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Laurel Kratochvila, the owner of Berlin’s Fine BagelsShendl Copitman
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The Changing Face of Jewish Berlin

American expats are leaving their mark on the German capital—and vice versa

by
Joe Baur
January 20, 2021
Shendl Copitman
Laurel Kratochvila, the owner of Berlin’s Fine BagelsShendl Copitman

The Shtetl Berlin Yiddish Culture Festival kicked off on Dec. 6 with a Montreal-style bagel-making workshop led by Laurel Kratochvila, the American-born owner of Berlin’s Fine Bagels. Klezmer musicians and artists filled the static periods with Yiddish tunes and poetry while the bagel dough rose. American Jewish musicians such as Daniel Kahn and Craig Judelman—as well as performers from Montreal—followed up with workshops on Yiddish song and instrumental workshops. A few days later, on the first day of Hanukkah, Shtetl Berlin—formerly known as Shtetl Neukölln—launched its annual festival of Yiddish music and culture. Now in its fourth year, the two-day festival also streamed online in its entirety for the first time this year, due to the pandemic, attracting over 350 registered participants from five continents.

“I think Jewish life in a lot of places tends to be a bit compartmentalized,” said Judelman. “With Shtetl Berlin, we really try to bring in as many people as we can and leave some of the more controversial issues to the side and find the common ground that we have.”

Judelman noted Shtetl Berlin’s recent efforts to reach out to the local Jewish religious community, resulting in partnerships with Fraenkelufer Synagogue and Base Berlin/Hillel Deutschland––a pluralistic Jewish community led by American Rabbis Jeremy Borovitz and Rebecca Blady. But it’s not just Jews getting involved with the Shtetl.

“Part of what’s so great about Shtetl Berlin is that there’s a really big mix of Jews and Germans and other international folks and everyone comes together to appreciate the culture,” Judelman explained. “There’s just more and more energy here to try and really actively create a vibrant, younger, multigenerational Jewish and Yiddish-related scene.”

Burlesque performer Lolita Va Voom, a California native, has also strived to create a space in Berlin outside of compartmentalized Jewish life. Along with American performer Nana Schewitz, she runs a cabaret called Jews! Jews! Jews! “I think we’re able to change Jewish life in Berlin by adding a queer and underground element to it,” she said, “and a place where people whose opinions and identities are not always accepted in mainstream Jewish institutions are welcome.”

American influence on Jewish life can be seen across the German capital. You can light candles after some klezmer and bagels for Hanukkah, celebrate the High Holidays at a burlesque show, or you can observe Havdalah with Base Berlin. If you prefer something more Hasidic, the Brooklyn-born Lubavitcher Rabbi Yehuda Teichtal is happy to welcome all to the Chabad branch in Berlin he opened after his arrival in 1996.

“It’s quite clear that we have the merit of doing what we can to strengthen Jewish practice, awareness, and identity in Berlin,” said Teichtal, a rabbi of the Jewish Community of Berlin and chairman of the Jewish Educational Center Chabad Berlin.

Chabad Berlin currently runs four synagogues, three kindergartens, an elementary school, and a high school; employs seven full-time rabbis and 75 staffers; and reaches approximately 20,000 people annually. Right now, the group is constructing an approximately $30 million campus for Jewish education, culture, and sports, among other activities. “We are encouraged by the positive growth,” said Teichtal, “and we look forward to the future and continuing to strengthen Jewish identity and awareness in Berlin and in Germany.”

Rabbi Borovitz of Base Berlin shared that positivity: “By working with existing structures while adhering to our spirit of innovation,” he said, “we are able to give a jolt of energy and new ideas to the Jewish community in Berlin and beyond.”

American Jews in Berlin are nothing particularly new. They’ve been moving to Germany since the end of the war, thanks in part to Article 116 of the country’s postwar constitution enacted in 1949. The provision allows German citizens and their descendants to reclaim citizenship if it was lost due to persecution on political, racial, or religious grounds between Jan. 30, 1933, and May 8, 1945.

According to Christian Resing at the German Consulate General in New York City, statistical surveys on naturalizations have only taken place starting from 2000. Since then, more than 50,000 Jews around the world have reclaimed citizenship. Approximately 10,000 of them came from the United States.

Most American Jews are moving to Berlin for the same reasons anyone else would: affordable cosmopolitan living, or the country’s high-quality and free higher-education system. But whatever their reason for coming, once they arrive, they’re leaving their mark both inside and outside of the Jewish world.

And, in turn, Berlin is leaving its mark on them.

Atlanta-born Susan Neiman, 65, is the director of the Einstein Forum in Potsdam and author of Learning From the Germans. The book is a philosophical look at the German concept of Vergangenheitsaufarbeitung, or how Germans have wrestled with the legacy of the Holocaust and how that might offer lessons for Americans studying the history of slavery and Native American genocide, among other uncomfortable topics.

Neiman said Americans have taken to the book enthusiastically, ready to learn from the Germans after four years of Trump, Charlottesville, and the shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. “Not so much Germans,” she said with a wry smile. “The fact that Germans reject the premise of the book just confirms my thesis. That is, the fact that it’s considered part of being a decent German to say, ‘We didn’t do enough.’”

Arnold Dreyblatt, 67, said living in Berlin connected him to his heritage in ways he hadn’t before. Dreyblatt arrived in 1984, working as a visual artist and composer. Although the Holocaust is far from the only subject he works with, Dreyblatt has been recognized for his artistic contributions in memorializing the Holocaust including numerous works displayed at the Women’s Concentration Camp Memorial in Ravensbrück. His memorial to the 1933 book-burning in Munich will be installed this May.

This theme of reconnecting or rediscovering one’s roots is consistent among American Jews in Germany.

Born into a largely assimilated family in Michigan, Daniel Kahn, 42, came to Berlin in 2005. He was drawn by the likes of Alan Bern, who had helped launch the Yiddish Summer Weimar festival in the early 2000s. Like Shtetl Berlin, the monthlong festival features workshops and performances touching on all aspects of Yiddishkeit.

Kahn has become a staple of any Yiddishist’s diet, producing 13 records since moving to Berlin. Among his numerous accolades, he won the Annual Prize of the German Record Critics’ Association with his band The Painted Bird in 2011 and the Chane and Joseph Mlotek Award for Yiddish Continuity in 2018.

Berlin is a city that’s rapidly changing, in Kahn’s eyes. Though he said it will soon be yet another metropolis for only the rich, he gives the country credit for much of his success. “Germany made this work possible by supporting the arts with public funding and creating spaces for cultural encounters and expression that aren’t commercially dependent,” he wrote in an email. “Being able to live as a poor artist is the wellspring of creative culture.”

At the Yiddish Summer Weimar festival in August this year, Kahn said his parents were initially perplexed by his decision to move to Germany, but were later inspired by it. His mother has since joined him twice in Weimar to learn Yiddish songs.

“One of the things that drew me to Yiddishkeit was the intergenerationality of what we do,” he said. “The collaborative nature of working between generations also helped me connect with my parents in a way that I hadn’t before.”

Though Jewish culture is growing in Germany, it doesn’t come close to what was here before the Holocaust. Some, like Kratochvila, who’s lived in Eastern and Central Europe for 15 years, will admit to being slightly naive about just how absent Jewish culture was when they first arrived. She moved to Berlin in 2013 and opened a New York-style bagel shop that leans heavily into her Jewish identity. Besides the bagels, there’s rugelach, babka, and challah surrounded by stacks of Jewish cookbooks. Even the Yiddishism “Lign in drerd un bakn beygl”—may you lie in the ground and bake bagels—is spelled out above the menu.

Kratochvila and her Czech husband opened Fine Bagels in 2013 in part to help manage her homesickness, but the project quickly grew into a medium for promoting American Ashkenazi cuisine in the city. “For me,” she said, “food is a way to create links with people.”

Although there’s still room for Jewish culture to grow in Germany, the consensus is that Berlin is a great place to be Jewish. Anna Winger, a writer/producer originally from Massachusetts, called Berlin “a Jewish diaspora melting pot.” She noted that she interacts with a wider range of Jews in Berlin, in terms of both practice and background, than she ever did while living in New York City.

Living in Berlin “pushes you more to participate in Jewish life as opposed to somewhere where you can take it for granted and be passively Jewish,” said Kratochvila. “I go to a lot more Shabbat dinners than I would [in the States].”

Shabbat dinner is just one of many options to engage in Jewish life in Germany. Before COVID-19, Base Berlin held weekly Shabbat dinners at its headquarters in the Kreuzberg neighborhood where Borovitz and Blady also live.

The New York-born rabbis married four years ago and promptly started a life for themselves in Berlin where they’re raising their two daughters. Like Kratochvila, Borovitz had first spent considerable time in Eastern Europe before settling on Berlin––drawn to the country’s complicated history. A serendipitous Skype call with a Berlin-based couple led to a summer in the city where they got a taste of life in Berlin and the possibilities with the burgeoning Jewish community. “As soon as we arrived, it was electric,” he said. “We felt like there was such a thirst for Jewish life and Jewish learning.”

They came back for another summer the following year and moved permanently in 2019. Borovitz said he fell in love with and found his Yiddishkeit in these places Jews supposedly shouldn’t go to.

“It’s my form of counterculture,” he said, noting that sometimes he does get looks while walking around his neighborhood with a kippah. “It both wears on me and gives me power.”

Winger shared Borovitz’s sentiment. “I think that there’s a doubling back that happens when you move to Berlin and reflect on the Jewish history here,” she said, referring both to the deep origins of Ashkenazi culture and the Holocaust.

In 2015, she co-created Deutschland 83 with her husband. The Cold War-era espionage series was the first German-language production to air on an American network, SundanceTV. Between follow-ups Deutschland 86 and the recently released Deutschland 89, she co-created, wrote, and produced Netflix’s Unorthodox. The series was inspired by Deborah Feldman’s memoir about her departure from the Hasidic Satmar community of Williamsburg and her own journey to Berlin. It was the streaming giant’s first series filmed primarily in Yiddish.

“We made a decision at the beginning that we were only going to cast Jewish actors in the role of Jewish characters,” said Winger, explaining that many German TV shows and films speak to the Jewish experience but don’t involve Jews on either side of the camera.

Though Feldman’s story is perhaps the best-known version of someone leaving the Hasidic community and ending up in Germany, she’s not the only one. Rabbi Akiva Weingarten, originally from Monsey, New York, left his Israel-based Hasidic community for Berlin in 2014. He’s since fashioned his own brand of liberal Judaism that retains the shtreimel and kaftan of his Hasidic life. He now lives in Dresden, where he leads a community of 700.

Weingarten, 35, remarked on the deep history American Jews have in Germany that stretches back centuries before the Holocaust. Indeed, as other American Jews pointed out, Ashkenazi Jewry first developed out of Rhineland communities in Western Germany and Northern France sometime in the Middle Ages. But when reflecting on living as a Jew in the Germany of today, he offered a Talmudic principle that might apply––either consciously or subconsciously––to the work of every American Jew in the country, from the Yiddishist to the baker and beyond.

“Coming back here and somehow ‘fixing’ this past feels to me like what the Talmud says that when somebody does a sin they have to go back to the same place where the sin was committed and do teshuva there,” he said. “There is sometimes that twisted feeling that we’re fixing something from the past.”

Joe Baur is a Berlin-based writer, author, and filmmaker from Cleveland.

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