When I meet new people in Berlin—which happens far too often—there is one particular question I always dread receiving. Where are you from? Where you from, man? they ask me. I have yet to come up with a significantly better answer—and, believe me, I have spent some time thinking about it—and so I usually answer that I am from the United States—aus den USA. I then watch their face as it reflects back the wave of stereotypes and associations hijacking their minds. America, they think. America. He’s an American. I try to soften the blow by mentioning that I’ve lived in Germany for the last four years or so and before that I lived in Israel. But I sound like Hugh Grant standing on a street corner in Manhattan insisting to someone he’s lived in America the last 20 plus years; the accent betrays him every time, and his interlocutor can never see him as more than a Brit.
Even if I had just gotten off the plane, it still would be so unfair to tell people I am from America. America is such a big place. It contains New York City, Texas, Southern and Northern California, and even Milwaukee and Montana. How can I be from all of these places at once? I can’t. To tell someone I am from America would be like forcing them to try every flavor of free ice cream samples all in one bite so that it ends up only tasting like fat. If I tell people, instead, that I am from Philadelphia, I feel a little better, as at least now I’ve made clear that I am from one of the more multicultural, enlightened, cultured, savvy, street-credible parts of the country. (And I promise that it really is that way; I’m not just saying that because I’m an East Coast liberal elite who’s never crossed the Mason-Dixon line.) The problem is that most foreigners have no idea where Philadelphia even is on the map—they often think it’s Florida—and also that I’m not really even from Philadelphia—I’m from the suburbs of Philadelphia. And, in fact, I am from one of the most unusual, idiosyncratic, uninterchangeable suburban towns—Cheltenham—which most alums of my generation will admit was utterly distinct from the neighboring townships. I am not exactly sure how to sum it up but let’s just say that it gave birth to the rapper Lil Dicky.
Still, I’d take Philly over America any day. Countries are misleading. Moreover, they are especially misleading to Americans. He’s from Italy? Well, he must love pasta (honestly, he probably does). She’s from India? Probably does yoga every morning. They’re from Ireland? Great sense of humor and love to drink. Countries provide us with invitations, “safe spaces,” welcome mats to stereotype, prejudge, and caricaturize. Americans are especially prone to this tendency because we are kind of dumb, we are the superpower, and we are geographically cut off from the rest of the world. But all peoples are guilty of this ignorant casting; more than once has an Israeli told me he wants to move to America because “everyone is rich there”; and when Germans find out I speak German they are always a bit shocked because, well, Americans don’t speak foreign languages (in this case, though, the stereotype is largely true).
Countries are too easy. We distill an entire nation-state into a tiny rectangular box with a few colors which we call a “flag.” During the Olympics or the World Cup, we attach this little box next to the athlete’s name as though thatwere all worth knowing about the person. Jamaica won the gold medal, we say. No, Jamaica did not win the gold medal. A sailor’s child from the outskirts of Kingston did. With nearly any other category, we balk at so thoughtlessly and lazily labeling others. We would never say, for example, that the “black guy” scored a goal or that a Jew invited me over for dinner. We even refrain from calling a chef a cook.
Of course, much ink has been spilt already as to whether there is such a thing as a “nation” or whether these are just, to quote the late professor Benedict Anderson, “imagined communities.” I am not going to weigh in on this debate, as it leads one down a rabbit hole. I am actually making a different, though related, point. For even if there are nations, it still seems a bit lazy and prejudiced to label a person by his or her country, particularly when that country is a vast place with dozens of culturally distinct regions therein. I suspect that the reason we label in this way stems not from malice or conspiracy but rather from sheer slothfulness. It is a lot easier to know what France is than to name the France’s eighteen administrative regions (one is Normandy). It takes a lot less effort to think that Philadelphia and Florida are the same place than to attempt to distinguish them. Finding out that an Italian’s favorite grain is white rice or that an Irishman prefers a glass of cab is sometimes too much for our little brains to handle.
But it is when we open ourselves up to subtleties, contradictions, and nuances, things start to get a lot more interesting, if perhaps less satisfying. In his 2017 book The Shortest History of Germany, British writer James Hawes explores German history through exactly this premise. Hawes’ thesis is rather straightforward, maybe even a bit too straightforward. He claims that there is not one Germany, but two. There is westernized, Europeanized Germany, and then there is Prussian Germany. Hawes argues that, in fact, there have always been these two Germanies, going as far back as the Roman Empire and beyond. The Romans may not have done a whole lot of building past the Rhine, but their influence was felt there. The Germans of this territory adopted Roman customs and traditions; put another way, Rome, according to Hawes, westernized Germany. But they did not and could not westernize all of Germany. For Hawes, it is the Elbe River which has separated Germany from Prussian-Germany even long before there was a “Prussia.” This was a region which Roman culture never penetrated; no one went beyond the Elbe. For centuries, it remained its own universe with an entirely different set of values from the rest of Germany and the rest of Western Europe. For Hawes, German cities in the West, particularly those along the Rhine, like Bonn and Aachen and Mainz, evolved out of the same collective history as cities like Milan and Barcelona and Toulouse. The cities in Eastern Germany, however, cities like Berlin and Leipzig and Erfurt, are not really “German” at all; they are Prussian, they are East-Elbian (Ostelbien). Yet, through a strange accident of history, Prussian Germany, led by Otto von Bismarck, conquered Western Germany and unified both areas into one nation. Today, according to the map, there is only one Germany. We call it “Germany.” But Hawes wishes to say au contraire. There are two Germanies and have always been two—Rhine Germany and Elbe Germany, West and East, latinized and Prussianized. If one were to meet Angela Merkel at a cocktail party and ask her where she’s from, she would surely answer “Germany.” But she could only hope that Hawes were not attending the same party, munching on a tiny hot dog within earshot. I beg your pardon, Madame, but didn’t you grow up in Brandenburg? You’re not really German—you’re Prussian-German. And so, I need someone like Hawes to stand next to me at parties and explain that I’m not really from America, I’m from Cheltenham.
In the haftarah reading for Shabbat Shuvah, Hosea, in reference to Israel, proclaims that “His branches shall spread, and his beauty will be like the olive tree, and his fragrance like Lebanon’s … Those who dwell in his shade will have abundant grain, will blossom like the vine, reminiscent of the wine of Lebanon” (14:7-8). Here, it is Lebanon—Lebanon—which is being heralded as the place of utmost beauty and serenity. Ancient Israel spoke of Lebanon adoringly; the fragrances there were simply wonderful, and the wine could not be beat. In Israel today, or anywhere, it is difficult to think of Lebanon so tenderly. We hear “Lebanon” today and think of the First and Second Lebanon War; we conjure up Hezbollah and poverty and car bombs; we become awash with the emotions of fear and sadness and then more fear. It is a place we will probably never visit, and we are totally okay with that.
But the Lebanon we today imagine in our mind’s eye is not really Lebanon; it is Lebanon only inasmuch as Stuttgart is Prussian or I am from Texas or Japan can be boiled down to a white flag with a red dot. When Hosea speaks of Lebanon, he is not talking about the artificial nation-state of Lebanon with its drawn-up and ever-changing borders, its red-white-and-tree flag, and its puppet government. Hosea, rather, is speaking about the region of Lebanon. For when Hosea lived and preached in the eighth century B.C.E. there was no country of Lebanon; then it was one of several regions within the Phoenician Empire. Hosea would never afford such praise to another kingdom; indeed, the prophets devote ample space to disparaging other states and empires. Hosea saw Lebanon for what it really was: a region, and even more specifically, a mountain. Hosea’s Lebanon is Mount Lebanon which, due to its snow-capped peaks, is called Lebanon after the Hebrew word for white: levan. Upon Mount Lebanon grew tall cedar trees which King Solomon used as wood to build his temple and upon this mountain one could find the grapevines to which Hosea alludes.
Hosea, it seems, knew his geography. His geographical acumen allowed him to separate Lebanon from Phoenicia, to extol the mountain without extending that praise to the government which controlled it. By contrast, today, it seems, we are losing our ability to see other countries with nuance. Gone are the days when we could tell a friend we were traveling to Bohemia or Lombardy or the Negev or Appalachia; and yet, how much more “real” are these spots than the Czech Republic or Italy or Israel or New York State. The Ancient Hebrews had long since tapped into this way of thinking. Ancient Israel was divided into ten tribes; one did not say one was from “Israel” but rather from Ephraim or Dan or Judah. Moreover, when the Torah speaks of the Land of Israel, it emphasizes its natural elements far more than its borders: Israel is prized for its soil, its trees, its fruits, its seas. The borders are largely a postscript and a bureaucratic formality.
One remnant of this ancient manner of thought can be observed, even today, in—forgive the term—“French” wine. In fact, there is no such thing as “French wine.” French wine is just a term we use out of convenience, not unlike forgetting whether Iran is a Sunni or Shiite state and then unconsciously insisting to ourselves that it doesn’t really matter. There is no French wine; rather, there are at least a dozen French wine regions, each of which has dozens if not hundreds of subregions within it. Unlike in other parts of the world in which the wine is named after the grape—as in, the Pinot Noir grape or the Chardonnay grape—French wines are named by their regions—a Bordeaux or a WhiteBurgundy. It is not as though oenophiles are unaware that a Bordeaux could theoretically also be called a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Merlot produced in the southwest of the Republic of France. Indeed, for a newbie to wine, this way of describing a Bordeaux may be more straightforward to understand. But the French have stubbornly insisted on preserving the idiosyncratic character of each of France’s individualistic regions. The French presume we should take the time to distinguish Bordeaux from mere France or even Southwestern France just as Hosea figured we would not mistake Lebanon for Lebanon and just as James Hawes has implored us to differentiate between Prussia and Germany.
When it comes to wine, at least, the French are not interested in territory but rather in terroir. Here, they hearken back to the mentality of the Ancient Israelites, who perhaps knew less about where their Israeli soil ended and Moabite or Philistine began than what that soil felt like and smelled like in their hands. Whether it be Lebanon or Languedoc, it is the terroir which matters most; territory is for the Hebrew shepherd or the French vintner only a distant, strange, and foggy afterthought. Indeed, when someone asks us where we are from and we answer only with the nation-state printed on our passport, we are just a short step away from calling a Beaujolais fermented grape juice.