An Unequivocal Zest for Debate

Interview with Sharon Adler

Photo­grapher and journalist Sharon Adler was born in West Berlin in 1962 and grew up in Berlin, North Rhine-West­phalia, the Netherlands, and Israel. For the series she co-edits, Jüdinnen in Deutschland nach 1945. Erinne­rungen, Brüche, Perspektiven (Jewish Women in Post-1945 Germany: Memories, Ruptures, Perspec­tives), a collabo­ration with Germany’s Federal Agency for Civic Education, she inter­views Jewish women with varied back­grounds, ages, and professions. The founding editor in chief of AVIVA Berlin, she is also a board member of the ZURÜCK­GEBEN Foun­dation, moderator of the Jewish Quartet and a winner of the Berlin Women’s Prize. In our interview, she speaks about her moti­vations, her visions for the future, and her own Jewish Berlin.

What is your favorite neighborhood of Berlin?

I love Berlin as a whole! But if push came to shove, I would pick two neighbor­hoods. First of all, the whole area around Südstern – the Admiralsbrücke, Fraenkel­ufer, the Marheineke­halle covered market, Chamisso­platz, the cemeteries around Bergmann­strasse. Kreuzberg 61 is definitely my Berlin because I’ve been living here for so long and it unites such a good mixture of young and old, old-timers and new­comers, and people with all kinds of life stories from different gene­rations and origins.

But “my Berlin” is also the old Charlotten­burg of the ’20s and ’30s, and also of the ’70s, ’80s, and even ’90s, which holds many personal asso­ciations for me. For example, Savigny­platz is inextricably linked in my mind to one of my favorite poems. Written by Mascha Kaléko from exile in America, it ends with the line “Mein Heimweh hieß Savigny­platz” (“My home­sickness was called Savigny­platz”). For me, this area – as with Kreuzberg 61 – symbo­lizes the inter­change between past and present and is also one of Berlin’s melting pots. In Charlotten­burg, however, that has much more to do with Jewish­ness. But Kreuzberg is also evolving rapidly with the Fraenkel­ufer Syna­gogue, that old spot that many Jewish young people es­pecially have been turning into a new gathe­ring place.

Portrait of Sharon Adler in front of a wall of books

Sharon Adler; photo: Mara Noomi Adler

“After all, you could just as easily rename this anniversary ‘1700 Years of Antisemi­tism in Germany’!”

We are marking two major anni­versaries this year: 1700 years of Jewish life in Ger­many and 350 years of Jewish life in Berlin. What do those dates signify to you?

I must say it gives me some dis­comfort. Why? Because the anni­versary of “1700 years” was im­posed on Jews from outside. It’s coun­ting from the year that Kaiser Konstan­tin first said anything at all about Jewish life. Well, I’m no histo­rian or Jewish studies scholar, but who’s to say that there couldn’t have been any Jewish life on the territory of today’s Germany before 1700 years ago. Then again, the anni­versary does also bring oppor­tunities: as a year when Jewish life – and quite different aspects of it – are being made visible across Germany through exhi­bitions and events of many kinds.

I think the anni­versary has two different aspects. First, there’s the aspect of cele­brating, of dignified cele­bration, which raises the question of how both memory culture and present-day Jewish life, which is inseparable from the past – can be jointly approached in a cele­bratory manner.

The other aspect is the oppor­tunity this anni­versary poses for raising awareness of problems, such as antisemitism. After all, you could just as easily rename this anniversary “1700 Years of Antisemi­tism in Germany”!

And in my view, we also need to consider what it really means that people keep talking about the new “blosso­ming” of Jewish life. Then you would have to criticize how little attention is given to migrants from the former Soviet Union. The same holds for other issues, such as the failure to recog­nize school or university diplomas, the impoverish­ment among former “quota refugees” (Kontingent­flüchtlinge) in their old age, and the issue of “ghetto pensions.” These issues ought to be public knowledge, much more so than they are now. This would also help to counter the enduring stereo­type of the “wealthy Jew”, for example.

The women you interview for your series on Jewish women in Germany since 1945 come from complet­ely different walks of life, religious orien­tations, places of origin, and age groups. Does all these women share a commo­nality across all their differences?

Absolutely. For all their diffe­rences, they all invariably have the trauma of the Shoah in common. As Hetty Berg described it in my interview with her: “Even if people didn’t talk about the Shoah, it was always there.” In fact, each of the women I have profiled and inter­viewed has had their own biographical Shoah expe­riences, and they are all occupied with the Shoah in their work, even the third generation of young Jews in post 1945 Germany, such as the artist Ella Ponizovsky Bergelson. It’s a very complex story because on the one hand, Jews do not want to be reduced to just the Shoah, and on the other, the Shoah is always present as a fixture in their families. That is some­thing that every interview touches on even if I don’t ask any explicit questions about it. It is for good reason that the series bears the subtitle Memories, Ruptures, Perspec­tives...

And the other subject that connects all these women in some fashion with each other – warning, cliché trap! – is their zest for dialogue, their zest for analysis, their unequivo­cal zest for debate. If someone invited them all to a panel discussion, it would be a very lively event that would also give a real picture of female Jewish life in Germany!

Jewish Women in Post-1945 Ger­many: Memories, Ruptures, Perspec­tives

A collabo­ration with Germany’s Fede­ral Agency for Civic Edu­cation

“Back then, as I saw it, the Jewish media didn’t adequately portray women, let alone queer Jewish life.”

The online magazine AVIVA has a section on Jewish Life. How would you charac­terize Jewish life in Berlin today? Has that shifted in recent years?

I could spend all night on that question. I founded AVIVA in 1999–2000 as an online magazine for women, and actually I didn’t want to create any kind of “ghetto” with that section. I really wanted to include Jewish life as a natural ele­ment of all the other sections such as art, culture, litera­ture, politics, and public affairs. But to improve reader usability, the Jewish Life section deve­loped in parallel to the others, but was also integrated. A website like that changes on an on­going basis.

It was impo­rtant to me that it should por­tray Jewish life in the first place. Back then, as I saw it, the Jewish media didn’t ade­quately portray women, let alone queer Jewish life. And in all the other media, if Jewish women were present at all, they were exclu­sively associated with the Shoah. Jewish women were only ever exotic. Most of all, there was only writing about Jewish women; there were very few Jewish journal­ists or editors who wrote about Jewish subjects in the (non-Jewish) press.

As for the change that Jewish Berlin has under­gone... If we look back a century at the 1920s and ’30s, Berlin was already a melting pot, rein­forced by Jewish cultures, primarily from eas­tern Europe. And today, a hundred years later, Berlin is a magnet once again, primarily for Israelis who come here to live, work, and create. Litera­ture, visual art, theater, film, perfor­mance. That’s some­thing this thematic year is indeed making more visible. It was already happening in the ’70s and ’80s, but this is a complete­ly different genera­tion now and a much younger one. It’s giving the city a new face once more.

And the Jews from the former Soviet Union are plainly a very impor­tant voice. Their arrival was a challenge for the Jewish Commu­nities because over­night they became the majority of commu­nity members even though most of them were neither socia­lized as Jewish, nor spoke German! But as a result, there is a new visible diversity of a Jewish life today. And that should be highligh­ted when people talk about Jewish life. But it isn’t. The old-timers had mostly been Shoah survivors, and the “Soviet” Jews had entirely different expe­riences of the Nazi era. They saw themselves as victors, not victims. That has dras­tically changed Jewish Berlin.

If you were to curate an exhibition at the JMB, what would you exhibit?

It would be impor­tant to me to exhibit women’s work and their impact because the share of women in public collections and among solo exhibitions of contem­porary art still remains noto­riously low. There have been several studies into how low.

For example, I would be deligh­ted to exhibit the works by the fellows of the Zurückgeben foundation. This foundation, dedica­ted to supporting Jewish women in the arts and sciences, for which I have volun­teered as a board member since 2013, has been around since 1994, and it has been able to support numerous projects in recent years. It would be fantastic to raise the visibility of this broad range of artists, writers, musicians, and scien­tists in some fashion or another.

Of course I would love to exhibit the photo­graphs I’ve taken of my interview subjects for the Jewish Women in Post-1945 Germany project. The photos aren’t clean or staged studio portraits, but rather repor­tage-style shots mostly taken under natural light. They could be accom­panied by excerpts from the inter­views with the women’s bio­graphical details and life stories.

And then I could also imagine curating an exhibi­tion of works by the artist Shlomit Lehavi. We met each other through her first exhibi­tion in 2012 in Berlin, the installa­tion Time Sifter, and I am proud to be married to her.

So in a nut­shell, more works by women. That could even be a major collective exhi­bition consisting of the areas I mentioned, Jewish Women since 1945, the Zurückgeben Founda­tion, and works by Shlomit Lehavi. And for that alone we would need at least three rooms in the museum.

“And in terms of reparations: people were subjected to a very degrading situation there.”

What challenges does the Zurückgeben Foundation face? And perhaps you can also go into why it is necessary?

The biggest difficulty or challenge in the founda­tion’s work is soliciting donations. It’s easier to convince people to donate to animal conservation or environ­mental protection. That kind of dona­tion speaks for itself. A contri­bution to the Zurück­geben foundation requires an explanation, starting with the name. Because for non-Jewish people, making such a donation is always tied to grappling with their own family histories. “Of course,” almost everyone will say. “Of course I’m against anti­semitism, and of course I’m in favor of resti­tuting works that were formerly in Jewish possession.” But when it comes to people exami­ning their own life stories, not so much has happened unfor­tunately. For the foundation, it’s important that this is not about assigning blame, but about actively processing what happened.

And when we request donations or contri­butions to our endowment, it’s about honoring the work of Jewish artists, scientists, and women’s rights activists in Germany, women who were forced to migrate, fled, or were deported. The founda­tion got its name from Marguerite Marcus, who was one of the Jewish women involved in founding it in the early 1990s. In commemo­ration of the women who were no longer there.

Why women? Because of the existential destruc­tion of Jewish families’ assets, women in parti­cular lack the security of family struc­tures. They’re missing family support, a finan­cial cushion. Today, the Zurück­geben foundation also wants to raise aware­ness of and call attention to the fact that many people profited from the Nazi era, which has reper­cussions to this day. Even in the third gene­ration, a person has com­pletely different standing if their grand­father or great-grand­father took over a doctor’s office with all its equip­ment for prover­bial pennies on the dollar; people’s entire life’s po­ssessions were publicly auctioned off.

Mean­while, the Jewish people who re­turned from exile or the camps and conscious­ly decided to live in Germany, whether East or West, had to con­front the ruins of their old lives and rebuild them from scratch. And in terms of repa­rations: people were sub­jected to a very de­grading situation there. They had to prove what had been expro­priated and where, down to the last cent, and the whole process took decades if the money was ever paid out at all. And this dis­crepancy lingers into the current gene­ration.

As part of the 2013 exhi­bition The Whole Truth, you partici­pated six times as a “living display” in the “Jew in the Box” project, which was not uncon­troversial. What experien­ces left the biggest impression on you? If you had the chance, would you partici­pate again now? What would people ask you today?

Well, first of all, I have to say that exhibition was very good. It was designed to be provo­cative and it ful­filled the brief. I would take part in it again, ab­solutely! My most memo­rable experience was the very first question I was asked. It came from a married couple, both in their fifties, and the husband asked me in all seriousness: “Some­thing I’ve always wanted to know: why do Jews have so much in­fluence?” At first I thought he was joking and trying to start a conver­sation about the origins of those kinds of stereo­types, but no. He was com­pletely serious. After the initial shock, I asked him in what area he thought we were so influential. And without having met me or knowing what I did for a living, he replied, “in the media.” I have to say I truly found that shocking.

Truth be told, all Jewish people are always in a box on a day-to-day basis, if an invisible one. For example, when we’re ex­pected to give our opinions about Israel and have to become experts on all sorts of topics connec­ted to Judaism. In that sense, the box at the JMB is really a meta­phor for all Jewish people in Germany.

Ano­ther question was: are camels kosher? I didn’t know the answer at the time! There were smart questions from people of many different ages and back­grounds, both prepared and off the cuff, people curious about all areas of Jewish life and Jewish issues. It gave me a solid picture of many non-Jewish people’s ignorance about Judaism. And it also made clear that Jewish people don’t need to be experts on every Jewish topic.

Unfor­tunately, if the exhibition were held today, I assume the questions would be the same. But that said, I do think that in the years since, Jewish life has made many more inroads into public aware­ness and public space thanks to a large number of new initiatives, but also thanks to many online formats, such as the Jewish Quartet, which was initia­ted by the Amadeu Antonio Foun­dation and which I moderate. Four Jewish women debate issues of society, politics, ascribed roles, self-em­powerment, religion, literature, and philosophy. It’s a fantastic format. Through it we reach an audience whose only previous asso­ciations with Judaism were the Shoah and anti­semitism, or men with sidelocks and kippahs.

Many of my projects are absolutely in reaction to anti­semitism, such as the photo­graphy and interview project JETZT ERST RECHT! – STOP ANTISEMITISMUS (ENOUGH ALREADY! – STOP ANTISEMITISM), which was also supported by the Amadeu Antonio Foun­dation. I launched that project after the Yom Kippur 2019 attack on the Halle syna­gogue as a way to represent Jews’ experiences of anti­semitism and their own perspectives and strategies beyond the statistics. There are many inter­sections in my work and I always try to make connec­tions between topics and people.

Sharon Adler sitting on a bench in a plexiglass box which is open at the front, on the pedestal is written: Are there still Jews in Germany?

Sharon Adler as „Jew in the Box“ as part of the exhi­bition “The whole Truth” at the Jewish Museum Berlin, 2013; Jewish Museum Berlin, photo: Linus Lintner

“I wish for continued alliances between Jewish and Muslim initiatives. And I would hope to see the media in Germany report more on these kinds of initiatives.”

AVIVA pub­lished an open letter headlined We Will Not Be Divided and signed by various Jewish-Muslim organi­zations and alliances, alliances that speak out against both anti-Mus­lim racism and anti­semitism. What does that letter mean to you personally and what do you hope to achieve with it?

I hope that every kind of dia­logue will have an impact and was deligh­ted when this was a coming together and not a point of friction. I wish for continued allian­ces between Jewish and Muslim initiatives. And I would hope to see the media in Ger­many report more on these kinds of initiatives, for exam­ple Women Wage Peace, which is a coa­lition be­tween Jewish Israeli and Arab Israeli women who demon­strate together for peace in Israel.

In 2014, I perso­nally laun­ched the project Schalom Aleikum: Als Freundin hinzufügen (Shalom Aleikum: Friend Another Woman), a project of dialogue between Jewish and Muslim women. For the project, I matched different pairs of women: two artists, two scientists, two gradua­ting high school students, two educators. I tried to spark dialogue over the little things. Now, in 2021, some of those women are still in contact and have even deve­loped friend­ships, which pleases me a great deal.

The letter was perfectly timed. It would have been nice if every major German newspaper had reprinted it.

You grew up in West Berlin. How did that shape you? What was your ex­perience of Reuni­fication like?

I had mixed feelings about Reuni­fication. Because I had my eyes on the resur­gence of German nationa­list sentiment, and not only with the many German flags that were flapping.

So many of them. For me, German flags are always es­pecially hard to bear. I get a queasy feeling. And I’m also skeptical of this nationa­list behavior during soccer World Cups and so on.

After all, the people who grew up in the East were watching as the chant of “We are the people” trans­formed into “We are ONE people” and they were also alarmed by it.

Back during Reunification, I also witnessed the lack of represen­tation of Jewish or migrant pers­pectives – and in some cases fears – regarding the disso­lution of the intra-German borders. And that’s still how I feel about it.

The interview was conducted by Katha­rina Wulffius and Marie Nau­mann, June 2021

Citation recommendation:

Katharina Wulffius, Marie Naumann (2021), An Unequivocal Zest for Debate. Interview with Sharon Adler.

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