Jews have been living in Germany for 1,700 years. The anniversary will be celebrated nationwide throughout 2021, with many events, workshops, exhibitions and conferences organized as part of a program titled #2021JLID.
But as fighting continues in the Israel-Gaza crisis, we asked the managing director of the JLID2021 association, Andrej Kovacs, how the current events were affecting the anniversary program.
The interview took place shortly before the start of the Shavuot festival, which takes place this year from May 16-18.
DW: The Jewish festival of Shavuot, also known in English as the Feast of Weeks, begins on Sunday. What does it celebrate?
Andrej Kovacs: Shavuot has two meanings, a nature-related one and a biblical-historical one. Shavuot is a harvest festival, held to commemorate the first wheat harvest in Israel. But above all, Shavuot is a celebration of the giving of the Torah and the Ten Commandments to the Israelites on Mount Sinai.
During Shavuot, we traditionally drink a lot of milk and eat sweet and milky foods and honey. It is also customary to stay awake the first night of Shavuot and study the Torah. Readings and discussions take place all night in many communities. One could say that Shavuot is the “White Night of the Torah.”
The two-day celebration falls in September and is a reminder of the covenant God made with Israel. Jews are to turn away from sin and do good deeds on Rosh Hashanah (literally: “head [of] the year”). Following a 2,000-year-old tradition, the sound of the shofar — a trumpet made of ram’s horn — guides the worshipers’ contemplation.
At the beginning of each year, religious Jews have 10 days to repent of their sins, which leads to Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year in Judaism. It involves an entire day of fasting and intensive prayer. On the eve of Yom Kippur, some Jews practice Kapparot, a traditional atonement ritual, which has them donating a chicken to the poor for a meal.
The holiday commemorates the Israelites’ Exodus from slavery in Egypt 3,000 years ago. They spent 40 years traveling though the desert, sheltered by temporary dwellings. For the weeklong festival of Sukkot, a “sukkah” is constructed to symbolize those huts, and Jews spend time together in them, sharing meals and sometimes even sleeping there.
Immediately after the festival of Sukkot comes the holiday of Shemini Atzeret, of which the Simchat Torah is a component. It celebrates the conclusion of the annual cycle of public readings of the Torah, the Hebrew Bible. In synagogues, Torah scrolls are carried through the prayer house and worshippers dance and sing in a joyous procession that can last for several hours.
For two centuries under the Seleucid Empire, Jews were not allowed to practice their religion — until 164 BC, when they recaptured Jerusalem. According to religious texts, only enough sacred oil remained for one night of lighting, but the wicks of the menorah ended up miraculously burning for eight days. That’s why Hanukkah is celebrated for eight days, with one candle lit every day.
The holiday in January marks the end of the rainy season in Israel. Until then, the plants should be allowed to grow in peace. Traditionally, the fruits that Israel has to offer are eaten together at Tu BiShvat: grapes, nuts, figs, dates, olives, pomegranates and cereals. Tu Bishwat has also become a day devoted to environmental protection, when people all over the country plant seedlings.
According to the Hebrew Bible, the vizier Haman wanted to have all the Jews in the Persian Empire killed. But the wife of the king, Esther, was Jewish, and she saved her people. When the story is read out in the synagogue, the congregation makes noise every time Haman is mentioned to blot out his name. Purim customs include wearing masks and costumes, and heavy drinking.
The Exodus from Egyptian slavery is commemorated with Passover, an eight-day festival. Orthodox Jews make a pilgrimage to the Western Wall in Jerusalem. As the Israelites only had unleavened bread with them when they escaped, leavened bread is not eaten during the holiday. Jewish families traditionally gather on the first night of Passover for a special dinner called a Seder.
Shavuot commemorates the revelation of the Five Books of the Torah by God to Moses and to the Israelites on Mount Sinai. It is also called the “Day of the First Fruits,” as the first grains and fruits are ripe in Israel and can be harvested. In biblical times, two wheat loaves made from the flour of the new harvest were offered on this day to the Jerusalem temple.
Shabbat lasts from sundown every Friday until Saturday night. Work is forbidden, and religious Jews visit the synagogue on this day. No fires may be lit on Shabbat, including electric lights or the stove. The candle for the family feast is therefore already lit shortly before sunset. Reciting a blessing is also part of the weekly ritual.
Is this year’s festival affected by the clashes between Palestinians and Israelis?
Of course, it is affecting the celebration’s atmosphere. Many people have family members in Israel — parents, children, siblings — and fear for their lives, knowing that they are currently spending sleepless nights in air-raid shelters. Meanwhile, synagogues are being attacked in Germany and antisemitic slogans are being shouted in the streets.
Why has the conflict flared up again now according to you?
The situation in Israel is very complicated. The terror militia Hamas took advantage of the unrest in East Jerusalem and attacked the civilian population in Israel with over 2,600 rockets. It’s like a large-scale terrorist attack — with the aim of killing as many people as possible. Incidentally, these people also include over 20% Israelis of Arab descent. Israel must defend itself against this major terrorist attack.
Andrej Kovacs is the managing director of the association organizing the JLID2021 program
How do you react to the fact that Jewish life still requires strong protection in Germany?
Unfortunately, what we are experiencing these days is part of a recurring pattern. Living with antisemitism fueled by hostility towards Israel is part of everyday normality for German Jews. It has been tolerated and often even supported by numerous people and organizations for many years. As soon as Israel is forced to defend its existence, these forms of antisemitism break out again.
It is astonishing that, only 76 years after the Shoah, many people fail to understand that the Jewish state cannot accept a threat to its existence without defending itself.
How are the latest events affecting your program? You wanted to celebrate the anniversary of 1,700 years of Jewish life in Germany year as openly as possible.
The events are having an impact on us, of course. The antisemitic attacks of the past few days have once again made it clear how fragile Jewish life is in Germany — and how resentments can be misused for political purposes. The festival year was and is designed for society as a whole, with various events allowing people from diverse backgrounds to meet.
In these times, it is particularly important to show social solidarity. I am convinced that our project partners will not be put off by the current events, but will use the festival year to take a clear stand in support of Jewish life and against antisemitism in Germany.
Will you be reacting to the Middle East conflict within your anniversary program?
The Middle East conflict is always quickly brought up when talking about Jewish life in Germany. But in really has nothing to do with our focus. Stereotypes and conspiracies are part of the mindset of many people in Germany. As we know, they existed long before the state of Israel was founded in 1948. Antisemitism is a social problem, not a political one.
The conflict between Israel and Gaza is fueling antisemitism worldwide
How does the coexistence of Muslim Palestinians and Jews feel in Germany?
Unfortunately, when you see the pictures from Gelsenkirchen and other cities in Germany [of protests where antisemitic slurs were chanted and Israeli flags were burned], it doesn’t feel like a respectful coexistence. But from personal experience I can say that most people, regardless of their origin, can think differently. In Germany, we have more in common than we have differences. I hope that it can be possible to understand and get to know each other better in the future.
Why is the conflict carried on here? Did something go wrong with integration in Germany?
The conflict continues around the world, and Germany is no exception. But I think you can always do more when it comes to integration. Many families come to Germany as refugees from radicalized countries where antisemitism is very much lived and politically instrumentalized. Of course, it’s hard to break out of those thinking patterns. Democracy and pluralism have yet to be learned. This is a big task that takes time and has been underestimated by many in Germany up to now.
A demonstration held in Munich in solidarity with Palestinians
Do you see ways the German government could contribute to improve peaceful coexistence in the country, beyond the anniversary year?
During the festival year we are obtaining overwhelming support from project partners, politicians, churches and civil society. The need for initiatives and encounters allowing different groups to get to know each other is manifest.
The undistorted visualization and experience of Jewish life as an instrument in the fight against antisemitism should not end with the festival year, but serve as a starting point. Over 20% of Germans now are from a migrant background, and the trend is rising. The festival year can perhaps serve as a template as to how other people with a migration background in Germany can also be given the opportunity to make their culture accessible, and thereby demonstrate that they are and want to be an integral part of a pluralistic society. I can only hope that the federal government will continue to support such projects in the future.
This article was translated from German.