When youre a Jew in a glass box, who brings the Windex

Get out your squeegees and glass cleaner. In Berlin, Jews are being put on display in a transparent box, and you might want a clear view.

Called “Jews in a Showcase,” the exhibit, which runs through August, invites a Jew to sit and answer questions. Detailed in a j. article two weeks ago (“Berlin museum’s ‘Jew in a Box’ exhibit raises interest, ire”), it’s part of an exhibition called “The Whole Truth … everything you always wanted to know about Jews” that opened at the Jewish Museum Berlin last month.

Edmon J. Rodman

“At selected times, a Jewish guest will take a seat in a showcase and will — if desired — react to visitors’ questions and comments,” says the museum’s website.

The museum is confident questions about Judaism and being Jewish will be asked, “the FAQs, the difficult questions, the funny questions, the clever questions, and the questions that really have no answer.”

Perhaps, in this setting, it’s too much to expect answers to the imponderables. But would an answer to, “How much chocolate syrup does it take to make a decent egg cream?” be out of the question?

Museum visitors searching for the “whole truth,” says the site, now have the opportunity to “confront their confused feelings about Jews.”

Of course, by this point you are probably experiencing “confused feelings” about whoever thought this up — but leaving that aside for a moment — can you imagine what it might be like sitting in that box?

According to Fox News, several of the volunteers for the exhibit, 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.”

Sound familiar?

At times, many of us have already found ourselves uncomfortably put on the hot seat as the office, school or even neighborhood “Jew,” and I am wondering if ritualizing the exchange by adding a confined space is really that far from our experience.

People do sometimes try to box us in.

“Do Jews celebrate Thanksgiving?” I was once asked in a publisher’s office. “Why don’t Jews believe in Christ?” I recall being asked by a friend in high school. “Is that hut you’re building in your backyard for a luau?” I recall being asked by a neighbor who had seen me put palm fronds on the roof of my sukkah.

Understandably, within days of the opening, the show people are calling “Jew in the Box” had a lot of people asking questions — none of them funny.

“Shame! How would you like an exhibit in the U.S. called ‘German in a box’ or ‘Christian in a box’?” asked Jeri Roth Fink on Facebook.

In its defense, the museum makes the point that “The Jews in Germany, who have played a prominent role over the past few decades and are seen by many as a symbol of the millions murdered in the Holocaust, are already treated as specimens under glass.”

Since I too sometimes feel like a Jewish specimen, I wondered if the next time I knew one of those “Jewish questions” was coming, if imagining sitting in a glass box could finally help me to escape it.

“Is there a reason why Jews are the people of the book?” I might be asked, seated in the Jewish glass box.

“Yes, we write and win awards for so many of them,” I might answer, cleaning the window with a shpritz of Windex, the better to eye my questioner.

“Do Jews drink?” I might be asked as a follow-up.

“Why, did you bring me something?” I would respond, typically, with another question.

“Are all Jews rich?”

“Rich in seeing the possibilities of most every situation,” I would answer.

“Why are Jews so bent on repairing the world?”

“We are well-equipped for the job,” I would answer, pulling out a hammer.

Edmon J. Rodman is a columnist who writes on Jewish life from Los Angeles. For more Rodman, visit his “Guide for the Jewplexed” blog at www.virtualjerusalem.com.

Edmon Rodman
Edmon J. Rodman

Edmon J. Rodman writes about Jewish life from his home in Los Angeles and is the author of the weekly Guide for the Jewplexed on virtualjerusalem.com. Contact him at [email protected].