Making a spectacle out of a troubled past
April 9, 2013
About a year ago, on a cruise that included Germany, we had the opportunity to take a day trip to Berlin. It was one of those trips that you wonder whether you should take. Should a Jew go to Berlin? Should a Jew go to Germany at all? But we did go, taking a day tour with a Jewish emphasis.
For me, there were two highlights.
First was the incredibly beautiful restored Rykestrasse Synagogue where, after some pleading with the Israeli shomer, we were admitted into the sanctuary on Shavuot in time for Yizkor.
The second highlight was the Berlin Jewish Museum, a place which requires days, if not weeks, to properly comprehend and to contemplate its exhibits. The museum, designed by Daniel Libeskind, is full of symbolism with its seemingly erratic construction, voids, natural light, and tilted floors.
Given the symbolism physically built into the museum, I am more disturbed by the symbolism of a new exhibit at the museum, “The Whole Truth, everything you wanted to know about Jews,” popularly known as the “Jew in the Box.”
Because the role of Jews in Germany is a sensitive issue, and with fewer than 200,000 Jews in a German population of 82 million, museum officials thought it a good idea for a Jewish man or woman to sit inside a glass box for two hours a day (various volunteers will take turns through August). The sitter answers visitors’ questions about Jews and Jewish life. The base of the box asks: “Are there still Jews in Germany?”
Needless to say, controversy surrounds the exhibit.
Certain images come to mind. First is the image of Adolf Eichmann, implementer of the Wannsee Final Solution, confined to a glass booth while on trial for crimes against humanity and the Jewish people.
Another is the musical Taboo, about the 1980s London club scene, in which a character portraying the outlandish designer and performance artist Leigh Bowery sings “Ich Bin Kunst” (“I Am Art”): “Look at you, then look at me/I am art, you’re parody.”
Now we have “Der Jude als Kunst” (the Jew as art) in Berlin.
Hitler thought of Jews as a museum piece. He intended Prague’s Maisel Synagogue to be his “Museum of the Extinct Race.” Today, it is a museum, part of the collection of the Jewish Museum in Prague.
Berlin Jewish Museum curator Miriam Goldmann, who is Jewish, believes the Jew in a Box exhibit’s “in your face” approach is the best way to overcome emotional barriers and deal with a subject that remains painful for both Jews and non-Jews. “We wanted to provoke, that’s true, and some people may find the show outrageous or objectionable,” Goldmann said. “But that’s fine by us.”
Really? Is the purpose of the exhibit to provoke or to improve understanding between Germans and their Jewish neighbors? From the reactions that I have seen, it seems that provocation is the winner.
“Why don’t they give him a banana and a glass of water, turn up the heat and make the Jew feel really cozy in his glass box?” prominent Berlin Jewish community figure Stephan Kramer told the Associated Press. “They actually asked me if I wanted to participate. But I told them I’m not available.”
The exhibit creates a potentially inflammatory situation. When I first read about the exhibit I wondered how participants were vetted and whether they were given any training on handling questions, especially sensitive ones. One ignorant answer could have serious ripple effects.
My answer came in an article in Tablet, “Being the Jew in the Box,” by James Kirchick. Kirchick, an American journalist and foreign correspondent based in Berlin, wanted to see if being in the box would make him “feel like a caged monkey.” He volunteered by e-mail and was assigned a date and time — no vetting, no preparation.
Kirchick gives a sampling of questions and responses. One German asked if Jesus was Jewish, Christian, or both, and how a Jew could be the basis for the Christian religion. The response: “I gently explained that I was not a theologian.” That surely increases understanding.
Rabbi Yehuda Teichtal from the Jewish Chabad community in Berlin told the AP that if Germans are really interested in Jews and Judaism, they should visit the community’s educational center. “Here Jews will be happy to answer questions without sitting in a glass box,” he said.
I’m with him.