German Jewish writers discuss identity, process and pandemic problems
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COVID-19Classrooms Without Borders

German Jewish writers discuss identity, process and pandemic problems

Insights raise question of whether Virginia Woolf was correct when declaring that “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.”

Top left: Kaleen Gallagher; bottom left: Lena Gorelik; right: Mirna Funk discuss contemporary challenges facing German Jewish women writers. Screenshot by Adam Reinherz
Top left: Kaleen Gallagher; bottom left: Lena Gorelik; right: Mirna Funk discuss contemporary challenges facing German Jewish women writers. Screenshot by Adam Reinherz

COVID-19 reframed the way celebrated Jewish German authors Mirna Funk and Lena Gorelik work, presenting challenges that extended beyond finding community — or even spaces to write.

The two writers joined Kaleen Gallagher, of Germany Close Up, for a candid conversation on Nov. 23. The 60-minute program was offered in partnership with Classrooms Without Borders, and began with each writer describing how location has shaped her sense of identity.

“I would definitely call myself German,” said Funk, a winner of the Uwe Johnson Prize. “I feel very German when I’m in Israel. But on the other hand, I know in Germany, and for Germans, I might not appear as German as they think.”

Funk regularly writes for German publications. She grew up in East Germany and majored in philosophy and history at Humboldt University of Berlin. For the past 13 years, though, Funk has been spending more time in Israel.

Although she has family and many friends in the Jewish state, and has lived for periods in Tel Aviv, Funk said she doesn’t quite feel Israeli. Not feeling “fully German, fully Israeli or fully Jewish” was challenging, she said. “It caused a lot of trouble in my life and it felt really weird.”

For a while, when people asked where home was, “I always said my home is in the EasyJet plane,” Funk said.

After finally embracing her transient nature, things started to make sense.

“My identity is a constant movement,” she said, “and between different identities, and it doesn’t feel chaotic anymore but very, very rich.”

The question of home is an odd one, agreed Gorelik, a past recipient of the Ernst-Hoferichter Prize.

Other people sometimes ask her where she feels she “belongs,” or in which language she dreams, Gorelik said, but “these are not questions I'm asking myself. For me, I don't have to decide that I am 30% this and 30% that — or is it like 40% on Sundays and 50% on Tuesdays? I think the identities we are talking about, like national identities, are only part of a lot of other identities we have.”

Gorelik was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1981. When she was 11, she moved to Germany with her family. Much of her writing has addressed this relocation and her status as a “refugee.”

“I find the question of ‘how do I identify,’ in a way of Russian versus German versus Jewish, kind of a shortened question,” she said. The best way to make sense of all these seemingly disparate identities, she continued, is to acknowledge there are many facets to a person — “there are a lot of pieces of cake.”

After talking about the complexities of identity, both writers then spoke about the challenges of working during the pandemic.

Funk said that COVID has required some juggling in her life. She is currently in Egypt working on a non-fiction book while her 6-year-old daughter is in Israel with family. That separation, Funk said, was necessary to create the headspace for writing anything longer than an article.

Gorelik agreed, and jokingly remarked that it was only after her two young children were home from school due to Bavarian pandemic protocols that she realized how much each child actually talked.

Gorelik explained, in all seriousness, that constant conversation with her children made it difficult to work and ultimately resulted in having to delay the publication of her newest novel.

She added that, like Funk, she chose to write articles throughout the pandemic, as they required less concentration than longer literary pieces.

Before concluding the discussion, Gallagher mused whether Virginia Woolf was correct when declaring that “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.”

Ellen Resnek, educational programs and outreach manager at Classrooms Without Borders, said there’s a value in Pittsburgh-based listeners clicking onto a conversation between German Jewish writers, as these types of discussions help forge a “transatlantic bond between Germans and Americans.”

When people share their experiences, it’s easier to find commonalities, Resnek said. “When we think about our interconnectedness across the ocean and generations, we need to explore the Jewish narrative in all of its elements,” she said. “By bringing the literary elements and young people’s voice into the conversation it perpetuates the idea that we are one people. Although our experiences are varied, we all have a thread of interconnectedness.” PJC

Adam Reinherz can be reached at areinherz@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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