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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

Saul Austerlitz
October 21, 2013
Oliver Polak, 2011.(Courtesy of Oliver Polak)
Oliver Polak, 2011.(Courtesy of Oliver Polak)

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 Recently, though, some writers and academics have begun working to undo this outdated perception of Jews and Jewish culture in Germany.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 surge of interest in Jewish pop culture is the cultural equivalent of a phantom limb

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.

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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