Author of "Embracing Auschwitz" and "Mensch•Marks: Life Lessons of a Human Rabbi - Wisdom for Untethered Times." Winner of the Rockower Award, the highest honor in Jewish journalism and 2019 Religion News Association Award for Excellence in Commentary. Musings of a rabbi, journalist, father, husband, poodle-owner, Red Sox fan and self-proclaimed mensch, taken from essays, columns, sermons and thin air. Writes regularly in the New York Jewish Week and Times of Israel.
The renaissance of Jewish life in Berlin has become one of the most astounding stories of the post Holocaust generation. No one could have imagined that just seventy five years afterKristallnacht marked the beginning of the last chapter for German Jewry, a new chapter would yet be written. It would have been unfathomable even a few years ago that Berlin would become the European city most welcoming to Jews and a magnet for Jewish tourism and immigration. On Kristallnacht weekend in Berlin this year, there will be lots of glass clinking at bars, but the only conceivable glass breaking involving Jews would have to come under a huppah.
The ultimate irony is the plethora of Israeli immigrants, who have left a state designed to protect them from the very evil that was propagated by those living in their new home town. The Israeli presence can be felt at nightclubs, artistic venues and schools according to a 2011 JTA article. “You just hear Hebrew really often today, and it would have been really exotic five years ago,” said Nirit Bialer, who works on youth exchange programs between Germany and Israel.
This subject was discussed in a recent edition of “The Promised Podcast,” one of my favorite sources for provocative Israel-related banter. I can understand why this ex-flux of Israelis to Berlin would be disturbing. But I believe that the Jewish renaissance there should be seen as the ultimate poke in the eye to the Nazis, not as a stiff challenge to Zionism. After all, the fact of Israeli emigration is nothing new, and while it annoys many, it does not reduce by one iota the legitimacy and importance of the Jewish state. One could argue that Jews would not be able to move back to Berlin, or other former graveyards like Warsaw and Cracow, were it not for the continued existence of a Jewish state that “has their back.” Israel bolsters our confidence and pride no matter where Jews live, be it in the shadow of the Reichstag or of the Freedom Tower.
Columnist Jeffrey Goldberg recently told an audience at my synagogue a moving tale of how he took his son to Berlin and together they worked on his bar mitzvah speech in, of all places, the house of the Wannsee Conference, the very spot where the Final Solution was drawn up. That is the ultimate thumb in Hitler’s eye, much like the annual March of the Living, where Jewish teens whoop it up in the shadows of the gas chambers. Imagine an Olympic village at Ground Zero in Manhattan. Some may consider it distasteful for teens to be trading pins and phone numbers as if on Spring Break, right there where Mengele pointed to the right or the left. I find it exhilarating.
The continued shifting of Jewish population centers is hardly a new phenomenon. What’s new is that most Jews are not fleeing anti-Semitism, but moving about this shrinking world freely, looking for economic opportunity and personal adventure. Thanks to the wisdom of the ancient rabbis, the Judaism they bring with them is eminently portable and adaptable. Since there are few places on earth where Jews have not been persecuted, to rule out settling in places marked by prior Jewish victimization would be to rule out most of the populated planet – and most of Israel too.
The return to the land of Israel was the ultimate vindication of Jewish life in the face of death. We no longer wail at the Kotel, but the dismantled stones of the temple, tossed from the smoldering building by Roman soldiers, still litter the street. The same imperative that drove Israelis back to the Etzion bloc after the Six Day War is what drives Jewish life back to the streets of Poland and Germany. And just as the blood of 240 massacred Jews crying from the Etzion earth would not allow any Israeli government to declare Efrat Judenrein in any final agreement (though compromises may need to be made elsewhere), neither should the Final Solution have the final say on the fate of Jews in Berlin.
Ezekiel’s dry bones are a metaphor that doesn’t just presage the return to Zion, it envisions a national return to life – and that return can take place anywhere Jews have died simply because they were Jews. Everything we do reinforces that message. When a loved one dies, the first thing we do after leaving the cemetery is go home and eat. Eating is the ultimate reaffirmation of life in the face of death. So is clinking glasses at a Berlin bar. Wherever Jews live, the Deuteronomical imperative (30:19) compels us to Choose Life.
The return to Berlin is not a negation of Zionism; it is an affirmation of the Jewish revival that Zionism has engendered. It is the ultimate celebration of the Jewish spirit that simply refuses to die.