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Berlin Jewish Museum’s ‘Jew in the Box’ Exhibit

Some people are not happy about this

Adam Chandler
March 29, 2013


Move over MoMA. There is a new avant-garde concept afoot and it’s not a placid Scottish actress sleeping in a box.

Berlin’s Jewish Museum, which aesthetically is a one-of-a-kind museum, but has done odd things recently like cede academic Judith Butler a platform to promote a boycott of Israel, has a new exhibit that has informally been named “Jew in the Box.” It’s not quite as the pernicious as the name suggests, but it’s definitely causing a stir.

To help educate postwar generations, an exhibit at the Jewish Museum features a Jewish man or woman seated inside a glass box for two hours a day through August to answer visitors’ questions about Jews and Jewish life. The base of the box asks: “Are there still Jews in Germany?”

“A lot of our visitors don’t know any Jews and have questions they want to ask,” museum official Tina Luedecke said. “With this exhibition we offer an opportunity for those people to know more about Jews and Jewish life.”

But not everybody thinks putting a Jew on display is the best way to build understanding and mutual respect.

Since the exhibit — “The Whole Truth, everything you wanted to know about Jews” — opened this month, the “Jew in the Box,” as it is popularly known, has drawn sharp criticism within the Jewish community — especially in the city where the Nazis orchestrated the slaughter of 6 million Jews until Adolf Hitler’s defeat in 1945.

“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.”

After spending a month-plus working on The Scroll in Berlin last summer, my (admittedly limited) impression of how Germans approach the subject of Jews and Jewish history is heavily colored with polite curiosity. But it goes both ways. One friend I made–who was roughly my age–explained her tenuous sense of history as part of a German family that was thrown out of Poland after the war and immediately fell behind the Iron Curtain’s reach into East Germany. There were a surprising level of common ground between us.

Ultimately, if we want to build some better understanding between Jews and Germans, we ought to consider sending the Jewish teenagers who tramp through the darkest points of Polish history on the March of the Living to Germany instead of Israel to achieve a mutually beneficial connection between the Jewish past, the Jewish present, and Germany.

While this exhibit feels a little too precious for its own good, I think it probably also fills a need.

Adam Chandler was previously a staff writer at Tablet. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic, Slate, Esquire, New York, and elsewhere. He tweets @allmychandler.

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