Saturday, 12 November 2011

Young Jewish artists in Germany boldly define the 'New Jew'

Source: Spiegel on Line

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 amounts to nothing more than 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 [photo], 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?

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