Aired April 14, 2013 on Dave’s Gone By. Youtube clip: http://youtu.be/r95LRvs7oUk
Shalom Dammit! This is Rabbi Sol Solomon with a Rabbinical Reflection for the week of April 14th, 2013.
What’s even creepier than a jack-in-the-box? A Jew-in-a-box. What’s creepier than a Jew-in-a-box? A Jew in a box in a museum in Germany. No, they’re not doing a revival of “Man in the Glass Booth” – though they should, because I hear Gilbert Gottfried is available. No, instead, the Jewish Museum in Berlin – I know, Berlin is a Jewish Museum, or is that mausoleum? – anyhow, the Jewish Museum of Berlin has an exhibit about Jews called “The Whole Truth.” And they’ve got funny yarmulkes and displays about Kosher cooking and circumcisions – hopefully not the same display.
But the exhibit garnering the most attention and controversy – to the point that the New York Times featured it last week – was of a live Jewish man sitting in a glass box. This young man sits on a little cushion, takes questions, and is just observed by visitors to the museum. Responses to this bit of performance art ranged from whimsical appreciation to scoffs about bad taste. One woman said her ancestors spent enough time in German boxcars, she didn’t need to see a living Jew in a terrarium.
I am mostly on the side of the museum in this. I’m for anything that rubs the Germans’ faces in Forties. But the exhibit also asks a legitimate question: after the Holocaust and the near-annihilation of every Jew in the region, how does the country respond to a new crop of Yiddlach living and working in their midst?
You might ask: Rabbi, aren’t you shocked by the idea of displaying a middle-class Jew in a Lucite case, or, as one might call it, Peasant Under Glass? The answer is no. Every other city has a Holocaust museum now. Pretty soon they’ll have drive-in McDachaus. So to make an impact, you need to do something startling and transgressive. Let’s not forget, the Shoah began in earnest on Kristallnacht – the night of broken glass. So putting a Jew behind glass has a little bit of the “nyah nyah nyah nyah nyah, you can’t get me” about it.
More importantly, though, isolating the Jewish person this way makes a statement about how people of any culture view outsiders. Pass by a bum sleeping on the streets of New York; how do you look at him? Kind of like a tarantula in a zoo exhibit. It’s ugly, unsettling, fascinating from a distance, but you wouldn’t want to find it in your bathroom. Go look at the crowds in San Francisco’s Chinatown. If you’re Chinese, they’re kin; if you’re not Chinese, it’s like watching ants. Well, slant ants. And how do WASPs look at Somalian workers in Colorado? The same way Jews look at shikses in Loehmann’s. Aliens among us.
Put another way, we’re all living under someone else’s glass box. Say you’re a stranger knocking on my container, and you say, “Hi. Tell me about yourself.” We might start talking and sharing experiences until – gasp, great revelation – you’re just like me, and I’m just like you – well, maybe not exactly like you because I have a foot fungus thing that my dermatologist is checking into, but other than that . . .
I do think the Jewish Museum in Berlin missed an opportunity with “The Whole Truth” if they’re trying to display an average Jew. For sociological purposes, why not put the Hebrew in his natural habitat? Don’t plunk him in a sterile cube, show him in a delicatessen asking for more coleslaw. Show him at an Orioles game deciding whether to go to the bathroom at the bottom of the sixth or wait till the seventh-inning stretch. Show him at a Young Israel mixer deciding whether the girl with the diet Coke is worth dancing with or should he take a run at the skinnier chick who’ll probably shoot him down but just might be on the rebound and therefore needy. These are the true quandaries facing Jews in the modern age.
Should the museum ever ask me, I would be happy to participate in their exhibit, even in the glass box. Just give me a plate of herring, a Dr. Brown’s cream and a five-ounce nasal spray, and let the young Berliners come. If they ask me, “What is it like being a Jew in today’s Germany?” I would just say, “Wouldn’t your great grandparents like to know.”
This has been a Rabbinical Reflection from Rabbi Sol Solomon, Temple Sons of Bitches in Great Neck, New York.
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