BERLIN -- The religious skirmishes in the American presidential war sometimes sound almost medieval, and it's probably true, as Mitt Romney said, that the cathedrals of Europe stand more as postcard backdrops than places where Europeans kneel in prayer. But religious faith prospers in the lives of many Europeans.
The religious focus here is of an entirely different order than in the United States. No one much cares that Angela Merkel grew up as the daughter of a Lutheran clergyman in Communist East Germany, where being religious was an invitation to official trouble and harassment. The omnipresent Stasi, the government's efficient secret police, lurked behind every cross, a symbol of the free society the communists hated. But freedom of religion was only one among many of the freedoms the Germans were denied in the East.
Germans enjoy neither freedom of speech nor separation of church and state as we know it. Germans are free to say whatever they like, as long as they don't say anything forbidden by the government such as anti-Semitic Nazi slogans. All "official" religious bodies must pay taxes to the state, and in return receive subsidies from the state. Curiously, the fastest growing religious community here is made up of Jews, partly because so few were left in Germany after the Holocaust. The number of Jews in Germany is estimated to be as high as 200,000. The big growth started after the Wall came down; 85 percent of them coming from the former Soviet Union, where they were denied freedom of worship.
The Germans, forever looking for ways to assuage their guilt over the Holocaust, have been particularly receptive to Russian immigrants who signify a revival -- especially in Berlin -- of a Jewish culture, rising like a phoenix from the ashes of Auschwitz.
On the first night of Hanukkah, I was invited to a menorah lighting at the Brandenburg Gate. It was sponsored by the Lubavitch Chasadim, whose head, Rabbi Yehuda Teichtel, a Brooklyn-born Jew, joined Berlin Mayor Klaus Wowereit to welcome hundreds of celebrants, most carrying sparklers and balloons. The mayor spoke of the lively Jewish community in Berlin, of the vigilance required to make sure Jews feel "at home and safe in Germany." The menorah shares space on the square with a beautiful Christmas tree -- Mitt Romney would love it -- as well as the sight of Jewish and Christian children singing and dancing together with glee, warmed by the flickering lights glazing the winter raindrops falling all around them.