A German-Israeli love story

Jerusalem Post, June 22, 2016

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Katharina Hoeftmann’s cats followed us up to the balcony of her Dizengoff Street flat for our interview, curious to hear her story, too.

The questionable Jewish identity of her cats was the subject of a scene in her book Guten Morgen Tel Aviv, in which she debates with an Israeli supermarket cashier the necessity of kosher-for-Passover cat food.

“I don’t know if they’re Jewish because I didn’t give birth to them,” she said to me, as we sat down on a balcony facing the sea – a precondition for Tel Aviv living after moving back here with her family from a three-year stint in Binyamina. The loud, busy Tel Aviv streets are a sharp contrast to her hometown of Stralsund in the former East Germany.
Hoeftmann, at first glance, looks like the stereotypical German: blonde hair, blue eyes, light skin. Her cats, on the other hand, are stereotypical Israeli – intrusive, blunt and full of chutzpah. She took them back inside the apartment, where her son Ari was asleep, in the care of her husband, Nahum, a project manager for the Israel Natural Gas Lines. Growing up in a town with hardly any Jews, she never thought she’d raise a Jewish family, let alone Jewish cats.

“The only Jews I knew were kind of the Holocaust Jews, so that was my only meeting point with Judaism,” she recalled. During her “Holocaust phase” at age 12, she pored over Holocaust books she’d check out from the local library. She thinks the German education system has failed in not showing Jewish German life before the War; for example, she had no idea that famous poet and intellectual Heinrich Heine was born Jewish.

When she was 13, her parents took a tour to Israel, among other countries, to see the world after the reunification of Germany.
“It was the time of the intifada, and we were in Jerusalem, and there were all these machine-gun people, and it was very surprising. But looking back, I don’t think I was so much aware of it being the Jewish state. It’s a weird relationship that Germans have with Israel. We talk about it so much, but I don’t think many Germans understand the essence of Israel.”

Her life-changing meeting with a “live Jew” came in 2005 when she met her husband- to-be on the sands of tropical Goa in India.

“He pretty much told me on the second or third evening: ‘You’re the woman of my life, and I’m really in love with you, but I’m Jewish and you would have to become a Jew. I was like ‘whatever,’ but he was the first actual Jew that I met.”

Nahum visited her in Berlin two weeks later, where she was pursuing her degree in psychology. As their love deepened, so did her curiosity about Judaism.

“I don’t think I understood what [converting to Judaism] meant, to be honest. I’m not baptized or anything. I was raised completely without religion, and my parents told me to pick the religion you want, if any. I never found myself in Christianity…. I had a fascination for Judaism, and somehow at some point I said: ‘it fits,’ but I didn’t know how hard it was to convert to Judaism.”

She soon embarked on an Orthodox conversion process.

“I’m a proud Jew, but I wouldn’t call myself the most Orthodox Jew.”

Through her relationship with Nahum and her subsequent visits to Israel, she came to understand the essence of Israel that eludes Germans. She got a gig writing a blog about life in Israel for the German newspaper Die Welt; it eventually evolved into Guten Morgen Tel Aviv (Random House). Her new book – a German crime novel set on the Baltic Sea – was released by Berlin Verlag on the day of the interview, and it’s the first of her books that isn’t Israel-themed. Her previous crime trilogy follows brash Israeli detective Assaf Rosenthal through the streets of Tel Aviv, solving crimes while navigating Israeli social issues – from African immigration to Arab-Israeli relations in Jaffa. Today, she also edits “Israel between the Lines” (israelzwischenzeilen.com), an online magazine focusing on Israeli lifestyle, economy, travel, technology, and politics minus the Arab-Israeli conflict.

“I never came to a place that was so inspiring in which everyone has a story to tell.”

Hoeftmann’s work has made her something of an expert in cultural differences between Germans and Israelis, although she always had a predilection for the more open, touchy-feely Israeli mentality, which explains her attraction to Nahum; they tied the knot in Israel in 2011, an occasion for her friends from back home to visit and enjoy her adopted country.

“[Germans] are not the most impulsive, emotional people, and I never fit that because I was always an emotional, lively, loud person.”

Tel Aviv, she said, is not much different from hipster and/or yuppy neighborhoods in Berlin, like Prenzlauer Berg, Kreuzberg, Mitte, Neukölln, except it is squishier [more crowded], and Tel Aviv rudeness still surpasses notorious Berlin rudeness.

“Israelis like to be in herds and be very close together and have no awareness of privacy and space, and all these things are different from Germans, who don’t like to be touched. If you took a German to the Carmel Market for the first time, he’d think: ‘Why is everyone touching me, why are people getting in my way, why isn’t the line moving?’”

Berlin is a coveted destination for young Israelis; about 20,000 Israelis are reported to live there. While Germans visit Tel Aviv, she doesn’t think the fascination is mutual, nor is there any particular historical curiosity guiding them.

“I think they’re attracted to Tel Aviv as much as they’re attracted to Istanbul; maybe for some the Jewish thing gives an extra nice something.”

She noticed how in a majority of her readings across Germany for Guten Morgen Tel Aviv, she’d get asked about Israeli settlements; she doubts an Italian author, for example, would get fielded such questions about a country’s internal politics.

“I’d like to say Germans are kind of obsessed with Israel, but it’s not true,” she said. “The German media is obsessed with Israel, but Germans not so much.”

She also believes Germans are less stigmatized for their national identity in Israel than Israelis are for their identity in Germany. In a Berlin bar, for instance, a German would feel free to criticize Israel’s policies point-blank.

“It never happened to me that I was standing in a bar in Tel Aviv and people said to me: ‘What you did to Jews was terrible.’ Also, that famous question of ‘Where was your grandfather during the war” was never asked.”

(If you are wondering, her grandfather worked as a civilian mechanic, and while her grandmother harbored the Nazi ideology while having “Jewish friends,” none of her grandparents participated in any slaughter of Jews.)

“My husband had a lot of f*cked-up experiences: ‘Oh, you’re a Jew so you’re rich.’ Or, ‘you’re Israeli, I think we paid you enough.’ Or, ‘what you Israelis do to the Palestinians is what the Nazis did to the Jews.’ Things I didn’t imagine in my wildest fantasies that educated Germans would say.”

Hoeftmann says that anti-Zionism, a politically correct form of anti-Semitism, is rampant in German media and even German society. She recalled how during Operation Protective Edge, pro-Palestinian protesters in Berlin shouted “Jews to the gas.”

“If I hadn’t had [Nahum] and our son, I would still find that wrong, but I could live in Berlin. It wouldn’t personally attack me. But now it’s my son they want to put in a gas chamber.”

She’s lost some friends over her staunch, but not uncritical, defense of the essence of Israel, which she sees as a beacon of liberalism. With others, the subject of Israeli politics is a no-go zone.

“When you live here there are actual issues and problems you have to face. So I’m very pro-Israel but I don’t view everything that happens through pink glasses.”

Her parents visit Israel periodically, but her brother stayed behind for her and Nahum’s wedding out of fear of potential war and terrorism outbreaks. He was about to make his first visit with his family this year, but the New Year shooting at the Tel Aviv pub down her street changed his mind.

“I think my mother was always supportive, and my father was very confused about my going a very different path than what he imagined. Now that I’m a mom myself, I do understand one thing: you always want to see yourself in your kids.”

She calls the Hoeftmann household “little Germany.” She speaks with Ari in German, and German children’s books abound. She wants to instill in her son a proud dual identity, claiming it’s “harder to Israelize a son in Germany than to Germanize a son in Israel.”

Towards the end of the interview, Ari woke up, and she spoke to him in German about two birthdays coming up: Israel’s 68th birthday, which they could celebrate by watching the airshow right above them, and her son’s birthday, on Holocaust Remembrance Day.

She said she would allow herself to be happy on Holocaust Remembrance Day, especially considering all the writing she’s done about the Holocaust. After all, it’s the journey into those dark times that led her here, holding her Jewish, dirty-blond son.

“I still walk in the streets of Israel and Tel Aviv or whatever sometimes, and I think to myself, isn’t it amazing that everyone around me is Jewish? It’s fascinating to me in a way. More than being a good Jew, I’m actually a good Zionist. I really believe in the Jewish state, and it’s amazing how it worked out after all that happened.”

I think, at this rate, it’s safe to say her cats are definitely Jewish, too.