Still-divided Loyalties

German culture owes its initial success in Israel to the efforts of the German government, but now it's self-perpetuating.

Naomi calls once every few months: "Sha-lom, this is Na-om-i speak-ing," she says, very slowly, so I won't miss anything, emphasizing every syllable; her voice conveying motherly concern. She wants to know "if everything is all right" with me - in other words, if I'm still alive. Her phone call is one of the services provided to the members of the veteran Association of Israelis of Central European Origin, which friends once convinced me to join. As I recall, they said something about how it would help my chances of getting a place in one of the organization's senior citizens' homes. I guess I'm among the oldest of the Yekkes (Jews of German origin ) today - good reason for concern as to whether "everything is all right" with me. Everything is all right: Contrary to expectations, the Yekkes aren't disappearing. Indeed, their number is increasing, their average age is declining.

Yekkes were the only ones who were not specifically identified upon arriving here as natives of the country they left: There were "Russians," and "Poles," "Yemenites," "Moroccans" and others, but there were no "Germans." Furthermore, the Yekkes were often identified with Nazi Germany, which made their lives here difficult, especially at the beginning.

A Yekke sausage seller in Tel Aviv, 1952 (Maxim Salomon)
Maxim Salomon

Once every few years the Yekke association organizes historic conferences, marking some "round" number - 50 or 60 or 70 years - since the beginning of the Yekke aliyah. This week they are celebrating "75 years of settlement and heritage."

The truth is, however, that some Yekkes settled in Mandatory Palestine 85 years ago as well. The Yekke moshav Ramot Hashavim was founded 78 years ago, and Nahariya and Kiryat Bialik were established 77 years ago. The use of the mythological term "hityashvut" ("settlement" ) is only relevant with respect to the activity of a few of the Yekkes: Most of them were refugees who moved to the cities. They would have been happy to stay in Germany; most came here because they were unable to immigrate to another country. Additionally, the "transfer" agreement between the Zionist movement and Nazi Germany, which enabled the Yekkes to bring part of their property with them, encouraged many of them to make aliyah.

Many of the Yekkes considered Palestine a backward country, and felt that being forced to move here was a disaster. While their lives were saved because of this, and some even became very successful, many never managed to shake the feeling that by coming to the Land of Israel they had lost their highbrow cultural lifestyle. That is why they tended to stick together and tried to maintain a semblance of that lifestyle. The same can be said of immigrants from Poland, who came 10 years before the Yekkes, in the Fourth Aliyah, and developed Tel Aviv in the image of Warsaw and Lodz; many of them would also have preferred to emigrate, for example, to the United States, but were unable to do so.

It is impossible to understand the difficulties involved in shaping Israeli identity, and the troubled attitude of so many Israelis toward their country, without recalling that many of today's citizens were born to people who actually didn't want to live here, but came for lack of choice. For their part, the Yekkes felt that they had lost more than others, because in their eyes Berlin and Frankfurt represented a higher culture than that of Warsaw and Lodz. In light of that, it is interesting that most of them remained here - as did their children.

Shortly after the Yom Kippur War, many Israelis began seeking their Jewish roots; some became newly observant, some went back to using the original names that they or their parents had replaced with Hebrew ones. There are Israelis who describe themselves as Jewish Arabs. Almost a quarter of a million Israelis have requested and received European passports. About half of them carry German passports.

One of those Israelis is writer Ruvik Rosenthal, 66, author of the memoir "22 Flower Street," which belongs to the genre of Berlin books that is flourishing here today - parallel to the flourishing of a young Israeli community in Berlin. "I'm a German too," writes Rosenthal in the latest issue of the magazine Eretz Acheret, which was published in cooperation with the Yekke magazine Yakinton, and deals with the phenomenon of German passports. Rosenthal is apparently the first Israeli who dares to say of himself that he is "German," not only according to his other passport, but also according to his sense of identity.

The power of Yekke identity and the need to nurture it reflect even today the sense of loss that characterized the first Yekke immigrants. There is great irony in the fact that people expect the German identity to preserve the liberal cultural and political values that are gradually disappearing in Israel. German culture in the State of Israel owes its initial success to the efforts of the German Embassy, but now it's self-perpetuating: I have friends Ruvik Rosenthal's age who twice a week watch Gunther Jauch - a nice guy who emcees the German version of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire."