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Exhibition takes Jewish-German ties to task

Germany's relationship to Jews has been said to be "malfunctioning." A divisive exhibition at Berlin's Jewish Museum sheds light on the misunderstandings between Germans and Jews - and provides a platform for questions.

Ido Porat, a 33-year-old Israeli Jew, is sitting in a glass cabinet in room number seven at the exhibition. The sign at the base of the cabinet reads: "Are there still any Jews in Germany?"

Porat is a living, breathing answer to that question. He is part of the "Jew in a Box" exhibit that's been causing a stir in Germany and abroad. Visitors can ask him the questions that they're otherwise too embarrassed or afraid to ask. In some cases, he might be the first Jew they've ever met.

Porat, who otherwise works as a guide at the museum, appears unfazed. He smiles encouragingly at visitors and sometimes stands next to the open glass cabinet, just for a change.

"Dialogue" is a keyword Porat uses a lot. Now and then, Germans need to learn to be open to new things, he says: "It's OK to ask questions."

That's exactly the attitude the exhibition hopes to foster. In the seven exhibition rooms, visitors can find 32 questions printed on pink funnels.

Through entries in the guestbook and the stories relayed by staff members over the years, Berlin's Jewish Museum has compiled the insecurities that many Germans have. But it also provides answers to basic questions about Jewish religion and culture: What is the meaning behind menorahs, the Star of David and mezuzahs? What makes food kosher?

Interior view of the exhbition The Whole Truth at Berlin's Jewish Museum showing a visitor sitting before a wall covered with questions written by other visitors

At the end of the exhibition, visitors can write down their own questions and stick them on the wall

Is it OK to say 'Jew'?

Other questions are more complex. Is it OK to make jokes about the Holocaust? Is it OK to use the word "Jew"? Responses to these questions are presented in images, quotes, films and household objects in an often ironic but never defensive or definitive way.

Whether or not the book can be closed on the Holocaust is explored in a large-format photograph. It shows Rina (78) and Herbert (86) seated in their kitchen. Hanging on the wall above the kitchen table is a picture of the gateway to the Auschwitz concentration camp.

Herbert is a Holocaust survivor. In this way, visitors' questions are thrown back at them, highlighting the fact that the questions often reveal more about the person asking them than anything else.

Julius H. Schoeps, the director of the Moses Mendelssohn Center for European-Jewish Studies in Potsdam, believes that the relationship between Germans and Jews is marked by anomalies.

There may be a new openness toward to Jewish culture, but for the large part it's superficial. Schoeps calls it "folklore culture."

People may think the musical "Fiddler on the Roof" is great and enjoy listening to klezmer music, but it's a virtual world "which doesn't need any Jews, none that are living."

The original Reparations Agreement between Israel and West Germany.

The original Reparations Agreement between Israel and West Germany is also part of the exhibition

Such snippets of culture don't provide any sense of normalcy, he adds. Schoeps talks about the fact that the press calls the Central Council of Jews for responses to right-wing extremism - not the head of the police or the Interior Ministry. "Those are such typical mechanisms of a malfunctioning relationship," he says.

Not 'the whole truth'

There are many reasons behind Germany's "malfunctioning" relationship with Judaism, in part having to do with the fact that certain aspects of German history from the period between 1933 and 1945 have not yet been dealt with.

Provocative questions, then, become all the more important. Schoeps points to the example of the question of the Catholic Church's complicity in the Holocaust, which isn't addressed in the exhibition.

Another problem is that there are very few Jews in Germany today - just around 200,000 - and very few people can count Jewish people among their circle of friends, colleagues or acquaintances.

Martina Lüdicke, one of the three curators of the exhibition, knows that the normalcy of Jewish life in Germany can't be prescribed. She hopes that visitors to the exhibition will return home with a new perspective on Jewish life and culture and maybe think twice about their own preconceptions - even when there are no easy answers to be found.

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