Jews on Display

Wednesday morning I stared at my reflection in the bathroom mirror, fixing my hair and make up, getting ready for work like any other morning. Suddenly, my husband rushed in and said, “Turn on the TV. The Today Show is about to air a segment that you’re not going to believe.” I dutifully retrieved the remote from the drawer and pointed it at the television on the cabinet across the room.  As the broadcast appeared, I patiently waited and when the segment came on I became positively apoplectic!

In an attempt to think “outside the box” and attract new visitors, the Jewish Museum Berlin opened a new exhibit entitled, “The Whole Truth…everything you always wanted to know about Jews.” Its objective? The museum hopes to “showcase Jews” and “create a space for dialogue.” What? Why? It seems that the population of Germany, approximately eighty-two million, is curious about Jews. Huh? Since Germany’s Jewish population is just under two hundred thousand, the vast majority of Germans has never seen or spoken to a Jew. They don’t understand anything about Jewish faith, laws, customs, values, rituals, humor, etc. And, given their country’s history with Jews, it seems that younger generations of Germans – people born long after the Holocaust – are especially interested in learning more about the Jewish people.

The pièce de résistance is the part of the exhibit where a real, live Jews sits in a Plexiglas box; ready to shake hands and converse with those who are brave enough and curious enough to do so. I kid you not! Just like an objet d’art, a Jewish person voluntarily puts him- or herself on display to be looked at, questioned, and evaluated by curious onlookers.

Today, two different articles on this “Jew in the Box” topic found their way to my inbox. The first was published by Tablet magazine and written by a man who actually took a turn in The Box. A Jew who hadn’t lived in Germany for very long, he rather enjoyed the open conversations he had with visitors and believes this exhibit will promote more understanding and tolerance between people. He says, “if engaging in such a worthwhile dialogue required my serving as a living, breathing museum exhibition for one hour, then it was worth it.” I think this was just a good way for him to fill his social calendar.  

The second piece appeared in The Jewish Daily Forward. It talks about the Jewish Museum Berlin’s desire to figure out how they could “mount artifacts telling the story of German Jewish culture in an authentic way” and explore ways to “think outside the box.” Their solution? “[Place] Jews, literally, on display inside of one.” I’m all for “thinking outside the box,” but this is ridiculous. I mean, seriously, is this exhibit really the best way to teach about Jews? Author Anne Hromadka wonders, “Haven’t we [Jews] been placed under a microscope enough times throughout history? Instead of a box, they could have had Jewish volunteers and non-Jewish German’s talk to each other as equals.”

Let’s be blunt, shall we? A museum stays in business by offering different and creative exhibits that people will want to come see. The more “out of the box” the better – no matter how shocking or daring. But, for Jews to exploit fellow Jews in this manner? Miriam Goldmann, exhibition curator, should be ashamed of herself. And those Jews willing to sit in the glass box and let people gawk at them, they need counseling. Only prized Beannie Babies or other inanimate collectables should be placed in Plexiglas boxes to be admired, studied, and protected; not people.

You want an out-of-the-box idea? The best way to teach the Germans (or anyone else who wants to learn) about Jews and Judaism is to take them all to Israel. There they’ll see Jews in different shapes, sizes, colors, backgrounds, practices, garb, etc. and they’ll learn a lot about Jewish history. That’s the way to tear down glass walls. That’s the way to start dialogues and build relationships. That’s the way they’ll learn. That’s the way they’ll understand. And that’s the way we display and maintain our dignity and pride. Period.

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