Precious few in our society are aware that this Shabbat marks the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. As Jews, this event ought to resonate louder than with most other people, because, for the last two millennia, we have in many ways identified ourselves as “People of the Wall”.
It has been said that walls divide. For us as a people, walls are synonymous with unification. Nevertheless, in witnessing the building of the Berlin Wall close to six decades ago, many Jews responded in a way that was not even remotely politically oriented. Still scarred from a Berlin united under Hitler, many Jews felt that Berlin should be walled off into thousands of sectors, in that they knew only too well what a united Berlin produced. “Ein Volk, Ein Reich, Ein Führer” (one people, one state, one Fuhrer). Hitler’s slogan still rang loud and clear in the ears of survivors, as well as others. Because of this, a united Berlin, as well as a united Germany was not a priority for many Jews on November 9, 1989.
Throughout our history, walls evoked other associations. Perhaps the first walls, that our biblical ancestors confronted were the walls of Jericho. Not long after the mantle of leadership was passed from Moshe to Yehoshua, the nascent Israelite army operating in the Promised Land, was confronted with the taking of the city of Jericho. Yehoshua proved to be a brilliant tactician. Dispatching two spies on a covert reconnaissance mission, contact was made, and support was assured by a sympathetic “saloon hostess” in that city. After the Israelite army marched around the walled city of Jericho, the Israelite army scored a brilliant victory in its first military campaign. Equally, if not even more important, with the fall of the wall, our ancestors were solidly united behind their new leader.
For the Jew, the word “ghetto” has a negative connotation and smacks of Europe. Regardless of its origins, the ghetto connotes a geographic area where Jews lived or were forced to live by the non-Jew. During the first half of the 1940s, ghetto evoked the penultimate stage prior to transport to final destinations such as Treblinka. Yet, there is a totally different ghetto in the annals of our people. That ghetto is often associated with the American Jewish experience, particularly in this country. To a large extent, many of these ghettos still exist. Some are referred to by deliberately mispronouncing the name of the neighborhood. For example, St. Louis Park, a heavily Jewishly populated suburb of Minneapolis, has been called “St. Jewish Park. Much less flattering, I once heard Pikesville, a heavily Jewishly populated suburb of Baltimore being derogatorily referred to as “Kikesville”. These ghettos are gilded ghettos. These ghettos are typically areas in cities with sizeable Jewish populations, where Jews settled by choice. Jews did so because they wished to live among their own. Living in gilded ghettos provided Jews with proximity to Kosher products, Kosher restaurants, Judaica shops, etc. Even though no physical walls are demarcating these gilded ghettos, the gilded ghettos of this country have to a large degree succeeded in insulating and protecting its dwellers from the outside world.
A little over a half-century ago, Jewish life around the world and in Israel in particular, was inexorably changed when the Kotel or Western Wall became part of the Jewish State for the first time in 2000 years. Unsurprisingly, the Wall in Jerusalem has had an effect on the Jewish people that is without equal. At the risk of borrowing a term from Christianity, I truly feel that it is the Kotel and not any Church, that is deserving of the term “Terra Sancta”. Aside from being the sole remnant of the Beit HaMikdash or holy Temple, the Kotel is holy because it is a wall that unites Jews aside from their commitment to or belief in Judaism. At the Kotel, a Jew is a Jew. Period.
Join me, if you will, in wishing Germany well, as it celebrates 30 years of reunification. Join me, I pray, in realizing that whether built or dismantled, real or imaginary, walls have served to unite our people behind a leader (Yehoshua), walls have served to unite our people as a religious entity and/or an ethnic group, walls have served to unite our people as a nation. Good walls make for a strong Judaism.