'The Jew in the Box'

Suzanne Fields

4/5/2013 12:01:00 AM - 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."

When the exhibit opened, there was tepid and nervous applause from some critics. A reviewer for the newspaper Die Welt said he was not a fan of "the Jew in the Box" but observed that it was an honest (and perhaps brave) effort to acknowledge and deal with the "tension" that Germans feel toward their Jewish neighbors.

One of the volunteers in the box told the newspaper Suddeutsche Zeitung that he tries to show how Jewish life is much like the lives of other Germans. "There are Jews who live on welfare," he told questioners. "There are Jews who do not go to the synagogue to pray, but who do tai chi and yoga."

The exhibit is not only about the Jews in the glass box. It illustrates what happened in Hitler's time with documents, photographs, wall texts and snippets from television programs, illustrating how the Holocaust was treated in the popular media.

One interactive display called "Jew or Not?" presents photographs of Charlie Chaplin, Bob Dylan, Marilyn Monroe, Justin Bieber and other show-business celebrities and invites museum-goers to guess whether they're Jewish or gentile.

"Clearly, the goal here is to 'educate' through whimsy," observes Bruce Bawar on Frontpagemag.com, an Internet magazine. The museum's website calls this approach to educate "evenhanded and witty," and Cilly Kugelmann, the museum's program director, says "an exhibition can sometimes be light and playful." (Light and playful Germans. Who knew?)

It's the symbolism in the presentation that upsets many older Germans. "The Jew in the Box" is too close to the memory of Adolf Eichmann, one of the executors of "the final solution," who was put on trial in 1961 for crimes against humanity and at his trial sat in a glass box for his own protection.

He was convicted of crimes against humanity and paid for them at the end of a rope. The glass box made a lasting impression on the German generation now slipping swiftly into history.

Several of the volunteers call sitting in the box for two hours, taking questions, an "artistic expression" in itself. "With so few of us," Leeor Englander tells a Berlin reporter, "you almost inevitably feel like an exhibition piece."

If this is art, it's not beauty, but maybe it's an attempt to get at truth.