On the train to Sachsenhousen
While on a comfortable train with plenty of legroom, I find it difficult to concentrate on my Jewish Meditation book given that the destination of this particular train is the Sachsenhousen Death Camp just north of Berlin.
The conductor calmly announces the next station stop in German; a language I’ve always thought sounded like its being spoken through a breathing tube.
I’m acutely aware, as I have been since the moment I arrived in Germany, of the presence of my Kippah. It’s just a piece of cloth, yet at times it feels as if it were slowly burning a hole in my skull.
Is that elderly woman staring at me?
I purposefully wear my black Kippah because it blends so well in my thick, black hair. Maybe she doesn’t even notice it.
As we once again exchange glances, I wonder how long I’m supposed to fear these people? I wonder if I’m I looking for antisemitism where it no longer exists? I wonder if I just forget what happened, will they?
If they forget, will I?
I’ve heard stories of a resurgence of antisemitism in Germany, but are those just stories?
People often tell stories of Israel as well, but anyone who has actually been there knows how to discern the truth from the fictions.
The child sitting across from me is definitely staring. This time I’m sure of it because he turns to his mother, keeping a curious eye fixed on me while he whispers and taps the top of his head.
We’ve often heard it said that ‘people fear what we don’t know’.
Perhaps my presence here is helping to break down some walls; a metaphor that Berliners are intimately familiar with.
One would assume to sense an undercurrent of guilt here, possibly causing some to act overtly nice to Jewish people. This conciliatory behavior often manifests itself in The States when white people will act particularly nice to black people, as if to say “Don’t worry. I’m one of the good guys”, or “If I were around back then, I would’ve been the voice of reason.”
So how can there be a resurgence of antisemitism here, of all places?
I wonder if it’s truly anti semitism or if its anti Israel sentiments, because it is sometimes hard to tell the two apart.
Of all people, it’d be easy to see how Berliners can sympathize with the not-so-recent construction of the infamous ‘security wall’.
Does my Kippah imply that I don’t, or I can’t share that sympathy?
The television in front of me is playing the local news. This weekend, Neo-Nazis are holding a peaceful demonstration in Hamburg. It will be the largest gathering of Neo-Nazis in Germany since…since before the word ‘neo’ was affixed to their name.
How bad is it really? It couldn’t get THAT bad again, right?
I look around to see if anyone is staring again. Not this time. Are they intentionally avoiding my gaze?
I ask myself, for the first time in a while, ‘Who am I wearing this Kippah for? Them or me?’
Since putting it on, six months ago, I’ve spent most of my time focusing on the effect its had on my personal identity rather than any statements it may or may not be making. I wear it to help remind me to make ‘Jewish choices’ everyday. The way I choose to eat, the way I choose to observe holidays, the way I interact with people, with the homeless, with the elderly; all these seem to feel more ‘Jewish’ when I wear my Kippah in New York.
I do all these things with a quiet humility, relishing in a profound sense of belonging. I do so, surrounded by other people who have either grown up Jewish themselves, or in an environment where the presence of Jews was commonplace.
But here, in Germany, that sense of belonging seems so distant. If my brothers and sisters are indeed still here, I certainly don’t see them. Are they here but choosing to practice privately? Has the current wave of antisemitism gotten so bad that the Jewish population here doesn’t feel comfortable wearing a Kippah in public?
If so, what’s MY breaking point?
How far am I willing to go?
If I am making a statement, then what am I actually saying?
In New York, my hope is that when people see someone like me wearing a Kippah, it may help to break down some of the stereotypes of what Jewish is ‘supposed’ to look like. Moreover, it gives me an opportunity to become an ambassador for Progressive Judaism. I get to stand on my soap box and preach about ‘freedom of choice’ and about how we can be critical of Israeli policies yet still want to fight for a safe Jewish homeland. It gives me a chance to make all the cases for Progressive Judaism that I personally feel fit so well into the myriad of flavors our tradition has to offer.
But, that’s in a country where no language barrier prevents me from engaging in those sorts of conversations. Here, it may be too difficult to know if my ‘statement’ is being similarly translated.
I would hope that after 75 years, Jewish people could feel comfortable walking down the streets of Berlin; that after all the German people have been through, seeing a confident Jewish person in their capitol city would be a reflection of how far we’ve all come. That a young, Jewish male, who buys clothes from the same stores, who listens to the same music and watches the same tv shows, would be a huge testament to the resiliency of our respective cultures.
But, what if its not? What if when people see my Kippah, it makes them think I’m trying to assert my ‘chosenness’, an aspect of my religions’ dogma that I personally do not ascribe to. Are my intentions of humility ironically being flipped into a statement of superiority? What if its viewed not as a symbol of progress but rather as a slap in the face, a non-verbal jab implying ‘nah, nah I’m still here. Come and get me! I dare you!’
The conductor announces another station stop which snaps me back to attention. I take a deep breath as my heart rate has quickened significantly. Maybe I’m just being paranoid.
Maybe the elderly woman across the aisle is only looking at me because for the past 30 minutes I’ve been staring at HER, wondering how old she was in 1939?
The train finally arrives in Oranienberg. From here its a ten minute stroll to the camp. It’s a beautiful day.
Soon I will learn of many others who took this same exact walk; being spat at and punched as they were marched through the town.
It wasn’t only Jews of course, but the Jews were always easy to spot, always having a discernible mark to set them apart from the others.
The breeze today is refreshing and the smell of Kebab wafts tantalizingly across my nose.
A group of young women walks in front of me, all wearing Burkas to cover their heads.
The easy part about being a Progressive Jew, is that when I ‘chicken out’ I can always take off my Jewishness in order to blend in.
When I take off my Kippah, I can flirt with woman more easily, I can eat in non-kosher restaurants and I certainly don’t have to worry about strange looks from children. I can feel ‘normal’.
In some ways, wearing my Kippah puts me in the same category as anyone who checks a box other than ‘White/Caucasian’. However, those people can’t choose how they’re defined by the world. They can’t simply change out of their ‘otherness’. The moment they walk out the door, they are thrust into the throngs of ignorance. For them, dealing with fearful or perhaps scornful looks is simply a part of every day life.
When I wear my Kippah in public, I consciously step into those shoes and allow myself to be defined by others. The main difference though, is my ability to choose whether today I feel courageous or cowardly.
So, then perhaps the hardest part about being Jewish is not the laws and obligations, but rather something much simpler yet. Perhaps its simply wanting to fit in; being so close to being one of the ‘insiders’, the ‘accepted’, the ‘safe ones’ yet, still being on the perimeter; covered heads perched on top of the fence, eagerly looking in.
And as I ponder all of this, I finally arrive at the tall, steel gates of the Sachsenhousen Death Camp.
June 4th, 2012