Israelis in Berlin: between the hype and the reality

More and more young Israelis are moving to Berlin, bustling between Berghain and meshuggah parties, Neukölln and Prenzlauer Berg. The media can’t stop talking about them, but the vogue isn’t only due to the 50-years of diplomatic ties between Germany and Israel. There are in fact not a few young people moving to the German capital with innovative ideas and youthful brio, dabbling in the start-up or art scenes, running cafes, organizing parties.


color photograph of the skyline of Berlin

Berlin’s skyline with a view of the Jewish Museum © Michele Nastasi


So what does that life really look like?
Last year I met Noga at a Berlin gallery and we quickly started talking about family, Berlin, and Israel. In September of 2010, Noga and her husband Zeevi moved to Berlin with just two suitcases – not to enjoy the party scene here for awhile, but to stay. I met with both of them to talk about their life in Berlin.

Jihan Radjai: Why did you decide to move to Berlin?

color photograph of a young couple standing in the snow

Noga and Zeevi and their first winter in Berlin © Noga Shtainer

Noga: I provided the original impulse. I wanted to advance as a photographer and get some experience in Europe. For me Berlin was the best choice because the art scene offers exactly what I was looking for.
Zeevi: I was thirty at the time and as a restaurateur I can work anywhere. We travelled to Berlin and after a week it was clear to both of us: Israel will still be our home, but we want to live in Berlin. Six months later we realized our dream. Now it’s been almost five years.

How did your family and friends react to your decision?

Zeevi: They were shocked that we chose Germany, of all places.
Noga: The idea that we would go to Berlin was very hard for our parents to take at first – among other reasons because my grandmother was at Auschwitz. Our move prompted a lot of questions for us, that we’ve only now been able to ask. My parents weren’t allowed to ask their parents about the past and my grandparents stayed silent. Little by little we in the third generation have been able to speak to our parents and grandparents about the Holocaust.

Your first apartment was in Neukölln, a district of Berlin that was designated just a year ago as a no-go area for Jews. What kind of start did you get off to in Berlin?

Zeevi: Neukölln was an accident. We were happy to find an apartment. The area reminded us of Jaffa, where Jews, Christians, and Muslims live together as neighbors, and where we lived as well. The beginning in Berlin was really hard. Despite all the information you can get on the internet, in forums or Facebook groups, we were still very foreign.
Noga: Our agreement was that we would stick it out for a year, find an apartment, a job, and then decide if we stay or go back. We overcame our various existential fears and doubts, got little jobs here and there, and stuck it out.

For the last few years reports about Israelis in Berlin have appeared regularly. The photograph of “Chocolate Pudding with Sales Slip” touted the low cost of living in Berlin relative to Tel Aviv and was discussed in numerous media reports as an appeal for Israelis to emigrate to Germany. What do you make of the hype about “Israelis in Berlin”?

color photograph of a young couple smiling and standing in a gallery

Noga and Zeevi at an exhibition opening of Noga’s photographs © Noga Shtainer


Zeevi: The hype seems larger than the actual number of Israelis in Berlin. The number isn’t the root cause, but rather the fact itself that Israelis are coming here.
Noga: A lot of people come for a few months, and those who thought everything here was cheaper soon return home. The cost of chocolate pudding doesn’t say anything about all the other costs, like health insurance, rent, and electricity. Apparently many Israelis don’t realize that.

Do you feel at home now in Berlin?

Zeevi: I feel at home – definitely. Every time we go back to Israel I’m surprised at certain behaviors and I feel less connected to the environment there.
Noga: I still feel foreign. My family and my art projects give me security, especially when we come back from a trip to Israel.

Your three-year-old daughter Zohar was born in Berlin and goes to a German nursery school. Is raising her Jewish an issue for you? How does Zohar experience daily life here?

color photograph of the flag of Europe, Israel and Germany

The European, Israeli, and German flags are waving for a time at the Victory Column in Berlin’s Tiergarten © Daniel Bründl

Zeevi: They actually asked us at the nursery school if Zohar is allowed to eat meat, because they don’t offer kosher food. That has happened to us often, that people are concerned and ask us if this or that ingredient is ok for us. I find that very sensitive.
Noga: It’s become important for us here in Berlin to impart our Jewish cultural background to Zohar. Every Friday we go to a children’s service at the synagogue to celebrate Shabbat. For us it also means having contact with other Israelis who, like us, have a more cultural than religious relationship to Judaism.
Zeevi: If we didn’t celebrate Jewish holidays with Zohar, every day would be the same. Zohar wouldn’t be able to differentiate a holiday from a normal weekday and we would find that a real pity. In any case though, she will face new challenges with her identity. Zohar belongs to the second generation of Israeli immigrants in Germany. Our parents faced the very same questions once upon a time in Israel. A little while ago Zohar came home with a new word, beaming from ear to ear: “I’m multi-culti!” – we hope she hangs on to this happy feeling.

The conversation with Noga and Zeevi was conducted by Jihan Radjai, who has meanwhile become friends with the couple.

Comment by Niamh on 3. June 2015 at 16:27

Moving abroad takes major guts and courage but I’m glad that you keep moving towards your dreams! When I moved for the first time I had to prepare myself in order to embrace the change – mentally, emotionally and physically! Wish you all the best there, Man With Van Cambridge Heath Ltd.

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