Mixed Messages

Just a few months ago the media was filled with headlines about the rise of anti-Semitism in Germany and the rest of Europe. Then in the past month the headlines switched to a quite different set of messages. A recent survey of 20,000 people in 20 countries found that Germany tops the USA as the world’s favorite country and just last week I learned that among 1800 cities, Berlin was named the most fun city in the world. The revelry over the 25 year anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, trumpeting modern Germany’s free and democratic character, was an added flourish to the favorable image the media disseminated to global observers.

Fall of the Wall Celebration

Fall of the Wall Celebration

How can we make sense from this hodgepodge stew of news bytes that yank our thoughts and feelings in such opposing directions? If we are living in a new dark era of danger, then why are global fun-seekers flocking to German bars, clubs, museums, and shops? Why do I continue to hear from readers who are eager to have their German citizenship restored?

There have always been ebbs and flows of anti-Semitism and other forms of extremism in Germany and they naturally correlate with major events such as last summer’s Gaza conflict. But that does not mean that Jews in Germany face the same threats of persecution as in earlier eras or that, as Maxim Biller recently claimed in Tablet Magazine and Die Zeit, “all anti-Semitism is the same.” There is ample documentation that Germany has become a more tolerant society, such as one recent study which found that “acceptance of anti-Semitic statements….dropped significantly, from 8.6 to 3.2 percent.” Yes, it is a fragile tolerance that may become strained as a result of various social and economic pressures, but this is nothing unusual for an advanced democratic society.

Sorting through the mixed messages from the media can be a challenge, which is why I tell people to come to Germany and see what it is like for themselves. Whether or not you decide Germany is your favorite country or Berlin is the most fun city in the world, you will probably have a lot of fun and find many reasons to celebrate.

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L.A. Dispatch

I’ve been in Los Angeles for over a week now and can’t seem to stop talking to strangers. I guess my extroverted nature has been bursting for air, leading me to shed the artificial reserve that serves me well for daily life in Germany. I also find myself wanting to board the occasional bus that I see pulling up to empty street corners with nary a smoker waiting to get on board. I’ve had my fill of crime stories, entertainment news, and sales tax, but can’t get enough of pumpkin scones, iced drinks, and free toilets.

Sami has to move too.

Sami has to move too.

I’m here because of an urgent need to move my mother to a new residence. It seems that Vintage Burbank, the upscale facility that we chose for her just over a year ago, cannot currently provide the level of care that we were assured she would be able to receive when we signed a contract and paid their hefty entrance fee. Her monthly expenses have now tripled due to a decline in her health and the outside care we have been required to obtain. The emotional strain of wrenching her out of her new home combined with the financial stress of our situation have made this trip to sunny California something less than a vacation.

I am convinced that the corporate “bottom line” is behind the facility’s lack of effort to help find a workable solution for our family. Would this have happened in Germany? Something to look into after my return to Berlin next week.

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After the Rally

Is there a leadership vacuum in Jewish Berlin? Do community members have ample opportunities to help build a more tolerant society? I’ve outlined my current perspective on these questions in an article for Tikkun, I Rallied Against Anti-Semitism: Now What?. I’m hoping to stimulate dialogue about where we go from here. Feel free to join the discussion on this blog or on the Tikkun site, a space for sharing ideas “to mend, repair, and transform the world.”

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Stand Up – A Germany for Everyone

rally1What slogan would you have chosen for a massive rally against anti-Semitism? Does the phrase “Nie wieder Judenhass” (Never again hatred of Jews) effectively guide us toward a stronger German society that celebrates and protects Jews and other minority groups? I would have preferred a more positive slogan, but I was still moved, along with thousands of others, to “steh auf” (stand up) for yesterday’s rally at the Brandenburger Tor in Berlin. I stood with the crowd to protest anti-Semitism and to affirm that Jews belong here.

rally2The rain held off, the mood was calm and peaceful, and the minor disturbances at the fringes were easily halted by the police. It was my first chance to hear Berlin’s Mayor Klaus Wowereit and Chancellor Angela Merkel speak in person. Their words were firm and came across as sincere as they spoke of the shame that anti-Semitic acts have brought upon Germany and the injury that such hatred causes to all Germans. It was Merkel who said that Jewish life belongs here and is a part of German identity. Most of the speakers also affirmed that not just anti-Semitism, but other forms of prejudice such as racism and homophobia have no place in Germany. In just a little over an hour, Germany’s top political and religious leaders said what the people came to hear.

But the perennial question after such unifying moments is “Where do we go from here?” If it is true that “around 20 percent of people in Germany have anti-Semitic views,” what is being done and what further things must be done to change attitudes and behavior? I’ve been looking for the best way to make my own contribution to this cause, hoping my background as an educator and a repatriated German citizen can be of value. Stay tuned for future updates.

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Do Not Disturb

At my first parent evening of the new school year, my son’s 5th grade teacher stated her desire to post photos of the kids on her password-protected website. She was met with emphatic opposition from a number of parents and I’m pretty sure none of the parental opponents were American. The opposition was so strident that the teacher chose to move on…”next topic!”….rather than discuss moving forward with some sort of informed consent policy.


Google Street View of our building

our building

Whether they are still haunted by a past when citizens rabidly spied on each other, or are reacting to all of the recent hacking and spying scandals, Germans have good reason to be suspicious of any invasion of their privacy. But how effective are their efforts to protect themselves? Although you can’t see my apartment building on Google Street View, I can still post a picture of it online (I decided to omit the address though).

As a result of an EU court ruling, Google is now legally required to remove links to outdated personal information about users upon request. German requests are coming in by the thousands, but will Google’s removal of these links (on European search engines) guarantee erasure from cyberspace? Can we put up a Do Not Disturb sign and expect to keep the world at bay? We do need policies to protect our privacy, but Europe’s battle to tame Google must contend with the public’s insatiable thirst for information. Our fear of Google shouldn’t lead us to make too many compromises of our “right to know” and our freedom of expression.

Although I will be online every day of the school year, I probably won’t have the chance to look at pictures of my son with his class. I’ll miss having that window into his time at school, but in this case I’ve decided not to resist the German preference for privacy.

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All Cracked Up

get-attachment-9.aspxSome people are not disturbed by the cracks in the concrete blocks of Berlin’s Holocaust Memorial. They see the decay as part of a natural process that does not detract from the memorial’s powerful impact on millions of visitors. But how does the structural damage affect the visitor’s effort to find meaning in the 2,710 concrete slabs designed and built to memorialize the murdered Jews of Europe?

An argument could be made that the cracks blend in with the otherwise plain concrete columns, but the steel braces around the most damaged slabs are another story. My impression is that they make the blocks look more like coffins and divert the mind from its real and imaginary journey through this cold and sterile expanse. As the decay continues and more steel collars are secured to hundreds of slabs, the memorial and its hefty maintenance costs are becoming an increasing embarrassment for the City of Berlin.

get-attachment-8.aspxThe memorial won’t crumble any time soon and experts insist there is no threat to visitor safety. Whether the construction company or natural forces are to blame for the decay is an open question that is being investigated by a Berlin court. Its findings will comprise yet another chapter in the history of a landmark with an already troubled past. If you have not yet been to the memorial, it’s still well worth a visit. But you might want to come sooner rather than later.

Check out this article for a little more background information on Berlin’s cracked up Holocaust Memorial: Berlin’s Holocaust memorial is falling apart

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Catching the Third Wave

It’s been a relaxed and sultry summer in Berlin despite the demonstrations that have taken place over the conflict in Gaza. The usual crowds are filling the Biergartens, Eiscafes, and coffee houses in search of their refreshment of choice. Absent an invitation to demonstrate for a lasting peace and a two-state solution, I’ve opted for coffee research over political activism for the time being. Little did I know that following the java trail in Berlin would be the latest of many recent “I must be over the hill” experiences.

As if I hadn’t already been left in the dust by all the newest technological and cultural trends, I’ve now discovered that I’m on the sidelines of Berlin’s “third wave coffee” culture. While I prowl the streets of Berlin in search of old world cafes that remind me of the places my nana and papa brought me as a child, the rest of Berlin’s coffee addicts are sipping flat whites in bare bones coffee shrines tucked into hip little pockets of the urban landscape. Even the rich and blood-pumping brew that I used to drink on a daily basis at Peet’s Coffee in Berkeley no longer makes the cut among those who’ve relegated that cuppa joe to the Second Wave.

endederwelt.aspxTo initiate ourselves, Brian and I are making our way through Slow Travel Berlin’s Guide to Berlin’s 3rd Wave Coffee Shops. Aside from a few lukewarm espresso drinks at places I won’t mention, our third wave coffee tour has pumped some energy into our limbs during hot summer afternoons in the city. Am Ende der Welt has come closest to serving up the perfect cup, and it’s not as hard to find as the name suggests. But I’m not yet ready to give up my quest for old world cafe culture. Fortunately we’ll be in Leipzig next week where we’ll have a chance to stop in at one of the oldest coffee houses in Europe.

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