Jews in a Box

by Jillian Steinhauer on April 1, 2013

The Jewish Museum Berlin's glass box for Jews (© Jüdisches Museum Berlin, photo by Linus Lintner)

The Jewish Museum Berlin’s glass box for Jews (© Jüdisches Museum Berlin, photo by Linus Lintner)

A few weeks ago, my sister was in the Passover aisle of her local supermarket when a woman came up to her and asked if she knew where the tahini was. She didn’t. The woman explained that it was always in this particular aisle but now wasn’t, which led my sister to explain that it had likely been moved because it isn’t kosher for Passover, which in turn led the woman to begin inquiring about Passover rules. That blossomed into a larger, nearly half-hour-long conversation about Judaism, with the woman asking lots of questions and my sister trying to answer them. “I did the best I could,” she told me. As anyone who’s ever been expected to represent their entire religion/race/ethnicity/gender/world view knows, it’s a pretty difficult task.

And yet this is what it seems random volunteers are being asked to do for an exhibition that opened at Berlin’s Jewish Museum a week and a half ago. The show, eye-catchingly called The Whole Truth … everything you always wanted to know about Jews, features such sections with such ridiculous titles as “How do you recognize a Jew?” — based on the accompanying display, the answer is apparently “by their head coverings” — and “Jews in a showcase.” The latter is more or less exactly what you might fear: a three-sided glass box with a bench inside, on which Jews will sit, one at a time, for the duration of the exhibition (through Sept. 1), answering visitors’ questions and responding to their comments. Step right up! See the Jews! Jews as spectacle.

It may be that Jews are already a spectacle in Germany, ever since World War II, when Hitler decimated their numbers (from 565,000 in the country in 1933 and to 37,000 in 1950). “I feel a bit like an animal in the zoo, but in reality that’s what it’s like being a Jew in Germany,” Ido Porat, the first volunteer to sit in the box, told the Associated Press. “You are a very interesting object to most people here.” OK, sure, but do we really need to exploit that feeling by putting a bunch of Jews on display in a glass box (which the AP astutely points out is creepily reminiscent of the glass cage that held Adolph Eichmann during his trial in Israel)?

Still, it’s not even the Jew-as-spectacle that bothers me so much; it’s more the burden implicit in the display. As far as I can tell, there’s no statement in the exhibition that trumpets the answers of the volunteers as the end-all and be-all on questions of Judaism and Jewishness, but it’s hard not to suspect that many people are going to walk away misguided and misinformed. The AP reports one of Porat’s answers, for instance, to the question of what to bring to a Shabbat dinner. “He advised the would-be traveler that anything is permissible to bring to a Shabbat dinner as long as it’s not pork.” I’m afraid the real answer is a lot more complicated than that. (I grant that there’s a chance the article is distorting or simplifying the real exchange.)

I give the Jewish Museum credit for trying to open up a probably much-needed dialogue, but if it really wants to address contemporary Jewish life in Germany, it should be focusing on diversity and complications rather than playing into stereotypes — you shall know a Jew by his hat! — and offering inadequate answers to people’s honest questions. A plurality of voices does seem to be what the institution is aiming for, given this bit of the description of the show: “Throughout the exhibition, literary and documentary voices speak about Jewish identity today. Visitors will not receive simple or ‘right’ answers, but will hear a multitude of opinions varying according to the speakers.”

The problem is that they haven’t created the right conditions. A visitor won’t get the message of diversity unless she visits the exhibition many times, meeting different volunteers and talking to all of them. And giving the show such a sweeping title, in addition to organizing it around questions that play on widespread, often nefarious biases — another winner: “are Jews particularly good looking, influential, intelligent, animal loving, or business savvy?” — sets up the lonely Jew in the box to fail, to attempt to answer correctly when she doesn’t even know the whole truth herself.

The Whole Truth … everything you always wanted to know about Jews continues at the Jewish Museum Berlin (Lindenstrasse 9-14, Berlin) through September 1. If you go, let me know how it is.

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  • samktg

    God, this show produces such mixed feelings in me as an Ashkie. Looking at the exhibition page, though, I am a bit reassured. The show is more than just Jews in a box, but also an artifact oriented exhibition with the goal of painting a diverse (if European-Jewry-centric) image of our people. They do seem to be trying to send the message that their message is necessarily incomplete. It’s disappointing to me that the divisions within our people apparently focused on are mainly denominational, rather than also in terms of branches of the diaspora; and the whole Jews in a box element makes me really uncomfortable, though everyone on-view (it makes me shudder to write that) volunteered, so I suppose I’m fine with it. As incomplete a message this show sends, and as discomfiting as it is, I have a real hard time truly faulting them. Given the rising tide of virulent antisemitism across Europe, Berlin’s Jewish Museum might feel such a provocative method, despite its failings, is necessary to seize control of the discourse about Jews in Europe. Such a show might not work in the US, but Jews in Europe are faced with a different set of pressures and I really can’t fault them for combatting them however they see fit.

    • Jillian Steinhauer

      I really appreciate your response—I’ve had a lot of similar thoughts floating around in my head. I do sort of agree that yeah, why not confront the rising antisemitism head on? On the other hand, I think there are many different ways they could have approached/branded/presented it to make it less bombastic. I realize it’s probably just marketing tactics to get people in the door, but I’m still wary (maybe even more wary if that’s the case). All that said, it’s of course impossible to really judge an exhibition you haven’t seen, and mainly I wish I could go visit it and see how it actually feels.

      • samktg

        Yeah, I really want to see it too. I think it’s possible that a lot of the issues we identify from outside at a continent and culture’s remove might disappear in person. I agree that it’s probably marketing, and it is certainly bombastic, and it’s certainly something to be wary of given both the German and wider European context. However, the result is goyim coming to us with their questions on our terms in a Jewish setting, rather than answering such questions among themselves. As truly uncomfortable the means make me, I can’t see the ends as anything but a net-good.

        It really isn’t an exhibition I would ever put on, though.

        • Jillian Steinhauer

          See, I’m not convinced of the net good. I just feel like the show, at least from where I sit, seems to be playing a little too much into stereotypes and exoticization. I don’t know—maybe you’re right and people will come away more open-minded and informed. I’m worried they’ll come away convinced you can recognize a Jew by the hat or wig s/he wears and that we’re identifiably different.

          • samktg

            Yeah, it’s worrisome. I can only hope it somehow doesn’t function that way in the show. There is clearly a lot left out of the exhibition page, but what is there does not exactly inspire hope. I don’t know if that tips the scales to net-bad, though. Hopefully in talking to an actual Jewish person, visitors will be able to see that we are not the stereotypes, and we are not some exotic Other. Ugh, I have conflicting feelings about it all. When it comes down to it, though, I feel a Jewish production with Jewish volunteers built to confront the pressures they feel as Jews in Germany is a good thing. It’s ours and it’s on our terms, and while it’s flawed, I want to believe it is not fatally so.

          • Jillian Steinhauer

            I really like your optimism. =) Thanks.

    • skywaterblue

      I get why a Berliner would think it’s a good idea though. When I went last summer it was obvious that everyone in Germany has thought about the Holocaust a fair amount, but no one’s considered living Jews at all. The further I wandered from American-Germans and their friends and family, the more obvious that became. (No pork seems like a good starting place if everything on the average menu at a pub is a pork-product, which was pretty common.)

  • samktg

    I really hope that chair is more comfortable than it looks.

  • fedup

    If this exhibit had been put on in a gallery and called art would you feel more comfortable?

    • Jillian Steinhauer


  • Vodo Lei

    I absolutely love this idea because participants come from different backgrounds (religious versus secular, orthodox versus reform). Their answers are based on their experiences and not what is perceived as the norm. And lastly, if this is a chance for us to educate the public about how similar and at the same time how much we disagree with each other let alone the rest of the world, so be it.

    • Roman Bodnar

      I agree with you, but the addition of a box, phrases like “How do you recognize a Jew?”, and the context of Germany’s relationship to Jewish people, makes it virtually impossible to experience this project from a constructive and educational angle. It’s painfully muddled, anti-semites will perceive this as an absolute joke, and a lot of Jewish people will be left feeling uncomfortable and alienated. After all that, how much room is left for healing or education?

      • Unless it’s being layered with irony by playing into these expectations. Hah, though I don’t think that’s the case..

  • Reminds me of Monochrom’s “Nazi Petting Zoo”

    • Jillian Steinhauer

      Wow, that’s weird and sort of creepy (which is probably the point).

  • Laura Feld

    As an American/Jewish/artist who lived in Germany for 11 years, this exhibit sounds like a parody of what it’s like to be a Jew in Germany – Jew in a Box – that’s how it feels! You would think the museum would know better than to fall into that trap, and try to actually educate people.

  • your tone confused me here but I guess I’m reading this show wrong. I mean, if this were taking place in NYC it’d be farce–social and political–something maybe like Nate Hill’s’ White People Do Not Smell Like Wet Dog.’ so, Jew in a box isn’t to be taken with a lot of winks? [guess i could read the museum text.]

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