A community of German Jewish outsiders
BERLIN - At the age of 28, Willy Kramer seems to be established. He has already published his first book of short stories, which is starting to make waves in the local literary scene, and now he is debating whether to continue his literary career or return to his previous, more profitable work building Internet sites. Meanwhile, he zips around Berlin in an Opel GT, a classic, 40-year-old German sports car, while feeling tormented over his identity.
His parents were born in the Latvian capital, Riga. He grew up in Berlin but studied at an American school. He also spent quite a bit of time in New York. Actually he was born in Petah Tikva. "Like many Russian Jews who live here," he says during a conversation in a cafe in the Schoneberg neighborhood, "we don't feel German."
More than 200,000 Jews emigrated from the countries of the former Soviet Union to Germany since the gates opened in 1991. The German authorities did everything to welcome them with open arms: the procedures for obtaining citizenship were shortened and the newcomers were given large allowances to ease their acclimation.
"All of the German governments have championed the cause of reviving the Jewish community," says Helga Richter, who until recently was in charge of religious communities and interreligious dialogue at the Federal Ministry of the Interior. "For years it hardly happened, but now we have a wonderful opportunity to do this with the Jews who came from Russia. We want to make them feel they aren't guests, but are part of us."
Willy Kramer's family arrived before the wave of immigration from Russia when it left Israel 25 years ago, but he still feels like a guest in his country.
"Even though I grew up here, it's still impossible to escape the nauseating thought, when you sit beside an 80-year-old man and wonder what he did during the war."
That German mentality
But the past is not the only thing that troubles him. "The Germans' mentality," he says, "really is like the cliche: punctilious, closed, conservative, not saying what they think, so far from the mind-set of the Jews and the Russians. Luckily Berlin is nevertheless different, a sort of melting pot, a place of refuge for everyone who can't manage with Germany."
Kramer titled his book "Berlin Fucking City," revealing something of his love-hate relationship with the metropolis. He constantly considers leaving for New York or Israel. His stories present extreme situations and characters, which are sometimes also very violent, and the Berlin depicted is a city of outsiders. In one story, which takes place in a classroom of Muslim students in a neighborhood heavily populated by immigrants, a substitute teacher is giving a geography lesson on the Middle East. When she tries to convince the students that Israel exists on the map, one of them gets up and kills her.
Although he didn't go to a Jewish school, from a young age, Kramer was very active in the Jewish community in Berlin, which took in one-tenth of the ex-Soviet immigrants in Germany, or some 20,000 people. He was a counselor at a summer camp and was active in the Jewish students' organization, but he also doesn't spare the community any criticism.
"Many Jews shut themselves off from the world here and terrorize their children about not marrying 'out.' Because of this, many remain alone or they marry a person who is not right for them. I can imagine marrying a non-Jewish woman, but something also puts me off of heading in that direction."
Inge, a 34-year-old Jewish woman, who arrived as a young girl from Ukraine, also feels the pressure to remain within the community. She earns a good salary as a consultant on computerization but mostly she wants to start a family. Like many of her peers, she has no particular religious leanings, but she regularly goes to synagogue, the place to meet other young Jews. Inge arrived at our cafe meeting after attending a concert by Israeli singer Moosh Ben Ari, which was part of the Jewish culture week in Berlin. She was disappointed not to have met friends from the community there. "I have a German passport, and I have many German friends," she says, "and despite this I don't feel German." She asks that her last name not be published in order not to endanger her job.
"These sentiments are connected to the labor market here. Everything is in a strict hierarchy, no one wants to hear your opinion, you have to listen to your superior," she explains. "And, of course, history also comes into the picture. Someone at work, who heard this week that I was born in Ukraine, told me 'too bad that Ukraine no longer belongs to Germany.' I was in shock. I told him that if that were the case, they would have destroyed me because I'm Jewish," she says.
"Once I didn't have any problem with marrying a non-Jew either, but when I hear these things, I think I can only marry a Jew. In the meantime, all I want is to make some money and run away from here," she says.
A slightly different picture can be found in the Tempelhof neighborhood, on the city's southwest side, where the Werner Media Group has its offices. The communications empire is owned by Nicholas Werner, 39, a Kishinev-born Jew who lives in Berlin and publishes seven Russian-language national daily newspapers, local weeklies and the glossy monthly Europa, which is distributed from Berlin to London and promotes the good life to the upper 1,000th percentile.
Two years ago the group issued its first newspaper in German, Judische Zeitung, which targets the young generation of Russian Jewish immigrants, which feels comfortable using the local language. "We don't leave any issue off the table," says Lorenz Lutz, the paper's editor, who in the past was a correspondent for the daily Die Welt. The new paper is competing with Judische Allgemeine, the more veteran paper owned by the established community. "We're independent and that allows us to address every issue freely. Such as, for example, the difficulties Russian Jews have being absorbed here and the fact that at least half of the Jews here are not Jewish according to halakha [Jewish law] and are not even circumcised. In the next issue, we have an article about a mother and daughter who didn't manage to bring the documents that prove their Jewishness and therefore they lost their membership in the community." Lutz is well-acquainted with the issue. He, too, is Jewish, "but not according to halakha."
The Judische Zeitung is also not deterred from addressing problematic issues relating to ties with Israel. Its August cover features an article about the uproar over the Nativ Liaison Office's commencement of operations in Germany, with the goal of bringing Russian Jews from Germany to Israel. This issue is really stirring up the Jewish community's leadership; no Israeli representative consulted with it about the political agreement reached in Jerusalem between Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Strategic Affairs Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who took over responsibility for Nativ. Even German government officials in Berlin, who officially prefer not to comment on this matter, expressed surprise over the behavior of a friendly government.
Lutz has visited Israel several times and has friends in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, but he has no internal split over whether or not to immigrate to Israel. "I feel German," he says when asked about the subject -with a fraction of a second's hesitation.
The German government supports the communal organizations with increasingly large sums; in 2008, the budget will rise to five million euros. In addition, funds are received from regional governments plus special grants for the construction and refurbishment of communal structures. Yet only 85,000 Jews have registered with the community, and most of them are not active. The joke is that the Jews join the community for a place in the retirement home and a plot in the cemetery.
The communal institutions are weak and divided. The religious leadership is unstable. The two Orthodox rabbis are not on speaking terms. Into this vacuum, extracommunal entities have entered such as the Reform movement, which after a legal battle won official recognition from the community, and Orthodox organizations, most of whose students are Russian immigrants. In the newly rebuilt Prenzlauer Berg district in East Berlin, there is a yeshiva and seminary for Orthodox young women, funded by millionaire Ron Lauder's Jewish Education Fund, and a local community is gradually being built around them.
Chabad has also arrived in Berlin. At the beginning of September, the new Chabad Center in the Wilmersdorf neighborhood of West Berlin was dedicated, and its activities are already flourishing. Chabad, which has been operating in Berlin for 11 years, did not make do with the construction of a grand synagogue and ritual bath. The center will also house a kosher restaurant, which will serve Shabbat meals to hundreds of diners, as well as a kindergarten. Not far away there is also a school from the Or Avner educational network funded by the Israeli millionaire Lev Leviev, who is very close to Chabad.
"It's no secret that 80 percent of the Jews here are Russians, but some of them have been here for over 20 years, and their children grew up as Germans. We want to reach every Jew, whoever he may be," says Rabbi Yehuda Teichtel, the Chabad emissary in Berlin.
In the heart of the new Chabad Center is a wall built from Jerusalem stone as a replica of the Western Wall. The architectural gimmick has drawn considerable criticism, primarily from religious circles in Israel who claimed that instead of working on bringing Jews to Israel, Teichtel is uprooting the Western Wall and bringing it to Germany.
Teichtel sees no need to apologize. He is the great-grandson of Rabbi Yissachar Shlomo Teichtel, the author of "Em Habanim Smeicha," one of the most famous halakhic treatises justifying Zionism. Teichtel, the great-grandfather, who was the head of the Slobodka Yeshiva and was killed during the Holocaust, attacked the rabbis who opposed Zionism and left their followers to be killed in Europe. A Chabad follower saved his son (Yehuda Teichtel's grandfather), and all of his offspring are members of that Hasidic sect.
"Unfortunately there are a lot of Jews here," says Rabbi Shlomo Teichtel, Yehuda's father. "Yehuda didn't bring them here, but feels he must first connect them to Judaism, so that in the future they will come to the Land of Israel. True, Chabad isn't a Zionist movement, but we believe that Chabad is the real Zionism."