Navigating Culture and History

By Karen Engels


Growing up as one of the only Jews in a homogeneously white, upper-middle-class Christian suburb, I was acutely aware of the cultural differences that separated my family from those of my peers. More than the differences in theology or observance, the divide between the cultural traditions of my own parents and those of my peers’ parents contributed to vastly different experiences of leisure time. As children, my friends’ parents spent their weekends at golf courses, soccer games, or sailing clubs. Leisure was time to be spent actively, and often outdoors, even in the height of New England’s winters. Our neighbors were enviably social, attending lively cocktail parties that would last late into the night, long after my own parents had locked the door and turned off the lights.

My parents, on the other hand, devoted their leisure time to quieter pleasures, curling up on the weekends with the Sunday New York Times for hours on end, going to Ibsen plays at the community theater in Providence, touring the Rhode Island School of Design galleries. Their own social lives included sporadic dinners with friends, but never late-night parties, and never drinking. I remember particular embarrassment arising from my father’s self-imposed exclusion from the neighborhood’s annual Superbowl parties. He didn’t even know who was playing. Of course these differences cannot be solely attributed to culture, but my sense of a division between the experiences of daily life for Christians and Jews was nonetheless real.

The cultural differences I must navigate with Reinhard, my German Lutheran husband, in contrast, have been much subtler. Having been born and raised on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, Reinhard was in many ways more fully immersed in secular Jewish cultural traditions than I was as a child. Reinhard shopped at Zabars (a classic Jewish gourmet food store) and took a writing course with Phillip Roth. For as long as he can remember, Christmas and Easter brunches at his mother’s home have always included lox and bagels.

Nonetheless, there are cultural differences with which we continue to wrestle. For example, the taboos that exist around casual social drinking for my parents contrast dramatically with Reinhard’s German cultural emphasis on the importance of a good beer or glass of wine to complement a tasty dinner. Similarly, Reinhard’s rich culinary heritage has been drastically constrained by the elimination of pork from our kitchen. But such differences are not fundamentally connected to our experience of the world around us.

However, our different cultures’ historical legacies are sometimes harder to reconcile. After all, my husband is not just a Christian, but a first generation German American, whose parents remain German citizens today. The significance of that historical legacy is impossible to escape. Ironically, Reinhard’s family was in some ways closer to the trauma of the Holocaust than my own, who were already in the United States during the war years. Reinhard’s mother, a small child during the war, remembers distinctly the fighter planes that sprayed machine-gun fire into her small city outside Hamburg. His father would see the dead bodies of bomber pilots hanging in the trees near their family farm. How do they fit into the historical realities of that time period? How does Reinhard?

The Holocaust has shaped both of us inextricably. For Jews, of course, our sense of security in the world is always tempered by a sense of tenuousness. No matter how firmly entrenched in an assimilated United States we may appear, there is the sense that we can never entirely escape our sense of “otherness.” But Reinhard must also grapple with the burden of history. For Reinhard, the “them” of countless wartime movies, documentaries, histories, and popular imagination must be somehow reconciled with “us.”

Sixty years later, a very different set of historical realities engulfs us. The events of the past year and the past few months in particular have once again put Jewish people in the midst of a worldwide conflict. Recently, I have become increasingly active in speaking out against the occupation policies of Ariel Sharon, and have been involved in an ongoing and volatile debate with other members of the Jewish community around this issue. And despite my sense of urgency and passion, I feel Reinhard left on the sidelines. After all, Israel is not “his” country. His relationship to it cannot be as complex or emotion-ridden as my own. Although Reinhard is characterized by a deep sense of humanitarianism, I feel him reluctant to share in my indignation. He claims that he doesn’t know enough about the conflict to be critical, but I know that his history has instilled in him a strong desire to avoid at all costs giving offense to any people–and in particular, the Jewish people.

Moreover, at some level I am sure he senses that there are many who will not grant him a credible role in the Jewish community’s internal dialogue, that his opinions will not be welcome. And perhaps even I hold some responsibility for this impression. I remember being a child at a neighborhood sleepover, and watching a comedy routine where Joan Rivers was making fun of Jewish women. Angrily, I shouted for my non-Jewish friends to turn it off. I was embarrassed to have my identity mocked in front of them. “But Joan Rivers is Jewish,” they said. I laughed with relief, and no longer felt anger at the comedienne, but camaraderie. Has the profound intimacy of my marriage truly altered this primitive sense of identification with those who share my heritage? I must admit that the answer is “no.” When a writer from Ha’aretz (Israel’s daily newspaper) condemns Sharon’s occupation policies, I feel a sense of solidarity. But when I hear British correspondents for BBC radio chastising these same policies, I feel uneasy. This dichotomy is not rational, but it exists nonetheless.

And so, while our cultural traditions have proven largely compatible, our historical legacies have inevitably left us with different lenses for viewing our world. Reinhard is eternally cautious, never eager to pass judgment, always willing to provide others the benefit of the doubt. I, on the other hand, am distressed about the Jewish community moving from a position of oppressed to oppressor, from abused to abuser. Moreover, I am terrified about the Jewish community’s reemerging visibility on the world stage. Paradoxically, though Israel is now a strong occupying power, its central presence in the world media has made Jews vulnerable to fresh waves of anti-Semitism. Reinhard can support me while I wrestle with the complex issues the past year has posed, but he cannot experience my anguish.


About Karen Engels

Karen Engels is a sixth grade teacher at the Harbor School, a pilot middle school in Dorchester, Mass. She lives with her husband Reinhard in Cambridge.