June 8, 2018 Hasidic tours for German tourists
A reader asked: What’s it like for Jews to work with Germans?
I don’t live in Germany, but I am ain the Hasidic community in New York, and Germans are definitely my biggest customer demographic.
The first time I did a tour for Germans, I felt very torn about it. The Hasidic community is a community of Holocaust survivors. My grandparents had number-tattoos, all four of them. My zeidy lost a whole family. A whole family, wiped out, because of Germany. Was it okay to show Germans the current Hasidic community in an honest, humanizing way?
I tend to believe it is a good thing, but I felt terrible because I know many in the community would disagree.
We have had some interesting experiences.
The Germans whom I met have been my most thoughtful and sensitive customers. That’s the truth. They don’t delight in rushing to judgment and getting into an exciting outrage over backwardness and injustice. I am sure there are people who hide terrible prejudices, but most people I meet seem to be really aware of the terrible danger of dehumanizing a whole group. The German education in recent years really tried to reckon with the Holocaust, and it shows. They come to the Hasidic community because they want to understand more. Because this issue is important to them. It’s like the German equivalent of America’s racism reckoning and reparations. Are there not still racists in America? Sure. And there are anti-semites in Germany. But those who bother to come to my tour seemed to be the ones who truly learned from history.
And it’s been an interesting experience for me. Especially because they are the one group that, ironically, can understand when I speak in my secret language, Yiddish.
We once went into a pastry shop to get some treats. I told all the folks to choose two pastries, on me. A Hasidic man came in and looked. I realized he was listening to the foreign speakers, listening to their language.
“Vere are you from?” he asked.
I held my breath. Here goes. Everyone was from Germany. “Deutschland.”
He nodded. Then said to the Hasidic man at the register: “Dis whole group is on me.” and to us, “Take anything you want. I pay.”
Another time, we walked down Bedford Avenue and a slightly crazy-looking lady came up to us, huffing and puffing, her headgear off-kilter, her coat too small, and said really fast because she swallowed her words: “Don’t come here. Your people come here and it’s not modest. Go somewhere else.”
Someone told her something, I don’t remember how it went down, but she suddenly picked up on the German.
She was suddenly all alert, shifted gear. “Whereareyoufrom? Whereiseveryonefrom?”
“Germany?! You know we were all killed by you? Everyone here. Everyone here. Someone else’s family killed. You killed our grandfathers… they are still…”
She suddenly noticed an old hunkered down lady with a walker coming towards us. This Bubby was wearing a washed-out pink turban and had a black woman as her aid. The reprimanding yenta grabbed bubby and pulled her over and asked “You were in Auschwitz, right?”
The bubby managed to croak out “yuh, yuh. Ich bin geveyn…”
“See!” the frazzled one said, red-cheeked with passion.
When she left, some Germans were upset, which is to say a lot for Germans, because they aren’t as emotive as Americans. One woman said, “None of us were alive. You know, I was always so ashamed to be German. The first time I felt a hint of okay with being German was when Merkel welcomed all the Syrian refugees,” and she seemed very sad.
Then again, last Sunday, we had 13 people on a tour, and most were Germans. When we were in the bakery, a Hasidic man, about in his sixties, again showed interest, and I thought, “Uh oh. Here we go again.”
He was too pious to speak with women, so he spoke to the first man he saw, my little kiddo, not so man yet. He asked my son where we are from.
Then the Hasid asked a well-built German. “You? Vere?”
“Germany. And my vife is Poland.”
Suddenly the Hasid launched into a conversation in Polish, and they chatted like old buddies. They chatted so long that I had to pull the German guy away so we could move along. When he finally parted ways with his “new friend” the German said, “Dis man is… he speaks all languages. He spoke Polish. German. Hungarian. Russia. He speaks everything. He’s… an amazing person, my new friend.”
A few other people who understood these languages nodded, nodded, wow.
A Hasidic language savant and a German tourist shake hands in New York and call each other friends. It’s a fascinating world.