From North London to Brighton via New Zealand

Zalman Lewis describes his journey around the world and the different Passover rituals he has experi

Walking down Western Road in Central Brighton on a Friday night often attracts surprised looks, as revellers are taken aback by the sight of a bearded rabbi clad in black, usually flanked by a few Kippah-wearing guests. To me, the surprised looks are not unusual. In fact, I often get similar astonishment from residents of my home community in Stamford Hill, when they learn that I live and work in Brighton.

Although Brighton is only 50 odd miles south of ‘home’, Passover in Brighton is worlds apart from the experience I had when I was growing up at home. That’s not to say that the rituals or meaning have been altered, on the contrary, to me things are very much the same, yet altogether different at the same time. At my father’s Seder table, one could not help but notice my father’s passion for education, as he engaged us kids in lengthy conversation about the slavery and exodus. Time stood still at those Seders, and I often find myself wandering down memory lane, as I picture my late Bubba expertly pouring the contents of Elijah’s cup back into the wine decanter. The ritual, accompanied by a moving melody, was often held somewhere between three and four in the morning.

In Auckland, New Zealand, surrounded by 100 Israeli backpackers, Seder night was vastly different. I was studying in Melbourne in the late 1990s, and spent two Pesachs leading Seders in Auckland where wine flowed quicker than the pace the text was read; the Matzah was downed between chatter about skiing, bungee jumping and upcoming trips to India or Thailand.

Today I’m the father, but blessed to be surrounded by more than just my biological children; students and young adults also look to me for insight and inspiration. Gone are the long hours of discussion; gone are the many minutes of carefully analyses, both of text and of detail. But the soul of the evening remains intact. The spirit, the song, the joy and the essence of the evening, expressed both in the meaning and significance of freedom, as well in the simple act of consuming the Matzah, reveal the very core of what the evening represents for Jewish people the world over.

A trip across the globe, combined with the memories of Seder night at home, inspire me each Pesach to impart the lessons taught to me by my father, albeit greatly condensed, to the participants at our Seder in Brighton. And even if the guests are gone and we’re already fast asleep while in Stamford Hill my mother has just started serving the soup, the core meaning of the evening, its experiences and its joys remain the same.

Zalman Lewis studied in Talmudic schools in Manchester, Australia and New York, prior to moving to Brighton, where he and his California-born wife Shterna direct the Chabad Student Centre, serving Jewish students at University of Sussex and universities on the South Coast.
Getty
Show Hide image

It's easy to see where Berlin is being rebuilt – just hit the streets

My week, from walking the streets of Berlin to class snobbery and the right kind of gentrification.

Brick by brick, block by block, the people are rebuilding the city once called Faust’s Metropolis. To see it clearly, put your boots on. One of the most bracing walks starts by the Gethsemane Church, which served as a haven for dissenters in the last days of the GDR and takes you down ­towards the Hackescher Markt.

Here, in what is still the eastern half of a divided city that wears its division more lightly, is a Berlin experience both old and new. In three decades of frequent visits, it has been fascinating to note how much this part of town has changed. Even a decade ago these streets were rundown. With crumbling buildings showing bulletholes, it wasn’t hard to imagine what the place looked like in 1945. Now there are lilacs, blues, and yellows. Cafés, bars and restaurants abound, serving the young professionals attracted to the city by cheap rents and a renewed sense of community.

 

Breaking the fourth wall

Looking north along Schliemannstraße, you’ll find a delightful vista of well-tended balconies. It’s a pleasant place to live, notwithstanding the gaggle of grotesques who gather round the corner in the square. On Kastanienallee, which forms the second leg of the walk, an old city feels young. It’s a kind of gentrification but the right kind. There’s more to eat, to drink, to buy, for all.

Berlin, where Bertolt Brecht staged his unwatchable plays, was supposed to have been transformed by a proletarian revolution. Instead, it has been restored to health by a very middle-class one. Germany has always had a well-educated middle class, and the nation’s restoration would have impossible without such people. The irony is delicious – not that irony buttered many parsnips for “dirty Bertie”.

 

The new snobbery

The British Museum’s survey of German history “Memories of a Nation” is being presented at the Martin-Gropius-Bau as “The British View”. Germans, natürlich, are curious to see how we observe them. But how do they see us?

A German friend recently in England  said that the images that struck him most forcibly were the tins of food and cheap booze people piled up in supermarkets, and the number of teenage girls pushing prams. Perhaps Neil MacGregor, the former director of the British Museum who will shortly take up a similar role here at the new Humboldt Forum, may turn his attention to a “German View” of the United Kingdom.

There’s no shortage of material. In Schlawinchen, a bar that typifies Kreuzberg’s hobohemia, a college-educated English girl was trying to explain northern England to an American she had just met. Speaking in an ugly modern Mancunian voice that can only be acquired through years of practice (sugar pronounced as “sug-oar”), she refer­red to Durham and York as “middle class, you know, posh”, because those cities had magnificent cathedrals.

When it comes to inverted snobbery, no nation can match us. To be middle class in Germany is an indication of civic value. In modern England, it can mark you as a leper.

 

Culture vultures

The Humboldt Forum, taking shape by the banks of the Spree, reconsecrates the former site of the GDR’s Palace of the Republic. When it opens in 2018 it will be a “living exhibition”, dedicated to all the cultures of the world. Alexander von Humboldt, the naturalist and explorer, was the brother of Wilhelm, the diplomat and philosopher, whose name lives on in the nearby university.

In Potsdamerplatz there are plans to build a modern art museum, crammed in between the Neue Nationalgalerie and the Philharmonie, home to the Berlin Philharmonic. Meanwhile, the overhaul of the Deutsche Staatsoper, where Daniel Barenboim is music director for life, is likely to be completed, fingers crossed, next autumn.

Culture everywhere! Or perhaps that should be Kultur, which has a slightly different meaning in Germany. They take these things more seriously, and there is no hint of bogus populism. In London, plans for a new concert hall have been shelved. Sir Peter Hall’s words remain true: “England is a philistine country that loves the arts.”

 

European neighbours

When Germans speak of freedom, wrote A J P Taylor, a historian who seems to have fallen from favour, they mean the freedom to be German. No longer. When modern Germans speak of freedom, they observe it through the filter of the European Union.

But nation states are shaped by different forces. “We are educated to be obedient,” a Berlin friend who spent a year at an English school once told me. “You are educated to be independent.” To turn around Taylor’s dictum: when the English speak of freedom,
they mean the freedom to be English.

No matter what you may have heard, the Germans have always admired our independence of spirit. We shall, however, always see “Europe” in different ways. Europe, good: we can all agree on that. The European Union, not so good. It doesn’t mean we have to fall out, and the Germans are good friends to have.

 

Hook, line and sinker

There are fine walks to be had in the west, too. In Charlottenburg, the Kensington of Berlin, the mood is gentler, yet you can still feel the city humming. Here, there are some classic places to eat and drink – the Literaturhauscafé for breakfast and, for dinner, Marjellchen, a treasure trove of east Prussian forest delights. Anything that can be shot and put in a pot!

For a real Berlin experience, though, head at nightfall for Zwiebelfisch, the great tavern on Savignyplatz, and watch the trains glide by on the other side of Kantstraße. Hartmut Volmerhaus, a most amusing host, has been the guvnor here for more than 30 years and there are no signs that his race is run. The “Fisch” at twilight: there’s nowhere better to feel the pulse of this remarkable city. 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage