American Views Abroad

Sunday, December 19, 2004
Liberty Heights, a US film from 1999, was on German TV last night. It portrays Baltimore in 1954 from the point of view of a Jewish family along with the political background of that time -- the McCarthy era, first attempts at integrating schools, not to mention blatantly crude but very open signs of segregation --- in short, a movie about change and 'values'. It is chilling to be confronted with a scene where three teen-age boys cannot enter a country club because the sign outside reads No Jews, Dogs or Coloreds Allowed. They try to figure out why that order and you have to laugh. What struck me was the reciting of a school prayer and how the Jewish boy is enthralled with how the black girl student feels this prayer. She, in turn, wants to know what he feels saying it. What seemed so innocent in the film is loaded with dynamite today. School prayer is not a theme in Europe but the wearing of head scarves or the hanging of crucifixes in the schools is a source of contention. There has been the emotional debate on whether Turkey should be part of the European Union and agonizing, hand-wringing discussions about parallel societies and how much those new on the block have to adapt.

I have a good friend here, an American who is Jewish and grew up in Minnesota in the 50s and early 60s. We have been discussing the debate on multiculturalism. She just had hip replacement surgery and is making the rounds of various rehab centers. Though her German is nearly flawless, she encountered some unpleasant experiences. Someone indicated detecting signs in her German that she might not be one herself and there was quite a scene at a breakfast table about the fact that luckily no Turk sat there. She pointedly refused to sit there again. This provoked her to take a walk down memory lane. She remembered having to recite the Lord's Prayer in front of her class one day which she found odd since she was the only non-Christian there. Actually she found the prayer interesting and lovely in its own way. What she is still outraged about is one boyfriend whom she loved dancing with and how he was forced by his father not to take her to the country club. She dropped him at that point. A few years ago she discussed it with him at a class reunion. He was pretty fed up with himself back then as well.

Living two houses down the road from me is an Iranian family and a few years ago they asked me just how to go about putting up a Christmas tree. They wanted their son to be part of where he lives. Now when talking about things German, Christmas trees are high on the list. Why ask me? Well there is a certain sense of 'shared experience' when you move to some place that doesn't historically focus on other people moving there----rather the opposite. Another is a certain distance. Americans love Christmas trees, but here it is almost an emotional issue. Every family has its rituals. It's put up first on the 24th, perhaps it is brought by the Christ child or the Christmas man, depending on region and religion. It has to be a real tree. Some want nothing artificial on it, just candles and homemade items. Some families stand around singing to it to start off the holiday. I told them to put it up close to Christmas Eve and decorate it whatever way they wanted. It can be taken down after January 1st. They actually invited me in to see a lovely little tree that ended up looking very, well, occidental.

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