Israeli Expats Explore the Fatherland And Its Lingering Guilt Complex

Letter from Berlin

By Frank Hudec

Published September 24, 2004, issue of September 24, 2004.
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Roi Talmor, 25, is better known as D.J. Poingi, a break-core (a school of techno) disc jockey who says he comes from IsraHell. He lives in what was East Berlin, in a walk-up he shares with a photographer friend. The apartment is small and unrenovated, a holdout in the hipster neighborhood of Prenzlauer Berg, where every building is undergoing a facelift. Paint is peeling from the walls, and there is a shower in the kitchen. His room is a music studio, a bedroom and a lounge area — all in one — with a coal oven in the corner.

Talmor has been here for a little more than six months now, one of a growing number of young Israelis who have moved to Berlin. They each came for different, yet intersecting, reasons: Some because they couldn’t tolerate the state of constant war; others for a free education, but all because of some unconscious cultural draw.

“I never felt that comfortable [in Israel] as an artist,” said Adi Wolotzky, a 28-year-old video artist who has been living in Berlin for three months now, after spending eight years in London. “There is amazing Israeli art and there are extremely talented people there, but the scene is very small. Claustrophobic.”

But for Israelis, life in a society carrying the blame for World War II and the Holocaust can have its drawbacks, and to travel through Berlin is to come upon one Holocaust memorial after another. Some appear in the quiet form of small, copper-covered stones in the sidewalk before a building listing the names of deported Jews and the camps in which they died. Others are more prominent, such as the Wittenberg Platz Monument, listing all the camps, or the “Memorial for the Murdered Jews of Europe,” currently under construction, only minutes’ walking distance from the Brandenburg Gate in the center of Berlin. In the midst of all this, some young Israelis feel they become unwilling representatives of the Jewish people.

“Get over your guilt,” Wolotzky said in response to the German breast-beating she’s encountered. “We are third generation. I think we can sort it out by now. Can we just get on with it?”

Wolotzky feels a special connection with Germany, one that she attributes to having grown up in Ramt-Hasauim, where she was surrounded by Germans Jews her whole life. “They were more German than Jewish, and we always laughed about it,” she said. “Their punctuality of sleeping, [for example]. Between two and four in the afternoon, you’re not allowed to play as a kid outside. Big time. And if you dared stepped out and made a bit of noise, the neighbors would come and chase you out.”

Some of these preconceptions about Germans, though, were dispelled by a romance she had with a German man.

“He wasn’t that tidy,” she remembered. “I thought that he would be much tidier than I am. And I thought that he would always come on time, which of course he didn’t. Which was always shocking.”

Talmor, too, had preconceived notions about Germans — and consequently, about what life in Germany would be like.

“I always associated the Germans with doing things straight,” he said. “I turned out to be wrong about Berlin and Germans in general. Especially for East Germany. I expected it to be clean and neat, and it’s not like that at all.”

But some say that the Israeli and German cultures are not so different, after all. Naomi Rolef, a 29-year-old student of comparative literature and cinema studies from Tel Aviv, has been in Berlin for a year now. She actually has German citizenship based on “right of return” given to the descendents of German Jews who fled Nazi Germany, as her grandfather did in 1939. She said that for her, the place feels like home.

“I don’t know if it is because of my German origin or if there is some kind of similarity between Israeli society and the German society,” she said.

Rolef said that moving to Berlin was a form of escapism for her. It’s not just feeling unsafe in Israel, which she said she can handle, but the poor state of the Israeli economy, as well.

Still, none of this means she never will return.

“There are a lot of things in the Israeli mentality that I appreciate more and more. Basic things because in the psyche, we are a new country. Certain temperamental things that I feel more identified with. At a certain point, I will have children. And I will have to think about the society I raise them in, and the one place that I would have no qualm about raising children in is the Israeli society.”

Talmor, too, misses Israel and its culture sometimes, most especially because he feels that Germans are not as close to each other as Israelis are.

But Wolotzky says she cannot see returning to Israel after the past eight years of political strife.

“For me this is all about the return to Europe,” she said. “Generations have passed since World War II, and I think we are coming back.”

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