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“I start counting the nine thousand,” Tenenbom writes in the book. “Well, not really. The number of worshippers, including those who are tourists and guests from Israel and the United States: thirty-five. In other words, the place would be practically empty if not for the foreigners.”
And what of the growing number of German musicians playing Yiddish and klezmer music? Tenenbom pays them a visit, and is disillusioned to discover that, despite their fondness for Yiddish culture, they harbor hostile views of Israel. After he asks a violinist whether she has ever been to Israel, she replies angrily: “I don’t have to go to Israel! My music has nothing to do with it!”
For Tenenbom, the stubborn persistence of anti-Semitism in modern Germany strikes a personal nerve. As a child of Holocaust survivors, he always knew that his parents had suffered terribly, but the Nazi horrors were beneath the surface — never discussed.
“My father refused to tell me the name of the city he was from, and I didn’t even know my mother was in a concentration camp, or that seven of her siblings were killed, until after her death,” Tenenbom said.
Years later, thirsting for more information about the family’s experiences during the war, he visited one of his mother’s surviving siblings in Brooklyn. It was a warm day, and the air conditioner was broken. Tenenbom was perspiring uncomfortably, while his Hasidic uncle, dressed in a buttoned-up, long-sleeved shirt, sat calmly, eating hot soup. “You should be drinking cola with ice,” Tenenbom said.
Without looking up, his uncle took another long sip and said, “That’s what saved me — one soup a day.”
Rukhl Schaechter is a staff writer and editor at the Forverts.