At the German capital's Jewish Museum, the starting point for are anonymous questions from ordinary visitors -- and a sense of humor.
BERLIN - In 1931, a year after the Nazi Party had won 18% of the vote and 107 seats in the Reichstag national assembly, composer Friedrich Hollaender wrote a song that reflected the increasing hatred of Jews in Germany.
Intended to be light and witty, and sung to the tune of the “Habanera” aria from the opera Carmen, the song blames Jews for just about everything under the sun -- from the weather to the unpleasant effects it can produce: sweating, freezing, coughing, sneezing – it’s all the Jews fault!
Hollaender (himself of Jewish descent, who ended up fleeing from the Nazis in 1933) had hoped that the song, which was first performed in his Berlin cabaret, would soon be on everyone’s lips and that the sheer ludicrousness of its claims would highlight the wrongheadedness of anti-Semitism.
It did become a major hit -- but not for the reason the composer intended. It was sung by rich and poor alike all over Berlin like some sort of anti-Jewish anthem. Organizations like the Central Union of German Citizens of the Jewish Faith denounced it as “repulsive” and a “textbook example” of the sort of distortion the most fervid anti-Semites would come up with.
Eighty-two years later, the song is making a comeback at the center of an exhibition organized by the Jewish Museum in Berlin called “The Whole Truth … Everything You Ever Wanted To Know About Jews.” The questions that the show addresses aren’t just any old random questions, but questions left by the hundreds of thousands of visitors to the museum -- both in question boxes in the museum itself and on its Internet site -- sifted through and selected by the exhibit curators.
One could get a little nasty here and point out that any visitor who makes his or her way through this extraordinary museum –- whose exhibits so admirably illustrate that you can’t clump “Jewishness” together -– can still drop a question in the question box like: ”Do Jews have a particularly good nose for business?” These kinds of visitors are not likely to learn much from this small temporary exhibition. Prejudices are like cockroaches, you just can’t get rid of them.
But thankfully the museum was not thinking along these lines and developed this exhibition which, in its seven rooms, asks 32 questions and answers them with deftness and humor. They range from: “Are Jews the chosen people?” to “Are there still Jews in Germany?” and “What do Jews do for Christmas?” to “Are Jews allowed to get tattoos?”
One interesting thing is that no one asked what would seem to be an obvious question: “What’s the difference between a Jewish and a non-Jewish mother?” Actually, I know the answer to that one from experience: The non-Jewish mother says to her kids: “If you don’t finish everything on your plate I’m going to kill you!” The Jewish mother, instead, threatens to kill herself. This question would have fit in perfectly with the show because none of the issues are dealt with in a dry and serious way -- in fact, the tongue-in-cheek humor shines all the way through.
To answer the question of how one becomes a Jew, the curators chose Sammy Davis Jr. as an example. He converted to Judaism after a car accident and was faithful for the rest of his life. His menorah (seven-armed candelabrum) is on display in the exhibition. Another example is Marilyn Monroe, who underwent rituals such as full immersion in water as part of her conversion when she married American playwright Arthur Miller.
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Sammy Davis Jr. Photo by Alan Light
Quotations from Jewish scholars are reproduced on the walls that explain the different formal steps for conversion, but they’re kept light, like David Ben-Gurion’s: “I consider anyone a Jew who’s meshugenah (crazy) enough to call themselves one."
The exhibit’s underlying message unfolds as one wanders through the rooms: Jewishness is like the eternal dialogue between the ego and the self: arguments and counter-arguments that can stand up to contradiction because there are no absolute truths and therefore no one is or isn’t “right.”
This is cemented in the video room which features films of seven rabbis of different strains of the faith who all answer the same questions completely differently, even though they all based their answers on the same texts from the Bible or Talmud.
This exhibition successfully allows the huge diversity of Jewish life to be seen and -- in true Friedrich Hollaender style -- the curators use a defiant, and occasionally disrespectful, style to deal with issues that are serious at their core.
The only slightly strange thing I found was a glass case in the last exhibition room in which an actual living Jew can be observed and asked questions by the visitors. The exhibit organizers are playing here with a discomfort that many Germans display when they talk to, or about, Jews. Whether it should be there or not is a personal opinion; I would have preferred it not to be. But, it probably would have pleased Friedrich Hollaender.
The Whole Truth … Everything You Ever Wanted To Know About Jews, until September 1, 2013, at Berlin’s Jewish Museum.