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"All You Wanted To Know About Jews" - Berlin Exhibit Tackles Touchy, Funny Questions

At the German capital's Jewish Museum, the starting point for are anonymous questions from ordinary visitors  -- and a sense of humor.

And what's up with those matzah balls!?
And what's up with those matzah balls!?
Jacques Schuster

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.

Mother jokes

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.

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.

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Society

The Food Truck, A Sign That The White And Wealthy Are Moving In

In San Diego, California, a researcher tracked how in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked dining options, when interesting eateries arrive the gentrification of white, affluent and college-educated people has begun.

Balboa Park Spring Fling Food Truck festival

San Diego Food Trucks via Facebook
Pascale Joassart-Marcelli

SAN DIEGO — Everybody, it seems, welcomes the arrival of new restaurants, cafés, food trucks and farmers markets.

What could be the downside of fresh veggies, homemade empanadas and a pop-up restaurant specializing in banh mis?

But when they appear in unexpected places – think inner-city areas populated by immigrants – they're often the first salvo in a broader effort to rebrand and remake the community. As a result, these neighborhoods can quickly become unaffordable and unrecognizable to longtime residents.

An appetite for gentrification

I live in San Diego, where I teach courses on urban and food geographies and conduct research on the relationship between food and ethnicity in urban contexts.

In recent years, I started to notice a pattern playing out in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked food options. More ethnic restaurants, street vendors, community gardens and farmers markets were cropping up. These, in turn, spurred growing numbers of white, affluent and college-educated people to venture into areas they had long avoided.

This observation inspired me to write a book, titled The $16 Taco, about how food – including what's seen as "ethnic," "authentic" or "alternative" – often serves as a spearhead for gentrification.

Take City Heights, a large multi-ethnic San Diego neighborhood where successive waves of refugees from places as far away as Vietnam and Somalia have resettled. In 2016, a dusty vacant lot on the busiest boulevard was converted into an outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44. There, food vendors gather in semi-permanent stalls to sell pupusas, lechon (roasted pig), single-sourced cold-brewed coffee, cupcakes and tamarind raspado (crushed ice) to neighborhood residents, along with tourists and visitors from other parts of the city.

Informal street vendors are casualties.

A public-private partnership called the City Heights Community Development Corporation, together with several nonprofits, launched the initiative to increase "access to healthy and culturally appropriate food" and serve as "a business incubator for local micro-entrepreneurs," including immigrants and refugees who live in the neighborhood.

On paper, this all sounds great.

But just a few blocks outside the gates, informal street vendors – who have long sold goods such as fruit, tamales and ice cream to residents who can't easily access supermarkets – now face heightened harassment. They've become causalities in a citywide crackdown on sidewalk vending spurred by complaints from business owners and residents in more affluent areas.

This isn't just happening in San Diego. The same tensions have been playing out in rapidly gentrifying areas like Los Angeles' Boyle Heights neighborhood, Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood, New York's Queens borough and East Austin, Texas.

In all of these places, because "ethnic," "authentic" and "exotic" foods are seen as cultural assets, they've become magnets for development.

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

A call for food justice

Cities and neighborhoods have long sought to attract educated and affluent residents – people whom sociologist Richard Florida dubbed "the creative class." The thinking goes that these newcomers will spend their dollars and presumably contribute to economic growth and job creation.

Food, it seems, has become the perfect lure.

It's uncontroversial and has broad appeal. It taps into the American Dream and appeals to the multicultural values of many educated, wealthy foodies. Small food businesses, with their relatively low cost of entry, have been a cornerstone of ethnic entrepreneurship in American cities. And initiatives like farmers markets and street fairs don't require much in the way of public investment; instead, they rely on entrepreneurs and community-based organizations to do the heavy lifting.

In City Heights, the Community Development Corporation hosted its first annual City Heights Street Food Festival in 2019 to "get people together around table and food stalls to celebrate another year of community building." Other recent events have included African Restaurant Week, Dia de Los Muertos, New Year Lunar Festival, Soul Food Fest and Brazilian Carnival, all of which rely on food and drink to attract visitors and support local businesses.

Meanwhile, initiatives such as the New Roots Community Farm and the City Heights Farmers' Market have been launched by nonprofits with philanthropic support in the name of "food justice," with the goal of reducing racial disparities in access to healthy food and empowering residents – projects that are particularly appealing to highly educated people who value diversity and democracy.

Upending an existing foodscape

In media coverage of changing foodscapes in low-income neighborhoods like City Heights, you'll rarely find any complaints.

San Diego Magazine's neighborhood guide for City Heights, for example, emphasizes its "claim to authentic international eats, along with live music venues, craft beer, coffee, and outdoor fun." It recommends several ethnic restaurants and warns readers not to be fooled by appearances.

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against the "urban food machine"

But that doesn't mean objections don't exist.

Many longtime residents and small-business owners – mostly people of color and immigrants – have, for decades, lived, worked and struggled to feed their families in these neighborhoods. To do so, they've run convenience stores, opened ethnic restaurants, sold food in parks and alleys and created spaces to grow their own food.

All represent strategies to meet community needs in a place mostly ignored by mainstream retailers.

So what happens when new competitors come to town?

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

Starting at a disadvantage

As I document in my book, these ethnic food businesses, because of a lack of financial and technical support, often struggle to compete with new enterprises that feature fresh façades, celebrity chefs, flashy marketing, bogus claims of authenticity and disproportionate media attention. Furthermore, following the arrival of more-affluent residents, existing ones find it increasingly difficult to stay.

My analysis of real estate ads for properties listed in City Heights and other gentrifying San Diego neighborhoods found that access to restaurants, cafés, farmers markets and outdoor dining is a common selling point. The listings I studied from 2019 often enticed potential buyers with lines like "shop at the local farmers' market," "join food truck festivals" and "participate in community food drives!"

San Diego Magazine's home buyer guide for the same year identified City Heights as an "up-and-coming neighborhood," attributing its appeal to its diverse population and eclectic "culinary landscape," including several restaurants and Fair@44.

When I see that City Heights' home prices rose 58% over the past three years, I'm not surprised.

Going up against the urban food machine

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against what I call the "urban food machine," a play on sociologist Harvey Molotch's "urban growth machine" – a term he coined more than 50 years ago to explain how cities were being shaped by a loose coalition of powerful elites who sought to profit off urban growth.

I argue that investors and developers use food as a tool for achieving the same ends.

When their work is done, what's left is a rather insipid and tasteless neighborhood, where foodscapes become more of a marketable mishmash of cultures than an ethnic enclave that's evolved organically to meet the needs of residents. The distinctions of time and place start to blur: An "ethnic food district" in San Diego looks no different than one in Chicago or Austin.

Meanwhile, the routines and rhythms of everyday life have changed so much that longtime residents no longer feel like they belong. Their stories and culture reduced to a selling point, they're forced to either recede to the shadows or leave altogether.

It's hard to see how that's a form of inclusion or empowerment.The Conversation

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Pascale Joassart-Marcelli is a Professor of Geography and Director, Urban Studies and Food Studies Programs at San Diego State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


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