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My ‘Unorthodox’ Journey to Berlin

If you asked me a few years ago whether I’d be willing to live in Germany someday I would have laughed out loud. I’ve spent the last few years living in New England, where the subtle, nuanced undercurrent of anti-Semitism is positively glaring in comparison to New York City, where I was born and raised. But a few months ago I received an opportunity to work on a documentary film focusing on female sexuality and religion from a global perspective. Shortly after my 28th birthday, I moved to Berlin with my 8-year-old son.

When I had first started traveling to Europe a few years ago, I fell in love with each city I visited for all the obvious reasons, but in cities like Munich, Frankfurt and Berlin, I often felt as if there was a shadow at the edge of my vision, and I was constantly looking over my shoulder. The culture seemed particularly cold and hostile, and it didn’t seem like a stretch to assume that such an environment had once enabled the throbbing boil of racist hatred to explode in the horror that was the Holocaust, and that it was only a matter of working our way back to that breaking point. Even if we lanced the boil periodically, it seemed clear that the wound would never heal, and the best we could hope for would never be good enough. Back home, all it took was a couple of glasses of red wine to get me started on the many German jokes I had added to my repertoire during my travels. German culture has probably always been fun to mock, but for me it started to feel therapeutic.

I tried to put my preconceived notions aside once I made the decision to move. Berlin had many advantages after all; it is cheap, vibrant and apparently full of New Yorkers. I had made enough friends over there during my travels to feel like it could be a temporary home. I asked my Jewish friends in Berlin to give me some advice, and the impression I got was that if you had an American passport and didn’t act Jewish, it wasn’t really an issue. Sure, Jews are attacked on the streets or in the metro, but only if they are overheard speaking Hebrew, or wearing a kippah. So I told myself I would be fine. I had a careful conversation with my son in which I tactfully explained to him that we were heading to an environment that might have more pockets of intolerance or ignorance than he was accustomed to, and that it would probably be best if he didn’t talk about his Jewishness with people he didn’t already know and trust. Coming from a school where he had been proud to share Jewish customs and stories with his classmates, that was a big change, because although he had learned about racism in history class, it was totally abstract to him. He wasn’t old enough to register the snarky remarks that I had heard around town about Jews and their money.

When I told my gay Jewish friend Jonathan, another New York City transplant to rural NewEngland, that I was moving, he was more shocked than I expected.

“How can you go live there, as a Jew? I just don’t get it… Do you really think you can be happy there?”

“Well, what were you thinking when you came up here 10 years ago with your husband? That you’d be embraced as local color by all these uptight WASPs?” I responded.

“Touché,” he said. “I guess people like you and me thrive on a challenge.”

It was more difficult to find an apartment in Berlin than I expected, so when a five-room Altbau with a balcony became available, I signed a contract immediately, without even bothering to see the place. We arrived early on a gray Sunday morning, and as the taxi pulled up in front of the entrance to the apartment complex, I was surprised to see that the street I lived on had Arabic writing on every shop window. I soon learned that I had planted myself smack in the middle of the most Muslim neighborhood in the city: Neukölln. Burkas and hijabs were a constant sight, and Arabic rather than German was the language I heard most often.

In my entire apartment complex I was one of two non-Muslim residents, I soon learned. As I unloaded my boxes in the hallway one day, my neighbors inquired about my origins. When I said I was from New York, their guard suddenly dropped. “New York, you said?” one of them replied. “Well in that case, welcome! We own the Turkish grocery store next door, come by if you need anything.” Being American seemed the least of many possible evils. I knew enough not to share any other clues. But then as I started settling in, I found myself in intimate dealings with my neighbors; my insurance broker, my banker, my grocer. Most people I came into contact with during my daily routine were Muslim.

Before I could do anything, I needed phone service, so I stopped by a Vodafone shop to get a SIM card and contract. Because I was an Ausländer, (literally, foreigner) a supervisor with experience had to be called in to set up the contract. He was a broad-shouldered, swarthy man with a deep voice and a flirtatious manner who informed me that although he celebrated all the Muslim holidays, even Ramadan, he wouldn’t go so far as to ask his wife to wear a hijab. This was supposed to be some sort of seduction, I think. Later, looking closely at my American passport, he asked me if I was Jewish.

In an Unexpected Location: Deborah Feldman has relocated to Berlin to work on a documentary film project. Image by Courtesy of Deborah feldman

“Yeah.” I answered warily, in German. “Is that okay?”

“I gathered from your last name,” he said. “Don’t worry, I have no problem with you being Jewish!”

“Great,” I said.

“I’ll tell you what I do have a problem with,” he added. “I hate the State of Israel. I mean absolutely and unequivocally, there’s no getting around that.”

I very much wanted to get around that and back to the business of acquiring phone service. Pointedly, I responded; “Well, I’d hope you could tell the difference between the State of Israel and myself.”

“Yeah, I can,” he said, looking at me carefully. “But probably most of my friends couldn’t.”

“Well, I guess I should be glad I’m sitting here with you then.” I said. He winked at me and smiled.

Like all newcomers, I lined up at the Bezirksamt in order to “report myself,” In Germany one is constantly required to do this — it’s called Anmeldung — and although circumstances are very changed, it feels vaguely disturbing to me that the language used for this is the same that was used back then, when the government was keeping tabs on undesirables, instead of merely distributing tax ID numbers.

At the office, no one spoke a word of English, and I was grateful I had taken the time to convert my native Yiddish into a relatively fluent German before I left the States. I handed the woman on the other side of the desk all the necessary documents and she entered my information into her computer. She glanced over to me and asked, “What’s your religion?”

“Excuse me?” I said, wondering if I’d misheard.

“Your religion. You have to divulge it to the State.”

“Um, okay. Well, I’m Jewish.”

She pursed her lips. “Hmmm, sorry, that’s not an option you can choose.”

“What?” I asked, thinking it was a joke.

“It’s not on the list.” She turned the computer screen toward me. On it was a long list of different religions, including various sects of Christianity, Islam, Buddhism and even Zoroastrianism. But nowhere on that list was there any kind of Jewish option.

I giggled uncomfortably. “Um, it’s kind of ironic that this is happening, do you realize that? I mean, I’m not going to pick another religion, because that would be lying, so I’m not sure what you want me to do. I’m 100% Jewish, this is the only option I have, sorry.”

“Well, I’ll just put in atheist then.”

I opened my mouth to protest, then shut it. I badly wanted to lecture her, but I wanted my confirmation of Anmeldung even more. And when she handed me my stamped certificate a moment later, I was relieved to put the process behind me. Later, friends to whom I relayed the story wondered if it wasn’t just all about taxes, as Christians paid a special tax to support their church. They guessed it would seem gauche to charge the Jews for their synagogues; the least the German government could do was provide houses of worship free of charge. I agreed that it was only fair, but was left wondering at the fact that the woman behind the desk was so clearly unequipped to handle the matter of a “Jewish” resident; I would have thought that the workers in the office would have at least had some sensitivity training.

A huge chunk of my childhood education consisted of teachings on anti-Semitism. World history as it was taught in the Satmar community put Jewish suffering in sharp relief: The developments of human industry and exploration faded to the background, and the saga of humanity came to sound like one long crusade against Jesus-killers. Now that I live outside of the insulated world of the Hasidim, I can see that my community adamantly insisted on ignoring the fact that they were allowed to grow and prosper in a country that largely remains an exception to the anti-Semitic rule they so strongly believe in. Which is not to say that I haven’t experienced anti-Semitism in the States, or lack awareness of its existence. But in many ways, in a country that is so large and so racially diverse, with bigger problems than a small Jewish population, anti-Semitism is limited to some Jew jokes and occasional social discomfort.

‘I’m Jewish.’ She pursed her lips. ‘Hmmm, sorry, that’s not an option you can choose.’

Although the Manhattan Jewish day school my son attended during his preschool years had rigorous security procedures, I never felt I was endangering him by making him a target, as I would if I sent him to a Jewish school here, or took him to synagogue for services. Efforts to memorialize Jewish presence and the Jewish tour groups brought here on government-sponsored visits in order to show off the new, tolerant Germany, are some of many superficial and self-serving gestures that can seem almost cynical in light of the reality of Jewish life here.

Since arriving in Berlin, I have been consistently struck by the way the societies of Nationalistic Europe and Melting Pot America differ, because as globalization changes our social space as we know it, the gap between those societies seems destined to close; I can only imagine the results that might bring. How durable of a barrier is the Atlantic Ocean? Yet I’ve never heard American Jews asking themselves with due seriousness whether America could someday become like Europe is now. And perhaps this is why Americans can be particularly cavalier about the whole topic of Israel, in addition to the fact that they have no intimate relationship with that country — their home is in the United States. I’m still not so comfortable in my Americanness that I could fail to realize how fragile my existence might feel if that country did not exist. Despite all of my discomfort and shame about the Middle East conflict, I take comfort in the knowledge that Israel is there, shining like a distant star in the night sky, reminding me that things may always be bad for us, as my childhood education insisted, but nothing has been quite the same ever since we had a home.

Two days after the terrorists in Paris were caught and killed, I sat in my local coffee shop, avidly reading the reports in the newspaper. An Israeli man asked if the seat next to me was taken. “Shalom!” I said. “Sure, you can sit here. I’m Jewish too.”

“My condolences,” he responded dryly.

Image by Courtesy of Deborah Feldman

“I guess you mean that in light of recent events.” He grimaced in response, as he set down his coffee next to me. I asked him how long he had been living in Berlin, and what it was like for him. “I’m going back to Israel soon,” he said. “I’m not like you guys, you know,” he added with a grin, only half-kidding. “I’m the new breed of Jew. You’re the exile Jew. Just that difference in perspective radically alters the way you see yourself in the context of surroundings like these.”

We joked about the Jewish tendency to create a hierarchy even within our own relatively small sphere. “You could say I’m a super Jew,” he joked. “No, wait,” I said. “You’re an uber Jew! How’s that for irony? I bet that would have gone over really well with you-know-who.”

But after he left, I pondered that phrase “exile Jew.” He was saying people like me were still stuck in the Diaspora, unable to make the conscious choice to liberate ourselves. Like a form of Stockholm syndrome, we stuck purposefully to our displaced origins, probably more for the comfort of familiarity than anything else. I had heard that the Israelis in Berlin, of which there were many, didn’t often mix with us so-called exile Jews, precisely because of this distinction. To them, Jews like us were a mystery: Our entire world view was so distant from their own as to be not only incomprehensible, but also that which fated us to be permanently divided. And the truth is that the non-Israeli Jews I know in this city do behave differently: They struggle to make their Jewishness inconspicuous in public, only embracing their identity during the moments they spend amongst their own. Israelis, on the other hand, wear their Jewishness like casual dress; they act completely comfortable and un-self-conscious about their poor, Hebrew-accented German and the various other details that betray their origins at first glance. Was it all because they had a home to go back to? Did having that give them the kind of confidence I could never hope to feel?

The most surprising experiences for me, as an American Jew in Berlin, have been my interactions with Palestinians, a segment of the population that I had not previously encountered. I am repeatedly struck by their attitude toward me; while they respond to Germans with indifference at best, I’ve only ever been on the receiving end of kindness, and a form of eye contact that is truly rare here. I had a taxi driver the other day whose family were refugees that ended up in Germany, and he immediately detected my origins. He proved a sensitive, self-educated expert on Middle East politics, and assured me, “Eighty percent of Palestinians just want peace. They don’t hate Jews. It’s Hamas that betrays us.” The guy from Ramallah who makes fresh falafel every week at the Turkish market asked me if I speak Hebrew. Although I couldn’t boast of any real conversational ability, he has given me a steep discount on my falafel ever since. Benyamin, my Israeli friend who first introduced me to the falafel stand, thinks this is because Palestinians are used to Israelis being the boss back home, and are programmed to be nice to “us” because they are dependent on Jewish tolerance for their survival. If that’s true, I thought, then it’s awful. I refused to accept the discount the next time I visited. Eventually the falafel vendor told me he had come from a refugee town in Lebanon; it struck me as particularly sad that although his grandparents had been the ones to lose their homes, he still experiences the world as a refugee two generations later. He was hoping to get permanent residence in Germany; having long since given up on building a life in familiar territory, he would settle for any place willing to accept him.

For someone like me, raised by Holocaust survivors and deeply aware of the unique agony that comes with displacement, I can’t help but feel compassion for him and others in his circumstances, a compassion that is often tangled up with guilt, shame and self-consciousness. On the other hand, this man who serves me my falafel is trying desperately to see me as a human being and not the enemy. At least that’s the way it feels when he goes out of his way to smile and joke with me as he rolls up the laffa bread. This dynamic that exists between “us” and “them” is one that only “we” are fully aware of, and I am suddenly and perpetually conscious of it here. But it probably wouldn’t be visible to the average European, who is generally safely insulated from the political ramifications of ethnic identity, simply by being white.

Image by Courtesy of Deborah Feldman

Somehow the Europeans are the ones who exist completely outside of the entire conversation about racism in their own countries. I’m reminded of a story my friend Hillel told me after he fell in love with a German woman he met on a kibbutz and moved to Germany to be with her. To qualify for residence and work permits, he had to attend a compulsory German language school where he was the only Jew. Anti-Semitic jokes were regularly made in his presence when the teachers were out of earshot. When they exhausted the limits of his tolerance, Hillel told me, he finally went to the head of the school, but she reacted by turning pale.

“What do you want us to do?” she asked.

“Just tell me what you want; we’ll do whatever you think is best.”

Hillel was too shocked to come up with an answer. Clearly that woman was in a position of authority in a government-run institution, yet she was at a loss to address the problem, because no protocol exists when it comes to anti-Semitism. There are laws in place banning hate speech and so on, but it seems rare for those who work in a capacity of enforcement to be educated about how to apply those laws in practice. What is at the root of all this is how helpless Europeans are in the face of racism, having learned very little from their own history of intolerance except that it is in bad taste, a source of shame. Racism has been repressed, essentially, and like all things repressed, when it inevitably resurfaces, it takes on a far more frightening form than it would have if addressed head on. But ask an average German if they think anti-Semitism is still an issue, and they point to the laws that ban it. If it’s banned, they say, how can we be accused of tolerating it?

Europeans are too afraid of the monster within themselves to address the monster within others. So what has happened, it seems, is a kind of fascinating social transference. It’s as if the traditional anti-Semitism that has long been the legacy of Europeans was gracefully shifted onto the plate of Muslim immigrants conveniently willing to accept the burden. Germans think they can’t be blamed for the hatred of Jews when it comes from those they see as non-Germans, a belief that is an intrinsic part of the vicious cycle of racism, in that it is predicated on the instinctive belief that non-white citizens are not truly German. How to even begin to address these attitudes, when they are festering underneath a layer of economic prosperity that covers everything with a perfect sheen?

I came here thinking there was hope, because I’ve always believed that where there is youth there is change, and Berlin is a young, and in many ways revolutionary, city. But I’ve learned that it’s impossible to have a real conversation about racism here. People are too on guard. It makes me miss the States, where I’ve always found this sort of dialogue to be robust. The din can reach eardrum-shattering levels at times, and is unproductive as often as it is not, but at least it’s always there. Only if we keep talking can we hope for anything to change. But what hope is there, really, for Europe, when no one wants to engage in the bare minimum of dialogue?

This fear of engagement became clear to me the first time I tried to order a bagel and cream cheese in Berlin. The waitress smiled and asked if I was from New York. “How did you know?” I asked, in fluent German. No one had ever identified me as an American based on my heavy Yiddish accent.

“Because I lived there for a few months, and that’s what I ate every day for breakfast! It’s like the typical New York food, nicht wahr?”

Ja!” I replied excitedly, feeling a spark of solidarity exchange between us. “It’s a totally typisch New York breakfast. But you know it’s actually from Eastern Europe originally, the Jews brought it with them to New York, and now all those European Jewish foods are ubiquitous there.”

Her face fell. She looked down at her notepad and mumbled the German equivalent of “Well, I guess you schooled me,” and hurried away to fill my order. Her initial friendliness has not returned since. But she’s not an anti-Semite, she’s just a regular German who only knows enough about racism to understand that she’s not equipped to have a conversation about it without falling into a trap. And that’s largely representative of the attitude I’ve encountered in European natives. Please don’t make us talk about Jews, their faces seem to plead, whenever the conversation turns to dangerous topics.

Please don’t make us talk about Jews, their faces seem to plead, whenever the conversation turns to dangerous topics.

After the terrorist attacks in Paris, I saw my move to Berlin in a whole new light. My sense of anxiety heightened, but the knowledge that I was on the front lines of new wave of anti-Semitism, and the corresponding one of European nationalism, was gripping. I couldn’t tear my eyes away from the news. The security of the American passport in my drawer prevented me from feeling the kind of panic that native-born Jews might experience, but when I was invited by friends to attend Shabbat services in a liberal synagogue, I declined. It seemed obvious that one did not ask for trouble by showing up at synagogues and kosher supermarkets.

When demonstrations shut down my neighborhood for the afternoon, people turned out in droves to protest what they saw as the racist police handling of the murder of an Eritrean refugee in Dresden, Germany. Pegida canceled a rally after it was named one of several targets of terrorist threats in Germany. I admire the righteous anger of these young Germans, but I just wish they had a deeper grasp of the context of their indignation. I wish they’d be as willing to have a real conversation about the issues as they are to march about them, because marching is something we already know they’re good at it, and so is shouting a party line in unison.

Choosing to live here at a time like this might be crazy, but I’m here for many reasons, some more complicated or irrational than others. And I would heartily defend my right to be here, both politically and spiritually. In the wake of the terrorist attacks, I was reminded of the question Claude Lanzmann posed to Benjamin Murmelstein in his film “The Last of the Unjust.” He pointed out that Murmelstein had a clear way out of the Nazi sphere of power, yet chose more than once to return instead of becoming a refugee like so many others. “Why would you want to stay?” Lanzmann asks him.

At first Murmelstein denies that he had real options, but eventually he admits to a desire to see all of it through to the end, and to do what he could as the only world he had ever known went down in flames. There is a very real sense in which I’m aware that the situation is very unlikely to improve, and very likely to deteriorate. Europe will never be able to solve the problem of anti-Semitism because 70 years have passed since the Holocaust and we still can’t have a genuine dialogue about the root of the problem. I would be safer elsewhere, but I’ll be damned if I don’t go down screaming and clinging to my heritage. If Europe is indeed over for the Jews, I’d like one last good-bye.

Deborah Feldman was born and raised in the Satmar Hasidic community in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. She is the New York Times Bestselling author of “Unorthodox” and “Exodus.”


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