One of Lena Gorelik’s favourite Jewish jokes goes like this: A Jewish Robinson Crusoe gets marooned on a desert island. Years later he gets rescued and shows his rescuers round the island, where he has built two little synagogues. “Why two?” they ask. “This is the one I go to. And that is the one I would never set foot in!” Gorelik, a 28-year-old Munich-based author of Russian Jewish origin, tells this joke in her novel Hochzeit in Jerusalem(Wedding in Jerusalem). A Jewish Robinson Crusoe – the stranded survivor who needs two synagogues: this is a good likeness to modern Jewry in Germany for whom the Holocaust is history.

A child of Russian immigrants who came to Germany in 1991, she now has two synagogues to define her Judaism. She has joined the liberal Jewish congregation of Beth Schalom, which lately practises US-style Reform Judaism. Lena did not grow up in the faith. But now that she’s expecting her first boy, it’s important to her to be firmly moored to a congregation. And the liberals were open to her take on Judaism. She’d never set foot in Munich’s main synagogue, on the other hand, which is die-hard orthodox, sealed off from the world and “stuck in a bunker mindset”, as she puts it. This is the second-largest Jewish community in the country, after Berlin. And for 25 years it has been led by Charlotte Knobloch, who for four years now has been the public face of German Jewry as president of the Central Council.

But Knobloch, a 77-year-old Holocaust survivor, has announced plans to step down, and when she does the nation’s Jews will face the greatest upheaval since the war. The whole generation of Shoah survivors will recede in the wake of her retirement. “So this is the end of Jews’ defining themselves in terms of mass extermination,” says Cilly Kugelmann of the Jewish Museum in Berlin – who would not say that offhandedly, seeing as it means consigning the Judaism of her parents’ generation to history. The answers to new questions won’t be coming exclusively from the Central Council anymore: while busy warning against anti-Semitism, neo-Nazism and anti-Zionism, Jewish representatives have neglected to show the positive side of Judaism. Nor from the handful of commentators who still dominate German Jewish debate. A new generation is taking the floor.

Islam debate threatens multi-denominational society

Take comedian Oliver Polak, for instance, whose first book is a huge success. You can tell from the title he enjoys brinkmanship in matters of pushing the limits of good taste: Ich darf das, ich bin Jude(I’m Allowed: I’m Jewish!). And the cover shows the author with a German shepherd dog sporting a Wehrmacht cap on its head and a Star of David collar round its neck. Son of a Shoah survivor, Polak harps on the zany tragicomedy of life growing up as a chubby boy in small-town Germany just like everyone else – if only his name weren’t Polak, he weren’t Jewish and his father weren’t the “town’s walking guilty conscience...And then I came along: a ‘Next Generation: Never Again!’ memorial, whether I liked it or not.” Polak dissociates himself from the Central Council, to be sure, but not from Judaism – on the contrary: he gets his best material from life as a Jew in Germany.

The Jewish community is experiencing an extreme form of a process going strong throughout the land, as it receives an ongoing influx of immigrants: recent immigrants in fact now make up 90 per cent of the country’s Jews. They have come from the former Soviet Union over the past two decades. In 2002, as a matter of fact, more post-Soviet Jews went to Germany than to Israel. The Jewish Agency urged the German state, in vain, to offer less appealing conditions to immigrating Russian Jews so more of them would opt for Israel instead. How ironic: Jews imploring Germans to be less welcoming to Jews. And then there’s a third factor: the minority with a related and yet remote religion, who the Christian majority feel pose a challenge to their religion, are not the Jews anymore, but the Muslims. Many Jews have mixed feelings about that: they fear the Islam debate under the sign of burqas, minarets and headscarves is liable to degenerate into a rearguard action by a troubled majority to ward off a multi-denominational society. This is a paradoxical trend at any rate: the Jewish minority is growing, and the public showing less interest in its affairs. Which makes things more easygoing nowadays, or, to use a taboo word in German-Jewish relations: a little closer to normal.