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Being the Jew in the Box

To have conversations with Germans about Jews, I had to become an exhibition at Berlin’s Jewish Museum

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Reporter Jamie Kirchick (center) answers questions from a visitor while sitting in a glass box at the temporary exhibition “The Whole Truth: Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Jews” in Berlin, Germany, on Wednesday, April 3, 2013. (Adam Berry)
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It’s not often that someone compares you to the Hottentot Venus, Tilda Swinton, and Adolf Eichmann, all in the same hour.

But yesterday, depending on your point of view, I was all three. In the week since the Jewish Museum in Berlin unveiled its controversial exhibit “The Whole Truth: Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Jews,” one aspect of the installation has captured news headlines around the world. I’m referring to the part where a Jewish man or woman sits in a Plexiglas container and answers questions from visitors. From 2 until 4 each afternoon, a member of the German Jewish community sits on a bench inside the case, a little sign displaying his or her name, birth place, and language. It’s the only information known to guests about the person aside from the fact of their Judaism.

Some immediately dubbed it the “Jew in the Box,” accusing the museum of portraying “the Jew” as if he were some sort of circus animal (or, like the aforementioned Hottentot Venus, a throwback to 19th-century European colonialist freak shows that displayed Africans in cages). Cilly Kugelmann, the museum’s program director, dismissed such characterizations when I spoke to her yesterday and described the container as a “vitrine,” a French word used to describe an elegant glass-paneled cabinet to display objets d’art.

I first visited the exhibition on Tuesday, primarily to check out the box—but when I got to the museum, I was equally intrigued by other displays. I encountered a German family inspecting a section framed around the question: “What do Jews do on Christmas?” The viral photograph of a message from the “Chinese Restaurant Association” thanking “the Jewish people” for “eat[ing] our food on Christmas” was on display. (The clumsily written sign actually appears to have been based on a cartoon David Mamet drew for Tablet back in 2010.) Meanwhile, a projector played a cartoon from Saturday Night Live, done in the mock-up style of a Burl Ives Christmas special. In it, 1960s-era African-American songstress Darlene Love belts out “Christmastime for the Jews,” singing about how Jews “really get the party going after dark, circumcising grateful squirrels in the city park,” among other hijinks. Laughing quietly to myself, I noticed that the joke seemed lost on the German family, which watched the video with blank expressions. Perhaps the exhibit—bringing a heavy dose of American-Jewish humor to a German audience—was more necessary than I imagined.

Still, I wanted to find out if sitting inside the box would make me feel like a caged monkey or like a Fabergé egg. I emailed the museum asking if I might be able to spend an hour in the display. (The museum has been receiving one or two emails per day from local Jews volunteering to sit in the box.) I got the go ahead and set up shop at lunchtime on Wednesday.


Kirchick in box
The author sits in the glass box behind a piece of paper with his biographical information. (Adam Berry)

The “Jew in the Box” is actually just one of over 30 elements in the exhibit, which, inspired by the Jewish tradition of inquiry, is thematically composed of questions ranging from the mundane to the profound. Geometrically edgy, bright purple benches and display cases contain rare artifacts documenting Jewish life and the history of German Jews (one of the most impressive items in the exhibition’s collection is the original copy of the 1952 Luxembourg Agreement, establishing German responsibility for the Holocaust and signed by  then-Chancellor Konrad Adenauer and Israeli President Moshe Sharett, which capstones the question, “Do Germany and Israel have a special relationship?”).

Some of the questions and associated displays are playful. For instance, the question “How can you recognize a Jew?” is accompanied by 70 items of Jewish headwear, ranging from kippot with Nike swooshes to a traditional wig worn by an Orthodox woman. Meanwhile, a German shepherd muzzle adorns the display case alongside the question, “Is a German allowed to criticize Israel?” illustrating the belief, widely held among Germans, that they run the risk of being called anti-Semitic if they dare say a critical word about the Jewish state. Yet to balance out that predominant view, the curators also post a brilliant text by German writer Philip Meinhold, who lists “10 Tips for an Israel Critic,” which include, “Cite one Jewish critic of Israel, because one who cites a Jew—as in the nature of things—cannot hate the Jews.”

“The Whole Truth” was inspired by a 1996 exhibit at New York’s Jewish Museum, “Too Jewish,” Kugelmann told me. That show featured items like a parody of Andy Warhol’s silkscreens of Jackie Onassis featuring the visage of Barbra Streisand, and an outfit from Jean-Paul Gaultier’s “Hasidic” collection,” in which female models adorned themselves with ersatz payes. Kugelmann said she considered bringing it to the Frankfurt Jewish Museum, where she worked at the time, but “no one would understand it. If you miss the punch line of the joke, the joke is finished.” (Indeed, it is a failure to appreciate German unfamiliarity with Jews and Judaism that colors so much of the vitriol being directed at Berlin’s Jewish Museum. Perhaps that explains the fact that the vast majority of those who have criticized the exhibition are Jewish.)

Kugelmann said she was determined to avoid the fate of most exhibitions staged by Jewish museums, particularly those in Germany, which wind up being “didactic exhibitions for a gentile public.” She believed having a Jew on hand to answer questions would spur conversations rather than shut them down.

So, at noon yesterday, I excitedly assumed my place in the vitrine. “Are there still Jews in Germany?” read the inscription below the Plexiglas box, my physical presence apparently serving as an answer. Kugelmann tells me her vision of this much-derided element of the exhibit is that is serves as a “Hyde Park Corner,” where guests can engage in conversation and argument with each other and the Jewish specimen on display. We “make a point of not answering questions,” she said.

My interlocutors, however, did not seem to understand this. One German man asked me if Jesus was Jewish, Christian, or both, and how a Jew could be the basis for the Christian religion. I gently explained that I was not a theologian. Another, more interesting and perplexing question, came from an elderly British gentleman, who asked, if Judaism is passed through the matrilineal line, does this not lend credence to the notion that Jews are a “race” and therefore provide fodder for Hitler’s dangerous theories? One can convert to Judaism, I explained, which negates the concept of “Jewish blood.” Moreover, while the Nuremberg laws did not distinguish between an observant, Orthodox Jew with just one Jewish grandparent and an atheist, non-identifying Jew with four, Jewishness is ultimately something that one must intrinsically feel, regardless of his family background. I have friends whose only Jewish parent is their father, I ventured, yet who nonetheless identify strongly as Jewish.

Everyone who approached me seemed intrigued, or at least tickled, by my sitting in the box. That is, except for the two Israeli women who said that my sitting there reminded them of Adolf Eichmann trapped in his glass witness box in a Jerusalem court room. Initially, I too shared their skepticism, I explained, but changed my mind after viewing the exhibit and sitting in the box.

To me, the “Jew in a Box” is an ironic, meta-commentary on what it is like to live as a Jew in contemporary Germany: You feel sometimes that you are an endangered species—or, as the museum commentary puts it, “a living exhibition object.” As a Jew in Germany, you are confronted by your Jewishness, your difference, on a continual basis, like the time I saw ads in the Berlin U-Bahn likening the practice of circumcision to child molestation “I have never felt so Jewish until I moved here,” I told the Israeli museum guests. The younger Israeli responded that “you only feel that when you let yourself feel like that.”

More often than not, I felt like a therapist for anxious Germans working through their fraught relationship to history. “This is very difficult for me,” a producer for a German television station said, standing just inches away, her eyes watery. “I feel it is a confrontation.” She likened the experience to a 2010 Museum of Modern Art exhibition by performance artist Marina Abramović, in which visitors sat silently across a table from Abramović for hours on end. Another middle-aged woman with her young daughter in tow related how the Jew she was closest to was her childhood piano teacher, whose Jewishness was only been hinted at through occasional references to family back in Israel. “I was a little ashamed to ask questions. It’s nice that you’re here,” she confided.

“If you want to ask somebody,” about their Judaism, “it’s like pointing,” she said. Many Germans have an understandable apprehension about discussing Jewish questions, an uneasiness that also stems from a general German reserve. “In New York, you ask questions,” she said. “What do you do? Where are you going? How much money do you make?” she said, moving her arms in exaggerated motions. “Here, you don’t.”

It wasn’t long before the roles were reversed, with me asking the questions. Growing up, I learned, she would “constantly touch fascist German history abroad.” Traveling to Amsterdam at the age of 17, she experienced a great deal of anti-German sentiment, a sense of “still open hostility,” even though she had been born long after the end of World War II. She is happy that her 23-year-old son can discuss all of these issues—Jews, Germany’s war history— “more openly than we would, and not with this petrifaction that used to strike us.”

These are not the types of conversations that I regularly have with Germans in the 10 months I have lived here—at least not random ones I’ve just met. And so if engaging in such a worthwhile dialogue required my serving as a living, breathing museum exhibition for one hour, then it was worth it.


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Have you noticed a similarly unusual dynamic when sleeping or having a personal relationship with Germans? I don’t know if you’ve managed that yet Jamie, but I’m sure there are Jews in your social circle who have, Ask them about it – I’m pretty sure it would make for a great follow-up article.

    Moshan says:

    Agreed. There’s a lot of fraught psychological stuff going on in those kinds of relationships. At least from the hetero side from what I’ve read. I’ve seen Jewish men say that while they can have meaningful relationships or just sex with Germans, they want a specifically Jewish spouse. Many of the same people later break that promise for reasons that are interesting to explore for their own sake.

It’s Deb Kass who does the “parodies” of Warhol’s work. She just had another great show of Warhol-inspired works at Paul Kasmin last month!

Hanno Loewy says:

Sorry for disappointing New York’s metropolitan self esteem. But it was actually not an exhibition in New York that inspired the Berlin show. But an exhibition in the Jewish Museum Hohenems (Austria) last year, called “Everything you always wnated to know about Jews … but were afraid to ask”.

    shelbypanayotou says:

    my buddy’s sister makes $84/hour on the internet. She has been out of work for 8 months but last month her check was $19017 just working on the internet for a few hours. Read more on  Fab99.c­om

    Mihai-Robert Soran says:

    Happy for the opportunity to say HELLO to you, Hanno Loewy, from “our” Frankfurt!

Sandra Price says:

Fabulous article. Thank you for taking us through the exhibit. I’d love a follow-up with some Germans who attended. Jew in a Box inspired me too. You can read my short blog post here.

This exhibit definetely touched a nerve….growing up as a jewish lesbian , daughter of Holocaustbsurvivors,in Vienna, I often felt (and still feel) like an outsider.
My upcoming art exhibit at the Jewish Museum in Venice addresses these feelings.

    Gunrunner1 says:

    You probably feel like an outsider because you lead the introduction of yourself as “Hi, I am a Jewish Lesbian, daughter of holocaust survivors.” Imagine I was a black and I started every conversation with “Hi, I am a black sexual deviant whose great great grandparents were the sons and daughters of slaves.”

    Don’t you think that would be a conversation killer?

      Natan79 says:

      “Hi, my name is Gunrunner1 and I suck my dog’s dick right over the swastika I tattooed on his balls. When I get short of cash, I such other dog’s dick. It makes the dogs happy, and their owners too.”

    Gunrunner1 says:

    Of Course you feel like an outsider…duh! You are sexually less than 2% of the population, plus you are living in Christian Europe and you use you racial heritage to attract attention for your “Art” which frankly, sucks. Look, go to Israel, meet a nice man, have lots a children, get right with Johova or whatever and call when you feel better.

tendilla says:

I saw a long story about this exhibit on (American) TV. Some Germans claimed never to have seen or come into contact with a Jew and were asking very unusual questions…(paraphrased)…”Are you like regular normal people?”, “What do you eat?”, “Why are you always causing trouble”,….a little boy came up to the box and asked “Can I touch you?”

This proved extremely interesting and showed that the Jewish Organizations haven’t being getting out the word…”WE ARE JUST LIKE EVERYONE ELSE”!!!


This reminded me of an episode of the “This American Life” tv show from 2008 in which an Iraqi living in the USA agreed to sit in a booth in various public settings under a signe that said “Talk to an Iraqi” and answer questions from passersby. The interactions he had were fascinating and telling. Some people, instead of asking him questions more or less lectured him on his native country. More proof that Americans aren’t reserved like Germans I guess. Google “talk to an Iraqi” for the youtube link.

NepotismIsDomesticTerrorism says:

James Kirchick, again readily embracing his paranoid status as The Eternal Victim (with compensation offshore, of course, in any of three currencies deemed acceptable by his handlers).

xbox361 says:

1. do Jews believe in an afterlife?
2. what will happen if a new Temple is built in Jerusalem?
3. define who is a Jew

that’s my list of questions. I hope this is not inflammatory or misinterpreted. the article makes me wonder what i would ask and those were the first things i could think of. have known many Jewish people who were atheists, totally nonobservant. can someone be a former Jew, like former Catholic, or is it more of a racial or ethnic identity.

Glad to be a mongrel Americano

    oaklandj says:

    1. Yes but we don’t obsess about it like Christians and Muslims tend to. It’s vague speculation, but, importantly, we don’t believe Jews end up somewhere better/different from Gentiles. (Obviously, Christians and Muslims don’t believe similar things)
    2. That will happen in the Messianic era. A lot (LOT) of other things will have to happen for that to be the case.
    3. Someone who’s mother is Jewish (or at least one Jewish parent and was raised Jewishly, in Reform Judaism), or someone who formally converts to Judaism.
    You can’t stop being Jewish because it’s not paired with a dogma. If you stop believing in Jewish beliefs, you’re just a non-believing Jew. They are not unusual, and not controversial.
    Not a racial identity; there are Jews of all races. There are many ethnic/cultural Jewish groups – Ashkenazi, Sefardi, Mizrahi, Beta Israel, etc.

      holdmewhileimnaked says:

      3. ….is not enough. judaism must include the jews of the old left, people who were raised w/ no religion whatsoever. this is a forgotten population, i think, most of whom are dead. but not all of their children & grandchildren are gone & you exclude many of these when you exclude their ancestors.

      xbox361 says:

      thank you.

Gunrunner1 says:

But then how can there be such a thing as an “anti-Semite” if Semites are a known race, the race of the Jews. Jews don’t stone you if you speak against Jewish domination of the News and Movies as a “Jew Hater” but as a “Anti-Semite”. They categorize themselves as a race with DNA tests of immigrant people who claim jewish heritage, and even if you pass, inject sterilants into you even if you can prove Jewish heritage and you come from East Africa. In their very core they are a race that hides behind a religion, running the only Theocracy in the Western world.

So the Holocau$t thing isn’t making as much money as before, so now they feel isolated?

    Habbgun says:

    Ohh….lemme guess….lemme guess…..are you a rooster? No….Are you a leopard? No? Really I can do this.

    Wait !! I know….you’re bitter human trash!!!

    And here’s Don Pardo to let me know what I’ve won….

    Beatrix17 says:

    Have you been drinking? Again? Semites aren’t a race. Semites are a people that includes most Arabs who are supposedly descended from Shem. Most of us are white. The Mideast is loaded with Muslim theocracies. Jews are a nationality and a religion—you can be one without the other.

    There are successful people in the movies and news who are Jewish. You have the same opportunities they have—sorry you’re not making it. Even sadder is the fact that you never will.

      Gunrunner1 says:

      I am very sorry, but even the Jews themselves know this to be true. (See: ) I know that you are not very bright and this is a science I am referencing, but try.

        Natan79 says:

        That science is garbage. I say this as a geneticist. The author is a charlatan.

          Gunrunner1 says:

          Clean up your language, write an article and get it published, Mr. “Geneticist”. Don’t whine at the messenger.

          Beatrix17 says:

          That booze has really besotted your brain. If it’s written it, has to be true? Replace those torn shades with curtains and let some sunlight into that brain of yours.

          Ian Thal says:

          Would you say that it’s bad science or bad science journalism?

          Beatrix17 says:


        Sandra Price says:

        I’m sure that there is a black market in organs, and there might even be Jews (among others) involved, since, wherever you go, whatever you do, there are Jews there too. But I googled this story and cannot find a single credible news source with proof of this. Just a bunch of bloggers who want to believe this stuff. To me, it’s no different than believing that Jews use the blood of children (non-Jewish, of course) to make Matzah. This article is a confession of a journalist who reported the claim that he actually had no idea whether it was true or not. He wants to know, but doesn’t.

          Gunrunner1 says:

          Hi Sandra. I have no clue if it is true either. It seems unlikely, given the technical expertise needed to harvest organs, get a genetic match sufficient to expect long term viability, transplant and suppress the immune system, etc. Further, and speaking as an American living in the Homeland, “Palestinians” are willing to strap bombs to their children for their cause and follow a reprobate like Y. Arafat out of their hatred of the Jews. It is likely propaganda. Why do you ask?

      Ian Thal says:

      “Anti-Semite” was the term that Jew-haters chose to describe themselves back in the 19th century. The term stuck. They never meant to apply it to other related ethnic groups. In fact, historically speaking, many self-described anti-Semites were pro-Arab.

      So let’s not confuse things.

herbcaen says:

The Berlin Jewish museum is a creepy place, with a gift shop well stocked with anti-zionist texts, and the setting of a boycott Israel rally led by a gay enthusiast of Hamas and Hezbollah, Judith von Butler. Jews in Germany have the opinion- we feel guilty to the Germans because we remind themselves of the Holocaust, so we apologize. It takes a twisted Jew to live in Germany today, so any Jew living in Germany probably has a DSM IV qualifying diagnosis

    Mihai-Robert Soran says:

    Dear Tablet, please allow me to call “herbcaen” an idiot best characterized in DSM IV, whose retarded brains are filled with ultra-nationalist, utra-Zionist trash emanating from the same ideologic corner in which Nazism, the German insane fascism, was born.
    As Jewish Germans we are proud of our history, our contribution to civilization and of our present.

Really interesting. Makes me think of earlier work Guillermo Gómez-Peña, Roberto Sifuentes, Coco Fusco, & friends (see for starters)

Damien Hurst began a trend when he put a shark in formaldehyde : . Tilda Swinton continued it when she slept in a box:… Now we have a Jew sitting in a box. One notes that grades of animation are increasing with each exhibition. Next up: a song-and-dance?

Damien Hurst began a trend when he put a shark in formaldehyde : . Tilda Swinton continued it when she slept in a box:… Now we have a Jew sitting in a box. One notes that grades of animation are increasing with each exhibition. Next up: a song-and-dance?

moshe blei says:

stupid idea, stupid article. want to be loved by germans?

Carol says:

My first thought when I saw the title of this article was, “Is the glass bullet-proof?”

Mihai-Robert Soran says:

@James Kirchick (“Cilly Kugelmann, the museum’s program director,
dismissed such characterizations when I spoke to her yesterday and
described the container as a “vitrine,” a French word used to describe
an elegant glass-paneled cabinet to display objets d’art.”)
Cilly should better stick with the best French dictionary, Larousse:
primarily a vitrine is a “Partie d’un magasin séparée de la rue par un vitrage et où l’on expose des objets à vendre.” (part of a shop separated from the street by a glass window where objects for sale are presented). In other words people come into the exhibition and do “window shopping” when they look at the “Jew in the box” …
In German it is a “Schaufenster” … And the Jew is a “Schaufensterjude”. Yeah …

BTW: Cilly Kugelmann and the other three (THREE! ) curators, as well as the other officials of the Jewish Museum Berlin should mention in a more visible and audible way that the exhibition was created in cooperation with the Jewish Museum Hohenems (Austria) where exactly one year ago an exhibition with same idea, almost same title, same main scenario but only 23 questions instead of the 32 (sic) ) in Berlin was created by Hanno Loewy and Hannes Sulzenbacher as curators of the Hohenems Museum … Cilly should tell the truth, instead of of using the false claim that “The Whole Truth” was inspired by a 1996 exhibit at New York’s Jewish Museum, “Too Jewish.” I almost suspect that she has either never seen the NY exhibition or that her memories got mixed up.

    Hanno Loewy says:

    We don’t know what Cilly told, we only know what our friend from Tablet made of it. I guess he did not know “Hohenems” (“how the hell you pronounce that?”) and made the hint to the New York exhibition in 1996 (by the way that really was an important exhibition) a bit more of “the story” – anyhow everything good has to begin in New York.


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Being the Jew in the Box

To have conversations with Germans about Jews, I had to become an exhibition at Berlin’s Jewish Museum