The Israeli intellectuals making Berlin more Hebrew than ever before

The Holocaust largely ended Jewish cultural life in Germany. But as ever more Israelis move to Berlin, a growing cultural movement is helping create a new Jewish diaspora with a distinctly Hebrew edge.

The Israeli intellectuals making Berlin more Hebrew than ever before
Photo: Itay Mashiach

Antje Haußner, the director of the Betinna-von-Arnim library in Prenzlauer Berg, Berlin, turns the book in her hand over and over again, puzzled. She is trying to add it to the public libraries' catalogue, but the book is in Hebrew, a challenge even for the most determined German librarian.

“This is surely exhausting,” she says, inspecting the pile of books on the shelf in front of her. “But it's brilliant. It is really fantastic what we've accomplished here!”

Last month, the first Hebrew books entered Berlin's public libraries, introducing the label “Hebräisch” into the German institution for the first time. Behind the initiative is a group of Israeli Berliners. They have joined a remarkable number of projects in the field of language and literature, all making Berlin more Hebrew than ever before.

Bringing Hebrew to Berlin is not only charged with historical symbolism. It also touches on baffling questions of identity. The cultural entrepreneurs who promote it go against the grain of conventional divisions, according to which Hebrew belongs to Israel and outside of it is only a diaspora of Jewish communities.

Compelled by their passion for their language, they dare to imagine something new.

'Judaism for me is Hebrew'

Itay Novik, who founded the group “Hebrew Public Library,” stands excitedly in front of the new bookshelf.

“This makes me feel I've done something that makes this city a little bit more home for everybody,” he says. “It's a general service for Berlin.”

In the last three years Novik's group has collected donations of more than 500 books, now slowly finding their place on the new shelf. Eventually they will revolutionize the small library's collection, which next to 45,000 German items contains no more than 640 English books, 100 in French, and 35 in Spanish.

“Beraleh” – a Hebrew newspaper for Berlin's children.

“It is meaningful that it's the first time Hebrew books can be borrowed in Berlin's public libraries,” Novik says. “But also that it's normal. We're not in the ghetto, we won't go to the library of the Jewish community, where there's a police barrier and security checks at the entrance. We're not part of this community, and we don't need this zoo-like experience with cages everywhere. We'll go to the public library, like any other person who lives in this city.”

Novik's mother was born in a Displaced Persons camp near Kassel, Germany, to two stateless Holocaust survivors whose entire families had perished. But this background is hardly relevant to his everyday life in Berlin, where he's been living for seven years. “I am very secular in this sense. I don't live here as the representative of my family who came to Germany 'to show them', and I don't walk in the streets and think 'here Jews hid during the Holocaust'. It doesn't work like this.”

For Tal Alon, the founder of “Spitz”, the first Hebrew magazine in Berlin, the symbolic meaning of Novik's project is moving. “The trivial references to the Holocaust that Israelis see everywhere when they first come to Berlin don't impress me anymore, but this is something else,” she says. “Now we have the empty library at Bebelplatz [the memorial to the Nazi book-burning] and Hebrew books in the public library.”

Alon's magazine is now an established institution in the Berlin-Israeli community. When it first appeared in 2012 its subtitle read '[email protected]', but later it changed to 'a Berlin Hebrew magazine'.

Tal Alon. Photo: Olaf Kühnemann

“I soon realized it was incorrect branding,” Alon says. “I felt Israel wasn't the core of this project, but the Hebrew. This also had to do with my personal journey of exploring my identity. As a secular and atheist Jew, I soon realized that Judaism for me is largely Hebrew. This is the part I'm emotionally and authentically connected with, and this is what I want to pass down to my children. My Jewish identity is, ultimately, my Hebrew identity.”

Alon moved to Berlin from Tel Aviv in 2009 with her partner and two children, leaving behind a successful journalistic career. “'Spitz' was a project of finding my place in Berlin,” she says. “It has a huge part in my connection to this place and in the very fact I stayed here.”

What kind of future Hebrew has in Berlin, Alon cannot say. “This is the million-dollar-question. In terms of my identity, I'm setting my sights on the language. And I don't know if it's sustainable. Maybe because of this question I still feel temporary here. It's not that I want my children to be Israelis, but it does scare me that the distance will make Hebrew an esoteric part of their lives.”

Both Novik and Alon cite Tal Hever-Chybowski as an important source of influence on their thought. In 2016 Hever-Chybowski founded “Mikan ve'eylakh: Journal for diasporic Hebrew”, dedicated to “the existence of Hebrew as a world language, scattered across space and time,” as explained on its website.  It pays tribute to past golden ages of Hebrew Berlin, like at the end of the eighteenth century, when Hebrew journals were published here by local Jewish intellectuals.

“Mikan ve'eylakh” offers a radical and thought-provoking programme, as it consciously turns its back on Israel. It wishes to revive a pre-Zionist Hebrew and offer a space for a non-Zionist one. Inspired by the Yiddish language, Hever-Chybowski dreams of a Hebrew “devoid of state, military, police and bureaucracy.”

“It was born in Berlin out of a feeling of loneliness within the Hebrew,” said Hever-Chybowski in an interview to Alon's magazine “Spitz” in 2016. “I felt that the Hebrew I consume tells me that it's somewhere else, not in my place.”

“Ideologically, I can identify with this message,” says Alon today. “It is an important voice in the community. But emotionally I don't really identify with it. My Hebrew is still rooted in Israel.”

'It helps me feel at home'

Two weeks after the launch of the first public Hebrew bookshelf, a small crowd gathers for a poetry evening in a small theatre hall in Berlin's Mitte district. The guest is a visiting Israeli poet. She reads from her new book and answers questions from an engaged audience.

The bare, black-painted walls of the hall create a strange atmosphere of spacelessness. As the discussion deepens, one can easily forget that outside is a chilly Berlin spring evening and not the humid and chaotic streets of southern Tel Aviv.

The organizer of the event is Michal Zamir, who runs a monthly literary salon in her house. About 40 people come to these meetings to exchange books, have coffee and cake, and read from their own writings.

“Young people, families, older people who followed love to Berlin and now miss the Hebrew, or people who simply feel lonely,” Zamir explains. “Also Germans who learn Hebrew or are interested in Hebrew literature pass by.”

Michal Zamir. Photo: Lukas Mühlethaler

Israeli writers and poets who visit Berlin often contact Zamir, and she organizes events like this one.

Another Israeli poet who contacted Zamir is Gal Mashiach, who moved to Berlin one and a half years ago. Here he discovered how important the mere visual presence of Hebrew around him can be.

“When I suddenly see a letter on the street, my mind clings to it,” he says.

This understanding led him to establish “Beraleh”, a Hebrew newspaper for Berlin's children, whose first issue is due next month.

“'Beraleh' is meant for children who wish to preserve something of the language, an emotion, a childhood memory,” he says. “It was born out of longing for the Hebrew letter. And it's something I need at home, too, between all these Latin letters everywhere.”

“These projects, like the Hebrew Public Library, help me somehow,” Mashiach adds. “They relax me. They make me feel more at home.”

At the end of the poetry evening, the moderator turns to thank the audience. “We've debated a lot whether to run this event tonight,” he says. “As you know, today is Holocaust Memorial Day in Israel, and we weren't sure this is appropriate. But I'm happy we did it.”

“Our victory is organizing a Hebrew event here. And we cannot always do everything according to the Israeli calendar.”

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What Germany’s plans for a points-based system mean for foreigners

To tackle its ever-widening skills gap, Germany wants to encourage talent from aboard to move to the country by introducing a points-based immigration system. Here's what foreigners need to know about the changes.

What Germany's plans for a points-based system mean for foreigners

What’s a points-based system?

A points-based system is an immigration model where foreigners have to score above a certain threshold of points in order to obtain a residence or work permit in a country. The exact scoring system is set by the government, but can include factors like language skills, family connections to the country, specific qualifications or work-related skills, or the amount of money in your bank account. 

Points-based systems can also be known as “merit-based systems”, because there tends to be a pretty big emphasis on what you can offer a country in terms of education or skills. 

The model was first introduced in Canada way back in 1967 as the country tried to move past a system based on race and nationality to one that favoured language fluency, youth and educational or vocational background. A similar step was taken in Australia just a few years later in 1972 and, since Brexit, the UK has also introduced its own points-based model. 

How does this relate to Germany?

When the new ‘traffic-light’ coalition of the Social Democrats (SPD), Greens and Free Democrats (FDP) took office last December, the parties pledged to reform Germany’s immigration system and bring a fresh cohort of workers into the country.

“In addition to the existing immigration law, we will establish a second pillar with the introduction of an opportunity card based on a points system to enable workers to gain controlled access to the German labour market in order to find a job,” the coalition agreement read.

This would apply to third-country nationals who don’t otherwise have the right to live and work in the country. 

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: What Germany’s new government means for citizenship and naturalisation

German language course poster

A sign advertising German courses. Language skills can count towards points in a points-based system. Photo: picture alliance / dpa | Bernd Wüstneck

FDP migration specialist Dr. Ann-Veruschka Jurisch, who is working on these reforms, says the policy is driven by Germany’s desperate need for workers. 

“The Liberal Party (FDP) is convinced that we need more labour migration,” she told The Local. “We do have a lot of options for coming into Germany as a labour migrant – but it’s a bit complicated – and if you want to come to Germany to search for a job and you don’t come from an EU country, it’s much more difficult.”

That’s why the coalition is aiming to offer a second route for people who don’t have job lined up in Germany, but who otherwise have the skills or talent to find one. 

What will this look like?

The plans for the points-based system are still at an early stage, so the exact criteria haven’t been worked out yet.

What’s clear at this stage, however, is that the points-based option would run parallel to the current model, which generally permits people with a concrete job offer in a skilled profession to come and work in the country. 

“It’s about (people having) a good opportunity to come to Germany when they have either a job offer in sight or a direct job offer,” Chancellor Olaf Scholz (SPD) said in response to parliamentary question in January. 

“Next to that, we want to achieve a further possibility for talent – for qualified men and women whose skills we need in Germany, who still don’t have a work contract but, if given access, could use that opportunity. That’s what we’re talking about with this Canadian points-based system. It shouldn’t replace our current system, but rather improve it.”

In short, that means that people with a job lined up won’t be disadvantaged – but there will be alternative routes for those without them. It also won’t affect the EU blue card scheme

READ ALSO: ‘I finally feel at home’: How Germany’s planned changes to citizenship laws affect foreigners

Will people need formal qualifications? 

Probably not – though it will obviously depend on the sector someone works in and their level of experience in their chosen field.

“I personally am convinced that you shouldn’t place too much emphasis on formal qualifications, because it’s very complicated getting your formal qualifications recognised in Germany,” said Jurisch.

“A medical doctor, for example, is one where you can’t say, ‘Okay, you’ve got some experience so we don’t need to see your papers.’ But there are a lot of other jobs which do not have this restriction and they are not formalised but rather based on practical experience.”

Carpenter wood

A carpenter sands down a block of wood in Cologne. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Federico Gambarini

The issue of recognising qualifications is also a problem that the traffic-light coalition has set their sights on solving during their time in office.

At the moment, the process of getting qualifications officially recognised in Germany is done on a state-by-state basis, so somebody who gets their degree recognised in Brandenburg may have to redo the entire process again in Bavaria, for instance.

According to Jurisch, there have already been conversations between the Ministry for Labour and Social Affairs and the Ministry of Education on the issue, and Labour Minister Hubertus Heil (SPD) has also promised to take steps to solve it.

But, she said, it’s complicated: “I’ve started to dive into this issue, and the more I dive into it, the more complicated it becomes – so there are no silver bullets.” 

How many workers are needed – and where? 

In order to plug its labour shortages, Germany needs around 400,000 new workers every year, according to the Federal Employment Agency. In 2020, Germany’s net migration was just 200,000 and 150,000 people of working age entered retirement – which means the country is currently falling well short of its targets. 

“We have shortages everywhere,” Jurisch said. “We need 400,000 new workers every year, and these people won’t be born in Germany – or if they are, they won’t grow up for another 20 years.

“We haven’t managed to get more women into the labour market, or they work part time, so I don’t think this will make a big difference, and I don’t think we will close the gap by training people.”

In this sense, it seems that immigration is the only option for filling major staff shortages in almost every profession. 

“Whoever I talk to, be it nurses, nannies, IT workers, industrial workers, teachers, lawyers – everywhere we have a shortage,” Jurisch said.

staff shortages Germany

A sign outside a restaurant informs customers of a closure due to staff shortages. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Stefan Sauer

When will the points-based system be introduced?

Unlike with the plans to reform citizenship, which the SDP-led Interior Ministry wants to achieve by the end of the year, there’s no firm timeline in place for the points-based system.

However, the FDP is fighting for the policy to be given higher priority and would like to introduce the new visa system before the next federal election in 2025. 

“I hope it will be done in this legislative period,” said Jurisch. “I’m pushing to get it a little bit higher up on the agenda.” 

READ ALSO: INTERVIEW: ‘Changing German citizenship laws is a priority’