Monday, August 6, 2007

An Orthodox Jewish Visitor to Vienna? “Das ist nicht normal!”

When I arrived at my Pension in Vienna last week, I was informed that, because of a scheduling problem, I would have to move into another room on Saturday, and that I would not be able to use either room for four hours. When I tried to explain to the young woman at the desk that as an orthodox Jew, I do not travel or carry in the streets on my Sabbath, but rather that I eat, read, and rest in my room, she replied, “Das ist nicht normal,” and then proceeded to tell me that she was a Catholic, and that she didn’t do anything like this.

Of course, she was right. It is not normal for healthy tourists to spend so much time in their rooms. It is also not normal for them to stick their room keys in the holes of their belt so that they are not actually “carrying” the keys in the public domain, or to tear toilet paper the day before they use it. This is not normal even for Catholics, who believe in the virgin birth, incarnation, and transubstantiation, hardly normal phenomena.

The young woman wasn’t trying to be nasty. On the contrary, she spoke simply and directly, without any trace of malice.

So why did her words bother me so much?

For one thing they were spoken in Vienna, a city with a long history of antisemitism that reached its peak in the Nazi period, by a person whose religious authorities had, until very recently, not spoken well of the Jews, to say the least.

Could I be pardoned a wee bit of over-sensitivity under these circumstances?

But more importantly, her words transported me to my high school years in the US, when I attended an Episcopalian prep school and often had to endure insensitive comments about Jews and Judaism. Those comments were also not made with any particular malice, and I can’t say that they hurt me deeply. Yet any member of a stigmatized minority knows what I am talking about: the feeling of insult, of impotence, of not knowing how or when to speak up to the detractors – because to defend onself is to be guilty of the very oversensitivity that one is charged with….

As it turned out, I did spend close to four hours outside my room. The weather was beautiful; the Stadtpark was inviting; and I got to see extraordinarily kitschy statues of Strauss, Lehar, and Schubert. So I wasn’t inconvenienced too much. It’s not as if I was waiting at a checkpoint near Ramallah…

Still, that’s the way it is here in Vienna for an oversensitive Jew. On the one hand, you are in a city whose Jewish population went from 170,000 to 7,000 within the space of a few years; a city that effectively rid itself of its greatest intellectuals, writers, professionals, politicians, artists, and architects because of National Socialism, where elderly Jews after the Anschluss were made to scrub the sidewalks with toothbrushes while laughing crowds stood by.

But with all the Viennese Antisemitismus from the fifteenth century to the Holocaust, there were tremendous achievements as well; think of Freud, Loos, Mahler, Schnitzler, and Roth, even Herzl. Vienna was the hub of the Hasburg Empire, and waves of immigrants from Galicia crowded into its streets around the First World War; it was a very Jewish city. So one leaves Vienna with ambiguous feelings, but that ambiguity seems to be part and parcel of the Jewish experience here. Nicht sehr gemütlich, perhaps, aber nicht jetzt so schlecht.

N.B. When the Magnes Zionist returns from Vienna to Jerusalem this coming Friday, the commentary will be more weighty. Until then, please forgive me. In a city where the word “kugel” is ubiquitous – yet refers to the ball of chocolate with Mozart’s picture on it that tourists buy for souvenirs – it is difficult to be serious.

No comments: