Adjust size of text


Follow us and continue the conversation

Your saved articles

You haven't saved any articles

What are you looking for?

How do Germans views Israelis who live among them?

I often wonder whether I am perceived as a German Jew, or will I always be viewed as an Israeli Jew residing in Berlin?
Mati Shemoelof
Print this
Globe flanked by menorah and image of Brandenburg Gate

Published: 11 April 2024

Last updated: 11 April 2024

After receiving another email inviting me to a poetry festival in a major German town, I replied that I would be happy to participate. I have never visited the city where the festival is to be held. As I delved into the festival program, I realised that I was the only Jewish poet among the participants. This discovery led me to ponder whether my invitation might have been influenced by a "Jewish quota".

It’s a recurring issue. Every time I present my poetry at a festival in Germany, I find myself pondering: how do the German institutes and curators perceive me? Can I transcend the label of a “Jewish writer” in Germany?

How do the Germans see and perceive the Jewish writers who write in Hebrew or Yiddish? Did the Germans' perception of the Jewish-Hebrew-Yiddish literary space change after the Holocaust? With the establishment of the State of Israel, are there new perceptions of the Germans about these literary centres?

In recent years, Berlin has emerged as a thriving literary hub. Hebrew poets, writers, and editors convene in Berlin, establishing the largest Hebrew literary center outside of Israel. Simultaneously, a vibrant and youthful Yiddish literary center has also taken root in the city.

Rachel Seelig writes in her book Strangers in Berlin: Modern Jewish literature between East and West 1919-1933: “Whether focused on assimilation or recalcitrance, scholarship on German Jewry has generally portrayed the German-speaking Jew exclusively in relation to the non-Jewish German, thus producing a one-dimensional image of the “the Jew” as the undifferentiated “stranger” of German society.”

In this context, I often wonder whether I am by now perceived as a German Jew, or will I always be viewed as an Israeli Jew residing in Berlin?

These literary hubs have a history. Between the world wars, Berlin hosted a flourishing literary scene in both Yiddish and Hebrew. One astonishing fact that struck me was the presence of more Hebrew publishing houses in Berlin than in Palestine during the interwar period from 1914 to 1933.

However, as much as these Jewish writers could not hide their Jewish identity, I don’t think it was considered “fancy” to be a Jewish writer.

But am I longing for assimilation to the extent of not being recognised as a Jew?

At the dawn of the 20th century, there was a notable movement among Jews who believed that assimilation would facilitate their complete integration into German society. Many of them chose to convert to Christianity.

This notion of assimilation didn't emerge in isolation. Throughout history, dating back to the Middle Ages, Jews faced pressure to convert, particularly during times like the Crusades when forced conversions were common among those who sought refuge in Christian lands within German towns.

This desire for assimilation persisted into modern times, as depicted, for instance, in the Netflix mini-series Unorthodox, where Esty Shapiro, an Orthodox woman, flees to Berlin to reunite with her estranged mother and grapples with adapting to secular life, ultimately rejecting the beliefs of her upbringing.

A few years ago, I had the opportunity to meet the German director of this mini-series. When she asked for my opinion about her work, I expressed my discomfort with the theme of assimilation. Unfortunately, she didn't appreciate my perspective and never responded to my subsequent email.

So, here I am, trapped. Either you're perceived as the Jewish/Israeli poet in Berlin, continually seen as the "other," or I am assimilating without further recognition, writing in German and suppressing my Jewish identity.

But perhaps there's a third form of identity. These days I co-curate a symposium especially about this theme in order to investigate this issue with my Hebrew and Yiddish colleagues: “Hebrew? Yiddish? Berlin?” (13.4).

What would happen if I were to write an entire book in German? Would I still be perceived as an Israeli Jew venturing into the local language? Can I escape being solely identified through the lens of my Jewish identity? As much as I aspire to be seen simply as one of the poets of Berlin, can I truly distance myself from the place where I was born and raised?

I don't determine how I am perceived in Germany. It is ultimately a German decision to move beyond the “Jewish Lens” and endeavour to see us as individuals who live among them, transcending solely the Jewish perspective. In that regard, I must inquire with the curators regarding their reasons for inviting me to the festival, rather than jumping to conclusions.

About the author

Mati Shemoelof

Mati Shemoelof is a poet and an author. His writing includes seven poetry books, plays, articles and fiction, which have won significant recognition and prizes. He has written a radio play for German radio WDR. A German edition of his bi-lingual poems was published by AphorismA Verlag.


No comments on this article yet. Be the first to add your thoughts.

The Jewish Independent acknowledges Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the Traditional Owners and Custodians of Country throughout Australia. We pay our respects to Elders past and present, and strive to honour their rich history of storytelling in our work and mission.

Enter site