Meanderings, Perilous and Pleasurable

Several recent stories about the persistent threat of right-wing politics in Germany caught my attention.  The first describes the successes the city of Dortmund has had in fighting back against spreading, open pro-Nazi sentiments.  The second follows some of the recent attempts by right-wingers to infiltrate the environmental movement.  I can’t read such stories without forgetting the crazy one from last week, in which an American soldier stationed in Germany had agreed with some German neo-Nazis he met online to attempt an attack against his own unit in order to spark a war.  The overall context should be clear to everyone: A study released last week by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, hardly a lefty bastion, warns that white supremacist terrorism is “likely the most significant threat” to the United States.

For a rousing reminder and antidote, check out the video of Berlin-based radical klezmer band Daniel Kahn and the Painted Bird’s song, Freedom is a Verb.  (I might have cited this tune in the past.)

While meandering around Berlin steeped in political cogitations, I finally met Sophie Charlotte, whose gorgeous palatial grounds I get to enjoy so often.


Here she shows off her palace, in this statue on the then main road leading from the Brandenburg Gate and Berlin to her residence.  I don’t know whether her bulbous, out-turned pockets were the fashion back then or an iconographic way of signalling her supposed generosity.  Like so many monuments, this one is covered in mesh to keep away the birds, whose shitting knows no respect for persons.

Not far away, at the very edges of the Tiergarten, I came across a bucolic stretch of the Landwehr Canal that hosts houseboats.


There I discovered this absolutely gigantic structure:


My photo doesn’t do justice to the enormity and intrusiveness of this industrial giant, intrusive at least from the vantage-point of my approach, along a green canal lined with tranquil houseboats.  Built in 1975-76 by Ludwig Leo, this is the Umlaufkanal des Institutes für Wasser- und Schifffahrtstechnik (Circulation channel of the Institute of Water and Shipping Technology), part of Berlin’s Technical University.  One guide to Berlin sites describes (in German) the structure as follows:

The circulation tank, which has now faded somewhat in color, once towered over the trees of the Berlin zoo in shrill pink and rich dark blue.  Inside, two diesel engines drive the huge test facility, in which 3000 tons of water circulate, for experiments with ship models.  The huge test tube with its up to eight meters in diameter is crowned by the blue measuring and workshop wing, the galleries of which surround an open hall like the decks of a ship.  Ship metaphor and technical design go hand in hand in this unique, trendy high-tech architecture.”

Okay, then.


Berlin, Berlin

Here I am again.  Back in Berlin again.  Transatlantic commuting in the middle of a pandemic.  Not my idea of fun, but I had no choice.  Professional duty and all that.  I flew here through Amsterdam.  I was quite surprised at how many people in the airport there were doing without masks.  The flight between Amsterdam and Berlin was entirely filled.  So much for social distancing, despite an announcement by the purser that we should try to avoid physical contact!  I had to remind the guy sitting next to me to put the mask hanging around his neck on his face.  I was not a happy camper.

In Berlin, though one has to wear a mask on public transportation and in stores, most people out and about do not wear them.  Quite a different feeling than New York.  I self-quarantined for the first two weeks, a responsible citizen, though no one collected the health forms we were made to fill out on the plane, nor did anyone ask any questions of any of the disembarking passengers.  Hmmm.  Not exactly the careful and systematic German pandemic response I read about in the news.  The initial quarantine was fine by me in any case, as it took me about a week to adjust to the new time zone.  I also spent lots of time watching tv in German, determined to improve my command of the language.  (I am in a temporary furnished rental which happens to have a large monitor and cable service.)  The other night, on one of the local Berlin channels, I came across a duo of women singers (on the Simi Will show), Esels Alptraum, who call themselves the Anticapitalist Yodel duo.  They were outfitted in traditional German/Swiss folk fashion, but with obviously fake blond wigs sporting long braids and machine gun ammunition strung around their shoulders.  One played acordeon and they belted out an off-kilter miscegenation of yodeling folk songs and Bertold Brecht/Kurt Weill anti-right-wing agitprop.  Their opening number ended by veering into the melody of Hava Nagila, whose lyrics the women changed to Deutschland nie wieder (Germany never again).  I was definitely back in the Heimat.

The signage around the city has hit me afresh.  Here, some antiracist examples, which cheer me up immensely as antiracist protests sweep the world, including in Berlin, seeking to address persistent local forms of racism:



Even the Coronavirus-related signage can be creative:

20200601_13354120200601_140639Keep calm and use dildos.  Ah, those frank Germans.

A tribute to a fallen female bicyclist, aged 55:


And, not far from my apartment, the Charlottenburg palace, commissioned by Sophie Charlotte, wife of Prussian king Friedrich I.  The original parts were inaugurated in 1699.  With formal gardens and expansive grounds behind it, the place stands like a world forgotten by time or, rather, like a now-safe reminder of past power and privilege whose continuation today merely uses different architectural and political styles.



Purim is Icumen In. Party Like it’s 1939!

So this is Purim in Berlin: an enormous club costume party.  The 6th year in a row, it’s enough to make a right-winger sick (maybe that’s the point).  On the first floor, “an incredible array of DJs from Israel, Palestine and Istanbul will take you on a journey between east and west, Jewish and oriental, melodic and vocal.”  On the second floor, “Several local icons – circumcised or not – will spearhead the program, supported by a young Iraqi talent and two Tel-Avivers.”  And Purim itself?  Special treats include mishlochei manot and hummus.  “Karneval de Purim is a celebration of Jewish folklore and tradition, but is open for every human-loving person.  Racists, xenophobes, sexists and homophobes do not belong under this category and therefore also not in this event.”

Yet the war between tolerance and intolerance continues unabated, fanned anew by Trump, Bolsonaro, Orban, Duda, Salvini and other modern-day Hamans.  A sobering NYTimes story from two weeks ago surveys the over 1,200 acts of violence committed against mostly liberal politicians and elected officials last year alone.  Fifteen hundred of the country’s 11,000 mayors reported concrete threats against them.  Thuggery and bullying as politics — conservatism sure loves the old ways.  How very biblical.

A freylikhe purim!  Party like it’s 1939!  “When I woke up this morning, could have sworn it was judgment day…” (Prince).

Collage artist Jay Riggio holding up his work, “Morning. Noon” (2019)

Long Live Murray Bookchin

I had the pleasure of doing a winter vacation with my family in Savannah, Georgia.  Walking one day I happened to notice on the back of a street sign a decal prompting the viewer to look up Murray Bookchin online.The decal moved, gladdened and tickled me.  Murray Bookchin (1921-2006) was an influential Marxist-turned-anarchist/environmentalist activist, teacher, thinker and author.  A nice Jewish boy from New York, he moved to Vermont later in life.  In his mature writing he emphasized ecologically-friendly, direct, participatory democracy and radical egalitarianism, particularly when it comes to gender.  (Instead of giving you a link, just follow the sticker and look him up yourself.)

The decal in Savannah struck me so strongly because, though I vaguely knew of Bookchin’s work, I had recently read an article by Peter Galbraith in the New York Review of Books that informed me of an aspect of Bookchin’s influence that I had never heard.

Abdullah Öcalan, a Stalinist Marxist, founded the PKK, the Turkish Kurdistan Worker’s Party, a liberation movement considered a terrorist organization by many Turks, in 1978.  Some 20 years later he was finally arrested by Turkish commandos (in Kenya) and confined as the only inmate on an island prison in the Sea of Marmara.  There, he had plenty of time to read.  Among other reading material, his attorneys gave him translations of two books by Bookchin.  Öcalan became enchanted with the small-scale, decentralized society, gender-equal, post-Marxian communitarian democratic vision of Bookchin.  The former Stalinist became an impassioned fan of Bookchin.  He wrote to him (in 2004), tried to arrange a meeting with him and, amazingly, conveyed (through his attorneys) his sense of Bookchin’s teachings and recommendations to read Bookchin’s works to his followers and many other fellow Kurds.

Because of this, “northeast Syria’s many [heavily Kurdish] communities are represented in multilayered governmental structures. Legislative bodies—city councils or cantonal parliaments—include Kurds, Arabs, Christians, and Yazidis and are equally divided between male and female legislators. Each canton has a male and female co–prime minister, each municipality a female and male co-mayor, and male and female coleaders of each political party. No more than 60 percent of civil servants can be from the same gender. The Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (NES) sits atop these governmental structures. It has a Kurdish woman and an Arab man as its copresidents.”

So here, the Kurds, one of the Middle East’s most dogged underdogs, have self-organized according to the vision of a Jewish thinker-tinkerer from Vermont, inspired by his proposals for a more humane world.  I love this story of serendipitous, fruitful cross-cultural influence and change-making.

Galbraith’s story seems to be available only to subscribers, but it is reprinted on this pro-Kurdish site.  The tale had been told a year earlier by Bookchin’s daughter, Debbie, also in the New York Review of Books, in fuller detail, with important additional context and a portrait of and tribute to her father.  As she reveals, Kurdish democratic and gender ideas had other sources besides Bookchin, including Sakine Cansiz, the woman who co-founded the PKK, while Bookchin had been strongly influenced by his immigrant grandmother, a former Russian revolutionary.

Go Kurds!  Long live Murray Bookchin!  Long live democracy!  May we bring about humane, sane governance, which will be possible only with the equal participation and representation of women!


If you Don’t Like Them, Threaten Them

One of the speakers at this past summer’s Jewish Activism Summer School was threatened by far-right forces.  Members of a growing organization of neo-Nazi, white-supremecist extremists, who have murdered several people in the U. S., warned the pro-diversity, anti-antisemitism Berlin politician, a Palestinian by birth, that she must resign.  Instead, she filed charges against her harassers with the police and insisted publicly that she will not be intimidated.


While the Gates Remain Open…

As the heavenly gates remain open for repentance, tears and prayers until Sh’mini Atzeret, I want to share some post-Yom Kippur thoughts.

First, however, I finally made it to St. John the Divine cathedral to see the annual blessing of the animals, which adorns the saint’s day of Francis of Assisi, famous lover of birds and animals in general.  I’ve always wanted to experience this ritual, which strikes me as a rare expression of trans-species affinity in western monotheisms.

On a sadder note, thinking about tashlich, I couldn’t help feeling that in recent years we have been throwing our sins into the waters not just at high holiday time, but every day of the year.  Our sins are not innocuous pieces of bread, alas.  All the plastic waste that is littering the world’s coastlines and open seas comprises nothing but our sinful blindness to the effects of our behavior.  In a news story from yesterday, the Italian Institute for Environmental Protection and Research asserts that the Mediterranean Sea is choked with some 500,000 tons of plastic waste annually, mostly shopping bags, plastic bottles and product packaging.  When I read about a baby turtle dying in Florida because it swallowed 104 pieces of plastic or a whale that starves to death because its stomach is full of plastic — stories that have become all too frequent — I can think only that this is our sins killing innocent creatures.

For the sin that we have committed without awareness…

For the sin that we have committed lightheadedly…

For the sin that we have committed knowingly…

The story that I quoted above, that mentions the gargantuan quantity of plastic waste in the Mediterranean, is actually a positive one.  It reports on the (new, not quasi-fascist) Italian government’s desire to pass a law offering financial incentives to consumers who buy food without packaging.  I see this as a fulfilment of Rambam/Maimonides’ three-step program regarding teshuva, repentance.  Teshuva, he says, must involve: (1) truly understanding and repenting what we’ve done wrong; (2) commiting to changing our ways; and (3) making amends to those we have harmed.  This is true for our personal sins and no less true for our collective sins against the rest of the beings with which we share our planet.

When we wave the green and fragrant branches and pungent citrus fruit in all directions this sukkot, may we remember all of God’s gifts, to which we are unintentionally ritually pointing and on which we depend: the rain, the trees, the edible plants and the animals.

Shabbat shalom and chag sameach!


Have a Good and Sweet New Year!

I am on a sabbatical semester in New York.  Since currently I am another Jew not in Berlin, I have refrained from posting.  But perhaps I will rethink that policy.

My wife and I marched in the climate strike last month, a perfect Elul activity.  We tried to hear Greta Thunberg speak, but so did tens of thousands of other people.  Oh well.  Here are some photos I took:


And a photo of an intriguing ad campaign from a clothing company that I stumbled across in Chelsea:


I wish you all a shana tova u-metuka, a good and sweet new Jewish year!  May it be a year of epidemic global sanity!


Only in Berlin

Another day, another news story about a Palestinian refugee living in Berlin, representing the city to the federal government, her office on Jüdenstraße, realistic about Israel’s existence and fighting German anti-semitism.


Music, Light and Dark

This past week I went to hear Daniel Kahn and The Painted Bird perform at Studio R — actually Studio Я — an indication of the venue’s edgy politics.  Kahn, originally from Detroit, an avid yiddishist, and his band, named after the Jerzy Kosiński novel, play an amalgam of intense, dark and political lefty klezmer partisan lieds.  Think Woody Guthrie meets Nick Cave.

They were backed up by powerful visuals, which included German translations of their provocative, anti-capitalist, Brechtian and existentialist Yiddish and English lyrics.  It remains surprising and odd to me to hear Yiddish sung in public in Germany, since, as usual, the crowd appeared to be mostly non-Jewish, according to an Israeli sociologist friend whom I ran into at the show.  She thought many of those attending were from the former DDR, celebrating the day along with the concert, intentionally scheduled for Befreiungstag (Liberation Day), May 5th, the day the Nazis capitulated to the allied forces in 1945.

Check out some of the songs from the latest album, including a Yiddish hymn to the 99%.  If only most leftists still had this kind of humor…

Freedom is a Verb:

March of the Jobless Corps:


The Butcher’s Share:

In the spirit of Yiddish Verfremdung (making foreign), I am adding for your pleasure a photo of a sculpture in a Platz that I came across today.  The square is named for Leon Jessel, a composer of operettas.The sculpture, by Emanuel Scharfenberg, is named Wasserpilz (Water Mushroom).  I’d call it Big Public Phallic Ejaculating Mushroom, but I wasn’t asked.

A query to Dr. Google turned up the following information from Dr. Wikipedia: Jessel was born Jewish.  His operetta “Schwarzwaldmädel [Black Forest Girl] was a favorite of Hitler and Himmler. Because of this, and because of his own conservative nationalistic ideology, and because his second wife Anna joined the Nazi party in 1932, Jessel expected acceptance in Germany even during and after the Nazi rise to power. Instead, he was rejected by Nazi leadership because of his Jewish descent, even though he had converted to Christianity in 1894, and performances of his works were banned in 1933. Jessel’s last major work was his 1933 operetta Junger Wein (Young Wine), and his biographer Albrecht Dümling believes that he was a victim of targeted boycott measures as early as 1927.

In 1937 he was forced out of the Reichsmusikkammer (the State Music Institute), and recordings and distribution of his works were prohibited. In 1941 a house search turned up a 1939 letter to his librettist William Sterk in Vienna, in which Jessel had written: ‘I cannot work in a time when hatred of Jews threatens my people with destruction, where I do not know when that gruesome fate will likewise be knocking at my door.’ On December 15, 1941 Jessel was arrested and delivered to the Gestapo in Berlin. He was tortured by the Gestapo in a basement of the Police Bureau at Alexanderplatz, and subsequently died on January 4, 1942 in the Berlin Jewish Hospital.”

Beneath the surface of a sweet public square, hell.  Perhaps the sculpture is the sculptor’s nod to the Black Forest and Jessel’s Black Forest girl.  Perhaps it is a sly acknowledgment that, like mushrooms, everyday life hides the underground network of the majority of the organism — memories, torment and trauma.  The mushroom feeds off of, processes the dead matter of ecosystems.  Now I look at my photograph and envy the mushroom its tranquil processing.  The silly public sculpture of a mushroom has wrung tears from me.  A water mushroom indeed.

The real Liberation Day remains in the future, equally beyond sight.