Happy Hanukkah

Forget "Winterval". Let religious festivals proudly speak their names

Tonight, at sundown, begins the Jewish festival of lights, Hanukkah, which celebrates the rededication of the temple in Jerusalem in the 2nd century BC after the Maccabees successfully rebelled against their Syrian-Greek rulers.

Given its proximity to Christmas -- and Hanukkah goes on for eight nights -- it is a bit of a shame that more is not made of it publicly (although London's mayor, Boris Johnson, will be lighting a giant menorah in Trafalgar Square this evening).

As Mehdi Hasan writes in this week's cover story, Jesus is a revered prophet for Muslims -- which really ought to be obvious and well known, but too often what religions have in common is overlooked in favour of what divides them. This doesn't have to be the way, and given that Hanukkah precedes both Christianity and Islam, it could be something in which all Abrahamic faiths participate. In fact, the Simon Wiesenthal Centre organised just such an event two years ago when it flew a group of Indonesian Muslim clerics to Israel where, among other things, they lit candles with yeshiva students.

In America, of course, things are different. The conjunction of Christmas with Hanukkah has given rise to the idea of "Chrismukkah", popularised particularly by the US television series The OC, and leading to books and greeting cards with messages such as this:

"Deck the halls
with lots of tchotchkes,
Fa la la la la la la la la la.
Tis the season to eat latkes,
Fa la la la la la la la L'Chaim!"

Some suggest that Chrismukkah is just a commercial confection but, even though they're obviously not theologically profound, or even sound, I think such joint festivities can only be for the good. In Malaysia and Singapore, for instance, when the Hindu Deepavali (or Diwali) is proximate to Eid ul-Fitr, which Malays call Hari Raya, all sorts of schools and organisations celebrate these together as "Deepa-Raya". This does not replace separate Muslim and Hindu ceremonies, but its importance is not to be underestimated in a region where racial and religious divisions are, unfortunately, increasingly being emphasised.

Surely the point is that all these festivals, whether they be Eid, Diwali, Christmas, or the Winter Solstice, should be positive occasions that dare speak their name. No one really likes "Winterval", do they? President Obama has already got himself into a little trouble by inviting guests to "a holiday occasion" next week -- when in fact the event is the annual White House Hanukkah party.

On a happier note, I'll end by leaving you this link to some charming Hanukkah stories by Yoni Brenner in the New Yorker. I particularly liked the first two.

 

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Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman
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It's easy to see where Berlin is being rebuilt – just hit the streets

My week, from walking the streets of Berlin to class snobbery and the right kind of gentrification.

Brick by brick, block by block, the people are rebuilding the city once called Faust’s Metropolis. To see it clearly, put your boots on. One of the most bracing walks starts by the Gethsemane Church, which served as a haven for dissenters in the last days of the GDR and takes you down ­towards the Hackescher Markt.

Here, in what is still the eastern half of a divided city that wears its division more lightly, is a Berlin experience both old and new. In three decades of frequent visits, it has been fascinating to note how much this part of town has changed. Even a decade ago these streets were rundown. With crumbling buildings showing bulletholes, it wasn’t hard to imagine what the place looked like in 1945. Now there are lilacs, blues, and yellows. Cafés, bars and restaurants abound, serving the young professionals attracted to the city by cheap rents and a renewed sense of community.

 

Breaking the fourth wall

Looking north along Schliemannstraße, you’ll find a delightful vista of well-tended balconies. It’s a pleasant place to live, notwithstanding the gaggle of grotesques who gather round the corner in the square. On Kastanienallee, which forms the second leg of the walk, an old city feels young. It’s a kind of gentrification but the right kind. There’s more to eat, to drink, to buy, for all.

Berlin, where Bertolt Brecht staged his unwatchable plays, was supposed to have been transformed by a proletarian revolution. Instead, it has been restored to health by a very middle-class one. Germany has always had a well-educated middle class, and the nation’s restoration would have impossible without such people. The irony is delicious – not that irony buttered many parsnips for “dirty Bertie”.

 

The new snobbery

The British Museum’s survey of German history “Memories of a Nation” is being presented at the Martin-Gropius-Bau as “The British View”. Germans, natürlich, are curious to see how we observe them. But how do they see us?

A German friend recently in England  said that the images that struck him most forcibly were the tins of food and cheap booze people piled up in supermarkets, and the number of teenage girls pushing prams. Perhaps Neil MacGregor, the former director of the British Museum who will shortly take up a similar role here at the new Humboldt Forum, may turn his attention to a “German View” of the United Kingdom.

There’s no shortage of material. In Schlawinchen, a bar that typifies Kreuzberg’s hobohemia, a college-educated English girl was trying to explain northern England to an American she had just met. Speaking in an ugly modern Mancunian voice that can only be acquired through years of practice (sugar pronounced as “sug-oar”), she refer­red to Durham and York as “middle class, you know, posh”, because those cities had magnificent cathedrals.

When it comes to inverted snobbery, no nation can match us. To be middle class in Germany is an indication of civic value. In modern England, it can mark you as a leper.

 

Culture vultures

The Humboldt Forum, taking shape by the banks of the Spree, reconsecrates the former site of the GDR’s Palace of the Republic. When it opens in 2018 it will be a “living exhibition”, dedicated to all the cultures of the world. Alexander von Humboldt, the naturalist and explorer, was the brother of Wilhelm, the diplomat and philosopher, whose name lives on in the nearby university.

In Potsdamerplatz there are plans to build a modern art museum, crammed in between the Neue Nationalgalerie and the Philharmonie, home to the Berlin Philharmonic. Meanwhile, the overhaul of the Deutsche Staatsoper, where Daniel Barenboim is music director for life, is likely to be completed, fingers crossed, next autumn.

Culture everywhere! Or perhaps that should be Kultur, which has a slightly different meaning in Germany. They take these things more seriously, and there is no hint of bogus populism. In London, plans for a new concert hall have been shelved. Sir Peter Hall’s words remain true: “England is a philistine country that loves the arts.”

 

European neighbours

When Germans speak of freedom, wrote A J P Taylor, a historian who seems to have fallen from favour, they mean the freedom to be German. No longer. When modern Germans speak of freedom, they observe it through the filter of the European Union.

But nation states are shaped by different forces. “We are educated to be obedient,” a Berlin friend who spent a year at an English school once told me. “You are educated to be independent.” To turn around Taylor’s dictum: when the English speak of freedom,
they mean the freedom to be English.

No matter what you may have heard, the Germans have always admired our independence of spirit. We shall, however, always see “Europe” in different ways. Europe, good: we can all agree on that. The European Union, not so good. It doesn’t mean we have to fall out, and the Germans are good friends to have.

 

Hook, line and sinker

There are fine walks to be had in the west, too. In Charlottenburg, the Kensington of Berlin, the mood is gentler, yet you can still feel the city humming. Here, there are some classic places to eat and drink – the Literaturhauscafé for breakfast and, for dinner, Marjellchen, a treasure trove of east Prussian forest delights. Anything that can be shot and put in a pot!

For a real Berlin experience, though, head at nightfall for Zwiebelfisch, the great tavern on Savignyplatz, and watch the trains glide by on the other side of Kantstraße. Hartmut Volmerhaus, a most amusing host, has been the guvnor here for more than 30 years and there are no signs that his race is run. The “Fisch” at twilight: there’s nowhere better to feel the pulse of this remarkable city. 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage