The Yekkes

These German immigrants 'of slow understanding' were quick to influence Israel's culture.

yekke 88 248 (photo credit: Jerusalem Post Archives)
yekke 88 248
(photo credit: Jerusalem Post Archives)
Behind the door opposite ours lived the Keren family. They were the first Yekkes I knew. But I cannot go on with my story before I explain what a "Yekke" is. It was a nickname given to the German Jewish immigrants who arrived in Palestine after the rise of the Hitler regime. There are two theories about the origin of the word: 1. It comes from Jacke, which in German means "jacket." The German immigrants were known for their formal appearance, the men wearing jackets and ties even in the summer heat, whereas an Israeli wouldn't be seen with a tie even in winter. 2. The letters Y K H are the initials, in Hebrew, for Yehudi Kshe Havana - "a Jew slow of understanding." Certainly not very complimentary. WHAT? THOSE educated, cultured and courteous people "slow of understanding," which is another way of saying "stupid?" This condescending and negative attitude toward the immigrants from Germany was not really meant in malice; it simply expressed the native Israeli's hutzpa in looking down on people so different from himself. Those polite German Jews lacked the quickness of mind and sharp tongue of the East Europeans. But the Yekkes were really far from being slow. They simply had problems adjusting to the new language and rough behavior of the locals. The name "Yekkes" stuck to them, even though they soon showed their superior qualities in various fields. Their influence came to be felt in many areas: The Bauhaus style took Tel Aviv by storm as Yekke architects changed the look of the country. The coffee shops they opened, with their European flavor, have left their stamp on the city's streets. Esthetics and order, politeness and cleanliness, were Yekke traits, not always copied by the rest of us. The Yekkes carefully listened to the advice given to them in their German-language newspapers: not to speak German in the street; not to wear socks with sandals, and to wash fruits and vegetables with soap. Our street, Rehov Ben-Yehuda, was nicknamed "Ben-Yehuda Strasse" because of the many Yekkes who lived and had their shops there. Even today, it has kept its special character. The Keren family had an apartment similar to ours in layout, but cultures apart in contents and atmosphere. I was only six when I first entered it, and found myself in a room the likes of which I had never seen before. I remember most details: the carpets, the pictures, and the grand piano taking up half the living room. This was most likely the moment I vowed to myself to restrain my own native hutzpa. Among the five members of the Keren family, two had a lasting influence on my life: Havale, who was my age and, like no one else I had heard of, had already had her portrait painted. It hung on a wall in the living room. The second memorable family member was Havale's grandma, who spoke only German and prepared the Abendbrot (supper) which consisted of very thin slices of bread covered with delicious surprises. All summer long, she also took us to the beach every afternoon, carrying a basket filled with Abendbrot and a thermos of cocoa. We ate on the beach, near the hill where the old Muslim graveyard looked down on us (now the site of the Hilton Hotel). HAVALE'S GRANDMA was also the source of my first Brother Grimm fairy tales, as well as of the adventures of Max & Moritz, the wild and unruly favorites of all German children. The cultural differences between my Eastern European background and the refined world of the Yekkes came to a head one day. My parents had to go out one night and left me with the Kerens, with a stern warning: "You will be on your best behavior, no matter what!" And I honestly tried. In the evening, we had a proper supper, not the usual Abendbrot. To my horror, I saw a large bowl of steaming sauerkraut placed on the table. I had never seen or tasted the stuff before, but I knew for certain that I hated it. I remembered my mother's words and was caught in a dilemma: I couldn't say that I didn't want to eat it and did not resist when my portion was put on my plate. But I somehow had to get rid of it. So I carefully picked up a small amount on my fork and slyly threw it under the table. And so once again, until all of it was gone. Then I forgot all about it. Until one evening, a week later, my mother placed a steaming bowl of sauerkraut in front of me. "You can't leave the table until you finish it all," she said. I left the table only late at night. The sauerkraut incident wasn't the only faux pas I committed vis-à-vis the Yekkes. A few years later, when I was 11 or 12, a girl in my class, one of several new immigrants, invited me to her birthday party. I was surprised at the invitation, mainly because we sabras did not have close relations with the newcomers, and second, because we never had birthday parties. This simply was not the custom in Eastern Europe, where our families came from. It was not a good omen to count the years. My mother gave me some money to buy the girl a present, but I decided not to. I had never received a gift myself, and I didn't see any reason to give one. I climbed the three flights empty-handed. When the door opened, a delicious smell of coffee wafted through the air. To my amazement, some of the children sat around a table covered with a white table cloth and an assortment of tantalizing cakes. Each child had a cup of coffee placed before him. It was my first-ever taste of the beverage. That afternoon, after the Kaffee and Kuchen (cake), it came time for the birthday girl to open her presents. I could have crawled under the table. The guilt over not having brought one stayed with me for years. FOR ME, the most distinguished Yekke was our family doctor, Walter Kahn. He was not only a highly qualified physician, but a man of culture and expertise in many fields. In his office he kept a large library in several languages, including art books the likes of which I had never seen. In his waiting room I often found myself sitting opposite sheikhs from Saudi Arabia or patients from Trans-Jordan or Egypt, who had come to Tel Aviv especially to consult him. Dr. Kahn was tall and carefully dressed, so totally different from the average male walking the grimy streets of Tel Aviv wearing shorts, sandals and undershirts. My mother trusted him implicitly; even his defective Hebrew did not diminish his authority. Another group of Yekkes, who refused to give up their old European habits, were steady customers at Café Bitan on Dizengoff Street. They hardly spoke Hebrew at all; after unsuccessful attempts with various teachers, they gave up and spoke German, ignoring the reproachful glances aimed at them. Still, they exerted considerable influence on the Tel Aviv scene: shops started looking cleaner and were more orderly as their owners imitated the Yekke style. Ina, who was a faithful client of the Café Bitan, sang with gusto in a chorus which took part in concerts and the opera. Love of music was another characteristic the Yekkes brought to Israel. Ina's husband, Sigmund, who had been a scientist and taught biology at Mainz University, now drove a truck for a metal factory without ever uttering a word of complaint. One evening, stepping out of the Mograbi movie theater, I saw our next-door neighbor dressed in chef's white, selling hot frankfurters from a shiny brass tray to the passersby. He was one of a group of unemployed Yekke actors, and had received a special license to sell hot dogs while performing in the streets.