At a wine festival in Freiburg in the summer of 2001, a sudden thunderstorm forced everyone to take shelter in the tents set up by the various wine producers. I ducked into a crowded tent, bought a glass of Sylvaner and a plate of French cheeses, and found a place at a bench next to a middle-aged woman who was there with two friends, a husband and wife. They smiled when I sat down. I offered them cheese, but they refused. My accent made them curious, so that wanted to know where I was from. We talked and drank. While the wind howled outside and rain pounded the canvas over our heads, an accordionist played folk songs in the corner of the tent. At one point I told my neighbors that I was an historian, and the husband commented that American historians needed to me more careful when dealing with European history, for often things were more complicated than they believed. This was particularly true with Jewish history, he said.
Oh, shit, I thought. Here it comes.
The man went on to talk about Daniel Goldhagen, and as I actually agreed with what he said, I was relieved to point out that Goldhagen's book had not been well received by most American historians: What Goldhagen wrote had been said already, and even if it were all true, what was the point of repeating it? My neighbors liked what I said and the conversation moved on to happier topics. We talked about wine and about books. At one point the woman sitting next to me put her hand on my shoulder and declared to the other two that I would make a great son-in-law. Everyone laughed. She announced that she had a daughter, Jasmine, who was studying at the university in Passau, and I was exactly her type. We talked more and drank more. I don't know why, but the man started talking about how the Hapsburgs had come from Alsace. His wife interrupted him and explained that I couldn't possibly be interested in such things because I studied international history or some such thing. No, I replied, I was interested, for actually I studied Jewish history, and in fact I wrote my dissertation about Alsace.
This got their attention.
Then came my least favorite question in the German language, "Sind Sie Jude?"
Then the woman to my left, the one with the daughter, announced that she, too, was half-Jewish. Everyone was surprised, but she explained that her father's family name is Weissman, which is a typical Jewish name. The other woman disagreed and said that this meant nothing since so many German and Jewish names were the same, and the conversation turned to how Jews were really a mix of all sorts of races, and there was no one type or look. I kept silent. Then the former Ms. Weissman pulled a picture of Jasmine out of her pocket book. "This is my daughter," she said. "Isn't she beautiful?" She was, actually, and everyone found this very funny. We talked more. I amused them with stories about my summer studying in rural Bavaria, which they liked because people from Baden look down on Bavarians the way Northeasterners look down on Texans. I caught Ms. Weissman eyeing the leftover cheese and finally talked her into taking some. Finally, the rain had lightened some and I had to leave to make a phone call. Ms. Weissman and the man shook my hand. The other woman leaned across the table and kissed me on the cheeks. "We hope to see you again some time," she said. "I hope you enjoy the rest of your time in Germany."
"Thank you," I replied, and walked out of the tent into the rain.
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