No-Go Area? A Rabbi Takes a Walk Down Sonnenallee

Are some districts in German cities no-go areas for Jews? To find out, a rabbi agreed to take a stroll down Sonnenallee, the heart of Berlin’s Arab community.
Quelle: Getty Images
Neukölln is home to a large Arab community.

When Yehuda Teichtal stands in front of his wardrobe, he doesn’t have much choice. As an orthodox rabbi, he can’t choose how Jewish he wants to look – he has to look Jewish. The full beard, the black suit, the black kippah and, on top of it, a wide-brimmed felt hat, the Borsalino, are obligatory for Rabbi Teichtal and his fellow believers, the Chabad Jews, also known as Lubavitch. Hiding the kippah underneath a baseball cap, as an increasing number of devout Jews are said to do in some areas of Berlin, is out of the question for Rabbi Teichtal.

We have arranged to meet on Sonnenallee, a major thoroughfare in the Berlin district of Neukölln. There is hardly a street in Berlin that is more “Arab” than this one. There are halal butcher shops next to wedding shops displaying niqabs, the face-covering for women, in their window and Lebanese cafés competing over who has the best hummus. The Central Council of Jews has been talking about “no-go areas” or “problem districts” for Jews in Berlin for quite a while and it most likely meant streets like Sonnenallee. A fierce dispute has flared up in the Jewish community over just how dangerous it is to be recognized as a Jew there. We wanted to put it to the test.

Rabbi Teichtal, 44 years old, shows up to meet us full of an electric and bemused delight, something that is as much a part of the faith of Chabad Jews as the Borsalino. The orthodox group, which came into being 250 years ago in the village of Lyubavichi in Belarus and is now present in around 70 countries, likes to be extrovert in celebrating its love of God – with ecstatic dance, with singing and clapping. This winter, when Christmas Eve and the beginning of the Jewish Festival of Lights, Hanukkah, fell on the same day, Rabbi Teichtal lit a huge nine-candled menorah in front of the Brandenburg Gate and smaller candles across the city. But not in Neukölln.

As a greeting, Rabbi Teichtal gives a slight nod, indicating a bow – he is not allowed to shake hands with women. “Some say it is best to be low key with things Jewish in Berlin,” he says. “But that makes no sense at all to me. We are here! And that sure is wonderful!” He moves through the throngs of people with a bouncy step. At the corner of Weichselstrasse we pass a young boy, barely eight-years old, smoking an electronic cigarette. No one is paying any attention to him. There is music blaring out of a car in front of me driven by a young girl. No one takes any notice of her either. But everybody seems to be noticing the orthodox Jew.

Rabbi Yehuda Teichtal in Berlin.

Most people pass by silently. But during the 45 minutes that we have already been walking down the street, two people have rolled down their car window and bellowed something at the rabbi. Yahoud, “Jew,” is the only word that can be understood amid the traffic noise. Two young men pass by, one is fingering his prayer beads. They say nothing. But their looks are icy. A man bumps into Rabbi Teichtal, a woman spits on the street when passing by – whether by accident or design, isn’t clear either time. People at the stoplight honk their horns, grin at him, seem to feel pressure to somehow comment on his presence.

It is certainly not a no-go area, no one has threatened the rabbi with physical violence. But neither do things feel good or natural. With a photographer to the left and a reporter to the right – it appears as if we need to protect him, which Rabbi Teichtal adamantly rejects. “God protects me,” is all he says. All the cheerfulness has drained away from his face in the meantime. In the morning, when he left his home to come meet us, his wife had asked him, “Does it have to be Neukölln?” She was afraid. Rabbi Teichtal mentions it off-hand. He came just the same.

It’s one thing to read about anti-Semitism in the newspaper – but something completely different to experience physically first hand being at the mercy of other people’s feelings of hate. Rabbi Teichtal has a broad, friendly face, alert eyes above a full beard. “I come from New York,” he says, with a nasal Brooklyn accent. “I never had the feeling there like I do here on the street. It’s not right that I have to be afraid to come here! That I have to be afraid for my children! That is certainly not normal!”

Rabbi Teichtal comes from a family of 13 children, something that is normal for Chabad Jews. He has six himself. His family had lived for 500 years in Germany, until the Nazis came – only his grandfather survived the Holocaust. Yehuda Teichtal moved to Berlin 20 years ago with his wife, because the leader of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, known as the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, asked him to come and ensure that there was Jewish life in the city once again.

It’s not right that I have to be afraid to come here! That I have to be afraid for my children! That is certainly not normal! Rabbi Yehuda Teichtal, President of Berlin’s Jewish Chabad Education Center

Rabbi Teichtal is one of thousands of “Shluchim,” Chabad-Lubavitch emissaries, something like missionaries. And he is very successful at it. His Chabad Center now has a kindergarten, a synagogue, an elementary school and high school. But Rabbi Teichtal is also feeling a headwind. His youngest daughter, who is six years old, recently came home pale from fright. In her physical education class, a Muslim fellow pupil said he didn’t want any Jews on his team and nobody protested. She was no longer a girl, she was a Jew. “What am I supposed to do, daddy?” she had asked Rabbi Teichtal. Yes, what is she supposed to do when she encounters an anti-Semite? His reply: “Nothing at all. Do nothing at all. Ignore them.”

The question of whether Arabs and Jews are brothers or enemies, particularly now with the refugee crisis, cuts to the core of Jewish identity. Does Jewish history mean a commitment to universalism, to solidarity with refugees, because of knowing so well the experience of having had to flee? Is it now vital to make an issue of the threat posed by hundreds of thousands of Arab refugees, since the vast majority come from countries where anti-Semitism is taken for granted?

A few weeks ago, Hungarian-born theology student, Ármin Langer presented his book, “A Jew in Neukölln,” at Berlin’s Jewish Museum. It bears the subtitle, “My Path to the Coexistence of Religions.” Rabbi Teichtal did not bother attending.

The 26-year old Mr. Langer had previously caused an uproar because he had called the chairman of the president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, Josef Schuster, a “racist.” Mr. Schuster had in turn called Muslim anti-Semitism an “ethnic problem.” In another opinion piece, Mr. Langer wrote, “Muslims are the new Jews.” Both Mr. Schuster and Mr. Langer later apologized for their comments, but the issue of how Jews and Arabs will be able to live together in Europe remains unanswered and painful.

The Menorah at the Brandenburg Gate was set up by Rabbi Teichtal's Jewish Chabad Educational Center.

There were 150 people at the book presentation, guarded by the police, just as they stand guard outside every Jewish kindergarten and every Jewish school in Berlin. During the reading, Mr. Langer quoted passages from the Torah: “For you know the feelings of the stranger, since you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” The things one is allowed to say about Muslims today in Germany, he said, are very similar to the arguments of anti-Semites of the 19th century. One woman whispered to her neighbor, “He isn’t a Jew at all. He is a convert.”

Mr. Langer says that he has never had a problem being a Jew in Neukölln, where he lives. In 2014, the year of the Gaza War, when pro-Palestinian demonstrators in Berlin were shouting “Gas the Jews,” he formed a Muslim-Jewish human chain at an Arab street festival. “Nothing happened.”

During the reading, he wore a gentle smile, particularly when speaking about himself, his path to Judaism that he inherited through his father, and not his mother as demanded by Yehuda Teichtal’s faith, about his own homosexuality, his epilepsy.

With subtle sarcasm, he ascribes the fear of Neukölln to the “paranoia of Charlottenburg Jews.” German Jews, he says, are altogether very well-behaved, very fearful. But, he maintains, no one needs to be afraid in Neukölln, not even Jews. Then a young man in the last row, a French Jew, speaks up. “I come from Paris,” he says and, one year after the bloody attack on a kosher supermarket in Paris, pauses for a moment. Then he calls out, “Mr. Langer, I have the feeling, we live in two different worlds.”

During the 2014 Gaza War, Germany’s criminal police alert service registered 1,596 anti-Semitic crimes nationwide, including 36 acts of violence. The following year, there were fewer, about 1,200 – but still more than three a day. However, many anti-Semitic acts, when committed by immigrants, are registered as politically motivated crimes by foreign nationals and don’t even show up in the statistics as acts of anti-Semitism.

According to police statistics in Berlin, over 170 criminal acts motivated by anti-Semitism were reported last year. In most cases, the perpetrators were right-wing extremists. The major portion of the crimes took place in the Mitte district, the fewest in Neukölln and Spandau.

Quelle: dpa
Cafe Gordon, Neukölln.
(Source: dpa)

However, the Berlin Anti-Semitism Research and Information Center, RIAS for short, assumes that the number of attacks is actually far higher, because many cases simply are not reported since people don’t dare or think there’s no point. That is why the RIAS collects and looks into reports of such cases coming from Jews themselves – including those reported anonymously. It has recorded over 400 criminal acts in Berlin per year, including violent crimes.

Just as Ármin Langer founded the Muslim-Jewish initiative, Salaam-Schalom, Rabbi Teichtal has time and time again organized activities together with Muslims. A year ago, he was joined by Berlin Social Democrats’ parliamentary party leader, Rahed Saleh, who is a devout Muslim, on Karl-Marx-Allee in Neukölln, not far from Sonnenallee. Together they polished brass memorial street stones commemorating deported Jews. He knows very well it would be perfectly unimaginable for Muslims to light a gigantic Muslim symbol on the square in front of Brandenburg Gate like Rabbi Teichtal did with the Hanukkah menorah. And he is also aware how Jews and Muslims suddenly found themselves pretty much alone on the same side together in the debate over circumcision.

“It is good to help people fleeing war,” says Rabbi Teichtal. “No one knows that better than Jews. But the refugees happen to be coming from countries in which anti-Semitism is part of everyday culture. They come here and say, what does the Holocaust matter to me? We have to tell them as a whole society – not only the Jews – you’re welcome here. But we have a couple of conditions and one of them is respect.”

Do Jews and Muslims really have a common cause after everything that has happened recently in France, after what is taking place day-in day-out on Europe’s school playgrounds?

A small group of Muslims sits in a back courtyard in Kreuzberg. They think that they do have common cause and have been making that clear for the past 13 years. The fact that a group of Muslims founded the Kreuzberg Initiative Against Anti-Semitism (KIgA) at all is a sensation in and of itself. There is nothing similar anywhere in Europe. Dervis Hizarci, who has been KIgA chairman now for a year, describes how, as a faithful Muslim, he came to devote himself to tackling anti-Semitism of all things – and not, as many groups of Muslims do, to racism. “My imam always presented the Jews to me as ‘people of the book.’ We share common interests. Not only in the matter of circumcision or when it comes to butchering meat. We are also united in our experience with discrimination relating to religion.”

Then how is it that among young Muslims the word “Jew” is a derogatory word, an invective, and that teachers have to think twice about whether they want to read Anne Frank’s diary with their students?

Mr. Hizarci had an experience that left him smiling and that can be of some comfort to those concerned about the poisoning of the social climate. A young man, who calls himself Abdullah Business (name changed), runs a gym on Sonnenallee. “If you run into him at night, you move over to the other side of the street,” says Mr. Hizarci. But he follows Abdullah Business on Facebook. And there he saw how this young Palestinian man had, after his cousin had posted an abusive comment, answered in a way that could be dangerous for him: “Hey, man! What you just said is totally anti-Semitic!”

It’s getting cold. North of Sonnenallee, in the newly-gentrified Schiller neighborhood, there is an Israeli hipster café, actually more of an apartment-cum-shop with a record store. It looks invitingly cozy, the customers are lit up by their laptops like in a nativity scene. All of the furniture is self-made, there are two record players somewhere to play records. Electronic music is playing. Café Gordon owes its name to a street in the middle of Tel Aviv that runs down to the beach. A place where you can relax. Someone is laughing, someone else has even dozed off a bit. It can all be resolved, Israelis, Palestinians, Jews, Arabs – it does work! Behind the glass counter are rugelachs, a sugar-sweet Jewish pastry, and from the kitchen, come sizzling sounds as someone cooks shakshouka, a dish made with paprika, tomatoes, onions and eggs.

The owner, Doron Eisenberg, says he has never had any trouble with Muslims, absolutely no anti-Semitism, even with Jewish lettering being visible from far across the street and despite a Palestinian association having its center around the corner. His grandparents were orthodox, his family had also lost members in the Holocaust, so he would have loved to have spoken with Rabbi Teichtal. But Rabbi Teichtal can’t eat at his place. What Mr. Eisenberg cooks here isn’t kosher.

This article first appeared in Die Zeit, a sister publication to Handelsblatt. To contact the author: [email protected]