What’s it like to be a young Israeli Jew in Berlin? Short answer: complicated. Three artists share their stories.
Photo by Viktor Richardsson
Parties against party lines
Tel Aviv native Marion Cobretti moved to Berlin as a student in September 2011. After a visit to Berghain, he revived his interest in music production. The techno DJ now co-runs Ritter Butzke’s weekly DonnersDucks nights with fellow Israeli DJ Lt. Dan He is also a cofounder of the Iranian-Israeli party collective NoBeef.
“I’m Jewish. I’m secular. I live like any other Berliner. The fact that I’m Israeli and Jewish has little influence on my everyday life.
Normally I’m not so keen to involve my national identity with a music party, exactly because that identity is so charged with Judaism and the Middle Eastern conflict. When I performed at the Tel Aviv Beach Party here [in August 2015], I had to deal with so much criticism and protest. I’m a leftist, a big critic of the Israeli government, and I found myself explaining again and again that this was not a party to glorify the State of Israel. It was an event to celebrate music and good food inspired by the beaches of Tel Aviv, where Jews and Arabs can party and forget about the identities forced upon them at birth. This is what Tel Aviv is to me: liberal, pluralistic, democratic. These are the values I wanted to promote. But the fact that the other DJs and I were Israelis was enough for some to protest. It was stressful to be put in a position where I had to defend myself, even though I share the same values and goals as the people protesting against me.
There’s this constant connection between Jews and the land of the Jews, Israel. It’s made everyday by right-wingers everywhere. The right-wing Israeli government suggests that every Jew has to be loyal to Israel first, which means being loyal to the policies of that specific government. Which is of course bullshit. And then there’s the notion that Jews can never be German, or never be American, because their national identity is defined first and foremost by their Jewishness. These types of comments could be called anti-Semitic, but they’re mostly ignorant.
I once held a party for the Jewish holiday Purim. There was a lot of interest from the media and I was happy to explain the event to them, but the photo they put next to the story was always of some ultra-Orthodox Jew. This totally doesn’t reflect what Judaism is for me or even for most Israelis. It’s a common European, especially German, way of associating the term Jewish with this Orthodox black-wearing ghetto-style Jew, which doesn’t really exist in Europe anymore. Again, I wouldn’t call it anti-Semitism, but it is a stereotype I don’t like.
I’m not changing society through my events, and even a thousand of these parties will not change the politics in the Middle East, but I will change the ways some people think about who or what is supposed to be their enemy. This is happening. I have old friends who visit my parties who are now openly friends with Palestinians, Lebanese, Syrians, Iranians. Anyone who is able and willing to engage in dialogue is welcome.” Dyllan Furness
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Photo by Viktor Richardsson
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Photo by Viktor Richardsson
Moran Sanderovich is a sculptor and performance artist who has been based in Berlin since 2011. In her current piece Encounters, she and German artist Veronika Bökelmann explore their identities in relation to their more religious sisters (Sanderovich’s is Orthodox, Bökelmann’s is Hare Krishna). She’ll also be presenting an installation this month’s Radialsystem’s ID Festival.
“I grew up with Jewish holidays, Jewish school, speaking Hebrew. I’m totally part of the tribe, but not as a religious person. The word ‘Jewish’ ...the connotation is religious, but I don’t want people to observe me as a Jewish person. I feel more Israeli. But if I say I’m not Jewish, then people are like, ‘What!?’
My sister became Jewish Orthodox 16 years ago and lives in a settlement. I’ve felt many times when I heard what my sister teaches her children that it’s all a big fairytale, an imaginary reality that she needs to hold onto. She said that one sacred book describes abnormal creatures – mermaids, phoenixes, giants, and the thing called ‘golem’. Both of us chose non-‘normal’ paths to find meaning: me, art and travel; my sister, strict religion. I think we’re both fascinated with fictional worlds. My sister is totally against me living here – she feels the influence of anything that’s not Jewish is bad, very unholy. I disagree with my sister, but I love her. It’s not black and white.
I live and work in Kreuzberg and Neukölln – I was very happy to find the influence of Arab culture there, attitudes, music, food. When I see covered Muslim women, I think about my sister first. I look at Judaism and Islam, two tribes who live with similar beliefs even though they see each other as enemies. It’s absurd. Living here gave me an outside perspective on Israel. More and more, I’m affected by the violence there – I create bodies, transform them, they’re always between life and death. Last year I created an installation in Alpha Nova Galerie, an abstract body that looked like a lot of bodies melted together, the Jewish and Arab world as one creature. It was my way to deal with what was happening in Gaza, and it had a strong emotional impact on visitors.
There’s still tension between Germans and Israelis, especially these days. Sometimes I stop and read the Stolpersteine. It’s crazy to think if I was here 70 years ago, I would’ve been killed. I’ve only had one experience of anti-Semitism – a young guy on a bike stopped and yelled, ‘Go back to Israel!’ I grew up with Germany as a negative symbol, so to come here and see that modern Germany has nothing to do with that is a big healing.” Sandra Sarala
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Photo by Viktor Richardsson
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"Abba, Berlin 2015" by Benyamin Reich
Photographer Benyamin Reich grew up in a small Orthodox Jewish community northeast of Tel Aviv. At 17, he moved to Paris to study fine arts; after about five years spent back in Israel, he moved to Berlin in 2009. His photography, including the September solo exhibition Backwards at Künstlerhaus Bethanien, deals with aspects of his ultra-religious upbringing.
“For me, Berlin is a place where you have the feeling that you are creating the city, even in terms of being Jewish. Here, you can live your own life the way you choose. One day you can be in this synagogue, the next day you can go to another synagogue, and you can say it, and it’s okay. The Jewish culture is more diverse than in Israel; that’s where the notion of multikulti comes in – you have Jews from all over the world. It’s also a more liberal Judaism compared to where I come from.
My hometown Bnei Brak is a black and white city, meaning you only see men wearing white shirts and black pants because that’s the outfit of ultra-Orthodox Judaism. It’s like a black and white photograph, but in colour. I actually didn’t know what it meant to be an artist because the closed Jewish community didn’t have anything to do with art. Even drawing was forbidden by my father, a rabbi: ‘You should put your head in the right things – study, the Torah and so on – and give up all this narrischkeit, these little things.’ Television and radio were not allowed; no newspapers either. It was lonely growing up. But I created my own world and I kept my dreams. There were nice moments, like Shabbat, and the feeling of community. It’s a very strong feeling and there is a lot of warmth. The family is also very important. But the loneliness and the feeling of not belonging drew me out.
When I moved to Paris, it was a separation of my identity, so I tried to bring it up in my photographs: the fight between tradition and a secular world. My photography also acts as a bridge because it shows both traditionalism and secularism in a dramatic yet harmonious way. Berlin echoes this: it’s a dramatic city, but it’s also very harmonious. It doesn’t demand a lot, not like in Israel. When I moved here, I started incorporating parts of Jewish liberalism into my photos. I like to show the contrasts that appear here, in multiculturalism, between factions of society, and I also explore a lot about Christianity. I’m always drawn to it because it’s a religion that allows beauty, which Judaism lacks. Judaism is scared of beauty because beauty can mean temptation, whilst Christianity somehow is devoted to it – you go to the church, and there is beauty surrounding you in a way that you can feel it.
In Judaism, appearance is something that boxes you in: if you look Jewish, with sidelocks or a kippa, you are obviously ‘Jewish’. But I’m not. Although I keep tradition, and I try to make meals for holidays with friends of family, I don’t live my Judaism from the exterior. The fact that I don’t draw attention to myself might explain why I haven’t had any experience with anti-Semitism. The creator of Reform Judaism, Moses Mendelssohn, said something like ‘Be a Jew at home and a German outside.’ I kind of live this way because I don’t want unpleasant feelings and I don’t want to get into political issues... I do hear and read about anti-Semitism in Berlin, but then again, I meet many Germans who are ‘Judophiles’, who love anything Jewish just because of the history here.” Alexandra Manatakis