How do you know if someone is Jewish? How can you become Jewish yourself? Are Jews good businesspeople? Are you allowed to make jokes about the Holocaust? Do Jews believe in Satan?
Beginning on 22 March, thirty questions such as these have been guiding visitors through the exhibition “The Whole Truth … everything you always wanted to know about Jews” at the Jewish Museum Berlin.
According to a museum press release, these are questions that visitors would like to see answered by a Jewish museum and ones that adults and school students wish to put to Jews. Over a period of several months, they were chosen from the many questions that repeatedly crop up in forums and museum guest books and are fielded by museum staff.
Each of the questions is answered by an installation that links objects, quotations and texts. Visitors are not given a clear or “correct” answer. Instead, depending on the speaker or context, they are presented with a variety of perspectives. The exhibition features a total of 180 contemporary artworks, religious objects and items from everyday life. They provide insight into Jewish thought, debates among Jews on Jewish identity and the relationship between Jews and their non-Jewish environment.
The section devoted to the question “Are there still Jews in Germany?” presents a highly unusual “exhibit.” At set times, a Jewish guest will take his or her seat in a real showcase and, if desired, respond to questions and comments from the visitors.
With this idea, the organizers are taking up the gauntlet that critics of Jewish museums have thrown down at the feet of the museums’ founders. The substance of this criticism: Jewish museums could unethically use Jews as “exhibition objects” and subject them to voyeuristic curiosity. Others believe 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.
After the opening of the Jewish Museum Berlin, in 2001, for example, journalist Richard C. Schneider commented on his own position as a Jew, saying: “I am a living exhibition object. People … who in their contact with me are encountering a Jew for the first time in their lives, tend to react with confusion. … Suddenly I am seen as in a showcase, as a rare example of a species under glass, which one does not actually know, but thinks one does.” Searching for the “whole truth,” visitors now have the opportunity to confront their confused feelings about Jews.
Using coins, visitors can vote on whether they think Jews are particularly good businesspeople, intelligent, attractive or fond of animals. The results of this vote are shown at the end of the exhibition.
The exhibition even raises the sensitive question “Are you allowed to make jokes about the Holocaust?” Excerpts from American comedy series show that in the U.S. it is possible to make jokes that only German-Jewish standup comedian Oliver Polak (“I came here by train today, it’s a family tradition”) would dare to tell in Germany. Visitors can decide for themselves whether the humor crosses certain boundaries or whether laughter is permissible.
The quotations and exhibits revolving around the question “Do Germany and Israel have a special relationship?” offer a small curiosity cabinet of German-Israeli relations. For instance, displayed next to a gift presented by the Israeli state to Federal President Joachim Gauck, visitors find the famous Luxembourg reparations agreement of 1952 with the signatures of foreign ministers Konrad Adenauer and Moshe Sharett. Contrasting with these objects are the exhibits focusing on “master chef” Thomas Franz, who became the best-known German in Israel overnight after winning a cooking competition against an Arab nurse and an orthodox Jewish housewife.