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‘yekkes’ Gather to Mark Their Contributions to the Jewish State

May 17, 2004
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Pedantic, polite, always on time but a little bit out of place — that’s the caricature in Israel of the “yekke,” the German-speaking Jewish immigrant.

Yekkes, who stood out in the rough-and-tumble early years of the Jewish state with their good manners and their taste for European culture, long have been the subject of national mockery — sometimes playful, other times harsh.

At a conference this month in a scenic Jerusalem neighborhood, academics and artists came to evaluate and celebrate the contribution these Jews from German-speaking countries have made to Israel.

Landing on Palestine’s shores mostly as refugees in the 1930s, they influenced Israel beyond their numbers, especially in law, architecture, banking, medicine and the arts.

Today, these Jews — primarily from Germany and Austria — are a disappearing breed.

Hundreds came to the conference in Mishkenot Sha’ananim, the first area of Jewish settlement in Jerusalem outside the Old City walls, to hear more about the yekke legacy.

“Even the second and third generations are looking for their roots,” said Daniella Epstein, a Jerusalem tour guide, as she tried to squeeze through the crowd and find a seat at a conference lecture.

Her father, Alfred Epstein, fled Germany in 1933 and became a prominent architect in Jerusalem.

German Jewish architects left a special mark on the burgeoning state, most notably through the design and construction of Bauhaus buildings. Trained in Germany’s top schools and firms, they brought their talents to Israel and created the largest collection of Bauhaus-influenced buildings in the world on the streets of Tel Aviv.

Their designs also reflect the Mediterranean setting, giving their buildings an innovative character that is at once European and new. In so doing, they created a new architectural home.

Feeling at home was not always easy for these immigrants in their early years in the Middle East.

Torn from their native land, culture and language, and brought to a place many felt was culturally inferior to their home countries, the yekkes were accused by Israelis of clinging to their old ways, of being snobbish and of being wary of assimilating into Israeli culture.

It’s not clear where the word “yekke” comes from. Some speculate it came from the German word for jacket, poking fun at the immigrants who kept wearing jackets and ties even in the informal and hot Middle East.

“Being called a yekke at the time I grew up in the late 1930s and 1940s was not a word of praise; it was derogatory,” recalls Amos Elon, a prominent Israeli writer who recently authored a book on the history of German Jews. Elon delivered the keynote address at the conference.

But in the legal and banking systems these immigrants helped establish, the buildings they designed and the orchestras for which they provided both the musicians and the audiences, their cultural reach was felt deeply.

It also was the yekkes, with their devotion to aesthetics and learning, who opened the first flower shops and bookstores in the young country.

“They were admired for their skills and sense of aesthetics,” said Elon, the son of Viennese immigrants.

The one area the German Jews did not influence was Israeli politics — which, in the early years of the state, was considered the exclusive realm of Polish- and Russian-born Jews.

Many of the yekkim arrived to Palestine with doctorates and other higher degrees.

Like their fellow Sephardic immigrants from Middle Eastern and North African countries, they too were marginalized in the early years of the state.

And similar to Sephardic Jews, the unique cultural contributions of the yekkes have only been celebrated in recent years.

“You wish there were more yekkes today, more of the spirit of yekkishness in Israel,” said photographer David Rubinger, 80, who came to Palestine from Vienna at age 15.

Rubinger’s famous photograph of three Israeli paratroopers standing by the Western Wall just after Israeli troops took control of Jerusalem’s Old City during the 1967 Six-Day War became a symbol of the Jewish state and its people.

“Everything we still have that is good, liberal, and cultured is a remnant of what yekkes brought with them,” he said. “Wherever the yekkes had an influence — in art, music — there we have achievement.”

“The yekkes did not get into politics, and look what it looks like,” Rubinger added.

The yekkes were among the minority of Jews in pre-state Palestine who lobbied for the rights of the Arabs, having brought to Israel a sensitivity to minority rights from their own experience in their native countries.

Teasing the yekkim gathered at the Jerusalem conference for so enthusiastically toasting themselves and their achievements, commentator Gideon Levy wrote in Ha’aretz: “It has been a very long time since there was such a heartwarming and charmingly racist gathering as the conference on the yekkes.”

Yosef Tal, 93, a pianist and one of Israel’s foremost composers, recalled how the young Jewish settlers he met when he arrived from Germany in pre-state Palestine in 1934 were starved for culture.

Soon after landing in Israel, he was invited to play “in very rough conditions” at Kibbutz Beit Alpha, in the north of the country. The dining hall was packed and people outside listened in.

“They came to hear the concert from all over, traveling by donkey, on wagons. I looked outside and it looked like an ancient biblical illustration,” he said.

Having escaped Nazi Europe, he said that he once again felt at home that night.

“I played and lived like a man,” he said.

Tal went on to become one of the most influential composers in Israel, receiving numerous awards in Israel and abroad, including the prestigious Israel Prize.

Paying homage to the legacy of Jews like Tal, Rubinger said, “Without the yekke immigration — both culturally and standard-wise — we would not be where we are today.”

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