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Weimar | History and Yiddishkeit Collide

Weimar Street

Disclosure: I traveled in part as a guest of Weimar Tourism. As always, all opinions are my own.

I’ve wanted to visit Weimar for about as long as I’ve known about Weimar––namely its role in early 20th century German history. The long and short of it is, Weimar was the heart of Germany’s post-war (that’s the Great War) democratization efforts. But, we all know what happened to the short-lived Weimar Republic.

Kaput.

Yiddish Summer Weimar

Wartburg Castle in Eisenach
Wartburg Castle in Eisenach

History was still a draw for me to visit Weimar but an even stronger pull was the Yiddish Summer Weimar (YSM) festival. It’s an annual festival that’s been going on since 2006, complete with workshops in Yiddish language and music with performances running throughout the month. It’s one of the largest gatherings and celebrations of Yiddishkeit in the world. Anyone remotely involved in klezmer or Yiddish music knows about YSM, and in a normal year, many of the performers at this festival are traveling the world, playing and singing Yiddish songs.

Given the strangeness of the year, I was hesitant to stay for a week as I had originally planned. But at the last minute, I booked a long weekend so I could at least catch a couple of shows and get a taste of YSM. On a temperate Thursday evening, I saw festival founder Alan Bern perform with his band Tsvey Mol Tsvey in Eisenach. I then hopped back on the train to spend the rest of the weekend in Weimar.

Wandering Around Weimar

German National Theater in Weimar with Goethe Schiller Statue

First, I met with Serge at Weimar Tourism. He has his own interesting history to rival that of Weimar itself. Through his life, he’s jumped around Germany and Siberia Russia. Now he’s taking visitors like me around Weimar to show it off. It’s not a difficult task. At first glimpse, Weimar has everything you’d want in a German town, complete with Fachwerkhäuser (half-timbered homes) and pedestrian-only squares.

When you know Weimar as well as Serge, you can cut through restaurants, patios, and alleys like you’re playing a video game with the cheat codes. We quickly arrived at Haus der Weimar Repulik (House of the Weimar Republic) where the government once stood, anchored by a statue of Joseph Friedrich and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe standing side by side.

“Other tourists want to see Neuschwanstein,” Serge told me, referring to the Disney castle in Bavaria. “For Germans, this is their Neuschwanstein.”

Schloss Belvedere

It felt like an exaggeration at the time, and perhaps it was, but tourists were eagerly waiting for their chance to get a photo in front of the towering sculptures despite the rain picking up.

Eventually, we ended up at Marktplatz where Hotel Elephant sits. I noticed the name before Serge said anything and didn’t think anything of it. But there was more to it that only an eye for history to pick out.

Hitler’s Hotel Elephant

Hotel Elephant, as Serge explained, is where Hitler preferred to stay when Weimar. This added to the significance that Hitler’s party first entered government in Thuringia––the German state where Weimar is. Serge pointed to the balcony jutting out from the facade, noting that Hitler would stand there and give speeches to his admiring crowds.

Indeed, black and white photos of Hitler on that balcony are easy to find. He’s there, giving that strangely dainty Nazi wave with the swastika flag hanging over the railing with his troops marching alongside with an erect right arm.

I’ve been to places Hitler has been before. I mean, I live in Berlin and have visited the former rally grounds in Nuremberg. But something about that balcony gave me a creepy, haunting feeling. I could picture him there better than anywhere else I’ve been in Germany.

With that chill working its way down my spine, it was a good time to try and beat the incoming rain and grab some Kuchen at Koriat––an Israeli-run bakery. It’s outside of central Weimar, but still walkable. The line stretched out across the sidewalk was an easy clue that we’d arrived.

I’m not entirely sure how an Israeli ended up opening a bakery in Koriat, but with fresh Kuchen in front of me, I didn’t much care.

Psychedelic Yiddish Rock

YSM took Friday night off for Shabbes and so I was left to entertain myself. Fortunately, I was able to meet up with Sasha Lurje, a Latvian singer who’s been coming to YSM for the past 15 or so years. I was writing for Jewish Telegraphic Agency about her new album with Forshpil, a brilliant psychedelic Yiddish band. (You can check out that story here.)

After chatting for a couple of hours, we grabbed dinner and she led me through a nearby park for a klezmer jam session. Had it not been Weimar, I probably would’ve felt stronger murder vibes. It was silent and you could barely see more than a few feet in front of you. But Sasha was able to guide us through, eventually following the faint sound of clarinets, accordions, and violins.

Standing in the darkness, I had the pleasure of meeting passionate Yiddishists who’d been participating at YSM workshops. There was the Viennese woman drawn to Yiddish’s revolutionary, protest songs and another was busy translating Britney Spears into Yiddish. What they all had in common was that they were women doing their part to keep women front and center, on and off stage, in celebrating and performing Yiddish music.

Running Around Weimar

Goethes Gartenhaus

I spent my downtime in Weimar running around outside of town. Once the Saturday rain faded away, I ran through Park an der Ilm out of town and up to Schloss Belvedere. The baroque summer palace belonged to one Duke Ernst August, leading its construction between 1724 and 1748. These days, the Duke is long gone and the grounds are open to the public.

On Sunday, I took the bus 20 or so minutes south to Bad Berka where I picked up the Thüringen Drei-Türme-Weg (three-tower-trail). Coincidentally, I’ve done a three-tower-trail before, but on the other end of the country. Germany must have a thing for towers in three.

Buchfart

Anywho, Bad Berka is surrounded by a mix of trails. You could run over to Buchfart and hop on the Goetheweg trail and get back to Weimar. The Drei-Türme-Weg is nearly 30 kilometers and cuts back north around Schloss Belvedere. Since I’d just been there, I cut the northern loop off and ran east after Buchfart. The loop still ended up being about 20 kilometers with just the two towers, so you’re still out there for a while.

Bad Berka, Germany

Bad Berka is, well, small. But no German town is too small for a brewery, so I went to the Altes Brauhaus for lunch. I remembered something Sasha had said the night before about the Pfifferlinge being delicious this time of year, so I got a plate of gnocchi pfifferlinge. And hot damn, it was good––not to mention all the better with a cold, well-deserved beer washing it down.

Coffee with Daniel Kahn

Back in Weimar, I met up with Daniel Kahn for a coffee at Fama Café & Manufaktur to talk about his story with Yiddishkeit. Dan is one of the first names that comes up when anyone talks about contemporary performers singing and writing music in the Yiddish language. (He also works in English, German, and Russian.)

Dan was “infected” by Yiddish, as he put it. The Detroit-born descendant of German Jews found his way to New Orleans where his ongoing love affair with Yiddish was first kindled. From there he met Alan Bern, founder of YSM, learned the accordion, founded The Painted Bird band, and was well on his way to being one of the most recognizable names in Yiddish music.

Like many younger Jews, Dan is drawn to Yiddishkeit’s historical connection to the Jewish Labor Bund movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It was a secular, socialist movement spread out across European Jewry communities, namely Russian, Galicia, Latvia, and Romania. You can see the connection in Kahn’s music with songs like “Arbeter Froyen” that ask us to “carry the red flag together.” But he’s also drawn to the Bundist-Yiddish concept of “doykeit” or “hereness.” It’s his answer to those who can’t imagine why a Jewish person would want to live in Germany.

“Dortn, vu mir leben, dort iz undzer land,” he quotes in Yiddish. “Wherever we live, that’s our land.”

The Spirit of Weimar

Weimar Marktplatz Yiddish Summer Weimar

I caught Dan’s show a few hours later outdoors at the Marktplatz, the crowd captivated throughout in our socially distanced seating. Like Sasha mentioned in our conversation, Dan paused in the middle of the show to acknowledge the Hotel Elephant’s balcony.

“What a nice balcony,” he said wryly in German to the audience.

Someone who hasn’t lived in Germany might have thought he was being antagonistic to the German crowd by singing songs like “Rosen auf den Weg gestreut / Embrace the Fascists,” a song that facetiously asks protestors to be kinder to fascists, to kiss them where they meet them. After all, they’re sensitive and physical fighting is their strong suit.

But there was no antagonizing. The audience was on board from the get-go, ready to applaud and celebrate Kahn’s anti-fascist, pro-labor message (or the message pouring through the lyrics of classic Yiddish tunes).

The physical manifestation of democracy in Weimar may have been shattered nearly 90 years ago, but that spirit clearly lives on––thanks in no small way to Yiddish Summer Weimar.

Looking for more Germany? Check out the Germany off the beaten path travel guide, my top things to do in Germany, the most important German travel phrases, and how to ride the German train system. Want something more literary? Read chapters from my upcoming memoir on moving to and living in Germany — There Must Be Order.

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