This winter, the relentlessly modern city of Berlin is taking a hard look back — at the fall of the Berlin Wall, 25 years ago last month, and at four-and-a-half decades of Communism that divided a people.
But for Jewish travelers, the more interesting look is toward the future. Few cities east of Paris have a Jewish presence as dynamic and unexpected as that of Berlin. A recent influx of about 20,000 Israelis has lent a distinctly Levantine flavor — OK, a smorgasbord of hummus joints — to a community artificially reconstituted from Soviet emigrés after the Holocaust.
“It’s like two parallel communities,” reflected Nirit Bialer, a Tel Aviv-born Berliner who has lived here since 2006. “And it’s not a continuous community. It’s quite new.”
Given how many Jewish communities are in decline around the globe, novelty is welcome — even if “it’s very vague, and hard to put your finger on,” as Yoav Sapir, an Israeli-born historian and tour guide, described contemporary Jewish Berlin.
While 50,000 Jews in a city of four million is a mere drop demographically, the sudden prevalence of hummus on menus and Hebrew on the street reveals the Israelis’ outsized cultural influence. And given that Tel Aviv and Berlin have two of the hottest club scenes on the planet, the arrival of Tel Aviv DJs has brought a new edge to nightlife in the German capital.
The Israeli presence is not limited to hummus and electronica. There is also Spitz, a Hebrew-language magazine published in Berlin; a crop of new synagogues, including the trendy Fraenkelufer Synagogue in the city’s Kreuzberg neighborhood, which draws a diverse crowd for Shabbat dinners; and an evolving scene of Israeli-language social groups, arts series, and Sunday schools that cater to a generation now in its 30s and with children of its own.
I recognized myself in this evolution. I was barely 30 and unmarried when I first went to Berlin, drawn by the same things — an underground arts scene; impossibly chic clubs; cafés that felt like an endless party — that lured the first wave of Israelis a decade ago. Like me, they were mostly young and single, and many were “militantly secular.” As Sapir put it, joining a religious Jewish diaspora was not on their agenda.
But also like me, many of those Israelis got married, had children, settled into careers. A new wave came, mostly Sephardic, interested more in a good job and a high standard of living than in parties or art galleries; approaching their fifth decade, many Israeli immigrants are seeking community among fellow Jewish expats. So while the original creative spirit still flourishes, enriching not only Jewish life but the stylish neighborhoods where Israelis cluster — Prenzlauer Berg, Kreuzberg, Friedrichshain — there can be no doubt that Israeli Berlin is coming of age.
Many Americans find irony in the fact that many of the most desirable (and most gentrified) neighborhoods are in the former East Berlin. But it’s easy to see why Israelis are drawn to these districts. Centrally located and buzzing with life, they are among the best-preserved and aesthetically harmonious areas of a city famous for having been destroyed and rebuilt.
Prenzlauer Berg, where families have gathered for Shabbat dinner specials at Sababa Kitchen since 2011, abounds in lovely prewar architecture and kids in strollers, giving it the feel of a German Park Slope. Kreuzberg — a sprawling central district famous for its immigrant diversity — has seen a wave of Spaniards, Slavs and other EU expats join its Turkish population, and its historic boulevards have never felt more vibrant.
The Israeli enclaves have redefined the concept of a Jewish neighborhood. Until recently, Jewish enclaves had been more closely identified with religious institutions — Charlottenburg-Wilmersdorf, where many Jews live within walking distance of a synagogue, or Mitte, home to a yeshiva, said Tamar Gablinger, an Israeli sociologist and tour guide. With her husband, fellow Israeli Nadav, Tamar operates Gablinger Berlin Tours, showcasing Jewish attractions past and present in a variety of multilingual walking tours.
Jewish life today is likely to take place around fluffy, fresh-baked pita at Zula in Prenzlauer Berg, where outdoor tables spill onto a picturesque street. Or over a debate about the garlic and lemon ratios of the hummus at Djimalaya or Shiloh Vegetarian Café, both in Mitte. (The argument over which of the Israeli hummus joints has the best and most authentic hummus is, as you might expect, a favorite pastime.)
Many of these eateries consider themselves kosher or kosher-style, a standard more cultural than religious. Feinberg’s, an elegant place in Schöneberg with exposed-brick walls and a menu of Sephardic specialties, is open on Saturdays and has no rabbinic supervision — but meat and dairy are rigorously separated, as are the dishes used to prepare and serve them, and the kitchen handles no traif.
The past couple of years have seen the opening of a number of these outfits, like Gordon Café and Record Store, a 2-month-old, fastidiously hip establishment in Neukölln, which is wedged just south of Kreuzberg and Friedrichshain. Here are all the tropes of expat Berlin: heavily bearded men, skinny pants, bicycles, judiciously sourced coffee and vegan pastries such as banana-chocolate cake.
Gordon, which has a parent branch in Tel Aviv, decorates with blond wood and plenty of vinyl, showcasing the beats that make both cities groove. Its Israeli roots are also evident in a carefully prepared menu that includes the requisite hummus, bourekas, olives and so forth.
Hummus is “the core of our culture,” said Gablinger. Like many Israelis I spoke to, she seemed bemused by all the hype — her word — surrounding Berlin’s Hebrew renaissance.
Food is only the beginning. Hebrew culture is flourishing, evidenced not only by Spitz, the magazine, but also by the popularity of Michal Zamir’s 2,500-volume Hebrew Library Berlin. Twice a month, Zamir — another Israeli transplant — opens his collection for readings by Israeli authors.
Habait, a cultural series, is among the highest-profile Israeli activities in Berlin, with events showcasing Israeli musicians, filmmakers and writers (its main portal is a Facebook page, for those interested in attending). Habait is a project of Nirit Bialer, who initiated the outreach program when she realized that for many Berliners, Israelis culture is intriguing but misunderstood.
Many Germans know only “the Mideast conflict, the Holocaust, some shtetl and klezmer,” said Bialer, who — having participated in German-Israeli exchange programs as a youth — has a passion for cross-cultural understanding. Previously, she added, the few Israeli cultural events in Berlin had been mostly formal gatherings organized by the Israeli embassy or by what she referred to, in the curiously removed way of many Israelis, as “the Jewish community.”
Indeed, for many secular Israelis, the more-established community that frequents Berlin’s many synagogues is something akin to a foreign nation, friendly but separate. That makes sense when you consider that often there is no common language among speakers of Russian, Hebrew, English and German.
And language — perhaps even more than hummus — is central to Israeli Berliner culture (though everyone I spoke with for this story was fluent in German and English). When I talked to Bialer, she was headed to Zula Café to meet a crowd of fellow Israelis for the bimonthly gathering of Hasholchan Hamitchadesh, a Hebrew-language social group. Bialer’s co-hosts are Tal Alon, a Spitz editor, and Revital Szekely, who organizes Israeli children’s programs and a Hebrew-language Sunday school.
For any Jew — Israeli or American, expat or tourist — Germany, and Berlin in particular, represent a complex moral and sociological conundrum that cannot be easily resolved. This city, after all, was the headquarters of Hitler’s Third Reich, which orchestrated the destruction of European Jewry. That the State of Israel was born out of the ashes of the Holocaust only makes this equation more complex for Israelis.
Every Jewish Berliner wrestles with this, as does every Jew who steps into Berlin’s stunning, immersive Holocaust Memorial and eyes the commemorative plaques tucked into cobblestones. Perhaps because they grew up knowing firsthand the challenges of building a multiethnic society, the young Israelis seem less gung-ho enthusiastic than cautiously optimistic about their role in a new Jewish Berlin.
“There are things taking place the way they never took place before, but on a much smaller scale than people would have imagined before,” reflected Sapir. He means before the war, of course.
Today the goulash is less likely to be kosher, but more likely to come with a side of hummus and pickles. And the bourgeois burghers of prewar Berlin could never have imagined the raucous spirit of a Habait kibbutz party, with 30-something Israelis whirling to an electronic hora.
The scene may be small, but in this season of memorials and reflection, it’s a joy to be part of something new. ✦