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The Berlin Diaries: Judaism Thrives in Germany

[This post by Hinda Mandell is the first in a series of dispatches from Berlin, where she's making good on an international journalism fellowship.] Ah, to be a Jew in Germany during the High Holidays. It’s filled with so much … Read More

By / September 20, 2007

[This post by Hinda Mandell is the first in a series of dispatches from Berlin, where she's making good on an international journalism fellowship.]

Ah, to be a Jew in Germany during the High Holidays. It’s filled with so much guilt, symbolism and sausage. My poor mamele.

There is a transfixing quality to Berlin. What is destroyed emerges again – a generalization that can be applied to the living and lived in: people, buildings, and yes, even botany. As I learned on a walking tour today (God bless America and walking tours), the famous boulevard Unter den Linden suffered an aesthetic blow when Hitler ordered the removal of lime trees for which the street is named, to be replaced with a more Fascist look: flagpoles bearing Third Reich swastikas. While the lime trees were subsequently replanted after 12 years of National Socialism, right now they’re still pretty puny looking. And there’s more: The behemoth building that was built to house the Nazi air force known as the Luftwaffe was taken over by Soviets in East Berlin. They transformed it into a government agency espousing propaganda on the opposite end of the ideology spectrum. Today, the building is used by the German government’s Finance Ministry. Talk about recycling. This takes me back to the High Holidays. A religion that once thrived in Germany, then targeted for annihilation, is now vibrant once more. I geared up for erev Rosh Hashanah by – what else? – checking out the Ritz Carlton at Potsdamer Platz. The now tired chain can be proud of its Berlin manifestation. But exploring the swanky interior soon made me thirsty, and without any water fountains in sight (too low-brow? Too American?) I approached a Ritz Carlton staffer. I said I was parched and he disappeared and then returned with a glass of sparkling water – on a silver platter. They treat Jews well here, I thought. The Chabad-led service was the real highlight. I might as well have been at an Orthodox outfit back home for all of the crying babies and pre-pubescents who ran through the makeshift shul at the downtown Marriot. Those in attendance comprised a motley Jew-crew of Diaspora tribesmen. Upwards of 85% of the Jewish community in Germany are former Soviet Union Jews whose relation to Judaism was marked by the “J” on their passport and little else. They came to the land of the perpetrators following the collapse of the Soviet Union, because America didn’t want them and they didn’t want Israel. And now – thanks to that “J” and Germany’s interest to nurture a small Jewish community – the FSU Jews are living here as privileged refugees. This means that in addition to government handouts of about 400 euros each month, they also receive government-subsidized housing. This also means that these FSU Jews suffer in reputation. A German-born Jew who works for a government ministry here told me that Russian Jews come to the synagogue only for the free grub. That wasn’t the case at the Marriot – the only hotel in Berlin with a kosher kitchen, I was told – where I paid heftily. Forty euros (about $65) got me 25 minutes of prayer time, a lamb dinner and a severed fish head in front of my plate. My tablemate, a Brazilian Jew who is an advertising copywriter, was disturbed by something else. “It’s weird hearing a rabbi give a speech [in a language] that Hitler once spoke in,” he said. That rabbi is none other than Brooklynite Yehuda Teichtel, who recently made headlines when his $6.8 million Jewish community center opened to much fanfare last month. It was reported to be the first such center since the Holocaust. It even boasts a replica of the Wailing Wall made with imported Jerusalem stone. A bit much? For Rabbi Teichtel nothing is too much for reinvigorating Jewish life in Berlin. The rabbi tells our table of American expats, transients and new residents: “That 350 Jews are celebrating Rosh Hashanah just miles away from Hitler’s bunker is amazing.” The bunker, now a gravel-covered parking lot, is around the corner from both the Reichstag parliament and the Memorial for the Murdered Jews of Europe. Yeah, talk about symbolism.

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