Jewish Museum’s exhibit evokes ire, awareness

Israeli citizen Ido Porat was the first person to sit in the glass box at the exhibition at the Jewish Museum in Berlin.
Israeli citizen Ido Porat was the first person to sit in the glass box at the exhibition at the Jewish Museum in Berlin.

BERLIN — ‘‘Are there still Jews in Germany?’’ “Are the Jews a chosen people?’’

Nearly 70 years after the Holocaust, there is no more sensitive an issue in German life as the role of Jews. With fewer than 200,000 Jews among the country’s 82 million people, few Germans born after World War II know any Jews or much about them.

To help educate postwar generations, an exhibit at the Jewish Museum features a man or woman seated inside a glass box for two hours a day to answer visitors’ questions about Jews and Jewish life. The base of the box asks: ‘‘Are there still Jews in Germany?’’


‘‘A lot of our visitors don’t know any Jews and have questions they want to ask,’’ museum official Tina Luedecke said. ‘‘With this exhibition we offer an opportunity for those people to know more about Jews and Jewish life.’’

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But not everybody thinks putting a Jew on display is the best way to build understanding and mutual respect.

Since the exhibit — ‘‘The Whole Truth, everything you wanted to know about Jews’’ — opened this month, the ‘‘Jew in the Box,’’ as it is popularly known, has drawn sharp criticism within the Jewish community — especially in the city where the Nazis orchestrated the slaughter of 6 million Jews until Adolf Hitler’s defeat in 1945.

‘‘Why don’t they give him a banana and a glass of water, turn up the heat and make the Jew feel really cozy in his glass box,’’ prominent Berlin Jewish community figure Stephan Kramer said. ‘‘They actually asked me if I wanted to participate. But I told them I’m not available.’’

Eran Levy, an Israeli who has lived in Berlin for years, was horrified by the idea of presenting a Jew as a museum piece, even if to answer questions about Jewish life.


‘‘It’s a horrible thing to do — completely degrading and not helpful,’’ he said. ‘‘The Jewish Museum absolutely missed the point if they wanted to do anything to improve the relations between Germans and Jews.’’

But several of the volunteers, including both German Jews and Israelis living in Berlin, said the experience in the box is little different from what they go through as Jews living in the country that produced the Nazis.

‘‘With so few of us, you almost inevitably feel like an exhibition piece,’’ volunteer Leeor Englander said. ‘‘Once you’ve been ‘outed’ as a Jew, you always have to be the expert and answer all questions regarding anything related to religion, Israel, the Holocaust, and so on.’’

Museum curator Miriam Goldmann, who is Jewish, believes the exhibit’s provocative ‘‘in your face’’ approach is the best way to overcome the emotional barriers and deal with a subject that remains painful for both Jews and non-Jews.

On a recent day, several visitors kept returning to ask questions of Ido Porat, a 33-year-old Israeli.


One woman wanted to know what to bring her hosts for a Shabbat dinner in Israel. Another asked why only Jewish men and not women wear yarmulkes. A third inquired about Judaism and homosexuality.