"Delightful. . . . [Lesser] makes it possible to find yourself, and your own relationships, in her raw anatomy of love between friends." —Los Angeles Times“The three intensely personal essays that make up this trenchant little volume display Lesser’s talent for brilliant, merciless self-criticism. She emerges as quirkily attractive and consistently interesting.” —The Atlantic Monthly"It is [Lesser’s] growing sense of doubt that expands and textures these essays as she reveals . . . the foiled expectations, unexpected discoveries and lively contradictions nested in her subjects." —San Francisco Chronicle“Erudite, discursive. . . . Her self-knowledge is acutely, fluidly, even beautifully rendered.” —The Washington Post“A sensitive, literate writer with smart and provocative things to say about art and life.” —Houston Chronicle
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Part One: Out of Berlin
I expected to go a lifetime without ever setting foot in Germany. When I first began traveling to Europe as a college student, it was Ireland, Britain, Holland, France, and Italy that I ended up visiting—neither wholly by chance nor wholly by choice, but in that drifty, in-between way college students do things. Afterwards, when I was living in England for two years, it would have been easy enough to go to Germany, but I didn’t. And then, as I grew into my thirties and forties, this coincidence hardened into a resolve. “I have never been to Germany” became one of the totemic sentences of my identity, like “I have never been to a professional ball game” or “I have never been sky-diving.” And never will, these sentences implied.
But of course Germany was a different case. Nothing prevented me from attending ball games or taking up sky-diving except fear—fear of crowds and boredom in the former instance, just plain fear in the latter. The feeling that kept me away from Germany, while it had elements of fear mingled into it, was much more complicated. It partook of moral distaste and historical allegiance. It stemmed from a notion that Jews do not visit Germany, and broadened out to include all morally upright people in its scope. I found myself unduly shocked when friends of mine reported that they had enjoyed their trips to Germany. “Shocked” is perhaps not the right word: I found it incomprehensible that one could have a good time there. And since pleasure (though sometimes a very abstruse pleasure, of a sort that other people might call work) is what fuels all my travel decisions, I couldn’t imagine ever wanting to go to Germany.
My Jewishness, though it clearly had something to do with this attitude, was not enough to explain it. I am not and have never been a very good Jew. Born into a family of secular Jews in which religious disbelief went back several generations, I grew up celebrating Christmas and attending school on Jewish holidays, as did most of the other California Jews I knew; in fact, we were all so assimilated that I barely knew which of my childhood friends were Jewish and which were not. On my father’s side, there had once been some synagogue-going by my grandfather, but that, I suspect, was largely for business purposes: as a child, I was told that this grandfather had been sent to San Quentin for selling land that didn’t exist “to other members of the synagogue,” a description which managed to suggest that the crime inhered mainly in the tribal betrayal. My father’s reaction to having a father like this was to become scrupulously rule-abiding and unshakably agnostic.
My mother’s relationship to Judaism was slightly more mystical. Her parents—a Russian-Jewish woman, staunchly tough and unremittingly difficult during all the years I knew her, who had wanted to be a doctor but had been channeled by anti-Semitism and anti-feminism into nursing; and a man about whom I have no information except that his name was Ephraim Gerson, that he abandoned his family when the children were young, and that he joined the Communist Party shortly before dying of alcoholism—had no religious feelings whatsoever. Perhaps because of this, my mother longed to see what religious belief felt like. She would introduce into our family bizarre versions of Jewish practice in an attempt to simulate the real thing. At one point she insisted we have a Passover seder, and when the Haggadah specified that a ceremonial bone be placed on the table, she went out to the backyard and fetched in the family dog’s chewed-up bone. One year she attempted to ban Christmas from the house. (I cannot remember whether my sister and I overcame the ban that year, or only the following year.) Her second marriage, to a non-Jew, was conducted by a rabbi. None of these attempts were viewed by either me or my sister as serious efforts to inculcate us with religion. And the result, in my case, is that I am a devout atheist who acknowledges her Jewish ancestry mainly because it would seem to be caving in to Hitler not to do so.
Hitler was a definite presence in my childhood. Though he was already seven years dead by the time I was born, he lived on in the collective imagination as the ultimate incarnation of evil. Among people my age, he was the endpoint of every philosophical argument (“Well, would you believe in the death penalty if it were Hitler being executed?”) and a useful spur to action (when I ran fast in schoolyard races, I always imagined being chased by the Nazis). In our secular household he stood in for the devil, but he was much more effective than the devil, in that his works were undeniable. Among the pictures in our family photograph albums was a yellowing news photo my mother had preserved from her youth, a picture of a Jewish child looking straight at the camera as she was herded off to a concentration camp. Though she looked as if she could have been related to us, she was not: all our relatives (with whom, in any case, we were mostly not on speaking terms) were safely in America by the time of Hitler’s rise to power. But it was made clear to me that he would have come after me if he could have. Being merely Jew-ish, as Jonathan Miller puts it, would not have been enough to save me.
We were not the kind of family that boycotted all things German. Our cars were Volkswagen Bugs, we had a recording of Lotte Lenya singing The Threepenny Opera, and one of the few things my mother taught me to cook was a raisin-studded noodle kugel, identical in its title and contents to the dish made by a Lutheran friend I met at college. But the strange thing is that when German things did seep into our household, I always faintly imagined they were Jewish. It was not until I was well into adulthood, for instance, that I realized Bertolt Brecht was not a Jew.
These misperceptions of mine were not entirely wrong. One of the things I was to discover, when I eventually went to Berlin, was how deeply Jewish that city’s culture still is. Or perhaps what I observed is how deeply the German and Jewish cultures had once entered into each other, so that the versions we now have of them, at least here in America and there in Berlin, are still colored by that mutual infusion. It’s not just a matter of language, though it’s true that for an urban, coastal American, German words are mostly familiar because they sound like Yiddish. And it’s not just that many Jews used to live in Berlin (seventy percent of the city’s lawyers, I’ve read, and ninety percent of its doctors, or perhaps it was the other way around, were Jewish in 1930). The real oddity lies in the number of things about the city that still feel Jewish: for instance, its passion for concert-hall performances—for art and culture in any of their manifestations, really; or its insistence on punctuality; or the blunt, practical manner of its inhabitants. Arriving in Berlin, I felt in some strange way as if I were coming to a homeland I’d never known about, a place where people shared all my personal quirks. My love of order, my brusque aggressiveness, my linear mode of thought, my insistence on constantly distinguishing better from worse, all blended in with the surrounding culture rather than marking me off as a weirdo, as they had in California. Some of these qualities could have, and did, find fellowship in New York, but that did not surprise me: Jews still lived there, after all. What amazed me was that even more of these Jewish traits of mine (if they were indeed Jewish, and not just mysteriously, inexplicably German) found a roost, a homecoming, in this city from which the Jews had mainly disappeared.
There were lots of Jews, though, where I was staying in Berlin—at the American Academy, out in Wannsee. When I say “lots,” I mean proportionally: of the twelve or fourteen fellows who were there when I was, five of us were Jews and a sixth, though nominally Christian, did most of his research in Jewish Studies. The large house in which the Academy was located had once been owned by a wealthy Berlin Jew named Hans Arnhold, and the fellowship program was still partially subsidized by the Arnhold heirs in New York, all of whom had left Germany with plenty of time to spare. The director of the American Academy was a Texas Jew, Gary Smith, who had married into a prominent Jewish-connected German family (his wife, the daughter of a former mayor of Berlin, had actually converted to Judaism in her youth) and who tended to run the Academy as if it were a version of his own extended clan. At Yom Kippur, for instance, he asked around the dining room to see who would want tickets to services. (“Are you Jewish?” he asked me, in his hurried search for possible ticket-needers. “How can you even ask?” responded one of my fellow fellows, a Leningrad-born Jew who could perceive the lineaments of my Russian grandmother’s face in mine.) As Christmas approached, all the other houses on our street sported a profusion of lights and decorations, in the traditional Berlin manner; only our grand property remained austerely bare.
The townlet of Wannsee, which managed to be both part of and apart from the city of Berlin, had its own complicated history. The last outpost of West Berlin during the days of the Wall, it sat on a beautiful string of lakes which at that time divided western Berlin from East Germany. Earlier, in the 1920s, Wannsee had been a pastoral suburb where many Jews and other Berliners had large weekend houses. (One such Jewish family, the department-store-owning Landauers, are featured in Christopher Isherwood’s slightly fictionalized Goodbye to Berlin.) In between these two periods, it was the site of the notorious Wannsee Conference, at which Hitler’s henchmen arrived at the Final Solution. The Wannsee Conference House, now a museum detailing the Nazi extermination of the Jews, had a strange dual role in my Berlin life. On the one hand, it was just a physical place, not quite visible from my balcony but easily accessible via a short bus ride, a specific location from which you could start a lovely lakeside walk to Potsdam or Peacock Island. (“Meet me outside the Final Solution House,” you might say to a friend with whom you were planning an afternoon excursion.) And on the other hand it was a specter, a monstrous thing, a building that I actually refused to set foot inside during my entire time there, because even though I no longer believe in the concept of evil (it has been debased by its recent appearances in American political language, and besides, I deplore its religious overtones), I felt something very much like evil emanating from that house, the one time I stood close to it and peered through the gates.
Many visitors to Berlin, and not just Jews, had what I considered an unhealthy desire to wallow in the recent history of extermination. People were always telling me about one or another not-to-be-missed monument: the preserved train tracks out by the Grünwald S-Bahn station, where each plaque recorded the number of Jews deported that day; or the in-progress Holocaust memorial, a set of tombstone-like cubes dotting a patch of barren ground between Potsdamer Platz and the Brandenburg Gate; or the recently completed Jewish Museum, designed by that self-promoting master of the Architecture of Victims school, Daniel Libeskind. I did, against my own better judgment, visit the Jewish Museum (an artily off-kilter structure whose sense of “dislocation” is more suited to a modern-art museum than a monument to the displaced), and I was deeply offended, as I suspected I would be, by its grotesque breast-beating. “This way to the Memory Void!” trumpeted the Disneyesque signs leading me into the Holy of Holies of remembrance—and then, when I got there, I was expected to walk on the flat metallic “faces” of symbolic dead Jews. This I declined to do, and, fleeing through room after room of exhibits about European Jews and their sufferings and achievements, I focused on converting my sense of unease into an ethical theory. A system of morality, I decided, was only truly moral if it was based on a certain degree of impersonality, of detachment. It was impossible to act in the world as if we identified with everyone equally, but ethical behavior demanded that we at least make the effort to act in this way. I felt, therefore, morally offended by all this championing of the Jews, all this elaboration of the wrongs done to them alone, as if those were the only wrongs that mattered. Or so I told myself at the time. It’s also the case that I, personally, didn’t need to be told what the Germans did to the Jews. It was the one thing I knew about them before I got to Berlin; it is the only thing that many Americans my age know about the Germans. I was there to find something else.
I would not, probably, have been so willing to look for that something else had I not been persuaded of the Germans’ sense of self-recrimination. In their own eyes, and not just the eyes of the world, the Germans are the people who murdered six million Jews. The poet C. K. Williams, who stayed at the American Academy in Berlin five years before I did, has written a very smart essay about the fact that the Germans and the Jews are alike now because they are both “symbolic” people. I won’t try to recapitulate his argument, since he has put his case more elegantly and lucidly than I could, but I will use its sharp central idea, which I think is both true and not true, to hone my own amorphous thoughts. Yes, the Jews and the Germans are now joined at the hip, historically and morally. And yes, what they have in common is something to do with abstraction as a way of viewing entire populations: both Jews and Germans are now seen, even by themselves, as if from the outside. But there is a huge difference between viewing yourself as special because you have generally and particularly been persecuted, and viewing yourself as special because you were once a terrible persecutor. The former does not demand an ethical response; the latter does. Jews do not, and should not, need to examine their own beliefs or activities to discover why the Third Reich did what it did to them, but Germans do need, and have needed, to conduct this kind of rigorous self-examination. And the result is a society that is acutely and unremittingly self-conscious about ethical behavior.
This is an entirely different thing from being the homeland of Kant, Hegel, and Nietzsche; it is ethical philosophy of a very practical kind. There is a level of moral awareness that invades everything in the country’s daily existence, from the way it is governed to how people act toward each other on trains. I am not saying that this scrupulosity has resulted in the perfection of human nature. On the contrary, it has not even succeeded in wiping out anti-Semitism (not to mention other forms of racial prejudice) in Germany. But what it has done is to produce a nation of people who are very much alive to their own capacity for unforgivable behavior—a capacity, they have learned, that is completely in keeping with being a nice, civilized, conventional sort of person in ordinary life. It is this knowledge about their own darkest side which made the Germans seem so admirable to me.