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!
Even on a gray and rainy morning there is always something to entertain the eye outside my bedroom window. I love looking out over the rooftops of Steglitz in the mornings, wondering what awaits me in the city below. I’m slow to gallop down the five flights of stairs and emerge from our apartment building most days, but I really haven’t been idle.
This week I’m starting work as a communications consultant with the Freie Universität Berlin and I expect to receive another freelance contract in the next few days. While my income will be modest, our bank account recorded a big up-tick last week when we received our first installment of Kindergeld. Kindergeld is an allowance given to families by the German government to help with the cost of raising children. This is not a tax credit, but a direct monthly payment into our bank account. Our three children entitle us to receive 558 euros ($770) a month. That will pay for a lot of groceries, even for the two teenagers in the family. Maybe when the battle over Obamacare ends, the U.S. Congress can take up a bill to put more money in the pockets of parents.
Fall has brought a bit more routine and a few more pieces of furniture into our lives. As the days become shorter and the colors of fall fade away, we have a lot to look forward to. This month we will celebrate Brian’s 50th birthday, a very early Chanukah, and my favorite American holiday, Thanksgiving.
Sometimes I feel guilty about leaving the U.S. While some of my friends back home participated in demonstrations against the government shutdown, I felt relieved to be as far away from the Tea Party as possible. It’s painful to watch the breakdown of democratic government in the U.S., but I can’t help feeling that our family is in a better place. Germany has its problems and challenges, but it keeps the government functioning for the people.
I sat down this week and tried to put into words some of the reasons why our family might be better off living in Germany. Here is the result of that effort: United States to Germany: Why My Family Moved. Though we had good timing for our move, I won’t ever give up my American citizenship and I may eventually return to the States. If and when I do return, I hope it will be to a more civil and democratic society.
I wish I had gotten a picture. We were on a crowded U-bahn train on our way to a Simchat Torah service, and Avery was studying torah, preparing to read the same lines from the first day of Creation that he had read for his bar mitzvah two years ago. We were standing in a small crowd, the man next to me was giving a German lesson to an Italian teenager, while most of the other passengers were absorbed with their electronic devices or newspapers. I couldn’t take a picture because Avery was studying torah on my phone, having snapped a shot of his parshah just as we were leaving our apartment. But the moment of watching my son read torah on a smart phone on the U-9 will remain etched in my memory for a long time.
I felt at home at that moment on the train. And I marveled that I had a son who gave up his usual teenage pursuits to celebrate a minor Jewish holiday on a week night. Avery handed me back my phone just as we arrived at the church on Detmolder Straße where the service would take place. I quickly snapped a few shots before we rushed in and took our seats. It turned out that Avery was well prepared for his reading and stepped into his role as a Jewish adult in Berlin with ease.
And that is how the transition has been for all of us, an easy adjustment to a city where migrants make up around twenty-five percent of the population. The school year routines already feel as predictable as the Berlin rain showers and are allowing me time to pursue career opportunities. I’ve got some pretty good job prospects, but wait….next week begins our Herbstferien (10 days of fall vacation). I guess I’m still getting used to a very different schedule for the school year.
Our personal journeys sometimes intersect with those of others. We stop along the way and see someone who is searching for some of the same answers as we are. We take a few steps together. And then we part to continue alone on our journeys.
Mike was on his way back from Auschwitz in his 1984 VW van and wanted to visit me in Berlin. We had connected through this blog and shared fragments of our latest preoccupations with each other. As he sat down across from me in a cafe, I wondered if a connection forged in cyberspace would now be enhanced or have little basis to move beyond the virtual realm. But I felt right away that we had taken some of the same steps in our lives, both into the past and into ourselves, a shared movement into shadows that others avoid.
I haven’t been on a very deep personal journey since returning to Berlin. My latest preoccupations have been job hunting, endless shopping for our still very bare apartment, back to school duties, keeping up with the Jewish holidays, and keeping the refrigerator stocked. But the short time I spent with Mike reminded me that I am also here to find my place in this historical moment, to reconnect my family with its broken past. Mike’s quest isn’t quite the same as mine (he’s not German or Jewish), but I somehow felt that we were fellow travelers, trying to absorb history and find points of light in the present. I only wish I had such a nifty vehicle for my own travels.
Glass stars: Judische Gemeinde in Hamburg
34 of us came together in Hamburg last week from Israel, the U.S., England, Brazil, and Germany. Ranging in age from 9 (my son Sam) to 86, our shared connection was that we belonged to Jewish families who fled or were deported from Hamburg during the Nazi years. As guests of the Senate of Hamburg, we were treated to a week of cultural and historical excursions and events. And we had time to explore what little traces were left of our families’ residency in this beautiful city that was home to more than 20,000 Jews in the 1920s. The oldest member of our group, who had been deported to Riga, is once again a resident of Hamburg, where he now spends his summers.
The visitor programs in cities across Germany have been part of the nation’s continuing efforts towards reconciliation. Hamburg’s program dates back to the 1970s and helped my mother come to terms with her disrupted childhood when she participated quite some years ago. But most of the programs have come to an end as the first generation of survivors has passed away. Hamburg and Frankfurt continue to invite the descendants of former residents to visit the places that so many of us learned so little about as we were growing up.
going to lunch in Rathaus Hamburg
As my sister, Sam and I rode around in a Mercedes bus from one historical point of interest to another, I tried to connect this visit with my family’s decision to live in Germany today. I feel safe and welcome in Berlin and I respect Germany’s extensive efforts to confront its atrocious past. But I know that not all immigrants to Germany feel as comfortable here as I do. I worry less about the future of Jews in Germany than I do about the future of ethnic groups that have been the target of the latest Neo-Nazi activities. I worry that Holocaust remembrance and reconciliation efforts are too far removed from Germany’s current integration challenges.
As the descendants of Holocaust survivors make the choice to visit Germany, I hope they will have the opportunity to learn about the concerns of this era while delving into their family histories. The younger generations are uniquely situated to grasp the connections between past and present.
We’ve landed: at Tegel airport in Berlin, in a spectacular penthouse apartment in Steglitz, in the midst of an intense heat wave, in the place that has become our second home. The stress of the move is now fading into the past along with my sleep deficit of the past two months. Our spectacular apartment is empty except for four beds, our internet hook-up appointment for today was abruptly cancelled, and I can’t seem to find a wine shop in our neighborhood. But we are slowly getting settled in, just as we did at this time three years ago when we made our first move to Berlin.
Cultural outings are taking a back seat to setting up house for the time being. Never one to rush into a purchase, I’ve managed to buy a set of silverware, two coffee mugs, and, after hours of contemplation, a kitchen table. We purchased the table at Möbelkraft, the biggest “big box” store I have ever been in. Between shopping trips to Ikea and Möbelkraft, life may not yet seem all that different from in the States, but at least you can get a good cup of milch kaffee or cappuccino to enjoy during your consumer experience.
We’ve launched our new beginning after a year of planning our return to Berlin. We’re back to daily trips on the U-Bahn and S-Bahn, eating Turkish döner kebaps, nibbling on brezels, lugging our groceries on foot (hurray, we have an elevator this time!), and long strolls through random arteries of the city. Brian has already begun teaching in his new position and we’ve reconnected with the small congregation that so warmly welcomed us here in 2010. After a few more household purchases and another week of waiting for our internet connection, I think we’ll be ready to immerse ourselves in this new phase of living as a German American Jewish family in Berlin.