I Wouldn't Want It Any Other Way
Some thoughts on being Jewish in Germany
By Bruce Gatenby

I’ve never really felt Jewish. Even when I lived in Idaho, among Mormons, political extremists, Christian Identity fanatics, neo-Nazis and militia members who believe in the existence of the ZOG, the Zionist Occupation Government that secretly runs America, I still felt American. Even when a few of those fanatics actually burned a cross on the front lawn of the only rabbi in town.

One of the reasons I moved to Europe in 1998 was I no longer wanted to feel American. I wanted to feel off-balance, foreign, like my life had a more difficult purpose than deciding which mall to shop at. I was high on self-transformation which, ironically, is the most American of dreams and desires. In many ways to leave America is the most American thing an American can do.

After four years as an expatriate, I’ve discovered the most dangerous illusion you can hold is that you can fit into another country, another culture. Believe me, I’ve tried. I’ve lived in a Swiss ski resort, the 11th arrondissment of Paris, a 16th century apartment on the Grand Canal in Venice, a house among the vineyards and olive trees of a small Italian village and now a town in Germany in an area some of the worst members of the Nazi party called home. You can imagine my reaction to seeing the Mengele Brothers moving van racing down the A8 autobahn on its way to Gunzburg. You’d think the family would at least have had the good taste to change its name, like the Hitlers did.
Culture is a result of language, history and tradition. As Americans we can learn languages, we can study history and even to some extent try to understand traditions, but we can never really fit in. Walking through the drunken crowds during the Fasching carnival celebration here in February, I thought: I will never look good in lederhosen and an Alpine hat. Never. My friend Bill Grim had a great time, however. "Germans in funny costumes," he laughed. "Some things never change."

Anti-Semitism is a time-bound and time-honored tradition in Europe. A thousand years of persecution and pogroms do not evaporate out of the air overnight. In Venice, there’s the old ghetto. In Rome, there’s the old ghetto. In Paris, there’s the old ghetto. In Prague, there’s the old ghetto. Constant reminders of a long past of Euro-Christian hatred, reminders that don’t exist in the good old US of A.

I’ve written here before about my experiences with anti-Semitism in Europe–but the point I want to make here is that after four years abroad I feel more American than ever. In Germany, I truly feel like an outsider. A Jewish outsider.

It’s not so much incidents of anti-Semitism as an entire cultural and historical force field. You start noticing the little things, like the Mengele Brothers moving van. Or a magazine article about fun things to do in Dachau (seems the concentration camp gives an otherwise pleasant town a bad name). Or the fact that to rent the DVD of Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will you have to be a foreigner (if you’re German you need a letter from a professor giving you permission to watch it). Not to mention actually watching Triumph of the Will here. That’s surrealism, folks.

It’s the look in people’s eyes when they ask if you’re Catholic or Evangelisch (Protestant) and instead of saying "neither" or "I’m a Buddhist," just for the reaction you say, "No, I’m Jewish." The flare of the pupils and that pause. Or going out with German girls. Jewish men have always been abnormally attracted to shiksas, non-Jewish women. Read any Philip Roth novel. Watch The Heartbreak Kid. Or Carnal Knowledge. Or any Woody Allen film. Seinfeld called it "shiksappeal"; I call it trouble with a capital T.

But then again, I’m a shiksaholic and German girls are the ur-shiksas. My god, all these tall, blonde, blue-eyed Frauen striding down the strassen, sitting in the cafés, calling out like the Rheinmaidens to Alberich. When I mention that I’m Jewish there’s the flare of the pupils, that pause. There’s the temptation. Something taboo. Something dangerous. Something circumcised. Sixty years ago their grandfathers in the Einsatzkommando would have shot me. Now their granddaughters date me. Talk about reparations.

There’s a scene in Free Enterprise, a fine but little-seen film about Mark and Robert, two Jewish filmmakers who grow up obsessed with Captain Kirk (as another character in the film says "all the great starship captains are Jewish"). Mark is trying to score with a blonde German actress-model-whatever; when he makes his move she stops him cold:

AMW: I think it’s a little too soon for me.

MARK: Given what your people did to my people during World War II, I’d consider a little kissing and breast fondling minor reparations at best.
There’s the flare of her pupils, that pause... then she grabs him, throws him to the floor and starts date-raping him.

This is not fiction. I’ve had this experience many times. Take Ines, for example. I met her at a three-day language seminar I was doing for Nokia. Tall and thin, honey-blond hair corkscrewed like fusilli, but brown eyes, not blue. She flirted with me but also let me know she lived with her boyfriend Jörg, a dentist. A dentist! The ultimate in comfort, safety and a large income. Nevertheless, we decided to meet after the seminar for drinks. She talked on and on about how monotonous and boring and unhappy her life was, but she remained cold. I mentioned I was Jewish. Our first kiss in her car that night lasted nearly half an hour. There followed a four-month affair during which she actually left Jörg the dentist. She moved into her own apartment, and like Charles Grodin in The Heartbreak Kid, I thought I had it made.

With a hot German girlfriend (in German, eine heisse biene, literally a "hot bee") perhaps even I could fit in! A member of the hive! But the idea of a Catholic German girl spending her future with an American Jewish writer, albeit a passionate future no German dentist could supply, was simply too culturally out there. As Rainer Maria Rilke once wrote:

"For it is not inertia alone that is responsible for human relationships repeating themselves from case to case, indescribably monotonous and unrenewed; it is shyness before any sort of new, unforeseeable experience with which one does not think oneself able to cope."

Germans take to change the way cats take to water. One night I received a four-page breakup email–in German. I can tell you none of those Internet translation programs are worth a damn.

Living off-center, one toe in the cultural pool, nine toes out, you notice the little things about your own culture as well. For example, I’ve discovered that nearly every single American Jewish filmmaker inserts a small satirical scene in their films, skewering the Germans for their Nazi past. I’m not just talking about the obvious examples, like Woody Allen or Mel Brooks (although the actor dressed as Hitler in Blazing Saddles who says "yeah, they lose me right after the bunker scene" is priceless). This "tradition" started with Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove:

GEN. BUCK TURGIDSON: Strangelove. What kind of a name is that anyhow? Kraut name is it?

AIDE: He changed it when he became a citizen. Used to be Merkwürdigliebe.

GEN: BUCK TURGIDSON: A Kraut by any other name...
The tradition continues, nearly forty years later. This scene from the Coen brothers’ The Big Lebowski, for example, which takes place after the Dude has been attacked in the bathtub by a group of marmot-wielding Germans:

WALTER: Fucking Germans. Nothing changes. Fucking Nazis.
DONNY: They were Nazis, Dude?

WALTER: Oh come on, Donny, they were threatening castration. Are we going to split hairs here?

DUDE: They were Nihilists, man. They kept saying they believe in nothing.

WALTER: Nihilists. Fuck me. I mean, say what you want about the tenets of National Socialism, Dude, at least it’s an ethos.

Or this little gem from Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s South Park: Bigger, Longer, Uncut. Kyle, Stan and Cartman log onto a German scheisse video website:

GERMAN PORN ACTOR: Essen meine scheisse.

STAN: Click it off, dude, click it off! Dude, what the fuck is wrong with German people?

I can tell you from experience that Germans do not see the humor in these things.

There’s an old Jewish joke about a man in the Berlin ghetto after the Nazis have come to power. He’s walking down the street one day, reading Der Sturmer, the Nazi propaganda newspaper. Another man walks up to him and says, "What are you, crazy? Why are you reading that?" And the first man replies, "Well, according to this we’re all millionaires who secretly control the world..."

Humor is truly the Jewish revenge on the German attempt to exterminate us. People often ask me why I live in Germany. There is a simple answer: it is the only country in Europe that will grant work visas to Americans. But there’s a more complex answer as well. It’s the joy of playing the soundtrack to The Producers at full blast, or walking down the street humming the slow movement from Haydn’s Emperor Quartet (a.k.a. "Deutschland Über Alles"), or reading Daniel Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing Executioners in a crowded café. And yes, dating ur-shiksas. Especially dating ur-shiksas.

It’s the knowledge that sixty years ago I couldn’t have lived here. Even now, there are still strong feelings of discomfort, of rejection, of not fitting in, of never being able to belong to a culture that really doesn’t want someone like me as a member. I will never be Der Man auf der Strasse.
I wouldn’t want it any other way.