This one is a longer post, but it includes a few points I’ve wanted to address for a while, but hadn’t got around to.
Raphael‘s brought my attention to a PresenTense article by Brauna Doidge, a Jewish Studies major, about her six-weeks’ visit to Berlin. In her article, Brauna claims that Judaism in Germany still is far from a “renaissance” and should stop comparing and being compared to the German Jewish community of the past. I’ve got to agree in so far as that the German Jewish community indeed does not seem to compare to what many people overseas perceive to have been the German Jewish community of the past. BUT, and this BUT would come in a 16 pt font size had I the possibilty of adjusting it, the concept of what made German Jewish life so distinct before WW2 seems to have been replaced by a somewhat nostalgically veiled adaption of Eastern shtetl Jewry, rich version, to the streets of Prussian Berlin. While the German Jewry of the present does not compare to the German Jewry of the past, there seem to be misconceptions galore of German Jewry in general that I’d like to address.
As I’ve pointed out referring to an article by Lewis-Kraus in a previous post, what seem to shape Jewish life in Germany today are “non-Jews that enjoy doing things they perceive as typically Jewish, such as listening to klezmer music (which was a cultural expression of Eastern European, not German Jewry), immigrants from the CIS, and NY Jews trying to live up to a cultural heritage that is not theirs, respectively trying to realize cultural dreams that were crushed in NY”. I’d also add the premise, which applies to Jews and non-Jews in Germany alike, that Germans typically are secular even if they affiliate with a religion. I can work with colleagues that are Roman Catholic, Protestant, moderate Muslim, agnostic, atheist etc. without religion ever coming up during coffee breaks. The fervor with which, e.g. more religious Muslims demand to be entitled to prayer times during work hours or with which Pentecostal or Baptist congregations of CIS-origin try to proselytise others are foreign and awkward to us to say the very least. And unless you’re a member of the clergy (that BTW live on a low fixed income here) or maybe run a religious bookstore, there’s hardly a living to be made out of doing something legal related to religion without being dependent on subsidies of some sort – or a day job. To avoid any false impressions, people that affiliate with the German Jewish community do practise their religion on various levels of observance and are not ashamed of their religious adherence, but they do not typically move through their environment radiating a Jew-aura, so to speak.
The list of should-be-there-if-there-were-a-real-German-Jewish-renaissance items includes (not exclusively) the following according friends from overseas: Yiddish, kosher food (i.e. certified, with a hechsher), synagogues, klezmer, Orthodox Jews, Jewy events / parties / be-fruitful-and-multiply events.
The list of should-not-be-there-if-there-were-a-real-German-Jewish-renaissance items includes (not exclusively) the following according friends from overseas: CIS-Jews, American Jewish hipsters, Israeli freelancers, “assimilation” tendencies.
Let’s go through the lists to see in how far they hold true:
+ Yiddish In Germany, only West Yiddish was spoken originally. While most native speakers of the Eastern varieties of Yiddish (Poylish, Litvish) would understand West Yiddish as such, even a native speaker of German or Yiddish would have a hard time telling the various dialects along the Rhine River and West Yiddish apart, particularly because they are so close and have mutually influenced each other so much that the differences are positively minimal. Eastern Yiddish made an appearance on German territory in broader masses than the occasional salesman way later with shtetl Jews from Eastern Europe fleeing Czarist Russia or Communism.
+ Kosher Food Sorry to say, but how much kosher labelling by authorities do you think was done prior to WW2? How many hechsherim do you think there were? Seriously now, going by the personal experiences of my great-grandmother, who grew up in a more rural Jewish community just as (as I hate to admit) DÃ¼sseldorf, and all factbook sources I’ve got at hand, there were kosher butchers, and that was about it. All other groceries were obtained from the same sources that non-Jews got them from, i.e. grocers, farmers, farmers’ markets, and later on in rural areas (when Jews were permitted to own land) by planting some stuff yourself to provide for your basic needs. There were bakers, greengrocers, butchers etc. that were known to be Jewish that were also patronized by non-Jews. But the person in charge of deciding whether a food item was kosher or not was the housewife herself. If she had doubts, she was supposed to ask her husband’s view, who may have related the question to a rabbi, but generally, the housewives were trusted with those decisions. And kosher food with a hechsher still is a rarity here; there are a few kosher restaurants in major cities (check opening hours and do reservations ahead of time), but people mostly rely on their common sense. There are plenty sources of vegan foods, and food items fit for vegan diets are sold at many larger supermarkets. State and independent consumer watchdog organizations’ food supervision in Germany is very strict; ingredients that exceed 0.5% of the content must be labelled on the list of ingredients. So, if you travel here, be prepared to rely on your knowledge of kashrus and some common sense as the convenience of a heshcher may not be available.
+ Synagogues There are a few newly erected or newly restaurized synagogues, but alas, many of the synagogues destroyed by the Nazis are gone forever. Often, the original property where the synagogues had stood on were quickly used for other constructions (out of sight, out of mind), so new synagogues were built as there they needed to fit the requirements of individual congregations. Even in cities with larger Jewish congregations, you will not likely find synagogues that cater to each and any degree of religious observance. For some reason I think that if you do want to attend a service at a synagogue while abroad, you’ll be fine with any synagogue even if it does not match up 100% to what you are accustomed to.
+ Klezmer Klezmer is a musical expression of Eastern European Jewry. To reduce Central European Jewish culture to klezmer and to laud mediocre-at-their-best klezmer musicians ad ultimum is, what I once read in an article on Hagalil if I’m not mistaken, positive anti-Semitism as it limits Jewish existence to certain stereotypes. German Jewish musicians prior to WW2 for instance included half of the Comedian Harmonists and many more cabaret musicians.
+ Orthodox Jews Hah, what’s Orthodox? To many it’s the epitome of some variety of Eastern European shtetl Jewry, and that’s exactly where one should be looking for Jewish Orthodoxy as forming the typical Jewish community of a certain provenance prior to WW2. There were communities of those due to Czarist / Communist persecution towards the end of the Second Reich and the Weimar Republic on the territory of today Germany, but they were not typical of what German Jewry overwhelmingly used to be like. Typical of German Jewry were well-integrated, highly skilled professionals, academics and business people that also happened to be Jewish. And that, as paradox as the historical events may seem, has made the Holocaust even less understandable, if such horrors could ever be understood, and way more painful.
+ Jewy Events / Parties / Be-Fruitful-and-Multiply Events Those events do exist, but not as many as some might like (hmmmm, Daniel? 😉 ), but they’re not necessarily as openly advertized out of security concerns. The dilemma with any such event is that you’ve got to have a few people to take the majority of work and responsibility upon themselves, and seeing how small the actual peer groups in the respective communities are, there’s a considerable risk that the efforts won’t pay if you don’t get enough people to attend, which will ultimately translate into a loss of sponsors. Financially and organisationally, it is way simpler to simply throw e.g. a student party open to the public. Also, as somebody who certainly is not delicate but who has spent a good deal of her life in Germany, events more than less openly designed to get young people of reproductive age (note: Germans tend to get married considerably later than US Americans in general; the higher the degree of education, the later, but also the lower the divorce rate) together to remind them of their reproduction responsibilities feel nothing but intrusive to me and to others I know. My ovaries are not the Oktoberfest, and I’m not inclined to report on my ovulation. I understand the motivations behind such events, but frankly said – from my point of view, mind you: yuck.
– CIS-Jews They are here, and many of them are here to stay, so kindly put, learn how to deal with new cultural influences. In contrast to what Brauna stated in her article, congregations here have been extremely welcoming of Jewish immigrants from the CIS, also immigrants of patrilineal Jewish descendance. BUT, and here’s my 16 pt BUT again, it should be understood that a community of 16,000 people in total around 1990 has indeed been facing financial, infrastructural and cultural difficulties with immigrants that have turned to them in the tens of thousands (however one could assume or even suggest natural demographic growth as a source of the rapid increase in numbers of Jews in Germany is beyond me as the growth rate is 1,350%). In addition, assumptions by Jewish organizations of the late 1990s / early 2000s stated that about two-thirds of those immigrants had no ties to Judaism whatsoever, neither religiously, nor culturally, nor geneaologically. As students of mine from the former CIS told me, it was a piece of cake over there to get a passport stating your nationality was “Jewish” if only the bribe to the person issuing the passports was right (typical bribes include large pieces of ham, two bottles of vodka, a nice flower bouquet). So basically, to many it was an easy way out of their country to enjoy the social benefits of another country (rent, food money, clothing money, spending money, health insurance etc.) without having to take the language classes that were made obligatory for immigrants from the CIS of German descendance. I can most definitely understand the frustration of German community leaders and the government that had figured out a generous subsidies-package just to find themselves being taken advantage of at large scale, and that in return Jewish communities have come to expect at least some degree of affliation with the communities to ensure at the very least cultural ties with Judaism. CIS-immigrants like Wladimir Kaminer and Yuriy Ghurzy have indeed enriched cultural life here, but they have chosen not to limit themselves to their Jewish backgrounds and thus have reached out to a much wider audience.
– American Jewish Hipsters Well, they’ve got to be somewhere. And afterall, rent is cheaper in Berlin, which saves their parents a lot of money. And there are still enough people that might be impressed by somebody who has “lived in New York, at the pulse of things”, even if “living” meant a mattress in an old factory building separated off by old bed linens serving as curtains / walls, euphemistically called “share in a generous loft”.
– Israeli Freelancers I know of only a few, including chefs, artists and scientists, and all I have to say on this is, “Welcome! Glad to see you here!” I’m all for diversity. And good falafel.
– “Assimilation” Tendencies To get this straight, there has never been an assimilation of Jews into German society as assimilation would denote pressure and mind control (StarTrek / Big Brother anyone?); even the forced conversions of Spain could not well be called assimilation as those Jews that felt it of importance to preserve their Jewish heritage managed to do so even though at great pains in many cases (e.g. through emigration). There, however, was a phase of Jewish Emancipation, in which Jews were eventually given the rights they so long had hoped for and which enabled them to integrate into their surrounding environment. Integration must happen from both ends though, and as the Holocaust has shown in all its horrors, German Jews were not as fully integrated into German society as they’d believed themselves to be. Then again, the cultural, moral, social and academic integration was probably the most distinctive feature of German Jewry prior to WW2. It is historically absolutely incorrect though to blame the Holocaust on integrative attempts by Jews in Germany just as it would be absolutely incorrect to conclude that since the frum Eastern European shtetl populations had suffered higher losses percentagewise, their being frum had led to the Holocaust. I’ll refrain from commenting on the use of such scarecrow techniques here as there are bloggers out there that are more focused on such matters.
At the end of the day, the realization that there only is one actual cause of the dilemma of Jewish identity in Germany, analogues to similar causes being supposedly the ultimate reason of any Jewish dilemma in Western society, hits me hard: my empty uterus. My as in a generic my, that is. If (critical) education, social networking and events, the fastest-growing, yet (IMHO) most welcoming Jewish community at this date, even monetary incentives fail at preserving the type of German Judaism some people overseas would like to see preserved (BTW, that castle in Disneyland Paris is not the real Neuschwanstein Castle), then the answer can only be the universal one: let’s pop out as many “German” Jewish babies as possible.
So, who wants to get me pregnant?