Unkosher Nightlife and Holocaust Humor Israelis Learn to Love the New Berlin
For decades, the shadow of history and the Holocaust led many Israelis to boycott Germany. Today, though, a new generation of Israelis are discovering Berlin as a center for the arts and European party capital. With their literature, art, cafes and nightlife, they have already become a vibrant presence in the city.
Every Friday at noon, the listeners of Berlin radio station "Alex" can hear the broadcaster speaking to them in Hebrew. The voice behind the microphone at the spacious studio in the German capital's Wedding neighborhood belongs to Aviv Russ, a 33-year-old Israeli who moved to Berlin from Tel Aviv five years ago, and started the radio program "Kol Berlin," or "Voice of Berlin" in Hebrew, a year later.
On this early December day, he is sitting down with regular guest Alexander Uhlmann and talks about Israeli writer David Grossman, the Hanukkah market in Berlin and immigration, all in fluent German. Occasionally, Russ stops to summarize in Hebrew, and at one point, he interrupts to explain something to his Israeli listeners.
"What Alex is trying to say," he says, "is that Russian immigrants (in Israel) live in ghettos. But Alex doesn't want to use this word. That's understandable -- only we (Israelis) are allowed to use it. Just kidding."
It is a uniquely Israeli perspective in a city that was once home to a robust Jewish community, filled with intellectuals, writers, and musicians. Until recently, relatively few people from Israel lived in Berlin, but the Israeli community here has grown considerably in the past five years. Official statistics indicating only several thousands offer little insight into the trend, since many Israelis enter Germany with European passports. (When Eastern European countries joined the EU, many Israelis became eligible for European passports since their parents or grandparents lived in those countries prior to World War II.)
A New Generation Returns to Berlin
Still, Yinam Cohen, a spokesman for the Israeli Embassy in Germany, estimates that there are between 10,000 and 15,000 Israelis living in the city. "This is a relatively new phenomenon," he says. "You can give it all kinds of pseudo-psychological explanations, such as a wearing down of historical barriers, or hype around a new, fresh destination, with good accessibility." There are now 22 weekly flights from Tel Aviv to Berlin, Cohen points out.
Berlin was once home to some of the most important figures of modern Hebrew literature, among them Nobel Prize winner S.Y. Agnon, who emigrated from what would later become the state of Israel to Berlin in 1912, and Leah Goldberg, Israel Prize laureate for literature, who studied in Berlin and even wrote a song named after the city. Israel's Philharmonic Orchestra was established in 1936 by Jewish musicians who fled Nazi Germany.
The open wound remaining between Germany and the Jews has led many Israelis to boycott it to this day: They refuse to visit the country or buy its products. A new generation of young Israelis, though, is now returning to the city, despite the shadow cast by history.
Nirit Bialer, 32, who has been a Berliner for five years, considers herself a Germanophile. At the age of 14, she began learning German at the Goethe Institute in Israel at a time when few such courses existed. "People asked why I was learning the language of the Nazis," she says, with a smile. "Today, people fight to get a seat in these courses."
Liberal Sexual Climate
Two decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the city is still in the process of crystallizing its identity. Berlin is a place of cheap rents, a liberal sexual climate and social and political upheaval that have helped foster a vibrant art scene and alternative culture. With the process of reunification not yet complete, the city continues to this day to redefine itself.
"This is exactly what artists and gays are looking for," says Russ, the radio presenter. "In cities such as London and Paris, the scene is already well-established, and all the positions are taken. Here, though, one can still make a difference."
And coming from a country still faced with military and geopolitical conflicts, many young Israelis are attracted to the peaceful life offered in modern Berlin. "When you visit as a tourist, you say to yourself, 'I want to live in a place where the news opens with an item about the weather,'" says Russ.
"It's relaxed here," says artist Keren Cytter, who was born in the Jewish settlement Ariel in the West Bank and moved to Berlin five years ago. "It's normal."
70 Percent of Adult Israelis Have Not Forgiven Germany
In her book "Israelis in Berlin," written in 2001, Israeli academic Fania Oz-Salzberger pondered whether the relationship between Israel and Germany could ever become "normal" in the wake of the events of the 20th century. A survey conducted last month by the Geocartography Institute in Israel found that 70 percent of adult Israeli Jews have not forgiven Germans for the Holocaust (23 percent have forgiven them, and 7 percent remain undecided).
"I do not know if 'forgive' is the appropriate term," says Gil Raveh. Raveh, a conductor, came to Berlin four years ago on the recommendation of award-winning Israeli conductor Noam Sheriff, who himself had studied in the city. "Forgive whom? Merkel? The waitress who serves my coffee?" he asks.
"I can sit with Germans without thinking they did something bad to me, personally," Raveh says over a cappuccino at one of his favorite cafes in the immigrant-filled and alternative area in the north of the district of Neukölln which is often nicknamed "Kreuzkölln" because of its proximity to the Kreuzberg district. "On the other hand, to forgive means you no longer have an issue with this matter, and I do have one. Yet, here my life is much simpler."
"At first, every nice old lady I saw -- I was thinking what she had done back 'then,'" says musician Eleanor Cantor, 35, the lead singer for the bands "The Hunters" and "Sister Chain and Brother John," who has lived in Berlin for seven years.
"It does not mean that every time I go to buy coal I think, 'Oh, Jews were burned here,' and yet, when I hear young Germans talk about choosing a school for their children which will have the lowest possible 'nicht-Deutsche Anteil' (non-German population), I shudder," Cantor says. "And obviously, this is because of past times."
- Part 1: Israelis Learn to Love the New Berlin
- Part 2: An 'Insane' Night Out