Shalom Vienna

Profil (02/20/06)
by Sylvia Steinitz

There is a feeling of spring in Vienna’s Jewish Community: how young Jews maintain tradition and at the same time strive to integrate Jewish lifestyle into a multi-cultural society.

Rabbi Shlomo Schwartz cannot shake off his amazement. He came especially from Los Angeles to strengthen the morale of a faint-hearted flock of frightened young people: That’s how the Americans imagine the situation of the Jewish community in Europe. Instead, he finds himself at the Vienna Hilton standing amidst a group of seven hundred people celebrating euphorically. It is the climax of a weekend meeting of young Jews from all over Europe, organized by Vienna’s Israelite Religious Community (IKG) and the largest European Jewish student organization, the European Center for Jewish Students (ECJS). Many young men are wearing the skullcap, the traditional Jewish headpiece, and the live band is playing not only R&B but also Israeli pop songs to which the guests are dancing with arms interlocked. We cannot avoid a few clichés: The Russians are ordering Wodka continuously, the German and the Dutch are the loudest and everyone sings along with Robbie Williams.

At a late hour Rabbi Schwartz dons a pair of paper sunglasses equipped with a special filter. Looking through them at the light, one sees dancing stars of David. He smiles at the thought of these instantly convertible sun glasses. Shlomo Schwartz is of Viennese descent; during WW II his parents fled to the United States where he was born as the youngest. Today he lives in Los Angeles and is, among other things, the personal Rabbi of prominent figures like Richard Dreyfuss or Robin Williams. I really must tell them how much is going on here, he says. Who knows, perhaps a few Hollywood stars will come to Vienna for the next meeting!
The opinion that the Jewish community in Austria consists of a bunch of dispirited, broken people who cannot cast off their memories is still widely spread in America. The current news from their native country that trickle across the Atlantic hardly encourage another image - the lawsuit concerning the return of the Klimt paintings, numerous other contentious cases over confiscated goods, houses and properties, along with opinion polls continue to uphold past stereotypes right into the 21st century.

Nonetheless, one senses the beginning of a new era within the Jewish community. Jewish life style is finally settling here not as some nostalgic copy of a lost culture but as an integral part of modern multicultural society.
Achieving this, however, is not any easier today than it was twenty-one years ago when a young man by the name of Ariel Muzicant asked the provoking question: Is the Jewish community in Vienna dying out? and with his young list forged ahead to prevent that from happening. Today Muzicant, the unanimously elected President of the Israelite Religious Community (IKG), is optimistic about laying the foundations of a Jewish community comprising 20,000 to 25,000 members by the year 2008.

The necessary infrastructure is available, which will make some things easier but of course not everything. Jewish life in Austria is still a balancing act between cautious hope for the future and necessary reflection of the past: Do not forget but at some point draw the final line, is how Maxim Slutski describes the attitude of many young Jews. One can sense that particularly among the young people today.

At twenty-six, Slutski personifies the sense of new beginnings for the Israelite Religious Community: As the first representative of the IKG for youth and culture, he has been in office for six months. As such he organized the meeting which Rabbi Schwartz had been so enthusiastic about. In the two years in which I have been in Vienna, so much has been done, claims the young man born in the Ukraine and who until recently lived in New York. The progressive, young-thinking Jews wish to improve upon things in this city. For the coming summer he is planning a one-week event for five hundred participants. It is important and good that something as great as this should be taking place right now in Austria. It conveys a sense of reconciliation and helps to normalize the relations between Jews and non-Jews which we young people so strongly wish.

The Israelite Religious Community in Austria consists of almost seven thousand members with the majority living in Vienna. The Community as such is made up of first or second generations of Jews living in Vienna: immigrants, mostly from the former Soviet Union, whom the local Jewish community along with the few home comers and even fewer survivors have saved from final downfall. Today our community is widely represented, says Slutski. We have Ashkenazy Jews with European roots and Sephardic Jews from regions like Uzbekistan, Tajikistan. Georgia and Azerbaizhan. All have their own cultural backgrounds and mentalities. We try to bring all these groups together at our events. That is also the job of the cultural representative.

Cultural diversity has a long tradition in Vienna. Between 1848 and 1916 about 170,000 Jews came from all parts of the Monarchy to Vienna. What was then a community of approximately 10,000 members, grew to become the second largest community in Europe after that of Warsaw. In 1945 there were some 5,500 Jews living in Vienna; the rest had either fled, been expelled or murdered.

To this day the Israelite Religious Community is aiming at complete restitution and compensation to those owners whose properties were confiscated due to "Aryanization" or whose possessions were destroyed in the November pogrom in 1938. With the money from restitution payments and their own funds totalling some 70 million euros, five Austrian religious communities have been rebuilt in Vienna, Linz, Graz, Salzburg and Innsbruck in addition to some lesser synagogues. Today the religious community supports schools, social institutions, kindergartens, a career training center, the psycho-social center ESRA (in which victims of Nazi persecution and their children find psychological help), the Maimonides center for older citizens as well as three cultural and sports associations. Moreover, there are the Vienna Jewish film festivals and for the last three years a large Jewish street festival in the center of Vienna.

Particularly in the city’s 2nd district one gets an idea of what it looked like and might look like again some day. Except for some intermittent phases (when in 1670 Kaiser Leopold expulsed the inhabitants and renamed the 2nd and parts of the 20th district after himself: Leopoldstadt) the so-called Mazzeinsel has been a traditional Jewish residential area ever since the 17th century, and a whiff of Jewish Life is now returning to it. Here are most of the kosher butchers and bakeries and here one meets orthodox women with their traditional wigs, bearded men in long robes, characteristic side-burns and broad hats.

The Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox Jews, however, make up a minority of only some two to three thousand people, living and working alongside the official religious community. The majority of the Jewish community lives the cosmopolitan, multi-cultural life of most European cities.

A visit to the youth organization, Hasomer Hazair, in Central Vienna allows young people from different backgrounds to meet and to organize joint excursions and ski courses. The older ones wear blue shirts, some with the Israeli flag and emblem sewed on them. During a group photo they all raise three fingers on their right hand. That stands for the three pillars of our group, explains the sixteen year-old Daliah. Socialism, Zionism and Chaluzinism. The last comes from the Hebrew, "chaluz," meaning pioneer spirit. The Chaluz Movement, apart from the Kibbutz Movement, marked the beginning of the history of current-day Israel. Daliah is Viennese. Her grandparents were expelled by the Nazis, and the family attempted to start a new life during the 1950s. She attends the Wenzgasse Gymnasium in Vienna Hietzing, has Jewish and non-Jewish friends. In school my sister and I are the only Jewish children, tells Daliah. But I have only had good experiences. My schoolmates are very aware of Austria’s historical debate. And they come also to me with questions. I find that good because it shows that we young people are not afraid to approach each other.

Of course other situations occur. My brother was verbally ridiculed in class for asking whether there was anything else to be had other than Schweinsschnitzel. Sometimes she hears people use "Jew" as a swear word. Once she saw in the metro two boys holding their arms stretched in a Hitler greeting. Of course I react differently to such things as a Jew than as a non-Jew, she says, and I ask myself whether they know at all what they are doing or whether they simply enjoy provoking.

No one in the group has experienced an anti-Semitic attack. First of all, we look like all other young people, and secondly, it’s not so bad in Vienna, says seventeen year-old Laura. Daliah adds: In Israel they may think that one cannot live here, but when one actually lives here, it is really quite different.

Actually, compared to other European countries, the number of anti-Semitic attacks in Austria is minimal: From June until August 2005, during the Vienna Forum against anti-Semitism, twenty-eight anti-Semitic incidents were reported, among which were thirteen cases of graffiti. Occasionally some of Vienna’s Orthodox Jews were provoked.

Nonetheless, the anti-Semitic threats of Iranian President Ahmadinejad, the competition over the Holocaust caricatures and the flaring up of debates about the legality of the State of Israel show that the anti-Semites of the past are visibly being replaced by those of today and tomorrow. The journalist, Hans Rauscher, has touched upon this phenomenon in his book, Israel, Europe and the New anti-Semitism: A form of anti-Jewish propaganda emanating from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict carried out by new leftists, new right wing circles, Islamists and all those for whom the simplest solution has always been best.

Israel as an armed nation is also a topic which nobody in the community likes to speak about, at least not officially. I am tired of being misinterpreted over and over again, says one teenager. As a Jew, whatever one says about the conflict over Israel, it will be misconstrued. Israel for peace peace for Israel is painted on one of the banners which hangs in the lounge of the youth organization, Hashomer Hazair. The banner says more than the young people can express in words. They try, nevertheless. I’m happy to live in Austria and feel at home here, explains the seventeen year-old Niki. But Israel is my spiritual home. It simply gives me a certain security. The fact that his mother happens to be an Israeli helps to reinforce the connection. It is much the same for me, explains Daliah. I prefer to be and to live freely in Vienna knowing that there is a country I can go to at any time and will feel safe in. People in Israel will not understand how we can even think of living in an ex-Nazi country. Some have this radical opinion because they believe that nothing has changed. But when one lives here, one knows that it is quite different.

Avi Yosfan, born in Israel, has experienced this phenomenon: When I moved to Vienna sixteen years ago and saw the same street which I had seen on old photos documenting the Holocaust, emotion overwhelmed me. But that moment passed. The streets are the same, but the times are different. I feel like a real Viennese. Yosfan’s restaurant in the center of the city, Maschu Maschu is a beloved meeting place for Israelis but also for Arabs working at nearby OPEC who are among his regular guests. One gets into stimulating but peaceful discussions about politics or some issue like the debate over the caricatures or even about the weather.

Three years ago Yosfan, together with his friend, Shimon Deutsch, founded a branch of "Maschu Maschu" in the 7th district. His guests provided a colorful mix. "The guys are uncomplicated," says Yosfan. They say: "Aha, Israeli cooking today. Okay, we’ll try it." Older guests ask about it and want to try out different Israeli recipes. I find that good. And if someone absolutely does not want a Falafel he can have a Wienerschnitzel instead. It’s all about feeling good here.

Avi Yosfan compares modern, globalized society with Israeli cooking: Everything is on the move, and progressing continually. People are the ingredients from all over the world. You put everything into a pot, anything from the Yeminite’s sharp zhug sauce to the Pole’s "gefilte fish", experiment around a bit and when it’s all done, something good comes out of it.

Sometimes, however clouds of smoke come billowing out of the pot like in the case of Sonja and Warren Rosenzweig. When the young woman from Carinthia married the New York-born founder of Austria’s Jewish Theater 18 years ago, one part of her family was anything but happy: It came to some bad scenes, Sonja Rosenzweig recalls. I ask myself even today how my husband was able to get over them.

But the Rosenzweigs themselves have their occasional religious differences: At first the question of religion never really arose. But when the children were born, it became a topic. In Judaism, it is namely the mother who is responsible for the children’s religious and cultural upbringing. This is a duty I cannot fulfill because I lack the background, says Sonja Rosenzweig. On the other hand my son can’t go to a purely Jewish school with his mother not being a Jew. The question whether she should convert is something she has been considering for many years.

She has often been on the point of doing so by going to the Rabbi for religious instruction. But I have entirely different roots. The stumbling block for me is that Jesus Christ plays no central part in Judaism. Each Christmas I suffer a mini crisis because it means so much to me. So, for the time being, the topic has been laid aside. I still haven’t decided. But I’m happy that my husband doesn’t try to pressure me. I know one case where a man left his girlfriend because she didn’t want to convert.

Another Jewish friend is together with a non-Jew. They simply celebrate both Christmas and Hanukkah. That I find really nice because it’s being honest. Should she, however, convert, then I would perhaps attend a reformed Or-Chadasch religious community. It corresponds more to my modern-day concept of religion. And they accept me for who I am with all my doubts and questions.
Whether to convert or not is a question which concerns very few in Austria. Only some five persons per year convert to the Jewish faith, reports Natalja Najder with the Israelite Religious Community. Those are either people with Jewish roots or women who marry and want to change over to the Jewish faith. In the reformed Or-Chadasch community under Rabbi Irit Shillor, there are currently three young people wanting to convert, who are not happy with Christianity and are looking for new religious paths.

For Sonja Rosenzweig, maiden name Egger, entry into the Jewish world broadened her field of experiences. People reacted to my new surname with ‘Oh, Rosenzweig, what a beautiful name. Are you Jewish? You don’t look at all Jewish. On the whole I experience more curiosity than disapproval. I only had a bad experience once: I was turned down for a job which I felt sure about when the woman in charge heard my name. The marriage of the thirty-nine year-old woman provided her with a lot of material for discussion. "But I am happy about it," she says. Sometimes I think that the Jews are in the world to permanently remind us that we have to learn tolerance. When one enters into this discussion and experiences personal rejection, it’s tough. But it also keeps one alive and inquiring about the different sides of a situation.

Basically, it’s an unbelievable enrichment. It impresses her that her husband continues to fight for a place for his theater. For years, Warren Rosenzweig tried to get his own house not only for the ‘Jewish Theater Austria’ but generally speaking for a Jewish theater in Austria. His choice would be the former Jewish theater in the Nestroyhof in Vienna’s Leopoldstadt which was aryanized in 1938 and to this day is in the hands of the family which had bought it [from the Nazis]. In the basement of the building Rosenzweig discovered Nazi swastikas on the walls, which were finally removed by the police after having repeatedly and unsuccessfully asked the owner to do it.

It is still unclear whether he will be able to move into the theater. Unfortunately, we’re not getting any cultural promotion. We are told that the financial means are lacking. But we continue to fight.

A Jewish theater in Leopoldstadt, in the same house in which it once existed, that would be the best solution, culturally, economically and politically. It would be good for the Austrian image, the district and the cultural landscape.

Nevertheless, the means are lacking and above all there is a lack of understanding on the part of the owners. They have made it clear to us that perhaps they would accept a theater but not a Jewish one. Those are the grandchildren of people who acquired a lot of real estate through Aryanization and thanks to diverse legal loopholes haven’t had to return the properties. That is also modern-day Vienna.