In this issue we visit three young Europeans paving original profiles paths towards Jewish community, engagement and expression.
by LIAM HOARE
‘‘The idea that your identity is simply handed down to you is at odds with the predominant social narrative.’’
A Scientific Spirit
T he first thing I wanted to know about Deborah Blausten — the 25-year-old rabbinical student and one of The Jewish Chronicle’s 16 young British Jews to watch in 2016 — is what it was like growing up Jewish in London’s Hampstead Garden Suburb, going to a Church of England day school.
“It was really interesting. I’ve never been in a Jewish school environment, which in some ways is actually how most people live,” she told me. “Their daily lives are in the secular world but their Judaism is something that’s much more about how they are and how they navigate that world — and that was always my way of being. I was always ‘the Jewish one’ — or one of the Jewish ones.” It was one of the experiences that helped her grow her Judaism and her understanding of what makes it distinct.
Her family belonged to a Reform synagogue when she was a child but never attended regularly — more like two or three times a year. Judaism, she said, “was never thrust on me. It was something I could explore and understand why it made me different.” Judaism, or perhaps the extent of her Judaism, was a matter of choice. Her first real involvement came through Reform Synagogue Youth when she was a teenager — a community she described as being akin to having another home or family, a safe space.
When I asked what it was about the Reform movement back then that she identified with, Blausten said, “I think a focus on action” as well as “a sense of intellectual honesty, a desire for a congruity between one’s belief and one’s actions,” and the notion that Judaism can be as equally driven and inﬂuenced by new as well as ancient texts — that there should be a dialogue between the two. Blausten studied medicine at University College London, and this was one environment where her Judaism came into conversation with different sources.
“There’s sometimes a concept that religion and science are diametrically opposed to each other, but the vocabulary I got through Progressive Judaism was that science is part of this way of discovering unfolding revelation”; that “what was known in every time builds generation by generation. I found that in tune with what I felt about the nature of knowledge and the world.” In other words, she said, “there is majesty, awe, and wonder in the details that science uncovers,” while believing this reveals something about the nature of the world and how it’s knitted together.
After taking a sabbatical from medical school, Blausten went to work for Jeneration, a Reform student movement on British university campuses. Jeneration sought to challenge the idea that Jewish societies were nominally Orthodox spaces, to build non-Orthodox communities, and to change the atmosphere in these societies by staking a claim to them on behalf of non-Orthodox students. Today, Blausten is the youngest student rabbi at Leo Baeck College, and her immediate ambition is to work in a synagogue and to continue to focus on technology and its role in education and community building.
“I’ll be a rabbi by the time I’m 30, and I don’t know what the Jewish community is going to look like in five years, let alone 40 years,” she said, adding that the character of rabbinic jobs is changing all the time. Still, Blausten said she “can’t imagine having a career that doesn’t involve working in a synagogue,” and that there is something amazing about a communal space that doesn’t discriminate or divide people into categories on the basis of age or gender. “Where else do you see a three-month-old and a ninetyyear-old in the same place? The gift of community is to be with people who are different than you but in a sustained way where we model relationships across generations because we have a broader tie to each other.
“I think Progressive Judaism is the answer to the challenge of Judaism and modernity,” she told me. “Whether all parts of our movement have yet created a vocabulary to carry that out, I don’t know.” Blausten suggested that the number of conversions into Progressive Judaism was healthy, but that we — meaning world Jewry — “must be broader in terms of understanding what constitutes a successful Jewish community.” It’s more than just a numbers game. In particular, communities need to be more open to intermarried families, to understand that this presents an opportunity as opposed to a threat to Jewish continuity.
“We live in a world where identity is constructed as a choice in secular society,” she said. “The idea that your identity is simply handed down to you is at odds with the predominant social narrative. When we have young Jews who know they are part of the community by choice, they feel a lot more empowered.” ■
Important, too, was to “work artistically with my Jewish identity and family history. Art has been an important tool in my family, I think, to talk about the Holocaust, especially for my grandfather,” who wrote poetry.
Archives of Memory
V iennese artist Eduard Freudmann describes The White Elephant-Archive as his “most important project.” Beginning in 1979, his grandmother began to assemble an archive of objects and documents — “texts and poems, photographs, letters of correspondence, Super 8 recordings, audio recordings” — related to her family’s history during both the Holocaust and, later, in Austria’s Communist movement. Freudmann’s grandmother died in 1987, and in 2004, via Eduard’s uncle, her archive — this White Elephant — came into Eduard’s possession. He then made plans on how best to deal with it artistically.
“I choose my media and format according to the subject that I work with,” Freudmann explained, and in the case of The White Elephant Archive, “I understood for a couple of reasons that the theatrical format as an art discipline would make the most sense.” Freudmann first presented the material as documentary theater in the summer of 2012 while as artist-in-residence at Artport Tel Aviv. The piece is performed in English, in order to “speak to people who share the same family stories as me, coming from families that had a relationship with Vienna” — second- and third-generation Holocaust survivors in Britain, the United States and Israel.
Born in 1979, Freudmann lives in the city where he grew up, Vienna, which he described as having “very few Jews but a lot of Jewish accents.” Though he was only six or seven, he remembers the Waldheim Affair as a “very important moment in history” that affected, engaged and mobilized his family. “I remember that, with a friend, we drew election campaign material and handed it out to people” and “went to demonstrations,” he said. His family “stopped being Jewish for political reasons in the late 1940s.” After the Holocaust his grandparents, following a pattern of many survivors who chose to remain in Europe, subscribed to Communism, negated their Jewish identity and assimilated.
Coming from an assimilated background, then, Freudmann spoke of having to go through a process of reconnecting with Jewish identity, which started “very early as a kid. I understood I was Jewish but for quite a long time it was hard for me. I had a scattered identity,” he said, principally because his family “was not related to the community. I couldn’t find anybody to exchange with about it.” In that respect, it was important for Freudmann to leave Vienna and experience Jewish life in other countries — Israel, the United States and Canada — where Jewishness isn’t exclusively characterized by its relationship to negative aspects, like the Holocaust and anti-Semitism.
Important, too, was to “work artistically with my Jewish identity and family history. Art has been an important tool in my family, I think, to talk about the Holocaust, especially for my grandfather,” who wrote poetry. “He wrote poems in the concentration camps and these poems enabled him to survive.” Although his grandmother did not have an artistic aim in mind when compiling it, Freudmann considers her archive a way of dealing with “family history using artistic tools and strategies.” The ways in which “my family had dealt with art became very relevant at a certain point when I studied,” he said. Freudmann studied at the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna and Bauhaus-Universität Weimar.
Indeed, if one examines Freudmann’s body of work, a consistent theme is the ways in which art can deal with historical memory, especially in relation to the Holocaust. One of his earliest projects, Niemals Vergessen (Never Forget), was a kind of guerilla project, providing a counter-narrative at Austrian sites of relevance to the Holocaust, in response to the government’s sanctioned program of public art projects responding to the anniversary of the end of World War II. Other projects of his have responded to anti-Semitism during the time of empire, the expulsion of Jews from Vienna under Nazism, and the treatment of minorities such as Romani and Albanians in Europe.
“Art has been a very important tool in Austria in order to deal with the past,” Freudmann said, although fine arts — as opposed to literature, film and theater — has not traditionally fulfilled such a role, perhaps because “in the past, it was considered harder to deal with explicitly political subjects in fine arts.” Freudmann made these artistic interventions, however, “out of necessity” and in reaction to the ways in which Austria has failed to come to terms with and acknowledge its associations with Nazism and its role in the Holocaust.
It is The White Elephant Archive, though, which is closest to Freudmann’s heart. Although he did not undertake it to please anyone, “The reactions in Israel and Europe have been very positive. It is something that gives me a lot of strength.” ■
“It’s a way to show my home. I feel at home in Berlin — most of the time, at least — and I want Berliners to experience my home” too.
A Home Away From Home
N irit Bialer, born and raised in Ra’anana, moved to Berlin in March 2006 when — like an increasing number of Israelis — she received a job offer and the opportunity to live in Europe. I started learning German when I was 14 — which was at the beginning of the 1990s
— and I was always very much interested in Germany.” Bialer took part in a youth exchange project during her teenage years and was always “intrigued by the issue of the so-called third generation of Israelis and Germans today in terms of how they have come to terms with their pasts.” She studied international relations at university, much of her studies having to do with German-Israeli relations, and once she was finished, she wanted to move to Berlin either for work or further study. “When it happened, I took the step.”
Bialer’s move came at the beginning of a change in Israel in terms of attitudes towards living in Europe and Germany specifically. “For an Israeli or Jew, to live in Germany, you’re confronted with questions like, ‘Why are you learning the language of the perpetrators?’ When I could come to Israel to visit, I was often asked, ‘Why do you live there with the Nazis?’” Now, she is more likely to be asked what she’s doing back in Israel, since today, Israelis have had increased contact with Berlin and know a lot more about it. “Everyone has something positive to say about Berlin,” she said.
In the summer of 2011, after five years in Berlin, Bialer and a group of friends — who were meeting up from time-totime in order to speak Hebrew, share jokes and discuss politics — began work on a project called Habait. Although the name translates to home, Ha-bait does not refer to a physical space so much as an idea. “I’m not a religious person and I’m not some kind of political activist,” she said, but she still connects with Israeliness through culture. “I enjoy reading in Hebrew and watching Israeli films, because I can relate to the characters.”
Habait is designed to promote contemporary Israeli culture in Berlin, not only to the Israeli community there but to anyone who wishes to experience Israel, get to know Israel and engage in a dialogue about the country. Many members of the Israeli expat scene in Berlin are artists and musicians, designers and photographers, and Bialer and her friends wanted to use their networks in order to show off their work, especially to help newcomers from Israel. “We’re really happy to give it a stage. It’s about letting the average German see Israeli culture, something different from what they get from history books or watching politics.”
The events take place in English or German, since it’s about enlarging the audience for Israeli culture beyond Israelis themselves. “It’s a way to show my home. I feel at home in Berlin — most of the time, at least — and I want Berliners to experience my home” too, Bialer said. One of Habait’s successful recent events was Mimouna, held in collaboration with Fraenkelufer Synagogue, bringing this distinctly Middle Eastern festival to Kreuzberg, an area of Berlin with a large immigrant population. That Moroccans from the local community turned up at the event, to hear and dance to the music they know but which is also ubiquitous in Israel, made it an especially touching event for Bialer.
To be an Israeli in Berlin is to be constantly confronted with questions pertaining to one’s identity. Israelis in Berlin are, need it be said, normal young people who shouldn’t be viewed only through the prism of the Holocaust. That said, to live as an Israeli Jew in Berlin is a “challenge,” Bialer said, where one is “confronted with provoking thoughts and encounters” all the time, noting as an example the Stolpersteine (stumbling stones, a form of memorialization) that she sees almost every day on the street where she resides. The experience is one of “self-reﬂ ections no Jew can encounter anywhere else in the world.”
Living in Europe, in Diaspora, was also for Bialer the first time she had reﬂ ected on her Jewish identity. “I come from a secular background” in Israel, where one has what she called “the Jewish daily life. You get in trouble if you want to buy pork or go out on Yom Kippur. In Diaspora, you have the choice” all of a sudden about how you wish to be Jewish. In this respect, the transition from being in the majority to being a minority in another society can be jarring. “It’s exactly the opposite of living in Israel,” she said. “I never really thought about it before.” Only living abroad, in Berlin, created the conditions for Bialer to have this experience. ■
Liam Hoare is a contributor to Moment and writes frequently for The Forward, Tablet, and Slate. He is based in the United Kingdom and is a graduate of University College London’s School of Slavonic and East European Studies.
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