07/23/2007 03:22 pm ET | Updated Oct 19, 2012

A New York Jew in Germany

When I decided to move to Germany last year, a number of people in my life -- particularly Jewish people of an older generation -- reacted with something like paranoia. "Germany? Why would you want to do that?" one friend in her late-40s asked. Another, a middle-aged literature professor, gave me a "Heil Hitler!"

My mother, liberal and worldly, didn't voice any objections, but I could tell it made her nervous. Her father's parents were German Jews who had gotten out of Germany in time to save themselves and, later, provide asylum for some of their relatives during the war. For her family, like most other Jews of her generation, Germany was the enemy.

For me, my Jewish identity has always been a little fuzzy. Growing up in New York in the 70s and 80s, a Jew was a person who had a Bar or Bat Mitzvah and invited you over for Passover Seders. I was, therefore, not a Jew. It didn't help that when I was eight-years-old and all the other children were proclaiming their religious identities at school, I went home and asked my mother what I was, and she told me I was an atheist. (I spread the word back at school, but none of us knew what it meant, so it didn't do too much damage.)

When I was in my mid-20s, I spent four months traveling in Europe. I found that in city after city, former synagogues had been converted into museums or memorials, or had collapsed into ruins. Jewish cemeteries everywhere were a testament to the Jews that had lived and died on European soil, but the living, breathing Jews were hard to find. It's true that Germany lost the war, but Hitler went a long way toward one of his goals: destroying the Jewish population of Europe. It was a chilling realization, and it was shortly after that trip that I began identifying as a Jew.

Still, I was unfazed by moving to Germany. For Americans who grew up in the shadow of World War II, it is easy to forget what a beautiful and interesting country Germany is, and what a rich cultural and artistic heritage it has. But I felt lucky to be moving there, and the strange reactions I was getting from older people struck me as only a reflection of their own anxieties and ignorance.

That opinion certainly hasn't changed now that I live here; if anything, the lingering association between Germans and Nazis seems more archaic and irrelevant than ever. But the truth is that being a Jew in Germany is not a simple matter.

It seems to me that in Germany, Jews are still very much the other. Because of the dark history, and because Jewish people are so scarce now, Jewishness is almost a sacred thing -- people tiptoe around it, talk about it in hushed tones, handle it with care. Synagogues and Jewish community centers (the ones that remain or have sprung up in recent years) are still provided with heavy security. Most major German cities boast elaborate Jewish Museums, designed to inform, remind, and -- on an emotional level, at least -- make reparations.

Along with this overprotection of Jews comes a certain resentment. It is still socially acceptable here to tell jokes and stories that refer to Jewish stereotypes - the stinginess of Jews, for example. (But, then, perhaps it is in many parts of America, too.) And it is unnerving to read articles saying that Neo-Nazi groups are on the rise and to see the occasional swastika spray-painted somewhere. (But, again, see America for similar behavior.)

Beyond this, there is a sense among Germans of being oversaturated with their own history. Although Jews themselves may be scarce, the plight of Jews is heavily emphasized in a German education, and many younger Germans are tired of hearing about the War and feeling guilty about something they didn't do.

The most striking thing for me, however, has been uncovering my own prejudices. When I started a job teaching at an international school here, there were a number of blond, blue-eyed children in my 8th grade homeroom who eerily called to my mind the Hitler Youth. Not only that, but they were popular, and seemed to wield a lot of social power over the students from foreign countries who came in all shapes, sizes, and colors. I found this social dynamic unnerving.

There was one boy in particular who was often the ringleader. He was a sweet kid, but clearly enjoyed ordering his friends around and being at the center of attention. And -- because he was German and looked it -- this made me wary.

One day, he was absent from school. When he came in the next day, he had a note from his mother saying, "Please excuse my son's absence yesterday. It was a Jewish high holiday and he had to spend the day in synagogue."

It turned out he would be absent the following week, too, because he was having his Bar Mitzvah in Israel.

I have noticed since then that the other kids treat his religion with respect, a touch of special interest, and, ultimately, with an indifference appropriate to their age. And they are the next generation of Germans.