Our com­mu­nity is small, but thriv­ing. Ever more di­verse, Vi­enna’s Jews are mak­ing waves on ev­ery level

METROPOLE - Vienna in English - - CONTENTS - By Sara Fried­man & Ben­jamin Wolf

Vi­enna’s Jewish com­mu­nity is small, but of bewil­der­ing di­ver­sity. There is plenty that makes Jewish life in the city thrive, kosher or not.

Silently, the bread­crumbs slipped back into the deep woolen pock­ets. They were sup­posed to feed the fish in the Donaukanal on a cold au­tumn day. But this time, it was dif­fer­ent for the small group that gath­ered by the river for Tash­likh, as is Jewish cus­tom on Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year’s Day. It was the first time the new chief rabbi, Arie Fol­ger, led the cer­e­mony and, as he ex­plained, throw­ing bits of bread into the wa­ter – sym­bol­i­cally toss­ing one’s sins away – was ac­tu­ally not part of the tra­di­tion. “But that’s the fun part!” whis­pered a young man to a friend, while the oth­ers strug­gled to fo­cus on the rabbi’s ser­mon over the pro­fes­sional/life­guard div­ing team sort­ing its equip­ment just me­ters be­hind. Fi­nally, with the rabbi be­sieged by well-mean­ing queries, the two men get a chance to toss some crumbs into the gray­ish wa­ter. They smile, sat­is­fied. It was a good start for the New Year, but also one with sur­prises, some cheeky de­fi­ance and a watch­ful eye. Just the way Jewish life in Vi­enna rolls for­ward these days.

The com­mu­nity, once the big­gest in Cen­tral Europe, cur­rently num­bers 10,000 mem­bers within the of­fi­cial gov­ern­ing body, the Is­raeli­tis­che Kul­tus­ge­meinde (IKG), with es­ti­mates of the to­tal Jews in Vi­enna go­ing as high as 20,000. But no one is quite sure. In re­cent years, the com­mu­nity has been grow­ing, and fast. Jews who have just moved here will en­counter an es­tab­lished com­mu­nity – it­self shaken up by the ar­rival of thou­sands of Jews from Cen­tral Asia in the 1990s. It’s re­ally sev­eral com­mu­ni­ties in one, each with its own tra­di­tions and pre­ferred way of Jewish life.

The IKG rep­re­sents all of them, pre­sid­ing over an im­pres­sive Jewish in­fra­struc­ture that in­cludes a new cam­pus on the edge of Au­garten, opened in 2009, host­ing the Mai­monides re­tire­ment home as well as the Zwi Perez Cha­jes school teach­ing 700 chil­dren and ad­ja­cent fa­cil­i­ties for the

re­vived Jewish sport as­so­ci­a­tion, Hakoah. In Vi­enna, there are 16 sy­n­a­gogues and Jewish houses of praye, cater­ing to groups as di­verse as Or­tho­dox Ju­daism, the Sephardic-bucharic faith or Re­form Ju­daism. Their com­mon aim is to tend the flame of an an­cient cul­ture that was al­most erased. But it’s not only of­fi­cials light­ing the fires of Jewish Vi­enna.

Sagi Jay, a 23-years-old Is­raeli, moved here in 2014 on a hunch. “I left a great po­si­tion for this new ad­ven­ture, with­out know­ing much about Aus­tria,” he told me over a mélange in Café Phil. “And this was prob­a­bly the best de­ci­sion I could have made.” Sagi has carved out a niche with his “Se­cret Vi­enna” tours for tourists and lo­cals. “From my ob­ser­va­tion, Vi­enna is a won­der­ful place for Is­raelis and Jews who come with the right at­ti­tude, to ad­just and add their value to the city.”

Sagi’s up­beat per­cep­tion of his adopted home con­trasts sharply with some who grew up here. Daniel, a 25-year-old Vi­en­nese who works for the Jewish com­mu­nity, of­ten wears a base­ball cap over his kip­pah when he’s out on the street. He draws a dis­tinc­tion be­tween Aus­tria – the coun­try whose pass­port he car­ries – and the city he calls home. “Vi­enna is some­thing dif­fer­ent,” he says.

Daniel’s grand­par­ents were among the few to re­turn to Cen­tral Europe af­ter World War II. Of the more than 200,000 Jews who lived in Aus­tria at the time of the An­schluss in 1938, only around 2,000 re­mained af­ter the war. Many have left since then but oth­ers have come: In the 1970s and 1980s, more than 260,000 Soviet Jews em­i­grated via neu­tral Aus­tria to Is­rael and the United States, with some de­cid­ing to re­main here. Af­ter the fall of com­mu­nism, even more fol­lowed.

“This place has its his­tory, let’s put it like that,” Daniel weighs his words care­fully. But he re­fuses to pass judg­ment on many who went through the war, nor can he “judge peo­ple by what their grand­par­ents did.”


Still, Aus­tria’s past af­fects the city’s ap­proach to its present. One ex­am­ple is the Jewish Wel­come Ser­vice, cre­ated in 1980 to bring émi­gré Vi­en­nese back to visit their for­mer home town. Over three thou­sand sur­vivors and their de­scen­dants have since made the trip, from places as di­verse as the U.S, Is­rael, Den­mark and Uruguay.

“More than any­thing, it is about get­ting of­fi­cial recog­ni­tion, be­ing wel­comed here in a new and dif­fer­ent Vi­enna,” ex­plains Su­sanne Trau­neck, pro­gram co­or­di­na­tor since 1996. “For many, it is a pro­found, heal­ing ex­pe­ri­ence.” The vis­i­tors’ sched­ule is packed with of­fi­cial re­cep­tions at the Rathaus, the pres­i­dent’s of­fice, con­certs and the like, but search­ing for their very per­sonal roots and mem­o­ries is at least as im­por­tant. Of course, they also meet rep­re­sen­ta­tives and cit­i­zens of today’s Jewish Vi­enna.

Rachel, a young med­i­cal re­searcher and am­a­teur film­maker whose fam­ily is from Eastern Europe, be­lieves that Vi­enna’s Jews have it rel­a­tively good, thanks to the Ver­bots­ge­setz out­law­ing anti-semitic state­ments in pub­lic. In Bu­dapest, by con­trast, Rachel and her hus­band chanced upon an overt neo-nazi rally while walk­ing in a pub­lic park. But Aus­trian anti-semitism pre­vails in a sub­tler form, noted Anna, a re­tired civil ser­vant born in Vi­enna, over cof­fee in her el­e­gant, high-ceilinged liv­ing room. When the oc­ca­sional anti-semitic re­mark is high­lighted, the au­to­matic ex­cuse is “Wir haben es nicht böse gemeint” – we meant no harm. Yet Han­nah puts such re­marks down to ig­no­rance more than xeno­pho­bia. Whereas in the U.S., the pres­ence of a large Jewish com­mu­nity has cre­ated wide­spread aware­ness of their con­cerns, many Aus­tri­ans have no idea that they’ve ever spo­ken to a Jew, she sug­gests. “You have to ex­plain more,” she said.

There are also other ways to reach out and tell the sto­ries of Jewish life in Aus­tria. The Aus­trian Her­itage Ar­chive, a web­site which went on­line this Oc­to­ber, presents the life sto­ries of 12 Vi­en­nese who were forced to flee the coun­try be­fore and dur­ing World War II. It is only a small glimpse into the more than 600 in­ter­views with sur­vivors that have been recorded over the last 20 years by vol­un­teers – many of them them young Aus­tri­ans serv­ing as Ge­denk­di­ener (an al­ter­na­tive to mil­i­tary ser­vice), in co­op­er­a­tion with the Leo Baeck In­sti­tute in New York and Jerusalem.

“It is a way to bring these sto­ries back to Aus­tria,” said Philipp Rohrbach, one of two his­to­ri­ans who ini­ti­ated the project. “But it

is also about build­ing bridges be­tween an older and younger gen­er­a­tion of Aus­tri­ans – and hope­fully show ‘a dif­fer­ent Aus­tria,’” added his col­league, Ad­ina Seeger.

What­ever the bag­gage, Daniel wouldn’t swap Vi­enna’s Leopold­stadt for Brooklyn. The chal­lenges en­coun­tered by Vi­enna’s small Jewish com­mu­nity help strengthen its com­mit­ment, he says. “We have to make an ef­fort to lead not only a re­li­gious life, but a Jewish life.”


But iden­tity has in­ter­nal as well as ex­ter­nal com­po­nents. De­pend­ing on whom you ask, Vi­enna’s Jewish com­mu­nity is ei­ther uni­fied – or deeply di­vided.

The re­al­ity is that a large group is Jewish Or­tho­dox in some form. The Re­form Com­mu­nity – a lib­eral ap­proach to Ju­daism orig­i­nat­ing in 19th cen­tury Ger­many – is small, with about 150 mem­bers, while oth­ers sim­ply keep their dis­tance. Con­ser­va­tive Ju­daism, a com­pro­mise be­tween the Re­form and Or­tho­dox tra­di­tions, is al­most non-ex­is­tent. This is the ex­act op­po­site of the U.S., where the largest group is Re­form, fol­lowed by Con­ser­va­tive, then Or­tho­dox. Although there are dif­fer­ences, ev­ery­body iden­ti­fies with the larger Jewish com­mu­nity, Anna clar­i­fied. “As long as we dis­cuss things and don’t fight, it’s ok,” she said, “there should be room for dif­fer­ent opin­ions.” Han­nah hopes this is the case. She is a mem­ber of Or Chadasch, the only Re­form Jewish syn­a­gogue in the coun­try. As ev­i­denced by its trilin­gual prayer books, this com­mu­nity views “plu­ral­ism as its ba­sis,” and is more open for new­com­ers.

Mean­while, Jewish cul­tural and culi­nary life is bloom­ing. At the Kib­butz Klub, a pe­ri­odic Mizrachi mu­sic party event, you can feel the Ori­en­tal buzz while danc­ing un­der rain­bow flags and shim­mer­ing stars of David (see Metropole, April 2017, “Rain­bow Sab­bath”). The an­nual Jewish Film Fes­ti­val draws au­di­ences with films like Louis Saul’s and Mica Stob­wasser’s The Taste of Is­rael, whet­ting the ap­petite for more. And then there’s the ac­claimed “fast haute cui­sine” restau­rant Miznon, and Neni, the culi­nary em­pire of the Aus­troIs­raeli Mol­cho fam­ily fa­mous for the (ar­guably) best hum­mus in town. Founded by ma­tri­arch Haya Mol­cho in 2009, the pop­u­lar restau­rant now has branches in four Ger­man cities and plans to open three more in Am­s­ter­dam, Paris and Ma­jorca. You can even buy their prod­ucts at Spar.

Other events keep old tra­di­tions alive and rein­vig­o­rate them, like Vi­enna’s Yid­dish Cul­ture Fes­ti­val and the Klez­more Fes­ti­val

“I think there’s a big mis­con­cep­tion about Vi­en­nese peo­ple. I have met some amaz­ing peo­ple and have ex­pe­ri­enced the depth of this city.” SAGI JAY, CEO of Se­cret Vi­enna

– but some­times an out­side view is the most pre­cious. “I think there’s a big mis­con­cep­tion about Vi­en­nese peo­ple and the city it­self,” Sagi told me. “I have met some amaz­ing peo­ple and have ex­pe­ri­enced the depth of this city in such a way that I strongly dis­agree with the neg­a­tive im­pres­sion some peo­ple have.”

The Stadt­tem­pel in the 1st dis­trict is Vi­enna’s only syn­a­gogue pre­dat­ing World War II. Just next to it is a kosher restau­rant, where a friend and I headed for a tra­di­tional Rosh Hashanah din­ner. A long ta­ble is pre­pared for mainly sec­u­lar or mod­er­ate Jews, but just next to it is an­other, smaller ta­ble, where the chil­dren wear long pay­ots

(side curls) and an el­der dons a large round shtreimel (tra­di­tional fur hat).

Be­fore it comes to the rit­u­als over the din­ner – ap­ples dipped in honey for a “sweet year,” or fish as a sym­bol for abun­dance and fer­til­ity – the or­ga­nizer of the group we joined be­gins recit­ing the Kid­dush (sanc­ti­fi­ca­tion) of the wine. Quickly, our neigh­bors join in and add their own prayers and wishes in He­brew and Ger­man, for us all. Soon, we dine and cel­e­brate to­gether, sec­u­lar, Re­form, Or­tho­dox and gen­tile guests. In those mo­ments when the pro­tec­tive lay­ers can be chipped off, the mo­saic un­cov­ered is bril­liant in­deed.

Born in Is­rael, Haya Mol­cho moved to Vi­enna for love. Her restau­rant chain Neni bears the ini­tials of her four sons’ names (Nuriel, Elior, Nadiv and Ilan), three of whom work with her in the busi­ness.

Un­til the 1930s, up to 50 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion of Vi­enna’s 2nd dis­trict was Jewish. Here, Or­tho­dox Jews walk on Karmeliter­platz in 1915.

The Stadt­tem­pel is Vi­enna’s main syn­a­gogue. Its 12 ionic col­umns, or­nate dec­o­ra­tions and stun­ning star-stud­ded cupola make it also its most im­pres­sive one.

At the end of Novem­ber, the Vi­enna Jewish Choir and writer Doron Rabi­novici in­au­gu­rate the Yid­dish Cul­ture Fes­ti­val with their con­cert “Oj, Chanukka!“

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