Thursday, July 26, 2007

Just an Ordinary Jew (Ein Ganz Gewöhnlicher Jude): A Review

One of life’s more painful contradictions is that we are taught to seek the truth and to get along with others simultaneously, usually without preparation for the fact that these goals often conflict.

When they do, most give priority to getting along. There are some, however, who bear the lonely burden of an inability to surrender truth to what passes for common wisdom. God help them if they also happen to have a thin skin.

Akin to the problem of being right in a world of people who are wrong is the problem of being alone in your identity. It leads to a similar kind of loneliness – the loneliness of knowing something that others don’t or can’t know. It too requires a thick skin.

Imagine yourself a Jew in Germany. A German Jew. A person who has grown up in post-fascist Germany, where the common wisdom is that the holocaust was a shame that cries for recognition, restitution and reconciliation. Where people look at you as a means for them to demonstrate that their heart is in the right place. If you have trouble setting this up, translate it to being a liberal white inclined to demonstrate to blacks that you are not now nor ever have been a racist. And imagine how the black person must feel.

I tried to explain to a black person back in the 60s that “we” were simply wondering why so many black middle class people were moving out of the ghettos without looking back and without taking responsibility for those left behind. I’ll never forget the sneer. “Where do you get off thinking the problems of East and West Oakland are mine any more than yours?”

I went quite on the spur of the moment to see Ein ganz gewöhnlicher Jude (Just an Ordinary Jew) at the Jewish Film Festival yesterday. It’s a one-man show, a strange kind of contrivance – more dramatized essay than performance – that strikes some as artificial and dull. What could be worse than talking heads except possibly this, a movie made almost entirely with only one talking head.

To make things worse, it’s a rant. And if that were not bad enough, it’s a rant that has to be deciphered in subtitles, unless you happen to know German.

There. If that doesn’t keep you away, I can’t guess what will. But if you stay away, I think you’ll be making a mistake. It should not be missed, although you’re probably going to have to really hunt to find it outside of Jewish film festivals, unfortunately.

Emanuel Goldfarb is the only child of a Jewish father who returned to Germany after the war “because it was home.” Emanuel prospers, has native talents which enable him to shed the shopkeeper family history and move among the elite, share in the cultural treasures, and reach a place in life most people envy. Financially secure. Respected. Apparently unlimited.

It all breaks down one day when asked by an eighth grade social studies teacher to come talk to a class about being Jewish. Seemingly out of nowhere comes rage.

I watched this man on the screen rage for eighty-eight minutes at the cards he was dealt, and felt exhausted at the end, in the recognition that the burden he was saddled with felt to him as mine does to me, a hell with no exit.

I am drawn to rage. Rage is personal to me. Many years ago a friend said to me, “If you don’t control your rage, you will go on forever losing battles, because all conflicts will end up being defined as your inability to come to terms with anger.”

The friend was right, of course, and I have a long string of anecdotes to support her contention. Rage, the tiger some of us need to ride to keep from surrendering to despair, takes us to the edge. One false move, we fear, and it’s over.

I want to avoid comparisons. Comparisons suggest a hierarchy of ills in a case like this – my injustice is greater than your injustice. My rage started with being classed as a pervert, evolved into a rage at society for being so wrong about homosexuality, and now sits largely contained, but capable of bubbling to the surface at times without warning as the world gives evidence that it doesn’t understand or care what it is like to live “differently.” In fact, it gets worse. The word comes down that many like me have managed to accentuate the positive, see the glass as half full, stress the shared values, appreciate the progress in tolerance. “What the hell is wrong with you that you haven’t?”

Emanuel Goldfarb is hit with the same charges. The same internalized critique. And that’s the rub, the fact that the charges come from within. The film is shown almost exclusively at Jewish film festivals because it is about being a Jew and about German-Jewish relations. Like any well-done creative work (and this is brilliantly done, in my view) it can be read in different ways by different people. Some will see in it a reminder that Germans need to suffer for generations more for having committed genocide. Some will see pathos in the fact that Emanuel Goldfarb is a tiny minority within a very small minority – Jews in Germany are 90% Russian. A “genuinely German Jew” is indeed a rare bird.

Others will feel sympathy for Germany and give credit for efforts at Wiedergutmachung. Love that word. It means restitution, but German builds words from German, not Latin roots, and the word itself says it all: “making good again.”

Like most people, Goldfarb has lived by distractions. A secular Jew, he has not sought out community. But as heir to the holocaust (ironically both as German and as Jew), the shedding of an identity which few others share (because they have been scattered or murdered in massive numbers), the cost of not living up to one’s parents’ (and their community’s) expectations, comes at too high a cost to the psyche. Goldfarb wants to be “ordinary” but history does not permit it. To be a Jew in Germany is to be anything but ordinary. To be a Jew is to represent whatever it is in the minds of others that Jews are supposed to represent.

Be good in school. It means Jews will get more respect. Fall down and the Jewish people fall down. Rules he learns from his mother. Here’s another lens through which to see the film. One of the main reasons a long term relationship I was in with a former Vietnamese lover came to an end was that he couldn’t come out – because it would alienate him from his Vietnamese community and to betray his community would be to betray his family and to betray his family would be to lose his soul.

All in his head, I told him. Precisely, he told me.

In the end, it’s a race between those out to get you and those trying to kill you with kindness. Some go through life programmed to be different. They seek uniqueness in tattoos, in dress, in acting out. Others go through life programmed to be ordinary. They come up with rules for passing on that value to their children like the Japanese saying, “It’s the nail that sticks out that gets hammered down.” It’s like a blood type. At the same film festival was Dani Levy, who just created a huge uproar in Germany by breaking the taboo against portraying the nazis through comedy. Another Jew in Germany, apparently not even close to suffering the pains of an Emanuel Goldfarb. Jew in Germany Type A; Jew in Germany Type B.

In the end, the film will appeal more to other Type A people, people for whom the life of the mind takes precedence over action. To them it will say less about the truth of anti-Semitism than about the cost to some of us of Socrates’ well-examined life. Not a task for the faint-hearted.

The book is by Swiss author Charles Lewinsky, the role is played by Ben Becker, and the film was directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel. Hirschbiegel made his international reputation in 2004 with Downfall, the film about the last days of Hitler, played by Bruno Ganz, which won him an Academy Award nomination.

Just an Ordinary Jew plays once more in the Bay Area – on Wednesday, August 1 at 4:30 at the Roda Theater in Berkeley.

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