Jewish in Germany: A Response to Yascha Mounk

Two weeks ago – the day I landed back in Germany after six weeks in New York – the New York Times published an article by Yascha Mounk, entitled German, Jewish and Neither, which quickly made the rounds. (Well at least from my perspective, it made the rounds, as I am a New Yorker by birth and a Jew, and therefore know many other Jews.) Around that time I promised to write a blog post about my personal experience as a Jew living in Germany. At first, it was easy enough to throw the link up on Facebook along with the comment, “my experience, in reverse,” but what exactly was my experience? What did I mean that it was the reverse of Mr. Mounk’s?

Well, as it turns out, I wrote something trite and linked to the article because I simply didn’t want to consider it any further than that. I’ve tried to start this post numerous times and been stymied by my own lack of passion on the matter. Even a general interest in it. The truth is, I’ve been trying to write about being a Jew in Germany, but I’ve been much too busy trying to be an American in Germany, and a writer in Germany, and a non-native German speaker in Germany, to find the time. Of course, being Jewish adds more spice to the pot—and, by all means, yet another level of awkwardness when your secret comes out in conversation with a German, another level of closeness when you run into another Jew like you—but it’s also something you have to get used to if you suddenly go from being one of more than a million to one of a handful.

This is what I meant when I said that my experience has been Mounk’s in reverse. Being born in New York, I found out very gently (and, one might say, sweetly), that there were more than just Jews in the world when my best friend at the age of five or six told me she was Christian. We agreed that the difference was inconsequential, barely worth discussing (it was even difficult to link Christianity to Christmas and Santa Claus, as I had always had those too). We moved on. Once I had progressed past the tender single-digit ages, I had obviously grasped that the world included not one, not two, but several religions, and that Jews were a distinct minority, but it was difficult to grasp what that meant when Jews seemed to be a healthy majority where I came from.

You see, what Mr. Mounk identifies as the various tenets of “cultural Judaism” to the rest of the world were merely the norm to me, and continue to be to anyone who has spent a significant amount of time in New York. Woody Allen is not a “Jewish comedian” and his brand of humor is certainly not “Jew humor,” as one of Mounk’s former high school classmates defines it while attempting to pay a compliment (and is it just me, or does the use of the word “Jew” instead of “Jewish” as an adjective just sound either inimitably creepy, as though straight from the lips of an Indiana Jones-worthy Nazi cliché, or unintentionally hilarious, as though uttered by one of Monty Python’s French soldiers—“you don’t frighten us, English Jew dogs!”—?) To New Yorkers, and dare I say it most Americans, Woody Allen’s comedy is simply comedy. Seinfeld’s comedy is simply comedy (although to be fair, Seinfeld’s comedy really is typical New York comedy). Before I had traveled as an adult, it simply didn’t occur to me that the whole world didn’t wake up to bagels, cream cheese, and lox every morning. Bagels and lox or whitefish are not Jewish food—“Jew food”?—to us, they are simply awesome things to eat. We all understand that we are Jewish, even though we may not speak Hebrew or celebrates Shabbos or go to synagogue or light candles on Hanukkah. We all understand what it means—or at least we think we do because no one has ever bothered to ask us.

In Germany, everybody asks. This is perhaps the exaggerated politeness, the infuriatingly benevolent expressions of interest Mounk refers to when detailing his move from his hometown of Laupheim to Munich. Reading the first page of the article, in which he admits to being “sort of Jewish” in school and an incredulous classmate replies with “everybody knows that Jews don’t exist anymore,” I was intrigued. I thought the article might force me to look at the experiences of Jews in Germany that were very different from my own. But no, as it turns out, we Jews who have willingly or unwillingly accepted the role of “panda on the verge of extinction” as Oliver Polak, the self-proclaimed only Jewish comedian in Germany once described us, seem to continue encountering the same charmingly daft lines of questioning wherever we go.

Once Mounk moved on to Munich, for example, things started to take a turn for the familiar. Oh, the number of times I have been greeted with that awkward pause when I tell someone here I’m Jewish. How often come the questions about what synagogue I go to in Berlin, how exactly I practice my religion. The number of times someone has made a reference to klezmer as their first and only reaction to my Judaism is truly laughable; I never quite got why that was the one thing Germans would finally grab on to, but Mounk explained it quite well:

As Germany’s understanding of its history changed, so did popular attitudes toward Jews. Especially in the country’s hipper neighborhoods, Judaism was suddenly all the rage. Nary a literary reading failed to feature a Yiddish poem. Few were the gallery openings that lacked an ensemble of Aryans playing klezmer. Especially in the 1980s and early 1990s, it seemed as though the whole country had come down with a bout of philo-Semitism.

All that wasn’t the hard part, though. The hard part came after I explained politely that, no, I didn’t play klezmer, and no, I didn’t go to synagogue, as I am an atheist who has barely been able to sit through a religious service of any stripe (including weekly chapel services at my Episcopalian high school in New York) without falling asleep. The next question, inevitably, is some form of, “then how, exactly, does that make you Jewish?”, which, as one might try to do when ripping off a Band-Aid, must be answered slowly, gently, and tactfully to avoid stinging and irritation.

I usually start off by explaining that Judaism is as much of an ethnicity and a culture as it is a religion. I explain how you can celebrate the Jewish holidays without necessarily believing in all of what they signify, and how, in fact, major Jewish holidays center much more on the accomplishments of the Jewish people (Moses leading the Israelites out of Egypt, the Maccabees and the oil burning) than an act of God, and how this is something I’ve always appreciated about them. How being Jewish depends on being able to speak Hebrew a lot less than being Muslim depends on being able to speak (or at least read) Arabic and certainly much less than being Christian depends on being able to speak—what? Latin? Ancient Greek? Not sure….

At some point the discussion might touch on the fact that yes, I could become an Israeli citizen if I wanted to, as one need only be a quarter Jewish (with one Jewish grandparent) for that. If I were feeling particularly button-pushing or cheeky, I might even point out that that was the same criteria by which Hitler judged “Jewishness” – if you were unlucky enough to live in Europe in the 1930s and ‘40s, having one Jewish grandparent would mean you were Jewish enough for the camps. “My great-grandfather on my father’s side died in a concentration camp; my maternal grandfather liberated one,” I might end declaratively. That should be enough to get me into the Jewish club a lot of non-Jews are convinced exists.

When I first came to Germany, I was determined to have my Jewishness be a non-entity. I didn’t bring it up and people didn’t ask since, as it turns out, if you’re not from New York and aren’t Jewish, you’ll most likely have no idea that the ultra-liberal, dark-haired, sarcastic young woman (whose parents are ultra-liberal intellectuals living on the Upper West Side of Manhattan) in front of you is almost guaranteed to be Jewish. I didn’t even think twice about the fact that, of all the new friends I’d made in my first two whirlwind months in Berlin, the pair I became closest to were also New York Jewish women with thick, dark hair, piercing intellects and wise-cracking personalities. When our German teacher occasionally failed to tell us apart, calling one of us by another’s name, it was merely amusing. One of these two friends was determined to let every person know she was Jewish at every turn, even going so far as to play the “but where are you really from?” game with them—the game anyone with an American or European passport but a somehow other than white complexion must play at some point. They would guess Eastern European, Roma, mixed race—anything before they’d go for Jewish—and sometimes it was funny to watch. I, being of paler complexion, never had to deal with that level of prying, just as I never have to deal with being African-American or Asian-American in Germany. No one asks me where I’m “from from” so it has to be my decision to volunteer it. These days, I’m still not at all keen on doing so.

But I have to recognize that having the choice to reveal myself or not is, in itself, something of a gift—or a weird, twisted kind of super power: the power to make everyone around you squirm and to take a certain fascination in their discomfort. And I think in a way, Yascha Mounk realized that too. He chose to turn an inquisitive eye and a sharp intellect—some might say a Jew’s intellect—to using his power and observing the reactions of those around him so that he might one day write a book about it. But it was only within the comfortable confines of New York City—what I once called the Jew’s true homeland in lieu of Israel—that his super power became just any old thing, he became just another Jew, and he truly felt at home.

For me, it took leaving my homeland to realize what a good feeling that is.