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The Rhine Runs Through It

That last picture doesn't even look arbitrary. I remember the moment in front of that church when Max told us how Kriemhild's and Brunhilde's enmity had erupted on this very spot, with disastrous consequences for Siegfried, Hagen, Gunther, and themselves. He was smiling at the quaintness of such information, but I felt something akin to vertigo, as if I were standing before an abyss of time. Then he turned to point out the proximity of the cathedral to the Jewish cemetery, with its ancient rain-smoothed gravestones, gnarled trees, and undulant knee-high grass. Clearly Christians and Jews had been close neighbors in Worms for almost a millennium. A walk of a few dozen steps to the Judengasse was the proof. There, in a dense cluster of some 80 houses adjacent to the city wall, Jews had been confined at night and on Christian holidays for several centuries. The old synagogue, which we visited next, was, not surprisingly, empty, though well kept and equipped with a Torah in the event of a visit from 10 Jewish men, the number required for a service to take place. It does happen once in a while, the somber young woman in charge of the place said shyly.

WE DIVIDED OUR LAST SIX NIGHTS BETWEEN A SMALL, MODESTLY PRICED PENSION and a palatial hotel near Eltville, a beautiful village just north of Mainz, where the Rhine takes a westward bend and the land begins to display all the clichés of Romantic literature: castles by the edge of steep cliffs, rustic inns beneath spreading elms, winding roads offering view upon view of gently rolling, vineyard-clad hills. And wherever we stopped to eat or look around, there were delicious Riesling wines to be savored.

Some of the vineyards had names like Monk's Path, Bishop's Hill, Jesuit's Garden, and God's Valley. We saw more than one church with a wine press in the front yard and its cellar vaults filled with enormous barrels.

Such easy confluence of wine and religion surprised me. In Protestant Prussia, where I had spent my formative years, no one would mix religion and alcohol (at least not in public). Yet here in the Catholic, wine-drinking Rheingau, Christ and Dionysus appeared to clink glasses on a regular basis. I found this style of religiosity appealing, but how did sincere believers make sense of it to themselves?Three days before our departure, I received a surprising answer to this question.

We attended a mass at St. Valentinuskirche in the village of Kiedrich. Gothic through and through, this church has no Baroque accretions, thanks to a 19th-century Englishman named John Sutton, who fell in love with it and sank a fortune into its preservation. The entire mass was conducted in Gregorian chant (a great rarity, according to Max) by two men whose faces and voices were set in a mode of sweet solemnity, while the chorus of village children standing behind amused themselves with what appeared to be a customary game of secret pinches and cuffs.

Ceremonies completed, the parishioners left the church and a tall, dark-complexioned man with straight black hair stepped in front of the altar, introduced himself as Walter Bibo, the organist, and proceeded to deliver a talk about the history of the church. His audience, apart from ourselves, consisted mostly of 40 or 50 members of a tour group. They began to look at their watches. I felt sorry for the organist, who wanted us all to appreciate the delicate charm of the gold and red altarpiece, the splendidly painted 500-year-old instrument entrusted to his care, the rhymed admonitions to 16th-century gossips and sluggards lovingly carved into some of the benches, the windows depicting motifs from the Passion, and, not least, a picture of Sir John Sutton kneeling in prayer. At the mention of the benefactor's name, Herr Bibo became very animated, and his audience began to leave, first singly and then in one solid, shuffling drove. Their guide, a young man, interrupted the speaker with an apology: something about train schedules and pressing appointments. Only a dozen people remained in the church, yet Herr Bibo continued his lecture with undiminished enthusiasm.

But now I was distracted. His name, Bibo—wasn't it Latin?He even looked Mediterranean. And didn't bibo mean "drink"?At that moment, I heard him pronounce the word Wein so emphatically that it recaptured my attention.

"Wine," he said, "is a sanctified part of our liturgy. But we would be poor Christians if we did not honor this precious gift outside our churches as well. As a musician, I can attest to the wonderful ways in which wine guides our spirits back to their harmonious source. Naturally, we must be moderate—one or two bottles a day is sufficient. Our ancestors knew all this very well, as you may see by that pulpit, which was built in 1493. It is shaped like a goblet. I wish I could raise it, in closing, as I would a glass, but it is too heavy. Perhaps if you help me, we can raise it together."

I imagined the pulpit filled with the light and subtle Riesling we had been drinking all week.

Herr Bibo paused while the pulpit rose in our minds.

"Zum Wohl!" he said. "To your health!"

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