Why did you go into Jewish Studies?

Benjamin M. Baader

University of Manitoba

In the 1960s and 1970s, when I grew up in Munich and later West Berlin, Jewish life in Germany was ossified. Paralyzed. Bound and gagged by a past that was not over yet. As has been described by scholars such as Michal Bodemann, postwar German-Jewish communities were fortresses, where survivors locked themselves in to find protection from a mostly self-absorbed or even hostile German society and a not very sympathetic Jewish international public.

Whatever comfort was to be found within these small and often suffocating communities, I did not have much access to it, as I grew up at their margins. My Viennese father, though Jewish and marked by his experience as a camp survivor, was a socialist, not affiliated Jewishly, and he passed to me only faint echoes of a Jewish practice. My non-Jewish mother communicated to me that my father's heritage was an obligation to me, but she was not able to provide much content beyond the story of persecution and extermination of those who came before me. So I grew up with a strong sense of difference and purpose. I was bound to something that I knew reached deep into the past, far beyond the abyss of death and destruction, but that I did not have much concrete information about.

Thus not surprisingly, in my twenties I began searching for what Judaism was beyond concentration camps. I began learning Hebrew and enrolled in a Judaic Studies university program. I also formally joined the Jewish community of Berlin and underwent a conversion to regularize my status. At that time, I started falling in love with the richness of Jewish texts and with the complexities of Jewish history; the shiny fabric of Jewish learning has not ceased to delight and enchant me since. And while my Jewish Studies career unfolded in North America, Jewish life in Europe began to resurge. Due to the influx of post-Soviet Jews, the German-Jewish population is more than three times larger now than it was in the 1980s, and today new generations of European Jews assert themselves and establish novel, diverse, inventive, and often provocative forms of Jewish life. The shadows of the Shoah are still long, but they have become less overwhelming and impenetrable. I have gone into Jewish Studies in post-genocidal Germany in the search for what is alive in the Jewish experience, and the Jewish capacity for sustaining and recovering aliveness lets European and German Jews today shape new and distinct local Jewish cultures.