One of the reasons I like living in the Bay Area is that I am aware of Jewish culture. Being German, this is important for me – I learn things here that I could never learn in my native country. Mostly I learn from interacting with Jewish people: conversations, questions, a place at a friend’s Passover Seder. This story describes an instance of holiday spirit healing old wounds. (A longer version appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle in December, 2007.)
When our friends asked us to go Christmas caroling, my response was lukewarm. I feared the Berkeley PC patrol. But our young family friend Leila assured me that everyone loves this holiday tradition and her twin sister Pera reminded me of the Hanukkah song we know. She started singing, my daughters joined in, and I harmonized. My husband assured me that we sounded good enough to go public.
We were a motley dozen when we set out on a late afternoon with photocopied lyrics and votive candles. Nine-year old Marlene, wrapped in colorful scarves, was the youngest; my aunt and uncle who were visiting from out of town were in their sixties; the rest of us somewhere in between. Our spunky dog, more interested in exploring scents than carrying a tune, was tugging at his leash. It happened to be the second day of Hanukkah and the chilly darkness almost felt like winter.
In front of a brightly lit house, we raised our voices. But the woman who opened the door sent us on our way. “Making dinner”, she explained, wiping her hands on a kitchen towel. We headed for a porch decorated with green garlands and poinsettias. When we started Deck the Halls, a forty-something man came to the door. His smile waned when it dawned on him that we were intending to sing all six verses. After the fourth falalala refrain, his wife rescued him. “We have guests coming any minute,” she mumbled and pulled him inside. At the next house, we got no response at all, though we could see that someone was home. Maybe caroling belonged with the ghosts of Christmas past? But I was starting to have fun and our singing was kicking into high gear. We were getting more daring on our harmonizing and experimenting with less familiar songs. I suggested that we continue at home, with tea and cookies. But Leila and Pera wouldn’t hear of it. Each grabbed one of my arms and pulled me along. We started singing and a young couple opened the door and brought their children outside. They offered us bell-shaped cookies from a red tray. Leila stacked the goodies into the hood of my aunt’s jacket. “I can’t carry them”, she explained, waving the song sheets and the votive, “so I’m saving them for later.”
Encouraged, we moved on to a house with bright lights and sparkling blue and silver decorations. A Menorah glittered in the Bay window, laughter and conversation wafted through the open door. “A Hanukkah party!” Aisha cried, “it’s perfect for our Song of Light.” We sang and people gathered at the door. When the song was finished, the host asked us to come inside and sing something else. Pera confessed that this was the only Hannukah song we knew. “A Christmas carol, then”, he suggested. We deliberated briefly and decided on our best piece, a multi-verse carol that we could harmonize not only in melody, but also in language, combining the original German with the English translation. My husband waited outside with the dog; the rest of us stepped into the festively decorated room. After singing the first line of Maria durch den Dornwald ging in German, a familiar unease rose up in me. After all, this was a Jewish gathering. Suddenly, like pristine snow turned to muddy slush, the beautiful song seemed shamefully German. My native country’s history weighed down every measure and seemed to distort the lyrics. I imagined misgivings, questions, accusations and looked down at my songbook and read the words that I knew by heart in order to avoid the eyes of the attentive listeners. I felt an urge to explain myself - “I know what you are thinking, but believe me, I am a thoughtful German, I’ve read dozens of books about the Holocaust and I have cried at concentration camp memorial sites.” My mind was racing. My singing had a subtext: I am sorry. Once again I realized I had no idea what it would feel like to raise my voice proudly in my native language.
When I finally looked up, two dozen faces were beaming at us. There was no reproach, only appreciation. So I lifted my voice and sang as beautifully as I could, in German - da haben die Dornen Rosen getragen - the thorns were wearing roses.
Everyone clapped when we had finished, and the host offered us mandelbrot from the heaping banquet table.
“You sang in German at a Hannukah party!” my husband exclaimed when we were back on the sidewalk. I don’t think I could have done that.” I told him about how my mind pulled me into the darkness of German history. How I almost stopped singing. “But then I saw their faces and I realized that they liked our song, German lyrics and all.”
Looking at the blue and silver decorations from the sidewalk, I felt relieved. And grateful.
Holiday spirit, indeed.