Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Latkes and vodkas with Germany's Jews

Speaking of Germany, the Economist has a story about the reborn Jewish community there. and how its resulting from an influx of Soviet immigrants is causing a totally different crisis.
German Jews who survived in Germany, or in exile, had a deeply ambivalent relationship with their homeland. Apart from guilt—that they had survived, and even stayed in the killers' country—many felt an almost physical revulsion when they came into close contact with Germans. So they retreated to live in yet another form of ghetto.

By the time the Berlin Wall fell, Germany's Jewish community had only 30,000 ageing members and was dwindling rapidly. Today it is the third-largest, and the fastest-growing, Jewish population in western Europe, after France and Britain. Between 1991, when the country was unified and immigration rules relaxed, and 2005, more than 200,000 Jews from the former Soviet Union emigrated to Germany. (At the same time, more than a million emigrated from the former Soviet Union to Israel and about 350,000 to America, leaving only about 800,000 behind.) In some parts of Germany, immigrants—usually referred to as “the Russians”—make up 90% of the local Jewish population.

A few of the so-called established Jews—those who lived in Germany before the fall of the Berlin Wall—are enthusiastic about the new arrivals. Hermann Simon, director of the Centrum Judaicum, a museum and research centre in Berlin, was born in 1949 of German parents, and grew up in East Berlin. He says that without the immigration of Russian Jews, the future for Germany's Jews would be dark.

Yet most established Jews disagree. The dapper Mr Schoeps, now director of the Moses-Mendelssohn Centre for European-Jewish Studies in Potsdam, near Berlin, argues that Germany's old Jewish heritage is gone. Its so-called “memory landscape”—memorial sites, commemorative plaques, cultural centres and museums—is now being guarded by gentiles who are merely interested in things Jewish; the sort of people who crowd to the Chanukkah market at Berlin's Jewish Museum to sample latkes and sufganiot (doughnuts) and to sip kosher mulled wine.

As for the immigrants from the former Soviet Union, most neither know nor care about Jewish rituals and traditions. Few of the newcomers keep a kosher home. Many men are not circumcised. When they arrive in Germany, they focus on the practicalities of life—jobs, flats, social security and health insurance. They play chess rather than Skat, a popular card game in Germany. Their cultural icons are Dostoyevsky and Tchaikovsky, not Goethe and Beethoven, let alone Mendelssohn or Heine, who were German Jews.

Established Jews find the newcomers anders (different from us), suspect that they are not “real” Jews and think they are mainly coming in search of prosperity and material help from the state and the community. “They take whatever they can get,” sniffs one.
It's not so much eerie as it is reinforcing how familiar this story is. Immigrant Jews have often been at odds with their more refined second- and third-generation co-religionists. In fact, Stanley Gold, the new chair of the Jewish Federation of Greater LA, told me his father was born in El Paso because his grandfather had been forced to immigrate through a port in Texas by New York's German Jews, those elite publishers and bankers with names like Schiff and Sulzberger (though not necessarily those men), who had succeeded in redirecting Yiddish-speaking Hebrews from Central and Eastern Europe.

Here in Los Angeles, there has certainly been a delay, if unintentional, in breaking down the barriers between the former Soviet Jews and the more-established Jewish community. Not to mention the overdue acceptance of tens of thousands of Persian Jews.

(Hat tip: Bintel Blog)

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