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.



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.

~ by Servetus on November 15, 2016.

22 Responses to “Are you suffering from Berlin Station synagogue disorientation?”

  1. Interesting read, Serv, thanks!
    For me the synagogue scenes almost felt more like church scenes than synagogue scenes.


    • That’s Classical Reform. I won’t give you the whole fifteen weeks of lectures on this topic, but toward the end of the 18th c., as German Jews sought emancipation (legal equality with Gentiles in the German states), they felt themselves under pressure to combat prejudices against Jews. Some of these related to Jewish worship, which was seen by Christians to be disorderly, rude, and disrespectful. (There’s a German saying that survives that reflects this prejudice: “hier geht’s zu wie in der Judenschule.” You occasionally hear an elderly person say this still, but it’s more or less been beaten out of the idiom thankfully.)

      So some Jews undertook a reform of worship. This effort coincided with internal currents in Judaism that criticized the repetitiveness, length, and formulaic quality of worship (many Jews having no idea what was going on in services and thus just praying absently in the way they were taught without understanding). There were a number of liturgical reformers who essentially conspired to shorten the service and make both prayer and song seem more like that of a Christian church. Classical Reform is the apex of that — you wouldn’t necessarily know you weren’t in a church except that some of the liturgy is still in Hebrew. (I could go into a lot more detail about this but won’t. It’s not just liturgy but also ritual changes and so on — like the idea that people should sit still for the whole service, or pray in unison, or that men and women could sit together — you get the idea.)

      Lewandowski is sort of the final flower of Classical Reform. (He has one competitor, Solomon Sulzer). Because the Holocaust was really hard on the Jews of that tradition, it more or less disappeared in Germany, but it caught in the U.S.– but with a lot of modifications.

      And Pestalozzistr. is sort of a Lewandowski shrine. Because it’s so unusual these days, many Jews find it alienating, too.

      let me know if you want to know more about this —

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thanks for this! I know many names of streams in Judaism, I know about them in very general terms but not like this. Didn’t realize Reform was mirroring some of the Christian service. Pity, ’cause I always kinda like the ‘messiness’ of the few Jewish services I’ve been to.
        Thanks for the more info offer but my mind has been in overdrive recently, can’t take on any more… for now… 😊


        • Jews had their debates about worship, too, just as intensive as the Xian ones …. and I agree with you about liking the messiness. It always makes me feel less guilty when I can’t concentrate.


  2. This was an interesting read!!!! And it really sounds a bit weird if someone knows the locations very well.
    May I ask what you think about the accent of Golda Friedman? Genuine or not so much?


    • It’s not bad. The main thing a speaker of American English will notice about an Israeli speaking English is that s/he usually has severe problems with pronouncing “r”. She definitely gets that right. The other thing is a tendency to speak in a rhythm that pushes the emphasis to the end of the sentence (this is because a lot of Hebrew words are emphasized on the last syllable, or at least it sounds that way if you listen to Hebrew for a while. i can’t really speak it — just read it and pray in it). If you listen to Danny Danon in this vid, you’ll get an idea of what I mean — he’s always emphasizing the ends of his sentences. This isn’t wrong, it’s just a noticeable pattern.


  3. Interesting insider view, Servetus. It’s the little details like this – using the exterior of one building with the interior of another – that I always find so annoying in films/shows. Mind you, in this case I would not have known, of course, as only an insider can pick that out…
    Anyway, as Robert himself says to Golda in the show, “aren’t you laying it on a bit thick” – meeting the Mossad agent mother in a synagogue > a bit stereotypical, no? Or is that evidence of modern spies doing the obvious in order to throw their opponents off their trail?


    • It’s a bit weird that Orser didn’t point it out, as presumably he’s been to Pestalozzistr (he took the picture, anyway).

      re: the Mossad agent — yes, I had said this in an earlier post, I think. Besides which I doubt a Mossad agent would bribe anyone with soup, and given the status of the Jewish mother with Jewish men (ambivalent), it’s not clear that it would be persuasive ….


  4. Me, back to another Law and Order reference, when they filmed a scene that was supposed to be outside the criminal courts building, where any trial would have taken place, they usually used the Supreme Court ( civil cases only) building or the old federal court ( now housing only the court of appeals and a library, plus offices). This was because the criminal court (Supreme) is in what an unattractive office building on a corner. No grand steps or anything special. In fact, the side entrance gets you into the Department of Motor Vehicles.
    What does the Pestilozzistra….look like from the outside? Maybe there was construction or scaffolding when they were shooting? Practicalities and all that.
    I’m sure you noticed, as I did, that a number of episodes made it clear Kirsch was a Jew. They really pounded it home. I was wondering where this was going. ( I actually thought the actor, Leland Orser, was a Jew) Well – the Israelis – Mossad, of course. I think Jews, especially many American Jews I know, hold Mossad in high esteem and as a matter of singular pride as far as intelligence services go.


    • Here’s a picture of that exterior; I’ve always thought it looks a bit like a Romanesque church:

      I was so convinced Orser was a Jew that I didn’t bother to look it up until several weeks into the publicity. (Although I thought California and not NYC; to me he doesn’t sound like he’s generationally connected to Yiddish speakers.) He’s really got every detail down from the quirky over the top energy, the expressive face, even the rhythm of his speech (not just the script). So you’re right I didn’t need the synagogue to tell me that the character is Jewish, Orser sold that all on his own. I think you’re right that many American Jews are proud of their connection to Mossad.

      I was trying to read the Robert Kirsch dossier and can’t find it. Maybe part of my problem with these scenes (and their solid mobilization of stereotype) is that I don’t know enough about his background. I have a decent idea of how Jews my age in the US behave, the kinds of experiences they’ve had, the sort of political sympathies they are likely to express — but I don’t know enough about Kirsch to know where he fits into that. To me he reads like someone embedded a bit in the stereotypes of someone 20 years older than he is, but …


  5. Footnote — maybe they picked the Oranienburgerstr. as the meetup point because it’s the closest synagogue to Mitte, where the embassy is located. It’s a ten minute walk at most.

    Footnote 2 — maybe I’m bugged b/c I really like the Oranienburgerstr. synagogue and find the Pestalozzistr a bit antiquated / alienating …


  6. He’s somewhere in his 40’s. The character has a generational link to Yiddish speakers through his grandparents, who grew up hearing it from their own immigrant parents. His parents would have picked some of that up. I know 40 something Jews who match that scenario and at times, when they want to, you get the vibe – but it’s also tied in to they’re being New Yorkers, where even non-Jews can sometimes have a little of that. I can’t say if a similarly situated person raised elsewhere would have any Yiddish speech characteristics at all ( Here, it’s not the case that he was raised by Hassidm who still speak Yiddish) But I agree, you don’t hear any of it in his own speech, or even Robert Kirsch’s. His is very clipped speech and not sing song at all – and he doesn’t sprinkle his speech with rhetorical questions ( i.e. “you want me to …..?” ” Why else would I . . .”) – which is what I would look at to try and find some remnant.
    As to his sympathies as a Jew, where he stands politically I can’s say. Except for a few exceptions of hard line Zionists, most people I know well at every age, are much more liberal and critical of many Israeli policies, especially concerning the Palestinians( to varying degrees), my own immediate family, excluded. Here in Mexico, I only know two Jews in their forties. I’ll ask them.


    • Maybe you’re bugged because they got it wrong. Looking at my comment, I can’t decide whether I used “they’re” correctly. I could make a case for it, but, sigh, I think I’m wrong.


      • also inverted sentence elements — “happy about it I’m not” is usually a giveaway (also to some extent to NY speech in general).

        In my experience, the people who have the unalloyed Israel sympathies are all just a little older than I am — people who really remember the Yom Kippur War, for instance (I was 4 and I guess Robert is supposed to be younger than me). My real memories begin with the Lebanon War (when I was not yet a Jew), and in my experience the Jews I hang with who are about my age have that same history in their scope and have kind of lost that same sort of gleefulness about the wonders of Israel, the “I’ll do anything for Israel, happily” mood. Even if they are unabashedly pro-Israel, it’s a different vibe.


  7. Même si la réalité diffère de ce qui est présenté, cette traversée “touristique” de Berlin donne une image de la ville actuelle et renvoie au passé complexe de ce carrefour historique.


    • Oh, for sure. And you can always read more if you’re interested.

      I was thinking last night about which synagogue in Berlin I’d visit to look for a spy, and the answer was either Rykestr. or another group I haven’t talked about (yet), the Jüdischer Kulturverein. I think a lot of people don’t realize that Jewish life in Germany is quite complex, even now.


  8. […] Robert and the Mossad agent from the previous episode at the synagogue. I discussed which synagogue here, and how that complicates our understanding of Robert’s backstory. Robert gets to tell us the […]


  9. Thank you. Your history, architectural, and cultural lessons are always appreciated and informative.


  10. Notes that the rabbi in those shots IS Jonah Sievers:


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: