The Jew in the Box” is not here. “Today is Shabbat, I’ll be back on Sunday,” reads a notice taped near where he usually sits. I consider sitting down on the purple chaise and fielding questions myself. “Oh my favorite young Jewish actress? Lena Dunham, of course!” I’d say. Then whomever had asked me the question would gab with me about how dark the series has become. “Such a shonda,” I’d lament. “But the girl’s got some real chutzpah.”
Of course, that’s not how it would really go down in Deutschland. First off, a German person would probably be like “What is a Lena Dunham?” (“Girls” hasn’t really taken off here). Then they’d want to get my take on Netanyahu and the new Israeli government. “Is there really going to be a war with Iran?” is the question I’ve been asked the most in the three years I’ve lived here, usually in such an earnest way that I can’t help but try to formulate some kind of response.
But, really, how the hell am I supposed to know? This is the problem: I cannot speak on behalf of all Jews, much less the current Israeli government. It’s not like I’m Bibi’s bestie. This is why having a real-life spokesJew fielding any and all questions from a glassed-in podium is so important: he’s doing the dirty work. Now I won’t have to be anyone’s “first Jew.” I can be the second! What a relief.
The truth is that, when you get over the outrageousness of their executions, the ideas behind the Jewish Museum Berlin’s exhibition “The Whole Truth: Everything You Wanted to Know About Jews” are pretty progressive. Many outraged journalists have been quoting Stephen Kramer, General Secretary of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, who told the AP: “Why don’t they give him [the Jew in the box] a banana and a glass of water, turn up the heat and make the Jew feel really cozy in his glass box?” But Kramer doesn’t get it. Never mind the fact that this is an exhibition curated by Jewish German people or that the glass box is actually a podium surrounded by glass on two sides. The whole point of it is to symbolize what it’s like being the perennial spokesJew in Germany. It is, indeed, like living in a fishbowl.
The rest of the exhibit isn’t bad, either. At “The Whole Truth,” visitors not only can ask a real-life Jewish person any question under the sun (from “what do I bring to a Shabbat dinner?” to “What is that rectangular box next to my Jewish neighbor’s door?”) but they can also find answers to some of the most common questions recorded in the Jewish Museum’s guestbook. These questions range from “Are all Jews religious?” to “Can you make jokes about the Holocaust?”
To answer the second question, the Museum hands the mic to Sarah Silverman. The episode of the Sarah Silverman Show where Sarah opens a hyper-capitalistic Holocaust memorial (featuring tigers, a bikini-clad “sexy Hitler” and a giant golden nose shpritzing water) is playing on repeat. “Auschwitz? I’ll have you saying Wowschwitz,” Silverman deadpans to the camera. Two German teens laugh, but the 40-something man who watches the video after them does not.
It’s a bizarre sight, especially when you think about the context in which the video is playing. According to polls, 45% of Germans think Jews still “talk to much about what happened to them during the Holocaust.” In the time I’ve spent in Germany, the anti-Semitism I’ve experienced the most has been from Germans who were sick of talking about the Holocaust, or those who’ve tried to convince me that the Jews were the ones who wouldn’t let it go. Is it good that Germans can now laugh along with Silverman at the culture of memorialization?
In another room, visitors are encouraged to drop plastic coins in three of five semi-translucent pillars, each one representing a positive Jewish attribute: do visitors think Jews are “business savvy?” What about “kind to animals?” “Beautiful?” “Influential?” “Intelligent?”
If Germany were a country that had mostly rid itself of anti-semitism, I would probably have felt more comfortable seeing how many people see Jews as “business-savvy,” but given that a good 16% of Germans think Jews have “too much power in Germany,” it doesn’t really seem like a compliment.
No, this isn’t the United States. There isn’t a whole ton of awareness here about how far Jewish stereotypes are from reality. But that’s why this exhibition is so important; it holds a mirror to society at large and encourages the public to look at their misconceptions with a bit of humor. While it may not seem especially politically correct to have a spokesJew sitting on a bench near the exit, the metaphor you’re searching for isn’t “Eichmann in Jerusalem” but Larry David at a Christmas party. Because that’s what it’s like being a Jew in Germany almost every day.
If you really want to get freaked out, just imagine a country where the only dialogue related to Jews is about responsibility for the Holocaust, the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians and how to combat anti-Semitism in the far right wing. That’s scary, because it misses all the messiness and wonder of contemporary Jewish life. If you have to be outrageous to change the conversation, maybe it’s a sign that the conversation has veered somewhere very, very limiting. Hopefully, this little exhibition will widen the scope of what Germans talk about when they talk about Jewish people.