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Jüdische Weisheit

Jewish Disneyland - the Appropriation and Dispossession of "Jewishness"

Iris Weiss

[English] [French] [German]

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 agency."

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 Berlin.

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 "Three-Penny Opera".

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 this.

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



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