Arts & Culture

Jews and Germany: Is Berlin The New Diaspora Hot Spot?

Berlin is often cited as a great place to be Jew in the modern world. Before my visit, I’d been told that it was the best place in Western Europe to ‘live a Jewish life’ (whatever that means) and was … Read More

By / November 15, 2008

Berlin is often cited as a great place to be Jew in the modern world. Before my visit, I’d been told that it was the best place in Western Europe to ‘live a Jewish life’ (whatever that means) and was told about its ‘burgeoning’ Jewish communities as though they were comparable to the land of Oz. Inherent in this conversation is the issue of the Holocaust, which a lot of modern Jewish publications dub the reason that Berlin is so welcoming of Jewish communities today. ‘Anti-Semitism simply isn’t tolerated’, they’ll say. ‘Did you know that it’s illegal to sell anything with a swastika?’ I was almost impressed. Is it possible that the guilt stemming from WWII atrocities has rendered Berlin a place for Jews in the diaspora to thrive in vibrant communities? Not exactly. While visiting Berlin, my tour group of Jews visited the Holocaust Memorial and most of us were moved in one way or another. The next day, it was vandalized by Neo-Nazis and the tall, disorientating blocks that communicated something important about the Holocaust now represented something else entirely. It was difficult to call a memorial, since the anti-Semitism that fueled its existence in the first place obviously still had a nearby home. We also visited several Jewish organizations and a few new, renovated synagogues. Can’t locate them on the map? No worries, just look for the only buildings in town being guarded 24/7 by German police officers. One person on our trip kept kosher strictly and had to have her food packed by a local, being that there are only three (maybe four) kosher restaurants in all of Berlin. That’s a common struggle for kashrut-minded Jews when they travel, but I thought that this was supposed to be an oasis of sorts. Burgeoning Jewish communities? Anti-Semitism exists in Germany as it does in the rest of Western Europe, no more and no less, and the city of Berlin is no exception. There are some refurbished synagogues of great beauty and a few kosher restaurants. There are both North American and German organizations working hard to create Jewish communities with a sense of identity, but the manifestations are underwhelming. So what exactly are people excited about? The Jewish communities of Berlin are anything but vibrant and their buildings need to be protected by police around the clock, unlike Christian or Muslim community centers or places of worship. Their memorials are still vandalized and their schools are few and far in between. If the intrigue with German Jewish communities is simply awe at the fact that a Jew can assimilate into German society and that she no longer has to fear being transported to a death camp, then yes, I’d say that the Germans have come a long way. Really, though, is that something to brag about?