Berlin and the Perimeters of Jewish Geography

By Leslie Morris

LeslieMorris.jpgAlfred Kazin, the prototype of his own self-proclaimed “New York Jew," describes walking with Hannah Arendt in the bombed-out streets of Cologne in the late 1940s, a literary streetwalk that begins the demarcation of American Jewish textual geography in the ruins of Germany. Kazin and Arendt’s flânerie in Cologne, memorialized in New York Jew, Kazin’s 1978 memoir about American Jewish postwar intellectual culture, adds layers—textual, geographical—to the encounter between (American) Jew and Germany that continues to unfold today. I turn to Kazin not to add him to the lineup of American Jewish writers who have shaped Jewish culture in Germany, but to think about the circulation of literary/visual/urban texts in what we now conceptualize as a transnational sphere.

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Yield signs as Jewish stars in Berlin's Skulpturenpark

Kazin’s walk with Arendt was immortalized in a period when American Jews were not going to Germany. Only in the past decade has Berlin begun to be considered a “Jewish" tourist destination, altering the flight path from New York to Tel Aviv to include a now-requisite stop in Eastern Europe and, increasingly, Berlin. Yet if Berlin is indeed to occupy such a place on our maps, then its symbolic spaces need to be inserted into the larger trajectory of Jewish urban space. While Heine’s axiomatic statement that “the book is the Jews’ Fatherland" has shaped our approach to German-Jewish diasporic culture, recent work on urban culture and Jews has extended the perimeters of Jewish textual space to include not only “the book," but also the complex interactions between Jews and other others in a range of geographical and historical locations.


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The Jewish cemetery in the Schönhauser Allee

Critical work on the encounter between German and Jew in Berlin today has focused on the so-called new Memory District that spans the Jewish Museum, Holocaust Memorial, and Topography of Terror. Yet despite this renewed focus on Jewish culture, Jewish history—a vital trace in what my colleague Karen Till has identified in Berlin’s public memory projects as the “layered staging and restaging of nationalism and modernity"—becomes thinned, absorbed into the structures of German national history, even while the shakier edifices of the encounters and misencounters that constitute German-Jewish history and memory are remembered and memorialized with such public fervor.

While urban Jewish space in Berlin has thus been canonized within the maps of
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The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, with the Reichstag and the Brandenburg Gate in the background

former Jewish life in the city (such as the Scheunenviertel district in the former east Berlin) and displaced to memory sites about the Holocaust (Eisenman), there is a distinctive urban Jewish spatial practice that is, significantly, absent in Germany today: the eruv. An eruv is a legal fiction originating in the Talmud that extends the boundaries of the home to enable observant Jews to carry objects on the Sabbath. While its boundary markers are imperceptible to the untrained eye, it is made visible in part by the sight of the visibly marked (Orthodox) Jews walking within its boundaries. By demarcating a physical border around an area of the city, the eruv makes public city spaces “private" by creating a continuous series of “doorways" with wire around city spaces. The eruv functions, in part, as a ritualized spatial recreation of a lost or destroyed place, i.e., the Temple destroyed in 70 C.E.


Historically, the eruv has played a small but not entirely insignificant role in German Jewish history, with eruvin (often called Schabbeschranken or Shabbattore—Sabbath gates) in Frankfurt and Hamburg and smaller cities and towns. Controversies within the Jewish community about the Frankfurt and Hamburg eruvin were symptomatic of the tensions between assimilation and religious observance, i.e., between neo-Orthodoxy and liberal Judaism post-Emancipation (1871) and after the waves of Jewish migration from the country to the city in the second half of the 19th century. In contrast to Germany, mainstream American Jewish culture emerged in the urban and suburban spaces of the postwar period, and has been shaped more by the shopping mall than by the eruv. The game of “Jewish geography," in which American Jews place each other by locating family and communal history on the various maps of American Jewish culture, is a sort of linguistic navigational system in this suburban diaspora. This game is a speech act that itself performs Jewishness and, in so doing, redraws the lines of American geography with the repeated incantation of its (largely urban and suburban) perimeters. In Germany, despite the rapid spike in Jewish population since 1989, Jews remain a tiny minority concentrated in a few urban centers. This spatial configuration of Jews in Germany has prompted architectural historian Manuel Herz’s critique of new Jewish spaces in Germany as “anti-eruv," containing what he describes as a maximum of Jewishness in a minimum of physical space, with a visibly expressive and dramatic new “Jewish architecture" of Germany that paradoxically annuls the critical potential of architecture to create living Jewish space.

While there is, currently, no eruv in Germany, the U.S.-based Lauder Foundation plans to create one in Berlin’s Prenzlauerberg. Yet I turn not to the historical or future eruv, but rather to the eruv as conceptual and “imaginary" Jewish space, as an instance of transnational Jewish geography; not the literal space where observant Jews can carry on the Sabbath, but a textual, sanctified space where meaning and signification are “carried over" (über/setzen). Most significantly, the idea of an eruv in Germany ambivalently evokes in the popular imagination images of contained Jewish spaces on German soil: ghettos, camps, and other spaces of Jewish enclosure. Unlike Herz’s, my call to re-inscribe the eruv in our contemporary maps of Berlin is not to create a more “authentic" Jewishness in the ruins of history. Rather, it is a way of thinking about contemporary Jewish urban space and historical spaces of memory that allow that space—embodied in the eruv—to move from its original meaning in Talmudic text to the complex ordering of the private, public, and sanctified spaces of urban Jewish culture.

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This page contains a single entry by cla published on December 17, 2008 9:58 AM.

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