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A  Jew in Berlin

I continue to say, “Oh, I was there before the wall came down- more than 40 years ago when I traveled as a student”, yet unlike other locations I have scant memories of Berlin and I am not sure if I’ve imagined being here when I rambled and roamed for summer months when I was a university student.

Yet I do remember vaguely K’dam as we called it and being fearful at the haughty looks of the soldiers at Checkpoint Charlie.

But the Berlin I’m now visiting overwhelms me with its aesthetics, its buildings, its trees and sprawling extensions of areas. We do the Hop on and off Bus,, linking the purple and yellow lines in an attempt to locate the museums and buildings we are here to visit. I’m intent on the Pergamon because it was unavailable back when the wall separated it from West Berliners and Westerners. Why would I have carried that fact around for so many years if an art history prof hadn’t lamented the impossibility of viewing famous Greek antiquities when I first studied them?

I know for sure that I was in Munchen( Munich) and Heidelberg( “ Ahhh…if only the Fuhrer were still alive,” , crooned the old women knitting on the benches near the schloss in the 60’s) I a hitchhiker then , took a bus to Dachau and then left, bemused and angered that the camp neatly scrubbed resembled summer camp.(“ NOT so bad,” with a shoulder shrug, said a couple of strolling overfed Americans.)

Today the buildings here are incredibly impressive but I’m confused as the Hop on- off guide keeps reminding us that almost everything was destroyed during the war. The well worded and spoken guide is very careful to point out the spot where all the ‘ dangerous’ books were burned, making no judgment really, almost sanitizing the Nazis’s horrors, but the voice through the earphones almost sniffingly demures there is an empty room beneath the square to remind us. As well, when the main railway station is pointed out, I imagine all the children separated from their huddled crying parents en route to concentration camps unknown. “Yes, the station was well used,”, the guide ironically underlines.

Yet I cannot take away from the very beauty of present day Berlin, the strikingly decorated facades of gingerbread, marble, mosaics , Bauhaus and Renaissance , Art Nouveau, Gothic, antiquarian balustrades, , cast iron patios overloaded with sparkling red flowers, Greek statues, gold cupolas, masterful craftsmanship with exquisite work- that one is aware of – even from far below.The Reichestag with its new dome, glistening Kulturforum , misshapen Jewish Museum, the moving Memorial to the dead Jews in Europe where parents photograph their babies next to the slabs of concrete and even The East Side Gallery demand your attention.
In spite of the crumbled preserved ruins of the past, Berlin bubbles and enchants and excites. From the guy who carries a the brotworst oven around his middle to the one star Michelin drama of the choreographed food courses at Nobelhart &Schmutzeig, Berlin is something quite amazing.

And I consider my thoughts. What bothers me? Would I prefer the ruins of tenements and bunkers as opposed to sanctioned refurbished holocaust monuments?
My mind flies back to The Hare with the Amber Eye and After the Fire and The Book Thief and even the history of the Rothsschilds forced to live in overcrowded ghettos and endure abuse from six year olds because they were Jews, the hatred of the Prussians and the French( remember the Dreyfus affair), a long history of debasement as early as 1000 because some believed Jews defiled the host and baked bread with the blood of Christian children.

I’m thinking of the troubled past that fomented until 6 million sizzled.

The antisemitism fanned by the Lutherans and openly acknowledged in tableaux and political broadsheets from early times of hook nosed Jews as Christ killers are tunes that whisper to me. And later in Weimar, belief that wealthy court Jews controlled the country’s finances and even small shop owners cheated their neighbours. Shame!
I’m frozen before these huge lush buildings that have honoured regimes and emperors to announce to the world their power and vision and provide” protection” and custody : language used by the Nazis to hold and remove undesirables from towns, city, the country. It troubles me mightily and I’m thinking about history lessons that decimated the Germans as losers in the Treaty of Versailles, the path being paved for Hitler’s self aggrandizement that resulted in the murders of more than Jews- jazz musicians, the infirm, the elderly, homosexuals, nuns, gypsies, political opponents,Catholics, etc.etc.

On the ashes of empires and bombed destroyed buildings, a new Phoenix has risen. And yet this is not to disparage beauty or require children to inherit the blasphemous sins of their fathers or grandfathers who petted the family dogs. And yet, The Topography of Terror Museum reinforces that the “volk” or common people played a huge part in initiating and perpetuating a rolling non- stoppable machine of death.

In Copenhagen where we stopped first! I could replay the newsreels of the holocaust on the buildings I saw, shivering to think of the people with only what they could carry doggedly head – into towards the station. But here in Berlin, much has been erased, cleansed by the shining new edifices built by Mercedes Benz, Boss, Sony, rejoicing in the pure beauty of buildings that scrape the sky or so wide they overtake entire blocks.
It’s hard to take: that these gleaming streets were full of a people I never knew whose dreams and future offspring had no chance to persist and flower. Maybe their ancestors should have packed up earlier and set sail to the new world. I can understand that even with the bad talk and discrimination that they could not bring themselves to leave their own cosy houses or trips to the surrounding forests or afternoon rambles in the Tiergarten , just continuing to live their lives , go to work, raise their children, kissing them softly as they sent them off to school, imagining a better, safer future in a preposterously beautiful city, no matter, the Prussians, the French, the Nazis…

Would I have been sage or frightened enough to abandon the beauty of this place?
I’m feeling guilty that I am seduced by this Berlin, would love to engage in its art scene and walk its wide wide boulevards, so clustered by streets that they bang on the roof of the Hop on hop off bus. I’m troubled by the repetition of history, and uncertain futures that remind of a horrorful past.

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Jewish voice

People are interested in reading and exploring in their own culture. In deed, when I stood in line for the Jewish Film Festival last year in San Diego and began to chat with the woman in front of me about her latest read, she offered Pumpkin Flowers by Matti Friedman, the book of the month for her Hadassah Group. And it is true , in searching for a deeper connection with my own Jewishness, I am interested in books written by fellow Jews or Jewish topics. Why else do Jews comb through libraries for information on the holocaust, settlements in the diaspora or focusing attention on the standouts in society that we claim as our own? Kevin Pillar of the Blue Jays?Jew. Mayim Bialik ? Jew. Einstein. Jew.Anne Frank.Jewish, of course.

With the volcanic eruption on cultural appropriation, particularly in Canada right now, I get the feeling, we are screaming that only people of their own ethnicity and religion should be allowed to respectfully engage in a debate regarding the propriety rights, ceremonies of said group, otherwise invoking strong reactions. Similarly, censure erupted in my own backyard recently over a display of paintings by artist Amanda PL, whose work suggests the colours and traditions of a culture not her own.

She openly acknowledged her art work is inspired by the Woodland school and Anishinaabe artist Norval Morrisseau. . Some say her paintings , now removed from viewing ,” smack of cultural appropriation “Outrage over Amanda PL’s work has renewed debate over who has the right to use and profit from specific customs.” ( The National Post, May 7, 2017). Along with the cancelling of Amanda PL’s show was the resignation of Hal Niedzviecki, editor of the Writers’ Union of Canada magazine, after triggering anger by an opinion piece entitled “Winning the Appropriation Prize” in an issue devoted to indigenous writing. Not just in Canada, this issue of cultural ownership is under fire and vehemently debated in realms where ideas and images are reused, traded and reinvented,
Yet I ponder this concept, seeming to me to have arisen from the first Post- modernists who understood culture in terms of local divisive factions instead of broad strokes. Understandably a push back to colonial suppression, victimization and only mandating the story of the victor transformed thinking to the telling of indigenous and local stories, adding a necessary perspective to world narratives. In this renewed way of thinking about history, in particular, we are now privileged to authentic and deeper understandings, light focused on places that had been darkened for too long.

In Why the debate misses the mark, Martin Reg Cohn writes, [t]o“appropriate” typically means to take exclusive possession of something that should be held in common, to annex it without authority or right. [However], a recent debate in the Atlantic reminds us that cultural appropriation means different things to different people.(The Toronto Star, Tuesday May, 2017)

I’m wondering about the discomfort we feel when a non-Jewish writer takes on a topic that has Jewish elements that are not favourably presented. Certainly there has been an uproar throughout the centuries against the depiction of Shylock in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venus as anti- Semitic.

Recently I read Lauren Belfer’s novel And After the Fire. And although Belfer was born Jewish, her themes might provoke argument. It is a story that binds two Jewish women in time by their relationship with a manuscript retrieved from Weimar outside of Berlin in 1945. The story moves into the past to highlight anti-Jewish sentiment in Prussia in the 18th and 19th centuries. We encounter the original owner of the book , Sara Itzig Levy, a historical figure and music student of J.S. Bach’s eldest son, Wilhelm , who has bequeathed a cantata, the subject of the book, to Sara after his death.Sara is the aunt of composer and musician Felix Mendelssohn, Belfer,  explaining Fanny’s contribution and actual writing of some of his music attributed to Felix was diminished because of her role, gender and religion in Prussian society.  Sara struggles to understand why her teacher has burdened her with her teacher’s gift so obviously anti- Semitic –a work of hatred, prejudice, and violence towards Jewish people.
A Washington Independent reviewer of books, Marina Hewer writes, “ In using music as a unifying thread, Belfer shows that we are not immune to the prejudices of the past; we continue to grapple with similar moral dilemmas today…”
We learn that Bach and other composers of the day did in deed compose cantatas to be sung from Lutheran pulpits in the 1840’s. Propagandistic , the musical oratorios encouraged parishioners to drive Jews from their homes, ridding them from their communities. “Set fire to their synagogues or schools,” Martin Luther recommended in On the Jews and Their Lies. Jewish houses should “be razed and destroyed,” and Jewish “prayer books and Talmudic writings, in which such idolatry, lies, cursing, and blasphemy are taught, [should] be taken from them.” In addition, “their rabbis [should] be forbidden to teach on pain of loss of life and limb.”(See Was Luther Anti- semitic. By Eric Gritsch,In Martin Luther: The Later Years. Christian History, Issue 39,  originally published in 1993)
I found myself fascinated by Belfer’s story of mystery that drew on repressive attitudes towards Jews, recalling for me the depictions by Niall Ferguson in The House of Rothschild that substantiated the restrictive laws prohibiting Jews from holding property in Prussia, their impoverished ghetto existence along with newspaper cartoons that hideously lampooned them across Europe. Although Ferguson himself is not Jewish, he documents a historical piece of time, place and race, the contextual elements background for the rise of the famous family. But his role is an observer, a chronicler, commandeering the facts as backdrop ,now fictionalized in Belfer’s tale of real people who endured the actual laws and bias of the those days.

Yet Belfer had  likewise amplified my learning, taking me deeper into my roots as she had introduced the historical contexts as lived by Jews, Sara Itzig and her niece , representing a particular slice of life from centuries back.

Belfer uses Susanna, one of her female protagonists), and her relationship to the cantata to drive the plot. A person with weak ties to Judaism, Susanna’s involvement in pursuing the origins of the cantata serves to remind us that the future may not ever be completely disengaged from the past. As Susanna delves deeper into the history of the manuscript, she feels compelled to research her own Jewish ancestors, who lived in Germany before World War II and were likely murdered. Attempting to open up a dialogue concerning her mother’s life during the holocaust, Susanna prods, but her mother retorts. “You think the war is over, Susanna?…“It isn’t over. Don’t you understand why so many of the survivors don’t want to talk about it? Oh, yes, the fighting stopped and everybody declared peace, but the war, what it did to people, goes on and on and still hasn’t stopped and probably won’t ever stop. Look at you, seventy years later and you’re still asking questions.”( May 26, 2016).These enduring questions of ownership, of relationship, of loss underpin the search.

But because Belfer is a Jew, is she therefore permitted discourse in appropriating historical voice and culture for the sake of her novel?

 

James Oestreich in The New York Times( May 25, 2016) provides provenance for Belfer and her husband,Michael Marissen a conservative Dutch Calvinist brought up in Ontario. “Though he now declares himself an agnostic, he has put his profound knowledge of the Bible …to use in examining the sources and deeper meanings of Bach’s sacred texts, especially as regards their attitudes toward Judaism. Ms. Belfer had a liberal, minimally observant Jewish upbringing in Buffalo. No surprise, she shares many of the qualities of Susanna Kessler, whom she describes as atheist-Jewish.” Belfer and her husband belong to the widening circle of the intermarriages today, joining Jews and Christians, Jews and Muslims, intermingling races, cultures, genders among diverse parties.

Which brings us back to cultural appropriation. Because Susanna is not shown as pious, and in the end falls for the non Jewish love interest as opposed to the well heeled attractive and wealthy Jewish fellow, should we dismiss her book? Or do we give Belfer license to spin her tale half- truth, half- invention, because she is Jewish, although self described as not particularly religious. Does a writer need write only from their own lived experiences and background? Certainly the magic of the creative is to imagine stories beyond one’s own lived experience, even venturing outside their own backyards.

Do whom then does cultural information belong? Many families now meld, share, ignore or postpone examining the role of religion or cultural religious practices in their lives, separating, or even purposely reinterpreting and omitting elements,crafting to meet the needs of their audiences or themselves.

And what of Belfer’s own purpose in writing her book: information regarding the past, a personal desire to come to terms with her own roots and religion, a slant towards forgotten women musicians, a reminder of the contextual anti- Semitic days lining up with the well described and documented in Niall Ferguson’s tomes, that foreshadowed the inevitable Shoah through attitudes and restrictions -even in church services.

I certainly agree that supporting diversity must go beyond lip service and indigenous writers must speak for themselves , especially on matters that pertain directly to their experience.

But what of the rest of the writers and thinkers? How can “ culture” belong to only one group? Unlike an artefact closeted in a dusty museum drawer, culture, even of the past, must be exhumed, reviewed, comprehended: for its place as representing a piece of what it was, examining the contextual ties that helped or hindered the attitudes it appeared to convey.

But to see the past with fresh eyes awakens it freshly, reviewing the issues within for deeper contemplation, and hopefully understanding.

I think of Kent Monkman’s paintings but I suppose the critics might say because his paintings depict the subjugation of his own indigenous people, he has the right to paint them. Writers or artists writing or painting for the sole purpose of propaganda: subjugating, ridiculing, distorting a group for political and religious purposes is one thing, but silencing the entire group for artistic expression is truly another.

And as always, it is from the eye of the beholder.

The viewer or reader accepts or rejects what they see, observe or read, actually thinking, reflecting, and responding , hopefully clarifying through examination what stands before them. Mutiplevoices heard loud and clear adding to an intelligent discussion. Not silenced, but adding to the conversation, as Bahtkin dialectic would have encouraged. It is not hate or censure we approve, but the power of a to openly provoke thoughtful discussion that will ultimately, one prays, will send the slanders away and invite diverse commentary into the discussion.

Letting in Other Voices

I’ve always been a fiction girl. From my early days with B is for Betsy, Babar and the Ramona books, many suggested by the lovely librarian at West Prep, but also fostered by my mother reading to me at night. Over the years, I dabbled in a limited way with the odd mystery a few biographies, certainly with journal articles for work related research, but truly I was never too interested in sci- fi, self- help, New Age. I suppose that is keeping with my concept of myself as meat and potatoes in which everything is compartmentalized and sits on the plate not touching, to be eaten in a specific sequence.

Not that I am a total slave to routines. In fact I find them boring. And what is wonderful about my Pilates classes here and at home : they are variations on a theme so that the instructor never repeats him/herself in what exercises or areas of the body are targeted. The element of surprise works to alienate the tedium of the same gongs of the bell and makes it lively – at least for me, themes that relate but do not disrupt the whole.  

But this year my reading list has varied. Stimulated by a friend who had read Niall Ferguson’s biographies,almost 1000 pages each, I decided to plunge into Part One of the Rothschilds. I think the way historical books are presently written has changed over time. Not dry or dull in spite of an objective narration, details of context are included to enliven the writing and make sense of the actions and words of the people. Perhaps this was always so, but having never indulged in this genre, I cannot say. Although I do know that there has been a shift from the heroes and conquerors to the victims, particularly in school texts. And that is a very good thing.  

Ferguson, author of the recent Kissinger and many other biographies, wields a light hand. Afraid The Rothschilds would be hampered ( for me) in the heaviness of financial dealings which must be part of the story as it is essential to the family’s amassing of their immense power and fortune,I was delighted to discover the narrative very interesting, highlighted by the descriptions of Jewish oppression in Europe: from early days on the Judengasses in Stuttgart and the airless unsanitary conditions to defaming cartoons in France that insultingly targeted not just Jews but Scots and Brits. Context is often everything. 

Ferguson also includes the family’s subjugation of women in the family, to be without money or any inheritance, because they were women. Paradoxically for me, the manipulation and build up of the Rothschilds’ fortunes felt somewhat convoluted as the support of governments, the “ rentes”, the stocks, the mergers were grand and sweepingly explained: to my liking, yet leaving me with only a sense of their machinations. Typically we cannot have it both ways, too much detail leaves us confused and bored; and not enough causes us to desire a deeper comprehension. But yes, I read and enjoyed my first 1000 pages.  

Similarly I immersed myself in Mark Epstein’s The Trauma of Everyday Life. (See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_WAzVEJoxN8).. It is a very readable book that moves among three voices. There is the author’s own warm, friendly probing stance as he investigates himself, relating his personal progress in order to make sense of his own aloneness and difference; there are the stories or accessible tales, exemplars or guides from the life of the Buddha; and finally Epstein the therapist, connecting his own medical background as a psychiatrist to Buddhism. References to other standout theorists and influential gurus are thoughtfully entwined, primarily , the work of Donald Winnicott on the essential relationship of the mother to the child.  

Much resonates- in terms of treating oneself lovingly as in the mother- child paradigm. And although I concur with importance, wisdom, support and unrelenting love of the duo, Epstein builds his argument on the death of Buddha’s mother seven days after his birth, locating much if not all Buddha’s search on this deprivation- in spite of a second wife/ mother stepping in to most likely to shower , nurture and love the child. It is distressing to all parents and adopted children to imagine, it is only the biological mother who can rear the child in security. That this connection is so innate, that the search might propel a child on his/ her journey of relational knowing is distressing. This recalls for me a recent Margaret Wente column in the Globe where she told her readers it is not necessary to read to your kids because their in- born intelligence will dictate their futures- in spite of whatever doting parents do. 

Epstein recalls an old diagram from medical school of arrows connecting the world with the receiver, as we make the world through our perceptions. Our knowing it, creates it. He explains as well that more than the actual trauma, is our relation to the event. I reflected too on Epstein’s two- prolonged approach to compassion: that we should forgive ourselves our troubling behaviours from the past; along with the compassion we might understand of the present day self who is still struggling with those tormenting narratives. His description of Jack Kornfield’s Vietnam’s nightmares illuminated the possibility of meditation’s healing. From this example, I comprehended that we really do not/ should not just live in the present , that we consolidate past traumas into the present day and allow them to co- exist with the good, bad and ugly: all grist for contemplation. They are part of who we are, and they can foster a new experience that need not retraumatize when those miseries resurface. In this way, Kornfield could remember the blue skies and warm beaches of Vietnam, before the atrocities he had witnessed. 

I realized from reading the book that my initial understanding of letting go of the past constitutes only part of Mindfulness. Epstein iterates that we must go “through”our traumas in order to emerge from them, that emotions are not to be cut off, but examined as part of the process, that the focus on breathing in Mindfulness training is a place to focus in order to separate ego and disaffected or repressed parts of self. We should be able to stand outside of ourselves tenderly looking inward. 

Eventually I will read John Kabot Zinn’s Full Catastrophe Living. But for now Epstein’s book is a gentle touchstone towards the topic. Not preachy or overloaded with medical terms and most importantly, the tone is warm and somewhat searching in itself as he grapples with his own anxieties. 

But again it is the voice , not the old omniscient know-all that speaks down to the reader. Epstein, although knowledgeable, does not laud with scholarly information but offers his own probings as he makes those connections among the personal, historical and medical. He is the best of teachers who is able to awaken in his readers ( patients) those bridges that make sense of narratives, that strive for the insight: the epiphany of the Ah- ha moment, when life is rearranged freshly. Like a good piece of art, the work will speak to diverse viewers in multiple ways.  

Critics say that about Sol Lewitt’s constructions and that is the reason I am a fan of the Abstract Impressions. You can intuit the pain in Mark Rothko’s paintings, layer upon layer of resonating reds, for example. Morris Louis’s paint that sinks into an unprimed canvas and runs in rivulets off the page or Jackson Pollock’s mounding pebbles and lumps of paint that can enclose you into a moment.You must look deeply, be open to the conversation,piercing ( going through perhaps) the canvas to generate something of yourself to yourself. And if you can go far enough, something new and unknown or unfelt may appear. I was interested to read Epstein’s reference to Marcel Duchamp in which Duchamp refers to the deep implicit relationship of a work of art that can make meaning to the viewer through their own personal narrative. 

As I sit doing my 10 minute body scan meditations every morning after coffee, my meta- brain is still floundering en route to witness whatever disassociated everyday traumas I am hoping to disclose to myself. Letting other voices in such as Ferguson and Epstein’s has extended my thinking beyond fiction, these narratives involving the personal to make facts and theories come alive. 

But Alas, at heart, I must confess that I am still that girl who revels in fiction.Having just finished Fates and Furies, I am looking forward to Franzen’s Purity.

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