Jew in a Box Exhibit: Controversial German Art Installation Could Help Eliminate Stereotypes

The Berlin Jewish Museum has a new installation: “A Jew in a Box.”

It is certainly not the first time that a human being has been put on display. Human zoos have toured Europe for centuries and a hundred years back, “Freak Shows” were a popular component of America’s most established circus companies. Famously the Bronx Zoo exhibited Ota Benga, a Congolese Mbuti Pygmy tribesman back in 1906.  Such exhibits were steeped in racism, xenophobia and a colonizer’s skewed sense of superiority.

This March, the Jewish Museum in Berlin, Germany opened its newest exhibit: “The Whole Truth … everything you always wanted to know about Jews.”

The exhibit includes a number of objects like a collection of Jewish hats and yarmulkes and activities like one that asks patrons to identify clichés that define Jews (Intelligent, Business Savvy, Fond of Animals.) But the attention-grabber is the real life German Jewish man or woman who sits in a plexiglas box for two hour stretches at a time fielding questions about Jews.

Open over the past two weeks, the Jews on display have answered a wide range of questions: “Is Hollywood controlled by the Jews?”, “Can you stop being Jewish?” “Can Rabbis marry?” But the exhibit is not simply inspiring questions within the confines of the museum.

Is the “Jew in a Box” art? Is it anti-Semitism? Does it inspire contemplation and conversation or is it simply crass? When does art step over the line and become inappropriate?

Critics, many from within the Jewish community, are adamantly opposed and offended, — for some it brings up images of Holocaust boxcars en route to concentration camps, for others, images of Nazi Adolf Eichmann in his bullet-proof box while on trial for crimes against humanity.

However there are also very different parallels to be drawn.  

Last spring, the organization Improv Everywhere ran a flash mob in the Colorado Aspen Ski resort featuring African American comedian Colton Dunn. Standing behind a hot cocoa stand and next to a sign reading “meet a black person” Dunn greeted ski goers — shaking hands and posing for group pictures. (Aspen has a minute African American population of 0.44%.)

Performance theater across the globe is filled with human performers who choose to put themselves on display. Art, theater especially, is a perfect medium for addressing the controversial. Art has a way of slipping around our routine lines of thoughts and conventions of understanding.

As some of the Jews who have participated in the exhibit have noted, being a German Jew means they are always, to an extent, on display. But such perceptions are not restricted to German Jews. I would guess that many people have been asked at some point to “speak” for their group, be it their race, their religion, their gender, their ethnicity.

The plexiglas box in the museum formalizes the feeling. It mocks the assumption that an individual is never asked to represent the traits of a collective.

But the “Jew in a Box” is not simply bitingly ironic.

The sign along the bottom of the “Jew in a Box” reads: “Are there any Jews left in Germany?” There are, though not many. Nazis exterminated over half of Germany’s 500,000 Jews (as well as 5.75 millions Jews from other European countries). Today only approximately 200,000 Jews live in the country of 82 million. Seventy years after the Holocaust, Germany and its people remain sensitized to the Holocaust, but with so few Jews left in the country, most Germans only know Jews as intangible ghosts of a horrifying history.

The box is oddly reminiscent of a Catholic confessional. The box provides a space where inappropriate questions are allowable. These are not typical “inappropriate” questions, but rather simply questions that people (in this case non-Jewish Germans) might feel were inappropriate, awkward, potentially offensive, or politically incorrect to ask.  A person, in a box, in a museum, allows those private questions to be vocalized:  “Is Hollywood controlled by the Jews?”, “Can Rabbis marry?”

Are they all serious questions? No. Do all questions deserve a response? Maybe not.  But if one can never ask, what is the alternative — faulty facts from second party sources or continuing misconceptions and stereotypes. 

A “Jew in a Box” might be controversial and uncomfortable, it might feel gimmicky or contrived, but it is also encouraging dialogue within a typically skirted subject. 

And a Jew in Germany is just one human in one box. The show could easily go touring, just like the stunts of old. Who would sit in the box at each stop? Who would you wish to sit in the box? And what questions do you secretly wish you could ask?