a biweekly column by Gal Katz
BERLIN — There is a new trend in the capital of cool, and it has nothing to do with techno beats or haircuts. The yarmulke, until recently exclusively reserved for Orthodox Jews, is being embraced by a new, unexpected crowd: Aryans.
Consider a string of odd events, tributes in a masquerade of identities. On April 25th, major daily newspapers included a printed Jewish skullcap in their morning editions for their readers to cut out. Alternative for Germany (AfD), the anti-immigration party with Nazi sympathizers that is now the third-largest faction in the Bundestag, published a poster reading “AfD trägt Kippa,” playing on the trending hashtag #Berlinwearskippa. In the evening, thousands of Jewishly-capped Gentiles marched in central Berlin and other cities, protesting the assault a week before of a young man wearing a yarmulke in the fashionable neighborhood of Prenzlauer Berg. The attacker was a Syrian asylum-seeker; the victim, Adam Armush, was an Israeli citizen of Arab descent who identifies not as Palestinian (as many of his contemporaries do) but as “Arab Israeli.” Finally, two weeks ago, a xenophobic journalist led a handful of protesters in Neukölln, Berlin’s hub of hipsters and Palestinian immigrants. The journalist, wearing a yarmulke on top of a curly “Jew hair” wig, protested the “Muslim anti-Semitism” allegedly “imported” to Germany by Angela Merkel’s liberal asylum policies.
Last Friday I participated in a less perplexing Jewish practice in Berlin: I attended Shabbat dinner. The dinner was hosted by Dr. Hannah Tzuberi, whom I knew from my time in Berlin and whose blog I have followed for years. Eagerly I offered the kippah situation as a puzzle for discussion. A child of post-1968 German leftists who converted to (Orthodox) Judaism a few years ago, Tzuberi argued that the Jew can fulfill his role in the German postwar fantasy only insofar as he fits into Germany’s Western and predominantly Christian public culture—only, that is, if he continues to stand as the paradigmatic model minority, perfectly assimilated into the European Enlightenment project. The AfD, the same right-populist party that jumped on the yarmulke trend, advocates against kosher slaughtering, the Shehita, and debated a ban on circumcision—the same “primitive” practices that Jews happen to share with another minority that the German lover/hater is obsessed with: Muslims.
In order to function as the redeemers of postwar Germany the Jews have to be different enough to be recognizable as Jews, yet not too different. Not, that is, like Muslims—for then they would similarly challenge the project of the modern West.
In other words, it is not a coincidence that a Palestinian and thousands of protesters, most of them non-Jews, had to wear a yarmulke so that this Jewish symbol could have a German comeback. Unlike in New York, London or Antwerp, staples of traditional Jewish appearance are a rare sight in German public sphere. It is not only that the Jewish population was massively curtailed in the 1940s. German Jewry has a long tradition of universalist, or rather European, secularism. Germany was the provenance of Reform Judaism, and it is perhaps the place where an emblematic dictum of Jewish Enlightenment has been most zealously adhered to: “In your tent be a Jew and in the street a man.”
And yet one cannot underestimate the extent to which Jewishness, however short the country is of actual Jews, defines contemporary German identity. Holocaust atonement is the raison d’être of the “New Germany,” its justification to rise again—following the 1990 reunification—as a major global power, a Fourth Reich aka the European Union. The Jewish community in Berlin, which in the past decade has been fortified by thousands of Israeli expats, is a key element in this post-war political theology. Just as the Jews have historically been a reminder of the primordial betrayal of Jesus—hence a justification for ongoing Christian anti-Semitism against them—so are Jews now a constant witness to German redemptive philo-Semitism. If there are happy Jews around, even in the form of expansively renovated synagogues (however empty they remain), it means that Germans are, finally, good.
It is nice to be loved. But it’s also clear how easily an obsessive lover can turn into toxic hater if one fails to play the role assigned by their fantasy.
Over dinner, I tried to challenge Tzuberi: How can you explain the sudden popular embrace of the yarmulke? It seems like a clear symbol of Jewish (and religious!) difference brandished in the European public space. It is precisely such a sign that makes it difficult to differentiate Jews from Muslims. A Jew with a yarmulke may not be enough of a “Good Jew,” the Jew necessary in order to single out the “Bad Muslim.” How can the right advocate for a ban on Muslim headscarves if, at the same time, it wears a Jewish head covering? The kippah, as Tzuberi put it, no longer functions as a “religious symbol” representing a particular minority. Instead, it stands for “universal” German identity, a symbol of “our democracy.”
I suggested that a key to understanding the yarmulke trend may lie in a very non-Jewish, not to say pagan, space. A few months ago, in my previous visit to town, I spotted a Star of David necklace on a blond shirtless guy at Berghain, Berlin’s notorious temple of techno and Dionysian release, where the party begins when Shabbat ends and goes till Monday morning. His Aryan muscles were glistening with sweat. “Are you Jewish?” I prodded him. “No. I just think it’s beautiful, a symbol of peace.” He thought I was flirting with him and he might have been right (I’m not sure whether I was more enraged or aroused). It wasn’t the first time. Some years ago I saw a highly stylized hipster icon wearing a Star of David between two tattoos: one read Sodom, the other—Gomorrah. The trend is catching on. Just last week in a party I counted at least three shirtless (and ecstatic) guys wearing the same necklace. The Berlin party scene is definitely feeling it: Jewish symbols are growing wings of desire.
This observation seems somewhat meager compared to the report of thousands marching through the streets with yarmulkes. A series of sexualized, silly, gay events in sleazy clubs—not the material of serious European politics (the AfD’s leader being gay notwithstanding). But this lightness of being may testify to the different way in which some Jewish symbols—Star of David or yarmulke—now function in contrast to their Muslim counterparts. They are marks not of identity, but of identification; not of being, but of desiring.
Current Western “universality” is not about the erasure of difference but about the hipsterization of difference: difference as a prop, an accessory, a style. With difference we curate our embodied social-media profiles, calibrating the desires we want to radiate and invoke. I can put on a Star of David necklace (or even a tattoo of it) if I think it works well with my look for Berghain or Instagram. I could obviously remove it after the party. While the yarmulke is not quite there, it is perhaps telling that many of the demonstrators in late April were wearing DIY kippahs they had cut out from eco-friendly kits in the newspapers. A friend of mine suggested that perhaps the day is not far when a German paper distributes a home kit for DIY circumcision.
In the nineteenth century, the Jew was recognized as a human being to the extent that he could shed his differentiating marks in public space. Today, Jews—like other minorities—have another route to the mainstream: they can lend their symbols and practices to the current carnival of difference.
Alas, some forms of Orthodox Islam (and Judaism) are reluctant to join the party. The Muslim headscarf, for example, doesn’t give itself as easily to the Instagram aesthetic, which removes signs from their original, real, context and reassembles them in the service of crafting allegedly unique, and ephemeral, individual personas or “looks.” The Muslim sign unsettles this aesthetic, threatening to reveal it as sacrilege; it insists on a form of adamant identity and a secure belonging.
While my ways are secular, I’ve always had immense respect for Orthodox Judaism, for its stubborn insistence on being a historical fossil in the midst of sprawling (post-) modernity. I look with suspicion at hipsterized forms of Jewishness. Once I provoked a Brooklyn friend who was considering converting to Judaism. “What makes you different from Rachel Dolezal?” I asked, “Would you have converted in 1942?” I didn’t mean, of course, that Jewishness is the same as blackness or that conversion is impossible; I only tried to convey an idea that is dear to me: Jewish identity is extremely real. Being a Jew (rather than only desiring one or to be one) comes with a long traumatic history and a sense of fragility even in the face of a seemingly secure future. The burden of memory, neurotic fears and collective responsibility is a hefty one. I wanted my friend to be fully aware of the stakes involved in a genuine conversion rather than opt for yet another (and easily reversible) identification.
In a recent essay in n+1, Andrea Long Chu suggests that gender identity, and transitioning to a gender identity, is “a matter not of who one is, but of what one wants.” She forcefully articulates her multifaceted desire to be a woman, as that which makes her a trans woman. It seems to me, however, that this discourse risks losing sight of a notion of reality, of identity, which is precisely not about individual desire, but about the constraints of religion, tradition and the collective, an identity that desire, if anything, often struggles with—and fails.
Of course, some identities are more rigid than others, and I do not mean to weigh in on the question of where exactly gender falls on this hypothetical spectrum. And yet, I think that Chu’s brilliant essay lays bare a logic that helps explain why the Muslim—like certain molds of Orthodox Judaism—throws a long shadow on current identity politics, which extends far beyond the European (or American) alt right. This shadow is the sinister reminder that behind the masquerade of identities, behind identity as a mask, behind desire and choice and what we want or don’t want, behind the play of identifications, fetishes and appearances, there lurks a mysterious something: the reality of identity as a wall, a cage, or a home.
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