I was making my way to the kosher food store in Munich´s Viktualienmarkt when the call came. I recognized Diana´s thick Russian-accented German from her "hallo". She was the secretary of Augsburg´s Jewish community, fifty-five kilometers away.
Augsburg had fired their rabbi years ago, but the rabbi - more concretely, his wife - had mounted a campaign to reinstate him. Endless legal battles between the synagogue´s board of directors and the rabbi´s lawyers had substantially impoverished the
community´s coffers, but the worst was that the rabbi and his wife lived inside the synagogue complex, and wouldn´t be dislodged.
The rabbi's wife even went to the extreme of preventing synagogue members from entering the synagogue to pray, trying to convince them to pray inside the rabbi´s apartments instead. Police had to be called to separate the supporters of the board from the supporters of the rabbi.
I didn´t know any of this when I first spoke with Diana in 2001. Then, all I knew was that Augsburg had a magnificent century-old synagogue that seated eight hundred, and had miraculously survived Krystallnacht. They didn´t have a rabbi, I was told, and the community wanted someone to lead the Seder meal for about 100 Russian Jews who had recently immigrated to Germany, and didn´t have much of an idea how to prepare and run a proper Seder. I agreed, of course. How could I say no?
I had no idea of the war that was going on at that time, and of which I would eventually become an unwilling participant.
The contentious war between the rabbi´s lawyers and the board´s lawyers eventually made it to the headlines in Germany. It seemed that the rabbi was welcome to pray in the synagogue as a regular Jew, but was legally prevented from leading the service. So when the rabbi took the Sefer Tora from the ark, an act which would have confirmed his role as rabbi, he was physically prevented from doing so by the chairman of the board. "This is the first time that a Torah scroll was removed from the hands of a Jew since the Nazis" ran the German papers. The board wasn´t amused.
And then it got more complicated. The "Jewishness" of the chairman´s lineage was questioned by an English religious court. Allegations of the rabbi´s wife´s brake cables being slashed. Members of the board´s cars being vandalized. Reports of money missing from the synagogue´s accounts. The rabbi´s violation of contractual obligations. The Jewish Museum, which is part of the Synagogue Complex, didn´t know who was responsible for administration anymore. The Bavarian government was called in to administer the Jewish community after rumors of illegal voting procedures for the board members. Police were called to bring charges for against a Bavarian official who shoved an 82-year-old member of the board. And so on. Of all of this I was blissfully aware.
Until kiddush Pesach morning, that is, when the rabbi´s wife cursed me in a richly developed modern Hebrew. Why would she attack me, I thought? I mean, wasn´t I doing a mitzva for 100 Jews? The board had hired a translator, so that I could recount the Exodus from Egypt in German, and have direct translation to Russian. It was a big hit. Especially the schnapps.
No, according to her, I was preventing them from coming to the restaurant that she and the rabbi had prepared - a RIVAL Seder! The poor Russians - they had to choose between the rabbi´s Seder (he didn´t speak Russian) and the board´s Seder, where they WERE Russian. Oy vey.
The rabbi´s wife was advised by the board that if she disturbed the synagogue services, she would be removed by the policemen present. Anything could happen in a powder keg like this, and we all knew it. But somehow we all survived that Pessach of 2001.
Pessach 2002 I was called again to lead the services. "Are the rabbi and his wife still there", I asked.
"Yes", came the answer. Their lawyers were dragging out the process, but the Day of Reckoning was coming. The board had a new chairman. A judge. This judge wanted to do one and only one thing as chairman, and that was to rid Augsburg of this rabbi, his wife, and their lawyers. He knew the legal means to do it.
In the meantime, the Jewish community of Augsburg had grown from 1400 to 2000. Almost all the German Jews had disappeared from the scene, and were replaced by Russian Jews who knew little German and less about Judaism. We knew it was going to get uglier.
So, when I got the call from Diana, I really expected her to tell me that the courts had decided, the lawyers were settled, the rabbi and his wife were gone.
It seemed the rabbi had lost his court petition, but there was only one more suit that needed to be determined: whether the rabbi would have to leave his apartment in great haste, or whether he could earn a six-month reprieve in which to settle his things and move, despite the court process having already moved into its fourth year.
No. Diana called because she was now a member of the board, and the board had unanimously decided that I should lead their Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur services. It seems the whole world knew about their situation, and that no rabbi worth his kosher salt would want to involve himself in such a menagerie. So they asked me instead.
Don´t get me wrong: I´m no rabbi, nor do I make a claim to be. I´m what Jews call a "shatzmatz", kind of a lay leader. I don´t have rabbinical ordination, though I did attend yeshiva in Jerusalem. And since the Augsburg community wanted me precisely to lead the prayers (not to decide Halachik issues). And I guessed that because of my musical training, I just might be able to act as chazan.
"We want you for everything - chazan, shofar, tora, tefila...", she said.
"And the rabbi and his wife are still there?", I asked.
"Yes", came the answer.
"What if they disturb the services?", I asked, worried that they might make a last-bid attempt to take over the synagogue, the services, make a Rosh Hashana plea,
"I will have the rabbi - or his wife - removed in handcuffs if necessary".
Wow. I mean, I understood that the rabbi was fighting for his livelihood. But he and his wife had split the community for years. Often no minyan could be arranged in either the synagogue or the rabbi´s apartments, though if the members came together there could have been a minyan. But the members of the community and their democratically elected officials - the board and chair - had decided.
And their decision was that I should lead the services. With only two months to go until
the Yomim Noraim, I took what can only be described as a crash course in chazanus. I bought the CDs and tapes of famous liturgical pieces. I interviewed the cantors in Berlin. I rummaged through the transcribed solos of the greatest cantors, and trained my ears. I bought the biggest shofar I could find in Mea Shearim and promptly blew my brains out. Learned the Torah reading. The Nusach. The Haftara. The Musaf. Ashkenaz, Sphard, Chassidish.
Finally, Rosh Hashana. First night in the Big Shul. Four hundred Jews bedecked the acoustically perfect sanctuary, and there I stood, with my blinding-white kittel, a virgin talles, a new kippa, and shpilkes like you wouldn´t believe. The rabbi´s supporters came into the sanctuary to argue one final time with the chairman. For naught, as it turned out.
I had written a speech for the community in English, and had it translated to German. The chairman liked it so much that he wouldn´t let me deliver it, and he decided to deliver it instead, with simultaneous Russian translation. In that speech, I had mentioned that a Nazi plan in Munich had recently been uncovered by Bavarian police, and foiled before they could blow up the new synagogue there. In the speech, I posited the question: what should be our response?
The chairman had already responded. Police cars were set up outside. Full time security was engaged in the person of "Vitaly", a huge Russian with a graying ponytail. Vitaly spoke perfect English, but at the speed of a Siberian thaw. One. Word. At. A. Time.
He told me that he missed sparring, and was really in the mood to hit something. And that
if I had anyone who needed to be hit, I should tell him. Funny guy.
Another man was there for security. His name was Meltzer, and looked exactly like Agent Smith from The Matrix. Same dark suit. Same sunglasses. Same coiled wire in his ear. Still, he was a Jewish member of the board, and wanted to know if anyone might have put a bomb underneath my car. I was to park on the synagogue grounds for the length of Rosh Hashana. For a moment, I wasn´t sure if he meant Nazis or the rabbi´s wife. Then I realized that he wasn´t so sure either.
I could tell by the glance in Vitaly´s eyes that the security detail didn´t know which
was the greater threat. And as services ended that night, with round challas, figs, honey and apples for hundreds of Russian/German/Jews, Vitaly insisted that I not walk in front of the rabbi´s window on the way to my hotel, and he accompanied me back personally.
Est ist schwer ein Jude zu sein.