The following is an excerpt from my new book Underskin which looks at Jewish-German and Israeli-German relations.
At 9 p.m. we meet at Miznon, one of the city’s trendiest fast food joints famous for its gourmet pitas and balagan, slang for “mess.” A long line is already stretching to the pavement of Ibn Gabirol Street, if you could call it a “line.”
No one is standing in any particular order, but that’s okay because it’s fun to look over the open kitchen where hipsters stuff pitas with all these goodies – lamb kubbahs, hamburgers, chicken livers – sautéing them with the perfect mix of salt and spices and then dousing them in tehina to create the most delicious pita feasts in Israel.
“Ofir!” “Michael!” “Orit!” are some of the customer names cooks shout over the pop music.
Sebastian is already in line, just as beautiful as I remember him, maybe even more so. He’s wearing a white T-shirt with an immaculately, deliberately torn collar. Its light cotton fabric reveals the contours of his chest muscles. His jeans seem custom tailored to accentuate his well-endowed manhood. Yes, I notice.
“Fun place!” Sebastian enthuses and steals a light squeeze of my arm, making this wait so much more bearable – and agonizing. His touch causes me to spasm for a split second.
I get the English menus, hand written on recycled fragments of brown paper bags, a testament to the establishment’s care for the environment. Fresh, whole cauliflower heads beautify the wooden shelves as the main décor of the shacklike interior.
“No shrimp or pork here?” he asks as he looks at the list of items divided into sea, land and sky categories.
“Not so common in Israel,” I say.
“That’s, like, really not kosher.”
“What’s ‘kosher’ exactly, anyway?”
So how do I explain this?
“Well, there are certain animals Jews can’t eat, and those we can have to be slaughtered in a certain way.”
“So it’s not about a rabbi blessing the food?”
“No, that’s a myth.”
“But some Tel Aviv restaurants serve pork and shrimp,” I explain. “It’s a very secular city.”
“Do you eat kosher?” he asks.
“Not really. I grew up traditional, but I went to a religious elementary school – not too religious, not like ultra-Orthodox, you know, with the black hats and stuff, but I learned about it. I didn’t grow up eating shrimp and pork, so I never really developed a taste for it. I don’t eat meat so often, but when I do, I try to eat kosher meat, but not strictly.”
“Too bad. You’re missing out,” he says.
I’m missing out on a lot of unkosher flesh, it seems.
“But the minute steak with egg sounds fantastic. Two beers?” “Yeah. Beer is totally kosher.”
I instruct him to grab a newly empty table as I continue to wait in line so I can order. I think you have to be Israeli to order in this balagan, not a polite European.
“I’ll take care of this,” he says and hands me cash, which I happily take. I am, after all, offering the services of a “perfect tour guide.”
After putting in our pita orders to include a side of cauliflower they so famously grill, I go to the mini salad bar in the corner and fill small plates with pita ends, tehina, pickle wedges, and tomato sauce.
“Cool!” Sebastian says as I put the free appetizers on the table.
“They don’t waste food this way,” I say, for the perfect hasbara. Israel is humanitarian for finding a solution to that ageold dilemma of what to do with pita ends.
“A culinary ecosystem.”
Our beers and cauliflower are first to leave the kitchen, allowing us time to munch, drink, and talk while we wait for our meatier orders.
“So, how were your first few days?” I ask after we take our first bites and I teach him the word “ta’im,” meaning “tasty.”
“They were great. We went to Haifa today and met with Jewish and Arab students – Muslims, Christians, and also Druze. I was impressed with their talent, but then again, we accepted musical people. What we’re doing is really cool.
We’re having each group write different songs using the same chord progression.
Then we’ll mix everyone up into different bands, and they’ll perform each other’s songs at the ‘Battle of the Bands.’ It’s nice to be part of something bigger than yourself.”
How noble. How cliché.
“Why Israel?” I ask, wiping the last pita end into the remaining, delicious tehina.
“I mean, there are so many conflict zones in the world. You could make a difference in so many other places.”
“Good question. I mean, I’d love to work with children in Thailand or Vietnam, too, but I’ve been hearing a lot about Israel.
A friend of mine came to Tel Aviv last year. Israel’s always in the German media.
There were a lot of articles this year about Israel and Germany celebrating fifty years of diplomatic relations. It’s a big deal because of our history, you know. We learn a lot about the Holocaust in high school. So I guess you could say Israel’s on my radar.”
Boom. He dropped the H-bomb first.
What Dana said might really be true.
We are connected in some twisted way by our tragic history.
“We also have a lot of Holocaust education,” I offer. “I mean, a lot. Actually, a lot of my education comes from my family.”
I retaliate against his H-bomb with the A-bomb. I take a deep breath before I press the button. “My grandparents are Holocaust survivors. My grandmother survived Auschwitz.”
He looks at me with both surprise and sadness. “Oh, wow. I’m so sorry.”
“I hope that doesn’t make you uncomfortable,” I say. This is exactly why Jews waltzed right into the gas chambers – the need to make sure people don’t feel bad about murdering them. I take three more sips of beer.
“Not at all,” he says as he also takes to his glass.
“But my mother was born in Iraq,” I say, taking us out of Europe.
“Iraq?” “Yeah, Baghdad. There was a big Jewish community there, probably one of the oldest in the world.” But I won’t get into how they were forced to flee because of Nazi-inspired pogroms. The A-bomb has caused enough damage.
“That’s cool,” he says, bringing us to safety.
Our conversation is thankfully interrupted with: “Nilly!” Our pitas are ready.
He offers to get them. The A-bomb has harmed my appetite, but when Sebastian hands me my pita stuffed with sautéed chicken liver, Auschwitz becomes ancient history.
“This looks great,” Sebastian says, beholding his thin, minute steak pita stuffed with grilled onions and peppers, topped with an egg yolk that oozes over the fleshy yumminess. He takes a huge, manly bite, like a hungry animal eating its prey.
“Ta’im!” he says and finishes the sandwich in only six bites.
I’m already tipsy around 10 pm when I suggest we walk across the street to Toma, a garden bar spread over a large deck located adjacent to the ZOA House, the former headquarters of the Zionist Organization of America that today serves as an events center.
He takes my hand as we walk across. The bombs have claimed no casualties.
I feel privileged walking with such a hunk. Wait a minute? Shouldn’t he feel privileged to be walking with me, especially after what his ancestors did to mine? Now I really resent all of my formal and informal Holocaust education because I don’t like having to relate his every move to the Holocaust. Why can’t I just think about how nice his thick, soft hands feel against mine? I haven’t had a real romance since Alon.
My last date took place a few weeks ago with a moderately attractive thirty-five-year-old real estate lawyer. Since he worked in a related field, I thought we’d have much to discuss, but the conversation focused on the rising prices of Israeli real estate and how housing laws are changing to discourage foreign investors. The date felt like a business course.
But I wanted to give him a chance, so I accepted his offer to walk me home from the bar to my apartment. He didn’t reach for my hand to hold, but when we got to my place, he asked, “Do you have coffee?” In Israel, that’s a code phrase for: “Do you have sex?” “I don’t drink coffee,” I lied and wished him goodnight. Sebastian sadly lets go of my hand when we get to the bar stools. A cheerful bartender takes our orders.
“Beer again?” I ask.
I want – no, need – something strong.
“Do they have Maredsous in Germany?” I ask. “I think it’s Spanish or something.
It’s really popular in Israel.”
With a high alcohol content of 10 percent, Maredsous is the beer of choice among many of my friends for offering drunken value for money.
“I actually never had it,” Sebastian says.
I normally order a third; tonight, I get half a liter.
“So you grew up in Dresden?” One large sip of the cherry-syrup tasting Maredsous gives me the courage to pry into his family’s past. Dana’s right. I can’t just assume they were Nazis. Maybe his grandparents were “Righteous Among the Nations,” those who saved Jewish lives, and my whole neurosis is for naught.
“Born and raised,” he answers. “But, actually, it was a different country then.
It was the German Democratic Republic.
The GDR. East Germany.”
Did I even know that? “So you grew up under Communism?” “Yeah, until I was eight.”
“What year did the Wall fall again?” I completely forgot this part of Germany’s post-war history: the division between East and West. I had first learned about it watching the Olympics as a child when the West and East each had their own gymnastics teams. My German studies consisted of, almost exclusively, the Holocaust.
I do the math quickly. He must be around 35. “And how was your childhood?” I ask.
“I guess you could say it was normal.
I didn’t really know what I was missing.
We couldn’t leave the East. We played outside a lot, especially by the river when it was warm out. Dresden wasn’t as built up back then. The GDR didn’t have the money to restore the bombed-out parts.
We didn’t even have Western television because Dresden’s located in a valley – the Valley of the River Elbe – and the antenna signals didn’t catch American television, not like in other East German cities. They called us the ‘Valley of the Clueless.’ “So we were stuck with only radio, but that’s when I knew I was missing something: MTV. I heard David Bowie, Michael Jackson, and ‘The Boss’ on the radio, but I couldn’t watch the music videos. When the Wall fell, my first thought was: Finally, I get to watch ‘Born in the USA’ and ‘Thriller.’ “After that we got to travel west, to Austria, Switzerland, and I got to see how much more people had.”
“Who did your travel with?” “My mother. My father left my mother not long after the Wall fell.”
“Oh, I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay.” He waves his hands dismissively, but his eyes drop in sadness.
“Did your grandparents also live in Dresden?” I’m getting closer.
“From my mother’s side.” He pauses, as if he’s debating whether or not to press another button. “Actually, my grandfather died in the bombing. He worked in a Dresden factory making camera lenses.
My grandmother, who died a few years ago, survived the bombing because she moved to the countryside with family when she was pregnant with my mother.”
“Oh, God. I’m so sorry.”
Or am I? Actually, he reacted with an “I’m so sorry” to my A-bomb, so it’s only right I reply in kind to the actual D-bomb – but no, I refuse to draw any moral equivalence between a death camp and the bombing of a Nazi city. If the D-bomb contributed to the end of Auschwitz, then I might even have to raise this Maredsous in celebration. Instead, I take a sip, feeling drunk enough to ask, as a warning flare for the N-bomb, “Was he a civilian or a soldier?” “You mean, was he a Nazi?” There, he put out the flare.
“It’s okay. You can ask.” He speaks, looking straight ahead at the liquor on the shelves. “I mean, there was only one party.”
Take that, Dana! “My father’s father... he was a soldier.
Fought in North Africa with the Wehrmacht.”
I forgot the Nazis didn’t only ransack Poland.
“Honestly, I don’t even know if they joined the Nazi party.”
“Weren’t you all forced to be Nazis?” “Well, it depends what you mean by that. Everyone was forcibly drafted, but I think only the SS had to be members of the party. Thank God, my grandparents weren’t in the SS. Truth is, my family didn’t talk about World War II.
My mother said her mother didn’t know about the Holocaust until later. Anyway, I don’t really see myself as part of that generation.”
I’m both comforted and not by this distinction, new to me. On the one hand, his grandfathers may not have been directly involved in Jewish genocide; on the other, he never really bothered to find out. Then again, right now, I don’t want to see him as part of that generation, either. I just want to see him as an amazingly good-looking, sweet, smart man I like talking to but who might not like talking to me if this line of questioning turns into a blitzkrieg.
“So when did you move to Berlin?” I ask.
“After high school. I went there to study music. I mostly taught myself music production because I wanted to produce pop and electronic music and maybe film scores, and not only play the classical music my father pushed.
Berlin was really cheap at the time, cheaper than today.”
How could chocolate pudding get any cheaper? “And your parents? They’re still in Dresden?” I ask.
“My mother’s there. My father lives near Hannover. He was a drunk who never really amounted to anything in life, and he used to hit my mom.”
“Yeah. I’m hardly in touch with him.”
He frowns and changes the subject.
“What about your family? Siblings?” “Well, my parents are together. I have two brothers, one older and one younger.”
“The middle child.”
I look at our glasses. Almost empty.
I’m surprised I’ve downed more beer than him.
“And where do they live?” he asks.
“In that small town I grew up in.”
I’m not drunk enough to drop another A-bomb: Ariel. I guess he’s not the only coward here.
“How’d you get into architecture?” “Well, I’ve always liked art, and I was good at math, so, like you said, this is the perfect combo. You know, in Israel, it’s not easy to be an artist – so don’t think about moving here. I mean, we’re a developed country and all, but we’re small and people don’t make so much money, so they don’t really spend it on art. They’d much rather spend on vacations.”
“Did you ever think of leaving Israel?” “Not really. I have relatives in the US, but I guess you could say I always felt connected to this place.”
“I could understand that. It’s a very deep place.”
Now I’m comforted.
“Did you serve in the army?” he asks.
“Yes. The intelligence corps.” I speak with dramatic flair. “Analyzed maps to look for terrorist and weapons hideouts.”
“So you’re a spy?” “Exactly. So you better be careful.” Actually, he really should be.
“I come from East Germany.” He winks.
“We’re used to spies.”
He grabs a strand of my hair and looks at me with his striking blue diamonds.
I shake his fingers off by taking two sips of beer. Then I catch his gaze and smile meekly. I’m scared because the adage goes that you can see a person’s soul by looking into his eyes and... I don’t see one.
“Can I kiss you?” he asks, catching me off guard. What kind of man these days asks a woman before he kisses her? I guess a German.
I’m upset that he asked because now I’m forced to make a choice. Should I let this grandson of a “civilian” maybe-Nazi and a “Wehrmacht” maybe-Nazi kiss me?
Does Nilly kiss Sebastian? Find out in Orit Arfa’s newest novel, Underskin, a romance between an Israeli woman and German man, set in contemporary Tel Aviv and Berlin.
Check it out on Amazon or on her website: oritarfa.com.