Israeli Pop Culture in the Hessian Countryside

When German friends of mine choose to move from Darmstadt, in Hesse, into the surrounding countryside, I shake my head in disbelief. That an Israeli family would leave Tel Aviv not, as many Israelis do, to move to Berlin (see the German-language blog post offering ten tips for Israelis in Berlin), but rather to the tiny Hessian town of Niederbrechen, seems audacious, if not outright absurd. This scenario, however, is the starting point of Sarah Diehl’s debut novel Eskimo Limon 9. The novel depicts a “very particular kind of culture clash,” as the book’s flap announces.

Book cover © Atrium publishers

Book cover
© Atrium publishers

Some of the characters are Israelis, and they have little interest in discussing Germany’s past or the history of European Jews.

“The only thing in the Jewish Museum that will remind me of home will probably be the metal detector you have to go through at the entrance.”

The novel’s Israeli father Chen wishes Germans “would associate us with Eskimo Limon instead of six million dead.” The title of the book refers to a film series of the same name, which aired in Germany in the 1980s as Eis am Stil (Popsicle), “one of the few Israeli pop culture phenomena […] familiar to German audiences.” Many assume that the series is Italian, which—as the author of the novel argues—shows how selective Germans’ perception of Israel can be, and how limited their idea of Jewishness often is.

Other characters are natives of Niederbrechen. The most self-reflective among them is the 58-year-old fogey Koffel, who had once wanted to explore the world but somehow never managed to leave home. He believes that “Germans are necessarily either philo- or anti-Semitic.” Chen sees a few of his new colleagues in Frankfurt as counterexamples to this theory, but actually, the novel’s German characters prove Koffel’s comment to be correct. For instance, there’s Diehl’s telling description of the clumsily anxious teacher, pondering how to introduce his new pupil Eran to the class.

A garden gnome, fern and a stone

A garden gnome in the Hessian countryside, photo: Mirjam Bitter
Creative Commons License

As a German reader I was embarrassed at the expectations that the uptight German characters have of the family that moved to the village from a ‘foreign country’ – the only Jewish family at that! Koffel has catalogued all of his Israeli literature under the heading “Second World War,” and, as he becomes friends with the female protagonist Ziggy, Eran’s 36-year-old mother, he “tenderly lusts after a tear. His first Jewish tear, and then he could console her.” He does not want to have sex with the younger woman – far from it. He “just wants to talk – about the Holocaust and stuff.” The author exposes the obscenity of philosemitism. But one of the feats that makes the novel worth reading, is how she manages to render Koffel sympathetic and, beyond kitschy shock value, to bestow the completely unequal and unusual friendship between him and Ziggy with touching moments.

The non-Jewish Diehl appears to attribute her own first name to German philosemitism: her namesake in the novel explains that, after the television show Holocaust and the Majdanek trial, “suddenly a lot of parents named their children Sarah and David because they thought that way they could make amends. I’m one of those kids.” Her Israeli-Jewish narrative point of view is nevertheless believable, as a review in the Jüdische Allgemeine newspaper also emphasized. For instance she’s well-versed in more recent Passover traditions: “Sol placed an orange on the Seder plate. […] Sol started to sing Go down Moses.”

The dialog is sometimes artificial, but that’s forgivable in a debut novel. Readers
increasingly notice that the author of the text is taking a “position […] in the history of German-Jewish communication.” Besides this, the book contains feminist themes in Ziggy’s frustrations with her role as a housewife and the portrayal of female ejaculation. This is more a novel of dialogue than of action. Anyone interested in these subjects, however, will find this sampling of pop culture with academic, political, and literary discourse inspiring and thought-provoking.

Mirjam Bitter, Media

Sarah Diehl, Eskimo Limon 9, Novel, Zürich: Atrium 2012, 320 pp. In German.

Leave a comment