Worlds Apart? The Many Jewish Viennas

Vienna’s small Jewish community is silently thriving. More and more diverse, its relationship to wider society is still contested

Top Stories | Sara Friedman | April 2012

A young Jewish filmmaker (Photo: Private)

The synagogue on Seitenstettengasse is well-guarded, and not just by the Austrian police. Built into an apartment block, it is almost entirely hidden from view. Visitors’ peaceful intentions are tested in lengthy interrogations by two plainclothes security guards, former members of the Israeli army. Though they smile, the process is far from reassuring. Still, their presence is understandable: The synagogue was the target of a terrorist attack in 1981. Security measures help, but one gets the impression that Vienna’s Jews still live on edge.

The small community, numbering around 7,000 in Vienna with perhaps 1,000 more in the rest of Austria according to the latest census by Statistik Austria in 2001, has successfully re-established itself. Its official governing body, the Israelitische Kultusgemeinde (IKG), presides over a Jewish infrastructure that parallels the city’s own, tending the flame of an ancient culture that is unsure whether and how to deal with outsiders. And sometimes, even with itself.

Daniel, a 25-year-old Viennese working 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 Jews to return to Central Europe after World War II. Of the 185,000 Jews who lived in Austria at the time of the Anschluss in 1938, around 26,000 remained after the war. Since then, many have left for Israel, accounting for today’s much smaller number.

"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."

Relatively safe

Still, Austria’s past affects many Jews living in Vienna today. "Living here definitely challenges your relationship to Judaism," says Hannah, a Viennese American working as a schoolteacher. "You can’t be completely neutral."

This is unsurprising in a city where a party promoting itself as "national-social" can garner almost 26 per cent of the vote in a 2010 municipal election. Yet despite the Austrian Freedom Party’s (FPÖ) track record of anti-Semitism, some are adamant that things could be worse. 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 more subtle form, notes Anna, a retired civil servant and born Viennese, 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 wide-spread awareness of Jewish concerns, many Austrians have no idea they’ve ever spoken to a Jew, she suggests. "You have to explain more," she says.

Whatever the baggage, Daniel wouldn’t swap Vienna’s Leopoldstadt for Brooklyn, New York. 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."

E pluribus unum?

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

The vast majority of Vienna’s Jewry consists of gradations of Orthodox. The Reform Community – a liberal approach to Judaism originating in 19th century Germany – is small, with about 150 members. 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 synagogue-attending population is Reform, followed by Conservative, and then Orthodox.

But Vienna’s Orthodox Jews reveal a striking diversity, ranging from "modern" to ultraorthodox.  Rachel notes the variety of personal approaches, explaining that one "can be liberal and traditional at the same time."

The city’s gruff but accessible Chief Rabbi, Paul Chaim Eisenberg, says the matter is actually quite clear-cut. "According to an old Austrian law, Vienna should have only one Jewish community – that means it’s united," he explains. "But it’s only united on paper. Within the community there are different factions that in other countries could form their own communities."

The squeezed middle

Anna agrees. "You need to view Vienna’s Jewish community as a mosaic," she says, "it’s quite interesting to see how vivid we are."

Upon learning of my Ukrainian Jewish heritage, she immediately recommends I check out the Russian Communist émigrés – one of the community’s many idiosyncrasies.

Although there are differences, everybody identifies with the larger Jewish community, Anna makes clear. All want to preserve Vienna’s Jewish life. "As long as we discuss things and don’t fight, it’s ok," she says, "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".

But Or Chadasch has a strained relationship with the IKG, which lists it as a "cultural institution" rather than a synagogue. This is especially surprising, she says, as liberal groups such as Or Chadasch provide a middle ground between the opposing trends of secularism and fundamentalism that might drive Vienna’s Jewry apart.

Or Chadasch is currently in the midst of a legal battle for its recognition. A law dating from 1890 has hitherto protected the diversity of Vienna’s Jewish community. Now up for supposed modernisation, Vienna’s Reform Jews fear that the proposed changes will grant Orthodox groups greater influence over recognition – and funding – of Jewish institutions in the city.

No one is an island

Given these diverse voices, the ideal relationship to non-Jews is similarly contested.

"The more orthodox people are," explains Rabbi Eisenberg, "the more they believe that the community’s inside work is the only thing we should do." That includes providing services such as Jewish education, kosher food, and places of worship.

"But especially since we are in Austria, a place where the Shoah took place, there’s no way that the Jewish community can cut itself off," the rabbi considers. "People who are more open-minded realise that we don’t live on an island."  Nonetheless, he says, the internal work must come first.

Daniel agrees that the IKG has a duty to educate wider society so that Jews are perceived as "normal". But the organisation’s purpose is not "to show off or attract outsiders. It’s there to strengthen itself from within," he affirms. "It works for itself."

Behind the plaster

The Stadttempel in the 1st District is Vienna’s only synagogue pre-dating World War II. Integrated into the surrounding buildings, it could not be destroyed in the November Pogrom of 1938.

After passing muster at the front gate, I enter the building to the sound of children’s laughter and running feet. It is Purim, the annual celebration of the Jews’ salvation from destruction at the hands of the Persian vizier Haman.

But in effect it recalls a fancy dress party. Blue and pink lights illuminate the starry ceiling and raucous festivity reigns while the cantor reads aloud from the Book of Esther. Adults and children clad in fantastical costumes wield noisemakers to drown out evil Haman’s name whenever it is spoken.

Jews of a stunning array of ethnic and linguistic backgrounds take part in the celebration and massive quantities of Nutella-filled Hamantaschen cookies spill over their baskets and on to the tables. In those moments when the protective plaster can be chipped off, the mosaic uncovered is indeed brilliant.

Other articles from this issue