In a recent article in the German magazine ZEIT, Jewish author Maxim Biller writes that contemporary German literature is boring because it is too homogeneous. Biller, who was born in Prague but moved to Germany as a child, complains that immigrant authors are forced to adjust to the dominating literary discourses, therefore losing their potential to enrich the culture with unusual, exciting observations.
It is interesting that Biller combines his sharp analysis of the present with a retrospection. He repeatedly reminds the reader of the ones who used to challenge and eventually rejuvenate German literature in the past, namely, the German Jewish authors. In fact, he is looking for their heirs, and on this quest, Biller reviews Turkish and Bosnian writers. He does not mention any contemporary German Jewish authors, however. Apparently, Biller has given up all hope of finding worthy heirs to Reich-Ranicki and Co. among his own tribe.
It is true that 100,000 Jews as compared to 3 million people of Turkish descent do not seem likely to have a huge cultural impact. But let us be honest: Size has never been our greatest strength, and our small numbers do not suffice to explain why we currently disqualify as a source of inspiration for the German culture. Our voices are not heard because we are silent and invisible, and the reason for this is that we have chosen to remain silent and invisible. Maxim Biller is perfectly right in pointing out that the German upper class needs to exert control over all those voices they fear might become too dissonant. The Bildungselite loves treating foreigners and Jews like circus monkeys that amuse the masses with their domesticated exoticism. In this respect, little has changed since the days of Kafka.
What has changed, though, is that we Jews have retreated into silence, thus wilfully aiding all those advocates of purity, nicety, and sterility. Whenever the German elite dictates us a task, we are more than willing to comply. The Germans want us to be the eternal commemorators of the Holocaust? Just a sec, I’m already rushing to the next memorial ceremony. The Germans want us to be Abraham’s children? Hold on, I’m on my way to that Christian-Jewish discussion group. The Germans want us to defend “Israel’s war crimes?” Sure, I’ll be on the panel.
The issue is not dealing with the Holocaust, interreligious affairs, or Israel. The problem is that we are passive in whatever we are doing. We do not represent ourselves but instead let the German upper class tell us who they want us to be. We do not contradict anyone, we do not define our own themes, and most importantly, we conceal our particularity.
I understand those who are afraid of sticking out. These days, mainstream German newspapers publish anti-Semitic caricatures and get away with their “missteps” after offering a cold apology. Sentences like “Jews are greedy for money” decorate many walls in this country. In short, being Jewish is not exactly the most desirable attribute in Germany.
But is this something we have to take for granted? Too often we ignore that there are also potential allies. 28 percent of the Germans either are of foreign ancestry or have a foreign passport. Many of these people also try to fit in, as Biller remarks. But nevertheless, they know the taste of being different. Why is it that we do not connect with them? With this huge number of people originating from different ethnicities, Germany may become an open and pluralistic society in a few decades. But we have to fight for it and not must not hand over the reins to the old elite.
Seven years ago, I was walking through the streets of Heidelberg with a friend when an old man passed by, shouting “fucking Jews” at us. We both were completely perplexed and did not reply. Last December, a friend of mine was visiting the Christmas market in Heidelberg when she heard a father call out for his son named “Levi Gabriel.” As a good Talmud student, she automatically turned around. Perceiving her curiosity, the father was quick to say, “Oh, don’t worry, we’re not Jewish.” My friend was perplexed and did not reply.
Here’s the thing: We have to react, no matter what. We have to start talking and telling our stories in order to get heard. Some people may not like what we have to say. But the Germany of an 85-year-old Nazi is not the Germany I live in. He will be dead in a few years. He might have died already. The future, though, is ours, and we should not give up our claim to a better, more tolerant society, in which we can openly live as Jews and non-Jews will be curiously interested in our identity, culture, customs, and religion. But the price for this is that we have to become active and start building.
I long for the days when Jewish life will be depicted in German movies and TV series beyond the classic Holocaust tragedies or Jews-for-Dummies movies à la Alles auf Zucker. What I dream of are authentic, yet individualistic Jewish stories flooding the German market of uniformity and if necessary, turning it a little upside down. I look to America with envy, where Jewish authors like Jonathan Safran Foer, Nathan Englander, or Michael Chabon can tell profoundly Jewish stories while simultaneously inspiring America’s literary scene.
Let us not shy away from our own, sometimes dissonant, voices. Let us be nasty if we have to. It would not hurt to have a bunch of Philip Roths in this country to remind the Germans that Jews have their crazy and funny issues, but also deal with universal problems, like the rest of mankind. Above all, let us be there and stop hiding. If we have reached that level of self-confidence, then we may become culturally significant once again.