An American in Berlin
2 September, 2019
(Originally written 28 June, 2019)
Oh, hi. I mentioned in my last post that I’ve got a couple of un-edited posts backing up. This is one of them; originally drafted towards the end of June. So some of it may be a bit out of date, and some of it may have been covered in subsequent posts. But it seemed best to me to just put it up as is…
OK, so listen to this. I’m leaving school the other day. And as I pass the second landing on my way down the stairs, I hear a door open behind me, followed by footsteps. One of those super awkward things where you know somebody is like two steps behind you but you don’t turn around cos that’s weird. But you kinda want to speed up, because the distance between you is uncomfortably close. Except you don’t, because, wait, is that rude? So you just deal with it till you get all the way down. At that point, I open the door and stand aside with the universal gesture of, “After you, good sir.”
Except Good Sir was all, “No, no, after you, good sir.” And I’m like, come on man, I’m holding the door here, just go. And he’s all like, but you were here first. At which point it crossed my mind that good manners get you increasingly nowhere.
Anyway, I gave up and went first. Thinking – nay, hoping – that would be the end of it. But of course Good Sir is walking to the train, same as me. Because of course he is. And now he wants to chat. “You live here? Oh, you work here? What do you do? Where are you from? Did you study German? Your German is very good.” Oh gods.
And in the course of this forced and somewhat awkward conversation, I learn that Good Sir is from Syria, he’s Christian, lives in a sort of refugee hostel in the same building as my school1 and is studying German, having been in the country for three years now. So yeah, lovely fellow, if a bit socially awkward. And not at all tuned in to subtle social cues, because I was trying to politely show – without saying – that the last thing I wanted to be doing was having a conversation with a complete stranger after working all day. I think I tried to put my earphones in like three times on the way to the train…
So we get down to the platform. Now normally, I walk all the way to the end. Because that lines me up with the stairs at the station where I get off. But he stops towards the front of the platform. At which point, I say, “Welp, I gotta go down to that end.” Which apparently he took as an invitation to accompany me. Ugh.
We keep talking. The train comes. We get on and continue the conversation. Look, it wasn’t not interesting. For work, he repairs iPhones, a skill which he taught himself by watching Youtube tutorials. I mean, that’s impressive.
Anyway, he asks me where I’m from. I tell him and ask if he’s ever been to the States. He says no, he’s not allowed. Because he’s from Syria; i.e. one of Trump’s Muslim banned countries. “Ah, because of Trump?” I ask. “Yeah,” he says. “Er ist ein Arschloch,” says I. (He’s an asshole). “Doch,” says he. (Nuh-uh). “Excuse me?” quoth I.
And that’s when it started. “No, Trump is great! I like Trump!” He actually said that. What the ice-cold fuck?2 I mean, I had to ask, right? At which point I received my dose of Fox/RT/White House propaganda for the year. Trump is strong on the economy. China manipulates its currency. Europe is protectionist, that’s why you can’t find American products in Europe.3
“Okaaaaay,” I say slowly. “But, like, you know he’s a racist, right? He plays people against each other. He riles up hatred. He’s corrupt and as criminal as you can be without being judged guilty in a court of law.”
To which he answered, “But there’s always been hatred and racism in America.” I mean, yes. But you can fight against that, or you can manipulate it and heat it up for your own personal gain.
“But he’s good for Syria. He’s on the right side in the civil war.” Is what Good Sir said next. And look, I wasn’t about to tell this guy his own business about his own country. (Even though he was pretty happy to tell me my business about my own country). But also, to the extent that that’s true, wasn’t Trump continuing Obama’s policies there? Until he wasn’t. At which point, didn’t SecDef Mattis resign because Trump decided to basically pull out of Syria?
Anyway, I was only too happy when I could finally say, “Hey, isn’t this your stop?” I breathed a sigh of relief when he got off the train, I ain’t gonna lie. And look, he was a decent enough chap, right? I mean, he was clearly a nice guy. Thoughtful. Intelligent, even. Because you can be smart, and still be wrong. Or you can be entitled to your own point of view based on your personal life experiences, which in this case are so tremendously different than my own. I mean, let me just thank all of the gods right now that I’m here in Germany because, well, I feel like it, and not because I’m fleeing a civil fucking war.
And on another level, it was refreshing in a way. What I mean is, when was the last time you were able to have a political discussion with someone you didn’t agree with? When you were both able to express your opinions politely and without judgment? To be more specific, when was the last time you were able to talk politics with a Trump supporter and notwalk away thinking the person was a racist, a Nazi, a raging idiot, or some combination thereof? That’s what I mean, when I say it was refreshing. But also, what the ice-cold fuck, you guys?
In the same vain, I was party to a conversation a little while back. And by “party to,” I more mean “witness to.” Because really, this was a conversation between two other people; middle aged Germans, it’s worth mentioning. And one of them was expressing the “Why are we taking all these refugees when we already have homeless German people? Why are we paying such high taxes to support these people? And don’t we have a housing crunch without taking in even more people?” And look, I know this person. This cat is my friend. So I was pretty sad to be hearing this stuff from the mouth of a friend.
But I get it. I mean, up to a point. And when I say “I get it,” I do not mean that I agree in any way, shape or form. I just mean, I get people’s anxiety. Because that’s how people are. When you’re already worried about your own housing sitch, or your own job, or when you feel like you’re being pinched tax-wise, well, it’s human nature to look askance at the “competition.” And when the competition is “other,” however that’s defined in any given scenario, the askance-ness gets magnified. It sucks, but that’s how it is.
But also, that’s what we’ve got to fight against. And then I had this thought. This poor person. Fuck, this is how the AfD gets voters. The AfD don’t talk like Nazis, right? They’re not openly racist. Well, not usually. They just play on people’s fears. They let decent people think, “Hey, I’m not racist. I’m just trying to take care of myself.”
Also, I should state clearly, I have no idea how my friend votes. I mean, I have no actual reason to think this cat would ever vote AfD. All I mean is, the views being expressed, they were coming in the language used by right-wing nationalist parties. Or rather, I should say, right wing nationalist parties have coöpted the language people use to express their fears in order to make their own heinous views more acceptable in polite company.
And I have to say, man, I was embarrassed by how I handled this at first. Because like I said, this cat is my friend. So I was trying to be somewhat conciliatory. You know, things like, “Well, yeah, I know what you mean. I don’t like to see my money disappear in taxes either. And gods know I’m living this housing crunch, having been trying (and failing) to find my own apartment for nigh on seven months now.” And only after all that was I able to muster some “buts.” But these people need help. But they’re feeling a civil fucking war. But the homeless problem here isn’t half as bad as in NY or SF. But healthcare in the US is fucked, don’t these people deserve medical care? But you don’t know how good you have it.
It was weak tea though. And I’m embarrassed, straight up. I should have been stronger on my principles. Which brings me to…
Thank gods for my other friend. She wasn’t having any of it. She was on top of it from the get. “You think their taking our housing? You think they have it nice? They’re living in corrugated metal shacks.”4 “Homeless problem? Yeah we have homeless people. We also have a lot of Germanpeople who just don’t want to work because they’re only too happy to collect social welfare.”5
I forget what her other arguments were now. But the point is, she was on top of shit, and she wasn’t having any of this nativist bullshit. But also, she had the credibility to take that stand. She was able to express these things on a level that I just can’t with my German. No, that’s not quite right. I could have got those points across. But it would have soundeddifferent. And that’s not nothing.
Because I noticed something super fucking fascinating as this conversation progressed, as they each took to defending their views with increasing vigor.6 Their accents shifted. Their Berlin accents became more pronounced. And it certainly wasn’t intentional. It wasn’t even conscious, I’m quite sure. Just, they were getting their emotions up, and the pretenses were falling to the wayside.
I mean, from a purely linguistic standpoint this was just amazing to watch. But that’s what I mean by ‘credibility.’ They weren’t just talking to each other as friends, or even as ‘Germans.’ They were talking to each other as ‘Berliners.’ That’s what I mean, when I say I wouldn’t have been able to express myself with myGerman on their level. I open my mouth, and it’s instantly clear that I’m not a Berliner, not the way they are.
None of this is meant as an excuse, by the way. It’s absolutely no excuse for not being stronger on my principles at the outset. Just that, the same arguments carried more weight coming out my friend’s mouth than my own. That perhaps my native Berliner friend was more ‘entitled’ – for lack of a better word – to make them than a transitory Yank.
Anyway, hearing my friend say the things I should have been saying woke me up, snapped me out of my shit. It was like, “Oh, shit, yeah, that’s who I am. That’s what I stand for.” And again, I’m embarrassed that I even needed that. Hopefully it can be a learning experience, and I’ll be better prepared next time I find myself party to such a conversation.
So when I heard my friend speak up, I spoke up too. And I was pretty forceful, I think, doing the best I could with my German. Among other things, I said, “Hey, you know, I came here from another country too, you know. And not for nothing, when my people came to America, they didn’t speak the language.” Like, come on. You don’t have a problem with me, because I’m your friend. But I contribute to the housing crunch. I came here not really speaking the language. I’m a part of the gentrification that’s going on around us. I said other things too, and the conversation continued on for a while. In the end, we sort of agreed to disagree.
But there were a couple of takeaways from all that. First and foremost, I need to be stronger in expressing my views. Yes, it’s important to be able to have these discussions in a civil way; to be able to disagree with people without being an asshole. But I don’t have to be conciliatory, I don’t have to give ground just because I like somebody, because they’re my friend. That’s the most important lesson here.
Also, though, I was super proud of my other friend. I’d never really talked politics with her before, so I really had no idea where she was on any of this. And the way she just stepped up to the plate, the way she was just “Nope. I love you, but I’m not buying what you’re selling, and here’s why.” I mean, that was fantastic. I was just so proud of her. And I was like, “Take notes, Davey. That’s what we wanna be like.”
As for the first friend, the one with whom I disagreed. Yeah, that made me sad. But it was also a good case study. It was a chance to listen to somebody you care about, to listen to their fears and concerns and try to get at what makes them tick. To recognize that you can disagree with someone and still care about them, still likethem. To not just fucking judgepeople.
Oh, and there’s one last thing about this which struck me as rather interesting. One of these cats is a Wessie(a West German) and one is an Ossie(an East German). In other words, the Wessie grew up in the ‘Free West,’ if we can say that, with connections to America and all the rest. And the Ossie grew up behind the Iron Curtain. And it was the Ossie who shared my views. It was the Wessie who was on the other side. Which is weird, because it’s in the East where the AfD has its base. And we think of the West as leaning liberal. Yet here it was reversed. I don’t know what that means. Just, I found it interesting.
In other news, Torah. I’ve written a bit before on what reading Torah means to me on a spiritual level and on an intellectual level. About how it relates to my Jewish identity, about how reading Torah in a foreign country with no other Jews around keeps me “Jewish.”
But I’m finding something else now. I’m finding the rhythm. Last year was my first time through The Book.7 And so last year meant reading every single day, my face buried in a dictionary. But I’ve done the hard work now. I’ve got four notebooks filled with vocabulary. Which means, now, I can just read. Read the text, read the commentary.
And now, it’s three days a week. Which Is what it’s really supposed to be. Even if you go to shul every day, the Torah only comes out three days a week. So I’m on schedule, as a I should be. Reading each weekly reading in the prescribed week.
That’s what I mean by rhythm. Like, whatever else is going on in my life, there’s always8 Torah, three days a week. And you know what? It’s almost always super peaceful. Like, it’s my time to shut out the world. Crack a beer, light the pipe, read some Torah. Sure, that’s probably not what משה רבנוhad in mind when “he” “wrote” the damn thing.9 But it works for me.
And look, that doesn’t mean I always love what I’m reading, right? I mean, בראשית ושמות– Genesis and Exodus – are pretty fun. Cosmogony, Garden of Eden, Noah and the Flood, Tower of Babel, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat; Moses’ origin story, the ten plagues, leaving Egypt, splitting of the waters, revelation at Sinai, Golden Calf and subsequent shitshow. I mean, it’s good storytelling.
But man, after that? You know Torah means “law,” right?10 It’s three books of Do This, Don’t Do That. You Fucked Up But God Is Merciful…Unless You Really Fuck Up In Which Case Look Out. Also, the original DIY guide on How to Build a Tabernacle. And of course, the bestselling “How to Survive 40 Years in the Desert on One Serving of Manna per Day: A Wanderer’s Guide.”
All I’m saying is, it’s not necessarily the content what keeps me coming back. It’s the ritual, the rhythm. Which isn’t to say it’s not interesting. I mean, I’m learning a lot. It’s fascinating to see what our greatest minds have made of this text through the centuries, even if I don’t agree with all of it.
And to be fair, I do like quite a bit of it. There’s a lot of stuff about how you ought to treat people, how you ought to help people less fortunate than you. But also, just because you’re poor or powerless doesn’t mean you can’t do anything. Whatever. Now I’m getting into content, which I didn’t want to do.
I just wanted to say that it’s becoming a part of the background music of my life. And in a way that’s somehow quite reassuring, quite peaceful. It’s just always there. It’s “me time,” when I can work and think (and drink and smoke) alone. But also a way for me to connect with my people across space and time.
And it weaves itself into the rhythm of the year itself. You know, reading Genesis is just part of the fall now. And the new year brings Exodus. You remember where you were and where you are. Like there’s this poetic passage towards the end of Genesis, which – let’s call a spade a spade – is a real bitch to read. But the first time I read it, I was staying at Charlotte’s place in Nice, for the week between Christmas and New Year’s. So now, whenever I read that passage – which I guess will be every year now for the rest of my life – it’s always gonna bring me back to that week in Nice, and all the good memories that come with it.
Are there weeks when it just feels like homework? Sure. There are definitely weeks where the text is so…ugh, boring. When I’m like, “OMG, I don’t care about anyof this!” Oh, also, reading Torah has in no way limited my use of “God” as a swear word. Like, pretty sure I say “Oh my fucking God, what the actual ice-cold fuck?!?” 87 times a day. Like a Facebook status, it’s complicated.
All to say, this whole reading Torah thing has become rather important to me. Last year – the first year – it was a challenge. Just to see if I could read the whole thing, on schedule, in a year. And I did, mission accomplished. But now, it’s become something more. Like I said, it keeps me “Jewish,” in a land where I feel really very alone as a Jew. But also, it’s become a part of the rhythm of things. And that ain’t nothin’.
One last thing before closing. I signed up for a week long Yiddish seminar. It’ll be held in Weimar, the last week of July. I’m so excited, you guys! Also a bit nervous. I signed up for the intermediate course. There were four options: Beginner One, Beginner Two, Intermediate and Advanced. Well, I’m clearly past Beginner One and just as clearly not ready for Advanced. But I was sorta stuck between Beginner Two and Intermediate. Would the former be too easy? Would the latter be too hard?
But I wrote an email to the administrator, and he said I should take the Intermediate, if I was up for a challenge. Which I am. Anyway, point is, a weeklong intensive Yiddish course! I can’t fucking wait. Also, it’s part of a larger program which includes Klezmer music courses. I won’t be taking any of those, but there will be concerts. And also, opportunities to jam with people, apparently. So I’ll definitely be brining my guitar. And who knows? Maybe I can meet a nice Jewish girl. We’ll see. Point is, I’m amped.
Anyway, that’s enough for now. Obviously I’ll have more to say on the Yiddish course after it happens. In the meantime, the Yanks just keep rolling.
Oh, baseball! I bought a second baseball glove. So Joschka has promised to have a catch with me at Tempelhoferfeld at some point during the summer. And maybe I can snooker one or two other friends into throwing the ol’ apple around. Funny how much you can miss such a simple thing has having a catch when you live in a foreign country…
- I always knew there was a hostel in our building. I didn’t know it was for refugees. Pretty cool, no? Good on you, Berlin. [↩]
- “What the ice-cold fuck” is actually what came into my head. I know it’s not a thing. But I think it sounds great, and I would very much love for it to become a thing. So please, can you all start saying “What the ice-cold fuck?” Let’s make it a thing, you guys. [↩]
- My first reaction to this final point was to be somewhat incredulous. I mean, there’s McDonald’s, Burger King and Subway all over the place. Half the country is walking around with iPhones. But the more I thought about it – and discussed this with other people – it does seem that these companies seem to be the exception and not the rule. So he may actually have a point there. [↩]
- Which is true. Tempelhof airport has a whole colony of prefab metal shacks for refugees. And as I later learned from Good Sir from Syria, they’re living in hostels for years on end. [↩]
- Such people absolutely exist, though what percentage of the homeless population they make up, I have no idea. I should add that my friend was in no way disparaging the social welfare state (nor am I in repeating her argument). She was simply saying that, to the extent that there’s a problem of people taking advantage of the social welfare state, the problem lies far more heavily with native Germans than with refugees, who would like nothing better than to have a job and be able to support themselves. [↩]
- Vigorous, but always polite, always civil. [↩]
- The Scroll? No, but actually, it is in bookform. I’m reading from a Chumash, with vowel-pointing, translation and commentary. I am definitely not anywhere near good enough to “just read” from a sefer torah, the actual scroll, with no vowels, no translation and no commentary. [↩]
- Always. I should say usually. I still have a life, right? So some weeks – this week, for example – I need four days. Some weeks, even five, if time is tight. But such weeks are exceptions; three days a week is the rule. [↩]
- משה רבנו. Moshe Rabbeinu: Moses, our teacher. Tradition has it that Moses himself wrote down the Torah, literally transcribing the word of God, as given to him on הר סיני, Mount Sinai. [↩]
- Well, it does mean “law.” But it also means “teaching.” [↩]