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Jewish Museum Munich

Jewish identities in Europe today

München, 07/07/2015

To explore the diversity of Jewish lifestyles in Europe today, LMU ethnology students carried out field research in cities all over the continent. The fruits of their endeavors form the basis of a new exhibition at Munich’s Jewish Museum.

The exhibition Jewish Europe Today: An Exploration runs from July 8th 2015 until February 14th 2016 in Munich’s Jewish Museum.

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Over the course of a whole year, the research project, conceived at LMU’s Institute of European Ethnology, took twelve Master’s students from the beaches of Marbella to kosher restaurants in London to Budapest’s trendy “ruin pubs”. Other destinations on their itineraries were Istanbul, Warsaw, Umeå and Reykjavik. The object of the exercise was to find out more about the many facets of Jewish identity in contemporary European societies, and to interpret their findings in the light of current theoretical approaches to social and cultural anthropology. The results of their field research are now on show at a special exhibition that opens on July 8th at the Jewish Museum in Munich.

Budapest – young, Jewish, hip
“Every time I visited Zsidonegyed, a Jewish neighborhood in Budapest, I felt as if I were strolling through the Kreuzberg district in Berlin,” says Julia Jattke, who went in search of Jewish life in the Hungarian capital. What she and her classmate Rabea Beschta found in Zsidonegyed was a quarter that is very much in vogue, largely because this part of town makes a point of invoking its rich Jewish past. Only a few years ago Budapest’s so-called ruin pubs were known only to insiders, but these days they are listed in every self-respecting tourist guide to the city – and the visitor may be hard put to find locals among their customers. These pubs owe their existence to the – illegal – occupation by squatters of derelict buildings in the heart of Budapest’s Jewish quarter that were listed for demolition and redevelopment. Over the years since the fall of the Berlin Wall, Jewish life in the district has undergone a remarkable revival – in the very same area that became the site of the last Jewish ghetto to be set up during the Second World War.

During their 5-day stay in Zsidonegyed, Julia and Rabea did their best to absorb the atmosphere of an urban area characterized by graffiti-covered buildings in varying states of decay, many of which house the clubs and bars that now draw swarms of tourists. To convey this ambiance as authentically as possible, the intrepid researchers have actually reconstructed one of the ‘ruin pubs’ in the Jewish Museum. Thus visitors to the exhibition can experience at least some of the paradoxical charm that marks these localities, with their sense of the provisional and the impermanent.

How do you Jew?
“A constitutive element of the learning experience “Jewish Europe Today“ was that students should carry out research beyond the bounds of the University and its libraries, and go into the field to open up new vistas for anthropological studies,” as the originator of the project Dr. Daniel Habit of LMU‘s Institute for European Ethnology puts it. “The basic idea was to give my students an intriguing topic and the time to delve into it, and then let them present their results to a wider public in the form of an exhibition. This also meant that the participants were intimately involved in all stages of the process of mounting an exhibition – from the selection of research locations to the design of the exhibition in the Museum.”

The primary objective was to discover how Jewish culture finds expression in the contemporary world. “The question we posed was not ‘who is a Jew?’, but rather ‘how do you Jew?’” In Umeå the students set out to test the validity of the concept of ‘Swedish smorgasbord Judaism’, a term introduced by the Swedish social psychologist Lars Dencik to describe how Jews in Sweden assert their Jewish identity. The word ‘smorgasbord’ refers to the range of delicacies that make up the eponymous Swedish buffet – and serves here as a metaphor that captures how Jewish Swedes can pick and choose those aspects of Jewish tradition which they wish to integrate into their daily lives. According to Dencik’s study, 73% of the Swedish Jews he interviewed reported that they regularly observe Schabbat – but 37% stated that they also celebrate Christmas. “Data like that brought it home to our students that this research project is concerned with quite fundamental issues in life,” says Habit: “What does the term ‘religious identity’ really mean and how does one handle it in everyday life?”

Marbella: Scripture and suntan
Lisa Kattner and Katharina Ohl selected a rather unusual location for their investigation of modern Jewish lifestyles: They decided to look at the topic of Jewish tourism, and this brought them to Marbella on Spain’s Costa del Sol. “We got the idea from an article that appeared in the weekly Jüdische Allgemeine under the title ‘Beten und Bräunen’”, Lisa explains. According to that report, the size of the Jewish population of the Spanish resort increases threefold during the summer, because so many Jews spend their vacations there – although many also come to Marbella to celebrate important rites of passage, such as Bar Mitzvah. “Against this background, we were surprised to find that virtually no restaurants in Marbella offer a kosher menu – and many of the proprietors we asked had no idea what we were talking about,” Lisa says. However, all is not lost, she adds. “Anyone in search of kosher food can always turn to the Jewish community in Marbella. It even has its own kosher catering service.” cdr

The exhibition Jewish Europe Today: An Exploration runs from July 8th 2015 until February 14th 2016 in Munich’s Jewish Museum. For further information, see