Can Jewish Artists Transcend Germany’s Past?

By | Aug 29, 2023
Arts & Culture, Jewish World, Latest

In the mid-1990s, the Paris-based historian Diana Pinto hoped that the influx of Jews from the former Soviet Union would catalyze a fresh chapter in Jewish Europe. She envisioned a universal, non-Jewish public sphere that would stand for democratic values, in which Jews would interact as citizens in a pluralist context. 

Perhaps nowhere has it been more difficult to enact this universalist vision than in Germany, where a commitment to remembering the horrors of antisemitism is cemented not only into the Jewish consciousness, but the national ethos. Yet today, many of Pinto’s ideas have been embraced by a cohort of Jewish artists unwilling to be confined to what artist Rachel Libeskind calls the “claustrophobic limbo” of Germany’s past.

Creative Directors Rachel Libeskind and Olaf Kühnemann at the final LABA Berlin exhibition in November 2022 at CLB Berlin.

Today, more than 200,000 Jews live in Germany. Some of these are descended from Holocaust survivors who resisted pressure by Israel and world Jewry to abandon the “bloodstained territory” of Germany after World War II, but most are immigrants from Israel, Russia, Ukraine and North America. About 100,000 of those are affiliated with the Central Council of Jews in Germany (CCJG), an umbrella group funded by tax dollars that takes care of administrative functions for the Jewish community, such as synagogues, reintroducing Jewish chaplains into the army, and retirement homes. In addition to funding synagogue security and education through a central entity, as several other European countries do, the Central Council tends to set a certain tone culturally that some artists consider to be stifling.

Libeskind is the Creative Director of LABA Berlin, a synagogue-affiliated arts initiative that views ancient Jewish texts as an inspiration for contemporary artistic expression. When she does engage with the past, she does so creatively—in her view, too many Jewish public events consist of panelists sitting on a stage lamenting the rise of antisemitism, and speaking about the need to “never forget” to largely non-Jewish audiences. This April, with Ariel Efraim Ashbel, an artist from Tel Aviv who has been based in Berlin since 2011, Libeskind created a mobile Rites of Spring Passover walk through Berlin. Participants walk through historically significant but little-known sites, such as a memorial to Fritz Flato, a leader of Berlin’s homosexual movement in the 1920s who took his own life after fleeing Nazi persecution. By changing the context in which Jewish rituals are observed, the duo hopes to inform people’s narratives of history and identity.

Anna Adam, artist and creator of Germany’s Happy Hippie Jew Bus, believes that some German Jews feel attached to their established roles and identities as Jews, including the special status that sets them apart from other minorities in Germany. “The past should not be a sofa, but a springboard,” she says. Adam herself aims for her Jewishness to infuse a larger sense of community that is based on multiple markers of identity. As part of her work, Adam has built a “convert tunnel.” When visitors enter the tunnel, men go through a symbolic circumcision and women put on a wig as is the custom among some Orthodox Jews. Participants are encouraged to take on cliches associated with being Jewish and are asked how it makes them feel to be a Jew who embodies stereotypes. Adam then counterposes this against a diverse, often secular, Jewish identity. She says her light-hearted and humorous approach to Jewish themes is meant to provide a refreshing change for Germans whose main interaction with Jews has been through remembrance culture events.

The M.S. Goldberg. Photo courtesy of Peter Sauerbaum

The CCJG itself has also tried to introduce Germans to “live Jews” through projects like Meet a Jew, which introduces Jews around the country to groups of non-Jews for informal discussions. “For decades there have been confrontations with dead Jews, with the Holocaust and persecution, memorials and memorial days,” Daniel Botmann of the CCGJ, who declined to be interviewed for this article, told Hadassah in 2019. “It’s far less comfortable for people to confront a living Jew, with a personality and individuality, feelings and convictions.”

Another unconventional project is the M.S. Goldberg Jewish Theater Ship, which anchors in Berlin’s Spree River and on the Wannsee Lake. “We need to have more lively discussions about Jewish life in Germany, but such discussions are not occurring within congregations,” says Judith Kessler, who is on the ship’s crew. “So we create a space for them in the artistic arena.” Peter Sauerbaum, the project’s director, agrees. “We are not primarily oriented toward the enormous losses of the past, but in our performances address the question: Where do we go from here?” 

Kunstatelier Omanut is a Berlin-based art studio for Jews and others with disabilities. Judith Tarazi, who directs the studio, links the “special victim” status of Jews and people with disabilities. Kunstatelier Omanut is unique in Germany in that it caters to people with cognitive and/or physical disabilities while also opening its studio doors to people without disabilities. Everyone can join in to paint, draw, and make candles or mosaics. “In creating art together, we create communities of people with equal rights and standing in the larger German society,” Tarazi says. “It is individual pieces that create a beautiful mosaic.”

Top image: Kunstatelier Omanut, courtesy of Judith Tarazi.

Doris H. Gray is the author of four books, including Leaving the Shadow of Pain: A cross-cultural exploration of truth, forgiveness, reconciliation and healing (2020). Before becoming an academic at Florida State University and at Al Akhawayn University in Ifrane, Morocco, she worked as a foreign correspondent from several African countries for the German Press Agency (dpa). She also holds an honorary professorship at Roskilde University in Denmark.

Donna Swarthout is the editor and coauthor of A Place They Called Home. Reclaiming Citizenship. Stories of a New Jewish Return to Germany (2018). She has been writing about Jewish life in Germany since moving to Berlin from the United States in 2010.

One thought on “Can Jewish Artists Transcend Germany’s Past?

  1. Lottie says:

    I loved this article. Glad your work is getting the exposure it deserves!

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