The ways in which Yascha Mounk comes to terms with his Jewish and German identities, as well as his new-found New York identity, are all themes of his new memoir, Stranger In My Own Country, A Jewish Family In Modern Germany.
Soon-to-be doctoral Harvard graduate Mounk spoke about the book in conversation recently with fellow graduate school classmate Samuel Goldman at the Sixth & I Historic Synagogue in downtown Washington, D.C.
Mounk’s Jewish and German identities, and the way he perceives them, have been shaped dramatically by both the individual experience of his grandparents’ persecution during the Holocaust as well as the global effect of it.
“I think the Holocaust has sort of a double identity,” Mounk says. “It is certainly a universal crime in the sense that, you know, there are many things about it that show what humans are capable of doing to each other. It’s something that for a reason is fascinating to people who are not Jews and is shocking to them. So in that sense it has universal significance.
“But of course it also has significance to a particular people, who are the Jews.”
Going to school as a young boy in Laupheim, Germany, Mounk was forced to begin grappling with the concept of his Jewish identity when his fifth-grade teacher asked the class to self-identify as Catholic or Protestant, in preparation for religious class enrollment.
Mounk was neither, and wasn’t sure how to respond. The experience left him feeling isolated and an outsider.
But Mounk talks not only of his own struggles with his personal identity, but of the struggle of Germans, too. In many ways, he came to terms with events from the past through analysis.
“There are these different phases of Germany’s attempt to deal with the past,” he says, “and I think as a Jew living in Germany you sort of end up being the object of the embodiment of those different phases in a certain kind of way.”
Mounk explores how a certain tortured philo-Semitism came to exist in some areas, which he personally finds more disturbing than ignorance.
He encountered such a scenario when he moved to Munich.
“When I moved to Munich I think for the first time, sort of all of a sudden, I experienced what that process of introspection meant for how Germans ended up treating Jews, which was full of good intentions and some heart-breakingly nice in certain ways, but very awkwardly,” he says.
This was a time when only about 30,000 Jews, one in 2,000 people lived in Germany, he says.
Tired of the awkwardness he encountered in Germany, Mounk prefers living in the U.S. now, where he feels, in a town like New York, that perhaps being a Jew doesn’t play as large of a role in defining his identity as it did while in Germany, and this is freeing to Mounk.
“I think that’s what a truly sort of liberal society that’s multi-ethnic and multi-religious should aspire to, that people can say, of course I’m American and I’m a Jew and both of those things are an important part of my identity, or I’m American and I’m Muslim both of those things are an important part of my identify, but they should also be able to say, ‘Yes I come from a Jewish family and of course in some kind of sense I’m a Jew,’ but in terms of what that means for me, that’s very, very limited,” Mounk says.