BERLIN - A local person greets the visitor standing at the entrance to the ZMF Club with a hearty "Shalom," tinged with a clear German accent. The club is located in a dark cellar in the heart of Berlin, and the sounds of Israeli pop star Dana International can be heard emanating from below. Israeli flags hang from every corner and are also wrapped around a rotating disco ball. Pictures of Israel's former prime minister Golda Meir, the deceased - yet still wildly popular - Israeli singer Ofra Haza, a pig and colorful Stars of David are all projected on a wall.
Welcome to "Meschugge" (Insane), the gay-friendly party with an Israeli touch that takes place once or twice a month here, right near Rosenthaler Platz. It started off as a one-time event about three-and-a-half years ago, and has since become an institution among Berliners who are fans of Israel.
The event's producer and planner Aviv Netter, 26, is also in charge of the music. He plays songs by Blondie and Pet Shop Boys, Israeli pop hits (Roni Superstar ), Oriental music (Yishai Levi ), and Israeli hits from past Eurovision contests ("Abanibi" and "Zeh rak sport" ). Netter goes by the stage name "DJ Aviv without the Tel," and clearly gets a kick out of being the post-post-modern Jew in the disc-jockey's chair, the guy who arranges the set and designs the flyers for the event. He's decked out in a white shirt that has "I Love Israel" inscribed on it and a rocket painted over the traditional red heart in the middle, very short yellow pants, long socks, and a long, thick chain dangling from his neck. He dances energetically, swaying his hips as he puts together an eclectic mix of songs that includes favorites like "Haperah begani," "Hava nagila" and "Balbeli oto."
The dance floor is packed with hyped-up Germans who just paid 8 euros at the door and are now gyrating excitedly to the beat, some of them in hora-like circles. Understanding the potential of such a gig, the Israeli Embassy recently flew Netter to Munich to organize a party there for the gay community.
"I'm not quite sure why they come," says Netter. "A guilt complex probably has something to do with it. Somehow third-generation Germans want to prove to themselves that they're not like their grandfathers and grandmothers, so partying with Israelis and Jews makes them feel good. There's nothing wrong with it. The Germans have a major identity crisis. For us Israelis, it's difficult to understand what it means to be a nation that's not proud."
A tall, lanky guy named Eugen Reger leans over the bar and concurs. "The Germans are forced to deal with history in school," says the 21-year-old. "My father is German, and my mother is a Jew from the Ukraine, and if you are Jewish they want to know it."
"You're Jewish?!" exclaims Tina, the woman beside him, a 25-year-old journalism student. "I didn't know that."
"I'm German just because I was born here," he snorts indifferently. "I have no interest in feeling guilty."
"You are German, just as I am," Tina reprimands him. "I'm a complete German, not Jewish at all, but I have many Jewish friends. Being Jewish is also a lifestyle and here, in Berlin, it's fun and special. And I know a bit of Hebrew, too. 'Shalom, shmi Tina. Shana tova' ['Hello, my name is Tina. Happy New Year']. Usually my scene is techno and boom-boom-boom, but I'm politically aware, and when I came to 'Meschugge' for the first time and saw all these people partying, Jews in Berlin, I felt they were celebrating survival. I know I have nothing in common with the Nazis, except perhaps the same genes, but when I see Germans and Jews celebrating together, it fills my heart. We celebrated together in 1925 and now, again, in 2011. Omigod. It's so nice. I love it."
Tina: "It's like a handshake. For three generations now, we've been 'clean.' This party is a symbol, and perhaps that's the reason everybody is so interested in it. During the Holocaust not only were Jews annihilated, but a cultural void was created and now it's filling up again."'Berlin was utopia'
Born and raised in Ganei Tikva near Tel Aviv, Netter moved to Berlin four-and-a-half years ago. His living room boasts a Santa Claus doll, a picture of Angela Merkel and a collection of toy pigs, beside an array of Israeli paraphernalia. "It's trash," says Netter. "Don't look for a message."
He lives in the Moabit neighborhood. A porn cinema is stationed opposite the entrance to his building, and two casinos are at the corner of the street. "I moved here with my partner at the time," he explains. "We wanted a big apartment, so we compromised on the neighborhood. When he left, I decided to keep the apartment."
Netter discovered Berlin's charm as a youngster, when he first visited. When he was 21, he returned as a member of a delegation of young political activists and became involved with a German man.
"I started coming again and again because of him," he recalls. "After a year of traveling, I decided to move. During my first year here, I had the time of my life and burnt up all my savings. Berlin is the most terrific city in the world. When I just got here, I thought Berlin was utopia. Very beautiful and intelligent guys, nightlife, music - everything within reach. I also felt more attractive because I'm different. And you have neighboring countries you can visit; you're not hemmed in, surrounded by enemies. And there are plenty of people from all over the world.
"I left Israel out of despair," he continues. "Not because [I thought] 'it would be so cool to move to Berlin.' What eventually broke me were the 2006 elections. I was active in the gay and lesbian forum in Meretz and was sure the left would gain power in the election, but it lost."
Netter was able to move to Germany because of his European citizenship, obtained through his mother who was born in Eastern Europe. He created "Meschugge" about a year after he arrived, with the catchy slogan "An unkosher Jewish night.
"There are many Turkish and Greek nights here, so I thought why shouldn't there be an Israeli-Jewish evening as well, even though four years ago there weren't as many Israelis here as there are now," he says. "For the first party, in November 2007, I photocopied 500 flyers and about 500 people showed up. Many couldn't get in and others who did left because it was overcrowded. Following up on that success, we tried again. In the first year, we had a party every two months, and in the second year, every month. Today I earn a living as a DJ and a promoter of other parties, including at the International Club that throws the biggest gay party in Berlin."
Why did you choose the name "Meschugge"?
Netter: "The word suits the character of the party perfectly. It's a word also used in German - 'bist du meschugge?' ['are you insane?'] The first night, the whole idea seemed insane."
Could "Meschugge" succeed in other cities as well? In Israel?
"No. 'An unkosher Jewish night' is a great title in Berlin but not in Tel Aviv where being Jewish isn't an issue. Here, the Israeli community is developing very slowly, and the Israelis who do come give the party its spirit. There are many Germans here who have a fetish about Israel, so I realized that a party like 'Meschugge' could succeed. In London or New York, it might work as a one-time event, but not every month."
Two years after he arrived in Berlin and a year after he started "Meschugge," Netter almost returned to Israel. He had just broken up with his boyfriend whose support had helped him launch the project, and mainly, he was confused.
"I returned to Israel and thought I'd stay and live there but it was a heavy blow to the system after I'd gotten used to life in Berlin," he recalls. "I had to work as well because I had blown all my savings. I learned to appreciate more what Berlin had to offer and missed the people I'd experienced those years with. So I returned to Berlin. Now, when I come to visit Israel, I find it difficult to see myself living there. My friends and my life are here. The warranty for my new computer is here."
Do you miss Israel, sometimes?
"A lot. The sweet potato pancakes at Orna and Ella [a bistro in Tel Aviv], Friday in Tel Aviv when the streets are crowded until noon and then, all at once, empty out just before Shabbat, when there's a cosmic silence. Usually I walk around here with a Star of David around my neck. I can't explain why but I felt a need to wear it after I came to Berlin."
Netter says he has gained a greater appreciation of Jewish history living in Berlin than he did growing up in Israel.
"The Israeli educational system did not know how to deal with the issue of the Holocaust," he says. "It doesn't make sense that a 6-year-old boy comes home from school on Holocaust Remembrance Day and all he sees on TV are bodies carried in wheelbarrows and dumped into pits. I remember my first visit to the Jewish Museum in Berlin. I went there just to put a check by it, to say I was there, but I had a powerful experience there because I was exposed, for the first time, to material that was collected from Berlin's Jewish community before the Holocaust. I had been totally ignorant about the size of the Jewish community here and the depth of its culture. The Israeli educational system focuses on the causes of the Holocaust, the emancipation, the rights that were denied, not about the Jewish community that existed there before the war."
And now every train that passes through the heart of the city reminds you of the transports to Auschwitz?
"At first, for sure. Now, definitely not. Every time a friend arrives from Israel for a visit, the black humor pops up, but if I were to make note of the Holocaust every time I took a train ride with German friends, it would be pretty unpleasant to be with me. So Holocaust jokes are told only in closed forums, among good friends."
The Germans, he says, want to hear that the Jews forgive them. "But what does forgiving mean? As they see it, the fact I live and work here means I forgive them. They love hearing from a Jew that their city is 'cool.'"'Don't mess with me'
In recent years, the extreme right has been gaining power in Europe. In Germany as well, talk about multiculturalism has awakened some dormant ghosts. Could Jew-hating become fashionable again or are Jews in Berlin a sort of "protected wild species"?
"To say it can't happen again? I wouldn't say that. The Holocaust taught us that you don't have to be a monster for this to happen. When I wanted to join activities of the European left, I often found myself up against an anti-Israeli wall. They're also against 'Meschugge' and you ask yourself, 'Why?' I don't see the European left protesting on behalf of women and gays in Saudi Arabia, and they know even less about the civil war in Sudan. To me, their arguments smack a bit of anti-Semitism. The occupation is no doubt a great injustice, but there are other conflicts around the world as well."
According to the Israeli Embassy in Berlin, about 15,000 Israelis live in the city. "Berlin does not suit everyone, but it is a perfect place for forging an identity and a personality because the city offers a huge array of possibilities and a scene that fosters individualism," says Netter.
Does an Israeli in Berlin have to forgo his Israeliness in order to assimilate?
"You don't have to do a thing. And even if you do, they'll always remind you that you're a Jew. Sometimes you feel people want to be around you because you're Jewish, that it makes them feel better about themselves. On the other hand, I've also encountered anti-Semitism. Three years ago, I was involved in a violent incident on the train. I was talking to a friend, quietly in Hebrew, and a few seats down the car someone was giving us a mean look. At one point, the guy got up and sat in front of us, leaned forward and said in a mixture of English, Russian and German that he's a Muslim from Chechnya who hates Jews and that we should not use our stinking language on his train.
"When we were about to get off the train, he said, 'You're going nowhere.' There were more people on the train, and they heard what was going on, but no one reacted. I had a bottle of beer in my hand, I brought it close to his face and said, 'I'm crazy. You don't want to mess with me,' and he left. I don't know where I got that idea. It was just luck. Another time, at the entrance to a club where I was hosting a party, I heard a group of people using the word Jude [Jew] and Schwuchtel, which is the most insulting way to say 'homo' in German."
Netter keeps up with Israeli music by listening to the army radio station, Galgalatz, on the Internet and through his twice yearly visits to Israel when he stocks up on new discs. "I just returned from Israel and went to a shop that sells Hasidic discs in Jerusalem. I bought lots of music there."
But this is the 'unkosher Jewish evening,' so why have Hasidic music?
"Because no one has a monopoly on Judaism. As I see it, 'Meschugge' is a new, modern way of being Jewish. That's why our December party was called 'Hanukkah v. Christmas.' After moving to Germany, I began asking myself what makes me Jewish. I come from a completely secular home, I was never even called up to the Torah, and here, for a while, I tried to be traditional. But the party's also meant to crack the German myth that Judaism is a religious monopoly. There was a time when the pig was the symbol of 'Meschugge' because I wanted to demonstrate that you can print a pig on a flyer for a Jewish party and nothing happens. We didn't even create a mini-provocation, though the embassy did call to ask whether this was really necessary."
There are those who would say the party depicts Israel as a cool and lively place but ignores the injustices, the suppression, the occupation of others who cannot celebrate their own culture.
"I oppose any linkage between politics and partying. As an Israeli, I should not be denied the right to celebrate my culture. And I don't believe that tomorrow people will stop speaking of the occupation because of 'Meschugge.' It's just one tiny attempt to present a different aspect of Israel. Israel is the only state that feels a need to justify itself and I don't think there's any reason it should."
Alternatively one could say: "Isn't it enough that you brought us the occupation? Now [singer] Michal Amdursky as well"?
"Michal Amdursky makes great pop music."
Haaretz reporter Doron Halutz was in Berlin as part of the Ernst Cramer and Teddy Kollek exchange program for Israeli and German journalists.
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