World View

I am 10, and give my therapist the Hanukkah gift my mother bought for him. He opens the slim box. A beautiful, dark green scarf. He smiles, takes out the scarf, unfolds it, sees the label: Made in Germany. His face turns to stone. He folds the scarf, puts it back in the box and pushes it away, trying to explain. “The war. My family. Germany.” Later, my appalled mother, who hadn’t seen the label, tries to help me make sense of what makes no sense.

I am 41. Randy and I are walking down the street in Hamburg. It’s beautiful and I don’t know how to absorb that. My mother’s family lived here for a year on their way to New York from Odessa. Did they walk these same streets? Probably not. So much was destroyed in the war.

As we walk I feel two warring feelings: anger and fear. My mind asks every single white person we pass: “Did you kill Jews? Did your husband? Your father? Your grandfather?”

It’s summer, so my skin is very dark, and most of the white people we pass ignore me. In stores, they ignore me and talk to my white Appalachian partner. I want to say: “You’re hating and fearing me for the wrong reason – and 50 years too late. I’m not a Turk, I’m a Jew.”

How did I get there? I was invited to teach two week-long workshops for gay men, based on my book . My initial impulse was to say no, till my gay tribal affinity overcame my Jewish aversion. But I never imagined that I would feel less safe there than I did on the New York City streets were I was mugged once in broad daylight, held up at gunpoint where I worked,  and twice gay- bashed. Jewish, gay, and misread, I want to shout out, “Please just hate me for being me!”

The first workshop: two dozen men -- tender, strong, wise and good -- welcome us, But still, the reflexive thought: “Did your father, uncle, grandfather...?”

For a week we all live in a 500 year old farm house. We talk and dance and eat and meditate. Slowly the labels “German” and “Jew” peel off in my mind, as those men help me unwrap the scarf that has had a chokehold on me for decades. I fall in love with them, with their warm open-heartedness. And I fall in love with Germany. When we leave Hamburg, my head says to every person I pass, even those who don’t or can’t see me but only a Turk or a Jew: “Who are you? Could we be friends?”

'They are the Germans my Jewish body needed to meet.'

A train ride, a bus ride. We arrive at an ancient pension in the middle of the Black Forest and are met by a grim, gray-haired matron. The hand gestures and air-crossing words that attempt to establish connection when there isn’t a shared language. A steep stairway, a long dark hall, a big dark room, a wide bed. Everything old and heavy and strange as she leads us to it and departs. Exhausted, we collapse into a deep sleep.

In the morning, the door flies open. The tiny matron is screaming in German. We leap up, hearts racing. A gay man from New York City and a gay man from the mountains of Virginia, we fly awake, thinking gas chambers for gay men. She continues to scream. Something rises up from the dark depths of my brain, which hasn’t heard Yiddish in decades. I understand part of her tirade: “Get out of my house!” I answer in Yiddish that we are sorry. She screams, “You and your son have to get out of my house!” then slams the door behind her.

No one downstairs in the breakfast room speaks English. “Français?” I ask. One guest is French.

“It’s the custom here to vacate your room for the entire day so that it can be cleaned,” she says. She explains to the owner that we’re American and did not know that. The owner goes off in a huff. After breakfast the guest leads us down a dark hall to show us a photo of the owner’s late husband in his Nazi officer’s uniform. 

The next morning at breakfast, perhaps embarrassed, Frau Schneider brings us some homemade jam. Each day after that she joins us at our table. With some German-French input she suggests hikes for us and starts to bring us extra food, sandwiches for our walks, little snacks for our room. By the end of the week she has fallen in love with my “son” and me. (We laugh at how her brain interpreted two men in the same bed.) The two of us fall in love with her, too,  chattering away, not understanding anything the other says, and not needing to. The three of us cry in each others’ arms when it’s time to leave. “My American family” she calls us.

When we arrive at Heidelberg, our last stop, people are friendly wherever we go. The city is racially diverse without the tension we felt in Hamburg. The second workshop is equally wonderful. The men are heartful and wise. They are the Germans my Jewish body needed to meet.

I am 63 now, remembering a still night when Randy and I go for a long walk through apple orchards. He grew up in the wild hills of Appalachia, but everything in Germany has been cultivated for so long that even the apples are literate. The moon, angling through branches. And the soil, bloody and old and wise in the ways of this planet. I think of my boyhood therapist, and the scarf, deep green like the leaves of the trees. I felt at home there, in a way that I never imagined I could. And today I emailed one of the German men from that workshop to wish him a happy birthday, and another one called yesterday and left me a message.

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