As a Jewish person, I feel pretty confident in saying that it's almost inevitable that putting a Jewish person in a small space, ever, anywhere, will make some people angry, even if it's with the best intentions. So it's unsurprising that Berlin's Jewish Museum's new "Jew in the Box" exhibit, which features one of Germany's few Semitic residents chilling out inside a simple glass box and answering museum-goers questions about Judaism, is getting a mixed reception.
Some of the questions on placards outside the box provided for Jewish volunteers to answer are:
"How you recognize a Jew?" It's next to an assortment of yarmulkes, black hats and women's hair covers hanging from the ceiling on thin threads.
Yet another [placard] invites visitors to express their opinion to such questions as "are Jews particularly good looking, influential, intelligent, animal loving or business savvy?"
But the actual questions asked by German residents are less about debunking stereotypes than inquiries of specific etiquette and Jewish theology. One German asked the volunteer if he had been to Palestine, because she had just gone and realized how difficult it was to mention her Jewish roots there.
One woman wanted to know what to bring her hosts for a Shabbat dinner in Israel. Another asked why only Jewish men and not women wear yarmulkes. A third inquired about Judaism and homosexuality.
Postwar Germany boasts 82 million citizens, of whom only 200,000 are Jewish, and generations of Germans since World War II have approached the novelty of Jews in their country with uneducated but well-intentioned curiosity. This is acknowledged by museum officials and the box's Jewish volunteers alike.
"With so few of us [in the country], you almost inevitably feel like an exhibition piece," volunteer Leeor Englander said. "Once you've been 'outed' as a Jew, you always have to be the expert and answer all questions regarding anything related to religion, Israel, the Holocaust and so on."
"I feel a bit like an animal in the zoo, but in reality that's what it's like being a Jew in Germany," [another volunteer, Ido] Porat said. "You are a very interesting object to most people here."
Dekel Peretz, one of the volunteers in the glass box, said many Germans have an image of Jews that is far removed from the reality of contemporary Jewish life. "They associate Jews with the Holocaust and the Nazi era. Jews don't have a history before or after. In Germany, Jews have been stereotyped as victims. It is important that people here get to know Jews to see that Jews are alive and that we have individual histories. I hope that this exhibit can help."
Among the exhibit's many critics are an Israeli who currently lives in Berlin, who calls it "horrible, degrading" and "not helpful" for promoting better relationships between Jews and non-Jews in modern Germany. A rabbi from Berlin's Chabad community who suggests that non-Jewish Germans interested in learning about the Jewish experience in Germany should visit their educational center rather than go in for this shock-value museum gimmick.
The museum's curator Miriam Goldmann, who is Jewish, says that this "in your face" approach is more than just shock value: it's one way to overcome the fraught emotions and social dynamics between post-war German generations and German Jews. Says Goldmann, "We wanted to provoke, that's true, and some people may find the show outrageous or objectionable. But that's fine by us."
Image via Jeff Whyte/Shutterstock