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…
The image above comes from a collection of photographs and papers that belonged to Adele Marcus of Pine Bluff, Arkansas. According to the narrative sent by her cousin, Adele was the daughter of Lithuanian and Russian immigrants, and lived in Pine Bluff her entire life, from 1914-2000. We have a dozen of her papers from religious school, an Arkansas Jewish Assembly program in Hot Springs and her high school diploma. Like most of our collections, we also inherited a handful of unmarked photographs.
Investigating and interpreting unlabeled photographs is both a challenge and a pleasure for museum professionals and other scholars. This one in particular (M. Wiesman? Hanging bananas? Feather head dress!?) , inspired me to use it as a teaching example on how to think critically about historical images. I like to engage students in “Be the Historian!” activities that incorporate artifacts, photos and documents to uncover stories from the past.
A favorite resource I use is called Artful Thinking and comes from Project Zero at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. They have developed teaching methods to help teachers use works of visual art and music in their curricula in ways that strengthen student thinking and learning. While these techniques were developed for young students to think critically about art, I’ve found that the same “thinking routines” can be adapted for studying historical photographs.
Used on a regular basis, a routine like the one below not only teaches critical thinking but also encourages students to make a habit of it.
I SEE / I THINK / I WONDER
Use the following series of questions to help explore this photo.
What do you see?
What do you think?
What do you wonder?
This set of questions helps guide students towards an understanding of what they are looking at. They can make make careful observations, thoughtful interpretations and stimulate curiosity for future learning.
So now great internet community of learners, it’s your turn! Try it out!
Click on the image to make it larger, stare into those Jewish merchants’ faces and be a part of the discussion here by answering the three questions. With enough seeing, thinking and wondering we will be able to better understand who these people were, what their community was like and how their experiences might relate to our own lives.
I was in North Mississippi, visiting my husband’s family for the first time over Thanksgiving when I first heard about “the blind.” Being Jewish and from the North I had never heard this term, but after lunch we drove through the eerily empty and beautiful delta fields out to his father’s duck blind. It was a camouflaged hideout, made to fit eight people and two dogs. They had flooded the field to attract ducks flying south for winter and filled the water with elaborate decoys that, with a flip of a switch flapped their wings, signaling to ducks flying overhead that this was a safe place to land. When I asked about the small camp stove, I learned that the space served more as a clubhouse on early weekend mornings than a place for serious hunting.
I was reminded of that blind when I first spotted this beautifully crafted decoy in our museum collection. Created as a commemorative piece, it’s not bound for the flooded fields, but lives in our collection instead, as a symbol of both Jewish and Southern heritage.
This duck comes from a synagogue in Vicksburg, Mississippi. Vickburg’s Anshe Chesed dedicated their first house of worship in 1870. Like all great southern celebrations, the program began with a parade from the B’nai B’rith hall to the new temple, led by a police escort and Jaeger’s Brass Band from New Orleans. The congregation spent over 100 years in the building until the late 1960s, when they decided to move out of downtown and build a smaller temple. Their original building was torn down.
Before the old synagogue came down, though, congregants wanted keep something to remember it by. I can’t imagine a more perfect way to honor an important southern institution than to manifest it in this traditional art form.
Congregants Benji and Betty Lee Grundfest Lamensdorf had a set of these wonderful decoys carved from the wood remnants of the temple, and one of them made its way into our collection. They serve as a reminder of what Jewish life once was, and still is in Vicksburg. The congregation, now over 160 years old, has shrunk significantly, but they still hold lay-led services and social gathering on most Shabbats. You might say these birds of a feather have done a great job sticking together, and we hope they continue to do so for many more Shabbats to come.