There is a shooting at a synagogue in Halle, Germany, a city outside of Berlin, on Yom Kippur. Another Shabbat is approaching. I want to be present in a synagogue. But I am losing steam: Queer Jews are yet to be found. I imagine Jewish communities are gathering in mourning somewhere, but I am not well connected. I get an email from someone on the board of the Jewish study-abroad organization I have been in touch with who offers to meet, but our times conflict. I avoid Shabbat services in my shocked state.
Instead I spend the weekend at the spa with my program, floating in music pools and swirling in the mini lazy river. Helena, our program director, explains to us how low-cost spas and saunas are affordable in Germany for working-class people. Doctors are able to tell patients dealing with stress to go to the spas as a form of relaxation that is accessible to many. Maybe this is how the German Jews process their intergenerational trauma.
My friends and I strip out of our sports bras and shorts in the sauna, jumping from room to room in towels. We run under the cool showers. We jump to another sauna. Many of us feel frustrated about our breasts, but at this moment we lower our towels and embrace their presence. After years of half-hearted makeup, underwire bras, and flowy skirts, I shed it all. Sweat drips down our faces. Our bodies are out in the open.
“Od yavod shalom aleinu . . .” A drag performer strums on his guitar. “Od yavod shalom aleinu . . . SALAM!” The audience jumps up and down. “SALAM!” I grab a drink. I am beaming with joy. My eyes are watering with joy.
After years of half-hearted makeup, underwire bras, and flowy skirts, I shed it all.
The drag show is called Jews! Jews! Jews! Another drag performer is pouring honey down her back and biting into an apple to celebrate Rosh Hashanah. I am giggling, my body bumping next to the young Jewish people I met at Rosh Hashanah dinner. The MC shares how Jewish drag connects her to her Judaism in a way that she cannot find in a synagogue or conventional Jewish practice.
Months later, when people ask me to briefly describe my experiences in Berlin, I tell them I felt Jewish during the day and queer at night.
But tonight, colorful lights and alternative outfits fill the room. Radical Jewish queerness is being embraced. It is nighttime, and I am both Jewish and queer. I am cackling to the jokes about bubbes and atonement for Yom Kippur, and queer Jews are kissing and rejoicing. Some of my study-abroad friends, a few secular Jews, understand the jokes and laugh and dance with me.
I never want to leave the version of Berlin that is created in this room, in all its reclamation, complexity, and pride. I am jumping up and down, and out of the gender binary. I am belting Jewish prayers in the club. This is perhaps not what my rabbi may have imagined for my Jewish future at my bat mitzvah, but I am praying in protest: Had it not been for many miracles, strength, pain, and sources of luck, I would not exist. We would not exist. I’m a Jew! Jew! Jew!
Jenna Zucker is a senior at Barnard College majoring in Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. They are writing a memoir about their relationship with their grandmother, their queer identity, and their grandmother's survival of the Holocaust.