Jewish Disneyland - the Appropriation and
Dispossession of "Jewishness"
Pitigliano, a city in the south of the Tuscany, overlooks
an impressive Jewish past. Once, the Jewish population was nearly 20 percent.
Today, the synagogue is a tourist attraction; the only regular worshiper,
draped in his tallit, is Catholic. Kosher wine is not the only standard
offering for tourists. The last Jewish woman in Pitigliano still serves
cookies baked according to an old family recipe.
During the preparation for the exhibition "Paradiso@Diaspora" with Jewish
artists from Italy, it became clear to the Meshulash group that similar
situations exist in other areas of Europe. Diana Pinto already had referred to
this in her essay "Toward A New European Jewish Identity," in GOLEM 1/1999:
"The third and most difficult challenge is the Jewish Space: how should Jews
approach and intervene in Europe's growing Jewish spaces, increasingly
initiated, populated and even administered by non-Jews?"
Consider Berlin: Nowhere is the myth of "Jewishness" so excessively produced
and performed as in the area surrounding the Oranienburgerstrasse. Situated in
the heart of East Berlin, this district had deteriorated until the Berlin Wall
came down. The prewar architecture, since then largely restored, conveyed the
flavor of the past and attracted crowds of visitors as well as artists and
publicity agencies. A neighbourhood developed with galleries, book stores,
haute couture shops, cafes, clubs and restaurants.... Time seemed to have
stood still; for many visitors it was a relief to be connected with Jewish
history through visible Jewish places (the remains of the synagogue, former
Jewish school, cemetery...).
Increasingly the phenomena of conjured "Jewishness" arose, raising the
question of how and where "Jewishness" appears in the cityscape, and who
relates in which way to this phenomenon? Restaurants like ‘Mendelssohn’, in
which pork in cream sauce is a common item on the menu; sold-out klezmer
concerts, ever-changing film programs and readings were additions to this
"Jewish" potpourri. The offerings are topped off by a plentiful supply of
walking tours. When one asks the organizers of most of these activities if
they know any Jews personally, it frequently turns out that they do not, nor
do they find it necessary to learn about various expressions of Jewish life.
What images of Jews, or of Jewish life, are passed along? What clichés are
reproduced, reinforced and impressed upon everyday perceptions? The answer is
that the "rich Jew" still tops the list of stereotypes: When standing in front
of the building of the "Ahawah", a former Jewish children's home in the
Auguststrasse that had been turned into a public school, the city tour guides
say: "In 1991 the Jewish community tossed the children out of the school, and
from one day to the next they made a lucrative deal with an advertising
Sometimes life is stranger than fiction: At the Sophienstrasse Christmas
market one Saturday, three men in black coats and hats played familiar
Christmas carols on their trombones. A woman observed: "Isn’t it lovely, how
the Jews are playing those songs!" Her companion noted: "Those must be the
ones who normally play klezmer".
What need is fulfilled by this search for "the Jew"? Are these "productions" a
statement by non-Jews about themselves? It must be noted, however, that Jews
occasionally also play along with this "Jewish Disneyland," and not only in
In Italy, the Bulgaria-born singer-actor Moni Ovadia enjoys great success.
Ovadia, who grew up in Italy, presents the culture of the eastern European
shtetl to his Italian audience. Coming from a Sephardic family, as is common
among Jews in Italy, Ovadia became acquainted with eastern European Holocaust
survivors in his adulthood. The overwhelming resonance of the public to his
performances corresponds to with a vacuum, an absence. He speaks an awkward
Yiddish, just as awkward as if he were a native speaker of Yiddish trying to
speak Italian: The Jew as outsider, non-member, exotic.
Diana Pinto presents a completely different image in this edition of GOLEM,
that of the largely acculturated Jews of Italy. In Germany, too, cultural
events related to the contributions of German-Jewish artists have
comparatively little resonance, unless they are marking an important event
such as the 100th anniversary of the birth of Kurt Weill, composer of the
The danger in the exoticization of Jews is that one loses the sense of how
Jewish culture and the local environment influenced one another, and how
Jewish culture contributed to local cultural traditions, whether music,
cuisine, language, or other features. Instead, this pattern helps maintain
stereotypes of the Jew as an outsider, at least in Central Europe. More than
once in recent months I have asked non-Jewish Germans of all ages, after a
visit to the new Jewish Museum Berlin, what was new for them. More than 90
percent answered spontaneously that they had not known that Jews have lived
for nearly 2000 years in German-speaking areas.
The apparent vitality of "virtual Jewish realities" leads to the intermingling
of fiction with reality, and the two become difficult to distinguish from one
another. This can be seen particularly in eastern European countries where
large Jewish communities existed before the Shoah.
Not only in Prague and Kazimierz are readings held in "Jewish" cafes, Yiddish
plays performed or "Jewish cuisine" served without the presence of a real Jew.
Following the success of the movie "Schindler’s List," there was a boom in
tours to "authentic places" — in reality, places where the movies were filmed.
Fiction and reality blur into one another again, cancel each other out.
A mental landscape is produced here, a kind of emotional historiography to
which anyone can bring her needs and emotional projections. Confrontation with
the past — when not related to identification with the victims — or
confrontation with Jews and Jewish life today apparently are not wanted, due
to a feeling of ambivalence. For numerous non-Jews in Germany, enjoyment of
klezmer is often an expression of their efforts to come to terms with the
past. Non-Jewish interpreters are appreciated for the role they play as a
buffer for the inability or lack of readiness to come into contact with Jews
in everyday life.
And the ghosts of healing wander again and again through Jewish Disneyland.
Many who attend klezmer concerts attribute "healing effects" to them. The
editor of a Berlin city magazine quotes the Irish-American entertainer Gayle
Tufts on her favorite café, run by an American, as saying "The fact that right
here in Berlin’s former Jewish quarter one can get bagels, a typical Jewish
bread that you find everywhere in New York, well, that’s almost a sign of
healing". Just after the completion of the Jewish Museum building in Berlin, a
renowned local daily paper gave voice to the hope that the building would have
a healing effect on the barren cityscape. The surrounding streets still bear
the marks of wartime destruction and of the bad city planning that followed.
It used to take great effort to participate in Jewish culture: one first
needed a Jewish education, be it religious, historical or secular. Jewish
Disneyland is today’s "Instant Light version," a kind of McDonalds. What is
fatal about that is that the McDonald’s version is mistaken for a five-star
menu. And it certainly is easier than learning one’s way through the Siddur
(prayer book) or learning Hebrew in order to be able to read old texts in the
original. After the Shoah, many Jews of the second generation had no chance to
learn, because those who could have passed along such knowledge were for the
most part murdered or expelled, and those who survived were struggling to
create a new life.
The themes of Jewish Disneyland are romanticism, exoticization, folklorization
and historicization of everything Jewish. As a result, that which is really
Jewish becomes (or is made) invisible. The fictions of Jewish Disneyland
increasingly become the measure of reality for the media, which present them
as "Jewish culture". Real Jews, insofar as they are still around, cannot match
the fictional image. They are therefore a disappointment.
This magazine, whose first edition appeared in December, 1999, may be seen as
an example of this phenomenon. Actually, one might think that a European
Jewish magazine published in the city where the destruction of European Jewry
was planned would attract special attention and have an appropriate resonance.
However, in contrast to the positive international and national response, the
reactions of Berliners and local media were reserved. One month before GOLEM
was published, a Turkish lifestyle magazine came out, and a month afterward,
the fourth edition of a regional gay magazine was published. In both cases
there was not a single Berlin newspaper that did not report in detail about
Now one could ask, "Who cares if non-Jews construct their own Jewish worlds?"
Should it matter to Jews at all? After all, they could simply try to ignore
the phenomenon. But the phenomenon is already too pervasive to overlook.
Only time will tell how these "Jewish" productions will affect the
sensibilities of Jews themselves, how they ultimately will affect both
self-image and perception from the outside.
Jewish Disneyland will under no circumstances aid in the "normalization" of
relations between non-Jews and Jews — a normality whose absence is frequently
deplored. As long as Jews are reduced to clichés and the variety of Jewish
cultures are not considered, legends and falsified history will continue to
blossom. Whoever needs "the Jew" to be exotic or an outsider forgets or
ignores the fact that most of the Jews deported from Germany were not eastern
European Jews but rather described themselves as "German citizens of Jewish
faith", and because they had lived for centuries here they could not imagine
the fate that awaited them. They were neighbours, teammates, friends,
acquaintances or business partners and therefore were a part of everyday life.
A new clarity in relations will not develop as long as Jews have to deal with
the clichés, misperceptions and misunderstandings heaped upon them.
Translated by Toby Axelrod
Iris Weiss lives in Berlin She studied social science and education and works
as a journalist and educator in the fields of Jewish history and current life
in Berlin. She offers many different walking tours, including one on "Jewish
Disneyland". Her website (German/English) is