Skip to content

How German Isn’t It

The ceremonial performance of Jewishness in Germany

Since October 7, German politicians have proposed rescinding the nationality of German citizens, restricting the civil rights of non-EU foreign residents, and limiting the number of children with a migration background who can attend any given school, which have been promoted as means for preserving and supporting “Jewish life” in the country. A German politician credibly accused of harboring neo-Nazi sympathies in his youth blamed the country’s antisemitism on immigration. Germany’s largest newspaper published a fifty-point manifesto on what it means to be German; number forty-seven reads, “Germany has a heart for children. They are not beaten but promoted.” A prominent German journalist published an article with the title: “The Jews or Aggro-Arabs: we have to decide who we want to keep.” The Anti-Semitism Commissioner of Baden-Württemberg, who is not Jewish, wrote, “The Nazis were still hiding their mass murders, whereas Hamas celebrated them in the media, like Daesh before them.”

Not everything is as it seems in Germany. That tree? It used to be a Jew. That building was once a Jew. That streetlamp was a Jew. And the Jews? It seems they’re all Germans.

In 2021, the writer Fabian Wolff published a long essay in Die Zeit entitled “Only in Germany.” It is a sterling example of an increasingly popular essay genre he spells out in the second paragraph: “I am a Jew in Germany.”

“I don’t enjoy writing this in German, a language I often experience as a burden,” the essay begins. Wolff’s family history has gifted him “the famous packed suitcase under the bed,” he writes. “Why is everything so goddamn German in Germany?” he wonders. The bulk of the essay is devoted to assailing the patronizing assurance of German attitudes toward Jews, with a particular focus on a government-led campaign equating any criticism of Israel with antisemitism. This campaign coalesced in 2019, when the German government designated the “methods and argumentative patterns” of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement as antisemitic. As Wolff demonstrates in case after case, even an accusation of antisemitism is enough to effectively shut you out of public life in Germany. Many of those accused by Germany’s diligent gentile officials are themselves Jewish.

Wolff ends the essay with a call for a pluralistic Judaism beyond the bounds of German instrumentalization. “If we can’t choose our own path,” he writes, “then I would at least like to see, with open eyes, where the storm of progress is blowing us; instead of being gagged and blindfolded by the goyim, claiming, as always, that they know what’s better for me, what’s better for us.” The essay was translated into English and Wolff rose to international prominence. He seemed to signify a new sort of German-Jewish intellectual: young, pugilistic, ironic, left-wing, able to successively reference Susan Taubes and trap music. But publicity has its perils.

Not a year seems to pass without a scandal involving the identity of a prominent German Jew.

In July 2023, Wolff published a rambling, evasive mea culpa in Die Zeit that has produced an even greater sensation than his “Only in Germany” essay. It could be succinctly summarized as: I am not a Jew in Germany. Wolff reveals that he has no Jewish ancestry. It was an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm in which Larry David believes he is not Jewish, he writes, that initially led him to inquire into a Jewish identity. “Mama, are we actually Jewish?” he recalls asking his mother afterwards. Not really, she responded, but there was a story about grandma. Wolff’s maternal grandmother’s grandmother was supposedly Jewish, a silver bullet of matrilineal descent across the upheavals of European Jewish history. “Suddenly,” he remembers, “everything seemed to make sense. I simply knew what it meant to be Jewish.” If the story were true, Wolff would have ethnically been one-sixteenth Jewish. But the story was not true: Wolff, alas, is sixteen parts Goy.

In the eyes of many German critics, Wolff’s greatest sin was to argue, in the guise of a Jewish identity, that supporting a boycott of Israel is not necessarily antisemitic, even though he did not support such a boycott himself. Wolff was subsequently castigated as a costume Jew (Kostümjude) by Germany’s largest Jewish and gentile newspapers. He’s been called an aspiring Kronzeugejude (key witness Jew). Contra Wolff’s complaints about German, this is a language with an astonishingly nimble capacity for creating neologisms on the word Jew:

Alibijude: an alibi Jew, one who provides cover for antisemitic (or anti-Israel) rhetoric

Berufsjude: a professional Jew, a Jew by profession

Faschingsjude: a carnival Jew

Großvaterjude: someone who has one Jewish grandfather

Kostümjude: a costume Jew

Kronzeugejude: a key witness Jew, providing testimony for antisemitic (or anti-Israel) rhetoric

Meinungsjude: An opinion Jew? Or a Jew by opinion??

Modejude: A fashion Jew??? Or fashionably Jewish????

Schmusejude: a cuddly Jew, one who presumably cuddles up with Germans

Vaterjude: someone who has a Jewish father

Vorzeigejude: a model Jew

With the possible exception of Vaterjude, these constructions are pejoratives about giving the appearance of being Jewish or utilizing your Jewish identity for gain. Far from an aberration, the revelation of Wolff’s fabricated Jewish identity turns out to be something of a German tradition. Not a year seems to pass without a scandal involving the identity of a prominent German Jew.

Prior to Wolff, the most notorious case was that of Marie Sophie Hingst, a popular writer and historian. Her memoiristic blog reportedly had a quarter-million regular readers. Hingst wrote that her grandparents commemorated Kristallnacht by stopping the clocks and waiting for lost relatives to return in the gathering darkness. Her grandmother, she claimed, held summer garden parties for Holocaust survivors with cake and powerful speeches. In 2019, Der Spiegel published an article revealing that Hingst had invented twenty-two Holocaust victims and submitted false paperwork to Yad Vashem to bolster her assumed identity. There was no Jewish grandmother, no Jewish family. She killed herself shortly after the revelations came out.

Wolfgang Seibert was the Jewish community leader of Pinneberg, a small town near Hamburg, for fifteen years. Seibert, as a 2018 Der Spiegel investigation detailed, was baptized Protestant by parents with no Jewish heritage, and had not, contrary to his claims, lost any relatives in the Holocaust. When confronted about his origins, Seibert responded he had always “felt” Jewish. There are many more cases, each involving allegations of an unsubstantiated Jewish identity: Irena Wachendorff, Manfred Böhme, Peter Loth, Karin Mylius, Frank Borner. And these are only the public ones.

Not everyone assumes a Jewish identity; some are satisfied with appearances.

The television journalist Lea Rosh was the public face and most vocal proponent of the campaign to build Berlin’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. Rosh has cultivated a Jewish aura—a Scheinbarjüdin, perhaps. “I don’t look so Aryan,” she once enthused during an interview. Rosh changed her name from Edith to Lea, and unsuccessfully sued the (Jewish) author Ruth Gay for writing that she had done so to sound more Jewish. She once fiercely rejected a proposal to place the Holocaust memorial across from the Reichstag: “Did the ‘German people’ murder the Jews? Hardly.” 

Then there are the literal costume Jews. I have twice witnessed large groups of Germans wearing kippot. Once at a rally against antisemitism and once marching with a large police escort down Sonnenallee, the hub of Arab life in Berlin, chanting pro-Israel slogans. To hold a sign that said “Stop Genocide” or “From the River to the Sea” on that same street today would invite certain arrest and potentially criminal prosecution. The police violently suppressed demonstrations and even basic symbols of Palestinian identity on Sonnenallee in the weeks following October 7; I had to extricate a friend, a prominent (Jewish) journalist, from one such demonstration after he was pepper-sprayed for filming the brutal arrest of a man whose crime was to hold a Palestinian flag. But few here are trying to co-opt a Palestinian identity.

Some years ago, a friend of mine was invited to a Shabbat dinner. The attendees all gave the appearance of being religiously observant. They knew the hymns, the men wore kippot, one even had payot. The hosts insisted that my friend recite the various blessings. Through a chance comment during dinner, he discovered he was the only Jew in attendance. They were Germans who enjoyed enacting Jewish rituals, and wanted a Jew to unwittingly give his blessing.

Many more Germans than Wolff, Hingst, and Seibert “feel Jewish.” Jewish community archives evidence that many Germans attempted to “discover” their Jewish heritage after the war. Everyone seems to have a Jewish aunt here. Or their grandparents were in the resistance. Or maybe it was their great-aunt. Others have simply converted. Walter Homolka converted to Judaism as a teenager and went on to become one of the most powerful rabbis in Germany. He effectively controlled the most important institutions associated with non-orthodox Judaism in Germany and shared the stage with Angela Merkel and other politicians.

Homolka did not hesitate to speak on behalf of all Jews when he said, “the Shoah is no longer central to my generation.” Not even his inordinate interest in Jesus could diminish his standing as a preeminent Jewish authority. His downfall began in 2022, when it emerged that his long-time partner had sent a cantorial student a video of an erect penis being stroked in 2019. Homolka was subsequently accused of abuse of power and discrimination by the Central Council of Jews in Germany. The whistleblower identified as “A.” in the council’s eight hundred page report about the affair testifies that Homolka once encouraged him to take a job in South Africa, where there were “huge black cocks” (riesigen schwarzen Schwänzen).

Nor is Homolka an anomaly in German Jewish life, where converts (gerim) play a disproportionate role. In 2022, a Jewish-born cantor—what in German might be called a Biojüdin—lost her job at a Berlin synagogue after speaking out against the influence of converts in German Jewish life. One German Jewish historian, Barbara Steiner, has written a book about the phenomenon and history of Germans converting to Judaism. She finds, perhaps unsurprisingly, that the primary motivations for most converts are manifestations of guilt in one guise or another. Steiner elsewhere characterized Fabian Wolff as an antisemite who assumed his identity with the express purpose of criticizing Israel. She, too, is a convert.

Wolff was not the only German-Jewish (or formerly Jewish) intellectual writing such essays. His was perhaps the most spectacular representative, but such quasi-confessional essays about the experience of being Jewish in Germany have been published with increasing frequency over the past decade. The majority of these essays have appeared in the feuilleton, the cultural section of the country’s major national newspapers, which are devoted to reviews, criticism, and essays. Once the haunts of Heine, Walter Benjamin, Joseph Roth, etc., today’s feuilletons serve to flatter the intelligence of an educated German, and come complete with reading instructions. Now I will discuss, here we will return to, later I will explain . . .

The most prominent German papers have a house Jew—the Hausjude, possibly—ready to comment on relevant issues, such as who is Jew, what is Jew, the antisemitism of the left, the antisemitism of artists, the antisemitism of everyone but Germans. Some of these writers are minor celebrities in their own right. There is an outsized, voyeuristic interest in Germany for highly curated notions of “Jewish culture,” “Jewish voices,” “Jewish life,” preferably untrammeled by impure, foreign influences. There are about as many Jewish museums in Germany (many housed in former synagogues) as there are in the United States, a country with a population four times its size and somewhere between thirty to sixty times as many Jews, which, as such, doesn’t need to put them behind glass.

German television recently ran an award-winning talk show called Freitagnacht Jews (Friday Night Jews) that featured a roundtable of Jews talking about what it’s like growing up Jewish in Germany. Vogue Germany once ran a column called “Jewish Today”—subhed: “The everyday life of a German Jewess, who takes us on a journey through a world we hardly know”—where readers could learn about Jewish bodies, Jewish sex, Jewish doubt, Jewish decision-making and why Jewish men can’t come as quickly thanks to circumcision. Germans love the peculiarity of Semitic sorrows, the specificity of Jewish joys. They love klezmer music. They will solemnly nod their head when you tell them, “My grandfather is a tree.”

The great beneficiaries of this funereal interest, assuming they don’t criticize Israel too much, are Israelis. In common perception, Israeli is synonymous with Jewish. The reality is more complicated inside of Israel, but Israelis are nonetheless regarded as the summa of all things Jewish by a German public whose thinking is still fundamentally characterized by a nation-state framework. And the cultural predilections of Israeli society—an obsession with interrogating Israeli identity as a sort of special existential condition, an enormous capacity for self-aggrandizement and self-pity—conveniently align with German expectations of “Jewish culture,” and largely mirror those of German society. Germany is the largest market for translated Israeli literature in the world.

The existence of living Jews in Germany today has been utilized in a “theater of memory” to rehabilitate Germany’s self-image. Everyone has a role: contrite Germans, conciliatory Jews.

Many major German cities and some states have their own “Israeli-Jewish” cultural festival or a “Jewish” cultural festival, “Jewish” film festival, etc., which is actually Israel, Israel, Israel . . . Weh, as a Wagner character might say. The German cultural apparatus has gleefully planted its puckered, unlovely mouth squarely on Jewish history’s most mediocre spigot of culture, elevating them as envoys of the “authentic” Jewish experience, and in doing so have helped inculcate the notion that Israel is the “true” home of the Jewish people. Germans don’t really know what to do with American Jews, who, like one of those mysterious subatomic particles, seem to be American one second and Jewish the next. When a former neighbor found out I was Jewish, he felt the need to tell me that he loved hummus. A tree is a tree.

One American exception to this dynamic is Deborah Feldman, the author of Unorthodox. The story of a young woman fleeing the barbaric ties of Hasidism for freedom-loving Germany mysteriously found a massive audience here. “Deborah Feldman is maybe the best known Jew in the world after Anne Frank,” began one recent review of her new book. The theme of the book is Germany’s fetishization of Jews. Or rather: she was an exception, until she recently began to criticize the selective conception of “Jewish life” in Germany that systematically marginalizes Jews who are critical of Israel and don’t otherwise conform to this ossified perception.

There is no shortage of recent examples supporting her contentions. A cultural center in Berlin had its funding stripped after hosting a peace vigil by a Jewish group, which came with the warning that measures would be taken against “every hidden form of antisemitism.” A museum cancelled the exhibit of a Jewish artist after she had the temerity to call for a cease-fire. When the Israeli filmmaker Yuval Abraham and Palestinian filmmaker Basel Adra won an award at the Berlinale film festival for their documentary about the forced displacement of Palestinians by Israeli settlers, they gave speeches calling for an end to Israeli apartheid and Germany’s arms shipments to Israel.

Kai Wegner, the mayor of Berlin, condemned their speeches and said there was “no room for antisemitism in Berlin”; weeks later he was photographed smiling with Elon Musk, who last year endorsed a post about Jews hating white people as “the actual truth.” The Minister of Justice threatened criminal prosecutions. The Minister of Culture, Claudia Roth, said the speeches were “shockingly one-sided” and “characterized by a deep hatred of Israel.” After she was caught on camera applauding the pair, Roth clarified that her applause was only directed at “the Jewish-Israeli” Abraham.

Not all of the “I am a Jew” essays originate in feuilleton. Max Czollek’s 2018 book De-Integrate Yourselves, maybe the most influential work of Jewish criticism in contemporary German letters, was ostensibly written as a call to arms for other Jews. Yet even this polemic clearly signals to an audience of gentile feuilleton readers. Like Wolff, Czollek is interested in German attitudes towards Jews. He argues that the existence of living Jews in Germany today has been utilized in a “theater of memory” to rehabilitate Germany’s self-image. Everyone has a role: contrite Germans, conciliatory Jews.

Czollek correctly identifies numerous problems only to dig himself deeper into them. A Jewish character from one of Czollek’s plays, quoted in De-Integrate, says, “We’re not your Good Victims, we’re the evil ones.” Good victims, evil victims—what about not being a victim? His interest in Jewish revenge is similarly myopic. Revenge may tickle idle fancy, but his inclusion of the rabid nationalist Meir Kahane (too racist even for Israel) in his pantheon of Jewish avengers might have been a moment to reflect on what “Jewish revenge” actually looks like in practice, and who bears its consequences. Although he occasionally takes care to specify that he is talking about Germany, far too often he extrapolates this into a universal story. The subtitle of the recent English translation is: “A Jewish Survival Guide for the 21st Century.”

Czollek was himself subject to a controversy regarding his identity. In 2021, the writer Maxim Biller accused Czollek of being a Meinungsjude and Faschingsjude for leftists, because he is not halachically Jewish. Czollek has only one Jewish grandparent. The Czollek affair set off a weeks-long feuilleton bonanza. Mirna Funk, perhaps the most prolific writer of “I am Jew in Germany” essays today, initially scolded her fellow columnists that it was an intra-Jewish affair, then publicly accused Czollek of lying about his identity and called him a Großvaterjude. Besides her feuilleton work, Funk previously wrote the “Jewish Today” column for Vogue Germany. Germany’s guide to Judaism first learned in her mid-twenties that she is not halachically Jewish. She is a Vaterjüdin; her mother is German. Patrilineal descent is not recognized by Jewish authorities in Germany, and she has since converted, but the topic is an obsession in her work, as is her quest, aided by Wikipedia, to define Judaism.

Judaism, according to Funk, is “debate culture,” “the eternal search for myself.” A Jewish identity, she seems to say, is to continually answer the question what it means for one to be Jewish. “The most Jewish thing about the Jew was his self-definition. Of himself, of religion, and of the world.” “Next to doubt, nothing is so Jewish as the idea of free choice.” Such definitions of Judaism regularly occur in the “I am a Jew in Germany” corpus. Wolff approvingly quotes an obituary for David Berman: “Wrestling with God, playing the stranger.” Others have a macabre edge. “My problem,” Czollek writes, “is that my own conception of Jewishness began with an enormous pile of corpses.” What emerges from these essays is Jewish identity formulated as a feeling. It is a feeling of being an outsider, it is a feeling of searching for one’s true identity. It is a feeling, most of all, of not being German.

And now, as the feuilleton reading instruction would here indicate, I will come to the main point: to be Jewish in Germany today is to abrogate the possibility of being German and Jewish. “The most fundamental way in which World War II transformed the world,” writes the historian Yuri Slezkine, “was that it gave birth to a new moral absolute: the Nazis as universal evil.” And that evil is ethnic in content: German.

This notion has been integrated into Germany’s self-conception. To be German is to be a Täter, a perpetrator. But the crux of Germany’s national identity, its famed memory culture and the “overcoming of the past,” is, paradoxically, its relationships with Jews, the universal victims. Through empathizing with and supporting Jews, conveniently embodied in the state of Israel, Germans can expiate the evil inherent in being German, passed down from generation to generation as though it were in their blood. Jews become the bearers of an inherited virtue as victims.

Yet far from overcoming the past, this dynamic seems to demand its constant reenactment. Non-Germans can only become German by checking their own histories at the door. Minister of Culture Roth recently told the new Cameroonian-born director of a state cultural institution: “You have become part of the Täternation.” Cameroon was formerly a German colony.

These prevailing tendencies have become ever more apparent in the wake of the horrifying violence in Israel and Palestine over the past months. Germany’s political, media, and cultural elites have rushed to demonstrate who can stand closest to Israel. The identification has been so intense and Israel’s security so frequently invoked as a matter of Staatsräson that at times I have wondered if some Germans don’t believe Hamas’s attack wasn’t obliquely directed at Germany. Vice-Chancellor Robert Habeck gave a much-lauded speech in which he called on Muslims in Germany to “clearly distance themselves from antisemitism so as not to undermine their own right to tolerance.” No similar imperative was given to Germany’s good Christian citizens. Friedrich Merz, the leader of the CDU (Angela Merkel’s party) who is widely presumed to be the frontrunner to become the next chancellor, proposed mandating recognition of Israel’s right to exist as a condition of acquiring German citizenship. His proposal has become reality in the east German state of Saxony-Anhalt.

This formulation of German identity does not offer an inclusive vision for a diversifying country. A friend’s partner, the descendant of Kurdish “guest workers” who arrived after the war, was so impressed by her vociferous school lessons about the misdeeds of Germany’s prior generations that she briefly believed her own grandfather had likewise slaughtered Jews in Europe during the war. Germanness as such has no aspirational, positive content. It’s not hard to understand why some would want to escape this cycle of pathologized guilt, just as it’s not surprising that some would take identification with Jews a step further.

The problem with such abstract notions of Judaism is that it easily becomes a canvas painted in the texture and hues of your own feelings. Neuroticism, dislocation, alienation: it is not a great jump from Jewish identity as a feeling to “feeling Jewish.” Those feelings are not peculiar to Jews, but the frequency of these cases is peculiar to Germany. They rarely crop up in other countries. Not even in Austria, which shares a Nazi history with Germany, if not a historical memory.

It is significant that Wolff, Czollek, and Funk were all born in East Berlin. Walled off from the world, Jews of the former GDR provide a tenuous connection to prewar Jewish life: a fantasy of continuance. “I am one of the few Jews that has a history in Germany from before the Second World War,” Czollek once told a New York Times interviewer. The vast majority of Jews in Germany today are immigrants from the former Soviet Union. Many synagogues in Germany function as Russophone community centers. But there is no continuity because Germany murdered the Jews. That community of German Jews, among whom it was common to boast of being “more German than the Germans,” is gone, scattered. Yet German remains the language of Jewish culture’s greatest secular contributions to world culture, and so that community endures as a gift and example to us all, Jewish or not.

The “I am Jew in Germany” essays articulate something like the opposite: a brittle, uncertain identity in a country that offers Jews many assurances and no certainty. They mark out “Jewish” and “German” as dichotomy of distinct, irreconcilable identities. These essays celebrate “Jewish humor” and are chronically unfunny. They nod to the profundity and factiousness of Jewish culture and hew to the schema of the local Weltanschauung. Profoundly awkward social mannerisms abound. It is almost as though they were . . . German. 

The problem with abstract notions of Judaism is that it easily becomes a canvas painted in the texture and hues of your own feelings.

The farce of this situation is readily apparent. But the tragedy has never lingered far from the surface, and that tragedy has come into clearer view since October 7, which occurred a few weeks after I initially turned in a draft of this essay to a different magazine. Since October 7, German politicians have authorized breaches in the country’s constitutional order on the basis of nebulous sensitivities, unwittingly setting a ruinous precedent for when the far-right Alternativ für Deutschland comes into power. Since October 7, German arms shipments to Israel have risen so substantially that the total for 2023 represented a ten-fold increase from the previous year, and now account for 30 percent of Israeli arms imports (another report puts it as high as 47 percent). And since October 7, those munitions have been used by Israeli forces to kill more than fourteen thousand children in Gaza. Germany has a heart for children.

Ironically, it was Fabian Wolff who argued most prominently for a more global perspective among German Jews. Yet his was also a role: the leftist Jew. And for fundamentally challenging German self-conception, he has paid more dearly than a buffoon like Walter Homolka, who recently returned to teaching at the university where he once held enormous sway.

“Nothing that is really your own can impress you,” wrote Witold Gombrowicz, who grappled with the role play inherent to identity more acerbically than any other writer. “If, therefore, our greatness or our past impresses us, it is proof that it has not yet entered our bloodstream.”

What does it mean to be a Jew? On the rare occasions I have thought about this question, the phrase “the greatest gift of my life” has unaccountably recurred. And so, thank you Aunt Estelle, thank you Uncle Stan, Aunt Renata, Uncle David, and thank you Grandpa Max and Grandma Stefanie—married in Breslau, 1938—and most of all thank you to my mother.

It is said that when Pompey conquered Jerusalem, he entered the temple and demanded access to the inner sanctum, the Holy of Holies, and found himself in an empty room.