What makes a place Jewish? Memory, Presence and Absence

Caryn Aviv
June 15, 2014
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I’d like to share three tidbits from life this summer:

My 8 year old daughter is spending the next 7 weeks in Berlin with her dads.  She’s having some serious adventures while also learning about the city’s Jewish past and its vibrant Jewish present.   Unfortunately, many American Jews associate Berlin, indeed, all of Germany, solely with the Holocaust. It’s a shame that too few American Jews know much about Berlin’s incredible and complex Jewish past prior to World War II, and even fewer American Jews are aware of the Jewish renaissance unfolding in contemporary Berlin, much of it fueled by Russian and Israeli recent arrivals.

Coincidentally, as my daughter explores the Berlin neighborhoods of Mitte and Prenzlauer Berg, I’m working my way through the writing of Franz Rosenzweig, Martin Buber, and Abraham Joshua Heschel, for a rabbinical school class on modern Jewish existentialism. Each of these influential 20th century Jewish thinkers spent significant time living in Berlin. In fact, I recently learned that Rosenzweig, on the verge of converting to Christianity in 1913, attended services at a Berlin Orthodox synagogue on Yom Kippur. Something revelatory happened over the course of that day that changed his life. He walked out of that shul and abandoned his conversion path, concluding that everything spiritual and intellectual he needed could be found within Judaism. A few years later, he wrote his magnum opus The Star of Redemption, and founded the first modern adult Jewish education institute, called Lehrhaus. Rosenzweig is fast becoming a personal role model and hero for embracing Jewishness and Judaism wholeheartedly.

While immersing myself in the ideas and biographies of these thinkers this month, I’ll also have the privilege of being a post-performance discussant at the Mizel Museum for Leopoldstadt 22, a short dance piece by acclaimed choreographer Robert Sher-Maccherndl of Lemon Sponge Cake Contemporary Ballet. The piece is a short commentary on human suffering and the Holocaust. Last week, I had a fascinating conversation with Robert and his Jewish partner, Jennifer Sher, to prepare for the event. In turns out that Robert grew up in what used to be the most densely Jewish neighborhood of Leopoldstadt 22 prior to World War II. Robert learned absolutely nothing about Leopoldstadt’s importance in Viennese Jewish history until recently, and he’s at least in his mid-thirties. Only when he and Jennifer returned to the neighborhood a few years ago for a family visit, did he learn about its haunted Jewish past. How could this be possible?  How could a kid from the neighborhood grow up their entire life not learning a single thing about the thousands of Jews who lived there? Robert’s story is a stark reminder of how easily difficult histories about suffering can be forgotten or erased from a particular place, not to mention from our collective memory.

So all these anecdotes got me thinking: What makes a place or a space Jewish? Is a space or place Jewish because Jews live there? What if Jews no longer live in a particular place but they’ve left behind important markers of their existence? Does the presence of Jewish markers but the absence of Jews (who left by choice or under dire circumstances) render a neighborhood Jewish, if in memory only? And what elements of a Jewish past do Jews of the present choose to selectively remember, if anything at all?

What makes Berlin or Vienna particularly Jewish? Is it the haunted past of Nazi atrocities that are embedded into contemporary Berlin’s physical environment in the form of memorials, museums, and plaques? Is it the Viennese kosher cafes and art galleries that are owned by contemporary Jews seeking cheaper rents and work spaces than Paris or New York? These questions are especially pertinent for 21st century Europe (see, for example the new Jewish museum that opened recently in Warsaw). But questions about place, space and Jewishness are also deeply relevant for Jewish communities across the United States, as people continue to circulate, migrate, move back to cities from the post-war suburbs, and reinvent notions of Jewish community yet again.

I feel like I’ve been asking these questions about Jewish neighborhoods, space, and place for a long time, and never settle on a definitive answer, because the ground is always shifting, as are Jews. How would you answer these questions based on your own biography and understanding of Jewish life?

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Caryn Aviv is Associate Director/Jewish Educator with Judaism Your Way in Denver, CO. Caryn taught Jewish Studies at various universities for ten years, and has published widely in the areas of contemporary Jewish culture, gender and sexuality in Judaism, and Israel Studies. In her voluminous spare time, she's an aspirational vegan yogini and is studying for rabbinical ordination through ALEPH: The Alliance for Jewish Renewal.

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