An American in Berlin
6 July, 2023
Haven’t had much luck lately in the blogue department. Started a couple of posts that went nowhere. I don’t think they’ll be any cut&paste this time. Lemme try to start fresh. [Update: I originally drafted this on June 22nd. Any further updates will come as this one did, in brackets].
For starters, I’ve got a houseguest this week. Which is weird, b/c I don’t really know the guy. I mean, I know him a little, he’s from the Kollel. But he lives in Barcelona and came in for the Shabbaton (on more which later). Anyway, he decided to stick around for a week. Anyway, I get a message from him a couple weeks ago saying, basically, Akiva had suggested to him I might be able to put him up. (Thanks, Kivele). Well, I’m not gonna turn away a Yid. I mean, we’re not allowed. It’s right there in the Protocols of the Elders of…
And look, he’s a nice guy and a perfectly fine houseguest. Just not, like, my kinda guy. Hippie vegan etc. And also, he’s from Boulder CO, so everything is always ‘amazing,’ he’s always smiling and he talks suuuuper slow.
No, but he’s a sweet kid. I gave him my extra keys so he can come and go as he pleases, and he’s turned out to be quite self-sufficient, which is critical. The first night, he took me out for dinner as a thank you. Which I appreciated. Other than that, I had the feeling we wouldn’t be spending much time together. So in an effort at civility, I suggested that if he had time, we could find a point to learn some Torah together. We did this the other day. I wasn’t sure what to expect as I’d never really worked with him in the Kollel. But it worked out well. Turns out he’s pretty sharp and we had some nice discussion over a bit of parsha. So that was very nice. He’s a good dude. But I’m looking forward to having the place back to myself. I mean, I feel like four days is a long time to have to wear pants in your own home, you know?
The Kollel wrapped this past weekend, and we had a Shabbaton to celebrate. A Shabbaton is basically just a two day party; Friday through Saturday, as the name implies. It’s a mixture of the obligatory religious stuff, plus a bunch of wine and food and just hanging out. Unfortunately, I could only be there for Friday night and Saturday afternoon as Joschka was throwing a big bash on Saturday night. I’ll come back to that.
Anyway, the Shabbaton was a lot of fun. It was cool to meet some of the people I’d only met online to that point. Of particular note were the two dames who organize the Kollel along with Rabbi Jeremy. One of them, Dutch Lievnath (lives in Amsterdam), somehow speaks perfect (and basically unaccented English). Huge heart and a functioning sense of humor; she’s fantastic. The other was French Sophie, who lives in Paris. Very dry sense of humor, sarcastic, can banter like a champ. And she can handle her wine. For dinner on Friday, I wound up sitting at a table with both of them, and I just felt like I had the best table. Also, French Sophie and I were drinking wine at roughly the same pace, so I sorta had my drinking buddy for a large portion of the evening.
And of course Yael was there. I didn’t get to spend a lot of time with her as she was seated at a different table. But that’s alright. She’s my khavrusa and we’re proper friends now. (She told me so. On Saturday afternoon, she was like, “Ah, Dahvid! When am I going to see you without the Kollel?” And I’m like, “What, so we can’t be friends?” And she’s like, “We are friends!” Then she gave me a hug. Which she’d never done before. Until that moment, I wasn’t even sure she was allowed to hug men, being frum and married and all). Anyway, even though I didn’t get to spend much time with her, I was happy just knowing she was there.
[Update: Now that Kollel is on break, Yael and I have decided to continue meeting on Monday mornings over Zoom. Only now, instead of studying Talmud, we’re reading Yiddish poetry. Tremendous. She’s got a great way of looking at poetry. I’ll be like, “I can imagine maybe the author means this.” And she’s like, “Maybe. I think it can mean a lot of things. I don’t think a poem has one meaning. I think a poem is a possibility.” She’s such a fucking champ].
At the last Kollel session before the Shabbaton, I was assigned to lead the parsha section. I wound up taking that rather seriously and put in a fair bit of work. I wound up exploring how some passages in our parsha echoed passages from Genesis and how that served as foreshadowing for ‘the careful reader.’ Citations, comparisons of language, the whole nine. It wasn’t a big thing, but I worked hard on it. And I was proud of my work. It felt like a real bit of academic writing and research, which I both love and miss. So I really enjoyed that. Got some nice positive feedback on it too, which was cool.
The other assignment was that we had to write a ‘commentary’ on the bit of Talmud we were reading this semester. Naturally, my commentary took the form of a dialogue between two grumpy old Jews arguing about the law. As far as being a commentary goes, I think it was pretty on point. Also, I was able to work in a bit of comedy. I was pretty happy with my work here as well. And I got some nice feedback. French Sophie drew the short straw in terms of having to read my draft and give me feedback. She really liked it. To the point where she told me I had her laughing out loud on the train while she was reading it. Nice. And at the Kollel, this other woman (whom I don’t really know that well) made a point of telling me how good she thought it was. “Dave, it was so funny. But also, just genuinely good. Like, publishable good. You’re a really good writer.” Well, I don’t know who died and made her literary critic, but that was certainly nice to hear. Who doesn’t like a good ego-stroking every now and again, I ask you.
Then something awful happened. Apparently, on Sunday afternoon, two people from the Kollel (I’m leaving their names out to respect their privacy) were having coffee on the sidewalk outside some café in the neighborhood. And some Nazi bitch came up to them and started yelling at them to speak English. Then this c*nt threw an ashtray at them and hit one of the poor characters in the head. What the actual fuck? The only silver lining (and I use the term generously) was that they’re not easily identifiable as Jewish. So this was just a wretched example of xenophobia and not outright antisemitism. Still fucking horrendous any way you cut it.
How do I even know about this? Well, late Sunday afternoon (or perhaps early Sunday evening), I get a phone call from one of them. (We’re all together in a Kollel Whatsapp group, so everybody basically has everybody else’s number). Which confused me. I mean, we got along well during the Kollel and had fun together on Friday night, but like, this person doesn’t really know me. It’s not like we’re proper ‘friends.’ So yeah, I was confused.
Anyway, I pick up and they tell me all about what happened. And they’re like, “I think what I really need is to just have a few glasses of wine and I kinda figured you’d be a good person for that.” Well, technically they’re not wrong. I mean, I did yeoman’s work on a couple of bottles of red that Friday night, right? So I agreed to meet this person at the Hillel at 9.
As soon as I got off the phone with the one, I called the other to see how they were doing. They sounded pretty normal. Said they’d been pretty shaken up, but then had filed a police report and after doing so, felt much better. What a fucking trooper, honestly. (Also, the fact that they filed a police report is the only reason I’m writing about this shit at all. I feel like it’s a matter of public record now. I hope that’s alright). Anyway, I was just happy they were okay.
Well, around 9, I roll over to the Hillel. The person in question lets me in and says there’s a bunch of leftover wine from the Shabbaton, so why don’t we just stay there. Which we did. There’s a nice garden/backyard which served the purpose. It was a nice time, under the circumstances. They were even joking about the incident already. So we just talked and joked and laughed and had some serious conversation and of course wine. By the end of it, maybe an hour and a half, they were feeling better. Which is all that really mattered, let’s be honest.
As it turned out, though, I didn’t drink much wine. In fact, I just nursed one single glass the whole time. Reason being, I was hungover af from Joschka’s party, from which I got home at 10am. Besides Joschka, his friends from his hometown were there, plus a couple of Bavarians, to say nothing of Finnish Markus. It was a lot of fun. Me and Finnish Markus stayed up til 9 or so, drinking and talking politics. He’s so smart and super astute. Plus, he’s very open minded while at the same time very capable of taking apart an argument. He’s a pleasure to talk to, every damn time. Unfortunately, he quit his job and will be moving back to Helsinki in the fall. I’m gonna miss the big lug.
In other news, I got a message from Carsten today, asking if I was ready for more podcast work. He said he had one more non-profit project (i.e. lower paying) and then in July, we’ll ‘work for money.’ That’s a little cryptic, I think. I have no idea if he has anything firm for July or just he wants to look for the next (well paying) project. Either way though, this is good. Very good.
I’ve got a new one-to-one at the school. Well, not exactly new. It’s this Polish woman who was actually in my class when the pandemic hit. And now she wants private lessons. Real sweetheart of a lady. Anyway, Knut calls me up and asks me if I wouldn’t mind coming in just to meet the new student. Of course he didn’t say anything about who it was. So I’m doing my Dave thing where I’m like, “Great, new people I need to pretend to care about, blah, I’m so grumpy, blah.”
Then I get there and the secretary tells me they’re waiting for me in one of the classrooms. So I go in, expecting not much of anything. And there’s the Polish lady. And I’m just like, “Hey, I know you!” And she was all smiles. Seems Knut was playing a little trick on me there, bless him. Anyway, he leaves us alone to get reacquainted. Which was nice. You know, I’m asking about her life, the kids, all that. And I’m just like, “This is gonna be fun. I’m glad you’re back.” And she’s like, “Yeah, well, I told Knut I only wanted to work with you.” Man, that’s nice to hear, you know?
Anyway, we’re just once a week for three hours. But its’ really nice. She’s not at a super high level and she’s super rusty. I mean, it’s been three years since she was in the class. But working with her is great, because you just see how smart she is, how fast she absorbs shit. And she works hard. Plus, she’s helping me with my Polish here and there, which is a nice added bonus. So I’m enjoying that.
Polish with Bartek is proceeding nicely too. Every week I get a little better. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still totally fucking useless. But I’m noticing improvement. And it’s neat to finally be getting this little window into Slavic languages. Learning new languages is fun in general, but I dig this whole stepping out of my linguistic comfort zone thing. I think I’m getting to the point where I’m gonna need to by a grammar book though. DuoLingo is shit at actually explaining things and Polish is too complex for the way that app works. It’s useful and worthwhile, but it needs to be supplemented. Not yet, but soon.
Finally made it back to the Yiddish schmooze last week. Which obviously was just the best. Yael was even there for a little while. But there was this dude there I’d never met before, from Philly. Nice enough chap. Anyway, we’re talking and the conversation goes the way literally every conversation goes with a Yiddish speaker you’ve just met. Where’s your family from?
So I’m like, “Ukraine on my dad’s side. On my mom’s side, the shtetl is in Belarus today, but it would have been Poland at the time.” And he’s like, “Belarus? What region?” What region? What is this? Like when I say I’m from New York and you want to know what neighborhood? The Pale of Settlement was big, son. So I shrug, and I’m like, “What do I know from regions? I guess I could tell you the name of the shtetl though, for all the good that will do.” So of course he wants to know. And I’m like, “Oshmana.” And get this. Part of his family comes from there! What are the fucking odds? So now we’re talking about last names and the memorial book and did maybe some of our ancestors know each other. That last bit was impossible to determine.
But it turns out the guy’s big on genealogy and has done all kinds of research on his family history including the genetic testing shit. So we discussed my sending him some scans from the memorial book and maybe we’ll read some of that together. But how’s that for a small fucking world?
[Update: Since I started writing this, I went to another Yiddish meetup. Just a fucking joy with these people. By the end, we were five. I was probably the oldest, but we were more or less in the same demographic; pushing either end of the Millenial spectrum I suppose. Me, two girls from NY, a dude from Jersey and another girl from Berlin (all Jews except the German). Everybody is at a high level. I was probably the weakest speaker, but not prohibitively so; and I understood everything that was said.
Anyway, we’re just sitting in this café, schmoozing and kibbutzing around. And we get to a point where we all start telling jokes in Yiddish. I heard some really great ones. Plus I told a couple myself, which got their share of laughs, which was nice. The thing is, I just felt so comfortable with these people. No, ‘comfortable’ isn’t even the word. ‘At home.’ Truly. I’ve said this more than once, but there’s something very comforting to me in the sound of Yiddish. The language is different, but the music of it, the rise and fall, the melody, the words that are stressed: this is how my dad speaks English. Listening to them speak Yiddish feels like listening to my dad speak English. Or to put it another way, even though my dad speaks English, the music of his speech is Yiddish.
Beyond that, there’s just the feeling of belonging, of (finally) being able to say shit that’s not just for you but which you know other people will understand. A brief example. So Jewish New Yorkers of my parents’ generation all have these stories of family vacations to the Catskills. There, they’d attend some standup routines. And they talk about how the whole joke would be told in English. Until the punchline, which would come in Yiddish. Their parents would all laugh uproariously, but the kids – my parents’ dor – would be completely lost.
Anyway, I’m telling this joke in Yiddish (though I’d heard it originally in English). But the punchline must be in Hebrew (of course with the Yiddish pronunciation). Because the punchline is actually the kaddish, the mourner’s prayer. I won’t write the joke out here because it’s too long and anybody reading this who might get it has already heard it. But the point is, I’m telling this Yiddish joke with a Hebrew punchline and it just landed. It killed. And there’s literally nowhere else in this city that I could tell that joke. Simply impossible. But here? Finally people I could share this with! ס׳איז געווען א מחיה.]
New project with George. I probably mentioned last year that he and Phil are putting together a scholarly edition of the epic Greek poem Frogs and Mice. It’s basically a three hundred line (i.e. very short) epic that describes a battle between – you guessed it – frogs and mice. It’s a fun little piece. And last year, they asked me to do a proofread of their work. Mostly just checking for obvious errors with the chance to offer feedback where I thought it appropriate. They even paid me for it, which was pretty sweet.
Anyway, when we finished the Ajax, G and I were deciding what to read next. We settled on more Sophocles; this time, the Antigone. I’d read it in 9th grade English class (it’s often presented as a sort of proto-feminist work, which it kinda is), and it’s kind of a big deal. So I was pretty excited about that choice. But then he says, “Actually, Phil wants us to go through the Frogs and Mice together. Line by line. Really do a close reading of the translation, the footnotes, the commentary, all of it.” It’s a big job, but rewarding. It’s nice to contribute, even in a miniscule way. And not for nothing, it’s pretty great that they trust me – trust my Greek – enough to do this.
I mean, yes, I did an MA in classics. But that was ten years ago already. And yes, I’ve been keeping up my Greek this whole time. But I’ve been doing it on my own, at least until G and I started reading together about two years ago. In any case, I’ve had no formal guidance for a long time. Point being, this scholarly edition they’re working on, that’s gonna go out with Phil’s name in top billing. That’s not nothing. And look, I’m not the only third party they have working on this. But the fact that he trusts me to work on this (twice now), well yeah, I’m pretty proud of that. I have no idea how much, if any, of my input will make its way into the final edition. But even if none of it does, it’s still a pretty good feeling.
Let’s keep going with Greek. NT now. Yeah, this is gonna keep coming up. So I’ve now read all of Matthew and Mark and have just started on Luke. Each writer has their own style, their own voice. So it always takes a bit of time to readjust. Already Luke is different. He’s got ‘songs’ and prophecies in verse. And poetry is always harder, right? But it’s not that hard. This shit ain’t Theocritus is what I’m saying.
But I have to say, the further I get into this book, the more I’m enjoying it. For one thing, I’m just getting more and more comfortable with the Greek. And let’s be honest, I kinda have a love affair with Ancient Greek. Not that this high art or anything. But it is fun. Like, I’m reading it on the subway and I just can’t put it down.
In my previous posts, I’ve written about how fucking weird it is, with all the exorcisms and shit. How weird of a dude Jesus is, with his parables and whatever else. This time I want to try and be a bit more positive. The truth is, it’s a good story. Not, like, “The Greatest Story Ever Told” or anything. But it’s a good story. And like, when you get to the end – the end of Jesus, I mean – it is actually pretty moving. Like, he does become this really sympathetic character, when people are all spitting on him and rubbing wine in his wounds and shit. He might be more sympathetic if he wasn’t all, “No, it’s fine, because My Father probably knows what he’s doing and anyway I’m all like focused on the Kingdom of Heaven and shit.” (I paraphrase). So he’s not like a guy I’d want to be friends with. But it’s pretty pathetic. No, literally pathetic, as in: full of pathos. It’s a good read.
So it works on a story level. And even though I’ve just started with Luke, I feel pretty confident in saying he’s the best storyteller so far. But it’s also super interesting on an academic level. Well, I don’t know if ‘academic’ is the right word. What I mean is this. Jesus didn’t know he was a Christian. Neither did Matthew, Mark or Luke. They were just mixed up Yids. (I gather John gets pretty antisemitic, but I haven’t got that far yet).
What I’m trying to say is, there’s a certain freedom that comes with reading this as a non-Christian. Like, I don’t believe that Jesus was moshiakh, much less the son of G-d. This isn’t my holy scripture. So I’m not concerned with reading it – here’s a fancy word – diachronically. That is to say, I’m not (terribly) interested in reading this in terms of how it affects us today, how it informs the Christian faith through time and all that jazz.
Rather, I’m much more interested in reading it – fancy word alert – synchronically. That is to say, how it was understood in its own time. Because at least so far as the ‘synoptic’ gospels go (MM&L), this is a story that’s written for Jews by Jews. And when you read it that way, it’s super fascinating. Like, there’s a lot we can learn about late Second Temple Era Judaism from this. Which isn’t to say we (Jews, I mean) need to agree with it. Just that we can learn something from it.
Let me give an example. I don’t know about you, but growing up in, let’s say, a generally ‘western’ culture (interpret that as you will), I’ve heard the terms ‘Pharisees’ and ‘Sadducees’ bandied about. Mind you, I never knew what those terms actually referred to. But those were words that were not alien to me.
Well, I’ve since learned something about them. Not from the NT, mind you, where they mostly just get shit on. But basically it’s something like this. The Sadducees were essentially the ‘priestly class.’ They ran the Temple, they had power, honor, prestige. Also, depending on your point of view, they’d grown fat and happy by this point and were somewhat out of touch. The Pharisees, on the other hand, were the forerunners of today’s rabbis. When we think of Judaism today, what we really mean is ‘Rabbinic Judaism.’ When the Temple was destroyed, the Sadducees were basically out of a job. The Pharisees (i.e. eventual rabbis) were the ones who kept the religion going by basically turning it into a life of study and adherence to laws (laws which they often prescribed themselves) as opposed to a culture based around bringing sacrifices to the Temple. That’s a quick and dirty oversimplification, but it will serve the purpose.
Anyway, Big J is often at odds with the Pharisees, calling them out on what he sees as their going off the path. Maybe he has a point, maybe he doesn’t. More likely, he sometimes has a point and sometimes is just off his rocker. Who’s right and who’s wrong is, at times, beside the point.
The point is, if you read the NT not as ‘gospel,’ but as a version of history, you get this really neat window into the Judaism of the time. From people who are, essentially, arguing about what it means to be Jewish. Right? I mean, it’s usually when J is arguing with the P’s that he cites Moses or other Tanakhic scripture. “Moses taught us this and y’all are fucking it up.” Are they? I don’t even care. The point is, Jesus is doing what any good Jew always does. He questions and he argues.
And I think we can learn from that. I think it’s kind of silly, honestly, that as Jews we’re perfectly happy to be ignorant of the NT. I’m not saying we should study it the way we study Talmud. חס ושלום. But why shouldn’t we be well versed in the conflicts that were engulfing our people at this critical moment in time? (And by ‘critical,’ I don’t mean the birth of Christianity, I mean the transition from Temple-focused life to study-focused life, rebellion against the Romans, loss of a homeland and diaspora, all that).
Let me end this particular ramble with this thought. Once during the Kollel, Jesus came up. I no longer remember the context. But it just so happens that my houseguest, The Ever-Positive, made some comment like, “Well, I think he was just a good teacher.” And I thought was interesting, ‘teacher.’ Right, because Jesus gets referred to as lots of things. And I’m willing to bet that, maybe, for most people ‘teacher’ is not the first word that comes to mind. Yet (at least in M&M), whenever people address J, they universally address him either in Greek, as Διδἀσκαλε (Didaskale) or in Hebrew, as ῤαββί (rabbi); both of these words mean ‘teacher.’ And while I don’t personally think it’s his message we need to be learning as Jews, still I think we can learn something from him. ABL, baby. Always be learning.
Now, Taxi. No, not taxis. I hate riding in taxis. I find it socially awkward, being stuck in a car with a complete stranger. Same reason I hate going to barbers. Nothing worse than being stuck in a chair with some rando holding scissors over your head. Your choices are either awkward silence or awkward conversation. In Chinatown, I always went to this little basement spot where they didn’t speak a word of English. That was tolerable. Also, it cost four bucks. Here? I just decided, Fuck it, I’ll cut my own hair. As for taxis, beyond the social hell, I’m paying for a monthly subway ticket. Every time I get in a cab, my next train ride is that much more expensive. Plus, I’ve got two legs. Usually I’d rather walk.
Yikes, that was a tangent. Anyway, Taxi. The TV show. I’ve been working my way through the whole series over the last few months. Man, what a great show. What a great cast! It’s amazing to me that Danny DeVito has had this second round of fame and acclaim playing Frank Reynolds on Always Sunny. And fairly so. He’s fucking brilliant. But also, there’s not a lot of daylight between Frank and Louie DePalma, his character on Taxi. And it’s just like, holy shit, this guy has been a fucking treasure for literally my entire life.
Also, I just love listening to these people talk. Many of them are NY/NJ natives – the actual actors, I mean. And they sound like it. Living in a foreign country, there’s something super comforting about listening to genuine, old-school NY accents. Like, t’ank gawd for real fuckin’ English!
Comforting. I’m borrowing this word from Jared. Because when I told him I was watching Taxi, that’s the exact word he used to describe it. Said that when he was a kid, when he was feeling down or whatever, he’d curl up in his parents room and watch Taxi reruns and it just made him feel better. Which I 100% get. There is something very comforting about it.
Maybe even moreso now than when we were kids. I mean, today’s world…everything has to be fucking ‘artisanal’ or ‘curated.’ Everything has to be a big fucking deal. Nothing can just be. (Yes, I know. ‘Old Man Shakes Fist at Cloud’). But there is something oddly comforting about dingy old New York. That run-down, late 70’s-early 80’s, Abe Beam-Ed Koch, Bronx is Burning Big Apple. Like yeah, getting mugged on the subway was pretty much a fact of life. But also, dive bars and unpretentious pizza still existed. George Steinbrenner ran the Yankees (first to championships and then into the ground) like a fucking madman as opposed to the billionaire corporate overlords that ‘invest’ in teams today. Also, my parents never drove me the 15 minutes to Coney Island when I was kid because that’s where people ‘did and sold drugs.’ So maybe it wasn’t always a גן עדן.
Also, can we talk for just a second about the absolute smokeshow that was late 70’s-early 80’s Marilu Henner? Oh my god. I didn’t even know they made women that hot back then. Every time she comes on the screen, it’s just…wow. Homegirl can rock a pair of jeans like no other. Am I saying I’m totally crushing on a broad who was a knockout before I was even born? I mean, I’m not not saying that…
[Note: This paragraph is mostly for Esma, who at dinner the other night, after declaring that Trevor Noah was basically the perfect man, asked me what broad I thought was ‘beautiful’ (or whatever word she used). Well, here’s your answer].
Also, what must it have been like to watch Tony Danza play a character named Tony and not immediately think, “Can this guy literally only play characters named Tony?” Oh, and also hot? Carol Kane. She fucking slayed in Kimmy Schmidt. I mean, absolutely brilliant. So fucking funny, you don’t even know. In Kimmy Schmidt, though, she’s an old lady already. But I’m watching that, and I’m like, “Wait a second, was Carol Kane hot when she was young?” Well, having watched her in Taxi now, I can confirm: Yes, yes she was. Just not, like, Marilu Henner hot. I can’t even.
And lest we forget Christopher Lloyd. My generation has this love affair with Back to the Future, right? I mean, we just do. We love those movies hard. And we love – and absolutely root for – Michael J. Fox. But we love us some Doc Brown, Christopher Lloyd. We’re too young for Taxi to have that be the thing we know him from. But he’s so great, Reverend Jim. Just fucking brilliant.
So much more to say. I guess that’s what happens when you take more than a month between posts. Like, I gotta talk about Shanghai noodles. That’s very important to me, believe it or not. Yael invited me over to Shabbos a couple of weeks back and I may want to talk about that too. On top of which, a former student – this Indian dame – invited me to a housewarming dinner (her and her husband just bought a place) along with one of her classmates. That was a great night and there’s lots to say about that too. Plus music.
And I guess that’s as good a place to stop as any…