Berlin is an attractive destination for Israeli artists. Sixty years after the Holocaust, increasing numbers of Jewish-Israeli artists are enjoying the freedom of expression in the German capital city.
Benyamin Reich smiles softly as he searches for the right words. "I don't know if it's the city of Berlin that I like, or whether it's just that I like me in Berlin." The Israeli sits at a large wooden table in his studio situated on the site of the former Wall which divided East from West Berlin. "I feel free here. The city is so raw and it gives me the feeling that I can get involved," said Reich.
The photographer has lived in Berlin since 2009. But Israel, and above all Judaism, are present in many of his works, such as still life images of challah (Sabbath bread) or a pile of old religious scriptures. Benyamin Reich is the son of rabbi and was raised together with his 10 siblings in an orthodox community, or "ghetto," as he calls it. Today he avoids any of the typical outward references to his faith. But the men in his photographs still wear black hats and payot (side curls).
"My childhood experiences are packed into my works. They are a part of me, even if I try to free myself from them," said the 34-year-old. A photograph shows a young Jew, naked from the waist up, with tefillin (small black leather boxes containing verses of the Torah) wrapped around his arm. Orthodox Jews would recognize this as part of their morning ritual, but outsiders may glean light erotic connotations from the image of a naked torso and arms bound with leather straps.
Photographs such as these are explosive in Israel, often sparking controversy. Many believe that images of this type do not afford Jewish rituals the appropriate level of respect. In Berlin, the works are judged purely on artistic merit. The Jewish Museum used the photograph of the young, semi-naked Jew on the official posters and flyers for their exhibition "How German is it? 30 Artists' Notion of Home."
But Benyamin Reich's move to Berlin was not entirely problem free. His father, a well-travelled rabbi, had always avoided stepping foot in Germany, at times even resorting to making complicated detours. The memory of Jewish persecution during the Second World War was too powerful for him.
Benyamin Reich has freed himself from these familiar memories and prejudices. "Lots of Jewish artists are moving to Berlin at the moment. Most of them don't think about the past at all – it only crosses their mind once they've arrived." It's a process which the artist encountered himself.
Since his move to Berlin, Reich has inevitably grappled with the Second World War and tried to understand how the Holocaust could have occurred. His grandparents who fled from Hungary and Poland, never spoke about their traumatic experiences. But they always warned their children and their grandchildren against travelling to Germany.
The history of the war may be a lot more present in Berlin than in Israel, but that doesn't bother him. "Germany is the safest place for Jews," said Reich playfully, but with conviction. "The worst has already happened here." Benyamin Reich is not the only Jewish-Israeli artist to have freed himself from the traumatic German past. Berlin is currently experiencing a boom in immigration from Israel – the German capital seems to somehow magically draw the third generation after the Holocaust to it.
One of them is the graphic designer Gabriel S. Moses, who came to Berlin to promote his first experimental graphic novel after failing to find a publisher in Israel. "There's no place for my works in the Israeli publishing world because they're too arty and not commercial enough." In the meantime, Moses has published his second graphic novel "Subz" in Berlin – a autobiographical account of teenage life on the cease-fire line between Israel and the autonomous Palestinian territories.
Israel, and above all the critique waged against the current conflict, remains the central theme of his work in Berlin. "I course I wish that we could finally find a solution. But I can't live there anymore." His life may not have been in danger, but he says that it is mainly artists who are suffering under the politically tense situation. "In Israel I felt like I was constantly being shouted at." In Berlin he feels a large amount of tolerance and genuine interest in his artistic vision. He feels that he has arrived in the present in Berlin. The past plays a secondary role.
Benyamin Reich's parents have also given Berlin a chance, having visited their son there. "It was hard for them, because my grandparents had forbidden them from coming here, so to speak. But I think it was a really important journey for them." His mother was positively surprised by the synagogue just a few meters from Benyamin's studio. He visits the synagogue on a regular basis, and in doing so is part of a new generation of Berlin Jews.
Author: Nadine Wojcik / hw
Editor: Jessie Wingard