A Bat Mitzvah Girl Takes Berlin


Berlin: The Jewish world’s youngest ambassador to Germany is a frizzy-haired 12-year-old bookworm with a mean crush on Prince William of England. Nelly Sue Edelmeister is the adolescent heroine of a new novel, "Prince William, Maximilian Minsky and Me," by the Brooklyn-born Berliner Holly-Jane Rahlens. After garnering praise in the German press, the coming-of-age tale of a self-styled "nerd" studying for her bat mitzvah while scheming to win the royal heir’s heart may soon hit theaters, says Rahlens, who is writing the final draft of the screenplay for German producers.

"I wanted to write a story about pubescent obsession, the way I was obsessed for one-and-a-half hours with Prince Charles and for one-and-a-half days with Paul McCartney," Rahlens says over fruit salad and cappuccino at Orange, a popular cafe next to the Centrum Judaicum at the New Synagogue in Berlin’s old Jewish quarter. But, she adds, running her fingers through her reddish-brown, curly hair, "I knew from the start I wanted to say something about Jewish life."

The theme of a bat mitzvah offered the perfect combination of Jewish content and life transition. Rahlens says as far as she knows, the book fills a gap in German literature. "And I made sure I filled it well."

"Prince William," which has been translated but has yet to be published in English, introduces readers to numerous Jewish subjects (Torah, Midrash, Shabbat), concepts ("hiddur penei zakein," or honoring the elderly, and "kibbud av," or respecting one’s parents), and Yiddish vocabulary (shayne maidele, bubeleh, and "ess a bissel").

Beyond budding teenage passion, Rahlens, who is married with a 6-year-old son, adds plenty of family issues: the Edelstein’s rocky marriage, the death of Risa, a Polish Holocaust survivor who lives with the family, and the pre-teen social scandals involving Nelly’s classmates: Pia Pankewitz, Yvonne Cohen, the rabbi’s son, Anton Weissenberger, and Maximilian Minsky, the American-born son of a Russian native who has come to Berlin to open the city’s first " Jewish American deli."

But the best parts of the book deal with the complicated issues of Jewish identity and German-Jewish relations and Germany’s Nazi past, a point noted by German reviewers.

Nelly’s mother, Lucy, an American expatriate, waxes nostalgic about life in New York and complains bitingly about Germans’ idiosyncrasies, but Nelly delivers a defense of her German peers.

"Germans aren’t allowed to like themselves," she says of grandchildren of the Nazi generation. "German kids today, they got an awful deal. They live with a permanent bad conscience."

But Rahlens does not avoid the dark side of German history. Nelly spends afternoons playing cards with the female denizens of a Jewish old-age home, survivors of Auschwitz, who reveal their shattered pasts in touching snippets. When the girl resists having a bat mitzvah, she struggles to understand her place in the Jewish community. "What’s the use?" she asks Risa, who answers: "Because it’s home. Even if you wander, and most likely you will, at least you’ll always know where home is."

Born in East New York, Rahlens’ family moved to Forest Hills by way of Far Rockaway. She says her family was not religious, although her brother did celebrate his bar mitzvah in an Orthodox synagogue in East New York. "Girls were not allowed to," Rahlens laments.

After graduating from Queens College in the early 1970s, Rahlens followed Helmut, a German student she met in New York, to Berlin. She admits even she "thought it was odd" for a Jewish girl to move to Germany. "The Germans were the bad guys, definitely," she says.

The move also surprised her parents, a salesman and World War II veteran and a secretary. But they did not object, and West Berlin’s flourishing cultural life charmed Rahlens. And, she adds, "the [Berlin] Wall made it so dark and exciting."

Rahlens made a name for herself, first as a disk jockey and then as a cultural correspondent for Germany’s equivalent of National Public Radio. The 1979 broadcast of the American TV movie "Holocaust" sparked interest among Germans in Jewish subjects, and Rahlens found herself turning to things Jewish in her own coverage. In 1993, she made a 45-minute documentary, "Gefilte Fish and the Ghost of Germany" about American Jewish artists living in Berlin. It was screened at the 1994 San Francisco Jewish Film Festival.

Rahlens has also created one-woman stage plays, including the 1993 performance piece, "Prince Charles, Melvin Minsky and Me," a review of stories and essays written by American Jewish women, including Nora Ephron, Cynthia Heimel, Letty Cottin Pogrebin and Rahlens herself. The story inspired a short story for English students and clearly was the basis for Rahlens’ latest book, her third.

The first novel, "Becky Bernstein Goes Berlin" (1995) is an autobiographical precursor to Helen Fielding’s "Bridget Jones’ Diary." The sequel, "Mazel Tov in Las Vegas," is set to become a feature film, with filming to start as soon as March, Rahlens says.

Although she does not describe herself as active in Berlin’s small Jewish community, Rahlens says that living in Berlin has given her "more of a sense of being Jewish than I ever would have had if I had stayed in New York."

"Everyone in New York is Jewish," she says, laughing.