Unkosher Nightlife and Holocaust Humor Israelis Learn to Love the New Berlin
Part 2: An 'Insane' Night Out
At the entrance to the ZMF club near Rosenthaler Platz in the city's central Mitte district, a German stranger greets the reporter with a friendly "Shalom." It's a Saturday night at the monthly gay-friendly party "Meschugge," which means "insane" in Yiddish. Israeli flags hang everywhere in the club, and images of former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir, the late Israeli singer Ofra Haza and a drawing of a pig are projected on one wall. DJ Aviv Netter is in charge of the music, and he is playing international and Israeli pop hits, from Blondie and the Pet Shop Boys, to Israeli Eurovision Song Contest winner Dana International and Roni Superstar.
Netter, 26, was born and raised in a suburb of Tel Aviv, and moved to Berlin four years ago. "Obviously, there are very beautiful and intelligent guys here, an amazing nightlife, and you can visit neighboring countries -- you're not trapped between hostile ones," he says. "But I left Israel out of desperation, not because it's so cool to move to Berlin." Netter says that in 2006 he was active in the gay and lesbian forum of the left-wing party Meretz, and was convinced he was about to see the rise of the Israeli left. Instead, things collapsed, leaving Netter disillusioned.
'The Germans Are Full of Serious Identity Crises'
With a European passport thanks to his mother, who was born in Eastern Europe, Netter made the move to Berlin. His first year in the city, he says, was spent having fun and living off of his savings. Then he started Meschugge as a one-time event, and it became a regular attraction: "The Unkosher Jewish Night," as he calls it. A quarter of the audience is Israeli, the rest German. Netter says he suspects some of the Germans might come as a way to alleviate their own feelings of guilt.
"We Israelis cannot understand how it feels not to be proud of yourself, as a nation," he says. "The Germans are full of serious identity crises."
But Israeli immigrants in Berlin have their own identity issues. For example, almost all of them prefer to be treated as "Israelis in Berlin," not as "Jews in Germany." "Even the Germans themselves say Berlin is not Germany," says Russ. "The Jewish component of my identity has to do with a shared cultural past, not with a religious belief. I do not go to synagogue or eat kosher food."
Berlin resident Bialer, who is now fluent in German, says hearing the language all day on the street and thinking about the history of the city has only further strengthened her identity as an Israeli. And she has faced anti-Semitism head on. She says she has bumped into neo-Nazis a few times and once heard a group of Germans denouncing Jews.
Bialer says she approached them and said: "I'm Jewish, a granddaughter of Holocaust survivors. I cannot believe you talk like that in Germany in 2009." In response, one of them looked down and asked, "How long should we continue to support you?" Bialer said, "Support me? I've got a job!"
"My blood was boiling," she says. "Everything is nice, you are part of the city, and then a German tells you you are nothing."
Black Holocaust Humor
Many Israelis in Berlin use black humor, expressed in jokes about the Holocaust, as a way of dealing with the stress of living in the homeland of their grandparents' executioners. Keren Cytter says she once told such jokes to her German boyfriend, who then went on to tell his friends, which, she says, missed the point. One of the jokes went like this: A Holocaust survivor takes a lighter, snorts it, and says, "Ahh, nostalgia." When her boyfriend told that joke to his friends, none of them laughed, says Cytter.
Russ has heard his own share of black humor. "An Israeli friend in Berlin once showed me his apartment," says Russ. "When we got to the kitchen, he opened the gas stove and said: 'And this is the shower.' But the first time I told a Holocaust joke here, a friend warned me that it's illegal."
Though public jokes about the Holocaust might be illegal, the far right has gained traction in Europe in recent years, including in Germany, where a debate on multiculturalism opened raw wounds last summer. Some Israelis living in Berlin say that even with fluency in the language, full integration is not possible.
Singer Eleanor Cantor, sporting long black hair and dark make-up, says that in Germany she is still considered exotic at best, or, at worst, a parasite on the affluent society. "Even in Berlin, when someone does something that is unacceptable by Germans, they make an immediate association between his behavior and his ethnic origin," she says.
Living in the former seat of the Third Reich, some wonder whether or not history could repeat itself. "I won't say that it can never happen again," says Netter, the DJ. "The Holocaust taught us that you do not need monsters for this to happen."
Espresso and Real Estate
That hasn't stopped Israeli business tycoons from joining the ranks of the artists, gays and students who have discovered Berlin. Aroma, a successful Israeli espresso bar chain, opened its first branch in Germany in 2008, on Berlin's Friedrichstrasse, a commercial and theater district. Israeli real estate moguls have also invested in local housing units.
"Berlin is a cheap city and develops rapidly," says Sagi Ginat, director of Aroma Berlin. "The fact that there are a lot of Israelis here is actually not a consideration."
Yoni Margulies, 32, is a consultant to potential investors, including Israelis, in Berlin. Margulies grew up in Jerusalem, and moved at the age of 13 to New York with his family. Six years ago, he left New York for Berlin. He came, he says, because of a girl. He stayed because he loved the city and its freedom.
Margulies also owns the Tape Club in Berlin, which occasionally hosts the Tel Aviv-based crew of a gay dance party called "PAG." He says he doesn't try to play up a "guilt complex" in his business dealings with Germans because he feels it's a cheap shot.
"Last week, I buried my grandmother, an Auschwitz survivor, but the people I work with here have done nothing to my family," he says. "Maybe because of her I should be here. I'm walking, drinking and earning my money where Hitler got burned."
Doron Halutz is a staff writer for Israel's Haaretz newspaper. He is currently at SPIEGEL ONLINE in Berlin as an Ernst Cramer fellow with the International Journalists' Programmes.
- Part 1: Israelis Learn to Love the New Berlin
- Part 2: An 'Insane' Night Out