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Yekkedom makes a comeback

June 11, 2011

From Haaretz:

You’re a Yekke? How cool

By Ofer Aderet

“Does anyone have a recipe for Rote Grutze?” was the question posed by a surfer last week on the Facebook page for descendants of Yekkes (Jews with origins in the German-speaking countries ). Her surname, Tuchler-Neubert, left no doubt as to her origins. Nor did the interest she showed in the fine German dessert – a chilled red-berry pudding. Another surfer, in a jovial mood, wondered: “Let’s see who can explain to me why the banana is crooked.” Every descendant of Yekkes with fond memories of some Oma Gertrude knows that this question refers to the rhyming German expression, Warum? Warum ist die Banane krumm? The Facebook page, named for a famous German nursery rhyme, “Hoppe Hoppe Reiter,” takes pride in being a warm home for “young descendants of Yekkes for preserving the Yekke heritage.” On the top of the page, it defines its target audience: “If your memories of your grandmother’s home included nursery rhymes in German or total silence between 2 and 4 in the afternoon, you are in the right place.”

The site is one of the ways the veteran Yekke organization, the Association of Israelis of Central European Origin – established in Tel Aviv in 1932 – has in recent years been reaching out to young audiences, members of the third and fourth generation of Israelis of German background. Next week, it plans to hold a large convention at the Tefen Industrial Park in the western Galilee, which was founded by one of the best-known and most affluent members of the community, Stef Wertheimer.

Rote Gruetze

Rote Gruetze

The convention is being held to mark the 75th anniversary of the settlement project of pioneering Yekkes in 50 kibbutzim, moshavim, moshavot and neighborhoods around the country, which were agricultural in nature. The organization’s directors hope to see young faces among the audience – the next generation that will help them preserve their heritage over the next 75 years as well.

“The organization’s old and basic goals – first and foremost, facilitating the immigration of German Jews – vanished long ago,” says veteran journalist Micha Limor. “The founding generation is passing away, and we are seeking new members and goals.” Limor, 73, who in recent years has edited the organization’s magazine, Yakinton, is himself a proud, second-generation Yekke. His generation no longer considers the epithet an insult.

As to its origin, there is still controversy. According to one version, “Yekke” came from the German word “Jacke,” meaning jacket – an item of dress typical of Western European Jews. Others say, with a wink, that “Yekke” is the Hebrew acronym of the phrase “hard-of-understanding Jew.” Almost certainly, it is an old, derogatory German term meaning “clown” or “fool.” “For our parents, the epithet ‘Yekke’ was a terrible insult they never forgave,” says Limor, who lives in Haifa, a major bastion of Yekkedom. “But we no longer wear jackets – maybe just on television – and we don’t see ourselves as hard of understanding.”

Upon becoming its editor, six years ago, Limor took a number of steps to make Yakinton friendlier to the younger generation. It was no easy task. The veteran periodical, which will mark its 80th anniversary next year, was outdated and old, filled mainly with general and current events information for its readers – all members of the organization.

The first step he took was to add to its name – Mitteilungsblatt (bulletin, in German ) – an additional, Israeli name, Yakinton, which is a play on the word “Yekke” and the Hebrew word for newspaper (“iton” ). It is also the Hebrew name of the hyacinth, a Mediterranean flower, as befits a periodical that targets Israeli readers. The second step was equally significant: expanding the Hebrew-language section of the bilingual magazine, so that most of the content would be in Hebrew and only a third of it in German, “for the sake of the Yekkes in the old age homes who have still not weaned themselves” off the language, as Limor puts it.

The change is also manifest in the actual content, which now includes extensive coverage of Yekke heritage and the perpetuation of Yekke values in society. Yakinton, one of the oldest Israeli periodicals, has adapted itself to innovations of the times, sometimes to the distress of veteran members of the organization who preferred the old, modest and subdued version of the publication. “The previous editorial board was frugal,” says Limor. “In order to reduce the amount of paper used, the words were crowded close together and there were no photos.”

The color, the spacing and the graphics he introduced annoyed some subscribers. “The old people complained that I was bringing television into the paper and its atmosphere was too Internetish and modern,” he says.

Today, in fact, most of magazine’s principal articles are uploaded to the Internet after publication. All of its past issues have been scanned and are available online. The current distribution is 4,000 copies, a quarter of which are sent abroad, but the actual number of readers is far higher. “There are kibbutzim that in order to save money buy one copy and pass it around among 50 Yekke readers,” relates Limor.

One of the advantages of the magazine – at least for advertisers – is the readership, which includes many of the country’s famous and wealthy Yekke families, among them the Strausses, Federmans, Hamburgers, Harels and Fischers as well as many other public figures and economic leaders. The vast majority of the readers are aged 50 to 70, mostly members of the second generation. But recently, the third and even fourth generations have also been showing considerable interest.

“My son, who is 46, of course reads what his father writes, but one person who reads the magazine from beginning to end is my 17-year-old grandson, who is fascinated by the Yekke scene, ” says Limor.

The editorial board consists of 10 regular writers, some of them renowned professors, all of whom are of Yekke stock, who work for the paper on a volunteer basis. Two of the board members are Yekkes of another sort – German women who married Jewish men and converted. The group meets once a month. First, as befits Yekkes, they conduct a postmortem of the previous issue. The criticism includes mainly identifying typographical errors in the Hebrew part of the magazine and complaining about the language in the German part. The original Yekkes, who grew up in the lap of the German language of the 1920s, often complain about innovations in their mother tongue. Then they plan the next issue, and at the end of the meeting, share a little gossip about community members and discuss responses received at the editorial offices.

As befits a serious and veteran publication, from time to time, Yakinton succeeds in kicking up a storm. After the publication of the Goldstone report on the Gaza campaign, Limor wrote in his regular column, “Things I Wanted to Say,” that Judge Goldstone “has a clean conscience.” He explained that with his “uncompromising integrity, bureaucratic tenacity with regard to doing justice, comprehension of the reality and its formulation in language so direct as to be scientific, Goldstone is a perfect replica of our own Yekke, State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss.” Despite calls heard in the organization’s leadership for the firing of the editor for what he wrote, Limor has kept his job and, with typical Yekke inflexibility, continues to maintain editorial independence.

The person behind the winds of change in the Yekke organization is the director, Devorah Haberfeld, who assumed her position five years ago. Haberfeld, whose father came to Israel from Austria, understood that if the organization wanted to survive into the 21st century, it would have to reach out to all of Israeli society and show flexibility in accepting new members – a decidedly un-Yekke characteristic. In Israel’s heterogeneous society, made up of so many different communities, that means that third- and fourth-generation “Yekkes” can also be Moroccans, Tunisians or Yemenites. “There are members of the organization who are married to Yekkes – ‘married well,’ as they say – and offspring of Yekkes who are already ‘mixed,'” says Haberfeld, in an interview in the organization’s offices, located since the 1940s in a beautiful building near Nahalat Binyamin Street in Tel Aviv. “The regulations make this possible.”

“Yekkeness is no longer a matter of ethnicity, but rather a kind of Israeliness,” she adds. “Even my cleaning woman, an Arab from Jaffa, tells me she is a Yekke and refuses to leave until she has cleaned all the windows in the building.”

Reuven Merhav, a former director general of the Foreign Ministry, currently serves as the organization’s president. “Today, when I speak, people no longer hear a German accent,” he says in an interview in his home in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Rehavia, another Yekke bastion. “My children can speak barely three words in German. What remains of the Yekkeness is the values.” These values, he says, include tolerance, justice, humanitarianism and belief in the importance of mutual aid. In addition, he says, “The Yekkes have stood out at the professional level, in their industriousness, in their modesty and in their deep connection to society and their heritage.”

The Yekkes were also willing to do any kind of work, adds Merhav. “There were academics among them who became window cleaners, lawyers who became bus drivers, doctors who became poultry farmers and historians who sold handbags.”


Along with the newspaper, the organization also operates two Internet sites dedicated to perpetuating Yekke values. The official site provides current information about the organization’s activities, particularly the aid it provides individuals of German origin. It also contains stories about Yekke heritage and activities and the complete “Book of Yekkes” – an online notebook that commemorates the names and activities of the Yekke immigrants who came to this country in the fifth large wave of immigration, in 1929-39. Only several hundred of the original 60,000 Yekke immigrants currently appear on the list, but it is growing from day to day.

The organization’s other site, Yeke, is an educational project targeting members of the younger generation and tries to connect them to Yekke culture through stories, jokes and comics. Thus, in the Yekke-Laugh section, surfers are invited to “laugh with us” and publish jokes about Yekkes.

Another project recently launched is “The Dictionary of Spoken Yekkish,” for which the organization enlisted all its members and asked them to send in words and expressions they heard at home. Organization volunteers are now industriously and energetically working on editing the material. The dictionary is scheduled to be published in its print edition by Rosh Hashanah; part of it is already available on the Internet. Along with words like “Schlafstunde” (afternoon nap ) it will contain expressions like “Kaffee und Kuchen” (coffee and cake ) and “Spiegelei” (sunny-side up eggs ).



“When the writer Isaac Bashevis Singer received the Nobel Prize for Literature, in 1978, he said with a smile that Yiddish had already been dying for 4,000 years,” remarks Haberfeld. “I believe we will also know how to continue into the future what we have done for nearly 80 years, precisely because of our Yekke characteristics. My grandson is already one-quarter Persian, one-quarter Yemenite, one-quarter Polish and one-quarter Austrian. I hope he will nevertheless get something of our tradition.”


Happy Hanukkah!

December 21, 2008

Here is a German version of Adam Sandler’s silky-smooth Hanukkah classic. (The original version is of course much, much better, but this is nonetheless good for a smile or two… Enjoy!)


Prof. Moshe Ahrend, z’l

November 26, 2008


Last week, Prof. Moshe Ahrend passed away. I think I have met few people as impressive as Prof. Ahrend, or Dod Moshe, as I knew him. He was a tremendous scholar, but more than his intellectual brilliance, the people who knew him will first and foremost remember him for his unparalleled humility. I don’t think I have ever met another person who always played down his own importance and made his fellow feel respected and appreciated. The word “loss” is ubiquitous at eulogies and obituaries, but for me personally, it almost never rang as true as now. The world has really lost a great man.

For those who read German, Ashkenews is proud to present an obituary by a very distinguished guest blogger, Prof. Ahrend’s nephew and my father Prof. Dr. Yizhak Ahren:

Schwimmen gegen zwei Ströme

Der aus Frankfurt am Main stammende Bibelforscher Mosche (Max Wolfgang) Ahrend ist in Jerusalem im Alter von 82 Jahren gestorben. Der allseits beliebte Hochschullehrer war ein äußerst bescheidener, freundlicher und hilfsbereiter Mensch.

Ahrend, der an der Bar-Ilan Universität Pädagogik lehrte, hat das Konzept von Tora im Derech Eretz (Tora verbunden mit allgemeiner Bildung) in vorbildlicher Weise vorgelebt. Tiefe altjüdische Frömmigkeit und die Haltung eines modernen Akademikers waren bei ihm harmonisch ineinander verschränkt. Er plädierte für eine jüdische Erziehung zum Schwimmen gegen zwei Ströme – gegen den Strom einer militanten Religionsfeindschaft sowie gegen den Strom einer fanatischen Gegnerschaft zu jeder weltlichen Bildung.

Eine Autobiographie hat Ahrend zwar nicht verfasst, wohl aber hat er die abenteuerliche Geschichte seines Überlebens in der Nazizeit in einem Interview für das Archiv von  Yad Vashem geschildert. Den Menschen, die dem Jugendlichen  auf der Flucht in Frankreich und in der Schweiz von 1938 bis 1945 geholfen haben, war Ahrend lebenslänglich dankbar.

In der beeindruckenden Festschrift, die Ahrend 1996 zum 70. Geburtstag überreicht wurde, findet man, wie in solchen Veröffentlichungen üblich, ein Verzeichnis seiner Schriften; diese lange Liste dokumentiert die Vielseitigkeit seiner  Interessen und die Breite seines Wissens. Hier seien nur die Hauptwerke genannt. Zusammen mit seiner berühmten Lehrerin Nechama Leibowitz hat Ahrend ein zweibändiges Werk über Raschis Tora-Erklärungen veröffentlicht. Seine Edition des Kommentars von Rabbi Joseph Kara zum Buch Hiob wurde von Fachleuten gelobt. Von bleibender Bedeutung sind auch Ahrends Bücher über die jüdische Erziehung in einer offenen Gesellschaft; er diskutierte Probleme des jüdischen Religionsunterrichtes und entwickelte Richtlinien für Bibelstudien. Erwähnenswert ist, dass Ahrend , der einige Jahre in Frankreich gelebt hat, 1976 eine populär gehaltene Einführung in das Judentum in französischer Sprache geschrieben hat, die sich heute noch grosser Beliebtheit erfreut.


German-Jewish businessman in Israel has success, but few friends

August 28, 2008

Daniel Jammer

Daniel Jammer


Was für ein Jammer! The English edition of Haaretz ran an interesting article about German-Jewish businessman Daniel Jammer, the owner of soccer club Maccabi Netanya. Although he “revived the club’s fortunes” – also by his recent hiring of German soccer legend Lothar Matthäus as coach – the people around him don’t seem to like him very much. They say Jammer is “micromanager, a solo flyer, hot-tempered, short-fused and endlessly suspicious, a man who absolutely hates it when people disagree with him.” Ouch. 

Jammer got to Netanya through Henry Meingarten, an Israeli of German origin, who served as chairman of Maccabi Germany, where Jammer had played as a boy. Jammer was already addicted to soccer by then, having bought Slovak soccer club FC Senec. He surprised Meingarten by telling him he wanted to immigrate to Israel and asked Meingarten to find him a club in Israel to buy.

Read the entire article here.


U.S. yekkes in Israel suffer under low dollar

August 1, 2008

In a brief sidebar to a Haaretz story on the weak dollar’s impact on the lives of American retirees in Israel, I also tell the story of an old yekke.

A German-U.S.-Israeli tale  

Sidney Selig was born in 1924 in Frankfurt, Germany, fled the Nazis with the Kindertransport and arrived in New York in the 1940s, via London. After nearly 50 years in America, 32 of them as the cantor of the Ohav Sholaum synagogue in the legendary German-Jewish community of Washington Heights, Selig decided to move to Jerusalem in 1987. 

“I never got any money from Germany,” he told Anglo File, referring to Holocaust reparations payments. “I call this money blood money. My family was killed and I should get paid for it?” His position as cantor didn’t pay much, he said, and therefore his Social Security payments are proportionately meager. Since undergoing a stroke in 2005, Selig, 84, has required 24-hour care – another expense that he and his wife have to shoulder out of their Social Security allowances. “But we never had an extravagant lifestyle,” his wife, Shoshanna, said. “We feel the impact of the low dollar, but we don’t suffer too much from it. We never bought expensive things anyway.”


200 years ago, Samson Raphael Hirsch was born

June 20, 2008

He was and will forever remain the figurehead of Orthodox German Jewry: on June 20, 1808, Rabbi Samson (ben) Raphael Hirsch was born. He was an important scholar and community leader and is often credited with the creation of Modern Orthodoxy. (Read more about his life and achievements here.)

A few years ago, the blog Hirhurim quoted a brief passage from Rabbi Hirsch’s Collected Writings that demonstrates how his thought, albeit “Orthodox” in its core, never shied away from modern ideas.

Judaism is not frightened even by the hundreds of thousands and millions of years which the geological theory of the earth’s development bandies about so freely. Judaism would have nothing to fear from that theory even if it were based on something more than mere hypothesis, on the still unproven presumption that the forces we see at work in our world today are the same as those that were in existence, with the same degree of potency, when the world was first created. Our Rabbis, the Sages of Judaism, discuss (Midrash Rabbah 9; Tractate Hagigah 16a) the possibility that earlier worlds were brought into existence and subsequently destroyed by the Creator before He made our own earth in its present form and order. However, the Rabbis have never made the acceptance or rejection of this and similar possibilites an article of faith binding on all Jews. They were willing to live with any theory that did not reject the basic truth that “every beginning is from God.”

As befits a great leader, a flood of homages should be expected for the next few days. Already in is this interesting look at Rabbi Hirsch’s bid to become Britain’s chief rabbi. [German readers also shouldn’t miss this brilliant article in Die Zeit written by Rabbi Dr. Leo Trepp, who received rabbinic ordination from the Berlin Rabbinical Seminary in 1936.] 

Incidentally, this year marks not only Rabbi Hirsch’s 200th birthday, but, on December 31, also the 120th anniversary of his death. A full lifetime after the passing of one of German Jewry’s greatest leaders – who knew when to build bridges and when to tear them down – let’s hope that among today’s German Jews there will arise a leader appropriate for our time. Much like in the nineteenth century, traditional Jewry is in grave danger in Germany. A new Samson Raphael Hirsch is needed, someone who can combine tradition and modernity and revive the true spirit of Judaism once again.


Jews lived in Cologne as long as Christians

June 15, 2008


Reuters reports about a new museum that shows that the Jews of Cologne, Germany have been around the block for quite a while. The picture above shows a writing by Emperor Constantine from 321, in which he appointed the Jews of Cologne to the city council.

A new Cologne museum will show how Jewish life in the city goes back more than 1,700 years and, civic leaders hope, help revive it decades after the Holocaust. An archaeological site from Roman times will be at the heart of the museum which the organizers also want to illustrate modern Jewish life and customs. 

The strongly Catholic city, best known for its Gothic cathedral, claims to have the oldest Jewish community north of the Alps, dating back to at least 321, during Emperor Constantine’s reign. “This project is extremely important to show that Jews have been in Germany for as long as Christians — people in this country should be made more aware of that,” Wilfried Rogasch, head of the project, told Reuters.

Late on Friday, a jury chose German architects Wandel Hoefer Lorch + Hirsch to design the museum due to open in 2010 or soon thereafter. It is being financed partly by a private foundation and partly by the city. 

The same architects designed an award-winning synagogue in Dresden which opened in 2001 and a Jewish center in Munich. 

“The concept is for an integrated project which will bind together the archaeological remains and the museum which will bring us to the modern day,” Rogasch said. 

The remains include a synagogue and a “mikve,” or Jewish ritual bath house, and the museum will be suspended over the site, said Rogasch. 

Cologne’s 5,000-strong Jewish community backs the initiative but says it wants the museum to have relevance to their lives by including a meeting area or a place of worship. [See Cologne’s main synagogue on the photo to the left.] 

“We welcome the project and want people to learn about history but we also want something today’s Jewish community can actively engage in,” Abraham Lehrer, a board member of Cologne’s Community of Synagogues, told Reuters. 

Germany’s Jewish community has more than tripled in the last 15 years, mainly due to immigrants from the former Soviet Union who account for most of the country’s 105,000 registered Jews. A similar number of non-practising Jews live in Germany. 

Jewish schools, theaters and shops have sprung up but Lehrer said the population’s dynamic growth of recent years is slowing. 

With neo-Nazi crime on the rise, police guard synagogues round the clock and the community is haunted by the memory of the Holocaust in which Nazis killed about 6 million Jews. 

Only 12,000 Jews were left in Germany after World War II from some 600,000 before. 

Medieval Cologne’s strategic location on the river Rhine at the crossing of trade routes brought it prosperity. Its Jewish community thrived until pogroms and explusions in the 14th and 15th centuries. 

Although not on the scale of Berlin’s Jewish museum which opened to great fanfare in 2001, locals say the historical connection will give Cologne’s museum special appeal. 

“It is a unique opportunity we have because of the history and I think the project will become a landmark in Germany and even Europe,” Mayor Fritz Schramma told Reuters.