Walking around Berlin, the city feels alive. It pulls us furiously into the complexity of its emerging story. Artists, writers, filmmakers, chefs, nonprofit professionals, government employees and students meander about the city, feeding off Berlin’s robust intellectual and creative culture. Beneath the surface lies the darkness of the past, the still-felt trauma of war and genocide.
The darkness of the present, in the form of random and perhaps religiously inspired terrorism, showed itself in the recent deadly truck attack on the Christmas market in the heart of the city.
The horrific violence in Berlin — and the response of Berliners — reminds us of a vital Jewish characteristic lying dormant within each of us: resilience. Our millennial generation is charged with balancing the “burden of survivorship” with the task of creating an inclusive Jewish community — a challenge that requires us to bridge, and resiliently so, our past and our present.
Sitting in my rabbinical school in the Bronx when I heard about the attack, I frantically wrote to friends in Berlin. They all frequented this very public square — of course, so had I, during this past summer when I lived there. We took the S-Bahn rail line to the Zoologischer Garten station, walked past the lovely Tiergarten toward the kosher Daily Markt, anticipating a more difficult trek home via the U-Bahn, bags heavy with ingredients for that week’s Shabbat meal. The thought of violence on those peaceful, sacred walks feels distant and unreal.
Berlin, it turns out, plays a vital role in the next generation of Judaism. I learned this by becoming a part of it.
In late June, with just three weeks of marriage behind us, my husband and I left our home in Brooklyn. We lived for four weeks in a large apartment in a converted warehouse in Kreuzberg, the center of Berlin’s famous club scene, down the street from the double lines of brick that denote where the Berlin Wall once stood.
We named our home Base Berlin. And we were open, every day and every evening, to our chosen community of Berlin Jews.
Everything about us was new — our marriage, our home, our friends, our city. Yet, we came to Berlin because we were marked by something old. Returning to Germany meant returning to the land that has ingrained Jews with inherited memories of hate, death and dislocation for generations. But it also meant merging with a beautiful, proud Jewish identity: Berlin was (and is) home to Jews who were (and are) intellectual, bold and passionate about culture, who revitalized what it means to have Jewish knowledge.
As I became a part of the young Berliner community, the city became a metaphor for my own inner tension. As a third-generation child born to four survivor grandparents, my identity was founded, in part, on a continuous image of Germany in tragic, lifeless form. Germany, Poland, Ukraine — places that were forbidden to me, yet filled with parallel Rebeccas, the descendants of the ones who stayed, all creating their own histories. I needed to meet them, to learn about them, to ensure them a place in my vision of a global Jewish community.
I deviated from the traditional path of third-generationism. I cherished each of my grandparents yet realized that their lives, and therefore mine, automatically carried a heavy burden; it demanded that we ignore the past, that we regard it only as a locus of evil that befell our family once and never again. Our lives were about love, family, food, corny Yiddish phrases and simchas, moments of unity and joy. Yet our family psyche is rooted in tragedy.
In America, I asked myself constantly why there must be a tension between carrying that burden and building a globally inclusive, diverse Jewish people. In Berlin, I asked no such question. Everyone and everything lives the contrast between preserving the past and building the future — especially when it comes to Judaism.
Most Jews I met here, regardless of their origins, had narratives similar to my own. We had a variety of birthplaces and citizenships, loosely connected with our parents’ and grandparents’ hometowns, but “Jewish” was the only identity marker that held strength. We all sought a place where we could express our Jewishness while simply being ourselves. Rather than focus on mourning the loss of Jewish life in generations past, we wanted to live it—by celebrating Shabbat, volunteering in refugee centers and learning Torah with the large community of Jewish intellectuals.
In Berlin there are German Jews, Russian Jews, Hungarian Jews, Polish Jews, English Jews, Israeli Jews, Colombian Jews, American Jews, Australian Jews, Iraqi Jews and more. A small miracle of Jewish unity is transpiring. And we must not shield our eyes simply because it’s happening in Germany.
Now more than ever, we must draw upon the strength of our resilience as a global people. We need resilience to stand up to terror. But we need resilience, too, to open our eyes to our Jewish family living in all sorts of unexpected places. And we can begin with Berlin, a place where the tension between past and present feels all the more heightened.
My husband and I made our first home in Berlin. At times, our decision to live like this makes us feel vulnerable, even reckless. But rather than let our Jewish story grow ever more abstract and distant in our lived trauma of World War II, as tends to happen in America, we’ve chosen to tug history to the surface, to let it breathe out in the open and interact with our own day-to-day lives. It’s part of our responsibility to become better spiritual leaders, better family members and better people.
When we return to Berlin soon, we’ll pay our respects at the Christmas market, but we’ll also commit to continuing our work and honoring the surprising Jewish story that continues to unfold in Germany.
Rebecca Blady, a rabbinical student at Yeshivat Maharat in Riverdale, co-founded Base Berlin with her husband, Jeremy Borovitz, a rabbinical student at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah.