Jewish Life in Berlin “Israelis go to Berlin, not to Germany”

Professor Anat Feinberg does research on Hebrew and Jewish literature.
Professor Anat Feinberg does research on Hebrew and Jewish literature. | Photo (detail): © private

Anat Feinberg, Professor of Hebrew and Jewish literature at the College of Jewish Studies in Heidelberg, speaks about the interest among young Israeli authors in Germany.

These days, a lot of young Israelis are coming to Germany; several thousand are currently living in Berlin – including quite a number of creatives. Where does this interest in Germany stem from?

In addition to a need among many young Israelis to live outside their country for a while, especially after their long military service, an important aspect is their curiosity to discover something different. Then there is also Berlin’s reputation as an exciting, inspiring city. For years, Israelis were very enthusiastic about India and the Far East. They have had Berlin in their sights for about ten years now.

What role does German history play here?

The German language and German culture were taboo for a long time in Israel. To this very day, university courses in German Studies are not offered in Israel. The people who study the German language, many of whom are young people, attend courses at the Goethe Institute, which is overrun with inquiries about courses. I’m not sure if that is just a reaction to the decades-old taboo.

Berlin as an exterritorial space

Why Berlin and not some other German city?

For a while, Berlin was cheap for Israelis, especially as regards accommodation and living costs. Berlin is also attractive as a cosmopolitan, multicultural city. And just as Tel Aviv cannot be equated with Israel, so too Berlin is quasi an exterritorial space for many Israelis. They would not necessarily say that they were going to Germany, but rather that they were going to Berlin. Which is paradoxical of course, because no other city in Germany is as historically “fraught” as Berlin.

Do the young Israelis engage with that history?

That is unavoidable – and rightly so. Moreover this often leads to important works of art. In her documentary film Schnee von gestern (Yesterday’s news), which reached German cinemas in spring of this year, Yael Reuveny tells the story of her family, about which she scarcely knew anything herself. Of course some members of her family were not at all in favour of her undertaking that search for traces. Older Israelis in particular react that way; they are not really able to understand why their children and grandchildren want to go to Germany. Fania Oz-Salzberger published a non-fiction book about Israelis in Berlin in 2001. And Yoram Kaniuk wrote about his encounters in Berlin and Germany in The Last Berliner. If you look at the list of book published over the last two or three years, you see that Germany is a “hot” topic in contemporary Hebrew literature. For example, in Nir Baram’s novel Good People, which focuses on an apparently quite “ordinary” German during the Nazi era. In Scorpion Dance Shifra Horn writes about an Israeli who follows his German girlfriend to Berlin.

How would you describe the Israelis’ emotional relationship to Berlin?

It is a kind of love-hate relationship. They are ambiguous. They are beginning to engage intensively with the past, but the Holocaust no longer plays the pivotal role it used to. Many of them really like Berlin’s open-mindedness, also towards marginal groups like gays and lesbians. Others, especially artists, appreciate the possibilities and the stimuli Berlin obviously provides them with. A Hebrew magazine called Spitz is published in Berlin meantime. Many are clearly planning to stay.

Literature as a contribution to reconciliation?

Has German literature had a stylistic influence?

American literature still has the greatest influence on Israeli authors. It was the 1970s before people began to translate German prose into Hebrew – mainly Günter Grass, Heinrich Böll and Siegfried Lenz. And things really got moving in that respect in the 1990s.

Can literature make a contribution to reconciliation?

It is an interesting arena at any rate, as it enables the curious reader to get to know something about another country, another mentality. But in the field of literature, another criterion plays a fundamental role, namely, the question of whether a book is good or bad.