The Past as Prop: Young German Artists Boldly Define the 'New Jew' 

By Georg Diez

Young Jewish artists in Germany are self-confidently toying with prejudices and clichés, creating an identity for themselves that is no longer tied to the past -- and leaving it up to the Germans to deal with the question of who exactly the Germans are.

Monsters occasionally assume a completely unexpected appearance. All of a sudden, Adolf Hitler is standing onstage wearing an Adidas tracksuit and flip-flops, and his name isn't Hitler; it's Oliver Polak. And the monster isn't really Adolf Hitler, either; it's the audience's laughter. It starts with a sputter, like something trying to break free from its restraints. But then it bursts out as if suddenly liberated.

These are the moments in which Polak has gotten very close to the truth. It's a complicated truth because it has to do with something that became a given long ago: that Germans are supposed to be ashamed and sad about what they did to the Jews. And somehow that was also enough.

But what happens when someone stands onstage at a comedy club in Berlin making jokes about Jews and the Holocaust? When the mere mention of the railway system triggers a segue into the subject of deportations? When he slyly adds: "I'm allowed to do that. I'm a Jew." And when his audience primarily laughs because it isn't quite sure whether it's even OK to laugh?

The 'New Jew' Movement

Polak is a comedian. A few weeks after his show, the 35-year-old is sitting in a friend's apartment in Berlin's downtown Mitte district. Darkness is slowly descending on the street outside.

His show is supposed to be about the new Jews, the new Jewish self-image, old German insecurities and the question of what it means when two books that deftly juggle the issues of Jewish identity and anti-Semitic prejudices are almost simultaneously published.

The "New Jew Manifesto," published in England some time ago, describes this new, self-confident "hello-I'm-Jewish generation" as "loud and proud" and as made up of people who no longer "speak of their Jewish identity in the hushed tones generally reserved for discussing terminal illness." They are also unwilling to let anti-Semites tell them who they are, have no problem saying the word "Jew" and refuse to let 5,000 years of history distract them from the fact that the future is there for them.

But does this also aptly describe the sentiments of Jews living in Germany? Or does the Holocaust keep them stuck in the past? In other words, what does it mean to be a Jew in a world in which Jews make jokes about the Holocaust and Germans actually laugh at their jokes?

Representatives of the New Generation

And then, of course, there is also the question of who can rightly be called a "new Jew"?

Would it be someone like Polak, the comedian who grew up lonely as the only Jewish boy in the northwestern German town of Papenburg, who stands onstage making fun of his mother, his foreskin and the Central Council of Jews in Germany, and whose audiences laugh even louder because they aren't quite sure whether their laughing might actually constitute hate speech under German law?

Or would it be someone like Sophie Mahlo, a 36-year-old lawyer and cultural event organizer who has a Tunisian mother and German father, who grew up in Berlin and always wanted to leave but nonetheless returned, and who says that "Jewish identity does not mean that one is constantly thinking about why other people want to kill you?"

Or would it be someone like Lena Gorelik, a 30-year-old writer who emigrated from Russia with her parents as a child and only learned of the Holocaust once she was in Germany, who would tell her grade-school teachers that it was a Jewish holiday every three days just to see how they would react, and who "felt the pressure here of having to fall into the pattern of being a victim"?

Or would it be someone like Daniel Josefsohn, a 50-year-old photographer who named his dog Jesus, whose Berlin studio boasts an AK-47 bearing the words "I love Jews," and who once climbed into the garden of the former house of Hermann Göring, a leading Nazi figure, in order to raise an Israeli flag?

Ritualizing Jewish Identity

Likewise, if there is such a thing as a "new Jew" in Germany, then who are the old Jews? Indeed, what distinguishes young Jews from older Jews, such as journalist and essayist Henryk Broder or Marcel Reich-Ranicki, a well-known German literary critic who survived the Holocaust? Does this distinction already signify the "historicization of the Holocaust," which always sounds a bit alarmist? In other words, does it constitute a threat because it could lead to a relativization of the Holocaust?

Or is it actually liberating because young Jews no longer want to be the "suffering Jews," as Lena Gorelik calls it, or the "Nov. 9 Jews," as Sophie Mahlo calls it in reference to 1938's Kristallnacht, when many Jewish-owned homes and businesses were attacked and destroyed? Nor do they want to be like the prominent Jews who are asked to make token appearances at annual remembrance ceremonies and are then forgotten about for the rest of the year.

That was the deal in Germany, the paradoxical logic of the crime: The Jews were supposed to tell the Germans who they are. Or rather, in the words of writer Maxim Biller, they were "needed" to lend the country moral legitimacy.

In his book "The Impossible Return," the young French historian and journalist Olivier Guez uses harsh language to describe this cursed relationship. Guez writes that "the idealization of the Jewish victims" assumed the form of a "ritual," which was often not even intended for the Jews, who Germans "rarely had any opportunity to encounter." Instead, Guez believes the ritual had a different purpose: "Philo-Semitism provides its adherents with a moral and social innocence, a better self-image. It helped them overcome their insecurity."

Does this sound dangerous? As a Frenchman and a Jew, Guez has a less sentimental image of Germany's great postwar success story, as politicians have come to describe it in their soapbox speeches. In "The Impossible Return," he describes in very concise terms what it means to return to this land of the perpetrators as "a stranger in one's own country." Such was the title of the 1979 German-language anthology in which Henryk Broder berated the Central Council of Jews in Germany as a "dwarf opera in wide screen" and used expressions such as "professional Jews" and "alibi Jews."

Entertainment, Not Absolution

At that time, Jews were unsure about their own identities in Germany. But, these days, it's the Germans who are unsure. "Many Germans still don't like themselves," says Polak, the comedian. And it is precisely this discomfort that he exploits in his routines.

The title of Polak's current comedy routine and new book is "I'm Allowed to Do That. I'm a Jew." Polak's trick is pushing Jewish clichés to the brink of anti-Semitism. He tosses a number of lurking prejudices -- for example, about the rich Jew, the complaining Jews, the overly mothered Jew -- at the audience as if they were jokes. And it's only once they've started laughing that they realize they don't know what they're doing. They puzzle over whether they are too relieved or sufficiently taken aback.

"Oh," says Polak, opening his eyes wide and visibly enjoying his account of how Germans are afraid of their own laughter. In his routine, when he asked whether he is "allowed to do that," he says that many people look around before starting to laugh.

It's also clear to him that this laughter is highly contradictory and can also backfire. He says that people will approach him after a show in which he has cracked jokes about the Buchenwald and Auschwitz concentration camps and say: "It was nice to hear this story coming from you for a change; it was so funny."

Still, he notes that that his humor "doesn't grant absolution." Comedy is simply what he does, he explains, what he knows how to do. His life is his material, and he harbors no intentions of educating people. "People have asked me stupid questions throughout my life," he says, "and now I'm just giving stupid answers."

Liberating Oneself from Others' Images

There is also something else lurking behind Polak's cheerfulness. The former outsider child from Papenburg sounds as if he were talking about himself when he says: "German Jews are a little like giant panda bears. There aren't many of us left, so people are coming to see us before it's too late."

Granted, in recent years, the Jewish community in Germany has grown from 30,000 to 100,000. But this is primarily owed to the many Jews who have emigrated from Russia, which has altered how Jews in Germany identify themselves.

But it's also a fact that non-Jewish Germans still exude a certain sense of unfamiliarity and inhibition. "I feel watched," says Sophie Mahlo. "I have the feeling that people are constantly pushing me back into the picture they want to have of me. But I don't want to deal with issues that aren't my own."

For example, Mahlo says she has had to put up with questions such as: Are you a German Jew or a Jewish German? How do you feel about what happened here? If you could choose, would you still be a Jew? "I made the decision to liberate myself from the whole thing," says Mahlo, gesturing with her long fingers as if she were brushing something away.

To do so, Mahlo founded the German branch of Limmud in 2005, an organization that promotes learning about Jewish heritage. "Judaism isn't a sad thing," she says. "There's more to life than the Holocaust and the Shoah." She hopes "that non-Jewish Germans can accept us as being both equal and different and not constantly put us on a pedestal."

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