When I posted about my recent experience in Frankfurt, I got a response from an online friend of mine who is an American Jew living in Germany. She was sorry to hear about my impressions of Europe, because they didn’t reflect her own experiences. I was delighted when she offered to write a guest letter about it, because I have been focusing a lot on antisemitism in Europe and I’d like to provide a different, more optimistic perspective.
I met Naomi on an interfaith group on Facebook. As you will see in her letter, she and I share many interests! The rest, I will let her tell you. This letter, like the last few, is in the form of an interview. Enjoy!
I’m Naomi, born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area and currently living in Munich, Germany (with some time spent in between in New York, Prague, and Jerusalem). Over the years I studied creative writing, history, dance, and social work–I currently have a master’s degree in social work–and my passions and interests largely lie in the arts, working with people, culinary adventures, and being outdoors.
My cultural and religious background is somewhat multifaceted, as I was initially raised as a Reform/liberal Ashkenazi Jew, then my parents became more Jewishly observant and joined a Modern Orthodox synagogue. From preschool through high school, I attended Jewish day schools (and was in the first graduating class of two brand new ones) where I learned Hebrew, some Aramaic and a ton about Judaism.
Though I’d consider myself “just Jewish” these days, I feel quite well-versed in my religion. And growing up in the Bay Area I’d probably describe my cultural leanings as “liberal, curious and open.” I ended up in Germany as my husband was getting his PhD here. I initially worked as an au pair for a year prior to grad school, then returned after I finished my degree right before our weddings. (Yes, we had two weddings!1) I spent a lot of time here in between as well.
I [Daniella] posted recently about a negative experience I had in Germany and the discomfort I feel as a Jew in Europe. (Josep also shared, in the comments, about a negative experience he had in Berlin.) We also had a guest letter from a French Jew who loves France dearly, but feels very uncomfortable there as a Jew. Your experience, in contrast, has been largely positive. Can you tell us about that?
My experience as a Jew in Europe has been somewhat unique, particularly in the context of most German Jewry; I have some knowledge and experience of Jewish life in the Czech Republic as well. So I have to preface this by saying that I can’t really speak for all of Europe as a continent, as it’s very heterogenous and Jewish communities vary wildly throughout the region.
By “unique” I mean the fact that I am neither German nor from a former Soviet Republic, the two communities that make up the majority of Germany’s Jewry, so I’m a bit of an outsider in that regard being an American.
My husband, son, and I belong to the liberal Jewish synagogue in Munich, which in and of itself has been a positive experience. It’s a very warm and welcoming community with a diverse membership; we have Brazilian, Israeli, and Australian members, to name a few countries. I started becoming involved in an organization called Rent a Jew2, where Jewish community members go to schools and workplaces to put a human face on the Jewish community and share personal anecdotes and experiences about Judaism.
As one might imagine, Jews are rather a minority in Germany (there are quite a few in urban areas such as Munich, but don’t make up a significant part of the country’s population), so being Jewish is a different experience than in a place like New York City or London, where one can often assume that people have heard of holidays like Hanukkah or know that there is such a thing as kosher food. You really can’t assume any kind of basic knowledge, so people often have questions for me if they find out about my background–or, very interestingly, people will often mention that they themselves have some Jewish heritage–particularly in Prague, where the vast majority of our friends have at least one direct Jewish ancestor.
Despite this, I have never personally encountered any direct anti-Semitism or prejudice, just occasional curiosity. Sometimes there is a sense of being left out during the holidays, but this is honestly a similar experience anywhere outside of Israel. I think being Jewish here in Europe has strengthened my Judaism, as we have to make more of a conscious effort to be involved, unlike somewhere like New York City where you’re basically Jewish by default just living there (kidding, kidding). I imagine that for the few observant Jews living in Munich, you have to be particularly strong, as there is only one kosher restaurant and grocery store, and no eiruv around the community to allow for things like pushing a stroller on Shabbat, the Jewish Sabbath.3
I also find, on a personal level, something emotionally significant about pursuing Jewish life in Europe after World War Two. I feel strongly that it’s important for Judaism to continue to thrive here. It’s almost like a full circle, as my ancestors had to flee from persecution and now I can come back and, in a way, help “rebuild” within the community.
Also, unlike back in the US, there are hundreds of years of Jewish history here4, and as someone passionate about history, that’s been a fascinating exploration since I’ve been living in Munich.
You are married to a non-Jewish Czech. How have you acculturated to each other’s different backgrounds?
I would say pretty well. My husband probably knows more about Judaism than many Jews! He has learned quite a bit of Torah, is currently studying biblical Hebrew and Yiddish. One of our weddings was also Jewish. So in terms of acclimating to my family’s Jewish background, I’d say he’s very well integrated and very involved.
Culturally speaking, Americans and Czechs have a few differences (from my perspective)–Americans are often perceived as overly effusive and sometimes insincerely friendly, and Czechs are often perceived as being withdrawn and sarcastic. However, these are stereotypes that one side often has of the other, an issue with every country’s culture. My husband has spent quite a lot of time in the US, including two stays as a student, so I think we are each in the position that we have had a lot of time and opportunity to integrate into one another’s communities. Sometimes there are funny differences, like my American family’s bewilderment that most Czechs–and Germans as well–don’t have a dryer. Apparently living without a dryer is very un-American!
When your son was born it was important to you to have him circumcised according to Jewish tradition. Can you tell us about that experience? How did your husband feel about it?
Both my husband and I did feel it was important to have a Brit Milah for our son, to have him connected to the Jewish community through a very tangible and powerful experience. It really is very powerful, as it’s obviously not easy to have such a tiny baby go through that, and as a mom you are just recovering yourself from childbirth and are totally out of it–so it’s an intense day for everyone involved. It felt especially significant to have him have his Brit Milah in a country where the ritual is extremely rare and occasionally under threat (one of the few things that unites Jews and Muslims on a regular basis in Europe). To be completely honest, if it wasn’t such an important facet of Judaism, I’m not sure I would do it of my own volition. But in the end, I am happy he is part of such a lineage, and I’m proud every day of my Jewish-American-Czech-Bavarian little guy (or however else he may choose to describe himself in the future). He is a part of so many cultures, naturally from birth, that I’m almost a bit jealous.
1. That’s nothing! My grandparents had three! …Never mind. Carry on.↩
2. I gotta say, I hadn’t heard of this organization, and when I saw their name I laughed out loud. Can’t decide whether I find it more funny or disturbing…..↩
3. An “eiruv” is a sort of legal fiction that helps us get around the prohibition to carry objects in public areas during the Sabbath. It’s a string connected through a bunch of poles, that acts as a “gate,” which makes the area technically a private area in halakhic terms. Most Jewish neighborhoods and cities have an eiruv. Barcelona does not, Josep, which is why I found myself walking to the synagogue on Friday evening with no passport, key card, or wallet. In retrospect, that was not a very smart thing to do. But I was hungry and hoping to be invited for a meal, and it never occurred to me that anyone else would be interested in tagging along. I guess I didn’t know you well enough at that point! I could have been your ticket in!!! 😉 ↩
4. Just to be precise–as I’m sure Naomi knows–there are hundreds of years of Jewish history in the USA, but obviously, far fewer than in Europe. The first American Jews were Sephardim fleeing Spanish persecution in the 16th century.↩
Are you a Jew living in an unusual place? Or any other person with something interesting to share? Please consider sending us a guest letter!
To view previous guest letters, click here.
1 thought on “Guest Letter from Naomi: An American Jew in Munich”
Beautifully written and I commend her for such a rational, and heartfelt commentary.