Dubbed the “doyenne of American performers in Berlin” by The Wall Street Journal, Holly-Jane Rahlens is an expatriate legend. Over 30-odd years in the German capital, the Brooklyn native’s one-woman performances, radio shows, TV documentaries, and novels planted her firmly in the consciousnesses of both German and English-speaking audiences.
Three years ago, Rahlens’ young-adult novel Prince William, Maximilian Minsky and Me—which she wrote in English, but published first in translation in Germany—was a hit in her adopted country, winning the coveted German Youth Literature Prize. And tonight, a much-anticipated film version opens. Recently released in the U.S., the novel chronicles klutzy, astronomy-obsessed Berlin tween Nelly Sue Edelmeister’s reluctant preparation for her bat mitzvah. Along the way she becomes infatuated with the newly-bereaved Prince William, but ultimately falls for Maximilian Minsky, a Goth teen fresh off the plane from New York.
Nelly’s quite secular and not particularly enthusiastic about her bat mitzvah. Is she meant to be a typical Jewish—or American-Jewish—kid in Berlin today?
Nelly’s representative of Jewish kids in Germany in the second postwar generation. I think her questions are representative, and some of the questions that Max asks, like, “Do you ever feel odd on the streets, as if they knew you were Jewish?” are as well. Nelly might be a little less representative if you’re looking at a family that has a Holocaust past. [Such families are] closer to the Jewish community. Nelly is particularly close because of the grandmother character Risa, who survived the Holocaust in Poland with her family, underground.
I think kids have a different sense of history here than in America. They’re growing up knowing that the kids they’re going to school with have grandparents who were soldiers and Nazis and Nazi sympathizers. In the book Nelly talks about her German-Christian father’s parents, who knew people who were Nazis. I’m afraid that many American kids don’t even realize that there’s a whole world and a whole history outside the United States.
The novel is explicitly Jewish. Were you surprised it was such a hit in Germany?
I suspected it would be a critical success. There aren’t that many people writing about Jews in contemporary Germany in the young-adult literature sector. In the book, Lucy, the mother, says, “When the Germans finally have a Jewish sitcom on TV, then I’ll know things are normal.” Nelly says, “Then why don’t you write it yourself?” Lucy says, “It’s not my job, I’m not German.”
I think the Germans—and I’m talking about liberal Germans here—love their Jews. It’s the I-love-Woody Allen syndrome. And at one point in the early 1990s, I also became aware that Germans were getting into Jewish culture—with, for example, the I-love-klezmer syndrome. It relieves them to know that Jewish culture is “flourishing,” even though a Jew would never be seen near a klezmer band! Of course I’m being a little cynical. Things aren’t that bad. It’s amazing that a movie like Go for Zucker can attract one million viewers. But in another way, it’s one-sided. Look at how the German media is down on Israel.
Nelly says at one point that Germans aren’t allowed to like themselves.
I think it’s true. An American friend of mine recently wrote me that the only good thing that came out of World War II was that the Germans aren’t patriotic. They learned that nationalism can go overboard. That’s the good side. The negative side is that they have this albatross around their necks. Germans suffer an inferiority complex, and think it’s weird that Americans want to live in their country, Jewish or not.
The mix of American, Jewish and German cultures that Nelly grapples with reflects your life, doesn’t it? You’ve been quoted as saying that Berlin gave you more a sense of being Jewish than New York ever did. What role does religion play in your life now?
My husband’s a German, not Jewish. My son, Noah, knows that he has Jewish roots, but he may or may not have a bar mitzvah. We have to figure it out in the next six months. He probably won’t. I don’t think he wants to hit the books. As for me, I’m neither religious nor spiritual. I wish I could believe in God. It seems like such a comfort.
Did you have a bat mitzvah?
No, but my brother had a bar mitzvah. The only shul in our Brooklyn neighborhood was Orthodox and they didn’t accept girls. I was jealous of my brother. I thought it would be great to have a bar mitzvah. That’s why I gave Nelly a bat mitzvah—and the little stinker doesn’t want to do it!
Nelly’s bat mitzvah ends up being a pretty meaningful experience for her, doesn’t it? She learns about much more than Judaism.
Yes, she had to learn to accept her Jewish roots. She found a girlfriend along the way, and a boyfriend, and she falls in love. She had to learn that she was her mother’s daughter, and how to deal with a family that was falling apart. Then there’s the idea of home in the novel. What is home? Her mother goes to synagogue because it gives her this feeling of home.
Is it like that for you?
I rarely go to synagogue, but when I do, it’s as if I were in Brooklyn. I have a feeling I belong. I’m a part of it.
Do you feel like you belong in Berlin?
I felt weird here at the beginning. I was in my early 20s and it wasn’t New York. But I got work at a radio station. It was exotic. I was young and adventurous; to be earning my own living in a foreign country was wonderful. And then, at one point, it became home. Maybe it was when I got my own apartment and began doing my own thing in the mid-80s.
What was your own thing?
I performed. I’d tell stories on small stages, and many of them became part of my first novel, Becky Bernstein Goes Berlin. I performed in both languages, but never bilingually in one show. Prince William, Maximilian Minsky and Me came out of a show I did for the Juedische Kulturtage [Jewish Cultural Days] about what it was like growing up in New York in the 1960s. I did this Jewish Princess kind of thing, about wanting to get married to Prince Charles.
You arrived here in 1972. The city, of course, was still divided. What was it like for you?
Berlin has always been open to things. I liked that. The buses were always on time. I loved that. I think it was Heinrich Heine who said, “Jews are the best Prussians.” At the time, Berliners also loved Americans because they were still here, and respected, as the occupying Allied power. It was like, “You’re American. Can I touch you?” American culture was still generally seen in a positive light, though students were critical of America and Vietnam politics.
And in those days, Berlin was cold and grey. It was women in their 60s walking around in dark grey wool; the bars were smoky and dark. And being Jewish was very rare. There were so few Jews at the time, especially American Jews. Now, of course, it’s much different.
In the early 1990s, an American diplomat, Joel Levy, did a lot for the American-Jewish community here as the gesandte—envoy—for Berlin. He was the highest-ranking American in the city. Later he came back and worked with the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation.
And of course things have changed within the larger Jewish community. After the wall fell, Russians began arriving. They’re making the community bigger. But, as I say, I’m not really part of the community. I just observe it. Though I do have many American-Jewish friends.
You came here, originally, as a college student. Why? Does your family have roots in Germany?
I fell in love with a Berliner. That’s why I came. And my maternal grandparents are from Russia, paternal grandparents from Vilna, which then was Poland, so no. For my parents, it would have been much nicer had I fallen in love with a French doctor in Paris than a penniless German student. I would rather have fallen in love with a French doctor. I could speak French. I hated German! I had such a hard time with it.
Has your family come around?
My being here was never a problem for my family, but they rarely visit. My mother was here once; my sister used to come, but hasn’t for many years. There’s a line from my first novel, Becky Bernstein, where one of the characters is asked why he came to Berlin. And he says, “It’s the only city in the world where my mother would never come visit me.”