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A new kosher beer from Germany has quickly gaining an international following as well as controversy. Simcha beer debuted in May to relative success, selling 90,000 bottles in its first few months. Each of its three successive batches sold out, as specialty shops and kosher-style restaurants in Germany began to stock the beer. One store owner in Berlin even stopped selling Israeli-made Maccabi and Goldstar because customers preferred the German brew, according to one news report.

But together with the beer's unexpected success are accusations surrounding the company's founders. German Jews have called Simcha unnecessary at best and a front for missionary activities at worst.

Simcha (Hebrew for "joy") is made in a microbrewery in Saxony, in eastern Germany under the kashruth supervision of Rabbi Yitshak Ehrenberg, an Orthodox rabbi in Berlin. Cases of 24 bottles, available via www.simcha-sachsen.de, have been bought by curious customers throughout Europe at 30 euros each.

The kosher beer concept is the brainchild of two brothers who own a kosher-style restaurant in Chemnitz, together with Wilfried Gotter, a self-described Christian Zionist and a leader of the Saxonian Friends of Israel, a pro-Israel Christian group.

Gotter, here on a recent trip, admitted that interest in their product has far exceeded expectations. "It's like David and Golliath," he told Haaretz in an interview in Jerusalem's Old City, where he was staying. "Simcha is made in a very little factory and even though there are 6,000 other beers in Germany, it has been a success. We've sent cases to Holland, Belgium, Switzerland and the U.S. We've finished our supply and we need to brew more." Part of the beer's popularity, Gotter said, is because "in Germany, Jewish is 'in.'"

By German law dating to the 16th century, all beer must be made with only four ingredients: water, hops, grain, and yeast. Almost all German beer is therefore kosher anyway, and Jews in the country say they drink beer without any religious seals of approval. But the supervision of Rabbi Ehrenberg has opened the potential customer base even further to include the ultra-Orthodox, Gotter says. The producers, who want to expand their reach, are looking for distributors in Israel and the U.S.

"It is my dream to sell beer in Jerusalem," Gotter said. Simcha ("it's a joy to drink beer," Gotter says of the name) is a light pilsner with 4.9 percent alcohol. According to its Web site, the taste is somewhere "between the well-known classical pilsner from Germany and the neutral, a bit sweet taste of the beer from Israel or the U.S.A." A stout and an herb beer, to be rolled out sometime next year, are in the works.

Gotter says he hopes the beer shows Israelis "a positive side to Germany" and believes that dialogue between the two countries would flow better over a pint than, say, a glass of water. "Beer is good for speaking to each other," he explains. Gotter insists that his motives are pure and flatly denies accusations of missionary activities.

The owner of an on-line Christian bookstore, Gotter has led German tours to Israel for the past 17 years and has visited the area over 40 times. He says that even after the Berlin Wall fell, he went to Israel before visiting West Germany. As a leader of the Saxonian Friends of Israel, he says he donates money to Jewish charities in Israel and works to increase awareness among German youth about Israel and Jewish history. Gotter reports that he has been to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Authority in Jerusalem, 20 times, his daughter spent two years volunteering in the north at an old-age home for Holocaust survivors and he promises to donate a percentage of the profits from the beer - if and when it arrives - to Jewish charities in Israel.

"People tell me I am Jewish, but I don't think so," Gotter said. "But I believe in the Bible, in the land of the Bible and I am a good Christian."

Jesus bookmark

Some members of the Jewish community are not convinced. The website for the Saxonian Friends of Israel, which has promotions for Simcha, includes links to a number of missionary organizations, including the local Jewish Messianic community and the German branch of Jews for Jesus. "Jesus of Nazareth is the center of our lives," says the 'About Us' page of the website. "We oppose the idea of converting the Jews and leave this service to others. But if we are asked, we do not conceal our messianic testimony. Yet, we focus firstly on our own people. We believe that the Messiah will gather his people from among Jews and heathens, when He will come according to the testimony of the words of God."

As part of the launch promotion for Simcha, a Jesus bookmark and other religious items were offered to customers. The bookmark disappeared recently from the Simcha site.

Guski's blog, however, carries an image of the promotion. "I can't buy a beer from people who support Jews for Jesus," said Guski. He lives in Gelsenkirchen, near Dusseldorf, but has yet to taste the libation. "I would have to buy it to taste it and I won't buy it." He says the interest in Simcha -"an exotic item" for many Germans - may be part of a larger trend that includes a surge in interest in Jewish culture, including klezmer music. But he says that the Jewish community needs kosher food items at reasonable cost more than it needs "extra kosher" beer.

Guilt and gelt

Other members of the Jewish community echo Guski's opinions. "No one needs this beer," said Akiwa Heller, the owner of Aviv, a kosher grocery store in Frankfurt. "Nearly all German beers are kosher and to tell you the truth, 90 percent of the Jews in Germany don't care about the kosher question."

Rabbi Andrew Steiman, from Frankfurt, says he has never tasted Simcha beer and believes the whole concept is a "hoax." "I don't know a single Jewish person who drinks it. People who keep kosher don't need a hecshher (kosher certification) on beer. This is just nareshkeit (foolishness). The hechsher is for [non-Jewish] Germans, so they can say they had a kosher beer."

Simcha beer, Steiman says, is about the confluence of business, money and German guilt. "It's very bizarre," he said, "and it's only possible in a country like Germany with all the history."

Christian Wiermer contributed to this report.

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