Aufbau vom 01.02.2001

Exploring Jewish Culture in Contemporary Berlin

Second-Generation Visitor Discovers Local Revivals in Music and Theater


Visiting Berlin last September, I was surprised by how many non-Jewish German Klezmer bands there were, as well as a thriving Jewish theater. I am a New York lawyer whose Polish-Jewish mother instilled in him an appreciation of the Jewish world that existed before the war. In my personal quest to understand that world, I have traveled to Berlin several times since 1989. I have a love/hate relationship with the city, yet, oddly enough, several of my closest friends live there today. It is a strange and intense place.

Since I arrived during the High Holy Days, I took the opportunity to look in at four of the seven functioning synagogues in Berlin over Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur and Succot. The services in each of the synagogues, whether liberal or traditional, were well attended and inspiring. The liberal synagogue on Pestalozzistrasse 14-15 in Charlottenburg had a choir and a well-known Cantor from Israel. The most beautiful synagogue, and the only one not damaged in Kristallnacht or by allied bombing, was the conservative synagogue on Rykestrasse 53 in Prenzlauer Berg. There was also a Chabad Lubavitsch house in Berlin which sponsored a Sukkah party! Thus, it seems Jewish life is slowly re-emerging in Berlin.

I stumbled into the world of German Klezmer music last spring when I went to hear a Klezmer concert at "Tonic," a Lower East Side bar that used to be the Shapiro Wine Factory. It was there that I met Johannes Kevenhorster, a non-Jewish German clarinetist, who is part of a Klezmer Band named "Di Grine Kuzine." A German Klezmer band? This was something I wanted to look into in Berlin, so on my first night there, I went to hear the band perform in a world music competition where they won first prize. Further exploration of German involvement with Jewish music led me to the Hackesches Hof-Theater in Mitte, the fashionable center of Berlin. The October schedule featured a play called Verstehen Sie Mich, Herr Golfarb (Do You Understand Me, Mr. Goldfarb), as well as approximately fifteen Jewish music concerts.

Peter Cohen. the author of the play, is a secular Jew from Zurich who lives in New Hampshire for part of the year with his German wife. He has written six plays, as well as the 1973 best-seller The Gospel According to the Harvard Business School. Verstehen Sie Mich, Herr Goldfarb was sold out for the entire run at the Hackesches Hof-Theater and received excellect reviews in the local newspapers. The play tells the story of a Cantor who is on a tour through German-speaking countries when his pianist becomes ill. The musician's replacement is a German non-Jew and the Cantor is not sure he is able or willing to work with him. Issues of tolerance and prejudice are explored. The play ends with a concert which usually elicits calls for several encores.

According to Peter Cohen, it is not "the Holocaust which is central to the revival of Jewish culture in Germany - it comes from a desire to connect with what has been lost." The interest is growing because "most of the old generation of Germans have died, and younger people are now free to explore the forbidden world of Jewish culture . People are now ready to say, 'Who are the Jews?'" As for the interest in Klezmer music, Cohen relates it to "a romantic idea of the Shtetl." He also believes that Germans are "being led to the past as a result of their exploration of what is happening in the present." Cohen credits Burkhart Seidemann, the director of the Hackescher Hof , with the revival of Jewish theater in Berlin.

Hackesches Hof-Theater

unique in Europe

Seidemann is from Weimar and spent seventeen years as a director with the renowned Deutsches Theater in East Berlin. He is not Jewish but surmises, on the basis of his family name, that his family may have converted from Judaism to Christianity in the nineteenth century during a wave of Jewish conversions. He agrees with Peter Cohen, that he has been instrumental in establishing Jewish theatre and claims there is no theatre like that of the Hackescher Hof in all of Europe.

Originally, Seidemann did not come to the Hackesches Hof-Theater with the intention of doing German-Jewish theatre. It was only when he read a description by Franz Kafka of Jewish troupes performing in Berlin in the twenties, that he realized that Yiddish plays had been mounted in the same area as the Hackescher Hof. "Yiddish theater has kept much of its emotional intensity." according to Seidemann. However, he doesn't want "to just look back," in the plays he presents. " I also want to work on what is here now," he says. "It is important that this is a theater for Berlin-Jews and non-Jews."

"One of the absolute key people" in the revival of interest in Jewish music, according to Peter Cohen, is Jalda Rebling, a performer of Yiddish songs. She is a spirited and energetic woman who bears a striking resemblance to the actress, Tovah Feldshuh, and is the only Jewish woman living in Berlin that sings traditional "mamaloshen" Yiddish. The songs on Rebling's CDs range from Yiddish to Ladino to Medieval.

Jalda Rebling was born in Amsterdam, where her father had immigrated from Berlin in 1936. Her Dutch mother, Lyn Jaldati, had been on the same train to Auschwitz as Anne Frank, but luckily survived. When the war ended, the family moved to East Berlin with the notion of building their dreams in a Communist world. Lyn Jaldati became a well known Yiddish singer in East Germany and taught those songs to her daughter at an early age.

According to Jalda Rebling, interest in Yiddish music began to grow in East Germany in the early 1980s. Yiddish had " the warmth, hope and humor that was missing in the German language," she says, and it was a soothing escape from the Cold War. Non-Jews began to play Yiddish and Klezmer music, and groups like Aufwind and individual musicians like Karsten Troyke studied the language and culture of Yiddish to incorporate it into their music. After the Wall came down in 1989 - "the real end of World War II," according to Rebling - interest in Klezmer music revived. There was a feeling in Germany that "we are normal now."

"Goyzmer" was the term Rebling applied to the non-Jews playing Klezmer, and admits that the Jewish community finds it a bit crazy that so many Germans are playing Klezmer. When asked why there was so much interest in Jewish music by non-Jewish Germans, Rebling, like Cohen, relates it to the "disappearing neighbor concept." Germans are now thinking more about the loss of the Jewish community and culture and are trying to connect with it, in part, through reviving Jewish music. She believes that this is a phase which has peaked and will be transformed into a smaller movement of those who are really dedicated and interested in this music.

Jewish music heard

almost every day

When Thomas Eckermann, the director of Jewish music and songs at Hackesches Hof-Theater started running the music programs in 1993, Jewish music played two days a week. Now Jewish music or theater can be seen or heard at the Hackescher Hof almost every day of the week. He confirmed that there are approximately thirty Klezmer bands in Berlin and approximately sixty throughout Germany. Eckermann, who is not Jewish, asribes his interest in Klezmer,in part, to a desire to connect with the Jewish world destroyed by the generation of his grandparents.

Di Grine Kuzine, which has been called "the best that innovative Klezmer music in Germany now has to offer, " frequently play at the Hackesches Hof-Theater. Alexandra Dimitroff, the singer and accordionist, has a beautiful and haunting voice, yet she does not sing in Yiddish because she feels she cannot do so in an authentic manner. Instead, having a Bulgarian father, she chooses to sing in the more familiar languages from the Balkan region.

Johannes Kevenhorster joined the band as a classical oboe player in 1994 and was soon playing the clarinet and saxophone. He had only heard of Klezmer from Giora Feidman, the great Jewish Klezmer clarinetist, and was originally attracted to it because he liked the "melancholic happy-sad" quality of the music. By playing Klezmer, his interest in the Jewish aspect of the music grew. People would often ask him "What is Klezmer?" or "Why do you play Klezmer?" and he began to think about the answers. Kevenhorster feels it is a live connection to the Jewish people of Eastern Europe, rather than a memorial. When he is playing a traditional Doina (wedding song), he often imagines what it might have been like to play at a wedding in pre-war Poland, but that gives rise to a question for which he has no answer. Is Klezmer played by a Gentile really Klezmer?

On my last night in Berlin, Johannes Kevenhorster invited me to his home for dinner. In the kitchen, he played Klezmer tunes on his clarinet accompanied by the former tuba player of his band, Jens Domberg. I thought to myself. can there be a better form of German/Jewish reconciliation than Germans playing Klezmer in the kitchen for the son of a Polish Jew?

Back in New York, I often listen to the numerous recordings of Klezmer music that I collected in Berlin performed by Aufwind, Karsten Troyke, Di Grine Kuzine, Greenstein's Mischpoche, Kasbek and Ahava Rabah to name a few. Somehow it makes me happy to listen to these tunes being played by Germans. They are a kind of bridge to an old world. Yet, at the same time, they also bring up sadness about the loss of so many Jewish musicians in the Holocaust. Happiness and sadness at once - not unlike Klezmer music itself.