by Brauna Doidge
PresenTense nr. 4
Berlin was once host to Nazi rallies; now it is home to what has been termed the “German Jewish renaissance” by everyone from the Boston Globe to the German embassy in Washington. Indeed, for each Jewish cultural event that occurs in Germany—the ordination of rabbis, the renovation of synagogues or a new Jewish museum—there is nothing short of a media frenzy. Many have a stake in this “renaissance”: Germans want to show their country has normalized, Jews want to celebrate growing Jewish communities, and the community itself is eager to prove it has recreated life in this formerly thriving center of Jewish activity. But for all the exciting news my Google results offered me, I found an all-too typical Jewish community: racked by in-fighting and pettiness and a mere shadow of its former glory.
One evening this past July, I was strolling down Oranienburger Street, a hot spot of Jewish Berlin, with a list of kosher restaurants I had found online. Of the four places listed, both the Israeli places were out of business, one kosher place had listed the wrong hours and long since closed, and the “kosher-style” restaurant was just plain traif (unkosher). Before despairing entirely, I noticed one Middle Eastern restaurant with a bulletin board out front reading “Kosher.” The place wasn't on my list, but maybe this was the Jewish Berlin I kept hearing about in the news, in books and on “Jewish Berlin” tours…beneath the official radar, contributing to the Jewish presence in Berlin! I asked the man behind the counter if the food was kosher; he looked confused, shook his head and said: “No, no; Halal!” The bulletin board was to lure tourists seeking an “authentic” Jewish experience. It was not an expression of Jewish life in Berlin; it was a way to make a buck from gullible tourists. So far, no “Jewish renaissance” to be found.
Jewish life in Berlin does exist, but if you're looking for functioning synagogues, a Jewish bookstore or kosher shops, you generally have to go West. In what once was East Berlin and the center of Jewish life before the Holocaust, only a handful of Jewish institutions still exist, such as the Fraekelufer Synagogue. Attending Friday night services at the shul, Paul Egan, a master's student studying German, was struck by how difficult it was to get through security (one woman yelled “don't let them in!” when his friend approached) and how old the congregants were. Said Paul: “Saddest was a sweet old man, who kept saying with a smile `Gutte Shabbes' to me, perhaps thinking I would be back again.” Although services are held in a beautiful sanctuary, the appearance is misleading. This room once held the youth service; there is no need to rebuild the much larger sanctuary, destroyed on Kristallnacht.
The older members of the community are not a part of the proud long-standing German-Jewish heritage, which traces itself back 1,700 years (German Jews of this cut were the type to move to Israel and insist upon speaking their much-hated mother tongue). About one half of these Jews had fled Germany before the war; present-day “German Jews,” therefore, are relative newcomers. Most newly liberated Eastern European Holocaust survivors had to pass through Berlin—the Nazi-capital-turned-Allied-occupied city. A small minority stayed in Berlin (and other major German cities) and very slowly rebuilt their lives. In the 1990s, the city experienced an immigration of Jewish Russian speakers with numbers on par with Israel. Now, the Jewish population of Germany is purported to be 200,000 strong.
But like most of what I read about the “German Jewish renaissance,” this statistic turned out to be misleading. Between 90-95% of the German-Jewish population is the result of immigration, not natural increase. Of an estimated 200,000 German-Jews, only half are registered with the Gemeinde, the official Jewish community, which operates similarly to the official “churches” of the country, providing member benefits through government-allocated tax dollars. The missing 100,000 Jews are by-and-large Russian-speakers, many of whom are justifiably embittered with the community. First persecuted for being Jewish in their home countries, they came to Germany only to find out that the Gemeinde, deciding “who is a Jew” based on halakhah (Jewish law) using matrilineal descent, did not consider them Jewish.
The Gemeinde's membership criterion, stringent even though a small percentage of the community is Orthodox, is but one manifestation of a deep rift between those who proudly call themselves “German Jews” and the Jewish immigrants of the FSU. The irony is stark: while at the turn of the last century assimilated Jews in Germany looked down upon the Ostjuden (traditional Eastern European Jewish immigrants), many of today's established “German Jews” are Eastern European displaced persons from the War. Ignoring the sad history of intra-Jewish conflict, they now turn their noses up at Jews from the Far East.
Even within the community fold, Jews are in-fighting. After meeting with Stephan Kramer, the secretary-general of the Zentralrat (the organizing body of Jewish communities in Germany), Nadine Blumer, a Berlin-based PhD student, was shocked by what she heard: “After defaming Jewish immigrants of the former Soviet Union for using the Jewish community for its social services and better economic prospects, Kramer spoke about the importance of making community life “sexy” for Jews living in Germany—as long, I guess, as those Jews fit his conception of `proper' community members.”
Blumer had higher hopes when she met with the head of the liberal Abraham Geiger Rabbinical College, Walter Homolka. “Unlike Kramer, he spoke more favorably about the influx of former Soviet Jews,” she recalled. But “unfortunately, there were enough other rhetorical similarities. Homolka spent much time praising the liberal community in opposition to the alleged corruption of the Orthodox establishment.”
And on and on it goes. My six weeks in Germany provided me with other stories of ugly public battles between Orthodox and Masorti rabbis and German Jewish leaders laundering money from the community. But I call attention to the community's problems with a purpose: to talk of a “German Jewish renaissance” obscures the very real and very dangerous social rifts within the Jewish community. The community must stop being compared and comparing itself to what it was once was and instead focus on how it has become all too similar to other Jewish communities steeped in petty politics. Until this can be achieved, a Jewish renaissance in Berlin will remain the stuff of Google searches.