On being Jewish and naked in a German sauna

The Holocaust is also on the minds of many Germans. Their unwavering support for Israel is deeply rooted in history.

A MAN uses a sauna located at the frozen river Spree in Berlin (photo credit: REUTERS)
A MAN uses a sauna located at the frozen river Spree in Berlin
(photo credit: REUTERS)
I love touring Germany. It’s a great country to visit where everything seems organized, structured, and works – in many ways the total opposite of Israel, where I have lived for the past 28 years.
We went on a family vacation to the Black Forest (Schwarzwald) for winter vacation. Landing in Baden-Baden on a direct flight from Tel Aviv, for some of my kids it was their first time playing in the snow. The snowball fight ended abruptly when the German airport security on the tarmac told them it was verboten.
We were definitely a sight to see. In a country where the fertility rate is 1.5 births per woman, we were a family of seven kids ranging in age from 16 to one. We felt like a traveling circus, and many folks were astounded. For us, though, as Jews, it was somewhat of a victory lap. Here we are, an Israeli family of nine, proving that their “Final Solution” didn’t succeed.
If you are Jewish, you can never really escape the Holocaust if you travel or live in Germany. It’s always there, everywhere. The names of the towns are the same, many of the streets and buildings, too. I often found myself imagining what it was like 75 years earlier at the very places we visited. When I looked at older people, similar thoughts rushed through my head. Even looking at younger people, I wondered whether they were made from the same moral fiber – for better or worse – as their progenitors.
The Holocaust is also on the minds of many Germans. Their unwavering support for Israel is deeply rooted in history. They educate their children about the horrors of the war and have taken responsibility for it. Visits to concentration camps, Holocaust memorials and Jewish museums are a required part of their school curriculum.
Baden-Baden is a quaint town near the Swiss and French border. We prayed in the small synagogue on Shabbat and saw firsthand how Russian Jewish immigrants have revitalized Jewish life in Germany. The synagogue was relatively new, as the original one was burned down, along with 250 others, on Kristallnacht in November 1938.
Every day we went somewhere else, schlepping the kids to Basel for the first night of Hanukkah, Stuttgart to tour the Porsche factory, France for the shopping, Württemberg for skiing, Rust for the Europa-Park theme park, and to Titisee for the Galaxy Schwarzwald indoor water park and spa.
WHILE ALL of these excursions were successful, the water park was the most beloved.
In the middle of December, with snow on the ground, we were inside, enjoying the 23 water slides and the wave pool. In addition, the upstairs included 12 themed saunas, and was for adults only, due to the nude dress code.
After about six hours of water slides, my wife gave me permission to explore the saunas. I love saunas but have to admit I had never been nude in front of strangers.
There were two main activities in this part of the spa, first spending time in one of the saunas and then cooling off in the shower. Saunas (ovens) and showers. Again, my thoughts transported me to a time 75 years earlier. At one point I entered an open shower stall and the woman next to me started to explain that it was broken. I know that fake showerhead trick, as millions of my people died that way.
I was sitting in the Panoramic Sauna, watching the sun set into the forest, when the sauna attendant – the only person allowed to wear clothes – came in to explain the benefits of a sauna lifestyle and put peppermint oil on the hot coals. The smell was invigorating, as was the sight of sitting with 80 naked strangers.
At some point in her presentation, she looked at me and started yelling in German. “Verboten” was the only thing I could understand. I tried not to make eye contact, hoping she would leave me alone. I was wondering whether this was a Jewish thing. How could she know? Finally, my neighbor turned to me and explained that my feet were not on the towel, and that was verboten. I was relieved but unfortunately couldn’t move my towel without standing up. Fixing it while everyone watched was both an extremely embarrassing and extremely liberating moment at the same time.
I learned a lot that day in the German sauna, lessons for life. First, the Germans should be commended for their healthy attitude about body image. Many of us struggle with our bodies, especially as we age. Getting naked in front of strangers is a powerful exercise in realizing that body size and image just do not matter. We are all human. I also learned that I can never escape Jewish history and my Jewish identity. It will always be with me no matter where I am, who I am with, or what I am wearing – or not wearing.
The writer is an international pollster and strategic communications professional based in Jerusalem. He and his wife now have eight children and as a result he spends most of his time involved in fatherhood and husbandry related activities.