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Postmigrant Reconfigurations. New Approaches to Contemporary German-language Jewish Cultural Production

Written by Vivian Jochens |

The context for German-language Jewish cultural production has changed dramatically since 1990, as a significant number of Jewish authors, playwrights and directors moved to Germany, predominantly from the former Soviet Union and Israel. As a result, German-language Jewish cultural production has come to include a diverse range of cultural and political affiliations, histories and languages.

Against this background, the conference ‘Postmigrant Reconfigurations. New Approaches to Contemporary German-language Jewish Cultural Production’ took place at the Institute of Languages, Cultures and Societies 5-7 July 2023. Organised by Maria Roca Lizarazu (Galway), Lizzie Stewart (KCL) and Godela Weiss-Sussex (ILCS) in conjunction with King's College London and the Goethe Institute, the conference sought to re-read and re-view contemporary German-language Jewish literary, filmic, performance, and discursive work through the lens of ‘postmigration’. 

The term ‘postmigration’, popularised by Berlin theatre makers in the 2000s, has become a site of theory-building by both artistic-activists and academics. For the latter it implies a new future-orientated perspective that positions migration as central rather than marginal to society (Yildiz 2014), also providing “a normative political vision” (Ring Peterson & Schramm 2017, 6) of “how we want to live together in societies characterised by increasing heterogeneity” (Foroutan 2016). 

Over the course of three days, seven panels, a roundtable, and an education workshop explored how artistic practices and products can create new imaginaries which experiment with alternative future modes of affiliation, alliance, home-making, commitment, and dissent. 

The conference kicked off with a keynote by Leslie Morris titled ‘Broken Jewish? Plurilingual Poetics in Germany Today’. Morris addressed one of the key questions guiding the conference discussions:  what is the place of Jewishness in migrant and postmigrant cultures? Does the use of the ‘postmigrant’ paradigm when speaking about authors such as Tomer Gardi obscure Jewishness?  The scholar from the University of Minnesota emphasised the opportunities inherent in an approach that combines attention to Jewishness and postmigration, as this affords a new space for instance for plurilingual aesthetics in Jewish writing. She also emphasised the need for sensitivity and nuance, as Jewishness should neither be privileged nor elided.    

Morris’s reflections on literature were complemented by the second keynote delivered by sociologist Erol Yildiz from the University of Innsbruck. His talk ‘Postmigrantische Allianzen’ (postmigratory alliances) traced the roots of the postmigrant project as an ‘offene Denkweise’ (open mode of thought) that allows for contrapuntal readings of texts, performances and everyday practices. Reflecting on a variety of postmigrant artists and collectives, Yildiz emphasised the importance of ‘migrant knowledge’ for the creation of alliances between different minorities and marginalised groups.

Both keynote lectures are available as podcasts on the ILCS website. Postmigrantische Allianzen and Broken Jewish? Plurilingual Poetics in Germany Today.

The first two panels of the conference investigated questions of the ‘Transnational and the National’ and the topic of ‘Revenge’ in film, poetry and prose. 

Transnational affiliation and national embeddedness constitute a central focus of reflexion in recent Jewish literature in German. The papers presented here by Rebekah Slodounik, Daphne Seeman and Miriam Wray showed how the affiliation with minority literature across national boundaries is addressed in works by, for instance, Deborah Feldman or Olga Grjasnowa. However, the continued relevance of considering this literature within the national framework of German literature was also emphasised as German memory culture creates an environment that is unique. The national focus also serves to highlight opportunities of empathic expressions vis-à-vis other marginalised sections of German society.

The presentations of the ‘Revenge’ panel (on Maxim Biller, Esther Dischereit and Jewish revenge film), shared an interest in the potential productivity and destructiveness of negative feelings like anger or revenge. Reflecting on Germany’s memory culture in particular, speakers Paula Odenheimer, Jonny Ball and Olivia Landry discussed negative affects as a form of agency, which breaks with the silence of previous generations and rejects continuous victimisation.

The second day of the conference focused on the topic of solidarity and allyship. Looking into a variety of literary examples from different genres, the speakers reflected on how and to what extent the texts envisioned allyship between different minorities. The majority of presentations explored different forms of solidarity amongst groups – ranging from a playful engagement with linguistic norms (Luisa Banki) to multidirectional ways of remembrance (Brangwen Stone), material practices of zine production (Jara Schmidt), and connections between postmigrant thought and decolonial indigenous work (Markus Hallensleben). Stuart Taberner’s talk ‘The Limits of “Postmigrant Solidarity” in Contemporary German Jewish Writing’ had a less celebratory stance. The contribution focused on the tensions and obstacles faced in any project bringing together groups of differing cultural and historical backgrounds – tensions of which we have been only too aware in these recent weeks.  

On the third day, the panel ‘Knowledge Production and Cultural Production’ raised the question of how different forms of German-language Jewish cultural production can enter the public realm. Wiebke Sievers’s contribution considered the field of Austrian literary history in an impressively broad sweep. She demonstrated how migrants were first excluded from national literary history, and how authors such as Vladimir Vertlib and Julya Rabinowich then strove to overcome this exclusion by working against the distinction between migrants and non-migrants in their work. Daphna Westerman presented the performative possibilities of her sound installations produced on the basis of interviews with Jewish women who have migrated from Israel to Germany. She considers her work as compiling a ’counter-archive’, which provides points of resonance with other post-migratory counter-archives, such as the one by Roma and Sinti. 

The sixth panel, consisting of papers by Johanna Pfuhl-Rybizki, Andree Michaelis-Koenig and Vivian Jochens, looked into literary re-configurations of ‘Heimat’ (a historically loaded term meaning home or homeland) and belonging. Considering Dan Diner’s notion of ‘Heimat’ as a ‘Schwundbegriff’ (a disappearing notion) and drawing connections to Turkish ‘postmigrant voices’ Michaelis-Koenig discussed how a confrontation with ‘Heimat’ has developed into a confrontation with family ties. All three talks described a tendency towards the imagination of alternative forms of belonging that reject rigid ideas of nation and ethnicity in favour of more mutable relations.

The last panel ‘Looking Backward and Moving Forward’ discussed questions of memory and the possibilities of harnessing its discourse for postmigrant narrativisation. Helen Finch’s presentation explored how queer forms of memory can add to notions of postmemory and postmigration, whilst Katja Garloff considered the power and potential of literature to narrate migration and to blur the lines between migrants and non-migrants. She focused on the possibility of comparisons between different migration experiences and proposed the concept of ‘similarity’ (Anil Bhatti) as a useful tool for exploring relationality and difference beyond binary modes of thought. The final speaker, Agnes Mueller, returned to the theme of memory, asking how Holocaust memory features in recent work by Salzmann and Grjasnowa, and showing how both enable multidirectional memory discourses. 

The conference created a space to re-assess and expand understandings of German Jewish culture from an academic and an artistic perspective. On the first evening, Adi Liraz’ public performance ‘Mother Tongues’ presented a very personal exploration of transgenerational memory and pain, as well as of multiple and intersecting (Jewish) identities. Combining textile work, embodied performance, video as well as poetry, her multilingual work provided an opportunity to explore alternative forms of knowledge production.

On the second evening, Esther Dischereit probed questions of solidarity and allyship from an artistic perspective through a collaborative live performance with her English-language translator Iain Galbraith and her long-term performance partner DJ İpek İpekçioğlu. The evening event held at the Goethe Institute and moderated by Katharina Karcher, centred on Dischereit’s 2014 work Blumen fuer Otello: Über die Verbrechen von Jena (translated into English as Flowers for Otello: On the Crimes that came out of Jena, in 2022), which seeks to respond to the series of right-wing killings in Germany, perpetrated by the National Socialist Underground between 1998-2007. Against this backdrop, the joint performance explored and critically reflected on the practices, politics and limits of translation and solidarity in responding to racially motivated violence. 

Claire Ross and Katie Unwin from the 'Equitable German Studies' initiative organised a pedagogy workshop as part of the conference. You can read their blog post here.

Overall, the conference, and particularly the closing panel, provided an opportunity to reflect on the question What does the term ‘postmigration’ do for German Jewish studies? Many of the speakers pointed out the importance of the particular German context and cautioned against being too celebratory when it comes to concept’s potential. At the same time, there was an overall agreement that the term opens up the discussion on matters of migration and belonging in the field of Jewish language cultural production, allowing for a re-thinking of ‘migration’ and related texts, performances and practices – and so functioning as exactly that ‘offene Denkweise’ that Erol Yildiz described in his keynote paper. A final education workshop led by members of the collective towards an Equitable German Studies provided space for considering the pedagogical implications of this ‘Denkweise’ and the new developments discussed at the conference for teaching practice in Higher Education, while a publication which will further develop the key ideas of the conference is being prepared.