‘Jew in a Box’ Exhibition Causes a Stir in Germany

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Linus Lintner

The showcase box at Berlin's Jewish Museum

There are fewer than 200,000 Jews living in Germany today, out of a total population of 82 million — meaning that few Germans have any first-hand understanding of Jewish culture. But an exhibit at Berlin’s Jewish Museum that attempts to combat that lack of knowledge is causing quite a stir regardless.

The show, entitled ‘The Whole Truth,’ consists of a Jewish man or woman, seated inside a glass box, answering visitors’ questions for two hours about Jewish life and culture.

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The exhibition was inspired by the many questions left in the museum’s visitors book since 2001, which the curators stripped down to the thirty most commonly asked questions. These vary from politically incorrect questions about common Jewish stereotypes to a simple matter of wanting to know how to become a Jew.

For the Jewish Museum’s curators the point of the exhibition is to “confront various questions about Judaism and being Jewish.” Below the box a line of text reads, “Are there still Jews in Germany?”

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But reactions to the exhibition, which also includes other installations and displays, have been decidedly mixed. Speaking with the Associated Press, Stephan Kramer, a prominent figure in the Berlin Jewish community, asked, “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?” Kramer said he was approached to participate but turned the offer down. Others too have described the exhibition as “degrading” and not helpful to German-Jewish relations.

Dekel Peretz, a doctoral student in Jewish German history in Potsdam, told the Guardian that he too had been fearful of being put on show as a museum piece. However his curiosity overtook his fear:

“I’m really intrigued to find out what sort of things they ask me. In many ways my everyday life is anyway a bit like living in a box, being one of few Jewish people living in Germany – your mere presence in a pub triggers debates about the Holocaust or Middle East politics – so I wasn’t fazed about taking part.”

The exhibitors have also published e-mail exchanges from the development process for the show, which shed light on how much they wrangled over the concept. In one exchange curator Michal Friedlander asks her colleagues a powerful question: “As a historical museum we by definition show relics of the past, but does this necessarily mean that we are showing a dead culture?”

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