Conversion and Controversy

Why a particular subject captures the interest of the public at a given time is not always immediately apparent. Conversion, for instance, has become the topic of conferences, lectures and exhibits in German-speaking Europe without any notable change in its social significance nor religious practice.

Picture iMarilyn Monroe on the cover of the Modern Screen Magazine

Picture in the current special exhibition “The Whole Truth” accompanying the question: Jew or non-Jew? Marilyn Monroe on the cover of the Modern Screen Magazine, November 1956
© Jewish Museum Berlin, photo: Jens Ziehe

The number of converts to Judaism is invariably small. According to the data collected by the Zentralwohlfahrtsstelle der Juden in Deutschland, on average 64 conversions are carried out yearly in the various German-Jewish communities, and since the year 2000, the number has remained fairly stable. Nor has the size of the Jewish communities varied much. For over a decade, the number of members has stabilized at around 105.000. In relation to the size of the community, the total number of converts since 1990, 1.366, makes up under one percent of the Jewish community. The number of Jews leaving the communities is slightly higher, around one hundred a year, yet the number is not particularly meaningful, because it includes people who leave for all sorts of reasons, including financial. By all accounts, today’s Jewish converts are a minute and exotic minority.

Yet the topic is currently being discussed with much enthusiasm.  continue reading


The Involuntary Moose and Other Metamorphoses

drawing of a pendant with the Hebrew letters Chet and Yod

The Involuntary Moose

Last summer, a snigger went viral in the Jewish online community when an eBay entrepreneur posted a pendant of a Navajo moose. Labeled a “Unique Vintage Navajo Moose 925 Sterling Silver Pendant, marking 0.8 grams,” the trinket for sale was in fact a Jewish amulet depicting the Hebrew word “chai” for “life/living.” The motif is popular in Jewish jewelry. It consists of the two letters chet and yod and is not commonly mistaken for an animal. But this particular example simplified the letters and joined them together, which made them appear, quite truly, like an antlered moose in Native American style.  continue reading


New Forms of Protest

Last summer, the Korean musician PSY sang out in protest against consumerism in Gangnam, a posh district in Seoul. His video shows him dancing, as if on a horse, in front of wealthy-looking men and scantily-clad women. For reasons only posterity may help us to understand, Gangnam Style became Youtube’s most frequently watched video clip. A series of parodies were produced by groups as far distant from Gangnam – geographically and ideologically – as NASA and Greenpeace.

Gangnam-style protest reached the art world with particular fervour. Chinese activist Ai Weiwei released a Gangnam Style video in protest of censorship in his country. Reacting to this video, Jewish-Indian artist Anish Kapoor – whose works are on display starting 18 May 2013 at the Martin-Gropius-Bau, Berlin – animated art museums in England and the USA to shoot a video in support of Ai Weiwei. Shortly thereafter, the Philadelphia Art Museum posted a video with its staff members dancing to the Gangnam tune, though their object of contention is not immediately apparent:
 continue reading