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Slow Fire

SLOW FIRE. Susan Neiman, Schocken Books, 1992, $23.

Slow Fire is the story of the author’s years as a philosophy graduate student in Berlin from 1982 to 1988. Her anecdotes humorous and harrowing, are full of the urgency of a young Jewish American woman’s search for signs of Vergangen-heitsverarbeitung [working through the past,] as she studies life in the schools, streets, kneipen [cafes] and Turkish markets, and in the homes and synagogues of West and East Berlin.

Germans react to her in surprising ways. One wide-eyed friend asks of life in America, “How does it feel to live in a country without castles?” Another woman, wanting to equate Nazis and Zionists, says to Neiman, “There are no typical Jewish qualities. . . . Do you know there are even blond Jews!” One of the most discomfiting comments comes as a guilt-ridden confession from her non-Jewish German lover: “Every time I see you 1 think of Dachau.” Neiman’s candid reporting does not insulate these confrontations; their force assaults the reader.

Slow Fire is as much about Neiman’s observations of others as it is about her own growing sense of Jewish identity. Early optimism as a student (“people are trying to come to terms with their history here”) dims when she marries and then has a child. Neiman and her husband must struggle to create a place for themselves in Berlin as a Jewish family. An attempt at a Sabbath dinner for her German-Jewish friends, survivors of Auschwitz, is received with disdain: “In the camps, the believers were lost.” The landlord tears down Neiman’s family’s mezuzah, forcing them to defend themselves in court. Neiman and her husband entertain the thought of opening a Jewish center in Berlin, but cease their reveries when faced with the question, “for whom?”

The word verarbeitung is defined as “manufacturing; digestion; thorough study; working out; working over.” Careful not to draw reductive conclusions about her experiences in Berlin, Neiman is constantly in a process of verarbeitung. What she realizes she misses the most, however, is laughter; it has been absent from her life in Berlin because, “jokes, more than most things, depend on shared premises.” Neiman writes of a play she helps put on for a predominantly Jewish audience: “Fine, low, melancholy Jewish laughter. . . the sweetest second was the one when I heard the first laughter, and I knew we had done something right.”

Neiman’s philosophical perspective greatly enriches Slow Fire. Her ability to frame her experiences with regard to past German philosophers lends an irony to her writing. From the start, Neiman clearly states that “classical logic won’t show you fallacy.” Nevertheless, it is only after her journey that Neiman comes to write. “[In Berlin] there are no conclusions, no heroes, no [Kantian] law. Even the enemy can be so hard to find.”