Academic journal article German Quarterly

America and the newest Jewish writing in German

Academic journal article German Quarterly

America and the newest Jewish writing in German

Article excerpt

In a recent, highly controversial book, the Canadian sociologist Michal Bodemann argued that Jews in Germany are, or at least were for decades, virtual Jews.1 There was such a need to imagine a Jewish presence in both the BRD and the GDR that both cultures "created" a new Jewish identity separate from the actual presence of Jews, but the model for the non-Jewish and Jewish Germans was as much the American and Israeli experience of Jewish life as it was the German Jewish past. But Bodemann, like Erica Burgauer, recognizes that since the mid-1980s, especially after reunification, something has shifted in the presence and awareness of German culture concerning an active Jewish cultural presence.2 What they seem to draw into question is the "authenticity" of this experience. It is the question of who determines what an authentic Jewish experience is, and who the "authentic" Jews are, that stands at the center of this discussion. This is the old/new question of "who is a Jew?"

There lies the rub. If Jewish is defined by ritual and by practice, one set of discussions can be generated; if identity and self-understanding, as well as reception, define Jewish, a totally different discussion takes place. Thus if one author has a Jewish mother and identifies herself as Jewish, there seems to be no problem, but if another has a Jewish father and does the same, he is seen as somehow inauthentic. And if this identification is generations earlier, it is somehow even more inauthentic. In religious circles one ofthe major debates has to do with mixed marriages. The key word is that in mixed marriages the child is "lost" to his/her Jewish origins. Given the rejection of children of mixed marriages by the religious establishment, this is of little wonder. It is surprising (to me) that such children do sometimes come back and learn to understand and cherish their Jewish identity. Germany is a space (at least after 1989) where the badge of a Jewish identity has, at least in some circles, an added cachet. One can make an analogy to the "gain from illness" that the sociologists of medicine describe. The positive value of the status of the victim after the fact is part of the construction of the idea of the Jew in the German-speaking world. And yet it is the very victim status that provides a critical edge for the cultural products dealing with being Jewish in the contemporary world which are written by those who self-label or are labeled as Jews. It has been striking (and now more scholars than myself recognize this) that there has been an explosion of such cultural manifestations of Jews in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. Here it is the self-definition as Jew in the public (cultural) sphere through the creation of a Jewish persona of oneself as a writer, film maker, artist, or photographer, and the dedication to the creation of artifacts that deal with what Dan Diner so insightfully called the "negative symbiosis" of being Jewish in Germany.3

The Goldhagen Debate: Setting the Stage

The debates about Jewish "authenticity" in the German-speaking world can be framed by the complex relationship of this world to the very notion of the Jews. Nowhere was this more clearly differentiated than in the initial German critical response to Daniel Goldhagen's Hitler's Willing Executioners before its publication in German in August of 1996.4 This reception seems to be a litmus test of the new permissiveness that exists since reunification over public expression concerning aspects of the Shoah and the image of the Jews in Germany. The ability to talk about Jews in contemporary Germany as part of a contested present, and in a complex and self-contradictory manner related to the past, provides a frame for the images of today's Jews. The fact is that before the publication of the German translation in August 1996, there were more articles in Die Zeit (six) than in The New York Times (four). This is a mark of this new German fascination with the ability to finally get it off in public about the Jews, here defined as American Jewish scholars, and their "preoccupation" with the Shoah. …

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