A provocatively honest author: Tuvia Tenenbom′s exploration of the US | Books | DW | 13.12.2016
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A provocatively honest author: Tuvia Tenenbom's exploration of the US

Tuvia Tenenbom explored the US, Germany and Israel for his humorous travelogues. He's also a columnist for renowned international papers such as "Die Zeit." He was just awarded a Prize for Honest Journalism.

When setting out for the US to write his latest travelogue, Tuvia Tenenbom began as no good journalist should - with a bias. "I wanted to write a book that glorifies America," he said. He ended up writing a book called "The Lies They Tell," released in German under the more sober title "Allein unter Amerikanern" (Alone Among Americans). The English version of the book will be released in the US in February 2017.

For the Israeli-born author who has lived in the US on and off for the last 35 years - notably in the East-Coast bubble of lower Manhattan - America epitomized the ideals of freedom, democracy and opportunity. "If you want, you can start from nothing and apply yourself," thought Tenenbom: the clichéd American dream. Tenenbom himself, the rogue son of an orthodox rabbi, recalled his own arrival in New York with $400 in his pocket.

Buchcover Allein unter Amerkikanern von Tuvia Tenebom (suhrkamp nova)

The German version of his latest book is a bestseller in the country

That dream was shattered during months of traveling the US where he interviewed everyone and anyone he came across - from arms-bearing Trump supporting women to Native American chieftains, evangelicals, the mega-rich and homeless.

The work is a follow up to two previous books, "I Sleep in Hitler's Room: An American Jew Visits Germany" (which was published in Germany as "Allein unter Deutschen" - Alone Among Germans) and "Catch the Jew" (which became "Alone Among Jews" in its German version) - a snapshot of seven months traveling Israel and Palestine.

Keeping with the theme, he'll be reporting "alone among refugees" for his upcoming book to be released next year.

Nihilistic portrait of the US

Tenenbom spoke with theatricality during a recent interview, painting a nihilistic portrait of the land of the free. "I saw an America that I did not recognize," he said. One that's "extremely painfully racist and does not take care at all for its weakest parts, for the poor and the sick."

For months he traversed the country he once thought he knew so well, joined by his wife Isi who documented their journey. The author's approach was to simply go wherever his feet would take him.

USA America seen from abroad (Getty Images/S. Platt)

Not everyone shares this opinion in the US

He strolled through inner city neighborhoods where many warned him not to tread. He visited Chicago's South Side where Obama once worked. The area is rife with gang activity, where residents reported little change in the nearly eight years since the president took office. Uptown, the press officer of the city's mayor Rahm Emanuel, brushed off an interview request by giving Tenenbom a fake business card.

Tenenbom, who's also a theater director, playright and the founding artistic director of the Jewish Theater of New York, is a provocateur who's been likened to polemic American filmmaker Michael Moore. Not everyone is a fan.

The author has been criticized in Israel for his candid portrayals of Jews in previous books.

A "Spiegel" article blasted the latest release on myriad grounds, saying many of the conclusions the author drew were false, based on coincidental first impressions.

Inequality leads to Donald Trump

Undeniably, 463 pages cannot hope to fully describe the complex inner workings of a country of 318 million, where income inequality is at an all-time high, and social unrest, especially post-presidential election appears to escalate. According to a recent report, 900 acts of harassment and intimidation900 were reported in the 10 days after Donald Trump won the election.

Tenenbom touches on some of this tension in the run-up to the election. "When Trump won, it made total sense," says Tenenbom. "The people had enough; they just had enough."

By Tenenbom's account, racial bias is alive and well. He described a conversation with a wealthy African American lawyer in Texas, the owner of a sleek Mercedes. "I asked him 'how does it feel to be an American' and he said he'd been pulled over by police 129 times. Everybody says how much they love each other but nobody really cares."

USA Präsidentschaftswahl Anti-Trump Proteste vor Trump Tower in New York (Getty Images/AFP/K. Betancur)

Americans went to the streets to protest against Trump's election

Prize for Honest Journalism

For his efforts, Tenenbom was awarded the prize for Honest Journalism by the "Judische Rundschau," an independent Jewish newspaper in Berlin on the basis that "honest journalism" is no longer a given, according to the paper's publisher Dr. Rafael Korenzecher.

"No one should be rewarded financially for being honest," said Tenenbom, who told the publisher to donate the 7,000-euro (nearly $7,500) prize money to a charity of his choice. Still, he admitted that it felt good to have his work recognized.

Book cover The Lies They Tell - Tuvia Tenebom (Gefen Publishing House)

The titles of his books are more provocative in English than in German

As for the honest part, "There are no hidden cameras, everything is out in the open," he added.

Chameleon identities

 Yet some of Tenenbom's methods put journalistic ethics to the test. A German resident born in Israel, Tenenbom and his wife split their time between New York City, Israel and Hamburg. Like a chameleon, he picks and chooses identities when reporting.

While conducting interviews for his current book on the US, he preferred to introduce himself as German. He felt it was honest enough to do so as a German resident, he said, and: "When you say you are German the rest of the world thinks you are a good guy." 

Introducing his Israeli origin, he felt, invited controversy. He tested this theory while interviewing a man walking his dog in Georgetown-an affluent neighborhood in Washington D.C. The result? A seemingly well-heeled lawyer called him a "colonizer" and denied the statement once on the record. 

Digging into 'controversial issues'

The unwillingness of many of his interviewees to speak openly about subjects deemed controversial, like politics and religion, was trying, said Tenenbom. "I found it strange in America, the land of the free and the home of the brave that people are afraid to say who they vote for; they say it's controversial," he added.

But what someone may not admit in the first five minutes of a conversation they may openly speak about after 15, he found. "The longer you are with a person and the more comfortable a person feels the more they will tell you what they think."




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