Tuesday, February 2, 2010
Alemanas and Me
I wanted to devote a post to something I really wasn't expecting to give a lot of thought to before I left, but which has been popping up a bit lately. It is, I think, a lot more personal than most of my other posts so far, and it's not really about traveling, but I think a large part of this experience isn't just what I learn about the places I visit, but also what I learn about myself and the world in general. So, in that regard, I think something about self-discovery, which this is, is relevant. Anyway, I wanted to talk a little bit about my travel experience thus far as a Jewish person, and, specifically, as the grandson of holocaust survivors.
I don't feel the need to get into a great deal of detail here regarding my own relationship to Judiasm, as it's not actually that relevant, and it's not something that I've been reflecting on much during this trip. I think it suffices to say that I feel a deep cultural and familial tie to Jewish history, and I love the traditions. I generally believe that questions of theology are, as Barack Obama once put it, above my pay grade. But I adore the idea of Yom Kippur being a time to reflect on our own imperfections and possibilities for self-improvement, and nothing beats getting together with family and friends for a wonderful Passover seder, and a celebration of the great fortune of being free people. So in that regard, even though I do not follow most of the specific practices of Judaism (I really like bacon), it still has a lot to do with how I percieve myself. And, as noted, my maternal grandparents survived the holocaust, and lost nearly their entire families, which is the type of thing that tends to linger a bit in one's mind. So this is something I tend to think about a little when people here asks me why I have a Spanish last name.
Anyway, as I mentioned at the top, this is something I wasn't much expecting to confront on this trip, at least not in any kind of depth. But it has come up a couple of times, and came to a head a little bit last week, so it's been on my mind. Again, I don't much feel the need to get into the details because that's not the focal point for me, but I've had a couple of strange conversations. I'd just as soon skip specifics, but I spoke with two different people, one Nicaraguan and one American (a classmate), who made some fairly sweeping and unfounded generalizations about Jewish people. In particular, my classmate from the states seemed to believe that all Jewish people were spiteful, simply because his ex-wife's Jewish mother was. He qualified his statement by adding, "maybe it's just the poor ones." My response was "maybe she was just one person." Needless to say I was happy when it was decided that my Spanish skills were sufficiently superior to his that we should be in different classes.
So this had all been present in my mind, if not at the very front of it, for a little while. On top of all that, I spent a lot of time last week with three new friends, Anna and Olive, from Germany, and Valerie, from Switzerland. I mentioned to Sam, only half-jokingly, that I wondered what my grandparents would have thought about my having dinner in a group where half the conversation was in German. Of course, throughout my life I've had a variety of German friends, and my babysitter growing up was German. But I'll confess to the fact that the deeper history tends to linger in the back of my mind. It's something I can get past of course, but generally when I meet a new person and find out that they're German, I have to fight the instinct to cringe a little. It is extremely difficult for me to separate thoughts of Germany from the thought of my grandparents, and the unspeakable tragedies they endured.
So, flash forward to last Thursday night, when a few of us went to this beautiful apartment on the hill to hang out, have a few beers, and play guitar with David, the director of my Spanish school, and some of his friends. It's worth noting up front that David is a solid dude, and the woman on whom this story centers is not a friend of his. She was someone several chain links out from the hosts. Anyway, the night was a lot of fun--good people, great music, and general fun times. At a certain point in the evening, however, a thoroughly besotted woman in her 40's came over and started talking to me. She was asking about my guitar and making fairly normal conversation for a while. She then asked if I was Jewish, and when I said yes, she said "I knew it. I could tell." This in and of itself was something I didn't give much thought at the time. Blueish-green eyes aside, my face isn't exactly Aryan in appearance. As the woman continued talking, I began to find her aggressive drunk-talk unpleasant, and I decided to walk over to where my friends Ben, Anna, and Thomas were playing Bocce. Feeling snubbed, she became downright rude, and started saying a number of things that ranged from slightly insensitive to downright offensive, mostly about my being Jewish. She seemed to have been particularly bitter about her divorce from a Jewish man. How that had anything to do with me, of course, is beyond comprehension. Initially I engaged her, simply because the things she was saying were so absurd I was certain that she was joking. However, as she persisted, I grew weary of her, and I tried to withdraw from the situation.
Unfortunately, once someone like that gets going, they tend not to let up, so she grew louder, and I grew increasingly peeved. It was at this point that Anna had clearly had enough, and decided it was time to switch from passive-aggression to straight aggression. Anna started challenging the woman directly, pointing out the idiocy of everything she was saying, adding, "he's a good guy, so what does it matter if he's Jewish or Hindu or whatever? Why should someone's religion or culture matter to you at all?" For the next 20 minutes or so, I watched Anna pick apart (in her non-native language, no less) every single stupid thing this woman was saying. At this point, it was getting late, so my group decided it was time to head out anyway. But watching Anna take my side and go after this woman's misconceptions and prejudices made me consider my own.
As I thought about it, I realized that one can reasonably draw a parallel between the relationship of young Germans to the holocaust and that of young Americans to slavery and, more recently, Jim Crow. I look at the civil rights attrocities that went on in my country, and feel so utterly disconnected from that, and feel so firmly the need to distance myself from that type of thinking and behavior, and confront it when I see it. And I think the same is true of many young Germans with respect to the Holocaust. I asked Anna her take on this, and she agreed, noting that her education in Germany had involved a great deal of learning about various world religions, and strongly promoted the ideas of tolerance and equality. And for the most part, she told me this is something young Germans feel pretty fervently about. This is not to say, of course, either that racism is dead in the U.S. or that anti-Semetism is dead in Germany. But it certainly gives one a good deal of hope for the future. And I have to say, it was a pretty powerful moment for me when I realized that in my interactions with these lovely German girls, I was the one who was clinging (even if only slightly) to old prejudices.
So, on this particular front, I've come away with two important lessons. The first is, outside the bubble of the northeast, being Jewish can definitely mean being noticed as different, and idiots are everywhere. The second, much more important thing, is that although history is a profoundly powerful force--especially family history--it is undoubtedly worth making the effort to overcome it. Moreover, when you have to make multiple generational leaps just to mentally link a grudge to someone, it is just not right to bear that particular grudge with them. I'm doubtful that any kind of lasting peace is likely in my lifetime, but I am certain that blaming people for the actions of their ancestors is as fruitless as it is detrimental. So all that remains is the question I posed to Sam, regarding what my grandparents would think. Frankly, given the immense amount of love they held in their hearts, I feel pretty confident that they would have been proud of my ability to learn this lesson for myself, and happy to see me come out of the experience with some great new friends.