Inside a Berlin bookstore on a recent Friday night, an unusual scene unfolded. Thirty people sat around a long table, sharing Israeli-Moroccan dishes like matbucha (a side of roasted red peppers and tomatoes), ptitim (a toasted pasta shaped in little balls) and a modern twist on the traditional challah or egg bread — a vegan one filled with dry fruits, quinoa, herbs and pomegranate juice.
They were celebrating the end of the week and the beginning of a day of rest, known as the Sabbath in Jewish communities. While observant Jews commonly have a Sabbath dinner on Friday nights called Shabbat, many of the guests were non-Jewish Germans who purchased tickets.
The Shabbat celebration in the book store was a pop-up dinner organized by a new Israeli business called Kiddush in conjunction with the March 19 start of Berlin’s first-ever Jewish food week celebration called Nosh Berlin.
Other Nosh Berlin events include a discussion about German-Jewish coffeehouse culture of the 1920s and dinners featuring Yemeni, Persian and Roman Jewish recipes.
“Food is always a warm and welcoming way to approach a culture,” says Laurel Kratochvila. She teamed up with food writer Liv Fleischhacker to organize Nosh Berlin to unite Jews and non-Jews of all backgrounds.
Since the Holocaust led to the extermination of some 6 million European Jews, Germany has striven to encourage its citizens to understand the history of what happened. “We were taught a lot about the Second World War and the Holocaust, and that leads to a feeling of enough-is-enough at some point,” says Fleischhacker. She wants people to learn about different aspects of German Jewish life, not only the tragedy. “I think there needs to be a bit of a modernization, a youthfulness to it — a different approach.”
The organizers, both of whom are Jewish, also want to stir Jewish pride in Berlin.
“Jews shaped Berlin before the Holocaust,” Fleischhacker says. “There should be a celebration of the past and of the future.”
Before the Holocaust, Jews didn’t really open up restaurants serving food labeled as “Jewish.” Jews were well integrated, certainly in cities. “There is no such thing as German-Jewish culture,” says Cilly Kugelmann, program director of the Jewish Museum in Berlin. “German Jewish culture is mainstream culture. It’s classical music, it’s [Johann Wolfgang von] Goethe and [Friedrich] Schiller. It’s not an ethnic culture.”
Also, German Jews didn’t eat the Jewish foods that Jews from Eastern Europe did — Ashkenazi foods like matzo ball soup or blintzes (crepes with cheese.) They ate mostly German food. Sometimes it’s even hard to distinguish the two. Germans, for example, eat fried potato pancakes and call them Kartoffelpuffer. Jews call them latkes.
Still, the Nazis ensured Jews had a hard time eating Jewish food, anyways. When they seized power in 1933, one of the first laws they passed banned the kosher slaughter of animals.
In the post-War era, Jews did go into the restaurant industry, “but definitely not kosher food because you wanted to make money,” explains Kugelmann, whose own parents owned a restaurant and only cooked kosher food at home. “And you had so few Jews here that you would never be able to make money with a kosher food restaurant.”
Not until the 1970s did the Jewish community start to grow in any measurable way, with the first wave of Jews coming from the former Soviet Union, where Judaism, like all religions, was oppressed. That immigration to Germany lasted through the USSR’s breakup in the early 1990s.
Thousands of Israelis have moved to Berlin in the last five to 10 years. Some cite as motivation the high cost of living in Israel; others say they disagree with Israeli politics. Some of these immigrants qualify for German citizenship if their German Jewish ancestors were persecuted by the Nazis. In 2015, the German government estimated that about 4,000 Israelis live in Berlin, but other estimates suggest there are up to 20,000, according to the American Jewish Committee Berlin.
Yuval Belhans of the Kiddush Shabbat pop-up project is one of them, and so is his business partner, Maayan Meir. Meir thinks serving Jewish food has been rare here until recently because “people don’t like to mix guilt and food,” she says. But she says the more that Israelis move here and open restaurants, the more normal it will seem.
Kratochvila of Nosh Berlin is optimistic that the Jewish food scene will evolve beyond the basics. “The more you have, the more exciting it gets,” she says. “You can’t stay at a base level if you have competition.”
Jews will likely keep moving here. The city is welcoming, despite an increase in anti-Semitic acts in recent years. The Berlin Police Department records anti-Semitic acts according to their political motivation. In the first half of 2015, the department logged 62 incidents by right-wing groups. In 2016, it went up to 64. While no one knows the cause for sure, during this time, media reports covered anti-Semitic remarks made by members of the extreme-right party Alternative for Germany, which had been gaining public support.
Another entity in Berlin that tracks anti-Semitic acts is called the Department for Research and Information on Anti-Semitism. Last month, it reported anti-Semitic attacks increased by 16 percent from 2015 to 2016, but it has a much broader definition of anti-Semitic acts and can’t be compared directly with the police department’s data.
Cilly Kugelmann of the Jewish Museum points out that food weeks like this one do more than sell food. They are educational. That appeals to Kratochvila of Nosh Berlin, who hopes to make this an annual event.
“I wouldn’t dream of calling the cuisine here homogeneous — there’s a really diverse food scene in Berlin,” she says. “But this is a component of the food landscape that’s been sort of removed from it by history, that should be growing here.”
Judging by the turnout for Nosh Berlin so far, people are enthusiastic about Jewish life here. By Sunday evening, all but one of the Shabbat dinners lined up for this Friday had sold out.
Veronica Zaragovia is a public radio reporter who lives in Berlin and is a fellow with the Robert Bosch Foundation. You can find her on Twitter @verozaragovia and on Instagram @veronicazaragovia.