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

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."

The Gradual Re-Emergence of Identity

If it weren't such a silly word, couldn't one say that what is really missing for these Jews in Germany is normality? And, if so, what would that even mean?

The process of self-discovery for the Jews in Germany has progressed in waves, and so have the changes in the relationship between Jews and non-Jews. An initial watershed moment came in 1985 with the controversy surrounding director Rainer Werner Fassbinder's play "Garbage, the City and Death." The play, which would not be performed until 2009, portrays Jews as real estate brokers and was widely thought to reflect the anti-Semitic sentiments of the leftists who participated in a series of housing protests in Frankfurt in the early 1970s.

A second turning point was Dani Levy's 2004 comedy "Alles auf Zucker!" ("Go for Zucker!"), which was a popular success and portrayed a more human side of Jews. The film introduced ordinary Jewish life to mainstream culture so that it suddenly no longer seemed as foreign or odd.

Shockingly enough, this sort of thing had been missing from the cultural landscape until then. Granted, a number of popular works had touched upon these very subjects. For example, there was Rafael Seligmann's 1988 satire "Rubinstein's Versteigerung" ("Rubinstein's Auction") and Robert Schindel's brilliant 1992 novel "Gebürtig" ("Born-Where"). Likewise, there was Maxim Billers' 1990 story "Harlem Holocaust," in which he demonstrated how one could toy with the Germans' prejudices and feelings of guilt -- and how one could use this insecurity to muster the strength to break away from the German vicious circle of anti- and philo-Semitism. But they somehow weren't enough.

In fact, this insecurity persisted for decades after the war. There were Jews in society, and some of them enjoyed much prominence. For example, there is literary critic Marcel Reich-Ranicki, whose autobiography "Mein Leben" ("My Life") is a bestseller, and there are provocative Jews, such as journalist Henryk Broder, who has a penchant for quarreling with everyone. The former has downplayed his Judaism, while the latter has made it the focal point of his public persona. But, despite their fame, they still remained outsiders because there was no other Jewish presence.

There were also the old Jews, the quiet and secretive ones, as the "New Jew Manifesto" describes them, the ones who were constantly trying to guess who could still be a Jew and who wanted Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich to be a Jew -- "even if it's just because of the money." In contrast, the new Jews are more interested in "Jewish-Buddhist dialogue" and spend their time "saving the last synagogue in Calcutta." The new Jews are not passive, afraid or defensive. And they don't allow anyone but themselves to define their identity.

An Evolving Relationship with the Holocaust and Clichés

This way of self-identifying also has political and social consequences. There is always the question of what role the Holocaust should still play in how a country and a people define themselves. Of course, it is a question that Germany and Israel are asking themselves, but the same holds true for German Jews. Almost 70 years after World War II ended, its last remaining witnesses are dying out, the ritual of remembering is changing, and the role played by both the dead and the survivors is evolving. As a result, the relationship between the Holocaust and identity is being redefined.

"Maybe it's time for a different tone," says Lena Gorelik, the writer. She is referring to the humor she feels is missing in Germany. "Perhaps we could talk less about the past," she adds, expressing the hope that Jews will some day no longer be needed to answer a few German questions.

Gorelik's memoir is entitled: "Dear Misha … You were almost named Shlomo Adolf Grinblum. I'm so sorry to have to tell you this: You are a Jew…" It's a funny and honest examination of all the prejudices and clichés that -- as she says with a smirk -- are of course true.

In the book, Gorelik offers a "top ten" list of anti-Semitic prejudices that she claims are true. They include: Jews have hooked noses; Jews are bald; Jews are usurers; Jews have a problematic relationship with their mothers; Jews are cleverer than other people; and Jews are devious, cunning and shrewd.

"Clichés," Gorelik says, "exist so that we can keep turning them back and forth until we no longer know where the cliché ends and the truth begins." She says that people attending her readings sometimes also ask whether they're allowed to laugh and that some of them even confess to her that they don't know how to deal with the fact that their father was in the SS.

"Like Job," Gorelik writes in the book to her son, "you will scream inside: Why me? Why do I have to be part of the chosen people? Chosen for what?" To emigrate to the country "where milk and honey flow and war and heat prevail?" On the other hand, she writes to Misha: "You are a Jew. There is nothing better you could have been."

A 'Shocking' Debate

So what happened? What happened in all the years when Germans didn't know what to say when they met a Jew? When Hungarian-born Jewish playwright George Tabori was feted for servicing the outdated image of the prewar Jews in Germany. Or when German novelist Martin Walser, in a speech accepting the Frankfurt Book Fair Peace Prize in 1998, condemned the "Holocaust industry," saying Auschwitz had been used as a "routine threat, a tool of intimidation, a moral cugel" against today's Germans. Or when writer Botho Strauss famously stated that the way Germany dealt with its Nazi past paralyzed society and must be stopped. Historian Ernst Nolte started a massive dispute among historians when he described similar concern in a 1986 essay titled "The past that will not pass." Steffen Heitmann, a politician from the eastern part of the country who was once former Chancellor Helmut Kohl's choice to run as a candidate for the German presidency, drew criticism for his comments that Germany's special role in the postwar era had come to an end with the collapse of communism. "Germany is a normal state among normal states," he said.

The opinions of all four have been highly controversial in Germany -- with the harshest critics accusing them of relativizing the past or trying to bury it. They also steadily pushed the discourse in Germany further to the right, right up to the point where Thilo Sarrazin, a Social Democratic politician and then-member of the executive board of Germany's central bank, could even make comments that Jews shared a particular gene. And what did Jews in Germany think about it?

Polak says that it came as "a shock" and that he felt suffocated by the debate. Gorelik also found it shocking and even wondered whether Germany was still her country.

However, it is slowly becoming clear that these discussions were never really about Jews, immigration or Turks. In essence, all of these debates have been extremely German events, in which the Jews and history have been used to gain a little clarity over the real identity of this seemingly unfathomable people and who or what it is supposed to be. The Holocaust was always its crutch. If the Jews simply factored the Holocaust out, everything would begin to totter.

The 'New Germans'

Of course, Polak finds this all amusing. He also finds it's funny when 2,000 Christians sing his song "Lasst uns alle Juden sein" ("Let's All Be Jews") at a church convention.

But what the Germans who don't know whether they're allowed to laugh can learn from Polak and other new Jews is a self-confidence, an attitude toward life that is no longer determined by what another generation decided upon long ago. Indeed, at a fundamental level, the new Jews are just like the new Germans.

This isn't about wiping the slate clean or making a complete break with the past. But the fact is that there have already been so many stories about Hitler the monster or Hitler the human being that they no longer have any meaning.

Instead, it's about curiosity, self-confidence, openness and cleverness. It's about people shaping their own identity and figuring out who they are in Germany -- as Christians, Jews, Muslims, atheists and citizens. It's about a country that changed a long time ago.

Does this seem sappy? Does it almost sound like that notorious "multiculturalism"? Well, what it really sounds like is the 21st century.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
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