Let’s All Be Juden: Germany’s Hip New Jew-Pop Revival
A wave of American-influenced pop artists rethinks the Holocaust, Israelis, and shtetl stereotypes
For decades, Jews in German pop culture were depicted as one of three things: Holocaust victims, Israelis, or shtetl stereotypes, relics of a vanished European past. Contemporary Jews were few and far between in German pop culture, making fitful appearances on German television shows or in movies, usually outfitted with payot and black hats. “Until the end of the ’90s, Jews in Germany were like panda bears,” said Caspar Battegay, a professor of Jewish studies at the University of Basel in Switzerland and the author of Judentum und Popkultur, who similarly describes German Jews elsewhere as “a nearly extinct and strictly protected species.” Germans came into regular contact with American Jewish popular culture, but representations that did not match German expectations tended to fall through the cracks. Recently, though, some writers and academics have begun working to undo this outdated perception of Jews and Jewish culture in Germany.
“You’ve heard of ‘big in Japan?’ ” Steven Lee Beeber said with a laugh. “I’m big in the other former Axis power.” Beeber’s book The Heebie-Jeebies at CBGB’s, first published in the United States in 2008, was a bold revision of punk rock history, studying punk as the creation of a bunch of leather-jacketed Jewish boys from Forest Hills, Queens. The appearance of Beeber’s book in German that same year helped lead the author to a new temporary identity: “The Jew Punk Von Steven Lee Beeber,” a no-holds-barred monthly columnist for a pro-Israel, anti-nationalist German publication (affiliated with the philo-Semitic anti-deutschen movement) called Jungle World.
The surge of interest in Jewish pop culture is, according to Beeber, the cultural equivalent of a phantom limb. Jews had been so prevalent in prewar German culture, and now, after the Holocaust, they were absent, only to be rediscovered, flourishing, in the United States. “Jews were so much a part of the cultural aspect of Germany—the high culture and popular culture,” Beeber said. “And that loss is almost a what-if; what would the country have been like? What was the country like before?”
In Beeber’s estimation, punk was a brash, deliberately outrageous response by young Jewish musicians to the horrors of the Holocaust. Its purposeful ugliness, its intense desire to provoke its audiences, was an unconscious expression of a refusal to ever play the meek victim again. “I was astonished by this book because I thought I know a lot about New York punk, and I was fascinated by the connections he made, what he brought to the light of the day,” said Klaus Walter, a German radio host and music journalist who has written about Battegay and Beeber’s work.
Battegay, meanwhile, begins Judentum und Popkultur (2012) with an instantly memorable image that he seeks to complicate for his audience. In Annie Hall, Woody Allen’s Alvy Singer is invited to dinner at his non-Jewish girlfriend’s family’s home and is transformed into an ultra-Orthodox Hasid. “When you watch the movie you don’t know if this is a picture that he imagines himself,” Battegay said, “or that the Gentile family imagines him. Or is it more complex, that he thinks the family sees him like this? I asked: Which image is the authentic Jewish image? Is it the Orthodox [one], or is it the secular New York intellectual Woody Allen?”
In fact, Annie Hall’s German title, Der Stadtneurotiker (“The Urban Neurotic”) is more about Alvy than Annie. It is also, in Battegay’s description, a clear instance of the deracination of Jewish pop culture in Germany: “It’s an abstraction. It’s not New York anymore, it’s some city. It’s not this man, it’s just some intellectual in some city. It’s not a Jewish New York intellectual anymore. It’s actually paradigmatic for the whole German reception of American pop culture.”
Beeber, by comparison, found German audiences highly responsive to his discussion of punk’s roots when he lectured in the country but wondered whether certain aspects were lost in translation. German punk fans were into “the wild hair, Johnny Rotten style of look and the screaming and the rebellion, but missing a lot of the humor that was part of that.” Instead, German audiences have preferred Beeber’s take on the darkness lingering at the heart of punk rock: “I think the disturbing element of punk is what interests them more, maybe for all the right intellectual reasons. So that they do respond in my book to the parts about how punk is a reaction to horror, to the Holocaust.”
The Jew Punk is, in his daytime apparel, a mild-mannered writer and professor in Boston. In his Jungle World persona as “The Jew Punk,” which he wrote until earlier this year (he now writes a different column for another German publication, Spex magazine), Beeber, 51, plays the punk, deliberately needling his German audience and hoping to provoke a response. In one column, he leaps headfirst into the then-roiling German debate over circumcision, suggesting that the dueling claims that removal of the male foreskin makes men both over- and undersexed are “kind of like that Nazi claim that Jews were both insidious communists and bloodsucking capitalists.”
The Jew Punk is there to agitate his readers, to rile them up, like his musical antecedents, with a fresh angle on their invisible contradictions. “Like some vestigial limb, I can feel my own absent foreskin throbbing, calling into the darkness for all that’s been lost,” the Jew Punk wrote. “So do me this favor. In the name of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, make me and my Semitic brothers whole. Just one thing. Be sure not to mix up our foreskins with those of the Muslims. You don’t want start another Six Day War. Much less a Six Inch one.” The provocation is part of the act. “You’re playing a character,” Beeber noted. “That kind of smartass, sarcastic Jew.” Other articles have touched on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (Beeber suggests emptying then-crammed Zuccotti Park and sending protesters overseas to “Occupy the Occupied Territories”), Berlin’s role as the new Jerusalem, and comparing the Republican Party’s embrace of the Tea Party to waking up the morning after a wild night out with an unpleasant stranger in your bed.
Battegay, 35, grew up in a small village in Switzerland to a lapsed-Orthodox Jewish father and Gentile mother. Battegay’s Swiss accent immediately gives him away as non-German to everyone he has encountered in Germany, and his relationship to Judaism renders it similarly, intimately familiar and entirely foreign, all at once. After completing his dissertation on the rhetoric of “blood” in Kafka and other German Jewish writers, Battegay began working on a small volume that would eventually become Judentum und Popkultur.
Alisa Solomon’s kaleidoscopic look at ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ explores the political and cultural backdrop of the 49-year-old smash