From Jerusalem to Berlin: The Israeli Love Affair with the German Capital

Liat Grayver at her studio in Lichtenberg
Liat Grayver at her studio in Lichtenberg

[This essay is from Contact, a publication of The Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life. Reprinted with permission.]

By A.J. Goldmann

BERLIN – It seemed that a sizeable chunk of this city’s Israeli population showed up for an international dance party taking place this summer simultaneously in Tel Aviv and Berlin. In a dispatch about the event, The Jerusalem Post dubbed the two cities “the joint capitals of cool.”

Ronen Kaydar and his wife Osnat surveyed the scene with some satisfaction that they were on the Berlin side of the dance party. “We’re about to celebrate our five-year Berliniversary,” said Kaydar, a boyish 42 year-old from Haifa with a full mane of wavy hair.

The Kaydars are part of a generation of Israelis who have made the German capital their home. The Israeli Embassy estimates that there are between 10,000 and 15,000 Israelis in Berlin, although an exact figure is hard to come by, since many of the Israelis here travel on European passports. Few recent Israeli social phenomena have drawn quite as much attention as Israelis’ ongoing love affair with Berlin. The trend has been lauded and vilified, hailed and denounced.

The latest dustup started in 2014, after an Israeli living in Berlin started anonymously posting his cheap grocery receipts to a Facebook page called “Olim L’Berlin” to encourage Israelis to move to Berlin. It became known as the “Milky Protest,” after the famous Israeli pudding, once it was discovered that a similar desert was a good deal cheaper in Berlin than it is in Tel Aviv. The media circus around this non-event showed how sensitive the topic of Israeli immigration to Berlin was. Officials at the highest levels of Israeli government got involved. Yair Lapid, then the finance minister, wrote about how some people were “willing to throw the only state the Jews have into the garbage because it’s easier to live in Berlin.”

Ronen, a writer and translator who often picks up work giving Jewish tours to Israeli visitors, hears a lot of that attitude – and more. “There are two groups of questions I get from my guests,” he said. “The first is, ‘How could you live in Germany and when are you coming back?’ And the second is, ‘Is it really that cheap to live here? Is it really that easy to live here?’ So there are two radically different approaches.” Such questions also represent how Berlin as a destination has been both mythologized and, more recently, demonized.

Elad Lapidot, a Jerusalem native who is a researcher at the philosophy department of the Freie Universität Berlin, said that the discourse about Israelis in Berlin has changed. “For a long time there was a celebratory tone, with everyone being impressed in different ways by the phenomenon,” he said. “Now you are hearing rather critical voices against the phenomenon.” He cited recent newspaper articles that have voiced a newfound skepticism of Israelis in Berlin, accusing them of anti-Israeli and anti-Jewish tendencies, nihilism and escapism.

This heavily publicized phenomenon has been largely discussed in generalizations that are inadequate to capture the variety of reasons why thousands of Israelis have traded Ben Yehuda and Rothschild for the cafes of Kreuzberg and the clubs of Mitte. Various economic, political, artistic and lifestyle considerations often stand behind a life decision that many Jews – in Israel and outside of it – still find hard to understand.

“The political situation in Israel is not why I moved to Germany,” Kayder explained. “But it is one of the reasons why we’re not moving back.” He enumerated familiar grievances, including Israel’s shift to the right, despair over the peace process with the Palestinians and the economic difficulties faced by young people, especially the artistically inclined.

Kayder’s personal political views aside, others say it’s less about politics and more about artistic freedom and opportunity. “There’s respect for artists here,” claimed Anat Manor, an artist who was born in Hadera in 1961 and has lived on and off in Germany since her twenties. “It’s different in Israel, where the priorities are different, for obvious reasons, because they need to invest in security and protecting the country. So, the budget is very strapped,” she explains. For the past eight years, Manor, a painter and installation artist, has lived continuously in Berlin with her German husband. She recently completed a documentary about Israeli-German couples.

An artist from the younger generation, Liat Grayver, 29, a painter from the north of Israel near Afula, said that being an Israeli in Germany is often difficult. “Automatically people stop looking at you as an individual and start looking at you as part of a bigger group that you need to either defend or ignore,” she said. “People here automatically have two connotations: one is the current conflict, the second is the Holocaust. So you find yourself with people who either want to tell you how wonderful Israelis are or how horrible Israelis are.”

This issue flared up with unusual intensity around the time of last summer’s war in Gaza. Even friends started attacking her, asking her to take sides rather than expressing concern about her family. “I felt there was no place for me as an individual going through a crisis of my country falling apart into war and hate,” she explained.

While Grayver finds Berlin an exciting place to be as an artist, she doesn’t feel entirely at home here. “In the end, this is a white European city. I need much more multiculturalism than Berlin actually offers. Afula has more multiculturalism than Berlin,” she claimed about the city that is a 15 minute drive from her hometown. “Berlin is basically for the young, artistic, European middle-class people who move here. And in Afula, you have people from Yemen, India, Russia, Romania and they’re all in this little dinky town in the north of Israel, working class and downtrodden, but you get to know another culture and feel comfortable. I don’t feel that in Berlin.”

Everything that is not good in Israel is good here and everything that is good in Israel is not good here.
Everything that is not good in Israel is good
here and everything that is good in Israel
is not good here.

Then she paused and added: “That… and the weather sucks,” she said.

It would be difficult to date exactly when Israelis discovered Berlin in great number, but it goes back at least a decade, local Israelis say.

Although they are drawn to Berlin for many of the same reasons as Italians, Spaniards or Americans nowadays, most Israelis acknowledge that for them the city is especially freighted with meaning, even if people aren’t always conscious of it.

“Germany is the figure of the necessity of Israel,” said Lapidot, the university researcher. “Not being able to live in Germany meant not being able to live in Europe, meaning the impossibility of exile and the necessity of having a Jewish state. So going back to Berlin, on a symbolic level, defies the entire Zionist project, even if you’re only talking about Milky.”

For Lapidot, moving to Berlin, especially on a German passport (his grandparents were from Germany) also exposes fissures and maybe even contradictions inherent in Israeli identity. “I can trace my family back here five generations. So basically, if you skip a generation and a half of being Israeli, I am, in a sense, much more German than a lot of other Germans here.”

Yair Haendler, a 36-year-old doctoral candidate in linguistics at the University of Potsdam, is the sort of Israeli one encounters very rarely in Berlin: a religious one. When we spoke, he had just returned from an extended research trip to Jerusalem. “Everything that is not good in Israel is good here and everything that is good in Israel is not good here,” he told me off the bat.

Haendler, whose maternal grandparents lived in Berlin before the war (he, too, has a German passport), said he couldn’t exactly explain his attraction to Germany or why he immediately felt at home here. From the first time he visited Berlin he was fascinated by the city. When he and his wife Cecilia were both accepted into academic programs in the Berlin metropolitan area, the deal was sealed.

Five years later, he feels Berlin offers optimal opportunities for them in every realm but the religious one. “It’s a challenge on many fronts,” he says, naming problems inside the Jewish community as well as difficulties of living in a secular society. “If you compare Berlin to New York or Israel, you almost have nothing here. You have three Orthodox synagogues and no kosher meat restaurants except for the one in Chabad.” For the time being, Haendler seems resigned to not having a real community or synagogue where he feels that he belongs. Two other observant Israeli couples in Berlin who were close friends over the past year recently moved back to Israel, but not before benefiting from Germany’s luxurious, state-funded maternity care.

Haendler said he’s tempted to see the Israeli rush on Berlin as a fad, much the same way young Israelis once went travelling in Nepal, India and South America. Still, the sheer number of Israelis in Berlin right now gives him pause. “I’m actually quite curious to see what kind of influence they’re going to have here. I mean, the numbers are really big.”

At the international dance party in August, Dekel Peretz was tossing back a beer with some friends as Israelis, Germans and others danced on the artificial beach, played backgammon and polished off plastic bowls of humus and babaganoush. Like many present, Peretz, a 36-year-old Ra’anana native, had a signature Tel Aviv look, his tank top and shades issuing a sharp retort to the fussy scenester style that dominates in many of Berlin’s trendy quarters.

Most Israelis who come here need time to cool down from the whole tension between secular and religious Jews in Israel.
Most Israelis who come here need time to cool down from the whole tension between secular and religious Jews in Israel.

Peretz thinks that Israeli immigration to Berlin has normalized in the 13 years since he moved here for love. Nowadays, he doesn’t think Israelis flock to Berlin for significantly different reasons than anyone else. Like recent transplants from Italy or Spain, many Israelis – especially those with European passports – are drawn here for economic reasons or job opportunities. It has less to do with making a political statement, of choosing Berlin over Israel, or of actively searching for an alternative lifestyle.

“Ten years ago, people who were coming were more politically, ideologically or lifestyle oriented people. Israeli immigration to Berlin today is very different from what it was even five years ago. Back then, you would not have had so many young families,” Peretz indicated the children in bathing suits racing through the sand, dodging sweaty matkot, or Israeli paddleball, players. “And now you’re finding a lot more middle-class families who come.” Generally speaking, he sees the Israel society represented in Berlin as far more multifaceted than it was previously.

One thing that has changed is that a decade ago, flights between Tel Aviv and Berlin were far more expensive. Currently four airlines offer regular flights from Tel Aviv to Berlin: El Al’s low-cost UP airline, Air Berlin, easyJet and Lufthansa.

“There is more mobility, so the people who are coming now are not necessarily escaping Israel, but they’re actually living in both of these worlds,” Peretz added. “They’re not disconnected anymore, like the people who came here a decade ago. There was no Facebook back then. Back then, this was really a decision to leave the world you are in and now it’s not like that. It’s a more mobile society where people can live in both Tel Aviv and Berlin at the same time without having to make a choice. Of course, other choices are being made, like raising your children in German-language schools. But these are different questions and problems.”

Another shift that has taken place is in Israelis’ attitudes towards Berlin. “My parents were shocked when I moved to Berlin,” Peretz admits. “Now, a lot of parents realize they want their children to have a good future and that the chances of that happening in Israel are not that high, and so they actually support their children moving to Berlin.” Germany’s public support of Israel adds to this view. Like others, Peretz credits Chancellor Angela Merkel. “Germany is also seen today as a good place for Jews.”

Finding his place within a Jewish community in Berlin is important to Peretz, even if he realizes that many Israelis want nothing to do with institutionalized religion. “Most Israelis who come here need time to cool down from the whole tension between secular and religious Jews in Israel. But the ones who’ve been here a bit longer and have families and want to find ways to keep their families Jewish will turn to Judaism.”

Peretz and his German wife Nina have been very active in the modest but significant renaissance of a century-old community synagogue in Kreuzberg called the Fraenkelufer. “This is why building a Jewish community in which we define what we understand by practicing Judaism is very important to me. We wouldn’t invest all this effort in the synagogue, volunteer our energy and sweep the floors at late hours after Shabbos dinner if we didn’t think we were doing it for our future and for our [future] children, creating a place in Berlin where we can be Jewish together.”

A.J. Goldmann is an American journalist and writer based in Berlin. His articles on European art, culture and German-Jewish issues have appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The New Republic, USA Today, The Forward, Gramophone and Opera News Magazine.

Photos by William Glucroft