My dear Jewish friend 10: Roaming the streets of Bamberg with Heschel on my mind

The steps of my feet echoed on the pavement as I crossed through a smaller street in the old city center of Bamberg. My restless mind was weary and I tried to avoid the most popular streets, which were so prominent with tourists from all over the world.

Its now one and a half years since we had to abandon the life we had built in New York – and I had to leave the comfort of a special friend behind, who lived so close to me and shared my passion for those on the fringes of society. I feel alone in this German city that prouds itself of being a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is full of history, broken history, and millions of tourists are flocking to see how splendid Germany must have one looked before the Second World War. I feel alone – sometimes even from G*d, I must admit. I often lament, why He has called me here to teach hundreds of Federal Police cadets instead of leaving me in the close comfort of our friendship.

So, in the last weeks I dug deeper into the wisdom of those, who have inspired my research during my doctoral studies. Abraham Josua Heschel, whose daughter Susannah I had the honour to meet in New York as I organised a panel discussion about „Luther and Antisemitism“ with the Leo Baeck Institute in 2017, I found an interfaith ally. As Heschel moved to Berlin to pursue his academic career, he felt alienated as a Hasidic in the bustling German capital. He roamed the streets – and maybe he even felt alone and lost in translation from one culture to the next as I do right now. I am aware that I’m a German citizen. I speak the language. I know the culture. I have been brought up with the food. But my life´s journey has put an undeniable multicultural imprint on me. My thoughts and ideas are as diverse as the cultures and places that have had an impact on me. But in this Roman Catholic city it seems like only a streamlined person with a monocultural background is accepted (preferably Franconian having lived here all of their lives). Immediately upon arrival in this Roman Catholic context I was told straight into the face that as a Lutheran pastor I should get used to being minor and should get used to this fact. No wonder, I find it hard to feel at home.

As I lamented one evening on my way beyond the tourist paths of Bamberg, it was a poem of the Rabbi I adore for his deep connection of faith and social justice that spoke consolation to me – it was as if through time the Rabbi spoke compassionate words of G*d´s presence to a lonesome German Lutheran pastor:

God follows me everywhere— 
spins a net of glances around me, 
shines upon my sightless back like the sun.

God follows me like a forest everywhere. 
My lips, always amazed, are truly numb, dumb, 
like a child who blunders upon an ancient holy place.

God follows me like a shiver everywhere. 
The desire in me is for rest; the demand within me is: Rise up,
See how prophetic visions are scattered in the streets!

I go with my reveries as with a secret
In a long corridor through the world— 
and sometimes I see high above me, the faceless face of God.

God follows me in tramways, in cafes.
Oh, it is only with the backs of one’s eyes that one can see 
how secrets ripen, how visions come to be.

Abraham Josua Heschel, The Ineffable Name of God: Man, originally published Warsaw 1933, translated from the Yiddish by Morton M. Leifmann, New York 2007, p. 57.

These words spoke deeply to my soul and called my thoughts back into perspective. G*d has always been with me, no matter where I went throughout my life journey and the places he has led me to:

the long stretched, agricultural region of Franconia and its society being aligned to monocultural structure during my childhood and youth

the beautiful American South, its mesmerising city of Charleston and the tensions of its past and present

the industrial nation of Japan pressing forward in time and economy with its fascinating ancient culture that embraces the future

the lively city of Frankfurt, providing space for a multicultural society paving the way for Germany to become a more manifold and welcoming nation

the remote islands of Orkney with its stunning nature, which is one of the most beautiful places of G*ds creation I have ever seen

the state Bavaria dominated by its capital Munich as the industrial motor of Germanys South and its harsh cement desert

the diverse city of New York as the secret capitol of the Western world, which is one of a kind and took me in as one of its own

and the medieval city of Bamberg fascinating uncounted tourists by its beauty, but finding it difficult to embrace those who are different.

Its Heschel words of G*d´s presence are consoling as I am trying to come to terms that sometimes the paths we are led down are not the ones we maybe have wished for. And perhaps one day, if G*d provides, we will again roam down streets, neighbourhoods or islands together. Until then, may our faith and friendship be the bond that reminds us that G*d follows us everywhere.


This is the Yiddish original poem in a beautiful interpretation: