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Accepted Paper:

Enacting ‘Jewish’ or converting space Berlin?  
Vanessa Rau (University of Cambridge )

Paper short abstract:

Drawing on my ethnography of Berlin’s new ‘Jewish’ scene this paper considers the dynamics of migration and conversion and shows how (a) converting space engenders ambivalence and a process of ‘becoming’. I show how the concept enriches our understanding of the fluidity of subject positions and the complex social and political realities of urban life.

Paper long abstract:

To convert is to move, but it is simultaneously to identify or to position, for conversion is a movement from one identity to another. (Barber, 2014: 142)

Over the past decades, Berlin has witnessed a tremendous internationalisation, to the extent that some consider it a cosmopolitan enclave: no doubt, migration has become an experience of daily life. Consequently, Berlin’s Jewish population has equally witnessed demographic and structural change: After the large waves of Russian Jews in the 1990s, the young Jewish scene of Berlin is now also populated by Jews from Israel, Europe and the Americas, who temporarily or permanently sojourn in the cosmopolitan space. This ‘diasporic space’ (Brah, 1996), engenders unexpected practices and encounters: suddenly self-declared ‘secular’ Israelis find themselves frequenting a synagogue service, singing Jewish liturgical songs or learning scripture which had been foreign to them before. In my research on the new ‘Jewish’ scene in Berlin, I observed a musical project where Jewish-Israelis and (among others) non-Jewish Germans embark on a project to sing Hebrew choral music in a protestant church. Drawing on my ethnographic work, this paper shows how space can be inhabited and can have a converting effect and can equally be converted, transformed into something novel, unexpected and unforeseen. With illustrations from migrants and converts, I will contrast differing experiences of entering and inhabiting a space which not only engenders the movement from one position to another (as Barber suggests above) but one which holds a plethora of positions. This illustrates that a converting space and the conversion of space is one of liminality, uncertainty and ambivalence. Taking up a liminal position in that space is an act of becoming. Thus, I argue that considering and analysing the interaction between space and its inhabitants provides us with profound anthropological insights, not only towards the fluidity, flux and constant change of subject positions but also towards social realities in the context of migration and the constitution of cosmopolitan urban life.

Panel P148
Converting spaces and religious transformation: exploring the potential of human and material interactions
  Session 1 Friday 17 August, 2018, -