Presented at Ner Shalom's annual "Winter Treasures" Solstice Shabbat...
Here's the other piece about these longest nights of the year. It means you have the longest time to dream. Presuming that you go to bed on time and you don't suffer from insomnia, this time of the year gives you the biggest night-time canvas on which to paint your longings and swirl your emotions; the biggest slate upon which to write stories or read messages.
My dreams have been alive since I began preparing to leave on sabbatical. I've always been an active dreamer and a good rememberer of dreams. And suddenly being on another continent in another time zone cleared out some space for even more dreaming: I was away from the acrid smoke and ash, away from community trauma. I was away from American politics – I glanced at headlines, but what would have made me hot here remained tepid there.
So there was this spaciousness to dream. And there was an underlying current of jet lag that kept my sleep close enough to wakefulness to allow me to remember more details, more sensations, and to have a little more consciousness in the game.
And then, frankly, there have been the voices. I don't mean to be dramatic. I don't know that they were voices. They might have just been ideas, very animated ideas. Coming from me or coming to me. From outside of me or from deep inside of me. After all, in a dream all the characters are you, the landscape is you, the voices are all yours. Unless they're not. And if they're not, how can we ever really tell?
But I do know this. That it was dreams that brought me on this particular journey. A single dream, recurring over decades, in which I am on an airplane and for reasons that vary from dream to dream the plane is forced to land – always in Stuttgart. Stuttgart, Germany, a place whose name I knew but with which I had no personal connection, no friends, no special interests. I might not have known it existed except that an important version of the Hebrew bible was edited there, and hence called the Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia. Maybe it was just that “Stuttgartensia” was such a ridiculous sounding name that it stuck in my subconscious for years.
But whatever, it was the desire to fulfill this dream, or the need to put it to rest once and for all, that compelled me to at last visit that part of Germany on my way to see my in-laws in Israel. I made my plane reservations. Stuttgart, here I come.
But there's more. Again, it was dreams, including one on Sally Churgel's table as she did energy work on me one day after the fires, that opened up in my mind some new ideas for finding out about ancestors, about the stubborn Kellers, the branch of my family whose name I carry and the only branch of my family about which I knew nothing.
I got off of Sally's table and sat down in her lobby with my iPhone. And within minutes, using the new insights that came in that scant dream, I hit paydirt. I found records – birth, death, burial. I discovered that my Keller ancestors lived and died in a town an hour outside of Stuttgart. And that they were buried in the Jewish cemetery one town further over. And that their gravestones were still standing, and that the locations of them were known.
The discoveries came fast and furious, such that I could arrive in Germany and the very next day stand at the gravestone of my great great grandfather, my namesake, Yitzchak Keller. Born 1798. Died 1874.
And his wasn't the only family grave there. His father, my great great great grandfather. His first wife. A son who died at 24. Later I discovered that his second wife, my great great grandmother, and her parents, were buried there too. But it took more time poring over records – and more dreams – to discover that.
This was not a cemetery where families are buried together. Instead, the first burial, around 1690, was in the far corner of the cemetery. The next burial was in the next plot. And so on, up and down the rows. So if you are buried in this cemetery on a hilltop in the woods outside Waibstadt, you are buried not next to your family, but between the Jew who preceded you in death and the Jew who followed you.
I will have much to say about what I learned in the three short November days that I spent in that cemetery. Much to say about what I did, the questions that arose and the words I spoke. I will have much to say about the look and feel of the place – towering trees growing right out of graves, swallowing up gravestones. I will tell those stories, as soon as I figure out how.
But for tonight, I'll just say that my dreams remained – and remain still – a meeting place, a family reunion of new-found, ancient family. Different voices seem to dominate each night. But each night I have the sensation of these people surrounding me. Not a frightening thing. They seem delighted at being remembered or at being imagined. I am dreaming them, or else I am dreaming them up.
My dreams have mostly resided in Germany. Not in the cemetery, but in the town they came from, called Ehrstädt, near the confluence of the Rhine and the Neckar, north of the Black Forest. Where they helped build a tiny synagogue in the 1830s that still stands, now a community center. In my imagination I see them in this town. I imagine them walking to synagogue. I imagine the feel of autumn air and the smell of horse barns and hay. I dream these 18th and 19th Century Jews in their proper attire – knickers and capes and ruffs and pointed hats.
But our nightly convocations are not limited to their turf. Two nights ago, when I dreamt that I was in New York, vying for a job as a waiter, they were there cheering me on as I tried to show how deftly I could carry a tray of glasses in one hand and a bar stool in the other.
As it turns out these people left clues. The synagogue. The graveyard. The epitaphs they wrote each other. Records rigorously preserved by non-Jews. Documents incorporated into books by local amateur historians. The Kellers and the other Jews of this town, numbering fewer than the Jews in this synagogue, left clues. Like bread crumbs in the woods.
But I am most tethered to that cemetery. Despite weather, forestation and the Third Reich, it still stands. The gravestones are my height, and it is like a field of people standing at attention. I sit with – or dream with – the sensation that they have been waiting at attention for someone or some ones like me to come back and find them. To tell them the answers to the “I wonder what will happen” kinds of questions they – and we – always ask ourselves as we go about our lives.
From Germany I went on to Israel. But after two weeks in our complicated holy land, I wanted to be back in Germany, back in the Kraichgau region that runs from Stuttgart to Speyer, the heart of old Ashkenaz. I wanted to be where these voices were the loudest, because I wasn't done with the conversation.
And now I'm back across an ocean. There was nothing to bring home with me of them and their life. But I took pictures. I jotted notes. I brought home the scrub brush I used to clean a century of moss off of my ancestors' gravestones. I could not get myself to drop it in a trash bin. So I sealed it in a plastic Ziploc that, being of good German stock, I had packed just in case I would need a Ziploc. With this scrub brush I brushed off the dust of the 20th Century and most of the 19th Century too. And when I was done, shivering in the cold wet of a German November, with my hands snug in my father's fur-lined gloves, too small for me, but the right uniform for the job, I had this brush in my hands, full of green, full of forest, full of decay and gentle rest. And I brought it home, undoubtedly in flagrant violation of countless Department of Agriculture regulation.
I don't know what I will do with it. I don't know what I will do with the story. I don't know what will come next, if anything, now that I have taken this trip. I don't know. But I will ask. Tonight. In a long, long night full of dreams.
I am grateful to my friend Lisa Rüth who accompanied (and delighted) me on much of this journey, her mother Doris Rüth, who deciphered documents written in old German handwriting, Hans-Peter Gruber who showed up at the cemetery with charts, files, and everything I would need to find the right graves, and Jüdisches Kulturerbe im Kraichgau, for keeping the records and making them accessible to long-lost seekers like me.