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Donna Swarthout

What is a Jew in Germany today? Exploring diversity beyond conventional norms

'.... und dann sehen wir mal weiter .....' by Anna Adam (Courtesy Anna Adam)

“There was a man who did not like Jews and he killed them,” says a 6-year-old boy at a visit to the Jewish Museum in Berlin when asked what he and his classmates knew about Jews.

This answer propelled Shlomit Tripp into action. “When a little German kid learns something like that in school, how can you build normal relationships between Jews and the German majority?” Shlomit is a theater artist born in 1970 in Berlin to Turkish Jewish parents. She describes herself as “radically intercultural” and therefore eminently suited to build bridges. In 2010 she founded Bubales, Germany’s first Jewish puppet theater. In her shows, for which she writes the scripts and designs the puppets and costumes, “the Shoah plays a role in that it does not play a role.” With her widely successful puppet theater, cleverly performed in German, Arabic, Turkish and Ukrainian, the artist aims to create an enjoyable, engaging, positive experience with Jewish themes for her audiences. Children flock to her shows all over Germany and sit rapt in attention for more than an hour without pause.

Crafting positive experiences is the express goal of a great many young Jews in Berlin. Many are not affiliated with a synagogue or religious community, some moved to Berlin from Israel, came from the former Soviet Union to Germany as children in the early years after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, moved from the US or Canada and a minority are what is referred to in Germany as “bio-German,” meaning of ethnic German origin. Part of this new effort of normalizing relations among the majority culture and Jews in Germany is that for these artists, writers, community workers, and start-up creators the primary focus is not the Shoah, or antisemitism or the ever-present culture of remembrance.

A decade ago, abundant reports about the renaissance of Jewish life in Germany filled the national and international media. A “new” and more diverse Jewish Germany was taking root in the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s collapse and other transnational changes. In more recent years these reports have been displaced by stories of rising antisemitism and hate-based crimes committed by the far-right and to a lesser degree by Arab Muslims. Pronouncements about threats and dangers now overshadow positive expressions of Jewish community.

Does this mean the work of reconciliation has stalled? Are “normal” lives in which Jews are less “othered” even possible? Many answer this question in the negative. “Positive change will not come for another generation,” say some. The question is who are the role models with a vision for the future and the plans to guide us there?

“I find there is a lack of vision that there can be more than what we have now with regards to Jewish life in Germany,” observes Debora Antmann, writer and political activist. This young Berlin-born woman in a wheelchair dreams of a “secular utopia” and seeks to imagine something new, something that does not include recreating pre-WWII Jewish life in Germany. She laments the lack of continuity in Jewish feminist movements and demands that Jews question their own limited understanding of Jewish spaces in Germany. “There is a far too narrow understanding of reconciliation assigned to us; instead we need to create spaces, secular spaces, spaces where our Jewishness is not a performance for non-Jews.” For this to happen one has to break with conventional narratives and develop new narratives that are more reflective of the reality of the great diversity of Jews who have their home in Germany today, Antmann argues.

Also advocating for renewal within existing communities is Dekel Peretz, chair of the Jewish Center at the historic Fraenkelufer Synagogue in Berlin, who moved to Germany in 2002 and is originally from Israel. A trained historian with a significant scholarly publication record, Dekel’s approach is systematic: “We first need to find out what the themes of interest are for young Jews today. No taboo subjects. We need to have an open debate.” He too emphasizes that his Jewish identity is not reduced to a minority status, to the Holocaust or being an expert on antisemitism. He explains that “normalization” cannot be a goal in and of itself but is a side effect when opportunities and spaces for Jewish expressions in arts, culture or otherwise are created and recognized in the larger German society.

Hindrances to opening spaces, however, are not only presented by the majority culture but stem from conflicts and disagreements within the various Jewish communities. Part of this challenge is a German hierarchical construct wherein the Central Council of Jews in Germany plays a major role and dominates public discourse. Leaders of the Central Council, its newspaper and outreach activities, present Jewish life to the larger German society and are the go-to sources when a “Jewish perspective” is called for. Yet an increasing number of younger Jews do not find themselves represented by the Council. They claim that they have a hard time obtaining funds, gaining attention or recognition for their endeavors when they fall outside the umbrella or sponsorship of the Central Council.

“We need to build open, energetic networks for those outside the purview of the Central Council,” recommends Anna Adam, a prominent artist, stage designer, and educator. When people are treated equally, she argues, they can work together as individuals who share a common interest in a space where identity is not at the forefront.

A further challenge is the still lingering East/West divide in Germany. Jews in the former socialist German Democratic Republic (GDR) were marked by an anti-fascist state ideology that assigned the ills of Nazi Germany to the capitalist West and claimed that no remnants of that regime remained behind the iron curtain. According to official lore, Nazi war criminals resided in the West and therefore there was no need for “Vergangenheitsbewältigung” (coming to terms with the past) and society moved seamlessly from Nazi dictatorship to socialist authoritarianism.

At a recent festival “Jüdische Ossis” (Jews from the East) in Potsdam, capital of the State of Brandenburg, discussions revolved around the lingering heritage from the GDR that is still, 32 years after its peaceful dissolution, present today. Believing that socialism was indeed a better system than Western capitalism, some Jews had voluntarily settled in East Germany after WW II and subscribed to the atheist state ideology. Jewish life, therefore, did not revolve around religious observance but rather cultural heritage. This approach was maintained with the influx of Russian Jews who settled in East Germany as part of the so-called “contingency refugees” who were given residence in Germany after the collapse of the Soviet Union. “We are the third generation after WWII and grew up in East Germany after the GDR ceased to exist, but we were socialized differently than people in West Germany. There was a pervasive sense of disorientation, there was a lot of violence against foreigners, Jews.” The sense of being left behind by re-unification resulted in hatred that had to unleash somewhere, says Dimtrij Kapitelman, an accomplished novelist. “It is an irony of history that we Jews of Soviet origin were attacked by neo-Nazis in former communist Germany.” Therefore, he adds, “we have different expectations of Germany now.”

Jalda Rebling, a cantor who grew up in the GDR, started Germany’s first Jewish Renewal community and sums up a common sentiment: “We have to build Jewish communities from the ground up. Not top down. As Jews, we are the quintessential model of diversity and should grow communities that are based on our diverse needs.” That, she feels, will strengthen and enrich the larger German society. Jonathan Boyd, Executive Director of the Jewish Policy Research Institute, expresses a similar sentiment: “We can, and should, focus far more on the richness of our culture and sense of purpose than obsess over the bigots who wish us ill. Indeed, if the Jewish People is to thrive rather than simply survive, we need to do just that.”

This post was co-authored by Doris H. Gray and is part of an ongoing project to document Jewish initiatives and leadership activities that bring about positive social change in Germany.

About the Author
Donna Swarthout has been writing about Jewish life in Germany and the legacy of the Holocaust since moving from the U.S. to Berlin in 2010. She is the editor of A Place They Called Home. Reclaiming Citizenship. Stories of a New Jewish Return to Germany (Berlinica 2019).
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