I am white, I am black. My mother is of German Jewish heritage. My father comes from German, African, Native American and Christian roots. My identity is a sum total of all of my heritages.
My father was Christian. My mother was Jewish, but she didn’t lead a Jewish life. Although I like to define myself as a Jew with a Christian upbringing, I also like to highlight that I am foremost and utmost a human being who has had the best of both worlds. Because I grew up in a very mixed household with a wide array of cultural heritages, I prefer to avoid categorizing myself when possible.
I first found out about being Jewish when I was in the third grade. My classmate Sanford did not participate in the decorating of the classroom Christmas tree. He explained to us that he was Jewish, that Christmas was not his holiday and that he didn’t feel it was appropriate for him to decorate the tree. I was fascinated by this. Immediately after I got home from school, I excitedly told my mother about what I had learned a few hours earlier. I can still remember where I was standing while trying to explain to her what ‘Jewish’ was.
The next scene finds me sitting together with my mother and sisters on the living room couch. Before explaining our origins to us, my mother uttered a phrase which I've heard other German and German-descended Jews use, both in person and in documentary films. Today, I see it as an apologetic phrase used to convert the publicly derided heritage of being Jewish into something royal: “We are related to King David”, my mother began. Apparently, only after having upgraded us to royal status did she seem to gain enough confidence to explain our Jewish heritage to us.
After having discovered my Jewish heritage, I felt a certain ‘wow’ about it. I guess I always liked being different. On the one hand, I enjoyed being Jewish. But I had my ups and downs with it because it was not easy living a Jewish lifestyle in an environment with very few Jews. My father forced us to go to a religious service once a week. It did not matter what religion. The local synagogue was very far away and it was not always possible for me to get a ride there for Friday night services. In the end, it was simply easier jumping into my dad’s car on most Sundays.
I also became much more aware about my mother, her past and why she was so discreet about being Jewish. Before my own third-grade discovery, she seemed to be entirely in the closet about her heritage – except in the presence of other Jews. My interest and excitement about our Jewish heritage loosened her up a little bit – so much so that she began to be a little more open about it. My eighth-grade teacher, Mr. Martin, was fascinated by my mom and invited her to talk about her experiences in Nazi Germany to my class.
Many of my mother’s fears come from being a child survivor of the Shoah. Despite her childhood trauma, my mother also seemed very sober and matter-of-fact when talking about her WWII experiences. If she went straight through without any pauses, my mother could recount her wartime story in under five minutes. Is it possible that the story of my mother’s quest for survival could only be reduced to a short five minutes? Stories of her going into hiding, trying to get by with false identity papers, her ordeals in bombing raids, her liberation and her first years of freedom are surely enough to fill hundreds of pages.
My mother remained fearful throughout her life about negative consequences which could result from being Jewish. One of my sisters named her first son Caleb Abram. This name utterly shocked my mother. “How can you do this to your child? People might think he's Jewish,” she complained to my sister. My mother feared the possibilities of disadvantages that could befall Caleb.
Only after my mother’s death did I learn, from my dad, that my mother suffered a lifetime of periodic nightmares. Only after she died did I begin to understand why my mother hated dimly lit rooms, being in small rooms with the door closed, and anything like total darkness when sleeping.
For me, Judaism is more than a religion. I would say that it is a cultural-religious experience.
Unlike most Jews that I know - who merely define their Jewishness by not eating pork - I find that Jewishness is composed of many multi-layered aspects.
I am utterly integrated in society. I do not decorate my home with or wear Jewish symbols. Nevertheless, I feel that I am different from most people around me because of the way I lead my Jewish life.
I'm a Jew by birth, religion, heritage and choice. Jewish law considers me Jewish, because my mother was Jewish. However, I am also a Jew by choice because I chose to live and lead a Jewish life, despite not growing up in a home where Judaism was the rule.
I like living a traditional Jewish life. But living traditional Judaism and dealing with society’s and even liberal Jews’ reactions to it sometimes makes me feel as though I am the subject of a science experiment, and the never-ending discoveries that come with living this lifestyle in an overwhelmingly non-Jewish and extremely secularized and commercial world. It is not only challenging; it also brings to the forefront the question about the meaning of life. Until I find that meaning, I will probably continue to flip out from time to time with existential questions that go far beyond the reasons of why I do not eat pork or why it is so important for me to delve into my family history.
Jews don’t seem to have come to a consensus about what it means to be a Jew. With so many standpoints, finding common ground is virtually impossible. For me, a Jew is anyone who is descended from a Jew or who lives as one.
My awakening about Jewish life began shortly after I moved to Germany, in 1991. It came through literature. At 26, I found myself working in the eastern German city of Schwerin. Eastern German bookstores always seemed particularly over-supplied with Jewish and Israeli-themed literature – perhaps making up for the years that the East German government actively sought to avoid the topic. The discount book bins of eastern German bookstores were veritable treasure troves of Germany’s Jewish history. This history fascinated me because I kept seeing parallels with my own family’s German heritage. Each book I read was a little awakening. Each booked inched me closer to my Jewish persona. I slowly made my way into regular Jewish practice. In the mid-90s, I began taking the Shabbat seriously. Then, I began avoiding eating the wrong kinds of animals – at least from Friday sunset to nightfall on Saturday. At some point, I found myself fasting on Yom Kippur. Just like that. Not triggered by anyone or anything other than my own inner self. By the early 2000s, I began going to Shul, regularly. And then it all culminated with me waking up one day with the deep desire to make my kitchen kosher, and to keep kosher for the rest of my life. My living a Jewish life was built up, bit by bit.
I've visited concentration camps throughout Europe – several of them, like Auschwitz, on multiple occasions. Theresienstadt Ghetto has particular meaning to me because one of my great grandmothers perished there and a cousin of my mother's was born there. I never felt sickened when visiting these places of murderous tragedy. Sure, I was thoughtful and reflective about the tragedies that befell parts of my family. But I never felt sad or the need to cry. Then again, I also never cried at Jerusalem’s Western Wall. I tried. Despite my romanticized fascination with the perimeter wall of the Temple Mount, I could not shed the tears of joy that many people experience when going there for the first time. I remained clear-headed when I saw it for the first time and continue to wonder why I could not cry.
When I first came to live in Germany, I took every opportunity available to me to travel and discover as much of post-communist eastern Germany as possible – virtually every weekend. One day, during a visit to the city of Wolgast I had my first racially motivated bad experience. A colleague and I entered a restaurant for lunch. A group of skinheads was sitting at a table - apparently already drunk. Upon seeing them, my colleague suggested we leave. I was adamant about staying – even after one of the skinheads called out ‘foreigners out’ in our direction. I demonstratively replied ja wohl – absolutely! After having been seated, one of the skinheads - bald, tattooed and with many missing teeth - came over to our table and demanded to know where I was from. Having the choice of being Italian, German or American, I opted to tell him American. I feared that the influx of pizzerias in eastern Germany could have been a point of contention and my skin tone perceived as Rassenschande. Upon proving that I was American, the skinhead, in response, bent down to hug me and apologized for having thought that I might have been Romanian. This is probably the most threatening experience I have ever had. Funny enough, I was not scared. My colleague, however, was shitting his pants.
I suppose soberness is a way to get through difficult situations. The more I think of it, I believe that I've inherited a bit of my mother's soberness - surely as a protective mechanism to confront the challenges of life.
Over the years, I have delved into researching my family tree. Despite everything you can find online, what’s even more captivating are the many letters I found, left behind by a great-aunt who died in New York in 1988. Many of the letters that were in her possession – several of them sent from the Theresienstadt Ghetto - are truly troubling to read because they signalled the end of an era, the final years of my family’s life in Germany. With each letter that I read and each document I find, I feel compelled to try and understand the meaning of life, to discover who I am and where I am going. I still have not understood what the purpose of life is. Perhaps one day I will. Perhaps it is to remember the past to add meaning to things that no longer exist.
There is nothing about me that would indicate that I am Jewish – neither my looks nor my attire. I am neither blonde nor do I have blue eyes. In Germany, there’s still a widespread perception that a certain look goes with being German – ‘German’ without the use of a modifier such as ‘with a migratory background.’ Although I can trace my family tree in Germany to several great-great-great-great-great-grandparents, I will never be considered ‘biologically German.’
I generally do not wear Jewish symbols. It is not because I fear violence. But my ‘non-German' look already attracts too much curiosity. Even being innocently asked ‘where are you from’ simply highlights that society is not yet really ready for the Other. Also, I am simply tired of explaining what I am and where I am from, as though I were an animal in a zoo.
I don't personally think that right-wing antisemitism is growing by leaps in bounds. I believe that right-wing antisemites have simply lost their inhibitions. Antisemitism imported from the Middle East is a relatively new phenomena that needs to be nipped at the bud before it gets totally out of control. Freedom-of-speech-crusaders are partially to blame for the hate that gets so much space on all media platforms – be they mainstream newspapers or anonymous cyber-spaces. Clearly Israel has become the projection screen for a majority of antisemites – with mainstream media often obliging in the spreading of antisemitic tropes within their Israel stories. The Stürmer is only dead in name!
One of the problems in the fight against antisemitism is the Jewish collective way of caving in to violence. The reaction of Jews in general remains, in my view, docile. Talk about packing one’s bags, public expressions of fear, and the intellectualization of violence following antisemitic incidents, only feeds ideological antisemites with the energy they need to continue their misdeeds. Instead, Jews need to learn to slam their fists and wage war against their detractors. Basta with the diplomatic approach to fighting antisemitism! We must stop fighting antisemitism through political negotiations.
I grew up in the United States where Jewish institutions and synagogues rarely, if ever, had any kind of security service protecting them. Going to Jewish events or synagogues in Europe was always a totally different experience. I always found it disconcerting to have to pass a security post in order to enter into the Jewish world. Of course, different communities employ different intensities of security. But it remains quite sad that Jewish society has been reduced to this. Perhaps it is naïve to hope for a day in which security will no longer be needed.
There are different types of antisemites. The most dangerous are the antisemitic ideologues. They are few and far between. However, they can wreak irreparable damage to life and property. It is virtually impossible to transform most of them into decent human beings. The vast majority of antisemitic situations, however, derives from people who have learned to say insulting things from the tropes which have infiltrated their family’s perception of Jews for over a millennium. With sufficient investment in education, I think that it could be possible to reach out to most of these kinds of prejudiced people and convert their beliefs.
The ideologues are the problem. They are allowed free reign and nobody fights them in a sustained way. I think until they are fought off physically, there will be no change. I truly believe that they simply see Jews as easy prey simply waiting to be attacked again. The Jewish collective needs to show strength. Israel is a good example where a collective does not take any bullshit.
Oliver Bradley is the son of a Berlin-born Holocaust survivor who remained in Germany until 1959. Oliver was born in Rome, raised near Chicago and has lived in Germany since 1991. He works in Germany and worldwide as a publicist, public diplomat and consultant. His German, Jewish, African-American, and Native American ancestry, combined with his extensive travels to over 70 countries and the work he has done in the US, Italy, France, southern African region, Israel and the Palestinian Territories, have all influenced his work as a moderator of intercultural themes.