The Tapestry of Self

by Donna Swarthout (Berlin, Germany)

The tapestry of my life has always had loose threads, strands that stick out in different directions and seem unlikely candidates for a fine woven print. Sometimes I tuck one of those threads away and get a pass on explaining who I am to the world.  Why share that I am Jewish if I feel more secular than religious? Why tell others that I am a German American Jew who in some ways feels more German than Jewish?  I’ve been living in Berlin, Germany for the past year where my mind has been feverishly at work trying to solve the puzzle of my identity.

The part of me that has always felt German now revels in the daily opportunity for self expression. Each step towards language fluency makes me feel more whole and I am exhilarated on the rare occasions when I meet someone who does not speak English. My taste buds crave a daily käese stange (breaded cheese twist) or kürbiskern brezel (giant soft pretzel with pumpkin seeds) and although I do not eat much meat, I love hearing my kids say “schnitzel!” as a substitute for “shit.” I come close to feeling at home in Germany while sitting for hours at the Rüdisheimer Platz wine garden enjoying the company of family and friends over a picnic dinner.

But there is a deeper significance to my German residency than the opportunities to speak a language I love, enjoy the food, and experience the rich and diverse cultural life of Berlin.  I am coming full circle, returning to the birth place of both my German Jewish parents so that I can integrate the past into the life of my family in a way that the first generation of Holocaust survivors and escapees could not.  This cannot be done from America; one has to be on German soil to experience the past and to grasp that there is a new landscape for Jewish life in Germany today.  Stepping into that landscape and seeing how it feels is a powerful way to pick up some of the loose threads of self that make up my identity.

Our son Avery turned thirteen this year and decided he wanted to become a bar mitzvah in the birthplace of his ancestors.  Our family is not clearly affiliated with any branch of Judaism so it was a bit daunting to find a place for ourselves amongst Berlin ‘s population of approximately 20,000 Jews and nearly a dozen congregations.  We’ve attended Reform, Masorti and Renewal services and are still getting used to reading Hebrew that has been transliterated for Germans (bar mitzwa instead of bar mitzvah) and a host of unfamiliar approaches to songs and rituals.

We will fully experience being Jewish in Germany when Avery becomes a bar mitzvah this October with Ohel Hachidusch, Berlin’s very small Renewal congregation.  The bar mitzvah will take place at the Jüdisches Waisenhaus Berlin (Jewish Orphanage of Berlin). The former orphanage is a historic building that was devoted to the welfare of Jewish children from 1913 to 1940.  After Kristallnacht many of the children were brought to safety via Kindertransport. The Nazis closed the building in 1942 and deported the remaining residents to concentration camps.  This will be the first bar mitzvah held in the Waisenhaus since it was restored and reopened in 2001.  As part of his coming of age, Avery is helping with a memorial project for my Great Aunt Meta Adler who was a Holocaust victim.

In the midst of a generally upbeat year of growth and discovery, I have also had some low moments. I never feel isolated but I do at times feel alienated in Germany, especially after encounters with government bureaucrats. It has been well over a year since I applied to have my German citizenship restored and I am still waiting despite the fact that I provided complete records of my German Jewish ancestry to the federal government. My constantly simmering anger at the indifference of the bureaucracy to my meritorious application is matched by my determination to see this process through to a successful conclusion, even if I have to hire an attorney. ( I’ve written about Reclaiming My German Citizenship in a recent essay for The Jewish Writing Project

And then there are those perpetual encounters with Germans whose scrutinizing comments leave a chill in their wake.  I have endured quite a few mini-lectures about what rule my children have broken and how important it is that they “pass auf” (watch out) and modify their behavior.  After silently suffering through too many of these lectures, I recently blew up at a woman on the U-Bahn in my best German for lecturing my daughter about her subway behavior.  These encounters make my skin crawl with their eerie reminders of an era when everyone was under suspicion for conduct that was outside the narrow realm of what the National Socialists deemed permissible. Is there something in the German psyche that propels such finger-wagging behavior?

But as I embark on my second year of living in Germany my paramount feeling is that this is a place where I can be fully German, Jewish and American.  As part of Germany’s growing Jewish population, I want American Jews to understand that there are Jews who do not want to place a strike out line through the German part of their identity.  The German thread does not have to be tucked away but can be woven back into the tapestry of self that represents who we are.

Donna Swarthout moved to Berlin with her family to explore her German Jewish heritage and identity and the nature of Jewish life in Germany today.  You can read more about her experiences on her blog Full Circle:


Filed under American Jewry, German Jewry, Jewish identity

3 responses to “The Tapestry of Self

  1. Pingback: What A Woman Needs….. | Full Circle

  2. Beautiful, deep, moving piece. Wow. I hope you write a book about your move. Even though I’m not German-American, I totally resonate to your thrill over language. Every interaction, every expression is a huge step forward, and thrilling. And being able to be angry in German, now *that’s* a triumph! Gratuliere!

  3. Dear Lev, Thank you so much for your kind comments. I’ve read your book My Germany and loved it and have often thought about being in touch with you. I do hope to write a book and have sketched a rough outline for it already. I have a new piece coming out soon that I would love to share with you.

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