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People of the Books

How German literature—and the German language—helped me discover what Judaism meant to me

Elisabeth Becker
October 07, 2021
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine

I grew up in Manhattan, an island infused with Jewish culture. And yet growing up in my household—one where Jewishness was married to critique, to unending questions and a sense of incomplete belonging—left me uncertain of if and how exactly I was Jewish. My mother hosted Seders, but they were full of our neighbors from all religious backgrounds (and none). I had no formal religious training. We did not belong to a synagogue. Rather we belonged to a home lined with walls of books and intellectual exchange between my parents and their many, often Jewish, friends.

Only now do the walls of books make sense to me. As the late Israeli author Amos Oz once wrote of the Jewish tradition, “ours is not a bloodline but a textline.” Organized by genre, our home was also a library spanning ornithology and medicine, German fairytales and Pablo Neruda’s poetry, made up of the languages we spoke: English, Spanish, and French. A few Hebrew titles were sprinkled among them, pointing to its tenuous place in all of our lives. Our home was an invitation to read and to think about the world, to ask questions and to seek answers across borders—whether real or imagined, geographical or linguistic.

My parents had not only thought about the world beyond New York City, but experienced it. When my mother moved to Paris in 1965 at age 19 to work as a professional ballerina, France—and the French language—opened her eyes to life far from the Bronx neighborhood where she grew up. A decade later, when she married my father, they moved together to Mexico and had a similar experience: There they fell in love with the Spanish language, which they insisted my sister and I learn from a young age. I was taught through this experience that language could both untether a person from a specific place and allow them to feel at home in new places. The Spanish language had gifted my parents a second home in the world, and it later gifted me travels throughout Latin America, lessons in how to make perfect tortillas, views from volcanos, and new friends. It gifted me the taste and the feel of other worlds beyond our island, other worlds inside of our world. And it also taught me an important lesson about language, that is the approximation of translation. This was captured in the Spanish word pardo, once used by my mother to describe the color of an owl—a color we have no word for in English, which sits between brown and gray. That is, language opens new gates of experience we cannot even imagine without it, new colors we could not have otherwise seen.

When I began college in 2002, I chose to study German because I, too, wanted to experience more of the world. I was also curious about my own history, as I knew that our family had Germanic roots, but little about when or why our ancestors had left Europe. It was so long ago—the 19th century—that even my grandparents did not know the language, although my maternal grandmother knew a great deal of Yiddish, German’s sister tongue. In spite of, or perhaps because of this ancestry, German was a more contentious choice of language than the Spanish that colored my childhood. It was, most of all, tainted by the Holocaust, which led many of my elders to distance themselves from anything German (whether language or Volkswagens, both of which I am now tethered to as an academic in Heidelberg funded by the Volkswagen Foundation). Yet German pulled me in another direction: not outward but inside myself.

At first I told no one, beyond my immediate family, that I was learning German. I knew, on a logical level, that I was doing nothing wrong; yet it still felt transgressive, as if I was going against my own Jewishness. When I had asked Jewish elders in my childhood neighborhood questions about Germany—and my own family’s German roots—they not only ignored them but shook their heads in disapproval. My parents were mostly silent on the issue, offering small tidbits of information to quell my curiosity.

My father, unsettled by my choice to learn German, tried to convince me to learn Chinese instead. And yet he soon relented, and I immersed myself in German courses. After a year of intensive study, I was able to read in German: at first, only children’s books, easier for a beginner like myself to follow. I began to bring home books in German—these children’s books followed by literature as my reading level rose—to place on my parents’ shelves, making an unspoken statement about the prominent place of this language in my life. Soon after, in silent approval of my choice, my mother bought me Der Golem by Gustav Meyrink, also placing it on a shelf of our family abode. In the years that followed, I came to collect the works of German Jewish thinkers, lining the walls of my own homes across the world. In New Haven, where I studied, Walter Benjamin’s Passagenarbeit took its place. When I moved to Berlin last year (following nearly a decade of living between the U.S. and the German capital), I added Hermann Cohen’s Jüdische Schriften to my collection.

As Walter Benjamin wrote, “we collect books in the belief that we are preserving them when it is in fact the books that preserve their collector.” I am now aware that these books and the ideas within them have made possible both the recognition and the preservation of my own Jewish heritage. Like me, German Jewish intellectuals struggled in their own ways with how to be Jewish in the modern world. And the German language was their bridge between thought and tradition, hope and belief, as it has—through them—become mine.

At a square in West Berlin—close to where Walter Benjamin once lived, penning essays among the tallest of linden trees—I recently met professor Micha Brumlik, a German Jewish academic born in exile at the end of WWII. A year after the COVID-19 pandemic began, our in-person, outdoor conversation felt like a gift. I asked him what it had been like growing up in Frankfurt during the years following the war. He recounted, without pause, having proud Nazis as teachers, and the sense that he needed to look outward—to Israel—rather than to Germany for belonging. More than half a century later, however, he spoke to me in the German capital as a proud German citizen: one who had found his place as a Jew in the world, not by working in the orange groves of Israel but as an intellectual in this fraught and haunted land. Brumlik’s first language was German, a Swiss dialect later replaced by the high German in which he spoke to me. And his life has been one embedded in Germany’s intellectual community, as a professor at foremost universities (Frankfurt, Heidelberg) confronting the question of how we foster—and how he, as a German Jew can contribute to—an appreciation of pluralism in Germany and Europe.

German pulled me in another direction: not outward but inside myself.

It was in our meeting and in the book that Brumlik then gifted to me, his memoir, Kein Weg als Deutscher und Jude (“No Way as a German and a Jew”)—he joked he had “written it too young”—that I realized I have found my own way as a Jew in this world in and through the German language. I have, specifically, found both my Jewish self and a Jewish community in the words of German Jewish intellectuals present and past. In their works, I encounter a critical societal questioning, and a grappling with belonging similar to my own. Like me, these intellectuals have at once struggled with what it means to be Jewish and the challenges of modern pluralistic societies that continue to condemn and discriminate against many groups. From Hermann Cohen to Micha Brumlik, these themes dominate both their works and their senses of self, as they have dominated mine.

I am part of their tradition, which belongs to the Jewish tradition: a tradition of wrestling with difficult questions through the written word.

This realization has changed both the way that I think of myself and place myself in the larger world. I explicitly identify as Jewish not only to myself now but others. And it has, in turn, made me more observant: more aware of the Jewish calendar, the lessons of High Holidays, and participation—when possible—in Jewish communal life. Our home has become a center of Jewish holiday celebrations and Jewish food, and perhaps most importantly for me, my own (sociological and journalistic) written work has become deeply influenced by Jewish thought. The words of German Jewish intellectuals have given life to diverse perspectives on Jewishness, as a knot of religious, cultural, and ethnic identity; they have given me a sense of ownership over something that was always mine.

Almost two decades after I decided to learn German, standing in front of a bookshop in Berlin, with a German Jewish intellectual who had found his way in both German and Germany, I finally recognized the utter fallacy to the idea that German and Jewishness are somehow incompatible. Many of my own Jewish ancestors hailed from Germany, and this was their language—lost in and to the Holocaust—that could provide me with a tool to explore my Jewishness in the present, and also a bridge to our shared past. I realized in this moment, when Brumlik disappeared into a building lined with books, standing with his book in my hands, that the Jewish thought I feel at home in—from Hermann Cohen to Walter Benjamin, Hannah Arendt to Hans Jonas—is that of German Jews.

A decade ago I met a wise older professor, a Muslim legal scholar by the name of Khaled Abou El Fadl, in his own house of books in Los Angeles. Professor El Fadl wrote The Search for Beauty in Islam, a text in conversation with his collection of books, many of which he had saved from destruction, smuggling them out of old basement bookstores in Cairo. I felt inspired by this work and by this mystical man set among a menagerie of texts. What I did not realize then is that I, too, would build myself a community from books, a Jewish life in conversation with the German Jewish intellectuals who came before me.

I also could not realize then that I would find myself living in Germany, today a stone’s throw away from the ShUM triangle, the spring of Jewish life in Germany (recently declared a UNESCO World Heritage site): for me not a transgressive but a redemptive choice to preserve rather than erase Jewishness from Germany. I have spent months and years in Germany since I began learning the language as a college freshman, but only this past year decided to remain here indefinitely. This decision was not by chance accompanied by my deep reading and deepened understanding of German Jewish intellectual heritage. As many, perhaps all, Jews in Germany, I am acutely aware of my Jewishness and I do at times feel ambivalence to the place. And yet it is in the lives, the works, the language of German Jewish intellectuals that I have found an unshakable sense of belonging, of being at home in my uncertain and questioning self.

In his beautiful book on the German Jewish life of the Rehavia neighborhood in Jerusalem, Thomas Sparr writes, “we are everything that has happened.” He describes the marginalization of the German language in this neighborhood amid the horrors of the Holocaust, excluded by custom if not law from the public sphere. He writes of this extraordinary loss in the 20th century, but also the continuity, the words and texts that kept this language alive for German Jewish intellectuals in exile. In so doing, he points to the layeredness of our lives, that not only threads, but a cumulative experience of the many pasts that led to this present connect us.

Saying goodbye to Micha Brumlik at the doors to that bookshop in West Berlin was a fitting end to an encounter that allowed me to see so deeply inside of myself. And it was a fitting beginning to a new chapter of my life, one in which I find pride in my knowledge of the German language. It has given me an unexpected and unmatched gift: the words of German Jewish intellectuals, who—amid indescribable suffering and with immeasurable hope—forged their own ways.

Elisabeth Becker is a sociologist, currently the Freigeist Fellow at Heidelberg University.