BERLIN - When shoppers in New York, London or Paris come across kosher food in their neighborhood supermarkets, it's just one specialty product among many. When the same thing happens in Berlin, it's a statement.
Berlin's Jewish community, decimated by the Holocaust, has been steadily growing since Germany reunited in 1990. Thousands of Jews have moved in, synagogues, schools and shops have opened and some young rabbis have been trained and ordained.
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But presence isn't the same as acceptance. In a city weighed down by memories of its Nazi past, even small signs that Jews are a part of normal daily life again take on deeper meaning.
One such sign appeared last month when a local supermarket began selling
kosher food. Stocked on shelves and in freezers next to other German
and imported goods, the food prepared according to ancient Jewish
dietary laws is presented like any other product.
Yehuda Teichtal, a Brooklyn-born Hasidic rabbi who advised the Nah und
Gut ("Near and Good") supermarket on its selections, is thrilled to see
this in Berlin.
"This was the center of darkness and evil, where the Nazis planned the
extermination of Europe's Jews, and now you can go into a normal
supermarket and there's a sign that says kosher," he said.
"The Nazis failed. Where do you find Hitler and Eichmann now -- on
Wikipedia. Where do you see Jewish life in an open way -- on the streets
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Of the 160,000 Jews living in Berlin before the Second World War, 90,000
fled abroad, 55,000 died in concentration camps and 7,000 committed
suicide to escape Nazi terror, according to the Jewish Community of
Berlin. Only 8,000 were left in 1945.
Starting in 1989, Jews from the former Soviet Union began flocking to
Berlin. Young Israelis started settling here in the mid-1990s. Now there
are an estimated 30,000 Jews in the city, but nobody knows for sure
because not all of them are registered with the established communities.
"Many Russian Jews are not registered because, if you do, you have to
pay the religious tax," Teichtal said, referring to the tax that members
of recognized religions in Germany must pay.
Those who keep kosher had a handful of restaurants and small specialty
shops around the city where they could find religiously permitted food.
But Teichtal, who runs the Berlin center of the worldwide Chabad Hasidic
movement, thought more Jews would eat kosher food if they didn't have
to get to those small shops with their limited opening hours to buy it.
"If you have to go to one shop to buy wine, another to get fruit and veg
and a third to buy a piece of gefilte fish, that's one thing," he said.
"If a person goes to one supermarket and does all their shopping, it's a
completely different ballgame."
So he scouted around for a supermarket ready to try a new line of
products and found Nah und Gut, an upscale establishment in the affluent
Wilmersdorf section of western Berlin. Many Jews live in the area and
several of the city's synagogues are nearby.
"A bit multicultural, a bit exotic"
"We always try to have different products from around the world,"
explained store manager Stefan Voelker, who is not Jewish and describes
kosher food as "a bit multicultural, a bit exotic."
The kosher products -- everything from wine, beer and cheese to
chocolate-covered matzo bread and frozen steaks and chicken nuggets --
have interested curious non-Jewish shoppers and brought in several
hundred new Jewish customers, he said.
Voelker's biggest problem is not customer acceptance or rejection, but
logistics. Almost all his kosher products come from other countries,
mostly Israel, Poland, France, Belgium and Britain, and ordering small
shipments can be expensive and unreliable.
Teichtal, who stressed his interest in the sale of kosher food is
strictly religious and not financial, said he was searching around
Europe for large wholesalers who could offer more regular supplies.
About 3 km (2 miles) away at Kosher Deli, Maurice Elmaleh has different
concerns. He's worried the new competition could hurt the small
specialty kosher shops like his.
"The shops that already exist have problems to stay open," he said in
his sparse shop as a customer picked up a fresh loaf of braided challah.
"There are more Jews eating kosher, but the number is small compared to
the number of Jews in Berlin," he said. "Only about 10-15 percent of
them keep kosher."
'Once you've tried kosher, you'll ask for more'
Rabbi Reuven Yaacobov, the community's kosher expert who moved here from
Uzbekistan 11 years ago, estimated that up to 6,000 of Berlin's Jews
kept kosher and demand was steadily rising. "When I came here, there
were only three shops selling kosher food. Now there are seven," he
People buy kosher food for various reasons.
"There's no single trend," he said. "Some say it is healthier, others
say they tried it and it tasted good, others say they want to be closer
He disagreed with Elmaleh about the supermarket.
"More competition is good because prices will fall," he said. "Many Jews say kosher food here is too expensive.
"Also, if I wanted to get new customers for a kosher shop, I'd have to
do a lot of advertising. But Jewish shoppers go to supermarkets anyway.
Then it's like the sweets at the check-out counter -- you see them and
"Once you've tried kosher, you'll ask for more," he said.