German Hit Show "Normalizes" Jewish Life with TV Bar Mitzvah

German TV Bar Mitzvah
rbb/Oliver Vaccaro

Berlin Rabbi Walter Rothschild started as a consultant and ended up officiating the first-even bar mitzvah on Germany's hit drama 'Tatort.'

This Sunday, millions of Germans will be watching a bar mitzvah on TV.

The plot of the new episode of Tatort, the country's longest-running, and most popular, television drama, features Jewish police detective Nina Rubin juggling her latest murder case with preparations for the bar mitzvah of her son Kaleb.

Rubin, played by (non-Jewish) actress Meret Becker, is a recurring character on Tatort, a CSI-style procedural with a regional twist: the show has different narrative arcs set in different cities across the country. Rubin's story is set in Berlin, home to Germany's largest, and fastest-growing, Jewish population.

The TV bar mitzvah is officiated by Rabbi Walter Rothschild, an actual rabbi who has been serving Berlin's Jewish community for nearly two decades. He was originally brought on as a consultant before being asked to officiate the TV ceremony. Speaking to THR, Rabbi Rothschild said it was a relief to be able to show a “normal” image of Jewish life in the German capital.

“I don't think it will bring world-wide peace or anything, but I've done a lot of media in Germany, spoken to a number of journalists, and the images of Judaism are all very similar: the Hasidic Orthodox Jews, the wailing wall, Israeli soldiers,” he says. “On this show, it's a normal Jewish family in Berlin preparing for a normal Jewish event. That's already progress. That's already a start.”

And that normal image of Berlin Jews will be seen by millions of Germans. Tatort is the most-watched show on German TV, with an average audience of more than 10 million viewers. On Monday, following the latest episode, discussion of the show dominate water-cooler talk and social media chatter across the country.

Berlin, by some measures, is now the fastest-growing Jewish city in the world. Immigration, largely from Russia and Eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall, has meant a surge in the local population, now believed to be more than 50,000. That compares to just 8,000 Jews that remained in the city at the end of WWII. Some 160,000 Jews that lived in Berlin in the pre-Nazi era.

Rabbi Rothschild said his biggest worry in officiating the TV bar mitzvah was to get things “exactly right.”

“I knew there'd be Jews watching and going 'Oi! He got that wrong!',” he says, though he his quick to point out the show depicts a liberal, not Orthodox, ceremony. “The plot has the mother planning and participating in the bar mitzvah, which wouldn't happen in an Orthodox synagogue, but could in a liberal one.”

On the question of having non-Jewish actors depict the faithful —Rabbi Rothschild is nonplussed.

“No, it wasn't a problem for me that none of the actors were Jewish,” he says. “None of them were professional policemen either.”