My first dream lover was a Jew and I—I did not know. His name was Benny, and he lived in Tel Aviv in the late 1950s. Benny was a fictional character, a main protagonist in the hugely popular teenager movie series known as Eis am Stiel in Germany and Eskimo Limon in Israel. It gained considerable success across the rest of Europe and in Japan under the international title Lemon Popsicle.
Benny was friends with Bobby and Johnny. All the high school boys could think about was hang out at the beach, eat ice cream, ride motorcycles, listen to American rock ‘n’ roll, and, most importantly, get laid. Benny was the shy sweet one, but he still wanted to go all the way.
Not only didn’t I know that Benny was a Jew, I also didn’t know that his real name was Benzi, and that Bobby and Johnny went by Momo and Yudale in their native tongue. I wish I could say with certainty that I knew their stories were set in Israel and not in some undefined small American town, maybe the one that had served as backdrop for Rebel Without a Cause, but I can’t. Did it matter to us? We were a bunch of 13-year-old high school girls in provincial, rainy Westphalia in Germany, and secretly watching VHS copies of Eis am Stiel, parts 1 through 8—we were too young to see them at the movies—was an exhilarating thrill. The films were frowned upon if not forbidden by our parents, and most of us didn’t care where they took place, or that the boys’ beach adventures grew more sexist, tasteless, and dumber with each sequel or spinoff. Watching Eis am Stiel was something like a rite of passage. We were not missing out on it.
Released in 1978 and an entirely Israeli production, the first part of what would become a cult series in Germany was also an unparalleled commercial success in its home country. Director Boaz Davidson tried to capture the essence of teenage love and sex life, based on his own experiences and inspired by American movies. The film screened at the Berlinale in 1978 and received a Golden Globe nomination in 1979.
Roughly 35 years after the Holocaust, Germans flocked to movie theaters and video stores to watch Israeli (read: Jewish) youth make out, measure their penises, spy into girls’ locker rooms and didn’t even know or care that the films were set in Israel. Good times of national escapism! I’m still wrapping my head around the fact that we, that I, didn’t pick up on this. 1978 was six years after Munich, two years after Entebbe, and if you asked your average Germans what they knew about Israel, many might have answered Yaffa oranges and Ephraim Kishon. Nothing against Kishon, but he was the only Israeli writer known to a broader German audience, primarily for his funny short stories.
To me, a big allure, besides Benny, was the soundtrack of 50s and 60s hits. Play me any Dion and the Belmonts, Big Bopper, or Ritchie Valens song, and I will probably know the lyrics by heart. I confirmed this recently while I was plowing—mostly cringing, sometimes grinning—through YouTube clips and badly flickering full versions of Eis am Stiel. My memory was accurate: Parts 1 and 2 (and maybe 5) still follow a narrative arc (Benny has a crush on a girl Bobby is dating, and when Bobby gets her pregnant, Benny helps her get an abortion, only to find her in Bobby’s arms again, or similar scenarios), display some detail in character design, and boast one or the other funny line, although I assume that what made Israelis laugh got lost in cultural translation, like the episodes at the army. The “funny” accents of some of the adults that seemed senseless at best in the German versions. The army captain, for example, with his flowery vocabulary and stilted grammar, or the libidinous older (“older” then qualified as in your late 30s) woman from Eastern Europe who seduces the boys—why did these people have an accent, I wondered, while in Israel, the Hebrew spoken by immigrants from whatever corner of the diaspora, or Nazi-Europe for that matter, was always part of everyday life.
Needless to say, this was before the Me Too movement. Once the Germans joined the production, for the third and following sequels, they cast more German actresses, added more soft-porn elements, and minimized the importance of plot. Part 1 still has Hebrew letters on billboards, magazine covers, and store fronts, but soon they, too, disappeared. The humor became tackier and more sexist (the dental assistant, played by a German Playmate going wild on the boys), more demeaning (increasing jokes about Johnny’s corpulence) or simply uninspired slapstick, like Johnny blowing up a condom that lands in Benny’s mother’s face. Or second cousin Frieda—yekkish, nearsighted, clumsy, and with a heavy bosom—who spills soup on Benny’s father’s lap and in a painfully long sequence busies herself to dry up the mess with a napkin. At a party, Johnny gets her so drunk that she begins to strip, so he accompanies her home, excited at the perspective of a successful end of the night. Spoiler alert: He will go to bed unsatisfied. The one who usually gets to third base is Bobby.
I am not saying that it is a prerequisite for a film set in 1950s Israel to obsess about the Holocaust. In fact, one could arguably credit the original Eskimo Limon for being the exact opposite: a saucy post-Holocaust, very Israeli story filmed on locations many viewers were familiar with. What is annoying is the obvious yet unacknowledged German ignorance about Jews and Israel. To this day, some Germans (and not only Germans) like to differentiate between “what Hitler did to the Jews” (although the generations who beat themselves up about it are slowly aging out) and a perceived entitlement to condemn Israeli politics, unconsciously or not so unconsciously happy to accuse the Jews as bad guys. Neither am I saying that Germans should constantly dissect Israeli-German relations when discussing Eis am Stiel, or that there aren’t other noteworthy aspects to the history of these productions. But I was stunned, though not overtly surprised that most articles published in Germany about the 40th anniversary focused on the scoop that teenage sex adventures came to us from “uptight Israel.” Wow! Good thing that the German media in the 1970s and ’80s were courageous and liberated enough for productions like Dalli Dalli and What’s My Line?
In May 2018, the German public broadcaster NDR aired a documentary by the highly decorated filmmaker Eric Friedler, Eskimo Limon/Eis am Stiel: Of Winners and Losers. Because of data and rights protection issues, I was unable to watch the entire work on my Brooklyn-based computer, but I saw excerpts and a few interviews with Friedler. “The Germans demanded more sex,” he says in an afternoon talk show with NDR colleagues, referring to the ever-declining quality of the sequels. I reached out to Friedler to learn whether his documentary mentions the unmentioned awkward-absurd Arian-Semitic erotic collaboration of the later sequels. I didn’t hear back, so from my limited perspective, it doesn’t appear to be a thing. It clearly is not for the wide-eyed journalists who interview him, giggling and shaking their heads in sorrow when he talks about how Eis am Stiel destroyed the careers of some of the Israeli actors, a few of whom never landed another important role, if any.
I look back at those afternoons of secretly watching soft porn from Israel made in Germany and am slightly embarrassed. While I am lenient with my teenage self and thankful for the music, I am taken aback by the climate of ignorance and naïveté we lived in. There must have been Germans out there who were more knowledgeable and aware of the fact that Jewish life, if largely wiped out by the Nazis, did continue in multifaceted layers around the world, even in Germany, and, more shockingly yet, in Israel, but I don’t think there were many. There is no need to overburden a shallow comedy with exaggerated expectations. It wasn’t Eskimo Limon’s nor Eis am Stiel’s responsibility to educate Germans about Israel. But the superficiality of the German discourse, then and now, the degree to which the national escape mechanism still works, has not yet ceased to astonish me.