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


db said...

powdered hummus? ugh.

It's a delicious snack!
It's a tile grout!
It's Both!!!!
New hummus is a delicious snack and a tile grout!

(From the Makers of Shimmer)

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