I don’t watch that much German television but one thing I do like to catch when I have time is a talkshow called Kölner Treff. The host, Bettina Böttinger, invites several guests like actors, singers, writers, journalists, etc. and in the round has conversations with them. She interviews each guest separately but often others in the round will also chime in and interesting talks happen. I never think to watch the show when it first airs (I think on Friday nights) but when I can (and when I remember to) I catch it on repeat on Sunday mornings, over my bowl of Weetabix and a cup of tea.
I am not very in tune anymore with the current German cultural landscape, I haven’t been for many years, which means that I often won’t even know most of the guests on there, except for maybe some older German showbiz people I knew from the time I / my parents lived there in the 1980s and 1990s. Regardless, the conversations are often interesting, more or less, and every time I come away learning something about people.
Yesterday I watched one such Kölner Treff episode…
… and the guests were alright, didn’t really do that much for me even though I do always enjoy the conversation, until Bettina came around to interviewing the final two guests. One was a war journalist called Katrin Eigendorf who I would love to hear more from and the other was a young, red-haired actor called Daniel Donskoy.
Katrin Eigendorf was very interesting and I liked what she had to say about her work, about neutrality in journalism not always being good and virtually impossible, and also about her private life, being mother to a handicapped son who died at 17. With Daniel Donskoy I immediately felt this sense of recognition and familiarity. I had never heard of him before, but apparently he also played a tiny role of Princess Diana’s lover James Hewitt on The Crown in season 4.
What drew me to him was his diverse identity, not necessarily professionally but personally. Born in the USSR, moved to Germany as a baby in 1990, later also lived in Israel and Berlin and London. He has Jewish parents but is also secular and feels like he belongs everywhere and nowhere. The 14 minute interview (in case you’re interested, link is here) made me curious about a show he makes called Freitagnacht Jews where he interviews people over dinner who talk about their (liberal) Jewish life and experience in Germany.
He has made eight 25 minute Freitagnacht Jews shows interviewing other German Jews (playlist is here). I have been watching these shows yesterday and today and I feel this connection with him in his struggles with identity and not being able to (or wanting to) label himself which made me think of how I see my identity as well. I also really connected with his normality of being (secular) Jewish, it felt like I could be sitting at the table with him and his guests and join in with the discussion of my Jewish life, even though I am not Jewish! I really had fun watching these and they really made me think. By the way, I also quite like the title song to his show and will tune in to his second series when I can as well…
So… the thoughts on my own identity have been swirling around my head these past two days. Like him, I too have lived in several countries. Like him, people make assumptions about who I am when hearing only a bit about me. Also, this concept of starting over again in different countries and cultures is very recognizable to me.
I was born in Jerusalem to Dutch parents and lived there until I was 10. Except for once, I can’t remember thinking anything about my identity back then but I am not sure whether it was due to me being a young child or whether everyone I knew in my international school or outside school were all ‘different’ with diverse and complicated backgrounds. My background didn’t seem that different. The one time I remember realizing I was different was when I used to admire the school uniforms these Palestinian girls wore in the Old City in Jerusalem. They wore these blue and white striped dresses, under which they also wore their long trousers. As I loved those outfits, my mother once bought me such a dress and I wore it to the Old City one day. I was very blonde with blue eyes and walking dressed as an Arab schoolgirl through the Old City drew so much attention (and pinching of my cheeks that I can still feel the soreness from to this day), I realized that I was something different than a regular Palestinian schoolgirl and I don’t think I ever wore that outfit again, at least not publicly. Children want to blend in, after all
I first started feeling really different and ‘the other’ when I lived in Germany in my early teens. Of course, it didn’t help that we moved from a world city such as Jerusalem (where identity is more connected to religion than to nationality) to a little village in Germany. I was the foreign outsider and many thought I was Jewish, due to my name and ‘coming from Israel’. I learned to speak German like a German and completely learned to blend in (again the need to not be so different from my peers), with the people later never questioning my ‘German-ness’ if I didn’t tell them anything about me. It helped that I ‘looked’ German too. However, I always felt separate inside and even somewhat guilty for wanting to blend in like that.
When I moved to The Netherlands at 16, I spoke Dutch as learned at home but I still needed to learn about Dutch life and culture. Many thought I was a ‘good’ German as they thought I was not only German but also Jewish (again due to my name and that faint connection to Israel everyone somehow seemed to know about). In those years, I learned to embrace my being different instead of trying to hide it away and I always amused myself by correcting people’s assumptions about me. It also helped that I was at an international school again, where lots of the kids had different diverse backgrounds, and I didn’t stand out as much. By the way, I haven’t been mistaken as German now for many years, as my German has deteriorated somewhat and I have lost any hint of a German accent in my English or Dutch speech than I may have had for a while there.
Nowadays I’m not ever considered anything else than Dutch, although some may comment on me maybe being English when I throw in an English comment or sentence. And they don’t understand how I can be so fluent in English when I have never lived in an English-speaking country (apart from a 5 month internship in England in the 1990s). And if I want to travel to countries in the Middle East other than Jordan or Egypt, I may encounter troubles getting in as my name sounds Jewish and my passport says “Jerusalem” as my birthplace, even though I am not Jewish and my stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is very middle of the road, not particularly favouring any one side. Yes, this identity thing is complicated and not only when it comes to nationality.
People also think I am a religious Christian, especially when they hear that my father was a pastor and a theologian and I do feel at home in Christianity but I also feel at home in Judaism. If I had to choose a religion to follow, it probably would be Judaism, but right now if I had to categorize myself I would in essence call myself a non-religious humanist.
And then there’s also my family, which is also complicated! If I introduce my black brother or my Arab looking brother as ‘this is my brother’ you can just see the questions appear in people’s eyes. Explaining my family is a whole process of its own!
I have now lived in The Netherlands for many years and at first glance and when people first get to know me, I am a ‘standard’ Dutch person even though after all these years I still don’t feel that way. There always, always, in each new acquaintance I make, comes a time when I feel the need to define myself as not standard Dutch. When people ask me where I’m from, I always hesitate to answer because I never quite know how to answer that. There is never one quick simple answer. Yes, I have the Dutch nationality and while I like living here in The Netherlands and I do have this whole Dutch background, I don’t like to be pinned to just the Dutch nationality. So, when people ask me where I’m from or if I’m religious or they ask me about my family, I usually say ‘it’s complicated’ and if they have half an hour, I can make some time to explain. And I haven’t even gotten around to explaining anything about my professional identity and what it is I look for in work. I’m quite restless in that as well.
All my life I have tried to fit in while on the inside rebelling against the feeling that I need to fit in. I want be to seen as ‘normal’ on the one hand and my life has become quite ‘normal’ too because I do feel quite comfortable with that, yet on the other hand and at the same time I struggle against ‘normality’ and don’t want to be stuck in the same thing forever. When I try to explain my background to people, it can feel like I’m bragging and that they may think that I think I’m ‘better’ than them. If I don’t explain about my background, I feel like I’m holding back or even lying. And always I somehow feel restless, like I’m not living up to the potential of my diverse youth and yet at the same time also being happy with my family and work now. Identity and figuring life out is a tough thing… will the struggle ever end? Or is it the struggle that makes it interesting?
Daniel Donskoy is 20 years younger than me, but I have become a bit of a fan because he has made me actively think about these questions of identity again and it’s very interesting for me to see how he figures out similar life questions for himself. Should he ever write a book about all that, I’d be very interested to see how he tackles that. I sometimes consider writing something about identity myself but then always fail on figuring out precisely how to do that and from what angle to approach it. Maybe one day, when I am old and grey and very wise and have more time on my hands and more patience, I will be able to figure that out.