Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Making Up For It

On Sunday Martin Scorsese won the best director and best picture Oscars for his film “The Departed.” These victories are being both celebrated and sarcastically groused about, but nearly all agree on what they represent: making up for the snubbing the virtuoso has endured in past years. Those who applaud this tactic herald the Oscars as long-overdue; those who don’t complain that better nominees got overshadowed. Meanwhile, a different kind of making up for history was going on across the Atlantic, where Berlin’s municipal government passed a measure last Tuesday requiring all public buildings to hang flags every 18th of March. This date marks the German peoples’ attempt at Revolution in 1848, an attempt that many think failed because the population lacked the required disobedient spirit. The new measure is therefore being interpreted by some as an attempt to make up for earlier docility. The 100-word announcement in daily Der Tagesspiegel unleashed an unusual flood of commentary on their website.

Some felt the event’s embarrassing failure should occasion no commemoration. As “BK” put it caustically, “It’s the primary symbol of the German people that they can’t resist a ruler for long and ultimately obey the authorities.” Indeed, the powerful German princes and dukes pretended to accede to local revolutionary demands when it looked as though their heads might roll, but when the masses had calmed a bit, they claimed every ounce of their old power, in places strengthening it. Yet there was no significant further revolt because residents of the various provinces that would one day become Germany were never as riled up as their contemporaries in France and remained respectful of traditional leaders. One observer who had witnessed the revolution in Paris was astounded by the obedience he saw in Berlin, where revolutionaries continued to lift their hat to the king when he rode by.[1]

Yet the government wants to restyle this perceived blemish on national character by giving the revolutionary attempt its day in the sun, as if to say, “we weren’t feisty then, but we would be now.” This underlying message has caused some to look through the collective aura that surrounds civic commemoration decisions and read the measure as a partisan choice. It was drafted by a government dubbed the “Red-red coalition” in reference to the composition of left-wing parties that currently dominate the city senate. As the reader “Aging Rebel,” comments, it is not the first time that coalition member PDS [Party of Democratic Socialism], the successor party to the SED Communist dictators, wants to rename history. “Rebel” cites the PDS’ political success by normalizing the term Wende, or "Turn," rather than "Revolution" for the events in East Germany in 1989. In so doing, he claims, they tapped into a German distaste for real revolution, allowing the Germans to “obey the authorities” once more—and re-elect the PDS in the recent vote rather than letting it fall in permanent disgrace from the political scene.

Indeed, the PDS’ attempt to perhaps tweak how history is read—the 18th of March as a day of honor rather than failure—is mocked in another wry comment that suggests “flag-hanging and no school for children on the 21st of October, to commemorate the victims of the 2001 vote for Berlin Parliament, when the incompetent Red-Red coalition was first elected.” Ouch. At least Scorsese’s detractors don’t insult the man, just the measure: he’s great, they acknowledge, but better-late-than-never Oscars lower the integrity of the event. Yet, Berlin’s never-ending stream of memorials and memory gestures runs by a better-late-than-never credo, even when its measures begin to seem a bit laughable. And in fact this better-late-than-never motto motivated more than just Scorsese’s wins over in California: the environmental, international, and self-effacing air of the 79th Academy Awards urged us to make up for our atmosphere-destroying sins while subtly apologizing for Hollywood’s own cultural hegemony of yore and promising a brighter future. Even the caustic Berliner wit received this message well; as liberal rag die tageszeitung (taz for short) conceded, “Never was the alliance of mass media power and simple messages so clearly directed to attune a global public to a good cause.” It appears easier to accept reconciliation when it’s not in your backyard; Berliners are more comfortable with red carpet proselytizing than perceived preachiness from the Red-red coalition.

Note: Discussed as a realistic antidote to historical white-washing in the Feb. 12 Post, “The Lives of Others,” Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s work about life under surveillance in East Germany, upset Mexican favorite “Pan’s Labyrinth” to win best foreign language film.
[1] Amos Elon, Zu Einer Anderen Zeit: Porträt der jüdisch-deutschen Epoche 1743-1933 Aus dem Englischen von Matthias Fienbork (München: Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag: 2002), 160. Originally published in English under the title The Pity of It All. A History of the Jews in Germany, 1743-1933 by Metropolitan Books, Henry Holt and Company, New York.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Biller’s Will

Maxim Biller does not sit before the expectant audience—he slouches and hooks his hands on his jeans, as though his plastic chair were a combination La-Z-Boy and barstool. This living-room posture contrasts strangely with the anxiousness written across his features as he waits for the audience to respond to his inquiry. It may seem like an act of ego-preening for one of Germany’s most-lauded authors to ask a room of university students why they like him, yet the recipient of multiple literary awards, hailed by the Suddeutsche Zeitung as the bringer of Jewish literature back to Germany, is rather skeptical of himself. He pauses in the middle of speech to pronounce a recent utterance “idiotic” or says of a story he reads aloud, “that didn’t sound very good to me.” This confidently-expressed self-deprecation smacks a bit of Woody Allen, an impression aided by his horn-rimmed glasses and slight stature, yet Biller isn’t interested in shtick.

He has ostensibly come to this white-walled classroom in Berlin’s Humboldt University to read from his upcoming book, but as the afternoon wears on, it becomes clear he is out to gain something himself. He wants to know what makes his works stand out in the German literary landscape as “Jewish” books, and whether they can simply be “German.” In the following discussion about what is “German,” Biller asserts that a country with a genocidal past that until recently “still used blood to decide who belongs…will never be a fully just society.” (He is referring to how German citizenship prior to 2000 was not guaranteed to those born on German soil without German parents.)

He also accuses the German language of being hindered by a preponderance of Prussian, bureaucratic terms, such that instead of replying to an invitation to dinner with “I don’t know,” someone might say, “I can’t definitively confirm that.” Jewishness brings a looser flavor to the language, he contends, although his latest stories sound less Jewish than simply straightforward-yet-lyrical, reminiscent of Hemingway without the self-conscious ascetism.

It’s a shame Biller hasn’t been published in English. Although the unnaturally frequent swooning women populating his literature also recall the babes who mysteriously fall for the wimpy protagonist in Allen’s films, Biller’s tales also have a meaty lesson to offer American readers. Ordinary people are blown about by fate, tossed aside by the whims of dictators, overwhelmed by “the people;” in short, in works like Land der Väter und Verräter [Land of Fathers and Traitors] Biller presents a world where political intervention wildly disrupts the notion of self-determination.

As Jeremy Rifkin among others has pointed out, Americans expect to be able to control their life, to take the bull by the horns and make their own fate. If they work hard enough, things should naturally, according to a God-given plan, fall into place. As his mother told him, “Jeremy, in America, you can do anything you choose to do and be anyone you choose to be, if you want to do it or be it badly enough.”[1] That is, while we see our political freedom as exceptional, we have also grown normatively accustomed to self-determination as a individual’s God-given birthright.

For subscribers to the man-is-master-of-his-own-destiny worldview, Biller’s tellings of shattered lives would provide a mournful, yet fascinating window on a sort of tragedy fairly foreign to American soil. Biller himself is a refugee who left Czechoslovakia in 1968 after the Soviets crushed the uprising there, fleeing to Germany and learning the language in which he now writes.

However, I ask Biller if his stories, with their tension between individual will and historical forces, are meant to illustrate that capitalism is a system of ultimately more control over one's own life, a natural rejoinder for an American recoiling at unhappy endings. Biller explains that every society has rules to which one must bend and that the individual will be very unhappy if s/he doesn’t conform to fit into what is expected. He then proclaims that the Bohemian non-conformists of any society are freer and happier than the obedient mass. But not to worry: this trite Euro-intellectual creed barely wiggles into his mournful work, leaving its fascinating study of fate untainted.

A recent New York Times article also addressed free will, or rather, tried to. Author Dennis Overbye examined the proposals of various scientists to conclude that some people believe we have free will, some don’t, but the smartest ones seem to believe the truth lies somewhere in the middle. Perhaps this middle ground, rather than his presumed “Jewishness,” is what makes Biller’s work so interesting. His characters may be pummeled about by history’s unfair evilness, but they cling tenaciously to the illusion of their own freedom, making audaciously strange choices about how to lead their lives as though responding in defiance to the unseen controlling forces. Biller, naturally, takes after them: his reading for the students may have been fate, and his views on Bohemians may be an inevitable part of his identity, but his hubris in deconstructing his listeners’ homeland and language was all his own.

[1] Jeremy Rifkin, The European Dream: How Europe’s Vision of the Future is Quietly Eclipsing the American Dream (New York: Penguin, 2004), 12.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Free to be Polluted
The Berlin Senate recently passed a series of measures to “greenify” the city center by forbidding entry to cars that generate harmful emissions through inefficient or dirty technology. While not yet set in stone, the new policy means that as many as 80,000 cars in Berlin will lose access, reports the Berliner Zeitung. This is fantastic news, implying better air quality, less noise pollution, and less congestion. Although the measure will cause consternation among owners of “old-timers,” the German nickname for old-fashioned models, there are also planned concessions that would allow for the occasional Sunday spin while precluding daily commute. With the city’s infamously punctual and efficient public transportation system, as well as extensive bike lanes, there isn’t much of an excuse to be driving anyway.

In taking this step, Berlin is ahead of a fellow city across the sea. Although New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration has toyed with the idea of introducing “congestion pricing,” the idea has been criticized as a regressive tax that would disproportionately hurt the lower and middle classes. Congestion pricing charges vehicles more during times of high use, and it has been successful in London, for example, in keeping more cars out the cramped metropolis’ busy hub during rush hour. Yet New Yorkers were strangely resistant to the idea, although they live in a city with the nation’s second-longest commuting time.

Equally strange is the response of residents in a rural pocket of Virginia to a proposed wind farm to be built on a local mountain ridge. Although they take pride in the beauty of their land and encourage eco-tourism, they view a wind farm as “industrialization in the wilderness,” reports the New York Times. Owners of a lodge promoting ecological tourism are afraid turbines in the distance will "ruin" the nature their guests come to see. Yet the idea of “untouched wilderness,” though a favorite American founding myth, needs to be viewed critically. It is a falsehood sometimes used to justify morally atrocious acts, as when the US Army exterminated the native inhabitants of Yosemite Valley to claim the “untouched land” for a national park for white people.

As well, these rural residents are idealizing a lifestyle more environmentally damaging than they perhaps realize. In the modern world, little wooden shacks do not sit alone on prairies as self-contained family-units. Rather, modern houses in somewhat isolated locales hook up to an electrical grid and use large amounts of energy to heat and cool themselves. This consumption makes a far larger ecological footprint than that demanded by urban apartment-dwellers surrounded on all sides. This is not to say everyone should moves to Queens; just think of what the traffic would be like then! It is rather to point out that romanticizing certain lifestyles causes people to see things fuzzily and miss the bigger picture, especially in Highland County, where turbines able to power 15,000 homes with clean energy may not be built.

What links the wary Virginians with their stubborn metropolitan cousins is resistance to changing individual lifestyles for a greater social good. In New York, critics claim that poorer drivers will lose out—despite a Transportation Alternatives report showing that 90% of auto commuters also have access to nearby public transportation with a maximum fifteen minute time difference from their car commute. For fifteen minutes longer, many can enjoy less air and noise pollution, as well as, for those willing to ante up the cash, a better commute. Yet small individual sacrifice is not taken to kindly by Americans, who are inclined to feel that laws and rules infringe their rights rather than enhancing their quality of life. As New York indicates, this viewpoint is certainly not dismissible as a red-state or even generational problem; a poll in Jane magazine last year asked its young, liberal readership if introducing gasoline taxes would be fair or “fascist;” a whopping half replied “fascist”!

Similarly, Virginians don’t want to look at turbines on a mountain ridge they would rather conceptualize as “pristine.” Their discomfort with this lifestyle adjustment obscures the fact that turbines could also be seen as a hopeful sign of the future, not as a scar on the untouched landscape, but only if individuals are willing to let an unwanted measure force them to change their minds. This change-of-heart in a small community would in turn provide 200,000 tax dollars for the potential benefit of all residents of the poor county. However, in the land of the free, such a change will be a long time in coming.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Life is a (Nude) Beach
Do old condoms or old jail cells more accurately present the past? Open since summer 2006, Berlin's DDR Museum aims to represent the flavor of daily life in the German Democratic Republic [Deutsche Demokratische Republik], by focusing on banal objects like, well, condoms. In contrast to other traces of “real existing socialism” in the GDR’s former capital, such as Hohenschönhausen, prison of the Ministerium für Staatssicherheit, the DDR Museum displays only on the quotidian, the normal, the average. Or rather, normal aspects of life are presented in an exotic, “oohing-and-aahing-encouraged” fashion, as relics of a bygone era the museum’s website likens to ancient Rome or the Middle Ages. The brainchild of a corporate customer relations specialist, the museum, which is not publicly-funded but rather a for-profit corporation, is shamelessly self-promoting and according to detractors too reliant on a history-Lite approach that obscures darker realities. Yet it must also be praised for its hands-on emphasis and illumination of little-publicized aspects of life in the GDR.

The museum's exhibition fosters understanding of the ordinary by encouraging visitors to touch actual objects ranging from a restored Trabi, the GDR’s signature boxy automobile, to yellowing cookbooks and children’s toys. Designed to resemble the famous Plattenbau architecture of socialist planning (see Post Feb. 6), the exhibit transforms a dumpy, underground room alongside the Spree river into a series of small displays and informational plaques on topics ranging from blue jeans to kindergarten to vacation. Most of the displays are interactive and highlights include the afore-mentioned car as well as a small “movie theater” where a projector plays state-sponsored television.

All this combines to make like in the GDR seem, if not cushy, then at least not too bad. Indeed, such Alltagsleben receives a different treatment in Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s widely-acclaimed film “Das Leben der Anderen” / “The Lives of Others” (2006), which opened in the United States last week. Here we see the main characters, GDR cultural crème-de-la-crème playwright Georg Dreymann and actress Christa-Marie Sieland (played by Sebastian Koch and Martina Gedeck) enjoy their success with a birthday party whose small-talk and chintzy gifts seem to resemble a typical bourgeois Western fête. In the West, however, the host would not have to break up a spat between one guest accusing another of being a Stasi informer.

Yet the museum claims not to take part in the current ostalgie trend sweeping Germany, wherein life under an oppressive dictatorship that employed 90,000 citizens just to open the mail is either mourned for its loss or misrepresented as a world of quaintly unhip consumer products (see Wolfgang Becker’s 2003 film Goodbye Lenin!). The exhibition certainly walks a fine line, allotting a tackily expansive display about nude bathing equal room as a corner addressing the Stasi’s surveillance.

This light-hearted and accessible approach has won the museum many fans, as its own advertisements will tell you, quoting a guestbook entry that calls it, “One of the most interesting museums in the world.” The populist self-promotion doesn’t stop once you’re inside, where entrance wall text adopts a friendly, slick tone straight out of PR to brief visitors on the well-conceptualized tactile world they are about to discover. Naturally, a poster of the aforementioned guestbook quote is also available in the gift-shop, doubtlessly to complement the just-completed “voyage of discovery through the daily life of a past time.”

None of this slick strategizing should be surprising, given founder Peter Kenzelmann’s roots as a self-styled motivational speaker. But while being put off by the occasional tastelessness is acceptable, using this disdain to dismiss the museum’s achievements is not. Apparently, people do feel as though they are learning something they couldn’t get elsewhere in the time they spend fingering old junk and reading simply-worded wall texts. An employee of the museum who preferred not to be identified claims that “ninety-five percent” of visitors walk away satisfied, and admits that in relation to his own upbringing in East Germany, the exhibit feels fairly accurate. The main inaccuracy? A small section linking the childcare system’s collective potty-breaks to contemporary right-extremist violence.

“That’s just not right,” explains the elderly ex-DDR-Bürger before the display case containing small models of children sitting on toilets.

As the kids demonstrate, the exhibit doesn’t veer from the obviously sensational, or perhaps even historically fuzzy. In fact, a book published by Dr. Stefan Wolle, Head of Research, was criticized by peers for not providing enough academic sources for his discussion of everyday life. Whoops.

Regardless of the museum’s less-than-heavy analysis and overtly shrewd business sense, Mr. Kenzelmann was right in identifying a certain absence in the memory landscape. While jails, security centers, and memorials rightly expose the injustice of a corrupt regime, the GDR was not pure, grueling oppression for each of its citizens. There were some who believed in the rhetoric of social progress, betterment, and equality as much as those on the other side of the Iron Curtain, but they hoped they had found a better solution. This museum brings the nobility of that hope to light. It is a small light, but an important one for understanding, as the museum phrases it, “a culture of a past time.” To this end, some of the wall texts are notable in their striving for historical fairness and are at times is at times quite successful, as in the discussion of the halfway emancipation of women who were able to work yet still responsible for picking the kids up from state-provided daycare.

A trip to the DDR Museum is certainly worthwhile; it would be a lie to hide behind high-brow definitions of culture and deny that the normal material detritus of a society imparts an aesthetic and physical understanding not easily gleaned from well-cited textbooks. It would also be a shame not to acknowledge that the “other” system, that which lost to today’s reigning capitalism, wasn’t motivated by strikingly similar ideals. Yet in its striving to present the quotidian and not the cruel, the DDR Museum nearly forgets that the lines between these categories are often blurry, as the birthday party in “The Lives of Others” so aptly shows. To resolve this tension, a museum visit is best followed by a viewing of von Donnersmarck’s suspenseful and richly-layered film, not so much as an antidote but rather a complement, a secret-police inflected yin to the naked-beach yang.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

The (Literally) Empty Legacy
Europe’s biggest housing project is slowly being taken apart. Marzahn, a massive complex of oppressively ugly concrete towers capable of housing 60,000 residents, will have at least 1,800 fewer apartments by 2008. Located in former East Berlin, Marzahn’s bleak, urban aesthetic once starkly represented “real existing socialism,” but after the Wall “fell” residents rushed to leave their skyscraper socialism. They moved on to prettier places, giving Marzahn a measly 85% occupancy rate in 2000. Empty apartments are expensive, and the current solution to the cost is to rip down the buildings and replace them with public parks, reports the Berliner Zeitung.

Earlier attempts have been made to spruce up Marzahn’s image, such as a golf practice course erected in nearby Hellersdorf that used vast stretches of underdeveloped and cheap land, yet as investors soon found out, this was not a place for country-club style patronage. Marzahn’s somewhat roughneck image has even been turned into a brand recently by a group of self-styled young thugs; “Marzahn Wear” peddles shirts with the iconic Plattenbau, or concrete tower, above the logo, “Don’t Mess with Marzahn.” On their website, a rapper beckons: “Do you have a knife? / Kids go to Marzahn. / Are you a criminal? / Kids go to Marzahn.”

I blame Le Corbusier. For the ugliness, for the crime, for everything. The man who proclaimed the New York City’s 1916 Zoning Law to regulate building height a “deplorably romantic city ordinance,”[i] dreamed up a housing model for the modern era that would become its worst nightmare. His Utopic city was composed of cloud-grazing high-rises with acres of greenery and highway between them. It did away with the traditional pedestrian street and also eliminated the fabric of social interaction and neighborly geography that, as Jane Jacobs was to argue, composed the city’s essential vitality.

Le Corbusier’s sanitary vision, created as a counterpoint to places like the crowded immigrant slums of New York’s Lower East Side, looked pretty good to many city planners, including Robert Moses. As twentieth-century New York’s Hausmann, he demolished twenty-one different neighborhoods to build Le Corbusier’s vision, which morphed from drawing-board Utopia into modern-day housing project. The housing project proceeded to “fail” miserably, proving a breeding ground for crime and mistreatment. People didn’t seem to take pride in their weird tower-garden terrain, which ultimately did not foster neighborliness, as the old streets, stoops, and small-built brownstones and stores had, but rather neglect.

As Spike Lee’s film Clockers (1995) perfectly depicts, the open space of the housing project became a vector for illicit behavior rather than community interaction. Critic James Sanders has pointed out that Lee’s film was the first to truly address housing projects, despite their previous four-decade existence, because unlike the crowded tenement streets they (sometimes) replaced, their harsh environment provided no home-grown stories and lacked what moviegoers wanted to see—engrossing human enterprise.[ii]

Even Le Corbusier’s high-end projects lack aesthetic charm or well-planned social fabric. Residents of his 1953 “Berlin typ” high-rise in western Berlin later had to add a small newspaper kiosk in the first floor, since the tower is ringed with park and driveway rather than stores, as well as storage and laundry space between the building’s concrete supports, since this hadn’t been thought of either. While offering great views, the interior resembles a bureaucratic labyrinth or jail rather than a living space, while the exterior’s boxy repetition is plain unattractive. Luckily, this high-rise is the only of its kind in the lonely neighborhood alongside train tracks and the Olympic grounds, rather than being part of a larger complex or social structure, so there have been no reports of excessive crime or resulting deterioration of urban fabric.

The government of the German Deomcratic Republic may have been inspired by idealism when they adopted the towers-in-the-garden model of social planning for Marzahn. Or they may have pragmatically picked the cheapest construction method possible. One thing is certain: the propagation of such a model is a legacy of Le Corbusier’s life work. As is its failure. Ugly and socially unappealing, Marzahn is now going the way of St. Louis’ Pruitt-Igoe housing complex, modeled after Manhattan projects but dynamited barely fifteen years after it opened, because its crime and vandalism also led to incurable non-occupancy problems. As Harvard historian Alexander von Hoffmann puts it, “even poor people preferred to live anywhere but Pruitt-Igoe.” It appears that poor people would also prefer to live anywhere but Marzahn.

Another recent article linking the "modern housing project" model's replacement of streets with intermittent green spaces with drug use and crime appeared recently regarding Berlin's Paul-Hertz Siedlung: http://www.morgenpost.de/content/2007/01/26/bezirke/879035.html
Image of housing project with trees of New York City’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Houses courtesy of: http://www.nyc-architecture.com/HAR/HAR018.htm
Further reading: Caro, Robert A. The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1974.

Jacobs, Jane. The Death and Life of Great American Cities. New York: The Modern Library, 1961.
[i] Rem Koolhaas, Delirious New York: A Retroactive Manifesto for Manhattan. (New York: Monacelli Press, 1994), 251.
[ii] James Sanders, Celluloid Skyline: New York and the Movies. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2003), 219.

Friday, February 02, 2007

Nice Curtains, Bad Hummus: the Culinary Revival is Halfway There

The tabouleh was strangely flavorless and the pita bread cold. My dining companion’s gefilte fish smelled (and looked) like cat food—more than gefilte fish usually does, that is. But our table was graced with dreamy Chagall images, with the usual floating figures and purple-blue livestock. In fact, each table corresponds to a historical Jewish figure, our waiter at Kadima explained enthusiastically. The restaurant, whose name means “forward” in Hebrew, aims to become a culinary beacon in the much-touted revival of Jewish life here in Germany’s capital. The restaurant’s pedigree seems nearly guaranteed, as it sits directly alongside Berlin’s restored New Synagogue in the Spandauer Vorstadt, a neighborhood that before the Holocaust was a historic center of Jewish life. However, Kadima highlights the contradiction of this revival, in that the striving for authenticity feels a bit, well, inauthentic.

This is not a problem it struggles with alone: the kosher Beth Cafe café on neighboring Tucholsky Strasse presents itself as a little slice of both diaspora and Middle Eastern Jewish tradition, with a menu containing bagels alongside eggplant dishes. As with Kadima, its furnishings are charming and clean, and right now an exhibit of photography from Jerusalem’s Old City accents the walls. A display of typical Jewish food, mainly popular brands of sweet and snacks imported from Israel, stands near the bar. However, when I asked whether there were any to-go hummus available, waitress suggested using a powdered mix they were selling. “It’s really simple,” she promised. “You just add water and it really tastes just like normal hummus.”

Dr. Jeffrey Peck, author of “Being Jewish in the New Germany” (2006) points out that this inconsistent-yet-earnest revival, which began in the 1990s, is currently fueled by American visitors who come to check out the Jewish “scene.” No wonder the only other occupied table at Kadima was taken by New Yorkers discussing their tour itineraries.

A gregarious professor who by his own admission occasionally runs into students at trendy watering holes, Peck is a good person to ask about the much-touted cultural revival. He says he is not satisfied with Berlin’s Jewish-oriented offerings, but hesitates to describe them further. He can’t find the words, but to my suggestion of “authentic,” he laughs loudly—“absolutely not.” In alignment with my impressions, he dismisses Beth Café as “awful,” yet at the end of our conversation suggests a guidebook to “Jewish Berlin” that he favors, not quite willing to dismiss the still-natal scene completely. After all, Peck has spent years studying what it means to be a Jew in Germany and applauds the mixed achievements for what they are: inspiring signs of vitality in a perhaps unlikely place.

That is, these restaurants have opened their doors alongside not-infrequent reports of vandalism of Jewish graves or Holocaust memorial plaques. The synagogue, Kadima and even Beth Café’s small entrance are fronted with metal protection barriers and permanent police watch. This is not to say society is wildly antisemitic: one also sees articles about schoolchildren organizing group research projects about their colleagues who disappeared in the 1940s, or neighborhood parliaments setting aside funds for new memorials to lost citizens. However, the revival takes place in a country whose attitude towards Jews remains uneasy; Peck describes it as either anitsemitic or philosemitic, with little middle ground, little “normalcy.”

These restaurants have a potentially large role to play in creating this “normalcy,” since good restaurants are part of a “normal” image of a culture. Despite the Jewish people’s horrific past vis-à-vis this nation, they are nonetheless a group of people with particular customary foods, just like any other group. If visitors from abroad as well as local customers maintain patronage, there is reason to hope that both places improve through feedback and capital. It would be a shame if they didn’t. For when it becomes as unremarkable to grab a snack at Beth Café as it is to buy a döner from a nearby Turkish joint, Berlin will truly have come a long way.

Kadima, Oranienburger Strasse 28, tel. +49, (0)30 / 27 59 41 51 Tip: Try the Russian dishes; they promise a better dining experience since the kitchen team seems to be more Russian than Middle Eastern or American.
Beth Cafe, Tucholsky Strasse 40, +49, (0)30 / 2 81 31 35