Do you recall the moon-landing on July 21st 1969? (1) I remember watching the images on television – and also gazing at the moon through the window: my eyes flitting between the two frames. Was it really possible that men were up there on the moon? And when my eyes returned to the screen, they were mesmerised, not only by the sight of two men walking on the unknown landscape over there, through the window, but also by the blackness of space around them…
Of course, there had been ventures into space before that momentous day, but somehow, the sight of two people treading terre ferme somewhere else, out of this world, suddenly made me aware that, yes, the Earth really was a planet, spinning around in space. Fourteen years old back then, as I gazed at the night sky and at the dark backdrop to those TV images, I seemed to understand for the first time that the world I inhabited was finite; a tiny speck in a vast universe…
Unlike the Pilgrim festivals of Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot, which take place at the full moon, Rosh Ha-Shanah begins in darkness; the sun sets on the old year, but there is not even the glimmer of a crescent moon to light the way of the new one. If we were all to leave the synagogue right now, and go into the Downs, somewhere far away from any signs of human habitation, we would be greeted by the blank blackness of a moon-less night; that is how the New Year emerges out of yesterday. It’s as if we are being taught a lesson about what it really means to leave the old year behind, and step into the unknown beyond.
But, of course, the issue is not simply that we are here this evening standing on the threshold of the unknown beyond this moment. The Moon landing forty years ago gave us a new perspective: It wasn’t just the images of the men on the moon which caught my imagination, but also the pictures of the world from space: the blue planet, wreathed in clouds, looking so serene. Didn’t the concept of the ‘global village’ really have its origins in that moment? Hinneinu – Here we are: all of us together; all of humanity; all the creatures of the earth, inhabitants of this one small world. Rosh Ha-Shanah not only marks the beginning of a new year for the Jewish people; the first day of the month of Tishri is the anniversary of Creation – that’s what the date, 5770, however mythical, represents; as the Rabbis of old taught: Ha-yom harat olam, ‘Today is the birthday of the world.’
Not quite a birthday, July 21st 1969 was an important milestone for the world – which is not to say that this planet wasn’t also at that time – and has not remained every day since – riven with conflict. But nevertheless, despite all the divisions, that perspective – the perspective of the blue planet – also remains: We are one – and divided.
And there is something else – highlighted by another milestone: the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 (2). The cracks had begun to form in the 1980s as Mikhail Gorbochev promoted the new ideology of Perestroika – ‘restructuring’ (3). Then, in May 1989, West German Television broadcast the news that Hungary was opening its borders to Austria. By September so many people from East Germany had arrived in Hungary, that over the course of a few hours, 4,500 East Germans were allowed to cross into Austria as a good-will gesture. In this climate the 40th anniversary of the German Democratic Republic on October 6th inevitably provoked protests: That evening thousands of young people took part in a grand torch-light parade, and two days later, a group of pacifists held a candle light vigil in a church in the city of Leipzig. Day by day, increasing numbers took to the streets. By October 16th the number of protesters had reached millions.
The end of the GDR was drawing near. On November 9th East German television announced that East German citizens could now travel without restriction to the West. On November 10th and 11th the flow from East to West was endless. The main artery of West Berlin, the Kurfuerstendamm had to be closed to traffic. In the evening of November 11th the first concrete slab was removed from the wall. The following day, the Wall was opened at Potsdamer Platz, which once was one of the busiest crossroads in Western Europe. Finally, on December 22nd the Brandenburg Gate was unlocked.
As soon as people began to stream from East to West on November 9th and 10th, they also began to climb onto the Brandenburg Gate. I remember the TV images very vividly. Modeled after the Propylaeum in Athens – the gateway to the Acropolis – the Brandeburg Gate, built from 1789-1791, as the French Revolution raged, is a true symbol of Imperial power; made all the more daunting, after the defeat of Napoleon, by the addition of an iron cross to the goddess of peace standing in the two-wheel chariot that dominates the structure. And while the Brandenburg Gate was badly damaged during World War II, when the Quadriga – the chariot with its four horses abreast – was completely destroyed, in 1956, five years before the Berlin wall was erected, the gate was restored, and in 1958 the Quadriga was recast from the original and again displayed (4).
So, although it took six weeks, the opening of the Brandenburg Gate on December 22nd was a defining moment. And then, three days later, on Christmas Day, to usher in the new tomorrow, none other than Leonard Bernstein conducted Beethoven’s 9th Symphony at East Berlin’s Schauspielhaus (now Konzerthaus). Significantly, Bernstein changed a crucial word in Schiller’s poem – the poet’s ‘Ode to Joy’ (5) – Freude – became ‘Ode to Freedom’ – Freiheit. A celebration of freedom, the concert was also a proclamation of reconciliation: Assembling musicians from the Bavarian Radio Symphony together with those from orchestras of each of the four countries which had occupied Berlin since the end of World War II, the choral section included singers from both West and East Germany, while the four soloists were drawn from the United States and Europe (6).
The performance attracted over 200 million viewers world-wide. I was in Germany at the time – in Trier, on the Rhine; birthplace of Karl Marx – and watched the historic concert on German TV. Like everyone else I was caught up in the euphoria – the joy of freedom. But I also felt some disquiet. Was it a coincidence that the East German government announced that the way to the West was open on November 9th – the anniversary of Kristalnacht, the ‘Night of Broken Glass’ that marked the beginning of the violent persecution of the Jews of Europe by the Nazis in November 1938? Had the terrible events of a united – and expanding – German nation prior to the division between East and West in 1949 been trumped by the reunification of Germany in 1989? Would the memory of November 9th 1938 now be supplanted by the memory of November 9th 1989? What a troubling irony that Germany should once again have the potential of becoming the dominant power in Europe on the day that the Third Reich had come of age fifty one years earlier. Not surprising, of course, that as people flowed through the newly-opened check-points on November 9th 1989, no one was thinking of another November 9th…
These were some of my thoughts and questions back then. Today, of course, despite enormous upheaval across the continent of Europe and the destructive events in the Balkans during the early 1990s, life in Europe has become completely transformed. No less than ten states, once subsumed in the Soviet Union – including Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Lithuania and Poland – are now members of the European Economic Union, and their citizens are free, not only to cross borders, but also to live and work in any EEC country. Germany is a strong nation, but has not lost its memory – either of the years of division between East and West, or of its Nazi past. And so, sixty years after the defeat of Hitler, in May 2005, a very unusual Holocaust Memorial was inaugurated (7) – which I saw from the outside just before it was opened to the public, when I visited Berlin with a group of my rabbinic colleagues a month earlier.
The Memorial to the Sho’ah occupies a huge 19,000 square metre (204,440 sq foot) area of prime land between the Brandenburg Gate and the site of Adolf Hitler’s bunker, and is situated diagonally across from the old Reichstag building, which, enhanced by its new Norman Foster glass dome, has been home to the German Parliament, the Bundestag, since 1999. Designed by US architect Peter Eisenman the Holocaust Memorial is very difficult to describe: a maize of stones – each one a unique shape and size – ‘tilting like shadows’, through which visitors may move from any direction. Controversially, there are no plaques, inscriptions or symbols of any kind – so in response to concerns about the totally abstract nature of the design, a visitors’ information centre was constructed underneath it; a compromise which allows this enormous domain of stone, evoking both ‘cemetery and concrete wilderness’, to remain powerfully and appropriately overwhelming.
If you visit Berlin the Sho’ah Memorial is impossible to miss – which tells you everything about Europe post-1989. The dismantling of the very concrete Berlin Wall and the lifting of the more symbolic ‘Iron Curtain’ created new vistas, new possibilities, new freedoms and new challenges – as well as revealing a new disconcerting landscape in which nothing is hidden – neither the horrors of the past, nor the problems of the present – anymore. For me that is the real significance of that seemingly endless sprawl of stone alongside a magnificently refurbished Brandenburg Gate and the glittering glass dome filling the old Reichstag building with new light.
And the significance is not only particular to Europe; there are also universal lessons to be learned when a wall comes down and a curtain is lifted – and two men walk on the moon. It may seem that the moon-landing was an event of a completely different order – but there are connections. To begin to understand what these utterly distinct events have in common – twenty years apart, separated, quite literally, by 238,855 miles (8) – it might be helpful to recall the primordial myth of the first human beings in the Garden of Eden. On the face of it, the Garden of Eden bears no resemblance to a divided Berlin – for one thing, Eden was a natural paradise, not a man-made prison. But like the East Germans, the first human beings were confined, and what is more, prohibited from eating of the Tree of Knowledge, their realm of action was restricted (Genesis 2-3). On the face of it the Garden of Eden was just a garden, but a microcosm of the Earth, Eden represented for its two human inhabitants the whole known world; what lay beyond it was a complete mystery – so when they left the garden, they entered an utterly new unknown domain.
And so, we can see that the moon landing of July 1969 and the dismantling of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 both involved breaching the boundary between the known and the unknown. The known may be beautiful or terrible or relentlessly familiar – but the unknown is always simply that: utterly mysterious until we take a leap and enter it. We cannot know what we will find there until we go there; and we cannot fully understand where we are here, until we regard here from beyond the horizon, over there. Death, of course, is the final boundary, but before we die there are many other boundaries for us to cross. And so, this evening we cross a boundary into the unknown realm of the New Year beyond this moment. And so, we mark the passing years, not only to recall the past and everything we have experienced until now, but also to remind ourselves that life is always a stepping out into the future. May each one of us find the courage to step out into the future with hope. And let us say: Amen.
Rabbi Elizabeth Tikvah Sarah
Brighton & Hove Progressive Synagogue – Adat Shalom Verei’ut
Erev Rosh Ha-Shanah 5770 – 18th September 2009
- 2. ODE TO JOY AND FREEDOM. The Fall of the Berlin Wall by Ursula Grosser Dixon: www.nevermore.tripod.com/wall.html
- 3. www.historyguide.org/europe/perestroika.html
- 4. www.berlin.de/tourismus/sehenswuerdigkeiten.en/00022.html
- 5. Schiller wrote the poem “The Ode to Joy” in 1785. www.schillerinstitute.org/fid_91-96/931_Schiller_Ode.html
- 6. www.npr.org/about/press/061222.berlin.html
- 7. www.news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/4531669.stm
- The mean distance between the Earth and the Moon is 238,855 miles – 384,400 kilometres. www.stardate.org/resources/ssguide/earth_and_moon.html