Tuvia Tenenbom is a complicated man.
When you meet him, you see that even on the visual level there’s a lot going on. The improbably blindingly yellow hair, the pink glasses, the billowing white shirt that covers a largish body (“I’m fat,” he says often), the cigarette that appears as if by magic, as if it’s been there all along but only becomes visible, as soon as he’s outside.
And underneath the persona, beneath the clowning, below the outrageous deadpan, beneath the changing name — is he Tuvia? Is he Tobi? Is he someone else? Or is he simply nameless? — there is a very smart man, a man who is deeply earnest and deadly serious.
He is, among other things, a writer — he wrote “Catch the Jew,” which we featured last year. This year, he’s talking about his new book, “I Sleep in Hitler’s Room: An American Jew Visits Nazi German,” which he wrote before “Catch the Jew” but Gefen Publishing House released this year.
Tuvia (sorry but Mr. Tenenbom doesn’t work for him) is also a playwright, director, and the founder of the Jewish Theater of New York. He grew up charedi in Bnai Brak, one of Israel’s most profoundly Orthodox neighborhoods, as the son of a family scarred by the Holocaust, broke with his family’s religious observance but not with his family, earned graduate degrees in both science and literature, speaks many languages — and hides all of that behind a façade of utterly faux naivete, presenting himself as a rube whose understanding of the world is entirely literal and so only skin-deep.
Using that persona — of a man of indeterminate nationality (or, perhaps more accurately, a man whose nationality keeps changing, depending on who he’s talking to) and limited intellect — Tuvia traveled across Germany, talking to everyone, testing the country’s levels of anti-Semitism.
He found, he reports, in a series of often jaw-dropping interviews, that Germany is as anti-Semitic as ever.
Or, as he concludes in “I Sleep in Hitler’s Room,” drawing both from that and from “Catch the Jew,” “It will be much easier to make peace between Israelis and Palestinians, and between Arabs and Jews in general, than to uproot the Jew hate of the Germans. The first two are on the table, no surprises; the third is wrapped in heavy brainy arguments and eye-blinding magical color shows in addition to being hidden behind the many masks so common to our present-day Western culture.
“Do I generalize? Yes, I do. I’m sorry, but this is what I saw.”
Tuvia’s method is straightforward, and his affect is not accidental. “For every interview, I take out my iPhone, start recording, and I say that I would like to interview you, and is it okay with you. If you don’t say yes, then there is no interview. If you say it is off the record, it is off the record. I don’t go undercover, I don’t do candid interviews. I know that many times people say things they regret later, so I try to disarm them first.
“It’s easy for me to disarm people because I look a bit like an idiot. I have funny glasses, I appear not very well dressed, I have brightly colored shoes, and I have an accent.” (He has a slight accent in every language he speaks, he added, even in his native Hebrew. In Germany, people tend to think that he is Austrian.)
“I’m in theater,” he added. He knows exactly what he’s doing. But there’s more to it than that. “I like people. No matter who they are, no matter what they are, no matter if they are my biggest enemies, I can find something about them that I like, sometimes something crazy, sometimes something beautiful. After five or 10 minute they are disarmed, and they tell you what they think. We are conditioned to say what we think is proper, but what is underneath that is what intrigues me.
“We are all prejudiced. We are all tribal, no matter what we say. The question is who our tribe is.
“For example, Germany is a western country. Germans know how to say the proper thing. If I sit with them, I do the legal thing” — that is, he pulls out his phone, starts recording, asks for and receives permission to continue — “and then I talk about Diet Coke, and coffee, and brandy, and then we start tasting it, and then people say what they say. I never know ahead of time what they’ll say.
“If I thought that you were an anti-Semite and I tried to get you to say it I would fail. I would be the hunter, and you, the deer, would run away. But I don’t know you, and I want you to tell me who you are. Because I really want to know, and you see that I do, you will tell me.”
When he talked to Germans, “I found out that eight out of 10 Germans hold anti-Semitic views,” he said. “By anti-Semitic, I mean that most of them, if you ask them if they are, would scream ‘Not me!’ but if you ask them they tell you that Jews control world politics, all the money, and the stock exchanges and the banks. I ask them stupid questions.
“I go to Wannsee, where they decided to kill the Jews.” Tuvia’s talking about the Berlin suburb where Nazi officials, meeting in January 1942, decided to commit genocide. “Right cross the street from it there is a hotel and restaurant. It is packed. They do weddings there, and you have to reserve well ahead of time. I ask the owner stupid but honest questions about how it works, how do young German girls say to their young German lovers, ‘Honey, let’s get married right next to where they decided to gas the Jews’?
“I ask childlike questions like that. That’s how you get people to talk.”
Germans are “obsessed with the Jews,” Tuvia continued. “Why do they know the names of Israel’s prime minster, defense minister, foreign minister? When you ask about German ministers they have no idea. Why do they know about everything that’s going on in Israel? When I ask them what about Chechnya” — which after all is far closer to them than Israel — “they can’t answer.”
Germany is building “a beautiful Jewish center,” he continued. “But when you go to the synagogues, there is nobody there, except maybe tourists. Germany is rebranding themselves as being Jewish. Germany is actively engaged in covering up its soul. But are Germans nice to the Jews? F••• no.”
Tuvia’s matter-of-fact tone is funny. It’s meant to be. “I make it light because there is no other way to deal with these issues. If it is all dark it is not palatable. At the end of the day, we are all human beings. I try to get it to that level, so you can grasp it. Otherwise you can’t.” The normal human tendency is to shy away from the horrifically ugly, whether or not it is true.
Tuvia talked about “The Diary of Adolf Eichmann: How I Killed My Jews,” a play based on the Nazi killer’s diaries. The play was two and a half hours of what was said to be Eichmann’s diaries — based on 300 books by Germans — which lulled the audience along, until the end, when they are awakened to the reality of who Eichmann was. They’d known all along, of course, but his diaries, in which he presented himself as a normal human being, allowed them to forget, even to like him. “Then they’d wake up and say ‘Oh f•••! What have I been laughing at?”
When Tuvia auditioned actors to play Eichmann, he found two leading contenders. One was “a real German-American. I had pictures of Eichmann, and the guy was looking out at me.” He also was a gifted actor. The other actor also was good, but the German-American “was much better,” Tuvia said.
“But I knew it wouldn’t penetrate the audience in the same way” — he was just too convincing, but not funny enough. “I needed them to see the stupidity of German ideology.
“I didn’t know until the audition that it had to be funny,” he said.
How do you make a play about Nazi ideology funny? By stressing the ludicrousness underlying the evil. “I took material from German theology,” Tuvia said. “At that time, women were not allowed to wear lipstick, because Goebbels” — that was Joseph Goebbels, one of Hitler’s prime lieutenants and perhaps the most rabid anti-Semite of them all — “said that lipstick was created and made by Jews for Jews, because Jewish women naturally were born with defective lips that they had to cover up. And also, he said, Jewish women naturally stink. I put a slide of German women who were horrible looking there.
“I needed an actor who could pull off the humor. If not it wouldn’t have worked.”
He mounted that play in Poland, Tuvia said. “People in Poland were laughing and crying at the end. When the show was about to open, it was the Jews in Poland who tried to stop it. They were afraid that it wouldn’t be good for them. When it opened, the place was packed with Catholics, and there were maybe four or five Jews. When it ended, there was a 25-minute standing ovation. And then Jews came and asked for tickets.
“You can’t ignore anti-Semitism. You have to fight it. But you have to fight it with humor. You have to make it light because light is the heaviest there is.”
Tuvia’s taken a long trip through the United States, dressed as the character called Tuvia, talking to Americans about, among other things, Jews.
“Before I started the trip I talked to Abe Foxman,” the recently retired head of the Anti-Defamation League, “and he said that anti-Semitism in America is about 10 to 12 percent. He was right. I found a lot of stupid things.
“I had to start from scratch,” he continued. “America is huge. Fifty states, baby!”
He began the six-month trip last summer, before the presidential campaign heated up and exposed the country’s seams. “What amazed me about this country is that in general I did not know how divided it was,” he said.
Much of what he saw sounds entirely unfamiliar to most of us, and some of what horrified him had nothing to do with Jews. “Some of the refugee camps in the Middle East look more positive and nicer than some of what you see in places like Detroit,” he said.
“I was driving in a neighborhood that looked like a ghost town. I didn’t know where I was. I was just driving. I see deserted spaces, and then I notice some movement, and I drive toward it. There is movement. People live there. I didn’t know that.
“So I talk to a 27-year-old guy, and he says that this is where black people kill black people. I say ‘Why?’ He says ‘You can’t believe how much murder there is that is not recorded. It’s because nobody knows and nobody cares.’
“I went to Chicago, took a bus, and got off. The driver said ‘What are you doing here?’ I said ‘I am getting off here,’ and he said ‘You do not get off here.’ I said ‘Excuse me? I am getting off here because I wanted to see how people live.’
“I started walking into a neighborhood that looked like Hiroshima. All the businesses were closed — it was evening — and the iron gates were down. Everything was totally destroyed. Abandoned.” Eventually armed police officers in an unmarked car asked him to leave. “They said ‘You are not in a neighborhood. You are in a shooting range,’” he reported.
“I have interviewed some native Americans. I went to the reservation and talked to people, to the tribal chief. The reservation is a huge joke, a very bad joke. There are drugs all over, there is domestic abuse, nobody outside really knows what’s going on.”
And then there were the Jews. “One of the saddest parts is that you have so many Jews who are so self-hating. Self-hating to the nth degree. They get together for one thing — to say how bad Israel is. It’s frightening.
“I interviewed a guy who said ‘I am Jewish, and what it means to me is that I really don’t like what the Israeli government is doing to Palestinians.’”
Living where we live, in the very Jewish New York metropolitan area, we do not see this, he said, but “the majority of the 5 1/2 million Jews don’t care.
“My job, as I see it, is to find out what’s really going on in the world,” Tuvia said. When it comes to Germany, “We are so many years from the Holocaust. Who are the Germans today? I want to know what it is to live with heavy history. What does it mean? How do they act?”
His book about Germany was not meant to be about Jews, he continued. Tuvia has written a column for a German newspaper for years; he spent a great deal of time in the country and felt at home there. It was natural for him to write a book about it. “The book was commissioned by a German publisher for a German audience,” he said. “It ended up being a j’accuse.”
Germans will not say that they are proud of being German, Tuvia said. “As a result of the Holocaust, what emerged from the German intellectual world was that they don’t like to be Germans. They are not supposed to be proud of it. But underneath they are. Slowly, slowly, after many years, you see it.” He happened to be in Germany reporting his book as that consensus began to change.
“I go from place to place, and then I find out.
“It is important to go places, and not be afraid.”
Why does he do what he does? It is not easy, it is not comfortable, and it is not necessarily profitable. “I want to do it,” he said.
“I come from a rabbinic family. My forefathers and foremothers were righteous, and probably naively, I think that I’m following at least a little bit in their ways.
“I don’t eat kosher or observe Shabbat, but it means that as a reporter I have to report the truth, and not make it up. I have to be like my parents and grandparents and great grandparents, who studied the Talmud. They took it very seriously. That’s how I was raised. Every word in the Torah has meaning. I want to follow that.
“The power of the word is overwhelming. It can change history. I know that. It’s the way I was brought up.
“I cannot write books from an air-conditioned room, based on a google search. You have to go there — go there many times — to find the truth. You have to risk your life.
“I don’t think about it when I am doing it — I am not suicidal — but that is the only way to find the truth.”