It’s no secret to people in my life that I’m Jewish, but in Germany, my religion/culture isn’t something people could/would assume. As I soon found out, many Germans hadn’t even met a Jewish person before me. Not really a surprise, obviously, since the history speaks for itself there. But I still found it odd that me being Jewish was somehow seen as a Thing To Be Discussed. I didn’t keep it a secret by any means, but it wasn’t information I always volunteered because I never knew how my company would react.
Mind you, it was never too uncomfortable. Everyone I met was open to it and excited to learn about my culture. The weirdest interaction I ever had was actually with an older Turkish man at my train stop who gently lifted my face in his hands and asked me, auf Deutsch, if I was Israeli. When I told him no, but that I was in fact Jewish, he squeezed my face and proclaimed that he had absolutely no problem with Jews, and that maybe we would meet again (we didn’t). What a relief?
Identifying as Jewish is not the most important or interesting thing about me, but once it came out in conversation, suddenly I would become a player in Jewish 20 Questions and the leading expert on Jewish history, culture, religion, politics…it was totally well-intentioned, as people generally just didn’t know anything at all about Judaism, but I’m by no means the most qualified person to talk about most of these topics at length. Most often, I was asked about laws of kashrut–the question of pork.
The kosher thing was actually pretty hilarious to me because I’ve never kept kosher in my entire life, save for a few weeks at a time at Jewish summer camp where I had no choice over what I was eating. Pork is an irrefutable staple of the German diet, one I embraced thoroughly in many different forms. I can’t even count the number of times I would receive shocked looks as I ingested a bratwurst/mett sandwich/bacon/other pork substance, looks of “OH MY GOD” and “IS THAT EVEN ALLOWED?” Well, no, but kinda, yeah?
I came to realize that American Judaism is so ridiculously different from Judaism abroad. Here in the U.S. we’ve got an actual culture: Seinfeld, pastrami on rye, Jewish mothers, Jon Stewart…and you can belong to this culture without necessarily belonging to the religion as well. This is something that confused so many people I met when they asked me why I didn’t wear a headscarf, why I eat pork, why I date people who aren’t always Jewish. Jews are so much more assimilated in America than they are in any other place I saw (outside of Israel). I quickly learned that the idea of a Jewish person was way more old-fashioned and uncomfortably close to a stereotype than I could have ever imagined: black suit, prayer shawl, not unlike the extremely orthodox Jews we see in clips of the Western Wall.
This didn’t really affect me though, at least not in the day to day life of getting by in Hannover. I recreated a small but very cute Jewish community with some friends from Russia who owned a bar near my flat. I went to synagogue once and met the nicest German Jews, though sadly I never saw them again because I usually traveled on Friday evenings when I could have met them there. Once I attended a “Hannover Goes Meshuggah!” party (meshuggah=crazy) during the Green Party’s Week Against Anti-Semitism. Sometimes I even picked up a text in Yiddish and understood some of it thanks to my new understanding of German (THAT was pretty surreal).
Writing about this is helping me process what it was like to live outside of a Jewish community for the first time in my life. I’ll be following up this post with more of the emotionally-charged situations that I found myself in at places like Bergen-Belsen, Berlin’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, and the Jewish Museum. But for now, this rambly post will suffice in laying the groundwork for analyzing a very interesting and slightly confusing year.