Israelis and Berlin – A somewhat surprising love story

Guest Submission by Eyal Roth

In recent years, Berlin has witnessed a rise in immigration from Israel. The numbers are not clear, but it’s estimated that about 15,000 Israelis are living in Berlin at this time. I am one of them.

In the last 15 years many Israelis began to visit Berlin as a travel destination. This emerging city, waking up from years of division, was an ideal place for young artists to work and play. Housing was cheap (sometimes free) and the general atmosphere was very liberal and accepting. It’s that atmosphere that also convinced many young Israelis to move to Berlin and start a life for themselves outside of Israel.

It’s important to say that living in Germany or even visiting it was considered a taboo in Israel for many years, what with its somewhat dark past. When I decided to move to Germany about four and a half years ago, I too was confronted with negative reactions from family and acquaintances. The most common question was “Why Germany?”

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Eyal on Kopfsteinstraße in Berlin

The first wave of Israelis moving to Berlin was mainly young, artistic and liberal. As time progressed, Germany as a whole and Berlin specifically gained more and more acceptance in the eyes of many Israelis. Berlin became a well visited tourist magnet and the taboo status greatly diminished.

After the first wave of artists, “other kinds” of Israelis with different professions and life style preferences also started moving to the city, composing what is now the Israeli community of Berlin. This trend has been amplified by the rising housing prices in Israel; many young Israelis deal with a constant battle with their rent and overdrafts. Some of them decide to leave Israel and find a more comfortable existence elsewhere. I too was faced with a similar situation after ending my bachelor’s degree at the University of Tel-Aviv: high rents, low prospects and what felt to me an unpleasant political atmosphere. Berlin seemed like the place to go, and so far with no regrets.

The new Israeli community has already begun to flourish in many ways: a new Hebrew library has been established, monthly “round table” meetings take place, and even a new Hebrew magazine by the name of “Spitz” is printed on a bimonthly basis. These are all facets of a growing Israeli existence in the city. Israeli names have also popped up all over the cultural scene, from musicians, to contemporary dancers and what not. Israelis are everywhere.

Taboo or not, the dark past of Berlin is not a distant shadow and it’s indeed something that the new Israeli immigrants have to deal with. They do it in many different ways: some with humor, some with art, and some with different commemoration projects. A few Israelis (such as myself) take part in historical research and offer educational tours of the city, allowing tourists from Israel and the rest of the world to learn about the city through Jewish (or rather – Israeli) eyes.

Only time will tell if the love story between Israelis and Berlin is a fading trend, but for now it’s quite an exciting one.

Eyal Roth (32) was born in Haifa, Israel. He currently lives in Berlin, Germany.
He offers educational tours through Jewish Tours of Berlin.

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Building Bridges through the Obermayer Awards

The quest to learn your family history in the aftermath of a genocidal era such as the Holocaust requires help from others. Survivors and their descendants seek answers from many sources, ranging from government officials to village historians. My own family research brought me into contact with many dedicated people in Hesse to whom I will always be grateful. Before moving to Germany, I was not aware that there is a formal way to honor “Germans who have made outstanding voluntary contributions to preserving the memory of their local Jewish communities.” It’s been done almost every year since 2000 through the Obermayer German Jewish History Awards.

obermayer2Long-term correspondence with one of my blog readers brought about the opportunity to attend the 2015 Obermayer Awards. He had written to me on numerous occasions about Jörg Kap’s dedicated efforts to commemorate the Jewish community that once lived in Arnstadt, Thuringia. He first nominated Jörg for the Obermayer Award in 2007, but it wasn’t until he was joined by fifteen other nominators from around the world this year, that the jury selected Jörg for this distinguished honor. As Jörg Kaps presented his extensive efforts to preserve the memory of Arnstadt’s Jewish families, I had a sense of what his volunteer work meant to the descendant of one such family.

Jörg Kaps and this year’s four other Obermayer Award winners are just some of the non-Jewish Germans who have helped to reclaim and rebuild a part of Germany’s history and culture that was all but obliterated. Their publications, restorations, art works, exhibits, tours, lectures, and more are a significant part of Germany’s ongoing reconciliation efforts.

Lately, we hear a lot more from the media about threats to the future of Jewish life in Germany and the rest of Europe than we do about positive signs for the future. I’ve offered my own perspective on trends affecting Jewish life in Europe in a new article for Tikkun Daily: Jewish in Europe: Another Perspective.

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18,000 Quiet Voices

It’s not often that our teenagers accompany us on a Sunday afternoon outing in Berlin. But today was different. Today we joined thousands of Berliners at Pariser Platz to remember the victims of last week’s terror attacks in France. As we were absorbed into the quiet calm that enveloped the massive crowd, my angst about bringing our children to the gathering quickly evaporated. There were no speeches, no clashes, no countervailing forces to thwart the simple expressions of sympathy and unity. The signs, pens, flowers and candles that were held high spoke louder than any voice that might have come from a podium.

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Olivia, who is 15, had these thoughts: The winter air was frigid as a group of Berliners came together before the French embassy, their numbers swelling to 18 000 despite the cold. They assembled out of a sense of fraternity and empathy for the lives lost in the recent attack and to make their message clear: that freedom of the press, a basic right in all democratic countries, will not be infringed upon. Although the gathering was calm, quiet even, the air of solemnity only served to underscore the importance of the support for Charlie Hebdo, and of recognizing that acts of terror like that against the French newspaper are dangerous to everyone everywhere, as the right to one’s own opinions and the expression of them is a fundamental human right.

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Photos courtesy of Avery Swarthout. Find more of his photos on Instagram @through_golden_eyes.

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Trading Rights for Privileges

Were there more tragedies around the world this year than in most years? It feels that way, as if the tempo of human cruelty grew at a steady pace throughout the year that wrung every last ounce of shock and sorrow from us. One tragedy that hit me especially hard as a Montanan living in Germany was the death of Diren Dede, a German exchange student who was shot and killed in April for trespassing in a Missoula man’s garage. The vigilante act of one Montana homeowner destroyed a family and gave the world one more display of the ugly face of America’s gun culture.

Markus Kaarma, the man who shot and killed Dede, was found guilty of deliberate homicide last week, a verdict that brought relief and a sense of justice to many. A jury agreed that there are limits to what are considered reasonable acts of self defense under the “stand-your-ground” and “Castle Doctrine” laws that have proliferated throughout the U.S. But the verdict in Kaarma’s trial will do little to change a culture that perpetuates gun rights as a sacred part of individual liberty. When the Montana State Legislature convenes next month, it will consider further expansions of gun rights, including “a bill that would prevent state-run universities from banning firearms on campus, [and] a bill that would allow people to carry concealed weapons in cities and towns without a permit.”

I gave up my right to own a gun when I moved from Montana to Germany, a country where gun ownership is a privilege rather than a right. The chance that one of my children will be shot to death is lower in Germany than in the States. NPR Berlin reported last year that while Germany has a relatively high rate of gun ownership, it also has a low rate of gun homicides compared to the U.S. One reason is that gun ownership in Germany must be justified as “necessary,” and personal protection or self-defense do not count for this purpose. Germany also requires owners to store guns in a locked safe and allows law enforcement to make random house checks for compliance.

Diren Dede’s parents said their son described Missoula as a paradise. That’s how my children describe the state that they are so proud to call home. We express our sorrow along with many others in Montana, Germany, and elsewhere. The tragedy that struck this German exchange student in paradise shows why I’m willing to give up one of my civil rights for the privilege of living in a more secure society.

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Images of Light

I’m grateful to many people for bringing light into my life during the past year. One of those people is a friend in France whose photography and soulful reflections always brighten my days. He has graciously agreed to share some seasonal images of light and related commentary on this site.

Chanukah is about light, rededication, candles, latkes, games and symbolism on one level and has a higher meaning at another level. At the higher level Chanukah is a time to reflect on the lives of others and those who helped prepare you for the path you have taken in your life: a teachable moment involving questions and discussion within your family. The photograph below depicts a sunset and yet there remains light to celebrate.
A light that will never leave you.

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During Chanukah I visit a special place in Gurs, France. Here I reflect on the past year and dedicate myself to practice forgiveness and truth. I believe that each person has his or her unique method for lighting the dark; a candle, a kind word, a prayer, a small gift, or the recognition of another person.

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Thanks to my friend in France for this contribution. As we approach the winter solstice, I hope each of you experience light in your homes and hearts to help guide you through the dark days ahead.

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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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