I’d like to preface today’s post by saying that while I *wish* this were some sort of April Fool’s Day joke, it is not.
A friend just sent me this article about a controversial art installation in Germany. In this installation, now informally dubbed “Jew in a Box,” visitors can see, encased in glass, a living person of Jewish descent. They can ask that person questions about what it’s like to be a Jew in Germany, about Jewish beliefs – anything they have ever wanted to ask a Jewish person, they can pose the question to a Jew in a box.
When my friend (who is not Jewish) sent me this article, her email asked me just one question: “How do you feel about this?”
My immediate response to her, after reading the article, was “SO FREAKING WEIRD.”
There is something deeply unsettling to me about this exhibit – this stark presentation of “us” and “them”; a venue where people are literally put in boxes. I read the curator’s rationale, about how this will catch folks’ attention, and be in their face, and give Germans a chance to interact with a real, live Jew.
But is this the sort of interaction we want?
Why not actual interaction? Something more organic, and less disparate? Jewish docents, perhaps? Moderated conversations? An exchange, even if it’s still in-your-face? As an educator, it seems counter-intuitive to me to humanize someone, or some group, by putting an actual wall between people. It seems to me that this does not emphasize unique-ness, but other-ness. And isn’t that the problem Germany is still painfully recovering from, decades later?
I also had to wonder why on earth someone would get in the box. Who would volunteer? Luckily, the article covers this, with a volunteer Jew-in-a-box describing why he is participating in the installation:
“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.”
I considered this. After all, I live in Jackson, Mississippi. I have been several people’s FJF (First Jewish Friend, y’all). I’ve had to answer questions about Jewish culture and religion, although I’m quick to point out that I can’t speak for all Jews. In other words, yes. I do understand what it’s like to feel ‘outed’ as a Jew in a place where we are so few. I do understand what it means to “feel inevitably like an exhibition piece,” as the installation volunteer puts it – but that doesn’t mean I would want to actually be an exhibition piece.
Still – this exhibition is resonating with some folks, even as it irks others. And here’s the real kicker, in case you didn’t already click on the link and read the whole article already – what museum is hosting this exhibit?
The Jewish Museum. And the curator, Miriam Goldmann, is Jewish.
By the way, the actual name of the exhibit is “The Whole Truth: Everything you always wanted to know about Jews,” and in addition to live people in boxes, it includes installation such as a wall posing the question How Can You Recognize a Jew?, with hats and yarmulkes and “traditional Jewish garb” on display in front of the wall.
The whole truth? How can you recognize a Jew? It reminds me of the last time I went to a zoo, and the various species of birds and monkeys were being described. The more I read about it and the more I thought about it, the more my initial reaction seems to sum it up: SO. FREAKING. WEIRD.
And more than that – a little frightening.
What do you think? Share your thoughts in the comments below…
On a recent pit stop I made in a rural part of Tennessee, I found an unexpected statement. There, in the “middle-of-somewhere,” I came across a plastic toilet-paper dispenser with the words “The Jew Was Here” scrawled across it. Seeing this scrawl, a question barked at me.
But “ Why in the world…?!” was not the question I heard.
After all, when you see a simple message like that, why ask why? It seems human enough to want to leave a lasting mark on this world, so that when our finite lives come to their inescapable end, something of us will remain, something that says: “I was here. I mattered.”
However, a statement like “The Jew Was Here,” left on a roadside toilet-paper dispenser may not be the lasting message we desire. Those who come later will undoubtedly question: “What does it say about the person who was here, some person now gone?”
Does it say that his/her life was as fragile as single-ply or simply went round and round until it finally went down?
Clearly, not! And the reason I’m dead certain of this is because the entirety of anyone’s life cannot be captured in such a quick scribble as “I was here.” Rather, to adequately gain a glimpse of our existence, one must look to things more lasting. We must look to the children we teach, and the love we share, and the lessons we impart. We must look to our communities strengthened and our contributions made. Those places are where the impression of us remains, and will – God willing – continue to be seen for generations to come.
So, in the public restroom in Tennessee, the question I walked out of the stall with was not “why” but “what?”
What shall be the mark we will leave? Shall it be a scrawled graffiti scar, which time (and a little elbow-grease) will eventually erase? Or, will it be a work of art, celebrated throughout the ages?
That is up to you. After all, your life is a pen, moving over the living, breathing text known as the world. So, please, step right up and leave your mark, because you are here… and you matter!
By Education Fellow Reva Frankel
Tomorrow brings the end of Black History Month. Most often when we discuss the Jewish connection to this month, we think of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel or other notable Jews involved in the civil rights movement. Rarely do we think back to those Jews, like so many southerners at the time, who owned slaves before the civil war, or the small number of enslaved African Americans who adopted the religion of their captors.
Mathew Lopez’s riveting play, The Whipping Man, explores the lives of these Jews—both enslavers and enslaved—and I had the chance to see it in Charlotte, where it will run through March 9th. The play is set in a dilapidated home in Richmond, Virginia, following the end of the Civil War. Caleb, a wounded Jewish Confederate soldier, returns home to find two former slaves there, Simon and John, who are also Jewish. They must rely on each other, while also figuring out how to relate to each other as equals.
The story itself is captivating, but the larger ideas discussed are what make this play simultaneously horrifying, fascinating and beautiful. The play deals directly with the conflict of Southern and Jewish identities by addressing the inconsistency of Jewish values and the way masters often treated their slaves. It also deals with loss of faith due to war. One thing I loved is that there are many frank discussions about what it means to be enslaved and what it means to be a Jewish slave with a Jewish master.
Just one small spoiler: there is a hilarious scene when all three characters try horse meat (which is not kosher) for the first time.
I highly recommend seeing this play. If you are in the South, you can see The Whipping Man currently in Norfolk, Virginia, through March 17th and in Atlanta March 8th–April 7th. Visit the playwright’s website to see all upcoming and current productions, and/or to buy the script.