The advice mensch | Discomfort over visiting Germany trumps the facts

Jonathan Harris, the Advice Mensch, is a synagogue administrator and writer-editor living in San Francisco with his wife, three daughters and an ungrateful cat. He can be reached at [email protected]

My sister-in-law recently returned from travel to Berlin and Munich and raved about the trip. Now my wife is eager to see these cities. We have been to Europe a number of times and are due for another trip abroad. In all my years, I have never set foot in Germany and, as a Jew with ancestors who perished in the Holocaust, I have never wanted to. My wife says it is common for Jews to travel to Germany these days and that I should consider doing so. I’m not interested in spending my money there. Am I being unreasonable? — Erik in San Francisco

Dear Erik: As to your question itself, Mensch does not think you are being unreasonable. The reasons for your feelings seem quite sound and even principled. Nonetheless, in the interest of knowledge and maybe even a modicum of healing, perhaps you should consider visiting this important and currently peaceful country in your lifetime.

By many accounts, Germany has done much to ensure its citizens remain cognizant of their country’s perpetration of the Holocaust. Jews can visit the site of the Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial Site just outside Munich as well as the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin.

However, the history of Jews in Germany is not only one of death and despair. From the founding of Ashkenazic Jewry in the fifth century (CE) until the rise of the Third Reich in the 1930s, Jewish life and culture thrived (albeit with intermittent hardship) in what is now Germany. There are synagogues, museums and libraries to note this long and fruitful history and enable insight into the culture that produced Albert Einstein, Karl Marx and Felix Mendelssohn, among many others.

Within the past year, the German National Tourist Board launched an online brochure in English, titled “Germany for the Jewish Traveler.” It offers extensive and illustrated descriptions of numerous cultural and historical sites of interest to Jews, including synagogues, kosher restaurants and memorials. That this guide was produced should tell you that Germany is working hard to put the past behind without forgetting it.

Having said that, if you do travel to Germany, you are not obligated to ignore its past nor the way it makes you feel.

After growing up as a Reform Jew, I have recently become involved in a Modern Orthodox shul. I have had many invitations and am enjoying getting to know new people. However, while the Reform and non-Jews I know in the Bay Area have a variety of pets, I’m not sure I can recall one Orthodox household I have visited that has even one. Is there some kind of prohibition on having pets if you are a religious Jew? — Rico in Berkeley

Dear Rico: Good question. The texts and two rabbis queried on your behalf indicate there is no halachah (Jewish law) prohibiting pet ownership (or “guardianship” as we prefer in San Francisco), although their presence in the home does create some complications for the strictly observant.

Some consider pets to be muktzah (of no practical value) and, thus, not permitted to be held or stroked on Shabbat, unless the health of the animal (or its guardian) requires it. However, you can, indeed it is your duty to, feed your pet on Shabbat and do so before you feed yourself. During Pesach, because we are prohibited from having chametz of any kind in our homes, the strictly observant should carefully check the labels on their pet’s food.

According to one local rabbi, it is not so much an issue of halachah as much as quality of life that restricts pet ownership among the Orthodox. Certainly, children love pets. However, if you have six children, it may be all you can do to keep the house in order and everyone fed without the added responsibility. And what do you do with Rover during those long trips to Israel?

But if you’re game, you can rescue a docile adult Lab at the pound and use its morning and evening walks as an opportunity to say prayers outside, or walk to shul and say them. You’ll both be the better for it.

Jonathan Harris
Jonathan Harris

Jonathan Harris is a synagogue administrator and writer-editor living in San Francisco with his wife, three daughters and an ungrateful cat. He can be reached at [email protected].