When 33-year-old singer Efrat Alony moved to Berlin 12 years ago to attend the Hanns Eisler Academy of Music, she discovered that she was the only Israeli student in the entire school. “I might as well have come from outer space,” she says over the phone from somewhere between Munich and Stuttgart, where she is touring with her band. “It felt like people here had never seen a Jew before, let alone an Israeli.” The situation has changed a lot since then. It seems that the further Berlin gets from being a bifurcated Cold War island, the more it attracts international backpackers and a cultural avant-garde—among them young and secular Jews from Israel. Primarily from Tel Aviv, this group increasingly turns to Berlin as a kind of vanishing point, a place to simultaneously recreate a new Jewish identity and a European persona. They see themselves as unfinished as Berlin itself, not yet locked in a fixed meaning or determined by a certain set of behaviors and rituals. With childlike openness, snappish humor and political awareness, they are infusing Germany with a new Jewish energy. And it isn’t German guilt that’s driving their influx.
Aviv Russ strolls into the cafÃ© Bateau Ivre in jeans and a blue polo shirt. Located in the Kreuzberg neighborhood of Berlin, the cafÃ© was once a breeding ground for political resistance and alternative lifestyle. Nowadays, it’s more of a multicultural melting pot, located on the Oranienstrasse, a bustling thoroughfare packed with bars, fancy stores and kebab shops where French, Spanish, Turkish, English and even a little German can be heard. Since you can get good hummus, tahini and olives here, and the place has a distinctly chaotic Middle Eastern flare, I imagine that this might be Russ’s favorite Berlin hangout. But that’s not the case—it reminds him too much of Israel. Russ prefers to dive into the belly of the big city and all its anonymity.
“I don’t live in Germany. I live in Berlin,” says the 32-year-old, who arrived four years ago. The host of a German/Israeli radio show, he gives the impression that he has talked about the subject more than once on the air. “This freedom is special to the history of Germany,” he explains. “There’s not only the Nazi history but also the Communist history in the East. [The Germans] are now so afraid of boundaries and walls and ghettos that [they] give you as many possibilities and options and freedoms as possible.”
Russ’s friend Ron Dror soon shows up and orders a beer. Growing up in Haifa, Dror fantasized about getting away from Israel and what he perceived as its overly macho culture. “They just spend too much money on military. Everything is so manly over there,” he says. According to Dror, Germany is a “softer” place— liberal, open and inviting. “Or maybe it’s just Berlin,” he corrects himself as his eyes dart around the room. The 27-year-old photographer sees the German capital as a “gay paradise.” He tells me about a monthly gay party where Israeli and Palestinian flags flank the dance floor, adding that he can’t imagine a scene like that unfolding in Israel.
It seems that the word has gotten around among young Israelis: Life in Berlin is easy, relaxed and crammed with culture, history, parties, art and international crowds. They see Berlin as a giant cosmopolitan place where one can exist in a perpetual state of exploration on even the tiniest of budgets. Exact numbers are hard to get as Berlin Israelis tend to stay away from Jewish organizations, but the best estimate is that approximately 10,000 Israelis live there Berlin today. Many are drawn to the city’s gay scene, others—especially artists, dancers, students and bohemians— are drawn to the sense of freedom that pervades the city. Says 29-year-old multimedia artist Amnon Friedman, “I still struggle with the language, but I feel freer here, less suffocated like I did in Tel Aviv.”
A few miles east of Kreuzberg, past the phantom of the Berlin Wall, sits the trendy district of Prenzlauer Berg. Naked walls, big store windows, retro chairs, an old sofa and an aura of hip coziness define the cafÃ© Let’s Stay Friends. Sitting across from me is Eran Wolff, who arrived in Berlin 10 years ago. Back then, two days of work a week was enough to make a living. “Give Israelis the possibility of being lazy—they jump on it immediately,” the 33-year-old says with a smile. As he leans back, the letters on his T-shirt spelling out Coca-Cola stretch and bend. He lights a cigarette as he recalls the days when Berlin was a lot trashier—dog shit covered the streets and illegal backyard parties raged into the night. At that time, only 300 Israelis or so lived in the city. The young Israelis coming now piss Wolff off. Adi Wolotzky, 34, sitting next to him, nods in agreement at how trendy Berlin has become. A film and video editor, Wolotzky is cur- 56- rently working with Wolff on a documentary about his Moroccan family. Nowadays, Wolotzky says, Israelis are everywhere, clinging to each other whether or not they have anything in common.
She smiles, pulls her bright woolen stockings over her knees and explains her ongoing fascination with life in Berlin, where she has lived since 2003. “You breathe the European air, the spaces…everything in Israel feels extremely claustrophobic and very provincial. I got really claustrophobic there.” She’s been away from Israel for 14 years, first to London and now Berlin. Says Wolotzky: “You can breathe, you can think. One can walk. One can talk. It’s not like always defending borders.” To Wolotzky and many Israelis like her, Berlin is permanently changing, a place to be young, foolish and always on the go.
But there are parts of German life that Israeli expats can’t seem to get used to. They laugh at German fussiness over cleanliness, their perfectionism and obsession with organization. Waiting your turn on line, for instance, is one part of German life with which many Israelis have difficulties. “Israelis immediately spot the weak points and step in,” Wolff tells me, ashing his cigarette.
Many Israelis in Berlin also find themselves acting as impromptu spokespersons for the Israeli state. Says Eftat Alony, “I’m confronted with a lot of badly informed, yet strongly opinionated people who don’t even understand the distinction between â€˜Israeli’ and â€˜Jewish’ and who only want to speak to me about the political situation.” These discussions ended up becoming her responsibility. “You want people to know that not all Israelis voted for Netanyahu,” she says. “It’s frustrating because Germans tend to simplify things into good and bad. How do you explain that, although you disagree with Israel’s politics and choose not to live there, the conflict is a lot more complicated? They really should just listen.”
Eleanor Kantor agrees when I broach the subject in an English language bookstore back in Kreuzberg, as she snacks on butter shortbread and tea. The Tel Aviv native, who came to Muenster 10 years ago as an exchange student, is now based in Berlin. “When Germans discuss Israeli politics with me,” says the 33-year-old, “I can’t accept most of what they say, even if I share the same views. Not to mention that a German person has absolutely no right to compare Zionism with racism. I do, because when I make a comparison like that it means something else. Political work has to be passionate, to come from a place of love mixed with rage.”
Kantor’s metaphoric place is a lot like Berlin itself—a place of muddled love and rage. Israelis like her come here to discover themselves, to find some measure of freedom in a city with the darkest of pasts, which, today, emanates a sense of freedom. Freedom not only to live and create, but also, ironically, to stop escaping. Additional reporting by Hili Perlson and Ana Finel Honigman