A trip on the Happy Hippie Jew Bus
Jalda Rebling and Anna Adam bring a revitalized Judaism to Germany
Jalda Rebling and Anna Adam hopped out of the Happy Hippie Jew Bus clutching a cuddle Torah and a handful of temporary tattoos of the Hebrew words for “peace” and “love.” Adam always wanted a tattoo growing up, but her mother, who survived the Auschwitz death camp, told her Jews did not voluntarily get tattoos. Tattoos, she and many in her generation said, were Nazi tools used to dehumanize.
In Nazi death camps, Nazi officers tattooed numbers on the wrists of the millions of prisoners in the German concentration camps, including those who came through the infamous gates marked Abeit Macht Frei, “Work Will Set You Free.”
But Adam doesn’t want to dwell on the pain of the past. She thinks tattoos – like so much of Judaism in Germany – needs to break away from the darkness of the past.
“I’m a rebel in that way,” Adam said with a smile.
Six million Jews died in the Holocaust. One million of them died at Auschwitz, the largest Nazi death camp, which was liberated 70 years ago.
But today, Judaism, particularly Judaism in a united Germany, Adam said, cannot continue to be a religion that focuses on the pain and division of the past. If it is to continue and be viable, then it needs to live, breathe and laugh.
That’s where the Happy Hippie Jew Bus comes in.
Adam’s art pokes fun at Jewish clichés and Germans’ trepidation and guilt about the Holocaust and their fears of interacting with survivors and Jews. The bus is a yellow Volkswagen van with pink and purple flowers painted on it. Inside, Adam, an artist, illustrator and theatrical production designer, has built and created crafts, projects and games that help explain Judaism.
Adam and Rebling use them – along with their own theatrical gifts and engaging personalities – to talk to strangers about Judaism.
For instance, they have three 8-foot-tall boards with one word – either “Milk,” “Meat” or “Neutral” painted on each. The women hand out magnets with popular food items and ask people to put the food under the proper heading. They use the boards and the activity as a way to talk about the word “kosher,” which relates to how religious Jews eat and drink according to ethical guidelines.
Adam and Rebling drive the bus around Germany – where the Jews make up just .1 percent of the population – and visit open markets, schools and public events in order to educate Germans about Jews. For some, contact with the women is their first time meeting a living Jew.
“When people see the colorful bus, they come closer and want to see what it’s about,” Adam said. “So it is easy to get in touch with them and invite them to discuss with me.”
Adam and Rebling, whose mother also survived Auschwitz, grew up in the shadow of pain that their mother’s generation carried with them. Rebling’s mother, the well-known Yiddish singer Lin Jaldati, was from Amsterdam and had worked as a singer and dancer before she joined the Jewish underground in the 1940s in Holland. She was arrested and sent to Auschwitz and then Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. Jadalti and her sister were the only members of their family to survive the Holocaust.
They were also the first ones to tell Otto Frank that his daughters Anne and Margot Frank, with whom the sisters had been held at Bergen-Belsen, had died.
Anne Frank’s diary, The Diary of a Young Girl, went on to worldwide success and made her one of the most well-known victims of the Holocaust.
Rebling and Adams’ mothers were the lucky ones – the survivors. Adams’ mother was among only 8,000 Jews who retuned to Berlin after the war and tried to rebuild their shattered community. Rebling’s family returned to Amsterdam and in the 1950s, they moved to East Berlin in hopes of building a Communist utopia. Rebuilding the Jewish community was slow, the women said. And much of the focus was on loss, memory and death.
The women are changing that slowly by showing others, even fellow Jews, how fun, fascinating and delicious Judaism can be by introducing them to Jewish-themed folktales, songs, sweets, traditions and artwork.
“People have the Shoah, [the Holocaust], in their mind when they think of Jews or Jewish art,” Adam said. “In my art projects, they understand that art around Jewish themes can also be just beautiful or funny.”
Examples of her art include smiling stars of David, Hanukkah “Advent” calendars that have eight doors for the eight nights of Hanukkah, rather than 24 for the days of Christmas and laminated photos of famous Jewish people, including Dustin Hoffmann, Barbara Streisand and Leonard Nimoy dressed as “Mr. Spock” from Star Trek. She also has a satirical line of “Jewish” food, which she uses to poke fun at the idea that many have that Jews are so different from other people.
Such lightheartedness about Judaism is not common in Germany, but it is becoming increasingly necessary. Germany is one of the only countries in Europe with a growing Jewish population. Jewish immigrants have come to Berlin since the fall of the Berlin Wall 28 years ago and more recently, Jews are coming from Israel, attracted by the city’s affordable housing, buzz as an artistic hub and bohemian, left-leaning reputation.
“As generations pass, Jews will continue to feel more at home here,” said Jeffery Peck, Dean of the Weissman School of Arts and Sciences at Baruch College and author of the book, Being Jewish in the New Germany. “But there will always be the memory of what happened here.”
Peck said the influx of immigrants has complicated life for the current Jewish community, but it has also “made Jewish life much more diverse, much richer.”
During World War II, the Nazis systematically annihilated Germany’s Jewish population through one of the most sinister plots ever invented – the Final Solution. This involved the deportation of 11 million Jews to concentration and extermination camps where millions were gassed and cremated.
In a six-year period, Germany lost 97.5 percent of its Jewish population. Some Western Jews today – even some in New York – won’t travel to Germany or to Berlin or purchase German products. Germans – particularly those born in the post-war years – rarely ever meet Jews or participate in Jewish holidays or rituals. Their relationship to Judaism centers on guilt and memories of death.
Adam and Rebling want to change that. They are working to be part of the rebuilding of the Jewish community of Berlin and of Germany, which has almost quadrupled since the end of the Cold War.
In 2007, Rebling became a cantor and in 2012, she and Adam formed the first Jewish Renewal organization in Germany, Ohel-Hachidusch. Though not a synagogue, the group holds services and gives its members a place to feel good about being Jewish. Their goal is to help others find “the joy to live as proud Jews in this world, learning, celebrating and to be responsible for each other as a community,” Rebling said.
Ohel-Hachidusch offers workshops on topics such as kosher cooking, organic gardening, Jewish satire, theater and Torah study. It also holds services and celebrations for the Jewish holidays, including Shabbat, and for Bar/Bat-Mitzvahs, baby naming and weddings.
Right now, the group has 40 members and many are Americans living in Berlin, Rebling said.
Berlin today has nine synagogues recognized as part of the community and a handful of Jewish “start-ups,” like Ohel-Hachidusch. The Jewish community has 10,000 registered members.
Rebling and Adam see the growth as a positive sign for the community and an indication that the community is diversifying and in some small ways, normalizing.
The couple wants to help Jews in Germany have choices about Judaism and wants to offer services that help people connect to Judaism in ways that make sense to them. They do not, said Rebling, want to fulfill rituals that have lost meaning.
There are more than 200 Jewish Renewal organizations worldwide and they embrace social views including feminism, environmentalism and pacifism.
“Jewish Renewal is an attitude, not a denomination,” said Rachel Barenblat, a Jewish Renewal rabbi at Congregation Beth Israel in MA, who hosts a blog.
This attitude allows its members to accept long-standing traditions, discard impractical ones and create fresh ones that inspire them. For instance, the Jewish holy book, the Torah, states that a prayer shawl, a “tallit,” should always be worn by a cantor for the evening service. This helps mark the cantor as the group leader, Rebling said. But Rebling chooses not to wear a tallit because in her group, they all pray together as equals, she said.
This, said Rebling, might be a form that works for some Jews in Germany.
For Adam, it’s more direct and more youthful. Through the bus, the songs and the community that Ohel-Hachidusch and other groups offer, Jews and non-Jews get a fresh image of what it means to be a Jew in Germany.
“Suddenly,” Adam said, “it feels cool to be Jewish.”