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Behind the Headlines: from Bagels to Kosher Chicken, Things Jewish Are the Rage in Berlin

Fifty years after Adolf Hitler nearly wiped out Germany’s Jewish community, there’s been a spurt of growth of things Jewish here, with openings of everything from kosher restaurants to a Jewish art gallery.

A revival of Jewish culture is taking place in this city’s old Jewish neighborhood, the Scheunenviertel.

So extensive is the activity that, in a city where the only thing the average citizen knows about Jews is that they were victims of the Holocaust, Jewish places are very much in fashion in some quarters.

“You could say it’s sort of chic,” said Nikolai Sluzki, an artist born in St. Petersburg, Russia, who operates the Jewish art gallery.

“There’s a certain part of the intelligentsia that always wants to try something new,” he observed.

Sluzki’s gallery features artists from the former Soviet Union, and his visitors are a mixture of Jewish and non-Jewish Germans and tourists.

The tourists come mostly from Canada, the United States and Australia.

Sluzki’s gallery is on the Oranienburger Strasse, a main street in the city’s Jewish neighborhood and home to the spectacular dome-topped synagogue that once was the crowning glory of the Berlin Jewish community. The synagogue is now being renovated.

Next to the synagogue is Cafe Oren, an Israeli-style cafe operated by Joachannan Bergel, a 44-year-old machine engineer who became a wildly successful restaurateur with the cafe’s opening early last year.

Jews and non-Jews and quite a few tourists gather here to munch on falafel and humus and drink Israeli wine.

Bergel has been in Berlin for more than 20 years, and as he says, he “just got stuck here” after his application to the city’s renowned film school was rejected.

BAND-AID THAT WON’T STICK?

He started the cafe at the suggestion of Heinz Galinski, the deceased former leader of the German and Berlin Jewish communities.

Around the corner is the equally good but much more sedate Beth Cafe, run by the Jewish community of the former East Germany.

The cafe boasts bagels. It is reportedly the only place in the city where you can find the American-Jewish treats.

Just off the same street is a kosher food store, where homesick North Americans can buy Empire chickens and Manischewitz gefilte fish.

Added to the places where you can fill your stomach with goodies that answer to a higher authority are the numerous places to feast on Jewish history and religion.

Adult education is offered in both the eastern and western parts of town, with materials available at a very good Jewish bookstore near the famous Kurfurstendamm shopping street.

The city supports a Jewish elementary school and a recently opened high school, and has at least a half-dozen synagogues.

This is in a city where only about 10,000 of the town’s nearly 4 million residents are Jewish and where most people do not have the foggiest notion of what it means to be a Jew.

At the opening of the Jewish adult education classes in eastern Berlin, Peter Gay, a Yale University professor who was born here and forced to leave in 1939, said, “If you’re pessimistic, you can view the opening (of this school) as a Band-Aid that won’t stick.

“Lots of people are conscious of the concentration camps and they know about German anti-Semitism. And many know about famous German Jews, like Einstein. But few Germans are conscious of how Jews lived — they only know them as victims,” said Gay, a biographer of Sigmund Freud.

Yet despite the packed lectures, restaurants and classes, leaders of the Jewish community here emphasize that their efforts to build the community are not made for tourists or the few well-minded gentile Germans.

Roman Skoblo, a member of the board of the Berlin Jewish community, said Jewish leaders here are primarily trying to bring things Jewish back to the Jews.

They also have the goal of teaching the some 6,000 immigrants from the former Soviet Union what it is to be Jewish. “We have a lot of work to do to make Jews Jews,” Skoblo said.

It also wants to reach out to non-registered Jews and get those who are registered to be more involved.

To the outside world, Germany’s Jewish leaders would like to have their pariah status removed. Long criticized for living in the land that nearly destroyed them, Germany’s Jews are often on the defensive.

While kosher restaurants and Jewish art galleries bring a sense of normality to the community, acceptance takes some time.

“Maybe we’ll be successful with the next generation or the generation after that,” Skoblo said.

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