An American in Berlin
18 February, 2019
So one of the hardest things about living in a foreign country is that you don’t share the same cultural touchstones. And for me, one of those touchstones is baseball. I live in a world where the name Mickey Mantle mean nothing, where people have never heard of Joe DiMaggio but they sure know his wife. A country where “Who’s on First?” isn’t funny, because nobody knows what a baseball diamond looks like. It’s tough, I’m tellin’ ya.
Anyway, the other day in class, we were doing some or other exercise and a student reads the sentence, “Jackie said blah blah blah.” So I ask, “Is Jackie a boy’s name or a girl’s name?”1 And one student says, “Maybe a girl’s name? I mean, Jackie Kennedy, right?” Yes, that’s right, I said. But also, Jackie Robinson. And all I got was blank stares. So I’m like, “Wait, does nobody here know who Jackie Robinson is?” Now it’s blank stares mixed with slight embarrassment. Like, you can see them thinking, “Hang on, are we all idiots? He’s asking like it’s obvious. But I’ve never heard of this Jackie Robinson…fellow?”
“You guys, he’s was the first black baseball player in the Major Leagues.” At which point, any embarrassment immediately evaporated. Because they were all like, “Dude, you’re in Germany. You don’t honestly expect us to know the name of a baseball player.” And yet, when asked, they’d heard of Babe Ruth. So, you know, there’s that.
Anyway, I sorta sighed. And that’s when I said, “I can’t believe I moved to a country where nobody’s heard of Jackie Robinson. Like, a little piece of me just died inside. What have I done to myself?” I think they thought that was perhaps a slight overreaction. Because they then said something like, “OK, but be real. What did you expect? And anyway, what’s the big deal? He’s just a baseball player.”
Just a baseball player. But he’s so much more than just a baseball player, I tried to explain. “Look, y’all’ve heard of Martin Luther King, right?” Of course they had. “Well Jackie Robinson was just as important. He’s a major figure in the fight for civil rights.”
Oh, and also the baseball. Jackie stealing home is the stuff of legends. And the Brooklyn Dodgers, the Boys of Summer. But you can’t teach them the glory of Jackie and Pee Wee and Hodges, Campy and the Duke of Flatbush when they don’t even know the difference between a touchdown and a homerun. Which is not an exaggeration, btw. One of my guys actually thought a touchdown was how you score in baseball. Like I said, a little piece of me died inside.
Anyway, I decided I had two choices. I could either go home and cry about it (which I may or may not have done), or I could get off my ass and do something about it. #WWJD? What would Jackie do? So I decided to do something about it. I went online and started looking for an article about the man and his life, with minimal emphasis on the game of baseball itself.
Because this couldn’t be a lesson about batting average and RBI. It had to be a lesson about the fight for equality and civil rights, and Robinson’s role in all that. After a bit of digging around, I found a piece that fit the bill.
Last week, I brought it to class and we read it together. As a purely English exercise, it was worthwhile, just for the reading practice and new vocabulary. But more importantly, they learned not only about Jackie Robinson, but some of the history of race relations in general in America. Like, I had to teach them about segregation and shit.
Anyway, at the end, I thanked them for indulging me in this. But also, I said something along the lines of, “And also, the world is a better place now because a few more people know about Jackie Robinson.” Hard to tell how serious they were, but more than a few of them thanked me. Said they genuinely appreciated learning about him and the history and found the whole thing generally interesting.
Also, two of my girls each have a pair of young sons. So I volunteered to teach them how to throw a baseball. They kinda lit up at that. They’ll probably be out of the class by the time it’s warm enough to have a catch, so we’ll see if it actually happens. But it’s nice to know people are interested.
In the article, there was a Roger Kahn quote, from “The Boys of Summer.” At which point, I had to mention that “Boys of Summer” is one of the best books ever and one of my personal favorites. One girl circled the quote. Maybe she’ll read it one day.
This girl is great by the way. She’s Turkish and an observant Muslim; wears a headscarf, keeps halal, that sort of thing. She studied theology when she was younger, studies architecture now. Great sense of humor and very smart. But what I love is, she’s this observant Muslim…and she curses like a sailor. She gives me shit, too. So she’s fun to have in class.
She sits next to Mr. A-Touchdown-is-Baseball-Right?, who is an otherwise smart young lad, also with a good sense of humor, who also gives me shit all day long, now that I think about it. They have a very cute brother-sister thing going on. It’s kind of adorable. I’ll come back to them later.
Anyway, we’re sitting in the kitchen for lunch. And as I’m about to start eating my salad,2each person at the table has to say “Guten Appetit.” Which means I have to put my fork down seven times and say thank you seven times before I can finally start eating. You know, bc Germans have a near-pathological need to say “Guten Appetit” to anybody within a 5-meter radius.
So I’m like, “What’s the deal with this Guten Appetitthing? Why can’t I just eat?” And Mr. Touchdown is like, “Well, what do you people say?” And I’m like, “Watchoo mean, you people?” And he’s like, “Well, in America, don’t you all say ‘grace’ or something like that?” And I’m like, “Uh, I don’t know what the goyim do.” And he’s like, “The who?” And I’m like, “The goyim. The gentiles.” Blank stare. Me: “The…non-Jews?” Him: “Wait, your Jewish?”
Seriously? Dude, I say “Oy vey” like twelve times a day, and my pedagogical style can best be described as “shtick-based.” What did you think?
Anyway, that was kinda funny. And the conversation moved on from there. But I’ll use that as a segue to something else I wanted to talk about. Namely, the question of anti-Semitism in this country.
Uncle Art, when he was still among the living, would always ask me if I’d ever experienced any anti-Semitism in Germany. And I always told him that I hadn’t. Which is true. Not once have I personally experienced it here. What’s more, I’ve always been open about being at my job and with my friends here. And reactions have always ranged from not giving a fuck to genuine curiosity and desire to learn more about Judaism, being Jewish, etc. Such that I can honestly say, not only have I not experienced any anti-Semitism here, but that indeed my experiences with regard to Judaism have been positive on the whole.
I said that I’ve been open about it at my job. That’s been true at both language schools for which I’ve worked here. But at one, my boss was gay and at the other, my boss is Jewish.
In the case of the other school (I no longer work there), where my boss was gay. At my interview, he made clear to me that our classes were to be safe spaces and that intolerance would not be, well, tolerated. And he told about negative experiences he’d had as a gay teacher, and that he was determined that such things would not occur on his watch. At that point, I told him I was relieved to hear that. Because I was Jewish, and I didn’t want to feel like I should have to hide that.
At my current job, my boss is also Jewish. And he screens all the students himself. He doesn’t let just anybody in. The result is that we naturally have an open-minded student body. So again, it’s a safe space, in that way.
And as for my friends, well, that’s obviously a self-selecting group. I mean, I’m not likely to consort with racist, prejudiced or generally closed-minded people. So it’s no surprise that I don’t experience anti-Semitism in my social circles.
It’s only when you dig a little deeper that some disturbing patterns start to emerge. I’ve heard more than once that it would be unwise to walk around wearing a yarmulke. Maybe not everywhere, but certainly as a general rule. I’ve heard that in certain neighborhoods, people have been attacked just for speaking Hebrew on the street. Every synagogue, every Jewish bookstore, the Jewish Museum and the Holocaust Memorial, they all have permanent, armed police guards stationed out front.
Margit’s sister-in-law did Judaic Studies when she was younger. I once asked her if she would be interested in reading some Torah together.3 She said she would, but that we’d best do it at her apartment. It’s not something we should be seen doing in public, she said.
I have one student now, apparently both her grandmothers were Jewish. And she’s keen to learn Hebrew. Anyway, she pulled me aside one day and was almost whispering when she asked me if it was true that I can read Hebrew. The implication being that it would be unwise for such a conversation to be overheard. I offered to let her borrow my textbook, which she was very happy to do. But when she brought it back, it was wrapped in a black bag and she made sure to give it to me privately. A precaution which was certainly unnecessary in our school, but which speaks to the bigger picture, to be sure.
And so, no, to this day, I have not personally experienced any anti-Semitism here in Germany. But neither is the picture so rosy as it might have seemed upon my arrival. And it may be that a major reason I haven’t experienced anything is because you can’t know I’m Jewish by looking at me.
Compare that with the experience of my Muslim student. On the one hand, there are many more Muslims than Jews in Berlin. So in a very real way, she has a community here that I do not. But at the same time, Muslims are still a minority here; even if they are a large one.
And so she was telling us about a job interview, where only a few questions put to her were actually about her experience or qualifications. Most of the questions were about her dress and her religion. And you could see, as she was telling the story, she was becoming angry. I was getting angry right along with her. I mean, that’s fucked up. And if I showed up to a job interview wearing a kippah, should I really expect that I wouldn’t be subject to the same bullshit?
One thing I’m realizing, is that, as a New Yorker, there’s something I’ve taken for granted my whole life. And that’s the idea that “everybody is from somewhere.” What I mean is, on some level, every New Yorker is a hyphenated-New Yorker. There’s nobody who doesn’t define themselves somehow by their family heritage, and with pride.
Irish-New Yorkers. Italian-, Puerto Rican-, Dominican-, Korean-, Chinese-, Nigerian-, whatever-New Yorkers. And we’re all proud of our heritages. The food, the languages, the world-views, etc. But you just take it for granted that any ‘real’ New Yorker is from somewhere. Otherwise they’re from the Midwest of some such bullshit. #NoDisrespect.
And then you get to Europe. In this case Germany. And you ask people where they’re from. And they say ‘Germany.’ And you say, yeah, fine, but I mean, where’s your family from? And they’re like, ‘Germany.’ And you’re just like, shit, right. People are just fromhere. You don’t live in a place where every last motherfucker has an immigrant story. You don’t live in a place where everybody’s grandmother cooks food from ‘the old country.’ I mean, my whole family came through Ellis Island. Came in on a boat, with the Statue of Fucking Liberty in the background. For people here, that’s some Hollywood shit right there. In New York, that just is. OK, maybe you came later. Maybe you came through JFK instead of Ellis Island. But it’s all the same, at the end of the day.
And I think about my circle of friends back home. Jared and Adam and Rob, the Yids. But Keith is German. His grandmother wasGerman, and his mother understands the language.4 Michael fucking Murphy, whose mother speaks Gaelic and speaks English with an Irish accent. Vinny, my paisan, whose parents are off the boat and make their own beautiful tomato sauce.5
I fully recognize that the experience of African Americans is its own thing. But an African-American-New Yorker is as much a New Yorker as anybody else. And whether they see themselves as part of the Great Migration from the South, or from a distant African homeland, they too come from somewhere.
The point is, part of being a New Yorker, is inherently knowing that you and both assholes sitting next to you on the subway come from somewhere else, that we all have our own histories and cultures of which we are rightly proud. But we all ride the subway together, and together we make our city great. Even if you think the person on your left is an asshole, and the person on your right is also an asshole. And they both think you’re an asshole. In the end, it doesn’t matter. Because all three of us know, the hayseed across from us with the upside-down subway map is the real clown.
Compare that with Berlin, where people have this weird parochial, territorial, jaundiced view of what it means to be a ‘real’ Berliner. For them, it means you’ve lived here all your life. And your parents before you and their parents before them. “But I’ve lived in Berlin for five years,” you protest. Meh. They’re not impressed.
More than once, I’ve asked people “How long does one have to live here before they get to call themselves a Berliner?” And I’ve gotten answers ranging from, “Minimum, ten years,” to “You can’t. You have to be born here.” The fuck kind of attitude is that?
You know how long you have to live in NY before you get to call yourself a ‘real’ New Yorker? However long it takes you to stop looking up. However long it takes you to realize the jerk in front of you is walking too slow. If you can do that, well, welcome to the club. You’re in, asshole.
French Charlotte lived in New York for two years, maybe three. And homegirl had to ride the J train into work from fucking Bushwick. You could smell Popeye’s from the front door of her apartment. She bought Coronas at the bodega. For as long as that was true, she was a New Yorker.
My point is, that’s something I’ve always taken for granted, this idea that everyone is from somewhere.6 Something I never actively thought about until I got here. And it’s just not that way here. Either you’re from here, or you from somewhere else. And the people who are from here, well, I often get the feeling that they think they have something over the people who aren’t. It’s not my favorite thing about this town.
I remember once I was out having a drink with Anne. And there were these two dames sitting at the very next table, quite close to us. Anyway, at one point, Anne gets up to go to the bathroom. And I’m listening to these two girls. Because they’re talking accented English, and that’s kinda my job. So I’m curious where they’re from. And you know, I’m debating with myself if I should interrupt them and ask. Cos I don’t want to be creepy, you know? But on the other hand, I’m clearly here with a female. So in theory, I should be pretty non-threatening. Fine, so I ask.
“Excuse me, sorry, but can I ask where you guys are from?” And one girl says some country, I forget which. But the other got all up on her high horse and shit, and was all, “I’m from Berlin. I guess you don’t meet many of those.” Like, she was pretty arrogant about it. Because, Berlin, like New York, attracts a lot of young people. So if we’re only talking about young people, there’s a good chance they’re either from somewhere else in Germany or another country altogether. And that’s only more true in the hip parts of town, which was the case here.
Anyway, so she’s all Miss Thang with her “I’m from Berlin, can you imagine?!” And I’m just like, “Bitch, I’m from Brooklyn, you think I give a shit?” Which I definitely did not say. I just rolled my eyes and waited for Anne to come back. But I mean, the nerve!
Because I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been to Duffs – or wherever – and some young transplant asks me where I’m from. And you know, I gotta say it, I’m from Brooklyn. Fine. And often as not, people – transplants and tourists, I mean – get a little wide-eyed, you know? Like, Wow, a realNew Yorker! A real person-from-Brooklyn.7 Cos like I said, if we’re only talking about young people, NY is full of transplants and tourists.
But those reactions always make me feel a little embarrassed. Like – and this is what I’ve been saying – fucking, everybody is form somewhere. I happen to be from here. NBD, you guys. If anything, I’m more impressed by you. Luck of the draw, that I was born here. You actually got off your ass and gotyourself here. That’swhat it’s all about. At some point, the fact that I remember Ed Koch, how much should that really count for?
Funny thing though. Being from New York often buys me instant cred here too. Remember that student with the two Jewish grandmothers, wants to learn Hebrew? She’s Russian, btw; which I only mention bc we’re on the subject of people being from places. Anyway, one day in class, I’m writing something on the board with my back to the class. And somebody calls out a question. But like this: “David?!”
The fuck? I spin around. Who just called me David? I’m only ever “Dave” in school. And Little Miss all sheepishly raises her hand. At which point, she explains that one of her sons is named David. And he’s quite adamant that people call him Davidand not Dave.
“Funny story,” I tell her. “I was the same way when I was a kid. I wouldn’t let people call me Daveuntil Middle School. How old is your son?” I forget, but I wanna say something in the neighborhood of six-ish. Anyway, this was her response.
“Oh! Well, I’ll tell him that my English teacher – from New York– let’s people call him Dave.” Like, I could be an axe-murderer. But I’m from New York. That’s all the cred you need.
Same thing with Bibi. You remember Bibi, we’re playing music together. Anyway, her son (13-ish) is also named David. Remember now, he’s playing a bit of cajón(percussion) with us. But he’s a tad reluctant. Like, at 13-ish, does he really want to be jamming with his old mom? That kinda thing.
Anyway, she sent me a recording of a song we’re working on. And in the recording, it’s her singing and playing guitar, and David is on the cajón. And you guys, it fucking killed. He was laying down this march beat. Shit was on point. So I told her that, and that I was looking forward to jamming with him.
And her response: “Wait til I tell him, Dave – from New York– thought it was cool!” As if that right there is enough to make jamming with your mom a rad afterschool activity, right?
But always when I hear this shit, I’m just like, “Yo, chill with that.” Because like I said, everybody is from somewhere. So when she introduced me to her guitar teacher, it was, “This is Dave, from New York!” But what does that mean? Usually it means I’m grumpy because I can’t get a good bagel in this town. I’d much rather be introduced as, “This is Dave, he’s not totally shite with a guitar.”
Oy. So the title of this blog is “An American in Berlin.” Which, I’ll be honest, was a conscious play on Gershwin’s An American in Paris. But maybe it should be called “A New Yorker in Berlin.” Certainly that’s been the thrust of the better part of this post.
But at the end of the day, that’s how identify myself. I may live in Berlin. But I’m always a “Jewish-New Yorker.” Sometimes that means always being in a rush, impatient. Sometimes that means missing ‘good deli.’ Usually it means being some version of neurotic. And my sense of humor is certainly self deprecating. It also means consciously – perhaps even precociously – sprinkling Yiddishisms into my German. Sometimes that means saying “Mishpucha” instead of “Familie.” Other times it means pronouncing a word like Antwort(“answer”) as entfer(ענטפער). But also, it’s about how I see the world. That we’re all from somewhere. But wherever we’re from, we’re here, now. Together. And it’s that combination of past and present, of diversity and unity, that gives us a chance to be greater than the sum of our parts.
Now if I could only find a bowl of congee8…
- In the traditional binary gender male/female paradigm, obvi. [↩]
- I fucking hate salad, btw. But I eat it every day for lunch, bc healthy? [↩]
- Imagine that, studying Torah with a goy. And dollars to donuts, she’d know more about it than me! [↩]
- Hell, even Keith knows how to ask “Was hast du gesagt?” – What did you say? [↩]
- Also known as “red gold,” that’s how fucking good it is, I shit you not. [↩]
- Hell, even when we lived in Massachusetts, everybody was fucking Portuguese. [↩]
- Let’s be honest. Transplants and tourists don’t know the word “Brooklynite.” [↩]
- A kind of Chinese rice-porridge, which I would often buy when I lived in Chinatown; with strips of pork, fresh chives and ginger matchsticks. I’m tellin’ y’all, nothing better on a cold winter’s day. [↩]
- זײַ געסונט: “zei gesunt”means “be healthy” or, more colloquially, “be well,” in Yiddish. Both of those words, however, are German. And while they are German words, it is not a German expression. Recently somebody ‘corrected’ me. “You mean, Bleib gesund.” Which would mean something like, “Stayhealthy/well.” And I was like, “No. I mean, Sei Gesund“ (to use the German spelling). At which point I had to explain that, “Actually, it’s a Yiddishism, and something my grandmother used to say.” In fact, it’s one of the last things I remember Ida – my dad’s mother – saying, when we visited her in the nursing home. It was towards the end, and she wasn’t really all there. I don’t ever remember her speaking Yiddish when I was growing up. But then again, if she had, I wouldn’t have recognized it. But there, at the end, that was how she chose to end visits with the family. It wasn’t, “Be well,” or “See you later,” or “Goodbye.” It was something other, out of the depths of time, from the language of her own mother. זײַ געסונט, she said. It is from Ida, “Grandma,” that I have these words. And these are the words with which I close every post. [↩]