April 13, 1995
Vol. 14, No. 15

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    Jews in today's German culture

    Since the mid-1980s, Sander Gilman, the Henry R. Luce Professor in Germanic Studies, has spent a great deal of time in Germany and Austria pursuing the work that has made him internationally known in the fields of Germanic studies and psychology.

    During his numerous visits to those countries, Gilman became aware of an interesting change in contemporary German society -- the reappearance of a significant Jewish culture.

    "A large number of 'Third Generation' artists born after the Holocaust -- writers and filmmakers who identified themselves as Jewish and who wrote about Jewish topics -- were creating a space for Jewish culture in a country that has changed greatly since World War II," Gilman said.

    "But it was a phenomenon that no one was recognizing. I was one of the first people to say, 'Look, there is something going on here that is more than one or two people writing about being Jewish.' "

    Gilman recalls that the initial response to his research was less than positive.

    "When I first began my work in this area, I was met with a great deal of anxiety and animosity," he said. "Many German Jews still felt that the Jewish cultural component had ended in the country in 1933. And many Germans felt that the whole notion of a new Jewish culture which was consciously evocative of the German past was something that they didn't especially want to deal with. For many years I was literally a voice in the wilderness."

    Then, in 1993, Gilman was asked to present the inaugural Schwartz Lectures in Jewish Studies at Indiana University. "I was very pleased to be asked to give the first Schwartz Lectures because I knew I could use them as an opportunity to work out some of these current issues in more detail," Gilman said.

    Gilman's three lectures on the new Jewish culture that has become visible in Germany since the fall of the Berlin Wall are collected in his latest work, Jews in Today's German Culture (1995). The book surveys the recent explosion of works by creative artists in Germany and Austria who invoke their Jewish identity and place at the center of their art the question of what it means to be a Jew in contemporary Germany.

    The new book continues and expands on the research Gilman has done in the more than 46 books he has written or edited since he began publishing in 1971. While he has tackled such diverse topics as AIDS, Bertolt Brecht, Nietzsche and Mark Twain, his keenest interests cluster around a few related topics -- psychiatry, medicine and Jewish studies -- with a focus on the way stereotypes about race, gender and "outsiders" are generated.

    In Jews in Today's German Culture, Gilman argues that the real resurgence of Jewish culture revolves around the issue of German Jews' sense of their "outsider" status in Germany, as well as the question of how Jews can live in Germany given that country's history.

    "The new Jewish artists are shaping a new idea of what it means to have a dual identity. If part of what determines a person's historical legacy is the Holocaust, then that person has to create a sense of self that deals with that event. The way Jewish writers have done this in Germany is to do it with a self-consciousness of themselves as Jewish writers in Germany. It's what I refer to as a 'negative symbiosis' -- the strategies that writers use to allow themselves to think of themselves as German, given the Holocaust, at the same time that they can think of themselves as Jewish. It's not an easy task." In exploring the development

    of this new German Jewish

    self-consciousness, Gilman analyzes the work of two current younger German Jewish writers, Rafael Seligmann and Esther Dischereit.

    "They represent two very different points of view about the current position of Jews in Germany," he said. "Unlike some writers who are seen as 'representative' of the traditional Jewish community in Germany, these two are at the fringes. Seligmann deals with issues related to a German Jew's connection to Israel, and his writings have been compared to Philip Roth's Portnoy's Complaint. Dischereit deals with what it means to be born of a Jewish mother and a Lutheran father. Working with these two writers made me look more closely at certain questions of identity, and it turns out that the questions at the fringe are the same as those at the center."

    Gilman argues that the issue of cultural identity -- not religious identity -- is what connects the newer German Jewish writers.

    "While more mainstream writers stress their religious heritage, the issue always is a German Jew's relation to the past history of Jews in Germany. Like Chinese, Korean or Italian people living in the United States, the issue for German Jews is how to preserve their cultural patterns at the same time that they want to become part of a new culture."

    However, Gilman sees this issue as complicated in Germany not only by the Holocaust but by present-day events in the country.

    "Right now, there are 2 million Turks in Germany, and there were only 600,000 Jews in Germany at the peak of the pre-World War II era," he said. "The self-consciousness of Jews as having a special historical relation to the German past is complicated by the current German xenophobia toward its Turkish citizens. It is interesting that there have been many attacks on Turkish people, but not on Jews -- but attacks have been directed toward objects that represent Jewish life and history. This suggests to me that current German Jews are 'invisible' in a certain way -- unlike the Turks, they have been integrated into German society."

    In the last section of Gilman's book, he investigates these notions of German Jewish "visibility" and "invisibility," focusing on the issue of circumcision. Gilman argues that the issue of how the body is seen in Germany is an issue that has come to represent many other issues -- including the sense of Jewish marginality and cultural difference.

    "Historically, Jewish men in Germany have been seen as 'different' due to their physical difference -- they have been circumcised," he said. "In the 19th century, Jews were described as different physical beings than Germans, which was one basis for what led to the Holocaust. Today, you don't find that kind of language applied to Jews, but you do find it applied to Turks -- who, interestingly enough, are also circumcised. One reason why I thought this would be an interesting angle for American readers is that this problem of some sort of physical, 'visible' difference is a totally different issue in the States, where almost all men are circumcised. Here, being uncircumcised is a mark of 'visibility' -- exactly the opposite of the German experience." Gilman's focus on

    connections between the

    body, the psyche and society continues the work he did before coming to Chicago, when he was the Goldwin Smith Professor of Humane Studies at Cornell University as well as professor of the history of psychiatry at Cornell Medical College. As part of his work in the Medical College, Gilman accompanied third-year residents in psychiatry to classes and on rounds. It is this kind of on-the-scene research that has marked much of Gilman's writing and is evident in Jews in Today's German Culture.

    "The time I spent in Germany and Austria allowed me to see a phenomenon that, as I have said, just wasn't being recognized," he said. "Of course, a lot of artists don't want to be seen as part of any group. But the phenomenon is real and can help us understand present-day German culture."

    -- Jeff Makos