It’s been three years since German-Israeli singer-songwriter Mathia has performed in his hometown of Tel Aviv. In 2011, he served as opening act for Israeli pop star Aviv Gefen’s 20th anniversary tour of his debut album It’s Only the Moonlight. Since then, he has signed a record deal with Warner Music Germany, but on January 4, an unplugged show at Tel Aviv’s Levontin 7 will reconnect him with Israeli audiences.
Born Mathithiahu Gavriel in 1986 in Tel Aviv, Mathia’s life and work reflects the Israel-German cultural intersection that is lighting up in Berlin. There are currently anywhere from 5,000 to 20,000 Israelis now living in Berlin, depending on who’s counted.
The recent exodus of Israelis to Germany’s “it” city made headlines in The New York Times, The Guardian, Der Speigel and a slew of local and international media outlets following a controversial post of a comparatively low Berlin grocery bill on the “Olim L’Berlin” Facebook page. Appealing to 2011’s “social justice” protesters, the post bragged how chocolate pudding in Germany costs only a shekel, compared to four shekels in Israel.
But for Mathia, living and working in Germany isn’t a constant negotiation between Germany’s dark past and the desire for a fulfilled, affordable life. Israelis’ attraction to Germany, and vice versa, is about a reconciliation that comes from finding common ground through interesting art, culture and music, a desire to broaden one’s world outlook, and everyday interactions in the big city.
“This generation grew up with parents and grandparents being anti-Semitic and having close-minded thinking, and now it’s time for these people to grow out of this thinking and learn from the past,” Mathia said in a German-accented English at an interview at a Tel Aviv café, joined by his girlfriend and songwriting partner, Jenny Karr, who’ll be performing onstage with him on January 4.
Mathia catapulted to German fame when he placed third in Germany’s X Factor singing contest. In biographical segments, he was introduced as being born in Tel Aviv, but the focus was first and foremost on the music – his ethereal voice, out-of-the-box renditions, and organic electro-pop style – and not his mixed Jewish-Germany identity.
“It’s more of a big deal here [in Israel] than it is there,” he said. “But still, people are interested. It’s different. I try to mention it whenever I can. Why not? This is where I come from. This is my roots.”
In a television interview that aired in Israel, he mentioned that he would love to work with Aviv Gefen. Gefen, now a judge on Israel’s The Voice singing contest, called him the next day.
“He asked if I wanted to open a few shows in Germany, Poland, Switzerland and Austria. I said yes. I got on the bus in Berlin and we left East.”
SON OF a German mother and Israeli father, Mathia moved to northern Germany at age six and then to Berlin in 2006 after a stint in London, where he had started a band with fellow Israelis and British Jews.
Mathia believes that cheaper rent and cost of living play a role in Berlin’s attraction, but that it’s the vibrant, vanguard nightlife and cultural scene in both Tel Aviv and Berlin that has sparked mutual fascination.
“People from Berlin love to go to Israel, to Tel Aviv. It’s ‘the’ city. And what connects the two cities is the nightlife. In Germany you can party from Friday to Monday, nonstop. And all the art and all the music.”
Historical consciousness of Germany’s dark past and the Nazi slaughter of the Jews are ubiquitous in Berlin. Holocaust memorials have been installed in public squares, and golden memorial markers have been drilled into sidewalks where Jewish families had once prospered before being deported to concentration camps.
“Berlin is trying really hard to memorialize the history rather than cover it up,” Mathia said, a fact which lends to Israelis’ openness to the city.
Karr, an American-born Jew, joined Mathia in Berlin two years ago from Los Angeles where she worked as a singer and songwriter with credits on albums of such divas as Celine Dion, Jennifer Lopez and Britney Spears.
“Germany is the last place I ever thought I’d live, but then again, Berlin is it’s own little bubble, like Tel Aviv is.”
She has noticed a marked increase in Israelis living there.
“You hear a lot of Hebrew in Berlin. Everywhere. Restaurants, trains.”
Once in a while, she said, Germans will take a special interest in the Jewish state and seek to understand the culture and people that their ancestors had sought to obliterate. By and large, however, Israelis are treated the same as any European tourist or foreigner.
“They don’t care where you come from,” she says.
But most do care that Jews will no longer feel unwelcome.
“They don’t want history to repeat itself. That’s our friends, anyway.”
At Levontin, Mathia will be performing songs from his forthcoming debut album On the Run. But onstage at Levontin, he’ll feel at home. “It’s a homecoming in a big way,” he says.Mathia and Jenny Karr: Live in Tel Aviv will take place at the Levontin 7, Tel Aviv, 10:15 pm, NIS 35. Mathia’s website: www.mathia-music.com. Venue website: www.levontin7.com.