Lighting Up December In Berlin


Why does Berlin always remind me so much of New York? Probably because it is a bracing blast of modern, multicultural energy on a continent where those qualities are still often less evident than in the New World.

Compared to a decade ago, it’s remarkable how thoroughly cosmopolitan the city has become. Formerly dreary neighborhoods like Friedrichshain, in the former West Berlin, have gentrified and feel lively; many of those responsible are transplants from austerity-ravaged Southern Europe, which explains why Spanish and Italian can sound as ubiquitous as German.

Israelis, Americans, Syrians, Spaniards, Russians — they’re all Berliners now. Decades into the immigration wave that has shaped this city’s cosmopolitan renaissance, the new Germans pepper neighborhoods with hummus and Hebrew, filling synagogues and discos and parks on the weekend.

Come December, Chanukah is now a major event in the city renowned for its Christmas markets. Berliners famously love to party, and never more than during the darkest days of the year, which in northern Germany are dark indeed: By mid-December, Shabbat candles are lit at 3:30 p.m.

The long Berlin night provides opportunity for candlelit revelry in a city that glows all winter. Europe’s largest menorah is lit each December at the Brandenburg Gate, and every year the outdoor party — organized by Chabad — gets larger and more festive.

Anyone in Berlin over Chanukah should reserve at least one night to celebrate at the Jewish Museum Berlin. Each night (beginning Dec. 12), Jewish musicians from the “Neukölln Shtetl” festival will entertain as a huge, glowing menorah is lit in the Glass Courtyard.

Also during the Festival of Lights, the Synagogal Ensemble Berlin hosts the Louis Lewandoski Festival, a four-day choral event dedicated to the music of Jewish composers who emigrated from Germany. Lewandoski, a Prussian-born Berliner who lived during the 19th century, was the first Jewish music student admitted to the Berlin Academy of Arts.

As the legendary longtime music director at Berlin’s landmark Neue Synagogue, Lewandoski composed a canon of Jewish liturgical music that is still in wide use around the world. The Synagogal Ensemble performs his choral works every Shabbat and on Jewish holidays, while the annual event aims to keep his broader legacy alive.


This year’s festival, from Dec. 14 to 17, will also feature the Jerusalem A-Cappella Singers, the Tivon Israel Chamber Choir and London’s Zemel Choir in concerts at synagogues and concert halls around Berlin and neighboring Potsdam.

Lewandoski’s erstwhile workplace, the beautifully restored New Synagogue, now houses the Centrum Judaicum, a Jewish community center and museum that is a prime destination for Jewish tourists. (The museum space is undergoing renovation beginning this month, and will reopen in spring 2018.)

Nearby, however, is a Jewishy space well worth a look: Schwarzenberg Haus, a colorful, eclectic arts complex that currently includes an Anne Frank exhibition. Amid the upscale wine bars of the surrounding Hackescher Markt area, the Haus feels like a shabby, subversive vestige of the Communist era — a graffiti-covered warren of galleries, artist studios and pop-up bars.

In a sense, Schwarzenberg Haus is a holdover from an earlier incarnation of Berlin, just after reunification — the Berlin of broke artists who squatted in the renascent city’s vacant spaces, and who took advantage of a city where everything had been broken to redefine and rebuild in a new vein. But what happens when that anarchic spirit is formalized in an institution?

The answer may lie inside Urban Nation, a museum that just opened in the Schöneberg district to showcase Berlin’s tradition of street art and wall expression (the Berlin Wall graffiti being only the most familiar example).

Rotating murals will adorn the building’s vintage façade; inside, massive graphics by the likes of Shepard Fairey arrest the eye as much with scale and color as with form, in a wide-open layout that approximates the street-art perspective. True to the mission, Urban Nation projects include murals on buildings around the city (a guided map is online).

Artists and bankers, young and old, Berliners live in their streets despite the unfriendly weather. Bike culture has exploded here in recent years, and once-blighted plazas have been reborn with beer gardens.

All of that energy comes to a head on New Year’s Eve. While the epicenter of revelry throngs between the Brandenburg Gate and the Victory Column downtown, the entire city literally explodes with festivity. Rockets whiz from windows, fireworks sizzle and pop on sidewalks and packs of young people holler and clink beers in the frigid night, all toasting a city on the rise.