Parashat Lech Lecha – Finding a sense of Heimat as we are forced to wander
Written by Rabbi Hannah Kingston — 12 November 2019
Earlier this week I was in Vienna with my husband to celebrate our first wedding anniversary. Whilst there I took the time to brush up my GCSE German skills and in doing so I learnt the German word, ‘Heimat’ which has no real English translation. It can loosely be translated as homeland, but in reality it encompasses so much more. It explains the relationship between a human being and a spatial social unit, it is the need for a place that can offer you not just shelter, but also an identity, a safety and a lifestyle that meets your needs. It is a shared history, nostalgia based on trust. It is a sense of kinship and comfort. It represents the physical, emotional and spiritual sanctuary that a place can offer.
For the few remaining Jews in Vienna, currently estimated at around 8,000 people of varying denominations, there is a tension between their sense of heimat and their home. For some, Vienna is more than just a place. It is a culture, an environment and their life. They have been able to create an infrastructure in the city where they can be free to be Jewish and still find their heimat in Vienna.
For other Jews in Vienna, there is no clear heimat. They are torn, for whilst Vienna is a home to them, it is where they live and they would not choose to move elsewhere, they cannot separate the place from the atrocities committed against them as Jews. It remains for these people a place steeped in politics, one where they do not feel fully safe.
As I read their stories on the walls of the Jewish museum, it struck me that not everyone is lucky enough to live in the place they would call their heimat. For us, as British Jews on the verge of an imminent election, we too may feel torn. Although England is our home, and London the place we live, we may feel vulnerable, worried that soon this home may not be our sanctuary. With the possibility of a government who does not speak for us, and a leader who does not make us feel safe, we too may feel as if we do not belong, as if this place is no longer our heimat.
Our heimat may instead be the place of our ancestry, a small village in Eastern Europe, South Africa, or elsewhere that our grandparents brought to life through their vivid storytelling. It may be somewhere in Israel, the place where we feel we belong in a more spiritual sense. Or perhaps we feel Heimatlos, homeless and rootless, the wandering Jews of our biblical narrative.
We only need to look to this week’s parasha to tell us that we are a people of movement, a people spending our lives wandering in search of our heimat, the place we can belong, the promised land. Abram takes the first steps of the journey this week, as he is told to ‘go’, to leave behind the land his birthplace and the land he knew.
We view this request as a huge test of faith, as a monumental movement for a man away from the only place that he has known. Yet Abram has already begun his journey and left his birth place behind. Last week we read that he was born in Ur in Mesapatomia, before he and his family migrated to Haran. Abram was already a person not defined by a place, he had once moved on from the baggage of his past, he was not tied to a single tribe.
Abram’s story of wandering does not seem so unfamiliar. It is the story of all of our families, some settling in England after years of wandering through Europe, others coming from places further afield such as South Africa, some only here on a passing stop. It is the stories of the Jews of Vienna, some of whom are still wandering to find their heimat.
And it is most certainly the story of Andalusia, the Jewish part of Southern Spain, visited by 29 Alyth members just after Simchat Torah. We journeyed to Granada, Cordoba and Seville tracing the footsteps of our ancestors as they too were forced to leave their homes and wander unprotected.
Jews were a part of Spanish life since the 3rd Century. The Jewish community in Spain was larger, more settled and more prosperous than any other in Europe. They were in many ways the leaders of the world of Jewry, with many of the philosophical, theological and poetic works that we still use today originating from Sefarad.
Yet things changed for the Jewish community in the 13th century when persecution began, culminating in the burning of the Jewish quarter of Seville in 1391. When the Spanish Inquisition began in 1481, things continued to get worse for the Jews of Spain as they were expelled from their cities.
Finally, the expulsion edict was signed on March 31st, 1492, following similar orders from England, France and Portugal. Jews from Spain resettled in North Africa, the Ottoman empire, Latin America and other parts of Christian Europe.
For these Jews, for whom Spain had been so much more than a place, the expulsion meant that they lost their sense of heimat, no longer belonging anywhere. Forced out of their homes, they took with them their own Judea-Spanish language, known as Ladino and their Jewish culture, which remained for them the one source of familiarity and comfort.
Many of the traces of Jewish life were erased in Spain. Whilst the Muslim architectural legacy still lives on in buildings such as Cordoba’s mosque-cathedral and the Alhambra, the synagogues are hard to find, small and ill preserved, and the Jewish quarters in their non ostentatious way are unassuming to the enquirers eye. The survival of so much of the history of this time is instead confined to books, or stories passed down from generation to generation.
As we walked through the cobbled streets of Cordoba’s Jewish quarter, we learnt that the city now has only 12 Jewish occupants. Our presence there tripled the size of the community. As we sang the familiar shabbat melodies, and heard the Sephardi trop chanted, we made history. We brought Jewish life and a strong sense of ruach to a place that had been stripped of it.
Many Sephardi Jews today are trying to reconnect with their Spanish roots following the 2015 law passed by the Spanish government, offering citizenship to the descendants of expelled Jews. This law was created to atone for the ‘historical wrong’. So far, more than 132,000 people have applied to regain their heritage, to reconnect with the place of their ancestry in a plight to discover their heimat.
For those with new found citizenship, perhaps they will find their sense of belonging in the cobbled streets of Cordoba, or the stunning views of Seville. Or perhaps they are in search of something that does not exist, a physical place that can give us a sense of heimat. Philo interprets the command given to Abram this week as an allegorical one. Abram was not to go on a physical journey, but rather to depart from the earthly possessions that encompass him. He should have used his journey to let go of the pleasures and lusts of the body that act as its jailors. It is only when he does this that he will truly be able to find his roots and potential, and ultimately his sense of belonging.
The stories of our wandering ancestors, from biblical times to those journeys more recently, teach us that our lives and our Judaism are designed to be nomadic. The only way to find our heimat, our sense of true belonging and comfort, are to feel content within ourselves, and not defined by a physical place.
May our Judaism offer us a sense of identity and a feeling of belonging. May our community be our heimat, our emotional and spiritual sanctuary. And In times of uncertainty, when we are unsure of where we belong, may our faith always be our home.