The next time you go shopping, keep your eyes open for a very special fruit: the "Seckel pear."
To tell the truth, you might never find it in a Wal-Mart, but more likely at the little grocer's next door, especially if he's Jewish. Because then he has probably heard about the man who first bred the pear, and whose life would be no less remarkable and admirable if no tasty fruit had been named after him: Seckel Loeb Wormser, the Baal Shem of Michelstadt, Germany.
Wandering through the old town center of Michelstadt, just a little more than an hour's drive south of Frankfurt, you might well feel set back into Seckel Loeb's time. Impeccably restored wood-frame houses, narrow cobbled streets and the old town hall — dating back to 1484 and one of Germany's oldest — tell hundreds of fascinating stories to those who know how to listen … at least to one of the guides who take visitors on a tour through history.
One of Michelstadt's many stories is that of its most famous Jewish son. Supposedly born in 1768, Seckel Loeb impressed with his brightness and his eagerness to learn, even as a small boy. As little pleasure as he took in helping out at his father's cloth store was as much pleasure he took in studying geometry, music and writing.
At age 16, he was sent to the yeshiva in Frankfurt, where he learned about Kabbalah. After ending his studies, he returned to his home town with his wife.
Feeling closely tied to nature, Seckel had made the decision, even as a youth, never to eat anything of animal origin — and so he did not eat meat, and avoided butter, fish, eggs and milk. Instead, he ate vegetables and fruit, which eventually led to his successful breeding of a new kind of pear.
Seckel Loeb's life was one of modesty. What he wanted most was to found a Thora school — and he did. Around 1800, he had up to 70 students. At times, it was hard for him to offer food and shelter to them, many of whom were poor. He served as rabbi of Michelstadt's Jewish community, but was highly esteemed, even in Jewish communities abroad.
His admirers called him Baal Shem, as Seckel Loeb Wormser was said to be a man of supernatural power. After his wife's death in 1809, for example, Seckel went to the Jewish hospital in nearby Mannheim to learn about medicine. It was in that hospital where he is said to have healed an insane woman within little time. And in 1825, a big fire destroyed much of Michelstadt's town center, right near the market place. Seckel Loeb Wormser, who lived in that area before the fire, supposedly dreamt about the disaster three times, days before it happened.
The Baal Shem died Sept. 13, 1847. He was buried at Michelstadt's Jewish cemetery, about a 15-minute walk from the town center. Every September, a large number of Jews from all over Europe, but also from Israel and the United States, come to Seckel's grave to honor the famous rabbi.
The darkest of ages for Jews in Germany did not go past Michelstadt, however: Around 1930, about 20 houses in Michelstadt were owned by Jews, with a number of existing Jewish businesses. During that fateful night of Nov. 9, 1938 — when in all of what then was Hitler's Reich about 270 synagogues were set on fire, 7,500 Jewish shops and businesses demolished, and uncounted homes of Jewish families raided by Nazi mobs — Michelstadt was not spared.
Houses were looted. And the synagogue, built in 1790, was overrun by a furious group of Germans armed with axes; its interior was destroyed in just half an hour. It was only due to the narrow, medieval streets of the old town that saved the synagogue from being burned.
For years after World War II, the family of Elkana Morgen remained the only Jewish one in town.
In 1970, the synagogue was restored; today, it remains one of Michelstadt's greatest treasures.
Inside, a small museum was established. But that's not all: Once a month, a small Jewish community now worships in the synagogue. Most of its members are Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union and Eastern European nations.
Info to Go
Frankfurt is easy to get to from all major U.S. airports and with most major airlines. Flight time is about six to seven hours from Philadelphia.
From the Frankfurt airport, you can rent a car to Michelstadt, or take the train.
Regular trains run from the airport to Frankfurt's main train station, and from there, either directly to Michelstadt, or via Darmstadt.