Say Shibboleth!

A Munich exhibition by an Israeli curator examines both visible and invisible borders

July 31, 2019 13:54
4 minute read.
Say Shibboleth!

‘The Jerusalem Eruv’ (1996) by Parisian artist Sophie Calle, who collected stories by Jewish and Arab residents of Jerusalem on public spaces that they perceive as ‘private’ or ‘personal’. (photo credit: SOPIE CALLE)

In the Book of Judges it is written: “And the Gileadites took the fords of the Jordan against the Ephraimites; and it was so, that when any of the fugitives of Ephraim said: ‘Let me go over,’ the men of Gilead said unto him: ‘Art thou an Ephraimite?’ If he said: ‘Nay’; then said they unto him: ‘Say now Shibboleth’; and he said ‘Sibboleth’; for he could not frame to pronounce it right; then they laid hold on him, and slew him at the fords of the Jordan; and there fell at that time of Ephraim forty and two thousand.” (Judges 12:5-6)
Based on the story of the Ephraimites’ escape from the Gileadites and their slaughter on the banks of the River Jordan, the Jewish Museum Munich invited international artists to reflect upon the subject of borders around the world.
Despite talk about globalization and the international community becoming a global village, new border fences and walls are being erected all over the world. Some of these borders are permeable and others are fatal, some are visible and others are reinforced by cultural codes, language tests, or biometric methods. Borders decide about life and death, “identity” and “otherness,” belonging and exclusion.
The museum’s current exhibition, “Say Shibboleth!” is curated by Boaz Levin, who was born in 1989 in Jerusalem to poet and translator Gabriel Levin and Anat Flug-Levin, a graduate of the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem and of the Berlin University of Arts.

The German cover of the exhibition catalogue edited by Boaz Levin/Hanno Loewy/Anika Reichwald (Credit: Courtesy)

“You have to realize that the exhibition ‘Say Shibboleth!’ was decided about two years ago, when the topic of borders began to play an increasing role in the public discourse,” Levin says. “The Schengen Agreement (June 14, 1985) was the first time that some European Union member states reestablished border controls.”
He notes that the exhibition is a collaboration with the Jewish Museum Hohenems (Austria).
“Borders and escape are for both museums an important topic in terms of the escape of the Jews during the Second World War,” Levin explains. “The Jewish Museum Hohenems is located at Villa Heimann-Rosenthal, just a stone’s throw away from the banks of the Old Rhine, where in 1938, refugees tried to reach Switzerland.”
“Say Shibboleth!” explores the contentious history and present situation of border making and unmaking, Levin says.
The word Shibboleth, originally Hebrew for a plant containing grain, appears in several semitic languages, originally meaning extension or continuation. Its root is the origin of the modern Hebrew word for shvil, meaning walkway.
In the 19th century the word Shibboleth became a synonym for cultural codes and values as well as for linguistic devices used to distinguish between different groups – “us and them,” “foe and friend,” he says. “The biblical story of Shibboleth shows how language, our fundamental communication medium, can easily turn into a border. The works of the exhibition translate invisible borders and attempt to make them visible.”
Twelve contemporary international artists have taken a critical look at the phenomenon of the border. Large-format photographs, object installations and video works are shown. The artworks are complemented by audio points that focus on the subject of fleeing and borders as experienced by residents from Munich in the 1930s and 1940s. An installation named “Say Parsley” by French-Norwegian writer Caroline Bergvall has been reinterpreted and expanded especially for the exhibition in Munich.
The exhibition extends over all levels of the Jewish Museum. A large-format installation by the photographic artist Arno Gisinger awaits visitors in the foyer. The exhibit continues on the second upper level where seven works are displayed, thematically divided into three sections – “Un/Natural Borders,” “Europe: Union or Fortress” and “Capital and Labour” – inviting visitors to reflect about contemporary issues.
This part of the exhibit includes video installations by Ovidiu Anton, Pinar Ögrenci, Fiamma Montezemolo, and Ryan Jeffrey/Quinn Slobodian, photographic installations by Michael Levin, Leon Kahane, and Fazal Sheikh, as well as a room installation by Vincent Grunwald. A large photographic installation by Sophie Calle on borders “between private and public spaces” follows on the first upper level in addition to a multimedia work by Zach Blas on “biometric borders.” The last section picks up on the subject of “Language and Borders,” installations by Caroline Bergwall and Lawrence Abu Hamdan.
Audio points, modeled on boundary stones erected on the outer borders of the German Reich in the 1930s and 1940s, can be found on all levels in the building, right down to the space occupied by the permanent exhibition. All public areas of the museum are wheelchair accessible.
Levin, an artist, writer and curator who is based in Berlin, has presented his work internationally, most recently at the CCA (Tel Aviv), Former West (HKW, Berlin), Rencontres Internationles (Paris, Berlin), Fidmarseille (Marseille, France), and the School of Kyiv (Kyiv Biennal).
Levin says his work deals with the relationship between politics, aesthetics and technology. He is a member of the “Cultures of Critique” research training group, and is a doctoral candidate at the Leuphana University Lüneburg. His latest exhibition is well worth the visit, if you happen to be in Munich.

‘Say Shibboleth!’ is an exhibition of the Jewish Museum Hohenems (Austria) in collaboration with the Jewish Museum Munich. Curator: Boaz Levin. Project coordination: Nikolaus Hagen. Exhibition design: Roland Stecher/Thomas Matt. (For more details, see
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