You're a Yekke? How cool
Israelis of German origin used to have fun made of them for being so set in their ways; today, their descendants are embracing social media sites like Facebook to preserve their heritage, as they learn to take pride in their roots.
"Does anyone have a recipe for Rote Grutze?" was the question posed by a surfer last week on the Facebook page for descendants of Yekkes (Jews with origins in the German-speaking countries ). Her surname, Tuchler-Neubert, left no doubt as to her origins. Nor did the interest she showed in the fine German dessert - a chilled red-berry pudding. Another surfer, in a jovial mood, wondered: "Let's see who can explain to me why the banana is crooked." Every descendant of Yekkes with fond memories of some Oma Gertrude knows that this question refers to the rhyming German expression, Warum? Warum ist die Banane krumm? The Facebook page, named for a famous German nursery rhyme, "Hoppe Hoppe Reiter," takes pride in being a warm home for "young descendants of Yekkes for preserving the Yekke heritage." On the top of the page, it defines its target audience: "If your memories of your grandmother's home included nursery rhymes in German or total silence between 2 and 4 in the afternoon, you are in the right place."
The site is one of the ways the veteran Yekke organization, the Association of Israelis of Central European Origin - established in Tel Aviv in 1932 - has in recent years been reaching out to young audiences, members of the third and fourth generation of Israelis of German background. Next week, it plans to hold a large convention at the Tefen Industrial Park in the western Galilee, which was founded by one of the best-known and most affluent members of the community, Stef Wertheimer.
The convention is being held to mark the 75th anniversary of the settlement project of pioneering Yekkes in 50 kibbutzim, moshavim, moshavot and neighborhoods around the country, which were agricultural in nature. The organization's directors hope to see young faces among the audience - the next generation that will help them preserve their heritage over the next 75 years as well.
"The organization's old and basic goals - first and foremost, facilitating the immigration of German Jews - vanished long ago," says veteran journalist Micha Limor. "The founding generation is passing away, and we are seeking new members and goals." Limor, 73, who in recent years has edited the organization's magazine, Yakinton, is himself a proud, second-generation Yekke. His generation no longer considers the epithet an insult.
As to its origin, there is still controversy. According to one version, "Yekke" came from the German word "Jacke," meaning jacket - an item of dress typical of Western European Jews. Others say, with a wink, that "Yekke" is the Hebrew acronym of the phrase "hard-of-understanding Jew." Almost certainly, it is an old, derogatory German term meaning "clown" or "fool." "For our parents, the epithet 'Yekke' was a terrible insult they never forgave," says Limor, who lives in Haifa, a major bastion of Yekkedom. "But we no longer wear jackets - maybe just on television - and we don't see ourselves as hard of understanding."
Upon becoming its editor, six years ago, Limor took a number of steps to make Yakinton friendlier to the younger generation. It was no easy task. The veteran periodical, which will mark its 80th anniversary next year, was outdated and old, filled mainly with general and current events information for its readers - all members of the organization.
The first step he took was to add to its name - Mitteilungsblatt (bulletin, in German ) - an additional, Israeli name, Yakinton, which is a play on the word "Yekke" and the Hebrew word for newspaper ("iton" ). It is also the Hebrew name of the hyacinth, a Mediterranean flower, as befits a periodical that targets Israeli readers. The second step was equally significant: expanding the Hebrew-language section of the bilingual magazine, so that most of the content would be in Hebrew and only a third of it in German, "for the sake of the Yekkes in the old age homes who have still not weaned themselves" off the language, as Limor puts it.
The change is also manifest in the actual content, which now includes extensive coverage of Yekke heritage and the perpetuation of Yekke values in society. Yakinton, one of the oldest Israeli periodicals, has adapted itself to innovations of the times, sometimes to the distress of veteran members of the organization who preferred the old, modest and subdued version of the publication. "The previous editorial board was frugal," says Limor. "In order to reduce the amount of paper used, the words were crowded close together and there were no photos."
The color, the spacing and the graphics he introduced annoyed some subscribers. "The old people complained that I was bringing television into the paper and its atmosphere was too Internetish and modern," he says.
Today, in fact, most of magazine's principal articles are uploaded to the Internet after publication. All of its past issues have been scanned and are available online. The current distribution is 4,000 copies, a quarter of which are sent abroad, but the actual number of readers is far higher. "There are kibbutzim that in order to save money buy one copy and pass it around among 50 Yekke readers," relates Limor.
One of the advantages of the magazine - at least for advertisers - is the readership, which includes many of the country's famous and wealthy Yekke families, among them the Strausses, Federmans, Hamburgers, Harels and Fischers as well as many other public figures and economic leaders. The vast majority of the readers are aged 50 to 70, mostly members of the second generation. But recently, the third and even fourth generations have also been showing considerable interest.
"My son, who is 46, of course reads what his father writes, but one person who reads the magazine from beginning to end is my 17-year-old grandson, who is fascinated by the Yekke scene, " says Limor.
The editorial board consists of 10 regular writers, some of them renowned professors, all of whom are of Yekke stock, who work for the paper on a volunteer basis. Two of the board members are Yekkes of another sort - German women who married Jewish men and converted. The group meets once a month. First, as befits Yekkes, they conduct a postmortem of the previous issue. The criticism includes mainly identifying typographical errors in the Hebrew part of the magazine and complaining about the language in the German part. The original Yekkes, who grew up in the lap of the German language of the 1920s, often complain about innovations in their mother tongue. Then they plan the next issue, and at the end of the meeting, share a little gossip about community members and discuss responses received at the editorial offices.
As befits a serious and veteran publication, from time to time, Yakinton succeeds in kicking up a storm. After the publication of the Goldstone report on the Gaza campaign, Limor wrote in his regular column, "Things I Wanted to Say," that Judge Goldstone "has a clean conscience." He explained that with his "uncompromising integrity, bureaucratic tenacity with regard to doing justice, comprehension of the reality and its formulation in language so direct as to be scientific, Goldstone is a perfect replica of our own Yekke, State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss." Despite calls heard in the organization's leadership for the firing of the editor for what he wrote, Limor has kept his job and, with typical Yekke inflexibility, continues to maintain editorial independence.
The person behind the winds of change in the Yekke organization is the director, Devorah Haberfeld, who assumed her position five years ago. Haberfeld, whose father came to Israel from Austria, understood that if the organization wanted to survive into the 21st century, it would have to reach out to all of Israeli society and show flexibility in accepting new members - a decidedly un-Yekke characteristic. In Israel's heterogeneous society, made up of so many different communities, that means that third- and fourth-generation "Yekkes" can also be Moroccans, Tunisians or Yemenites. "There are members of the organization who are married to Yekkes - 'married well,' as they say - and offspring of Yekkes who are already 'mixed,'" says Haberfeld, in an interview in the organization's offices, located since the 1940s in a beautiful building near Nahalat Binyamin Street in Tel Aviv. "The regulations make this possible."
"Yekkeness is no longer a matter of ethnicity, but rather a kind of Israeliness," she adds. "Even my cleaning woman, an Arab from Jaffa, tells me she is a Yekke and refuses to leave until she has cleaned all the windows in the building."
Reuven Merhav, a former director general of the Foreign Ministry, currently serves as the organization's president. "Today, when I speak, people no longer hear a German accent," he says in an interview in his home in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Rehavia, another Yekke bastion. "My children can speak barely three words in German. What remains of the Yekkeness is the values." These values, he says, include tolerance, justice, humanitarianism and belief in the importance of mutual aid. In addition, he says, "The Yekkes have stood out at the professional level, in their industriousness, in their modesty and in their deep connection to society and their heritage."
The Yekkes were also willing to do any kind of work, adds Merhav. "There were academics among them who became window cleaners, lawyers who became bus drivers, doctors who became poultry farmers and historians who sold handbags."
Along with the newspaper, the organization also operates two Internet sites dedicated to perpetuating Yekke values. The official site (http://www.irgun-jeckes.org ) provides current information about the organization's activities, particularly the aid it provides individuals of German origin. It also contains stories about Yekke heritage and activities and the complete "Book of Yekkes" - an online notebook that commemorates the names and activities of the Yekke immigrants who came to this country in the fifth large wave of immigration, in 1929-39. Only several hundred of the original 60,000 Yekke immigrants currently appear on the list, but it is growing from day to day.
The organization's other site, Yeke (http://yeke.cet.ac.il ), is an educational project targeting members of the younger generation and tries to connect them to Yekke culture through stories, jokes and comics. Thus, in the Yekke-Laugh section, surfers are invited to "laugh with us" and publish jokes about Yekkes.
Another project recently launched is "The Dictionary of Spoken Yekkish," for which the organization enlisted all its members and asked them to send in words and expressions they heard at home. Organization volunteers are now industriously and energetically working on editing the material. The dictionary is scheduled to be published in its print edition by Rosh Hashanah; part of it is already available on the Internet. Along with words like "Schlafstunde" (afternoon nap ) it will contain expressions like "Kaffee und Kuchen" (coffee and cake ) and "Spiegelei" (sunny-side up eggs ).
"When the writer Isaac Bashevis Singer received the Nobel Prize for Literature, in 1978, he said with a smile that Yiddish had already been dying for 4,000 years," remarks Haberfeld. "I believe we will also know how to continue into the future what we have done for nearly 80 years, precisely because of our Yekke characteristics. My grandson is already one-quarter Persian, one-quarter Yemenite, one-quarter Polish and one-quarter Austrian. I hope he will nevertheless get something of our tradition."