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Food for Thought: Hamburg’s Kosher Closet

There are some 3,000 Jews living here in Germany’s second-largest city, Hamburg, a thriving northern port of 1.7 million. Yet for the observant among them there is one synagogue, one kindergarten and only one source for all things kosher. His name is Shlomo Almagor, and he’s a hard man to find.

He doesn’t list his market in the phone book or display any wares in his windows at the strip mall at 16 Laufgraben Street. In fact, Almagor, 34, does not run a grocery store at all. He runs a travel agency. With its bargain-priced package deals, Almagor Israeli Tours is Hamburg’s key to the Land of Milk and Honey. But if you want milk and honey here, Shlomo’s got the key for that too. It fits the lock on a closet in his office, a pantry from which he peddles an array of kosher foods.

“There are no other kosher stores in Hamburg,” Almagor said. “We’re the only one. I started selling food about 10 years ago. It’s not my business to sell cucumbers,” he said with a shrug, “but if it’s something I can do for the community, I’ll do it.”

After studying journalism in his hometown of Tel Aviv (he still freelances for a number of Hebrew papers), Almagor moved to Hamburg and started an import-export business to supply German auto parts to Israel. “After two years,” he said, “I saw that they had no travel agency here for Israel, so that was my second idea.”

Since his arrival in 1992, the community has more than doubled in size. The majority of Hamburg’s Jews are Iranian, sent by the shah in the 1960s to import Persian carpets. The most recent arrivals are immigrants from the former Soviet Union. Both Jews and non-Jewish Germans travel to Israel with his help, and his grocery sideline is, surprisingly, not limited to the Chosen People either.

“The core community is actually about 800 people,” he said. “Most of the Jews from Russia are not interested in kosher food. And the Jews from Hamburg don’t really keep kosher every day. I have a few dozen people who keep kosher and need to buy food from me on a regular basis, and there are also Germans who buy wine, falafel or pita, not because it’s kosher, but because it’s Israeli. They can buy Spanish or Italian wine that costs half as much, but they want to support the State of Israel.”

For those not already in the loop, keeping kosher here can pose something of a challenge. This reporter was in search of groceries during a recent visit. After making inquiries at the Synagogue Hohe Weide Synagogue, he was directed to the Ronald Lauder Jewish Kindergarten, where the secretary, after a few suspicious questions, picked up the phone, dialed and spoke briefly in Hebrew to someone on the other end. When she hung up, she said, “Go see Shlomo,” and wrote down the Laufgraben address.

Hamburg, Almagor conceded, is a far cry from Berlin or Frankfurt. “Here the Jewish presence is small and not very united,” he said. And with a sizeable Muslim population — mainly Turks and Arabs — as well as a cadre of local neo-Nazis, he considers it best to keep a low profile.

A Swiss airline decal is the only adornment on the front window of Almagor Israeli Tours. “We don’t advertise as an Israeli travel agency for security reasons, as you can guess.” He explained that before moving to this street a few months ago, his office was in the same building as the kindergarten, which like the synagogue, is guarded by heavily-armed policemen 24 hours a day.

“For the last seven years, the police would guard the synagogue only on High Holidays and Shabbat,” he said. “Since 9/11, they’re there permanently.”

Hamburg has not seen any significant antisemitic violence in the postwar era. But, he said, “We face problems from two sides. The leftists are against Israel. The rightists are against Jews. The left and right fight against each other here, but if they’ve got the Jews or the Israelis, they have a common enemy.”

Although he has never experienced any personal hostility or threats, he has received some unusual phone calls. “Sometimes people call up and ask questions about the political situation, because I’m the only Israeli they can think of to talk to,” Almagor said. Last week a woman called to talk about the new security fence. She didn’t understand the politics. She believed that the terrorist bombings only began when the Sharon government took power. I used the opportunity to explain a little history to her.”

Almagor has been and remains extremely happy in Germany. His wife, Taly, was born and raised in Hamburg and can trace her roots back to a 1492 Sephardic immigration. Her grandfather, a noted physician, was protected by his union during the Holocaust, and lived and practiced in Hamburg under false documents. The Almagors have two daughters, Hannah, 9, and Sarah, 6, and Shlomo is proud of their German nationality.

“I know what happened here,” he said, “but I make a distinction between the Germans and the Nazis. You can’t confuse the two. My kids hear about the Holocaust and think, ‘The Germans did this? But I’m a German!’ So you have to make that distinction.”

As lunchtime drew near, the conversation turned back to hummus, tahini and falafel, Almagor escorted his visitor down a hallway to the back office. There, he fished out his key ring and unlocked the door to his kosher closet. Inside the small room stood a meat freezer, a dairy case and a few shelves stacked neatly with goods. It was not exactly a scene of plenty. “Most of what I had has been bought up for Pesach,” he said, smiling by way of apology.

Apologies were not necessary. Another satisfied customer was grateful to have found his way to the only kosher food supplier in the city. As Almagor walked his visitor out, the accidental grocer offered a standing invitation to return to the shop again.

“I’ll be here,” Almagor said. “I’ve spent years here, but when my mission is finished, I’ll go back to Israel.” When will his mission be finished? Almagor pointed upward, at the ceiling of his travel agency, and beyond. “God will show me.”

Andrew Berg is a freelance writer living in Manhattan. His recent articles have appeared in The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Variety and Stern magazine, which is based in Hamburg.

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