Jewish Life: Multiculturalism is a Reality

Wiener Zeitung, November 29, 2018

German original:

By Alexia Weiss

The first Sunday of advent coincides with the first day of Chanukah this year. It is nice that one is able to buy a chocolate St. Nicholas in one store, and chocolate Chanukah gelt in another. What defines a multicultural society? Many different life plans and cultural affiliations exist. Everybody can live as they wish; there are, however, points of contact between the different groups: schools can be one of them, where kids develop friendships and their parents get to talk to each other.

The decoration at the bakery this morning was in red and black: St. Nicholas and Krampi (yes, I wanted to write Krampusses, but the Duden clearly prescribes Krampi) dominated the counter. At the kosher supermarket, on the other hand, everything for Chanukah was on sale: Next Sunday, we light the first candle this year. A shelf full of chanukkiot, candles, oil and wicks offers a wonderful selection. To circumnavigate the eternal candle – dilemma, (most interestingly, there are never any candles that perfectly fit the Chanukah candlestick, which makes me wonder every year why this does not seem to be a problem for Christmas tree – candles) I chose olive oil this year. It is available in small cups with a wick, which can be inserted into the candlestick.

Then there is the consideration that oil is closer to what really happened in the temple. Jewish traditions should disappear and be replaced by Greek traditions step by step. Hashem should become history; prayers were now directed towards Zeus. Thanks to the Maccabees and their successful uprising, the temple could be re-inaugurated. But there was not enough oil to keep the menorah lit. New oil had to be produced, which would take eight days. The miracle that we remember each year during Chanukah was that the oil lasted for the entire eight days, not just for one as was expected.

This is why food fried in oil is also consumed: sufganjot (doughnuts) in various forms and latkes (potato pancakes) are the most common dishes. The fact that my daughter will have to give a presentation in biology class on the production of sunflower and rapeseed oil tomorrow seems a bit like a wink of fate. In general I am not superstitious, but sometimes it is surprising how incidents from different areas of life can come together as a whole at the end of the day.

What is Integration?

I myself will accompany my Afghan friends, who have been living in Austria for three and a half years but still have ongoing asylum procedures, to their appointment at the Federal Administrative Court. The topic of integration could also come up on this occasion. Of course they will continue to celebrate their festivities, and of course they will continue to prepare their favorite dishes at home, or have conversations at home in their native language, Dari.

But they like Vienna, they know how get from point A to point B, they speak German well enough to communicate in everyday situations and to somewhat comprehend newspaper articles. Their children go to school and to kindergarten, they are looking forward to their St. Nicholas bags, to the snow in the city, and to pony rides at the Christmas market, which we will visit together this weekend. A propos: is there a joke that begins with the words „a Jewish family and a Muslim family visit the Christmas market...?“ If not, a number of storylines would present themselves. If things are taken with humor. Or if they are regarded as a matter of course.

Multiculturalism is daily routine in Vienna. It exists. It is nothing one can be against or in favor of (well, it is possible, but would not change a thing), multiculturalism is simply a reality. One can accept it and see to it that no closed parallel societies develop by providing enough connection points between the different groups. Schools, for example, are well suited for this; it is not just the children who forge friendships there, but also the parents interact with each other. Hardly any society is completely homogeneous (one exception are indigenous people like those on the Indian Andaman Islands, who recently made headlines because a U.S. citizen, who felt compelled to convert the people on the island to Christianity, was killed); migration is part of human history. It is important that neither the old-established population, nor the newcomers try to impose their ways of life. Over time, we will approximate each other anyway.

How many Viennese naturally visit a Kebab stand today? And how many immigrants and migrants love to eat Viennese Schnitzel? Life is vivid after all, and people are able to adapt: those who are already here, and the ones who just arrived. Together they form society, and therefore they share basic common interests: when the government now cuts the needs-based minimum benefits for families with many children, then all groups will be affected. Then there are no longer two sides, there will simply be families affected by the cuts. And therefore families affected by poverty.

Specifically, Jews living observantly often have many children, and on holidays things can get particularly tight in the light of financial worries. Zedeka, charity, is a basic pillar of Judaism. The Jewish Community Vienna (IKG) put children in the center of their Chanukah donation appeal this year. They ask for donations to enable as many children a possible to attend the Jewish School (which is a private school and therefore attendance is not free). This also illuminates a typical Jewish attitude: children are the future, and education is important. An investment in both, children and education, is therefore a good investment.

At the Jewish School, by the way, multiculturalism is part of everyday life as it is in society at large: yes, only Jewish boys and girls are there, but they do come from various family backgrounds. Some have ancestors in Eastern Europe, others in Central Asia, while others recently moved to Austria from Israel. So, in a way, the Jewish School on the IKG campus is a little melting pot. If we keep this image in mind, then I see Vienna as a big melting pot. New York is lauded for this characteristic. In Vienna, some wrinkle their noses. This, too, impairs good cohabitation.