I’m thinking Robert’s doing, but there is a very cozy synagogue on the top floor of that building. It’s the only Conservative congregation in Germany and I met the (very interesting) current rabbi a few times at liberal Jewish events when she was still a rabbinical student. Yeah, she. One few congregations in Germany to have a female rabbi. It grew out of an egalitarian minyan that started meeting there in the 90s, men and women who didn’t know much about Jewish prayer, but wanted to learn, examine and critique the Jewish tradition. When it comes to liturgy, they are some of the most well informed Jewish lay people in Germany.
So I’m expecting — I dunno — that he’ll either go into the museum or the shul there, but instead he goes into the building and lo and behold! Not only does he apparently get to skip the security check, he’s actually in the very dark interior of the synagogue in the Pestalozzistraße! Somewhere else entirely!
Now, if you wanted to have a secret meetup in Germany, due to the security situation (these are not Protestant or Catholic churches you can just walk in and out of), a synagogue is probably the worst possible place. It’s been over a decade since I’ve been in this building and I don’t think you can just walk into it and sit down, either. But whatever. (Random detail for the uninitiated — a lot of synagogues have stadium seats because when you join a synagogue, you’re paying for a seat.)
Anyway, later, when Robert returns to share his decision that he’s going to spy for Israel, we get visual and aural confirmation that this is the Pestalozzistr., which was also burnt out on Kristallnacht, used as a laundry during the war, and was restored to its original inner decoration just a few years ago. It’s in Charlottenburg, and became the central community of the postwar Jews of West Berlin.
The rabbi of that synagogue is Jonah Sievers. It’s plausible from the resolution on my screen that that could really be him, and the guy in the hat could be Isaac Sheffer, the synagogue cantor — he still wears the traditional nineteenth-century garb. What’s decisive is that the prayer we hear in the background is in German (except for the closing, v’nomar Amen, and let us say Amen), and the music we hear in the background is L’cha Dodi, which is only sung on Friday nights to welcome the Sabbath. Here’s the whole setting they are singing, as composed by Louis Lewandowski (this fact is significant, so bear with me).
And now we’re on the terrain of what I would have written about on Yom Kippur, had I had the time.
— Leland Orser (@LelandOrser) October 4, 2016
Every shul in Berlin has a distinctive character. As Oranienburgerstraße is known nowadays for being a very observant, egalitarian congregation, Pestalozzistraße is the center of classical Reform Judaism in Germany. In particular, it’s almost a museum to or a concert hall for the works of Lewandowski, a centrally important composer in the Reform tradition. You’ll hear Lewandowski melodies in congregations all over the world, but only in the Pestalozzistraße is he sung, performed, as he originally intended himself. They have a particular ensemble of singers that does just this and only this on Fridays and Saturdays. In my opinion, this makes it more fun not to go there, because you don’t get to sing much yourself. But that’s how it is and there is a strand of Classical Reform in which people enjoy going to listen to a nineteenth-century choir concert every week.
Now: interesting point — Lewandowski was originally the cantor in Oranienburgerstraße; he was appointed there as soon as the synagogue was dedicated, and while there, he edited and published all of his most important works. So, historically speaking, that music does belong in that building; it’s just that after 1945, when the original building was unusable, the East Berlin Jews decamped to the Rykestr., and the West Berlin Jews centered themselves in Charlottenburg, where they took over the Lewandowski liturgy. So what doesn’t mix for the current context is the Pestalozzistraße liturgy performed with organ and choir in the Oranienburgerstraße interior. I’ve been in the Oranienburgerstraße dozens of times and I don’t think I’ve ever heard an organ used there for services (playing an instrument during worship breaks the laws of the Sabbath — it’s only Reform synagogues that do this).
In the publicity for this show, people keep talking about Berlin as a character — and Berlin definitely is a character — except that if you know anything about the Berlin Jewish scene, this conflation of scenery makes it hard to figure out what character it is here. It’s a bit weird to send Robert to such a Classical Reform scene if they are trying to say anything about his view of his own history, because most synagogues in the U.S. during his childhood would not have been much like this one. If they’re trying to say something about the Mossad, well — you find Israelis in all of the Berlin synagogues, of course, although they tend not to be very religious (and if they are, they are rarely Reform Jews), but I’m not sure, if I wanted to undertake anything clandestine as a Mossad agent, I’d pick a synagogue to do it. The shuls are small, still, and strangers are noticed. I’m sure the showrunners just picked the Oranienburgerstr. exterior because it is the most recognized Jewish architecture in Berlin. But depending on how you see it, they either make their point unintelligible or descend into stereotype by suggesting that all Jewish life is monochrome or created equal.
Anyway, I’m sure I’m the one viewer bothered by this. You got a little tour of a segment of Berlin Jewish life out of it, though.