Suzanne Fields

"Art" can smooth the rough edges of life, nurturing beauty and imagination, and showing a different and provocative way of looking at the world, but artists -- and museums and galleries that show their work -- are sometimes surprised by the hostile reception their works provoke. Sensitivity to the feelings of the public, the consumers of art, is not necessarily a cultivated art.

The Jewish Museum in Berlin is learning that lesson with an exhibit innocently described as "The Whole Truth: Everything You Wanted to Know About Jews."

Such an exhibit is particularly appropriate in Germany, where there aren't any longer many Jews. The Nazis killed more than half of the 500,000 Jews in Germany before World War II, and few survivors of the Nazi killing camps were tempted to return to the place where they were stripped of their families, their homes and their property. Jews had lived and prospered there for hundreds of years.

The museum provoked controversy several years ago when a speaker urged a boycott of Israel to protest what she called mistreatment of the Palestinians. This year, the museum had another bright idea. Young Germans would learn about the 200,000 Jews who live among the 82 million Germans, many of them new immigrants from Russia, new in practicing the Jewish religion themselves. Jewish volunteers would be recruited to sit in a glass display case, one at a time, to answer questions about Judaism and the customs and everyday lives of Jews.

From 4 to 6 every afternoon from now until August, museum-goers will line up to pose questions to what everybody is calling "the Jew in the Box." It's one of the most popular attractions at the museum, but not every Jew in Germany is pleased.

"Why don't they give him a banana and a glass of water," asks Stephan Kramer, the general secretary of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, "and make the Jew feel really cozy in his glass box?"

The Holocaust, and what happened to Germany's Jews, is the most sensitive subject in German life. For decades after World War II, it was the subject that nobody talked about. Denying the Holocaust is against the law, and displaying the flags and symbols of the Hitler era is a quick way to get in trouble with the law. Innocent curiosity about the past was discouraged.

"Few Germans born after World War II know any Jews, or much about them," says Tina Luedecke, a museum official. "A lot of our visitors don't know any Jews and have questions they want to ask. With this exhibition, we offer an opportunity for those people to get to know more about Jews and Jewish life."

Suzanne Fields

Suzanne Fields is currently working on a book that will revisit John Milton's 'Paradise Lost.'

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