My Yom Kippur experience in Germany ‘broke my heart’

The sun filtered through the flimsy window blind of our hostel room in Munich, waking me up. I grabbed my water bottle, dehydrated from the night before. My best friend was sound asleep in the bunk above me; the room was filled with other friends from our semester abroad in the Netherlands. It was 1990, and we were theater students taking classes four days a week, cycling through small towns in southern Holland, hiking on long weekends. By this early October weekend, we had mastered the train schedule and how to order weed from local hash bars.

We traveled in groups for safety and pleasure, sleeping in overnight trains. Everyone had chosen Munich for Oktoberfest, and I went there. My parents had reached me on the phone in the shared dormitory the day before we left for Germany. “You’ll be there on Yom Kippur,” my mother reminded me.

They knew that I had no intention of observing the holidays while I was abroad. I could barely tolerate High Holiday services when I was in high school in central Pennsylvania. I was a kid who loved Hebrew school, but as I got closer to college, I felt the call to break away from the traditions of my childhood. My ideas of God were becoming more Earth-based and expansive than “The Lord” we prayed to in our reformed siddur.

But that morning, in our hostel room, I woke up with a thirst for synagogue so deep in my bones that nothing else mattered.

I woke up with a thirst for synagogue so deep in my bones that nothing else mattered.

I tore a page from my diary and wrote a friend a note: Go find a synagogue. I’ll meet you later at the station.

I stepped out into the cool morning air. I didn’t speak German and didn’t have a map of Munich.

I hailed a cab and said to the driver in English, Take me to a synagogue, please. He understood me enough and left. Within minutes we arrived at a shul.

Armed guards stood at his door. In English, I told them that I wanted to go get services. They searched me and looked inside my bag. I belong insideI wanted to say.

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They let me in. In the hallway, I realized how out of place I was: a 19-year-old American student in leggings and a denim jacket, backpack in tow. It was an Orthodox shul, and the men were dressed in suits, draped in their tallisim. I was taken up the steps of the women’s section and handed me a mahzor. I found a seat towards the back. Some of the women turned to me; a few smiled.

Opening this book to see Hebrew letters, my stomach dropped, like I was on a roller coaster. I gasped audibly and an older woman next to me reached out and put her hand on mine. Then the music that I recognized: the Avinu Malkeinu. This chazzan, singing with the weight that the doors of life will soon close, opened my heart.

The day before with my friends, as we walked through Oktoberfest, I didn’t tell them that the men banging on the tables, the loud chanting, scared me. Everyone was having fun. I sat with them, ate a pretzel, drank my beer.

Now I felt everything: how much I missed my parents and my grandmothers, how much I missed going into our little temple, where I felt at home.

I’m here in Munich on a Yom Kippur morning, I thought. The country my grandfather fled when he was exactly my age, going to England, then Cuba, and finally settling in Easton, Pennsylvania. But Germany was his home, one to which he could never return.

I sat down with this truth. I prayed with the women and I cried.

Gabrielle Kaplan-Mayer is a writer and educator based in Philadelphia.

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