Being the Jew in the Box
To have conversations with Germans about Jews, I had to become an exhibition at Berlin’s Jewish Museum
So, at noon yesterday, I excitedly assumed my place in the vitrine. “Are there still Jews in Germany?” read the inscription below the Plexiglas box, my physical presence apparently serving as an answer. Kugelmann tells me her vision of this much-derided element of the exhibit is that is serves as a “Hyde Park Corner,” where guests can engage in conversation and argument with each other and the Jewish specimen on display. We “make a point of not answering questions,” she said.
My interlocutors, however, did not seem to understand this. One German man asked me if Jesus was Jewish, Christian, or both, and how a Jew could be the basis for the Christian religion. I gently explained that I was not a theologian. Another, more interesting and perplexing question, came from an elderly British gentleman, who asked, if Judaism is passed through the matrilineal line, does this not lend credence to the notion that Jews are a “race” and therefore provide fodder for Hitler’s dangerous theories? One can convert to Judaism, I explained, which negates the concept of “Jewish blood.” Moreover, while the Nuremberg laws did not distinguish between an observant, Orthodox Jew with just one Jewish grandparent and an atheist, non-identifying Jew with four, Jewishness is ultimately something that one must intrinsically feel, regardless of his family background. I have friends whose only Jewish parent is their father, I ventured, yet who nonetheless identify strongly as Jewish.
Everyone who approached me seemed intrigued, or at least tickled, by my sitting in the box. That is, except for the two Israeli women who said that my sitting there reminded them of Adolf Eichmann trapped in his glass witness box in a Jerusalem court room. Initially, I too shared their skepticism, I explained, but changed my mind after viewing the exhibit and sitting in the box.
To me, the “Jew in a Box” is an ironic, meta-commentary on what it is like to live as a Jew in contemporary Germany: You feel sometimes that you are an endangered species—or, as the museum commentary puts it, “a living exhibition object.” As a Jew in Germany, you are confronted by your Jewishness, your difference, on a continual basis, like the time I saw ads in the Berlin U-Bahn likening the practice of circumcision to child molestation “I have never felt so Jewish until I moved here,” I told the Israeli museum guests. The younger Israeli responded that “you only feel that when you let yourself feel like that.”
More often than not, I felt like a therapist for anxious Germans working through their fraught relationship to history. “This is very difficult for me,” a producer for a German television station said, standing just inches away, her eyes watery. “I feel it is a confrontation.” She likened the experience to a 2010 Museum of Modern Art exhibition by performance artist Marina Abramović, in which visitors sat silently across a table from Abramović for hours on end. Another middle-aged woman with her young daughter in tow related how the Jew she was closest to was her childhood piano teacher, whose Jewishness was only been hinted at through occasional references to family back in Israel. “I was a little ashamed to ask questions. It’s nice that you’re here,” she confided.
“If you want to ask somebody,” about their Judaism, “it’s like pointing,” she said. Many Germans have an understandable apprehension about discussing Jewish questions, an uneasiness that also stems from a general German reserve. “In New York, you ask questions,” she said. “What do you do? Where are you going? How much money do you make?” she said, moving her arms in exaggerated motions. “Here, you don’t.”
It wasn’t long before the roles were reversed, with me asking the questions. Growing up, I learned, she would “constantly touch fascist German history abroad.” Traveling to Amsterdam at the age of 17, she experienced a great deal of anti-German sentiment, a sense of “still open hostility,” even though she had been born long after the end of World War II. She is happy that her 23-year-old son can discuss all of these issues—Jews, Germany’s war history— “more openly than we would, and not with this petrifaction that used to strike us.”
These are not the types of conversations that I regularly have with Germans in the 10 months I have lived here—at least not random ones I’ve just met. And so if engaging in such a worthwhile dialogue required my serving as a living, breathing museum exhibition for one hour, then it was worth it.
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According to the state’s election commission, there are 800 registered Jewish voters. That’s bogus.