Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Finding Buried Treasure

Sometimes irony is one of life's highest delights.  Other times it is a dagger, stabbing deadly barbs.  Here's a  story with irony.  It's about finding gifts I didn't expect to find, and finding out that something else I  thought was a gift turns out to be something else. 

It was morning and I was reading in my Bible.  I'm slowly reading through the book of St. Matthew and am just about to the place where Jesus gets killed.  In chapter 26, he's at someone's house for dinner and an unexpected guest crashes the party - a woman.  She walks in to Jesus, bends down over him, kneels, breaks a bottle of expensive perfumed oil and pours it over his head.  You may have heard or read the story.  This woman's deed struck me when I started to think about it.  I realized that if I had been sitting there, it would never have occurred to me to pour a flask of oil over his head.  In fact, nothing at all would have occurred to me.  I'd just be sitting there, maybe involved in a conversation with someone, enjoying the food for sure, and shocked when this woman walks in and does this crazy thing.  I would agree with the disciples, who said it was crazy.  Yes, she was crazy.  She just wasted a fortune on this man when she could have sold the bottle and given the money to the poor.  And why is she so hung up on him anyway?  What's going on between them?

So I asked myself why she did such an outlandish thing.  The answer that came to me was, "Because she experienced something huge from Jesus, she was enormously touched and changed by him, and she wanted to express her love and appreciation in this way.  It had to be something extravagant, because he did something extravagant for her."  It never occurred to me to do anything big for Jesus.  Why not?  Why am I not inclined to give something precious of mine to God?  That answer came right away.  Because I haven't received anything big from Jesus, a.k.a God - at least, not in a very long time.  I asked myself and God why that was so.  Because I'm not open to the gifts Jesus is offering me, was the answer I heard in my mind's ear. 

That stung, but rang true.  I am an idealistic person with definite ideas about how life should be.  I've always seen that as one of my very best traits.  If you're ever in doubt about a moral question, ask me.  I'll probably have thought about it and have an answer.  And I'll try and live accordingly.  In school, idealism was held in high esteem.  It was even an American virtue.  I can hear the principal giving a speech right now, saluting "our wonderful, idealistic group of kids graduating this year, who will go out into the world and do great things."  I fell for that hook, line and sinker.  I wanted to go out there and do great things.  I heard it at least as much in church.  "My Utmost for His Highest" was one of the books lying around our house.  It took me decades to find out that idealism isn't always good.  It can also be a cause of suffering and a hindrance to being open for something else.

I sat there in my bed, where I usually sit when I read and meditate.  I let these thoughts sink into me.  When life doesn't turn out the way I expect it to, I'm disappointed.  I'm not really all that good at accepting life as it comes.  Not that anyone is, really.  It's hard to be disappointed about something and not let it throw you into a funk.

Recently someone close to me let me down.  This person doesn't walk the talk - one of the things in life that make my blood boil.  I'm a firm believer in consistency.  Why can't people see when they aren't living what they say they believe in?  I was letting thoughts about that drift through my head that morning as I sat, meditating.  Several examples came to mind of where I don't see the blessing around me because I'm upset about something else.  I didn't mind if my thoughts made me look less than nice.  I already know that I'm not really all that nice.  I'm so glad to have discovered God's grace, mercy and forgiveness for myself.

So I sat there, letting the thoughts drift.  Our upcoming wedding anniversary floated past.  A telephone conversation I'd had with my brother idled by.  He was talking about a barbecued pork dish he'd heard about in a TV show with Steven Raichlen, the barbecue pope.  Turns out the recipe comes from Germany.  We had speculated just where this town might be.  My husband Peter had identified the place, and I had checked it online.  Thoughts continued to drift.  Suddenly they consolidated, and everything joined into one gigantic realization.

The conversation with my brother was a gift, and his interest in food one of his treasures!  I've also expected other things from my brother that he hasn't been able to deliver on.  But I hadn't truly recognized or truly received this special gift.  He has blessed my tummy many, many times.  Now he's off in America and I'm here in Germany, but he has blessed me again with the name of a town where we can get fantastic barbecued meat.  Steven Raichlen even goes so far as to say that the German barbecue cuisine is one of Europe's best-kept secrets.  I certainly never knew that.  In fact, I have been avoiding all the bratwurst and marinated pork chops I see in the supermarket, grilling hamburgers, steaks and teriyaki chicken instead.  Now I hear that one of the best places in the world for barbecued food is Germany!

So, in that instant I KNEW that Peter and I would be driving to Idar-Oberstein, the home of this great recipe, and trying out this famous dish, called Spiessbraten.  And sure enough, he agreed to my idea, even though it involved a two and a half hour drive.  Each way.

Idar-Oberstein, you see, is in the middle of nowhere.  You have to drive an entire hour once you get off the autobahn, just to get there.  It's a sleepy little town, hidden in a river valley.  I'd been to the Idar part of the town, but never to Oberstein.  We went there once with our son when he was little, collecting rocks, and into geodes.  All I saw there in Idar was a bunch of dusty semi-precious stones sitting on shelves in a museum.  Idar-Oberstein is known for its semi-precious stones that used to be mined in the hills above.  Years ago they stopped mining there, but stones are still polished and made into jewelry there.

As we drove, we contempated the fact that this remote town contains so much of value.  This town is not very well-known in Germany.  Not valued.  The country I live in is also not particularly beloved in the English-speaking world.  It's still known as the country that welcomed Hitler into power, the country where some citizens committed unthinkable atrocities less than a hundred years ago.   But a Jewish chef from Florida is praising their barbecue cuisine.  He's even praising their pork.  And I've been missing out on treasures.

"Felsenkirche" - the church on the cliff, and Oberstein Castle
Schlossschenke - our restaurant
When we arrived in Oberstein, we found a really pretty town filled with cute half-timbered houses.  There was a high hill above us with a church built right into the rock.  And high above that, off to the left, a castle, partly in  ruins.  We had no difficulty finding a restaurant serving spiessbraten - there were restaurants all over advertising this dish.  We sat down at a table at the nearest one, Schlossschenke, a hotel with a restaurant and outdoor caf√©.  It looked so inviting, with its wood beams, stones, and flowers in the windows.  Flags were gently waving in the street opposite the restaurant, among them an American one.  The menu was in English and German. 

Turns out this place isn't such a secret after all, at least among the American soldiers stationed in nearby Baumholder.  Our waitress told us that many soldiers find their way to their restaurant, asking for spiessbraten.

The grill outside our restaurant
Spiessbraten as it is prepared in Idar-Oberstein can be either pork or beef.  I ordered beef rumpsteak, and Peter pork.  The important thing about it is that the meat is coated in a mixture of sliced onions, salt and pepper which you kind of knead around the meat every once in a while for about twelve hours, then grill on this special kind of grill you can turn around like a wheel as the meat cooks over beech wood.  And you eat it with a white radish salad and some form of potatoes.  We had potato salad, made in this region with oil and vinegar.  It was indeed delicious and perhaps one of the best grilled meals we have ever eaten.  We sat there, like a king and queen in a castle garden, enjoying a gem of a food we learned about from my brother in America.  How I would love to be able to take him there to the place where the food he told me about originates.  But I can't.  He's not here, even though he gave us this gift.  Ironically, he was once in Idar-Oberstein with his ex-wife when they came to Germany for Peter's and my wedding.  But they didn't know about spiessbraten then.   

The waitress patiently explained how we could recreate the experience at home.  We would need wood chips from a beech tree, but we could buy the wood at a nearby store. 

After finishing our meal, we walked through the town a little.  I bought a turquoise necklace and some presents.  We admired the church in the rock and castle in the distance.  We stopped at a store on our way home to buy beech wood, but they were out of it.

As soon as we got home, I phoned my brother to tell him about the experience.  He was pleased to be such an important part of our wedding anniversary.

Later in the week, I found wood chips at a local lumber store.  We bought pork shoulder steak at our butcher's, and on Sunday we ate spiessbraten we made ourselves.  If possible, it was even better than what we'd had in the restaurant.

I am learning to recognize some of the treasures around me, opening myself up to the realization that I am being blessed all the time by my God.  How good to be able to realize that, discovering that treasures are flowing through the floodgates!

On that same weekend I was able to give a bit back to God.  I played Bach's "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring" on the organ at a wedding last weekend.  I played it as a gift to God.  This is what they call worship.


Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Jewish Prague

Meisel Synagogue, Prague

This summer I've been away a lot - with people other than my husband.  I was in Paris twice - once with my friend Elaine and once with my niece, Sarah - you can read about that trip in the link provided.  I was even in England once.  All this traveling is one of the perks of living in Europe.  But I was missing my husband, and he me!   Peter and I decided it's about time we did something together.  I saw our son Jon and niece Sarah off at the Frankfurt airport and the next day Peter and I took off with Toffee, our little Havanese dog, for a week in the Czech Republic.  Since we have the dog along, we have to do a lot of our sightseeing separately.  Dogs are not a welcome sight in manicured parks or museums, although it's no problem taking them into department stores or restaurants!  

While in Prague, in one of my periods of sightseeing alone, I went on a guided tour of the historic Jewish area.  They call this the "Jewish Museum of Prague".  It is the largest museum of this sort in Europe.  I was the only one on the tour who wasn’t Jewish.  That alone made for an interesting afternoon.  For me, it was as interesting seeing the tour through the eyes of Jewish tourists.  In the beginning, people were introducing themselves to each other – a French couple, two American couples and me.  One of them mentioned that she had been on a cruise, and I asked her about that.  “We went down the Rhine,” she said. 

“How was it?”  I asked. 

“A bit too German for my taste,” she answered.

I was then interrupted by our tour guide, who asked where I lived.

“Germany,” I answered.  Immediately the woman who had been on the cruise walked away from me, as far away as she could be and still hear the guide.  I wondered if this was because of my admission as to where I live.  I thought it would be wise to add a bit about where I live, since everyone in the group had heard our embarrassing encounter.  Why is Germany still such a painful subject?  Why can’t it be neutral to live in this country that has also contributed so much to the world?  For goodness' sake, the war has been over for almost seventy years.   

“I live in Germany, but I’m not German.  My husband is German, and he is not anti-Semitic.”

The cruise husband nodded and said, “Yes, there are lots of really nice, good Germans.”

Susanna, the guide, asked where I live in Germany.


“That’s a nice city.”

As soon as we moved on a little, the cruise lady way ahead of me, I hurried up to her and said,

“I’m not offended if you had a problem with the Germans on the cruise.”

She seemed surprised that I had come to her, and at first was at a loss for words.

“Well, that wasn’t really what I meant to say,” she said. 

“What was the problem then?”

“We experienced some anti-Semitism.”

"I'm so sorry to hear that," I said. 

Her husband told me that he had worked for the past thirty years with a German colleague who was a wonderful person.  However, they talked about every subject in the world except for one – the war.

“That’s a pity,” I said.

Later it occurred to me that there are two partners in a conversation.  If there is an elephant in the room, one of them could mention it.  Perhaps the German felt too much shame to bring it up.  In that case, the Jewish man would have been stronger, and the two of them could have had healing conversations.

I wonder how many non-Jews take part in these tours.  I felt a bit exposed, being the only gentile.  The cruise couple treated me naturally for the most part after our awkward beginning, and the others even told me tidbits about Jewish culture I didn’t know.  I found it very interesting, and it illuminated for me some of the things that went on in Nazi Germany.

One of the things I learned was that for hundreds of years, the Jews were forced to live in the area now called “Josefstadt.”   There was a fence around the ghetto and a gate with a lock.  The citizens were locked in during the night.  In the daytime, they were free to move throughout the city, but had to wear something yellow as a badge that they were Jewish – a yellow circle patch on their clothes, a bracelet, collar, or hat.  Yellow was the symbol for something seen as despicable.  These yellow stars of David worn by Jews in Nazi Germany were only an adaptation Hitler and the Nazis made on an already established practice. 

I found out that in the outside world, Jews could only be involved in finance, particularly lending for a profit.  They had to pay huge taxes on their gains, but some still became wealthy in their practice.  Mordecai Meisel, who used his money to build a synagogue named after him, was one of those who used his wealth to give back to the many impoverished Jews in Prague.  Jews did have other professions inside their ghetto, though.  There were even Jewish beer brewers.

The hero for the Jewish community was the emperor Joseph, the eldest son of the Hapsburg Maria Theresa.  I learned that she was rabidly anti-Semitic, that she learned this attitude from her father.  Her daughter, Marie Antoinette, wife of King Louis XV of France, whose ghost I encountered in Paris many times, was anti-Semitic.  But her brother Joseph was not, and did everything he could to make Jews equal.  Except for one thing – they were required to register, and somehow this affected their marriage rights.  The guide said only one child in a family had the right to marry.  In any case, the Jews loved him so much, they named their ghetto after him. 

In the Pinkas synagogue, I saw the names of Franz Kafka’s sisters listed - killed by the Nazis. 

Franz Kafka
Our guide showed us caricatures to show the popular Czech attitude towards Jews.  One of the ways they derided Jews was to portray them as insects.  This reminded me of Kafka, whose protagonist in the story “Metamorphosis” becomes a bug.  I asked the guide whether she thought there was any connection here.

“I don’t think so,” she said.  “He was a secular Jew who came from a privileged family.”

An Israeli woman who later joined the tour disagreed.  “I have nothing to do with the history of Prague, but as I walk through this city, I have a very heavy heart,” she said.  “I think Kafka could have felt what his ancestors felt.  Why should he not have identified with them?”

I agree.  I have a heavy heart for the Germans and the Jews.  I am sad to think of a city that was so great as this, now living mostly from its past.  It is magnificent, laden with one stunning palace after another.  There are so many palaces, people can’t afford to live in them and they have become embassies, government ministries and corporate headquarters.  There are wonderful examples of architecture from every period from the middle ages on.  There are still street signs in German, hinting to a past that had nothing to do with Nazis.  These were Germans who worked alongside Jews, who formed the intelligentsia of this city.  For hundreds of years, German was the official language here.  Now there is nothing left.  The Germans didn’t enjoy sharing power.  Eventually the Czech nationals took it away from the German-speaking Hapsburgs.  Then World War II ended all traces of German culture.  And now it’s all gone, all but beautiful buildings and a few streets hinting to the curious about a past that is no more.

If only people would accept each other.  Our cities and our lives would be all the richer for it.