My father z.l. used to go to the “Leipziger Messe,” the huge international trade fair in Leipzig in Eastern Germany twice a year. The factory where “Kohler” sewing machines were manufactured stood there since long before the Holocaust. My father, together with his Jewish partner Mr. Emanuel (Bob) Roco z.l., had become the sole Dutch wholesale importers of these sewing machines after the original Jewish owners of this business had fled to the USA before the Holocaust. My father and Mr. Roco’s business flourished greatly till my father became ill.
On several occasions I accompanied my father on these journeys. On one such occasion, all the silver decorations of my father’s large Chevrolet were stolen and he inquired why people would steal these decorations while leaving the car itself untouched. The answer was that the poor East Germans would hang these decorations in their front rooms as a reminder that in the West people had all sorts of paintings on their walls that East Germans could not afford! So instead, they would decorate their walls with pieces of beautiful American cars to remind them of the luxuries of the West!
Once, we were in Leipzig; it was Friday night and we entered a non-kosher restaurant (we did not eat kosher at the time, although we never ate flesh from non-kosher animals, fowl or fish); we later discovered that this was really a Beer brewery and cellar. As far as I remember, my mother and brother were also there (I must have been 14-15 years old).
Leipzig was, as were so many other cities in Germany, bursting with hundreds of such beer cellars. Beer was, and is, the national beverage of Germany.
It was a time when I became a little interested in Judaism and I told my father that I wanted to make kiddush, while sitting among hundreds and hundreds of German beer drinkers! And so, I took a German beer mug, poured some beer in it, put my kippa on my head, got up and said kiddush—probably in Dutch: since I did not know how to read Hebrew!
I still remember that all these hundreds of German beer connoisseurs, many of whom were half-drunk, sat in total silence and shock, and could not believe their eyes. They had no idea what I was doing but realized it was something Jewish. I could not care less, and I drank a little of my beer as an expression of my newfound admiration for the institution of Shabbat.
I was too young to realize how extravagant all this was.
Years later I realized what had happened. Leipzig, like so many other German cities, basically comprises people who travel from one beer cellar to another (there is nearly an infinite number of different kinds of beer!). The need to have to walk in the street for a moment to move from one cellar to another was an inconvenient disturbance that could not be prevented. Basically, Leipzig, like many other cities, was one huge beer cellar. Most of life took place underground.
These Germans were “well-fed,” heavy, with red faces, and each wore a hat with a single feather. Most of these men had bald knees and walked in leather shorts with few embellishments on them. These Germans looked like old boy scouts who had forgotten to change their outfits when they had grown up. It seems that they could not say goodbye to their scouting youth experience.
One got the impression that when they stood up and they started to drink they wanted first to “yodel” but felt that the time had not yet come to do so. (Yodeling is a form of wordless singing which involves repeated and rapid changes of pitch between the low-pitch chest register and the high-pitch head register or falsetto.)
What is important is to realize is that there happens to be a very special custom as to how to drink beer among these connoisseurs. It starts with how the waiter places the beer mug in front of the client: this is done with considerable force—not in the customary “civil” manner other beverages such as coffee are served. No, the bang is vigorous! It has to make an impression: Here is beer—the “loftiest” drink ever, not just some drink like wine or coffee.
This is a beverage for men who have something to say and are all men of physical strength; the beer is a symbol of the power of the German people. The drinker’s legs are widened, his body straightened. The drinker starts a German song in which all friends participate lauding the beverage. A real uproarious hilarity which only Germans know.
But then the real test comes. The drinker holds the mug high and examines how high the beer stands in the mug and how much foam is on top. If there was too little beer and too much foam—a crisis would evolve. The waiter was called and he would have a look and agree with the drinker. Indeed, there is not enough beer and too much foam. He would then summon the head waiter who would put his hand on his hip, hold the mug high against the light, have a look, and with one eye closed examine the mug once more. By now, all of the beer drinkers surround the spectacle. It is has turned into a “happening” and everybody gets involved in a discussion about the beer and the foam: this is serious stuff!
In fact, the very name of the brewery/beer cellar is at stake. When the level of beer is not exactly as it should be and a few drops are missing, a storm could break out and the beer brewery could lose its clients: this could be life-threatening.
The headwaiter now runs to get a new mug of beer —filled to the exact measurement, to the millimeter. The drinker examines it with many other onlookers and beer connoisseurs and says: “Gut.” And in one gulp without even breathing, he takes a large gulp directly down his gullet. This is an art. After that he uses the lower part of his sleeve to clean his mouth with one huge streak. Only then has the ceremony ended.
Immediately the whole atmosphere changes. The tension is over, everybody breathes again, and people go back to their chairs and continue to drink. But it was just in time; it could have developed into a disaster.
This is not that about the quantity of the beer, it is about tradition. How does one serve beer and how does one approach beer, examine it and drink it? One small mistake and the whole Leipzig tradition is at stake. This is tradition taken to its limits. And it holds enormous power.
All this was obviously waisted on me since I was too young to realize the “ritual” in all this. To me it was a group of half-drunk people who were just gulping beer.
Many years later when I attended a non-Jewish “Gymnasium High School” in Overveen, Holland, the “Jacques P. Thijsse Lyceum.” I was the class representative, and as such had to organize class meetings in the evenings for my friends at somebody’s parents’ house where I was again confronted with this bizarre “rite.” Although I had opted for solely eating kosher food and no longer danced with the girls, my non-Jewish friends insisted that I remain the class representative. And so, I had to make sure that the beer was drank the way it should, nearly as the Germans did. This was an odd experience. A Jewish boy with a kippa, organizing a beer-drinking students’ reunion and instructing everyone how to participate in an activity in which he himself took no part. (While beer is kosher, I had lost all interest in it because it reminded me of the drunken Germans in Leipzig!) At that moment I slowly started to realize the power of this “beer rite.”
Nietzsche once wrote that “the veneration paid to a tradition accumulates from one generation till the next until at last it becomes holy and excites awe” (Human, All Too Human). It is a building block and strengthens nations in their hour of peril.
So, it is not about the quantity of the beer. It is about something much deeper imbued in the very nature of a nation. It is the precise rite which is crucial. When the tradition is not followed through to its finest detail, havoc follows.
On top of this, in the case of beer it must be drank immediately. Why? Because only at the very beginning, immediately after it has been poured does it have its immediate power—the strength of an explosion. Yes, beer explodes! And then it foams. This is nothing like wine: wine reflects rest, harmony, patience, and the longer it rests the better it becomes. This is not the case with beer—after a few seconds it sinks, it becomes flat and even bitter. It turns sour and is “disappointing.” The “accumulated” energy is gone. It no longer “believes” in itself: it is now or never. Wine, however, is certainty. It “believes” in itself and that it will get better and better.
And so, in our instance, the whole tradition of Leipzig is at stake over those crucial few seconds. This is tradition brought to its limit, and it holds enormous power. This is not a joke, this is the “drinking tradition.”
I am immediately reminded of the painter Pieter Breughel (1539-1569) who reflects this drinking festivity in his famous paintings. The farmers drinking their beer who need to “lose” themselves.
But above all it also reminds me of the other side of the coin. An observation of Abraham Joshua Heschel comes to mind: “Judaism is the theology of the common deed. God is concerned with everydayness.” Indeed, Judaism is concerned with the trivialities of life and in how we manage the common place. Judaism is not (so much) concerned with the mysteries of heaven but the blights of the society, the affairs of the marketplace and even of the beer cellar.
I learned something further, more important, from these beer drinkers, something they themselves never imagined.
Their insistence on every detail of this beer drinking proves to me the famous expression: God is in the details. “Scientists dedicate their lives to the study of the habits of insects or the properties of plants. To them every trifle is significant; they inquire diligently into the most intricate qualities of things. And so Talmudic scholars investigate as passionately the laws that ought to govern human conduct wishing to banish the chaos of human existence and to civilize the life of the human being according to the Torah. They tremble over every move, every breath… Just as the self-sacrificing devotion of the scientist seems torture to the debauchee, so the poetry of rigorism jars on the ears of the cynic…” (Heschel).
And that is the reason why at kiddush, we need a certain amount in our Kiddush Cups, and of that there is a specific volume we must drink. “Tradition is a guide and not a jailer,” said W Somerset Maugham (The Coming Up, 1938). Ritual touches our deepest feelings in a way that nothing else can.
Till this day whenever I make kiddush, I think of those German beer drinkers in Leipzig. I get a thrill when I recall how as a child, I shocked and defeated them, and how they missed the opportunity to use their mugs of beer to sanctify their lives and instead got drunk. There was nothing wrong with the commonplace they found themselves in. It was their need to keep a tradition alive that had started on the wrong foot and lacked the higher dimension.
They should have listened to this little Jewish boy in their midst who tried to sanctify their beer and later exchanged it for wine that does not explode but that, with patience, gets better and better.