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Berlin for Jews

A Twenty-First-Century Companion

What is it like to travel to Berlin today, particularly as a Jew, and bring with you the baggage of history? And what happens when an American Jew, raised by a secular family, falls in love with Berlin not in spite of his being a Jew but because of it?  The answer is Berlin for Jews. Part history and part travel companion, Leonard Barkan’s personal love letter to the city shows how its long Jewish heritage, despite the atrocities of the Nazi era, has left an inspiring imprint on the vibrant metropolis of today. 

Barkan, voraciously curious and witty, offers a self-deprecating guide to the history of Jewish life in Berlin, revealing how, beginning in the early nineteenth century, Jews became prominent in the arts, the sciences, and the city’s public life. With him, we tour the ivy-covered confines of the Schönhauser Allee cemetery, where many distinguished Jewish Berliners have been buried, and we stroll through Bayerisches Viertel, an elegant neighborhood created by a Jewish developer and that came to be called Berlin’s “Jewish Switzerland.”  We travel back to the early nineteenth century to the salon of Rahel Varnhagen, a Jewish society doyenne, who frequently hosted famous artists, writers, politicians, and the occasional royal. Barkan also introduces us to James Simon, a turn-of-the-century philanthropist and art collector, and we explore the life of Walter Benjamin, who wrote a memoir of his childhood in Berlin as a member of the assimilated Jewish upper-middle class.  Throughout, Barkan muses about his own Jewishness, while celebrating the rich Jewish culture on view in today’s Berlin. 

A winning, idiosyncratic travel companion, Berlin for Jews offers a way to engage with German history, to acknowledge the unspeakable while extolling the indelible influence of Jewish culture.

256 pages | 35 halftones, 2 maps | 6 x 9 | © 2016

Biography and Letters

History: European History

Jewish Studies

Travel and Tourism: Tourism and History, Travel Writing and Guides


“After 1945, can there be a ‘Berlin for Jews’? Can a Jew be a Germanophile? In his learned, deeply personal, culturally astute and thoroughly unclassifiable book, Barkan tackles these questions and others that many Jews of a certain age, education and temperament have also pondered.”

Wall Street Journal

“Barkan, in his elatedly poetic, meticulously erudite and irresistibly personal chronicle of his rapprochement to and re-appropriation of Berlin for a Jewish, nay, for a historically and morally authentic 21st-century conscience, probes unflinchingly that . . . question: can we visit, love, be enchanted and intrigued by Berlin after Auschwitz? . . . His answer is as full of life and promise as every word of this eclectic, highly absorbing, seriously engaging book: we must create more life, history, memory ‘haunted, but also honored, by an indelible past.’”


“The book is thus both travel guide and ‘Who’s Who.’ Barkan leads us on, or directs us to, various walking tours, and his facility as a travel writer is admirable. . . . The book is a pleasure as he shares his enormous capacity for enjoying life with us.”

Jewish Currents

"Idiosyncratic. . . . The writing is often witty and engaging. . . . For readers visiting Berlin who would like to get a good sense of how pre-Holocaust Jews felt at home in the city and influenced its cultural life, this is a very good place to start."

Publishers Weekly

“Barkan confides that he hasn't always been comfortable with his Jewishness, conducts a fascinating historical tour that shows his great affection for the city. It's no secret that Berlin has a rich Jewish past, but to see the Bayerisches Viertel through his eyes will help modern travelers who are interested.”

Library Journal

“What a delight this book is! Unlike all those Companions and all those travel guides, here is a real companion with whom you want to journey: witty, conflicted, amused, amusing, insightful, smart. This book provides a wonderful sense of how place and stories go together—all touched with an elegant melancholy for a lost world and our part in making its memory still sing.”

Simon Goldhill, author of Freud's Couch, Scott's Buttocks, Brontë's Grave

“Berlin for Jews is a marvelously readable book for people exactly like me, a Jew with misgivings about visiting Germany whose need to engage with an unspeakable history makes us ripe for guidance. But far beyond personal confession, this is a sort of intellectual Baedecker, a cultural history with a fascinating cast of characters out of a German past that included and honored its Jews. Barkan is not a revisionist; he is a patient (and passionate) interpreter whose starting point is his own skepticism and his openness to a host of contradictions and ironies.”

Rosellen Brown, author of Before and After

Table of Contents

Prologue: Me and Berlin
1: Places: Schönhauser Allee
2: Places: Bayerisches Viertel
3: People: Rahel Varnhagen
4: People: James Simon
5: People: Walter Benjamin
Epilogue: Recollections, Reconstructions
Suggestions for Further Reading

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