At home in Germany


On the train from Dusseldorf back to Berlin, a ride so (generally) smooth you could perform open heart surgery in the center aisle (I’m talking to you Amtrak!), I cracked open Michael Chabon’s latest collection of essays, ""Manhood for Amateurs." 

In a selection about how he fell instantly in love with his WASPy former father-in-law — a man who owned a beach house "more heavily and richly layered with memories, associations, artifacts, and stories than any place any member of my own family had lived since we had left Europe seventy years before." — Chabon offers this observation: 

God, it was a seductive thing to a deracinated, assimilated, uncertain, wandering young Jew whose parents had not been married for years and no longer lived anywhere near the house in Maryland where, for want of a truer candidate, he had more or less grown up …. I fell in love with their rootedness, with the visible and palpable continuity of their history as a family in Seattle, with their ability to bring a box of photographs taken thirty summers earlier and show me the room I was sitting in before it was painted white, the madrone trees that screened the porch before two fell over, the woman I was going to marry digging for geoduck clams on the beach where she had just lain sunbathing.

What do we anchor ourselves to when we lack those sorts of photographs? What do we do when most Jews, like Chabon, haven’t lived anywhere long enough to amass them?

That’s the question seemingly at the root of the conundrum facing the community of Russian Jews in Germany, a class that totals some 80 percent of the country’s 100,000 or so Jews. A small number leap at the chance to be openly Jewish in Germany and set about making up for lost time and learning opportunities denied them. Some leap at the chance to abandon the Jewish identity with which they were branded in their native lands. And some muddle along a middle path. 

Factor in the already conflicted identity of Germany’s native-born Jews — the community’s chief umbrella group calls itself he Central Council of Jews in Germany, not Jewish Germans, or some other formulation that would hint at a marriage between the two — and the threads became almost too messy to untangle. 

That’s been my task over the past several days, and it’s proven more difficult than I expected. I arrived here expecting gory tales of communal infighting, of cultural misunderstandings both funny and tragic, of immigrants vainly searching for a community and a community eager to swell its ranks but wary of takeover by the newcomers. I’ve been largely disappointed.

In interviews in the two communities I visited, I was told time and again that, sure, there were some issues once upon a time, but that’s mostly in the past. Today, the old-timers and the new-timers understand each other much better and generally work well together. That’s the line anyway. 

But what’s truly past may not be the conflicts, but the hegemony of their chief protagonists. The earliest, oldest Russian immigrants — the ones most challenged to achieve a modicum of assimilation — are even older today. And while the community leadership remains largely in the hands of born Germans, the old guard may also soon pass from the scene. Charlotte Knobloch, the Munich native who is the community’s top official, is in her late 70s.

Even so, a younger, more open and inclusive leadership isn’t likely to fully resolve the conflicts facing Jews living in the land of the Holocaust. Even the most well integrated German Jews tell me of moments of uneasiness living here. If those Jews don’t feel fully at home here, what can be expected of those whose roots in the country go back no further than two decades? 

Recommended from JTA