Jewish Berlin dishes up great soap opera material. While financial scandals and power struggles dominate the official Jewish Community of Berlin, tensions abound at the social level as well. The Jewish Stammtisch, an informal social gathering that I attended when we first moved to Berlin in 2010, had a rift and split into two groups. One group meets at Terzo Mondo, a Greek restaurant in West Berlin’s “schicki-micki” Ku’damm neighborhood. The other group gathers at Seerose, a vegetarian restaurant in the more hip Kreuzberg district that borders on East Berlin.
I don’t detect much of a cultural difference between the two Stammtisch groups. Both are predominantly made up of middle-aged and older Jews from the diaspora who sit around sipping wine and shmoozing for a few hours once a month. Their evening get-togethers may not rock the city, but they do provide Berlin’s Jews with an opportunity to explore shared family and historical connections.
As I chatted with a woman from Argentina at Seerose last week, we discovered that we each had a parent who fled Hamburg in the late 1930s, another parent from Hessen, and we both have cousins who live right near each other in Israel. A sweet older gentleman who was sitting with us (also from Argentina, but born in Berlin in 1936 and once again a Berliner) kept exclaiming “die ganze mishpocha!” as we continued the conversation and learned of other similarities in our family backgrounds.
“Die ganze mishpocha” is a Yiddish phrase that refers to an entire family network of relatives and even friends. Lots of Jewish Berliners bemoan the cultural and political divide between the City’s East European Jews and the much smaller group of us with German Jewish roots. But Berlin is still a place where anyone with a German Jewish background may find others who are a part of their mishpocha. Even if you don’t meet anyone from your mishpocha, those who you do meet will have their own fascinating stories to tell over a glass of wine, whether in the posh west or trendy east part of the City.
It’s no wonder that so many people ask me about how our kids are adjusting to life in Berlin. We moved from Montana to Berlin in 2010, back to Montana in 2012, and then back to Berlin again in 2013. The kids are like three Raggedy Ann and Andy dolls, flopping about from one continent to another with a perpetual dazed smile on their faces. They do seem happy, but how can a parent measure the welfare of their children or know whether they can trust their own judgment about where it is best to raise them?
I go right to the source and check in on a regular basis with the kids. I learn the most from Olivia, who is introverted, well outside the mainstream, and good at talking about her feelings. She recently told me that there is less of a “structured social hierarchy” in her current school environment than there was back home. Berlin’s youth reflect a broad range of dress, activities, and socially acceptable behavior. Our kids benefit from an internationally diverse atmosphere that helps to reduce peer pressure. In the treacherous teen years, it’s good to know that Olivia feels comfortable sporting a bow tie or publishing her poetry in Haywire, the John F. Kennedy School magazine.
Olivia is thinking about becoming a writer, or an astronomer, or a biologist, or a diplomat. Here’s her poem that was published in Haywire.
the treetops burning red as sin
the days bleed out, now carve a grin
and dream away the sparrow’s flight
hail those who walk the night
burn up in a storm of gold
fall asleep as days grow cold
ashes fall and fires rise
walk among a thousand eyes
cast aside your leafy crown
in the rain you’ll strike me down
shroud the world in sheets of gray
stop the clock and mark the days
on the wind a cloud of flame
lose your voice and forget your name
sing a hymn to the dying sun
kingdoms fall and demons run
I’m still getting used to the idea that my son went out for a few beers to celebrate his 16th birthday last weekend. Yes, it’s legal to consume beer and wine at age 16 in Germany. A quick check on Wikipedia let’s me know that “the German laws regulating alcohol use and sale are some of the least restrictive ones in the world.” The rationale behind Germany’s liberal approach is that earlier exposure will help young people learn appropriate drinking habits.
the day after…
Avery arrived home from his birthday festivities at a bar in Teltow with a huge grin on his face and the sweet smell of beer on his breath. He was not drunk and he made his journey home on Berlin’s highly safe and reliable public transit system. Whether he will now adopt “appropriate drinking habits” remains to be seen. As a parent, I prefer that he learn his limits in a safe and legal environment rather than get caught with alcohol as a minor while waiting to turn 21 in the U.S.
The good news is that Avery will not be eligible to get his driver’s license in Germany until he is 18. Drinking at 16 and driving at 18 makes more sense to me than driving at 15, voting at 18, and drinking at 21. I’d prefer a legal drinking age of 18, but time will tell how the German tolerance of undistilled spirits for 16 year olds impacts our family.
Being a consumer in Germany is a lot different from being a consumer in the U.S. Instead of living in a country with a $34 billion trade deficit, we now live in a country with a $24 billion trade surplus. The numbers may not say a lot, but try going shopping for household items in Germany and you will be amazed at how many goods are produced here. My new bed was made in Germany, along with my new toaster and coffee pot. My daughter’s flat-iron is a German product and so are the book bags my husband and I have purchased.
The Wall Street Journal recently ran an article about the U.S. Treasury’s renewed “criticism of the German economy’s dependence on foreign exports.” I’m sure there are downsides to a large trade surplus, but I bet all those foreign consumers are as happy as I am with the high quality of their German-made products. I especially like my new Melitta coffee pot. I thought Melitta was an American company until I recently discovered that the company was founded by a housewife from Dresden who invented the first paper coffee filter in 1908.
Living in Germany has meant fewer dilemmas about spending a great deal more money to avoid products that are made in China. Most German products are not only high quality, they are also affordable. For someone who left almost all of their household goods back in Montana, it’s now a pleasure to “buy local.”
Germans don’t just wish each other Happy New Year, they express their hope that you have “a good slide into the new year.” After I learned how to make this new year’s wish in grammatically correct German — “Guten Rutsch ins neue Jahr” — I was curious about the origin of this fitting phrase. Many sources claim that the phrase comes from the Yiddish term Rosh Hashanah which designates the Jewish New Year. While there are other theories about the origin of “Guten Rutsch,” the German Consulate in the U.S. has stated that “it is actually the ‘corruption’ of a phrase adopted from Jews wishing each other a “Guten Rosh”, a good beginning.”
Regardless of the origin, it feels right to slide away from the old year and into the new one. So in the final days of this year, I wish my readers a good slide into 2014.
One of the nice things about living in Berlin is that ordinary events tend to be held in extraordinary places. When I was asked by AVIVA-Berlin to give a brief presentation about my great-aunt Meta Adler who was a Holocaust victim, I had no idea I would be delivering my remarks in Rathaus Charlottenburg. Like many parts of Berlin, Charlottenburg was formerly an independent city in the Prussian province of Brandenburg. Construction of this ornate town hall took place while Meta was a young girl, but the building suffered severe damage during World War II. Rebuilt after the war, the Rathaus seemed a fitting place to share Meta’s story with a small audience that came to learn about AVIVA’s “Writing Girls” project.
This year I didn’t uncover any family secrets on a par with my 2011 discovery of my aunt who was left behind when my father’s family fled Germany. Things seem to be in a state of harmony in my family for the time being. Of course that could change at the end of the month when I make a quick trip to visit my mother in her new assisted living home in California. But for now I feel a sense of peace as the year draws to a close and we are firmly settled back in Berlin. That sense of peace is reflected in this photo taken in the Black Forest by my friend and Fellow Traveler Michael Staubes.
Holiday mania has hit Berlin. Massive displays of chocolate and marzipan have taken over the grocery stores, and Christmas markets and stalls are going up everywhere. The crowds are as thick as ever, but that doesn’t mean the Germans are filled with holiday cheer. During a long wait in line at a store last week, the man in front of me was arguing with the checker while two women behind me were hurling invectives at each other over who was first in line.
A good way to escape holiday stress is to head outside the central city into one of Berlin’s many pastoral enclaves that line its lakes and rivers. We spent part of the last two weekends at Gutshof Gatow, an organic farming estate where visitors can purchase products made on site or sit and enjoy house-made kuchen and coffee. On Sunday we made beeswax candles for Hanukkah with Ohel Hachidusch. For those of us new to this craft, we received instruction from Anna Adam, Ohel’s artist extraordinaire, who delivered our materials in the Happy Hippie Jew Bus. Anna and Cantor Jalda Rebling travel the land in this decked-out, pseudo-60′s VW bus to bring Jewish life and creativity beyond the Jewish cultural hub of Berlin.
Though I’m not quite ready for this year’s early Hanukkah, we do have enough tapered beeswax candles for the first few nights. And then there’s Thanksgiving, my favorite American holiday which I will never give up as an expat. I’m not much of a hippie, but it’s great to stay laid back during the holidays. So bring on the Hanukkah Geld and roast turkey!