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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

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Oliver Polak, 2011. (Courtesy of Oliver Polak)
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Battegay was inspired to write his book by the paucity of scholarship in Germany on contemporary Jewish culture. Jewish studies in Germany generally consists of biblical scholarship and rabbinical literature, ending long before the present day. “Everything Jewish has to be in the past,” Battegay said of German scholarship on Judaism. “They are afraid to say something wrong and get into something they can’t control.”

Even its title was indicative of some of the linguistic and philosophical complexities of explaining Jewish culture in German to Germans. “I would have written ‘Jewishness,’ ” Battegay said of his book’s title, “but this word doesn’t actually exist in Germany. It’s only ‘Judaism,’ actually. This is also significant. Jewishness as a word, as a concept, doesn’t exist in the German language.”

Works with instantly recognizable Jewish characters—Jewishness, but not Judaism—don’t always translate to German audiences. Ben Stiller’s Gaylord Focker in Meet the Parents and its sequels is not necessarily understood to be Jewish. “The Jewish elements just vaporize somehow in an abstract and American context,” Battegay said. The same is true of Leonard Cohen’s poetry, deftly rendered in a German translation that avoids all mention of Cohen’s Jewish themes and preoccupations. This deracination takes place, according to Walter, “not because of any anti-Semitism, I would say, but to make it easier for a German audience to follow. Which is a sublime form of anti-Semitism, if you will.” But some recent Jewish-themed films require a significant reorientation. For many Germans, Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds was like the WWII equivalent of the American revisionist Westerns of the 1960s and 1970s that had American audiences rooting for the Indians. “It’s quite strange to watch the movie,” observed Battegay of Basterds’ German audience, “because the guys you identify with are the American Jewish soldiers, not the Germans.”

The urge to re-Judaize German culture, then, is the throbbing of a missing extremity—the phantom limb in action. The well-regarded German band Tocotronic subtly revamped their 2009 song “Ich möchte Teil einer Jugendbewegung sein” (“I Want to Be Part of the Youth Movement”) as “Ich möchte Teil einer Judendbewegung sein” (“I Want to Be Part of the Jewish Movement”) for a video directed by German Jewish stand-up comedian Oliver Polak. Polak’s video “Lasst uns alle Juden sein” (“Let’s All Be Jews”) is symbolic of the new hip Judaism in Germany, even as it peddles some of the outdated archetypes described by Battegay. The Ghostbusters-esque figures in the video blast prostitutes and Japanese tourists and shawarma-shop employees with their rayguns and look on with satisfaction as they instantly don black hats.

Battegay is unsettled, to a degree, by the German interest in Jewish cultural matters, even as he considers it to still be a relatively marginal affair. A lecture Battegay once gave on Kafka’s relationship to Zionism was interrupted by a questioner curious to learn more about Kabbalah. “It has a certain function,” Battegay observes of the German fascination with Jewish spirituality. “You don’t have to feel guilty.”

Not all Germans fit Battegay’s designation, even by his own reckoning. “There are some German intellectuals, living in Berlin or Frankfurt, and they absolutely get it,” he said. “They watch Curb Your Enthusiasm on the Internet, and they travel a lot, so they also know Jewish people in the United States, but the majority of people, and the majority of history and literature departments, they don’t know about that.”

The creeping Judaization of German culture—the breadth and depth of continued German exposure to stories about Jews in which they are supposed to feel in some way implicated—has created a definition of Germanness that is intimately connected to an idea of Jewishness. Therefore, all Germans are now, by dint of family or guilt or cultural affiliation, a little bit Jewish. In one of Beeber’s funnier essays, the Jew Punk finds himself in a bar, surrounded by lissome German frauleins, and mockingly seeks to turn his heritage to his advantage. “Here I am exotic and unusual, endowed with a certain mystery enhanced by myth. I am a Jew, next best thing to a Gypsy. I play manic klezmer and dance in an ecstatic circle, clasping hands. I am warm-hearted and emotional. And I am due a certain kind of payback. As they say, once you’ve had black you don’t go back—and once you’ve had Jew, that’s all you’ll do.”

The evening does not quite work out the way he had hoped. Everyone, it turns out, is part-Jewish or has Jewish relatives, or at least says they do. “Apparently Hitler was right,” he remarks, deflated. “We’ve watered down the race considerably.” Germans’ newfound Jewish roots, real or feigned, are indicative of a society that seeks to embrace the exotic foreigner as a means of partially deflecting their historical guilt. “Everybody had some sort of Jewish background, somewhere,” says Beeber. “It seemed to me that it was like ‘I couldn’t be part of the horror, because I was on some level a victim. We were one of you.’ ”

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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

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