Located within the Tel Aviv University campus, Beit Hatfutsots goal since its inception in 1978 has been to connect Jewish people to their roots and strengthen their personal and collective Jewish identity. The museums story-telling rather than artifact-exhibit approach was an innovation in its day, and museums worldwide have emulated this model.
Three and a half decades later, Beit Hatfutsot is in the midst of another wave of innovation, one aimed at modernizing the exhibits, adding interactive features, and adjusting the themes to address the dynamic landscape of contemporary Jewish life and culture. This process was initiated by the Israeli government and the NADAV Foundation in 2003.
New museum set to open
For Irina Nevzlin Kogan, Chair of Beit Hatfutsots Board of Directors, her involvement in the Museum stems from a deep commitment to Jewish peoplehood. I had the luxury of having a very positive attitude to the fact that I am Jewish, because of my school and my life experience. What I noticed in recent years was that it wasnt so much so for other people of my generation and younger. I realized the value of a museum like Beit Hatfutsot that can engage and tell the story of the Jewish people so that the younger people can develop a much more positive attitude toward being Jewish and benefit from it as I did.
Working together, the NADAV Foundation and Beit Hatfutsot have already renovated the lobby area, set up several new temporary exhibitions with a distinct contemporary flare and opened the International School for Jewish Peoplehood Studies, which develops the discipline, as well as learning and teaching guides and educational curricula, and offers enrichment activities. The result has been a massive increase in the annual number of visitors, from 50,000 to 200,000.
The major upgrade, creating a new core exhibit, however, is still in the works. Encompassing 5,500 square meters, the new Museum of the Jewish People will be double the size of Yad Vashems main exhibit. It will be the largest and most compressive Jewish Museum in the world, emphasizes Beit Hatfutsot Chief Curator Dr. Orit Shaham-Gover. Jewish museums usually focus on a particular region, and there are many Holocaust museums, but there is no museum that tells the whole story from biblical times till present day. We took it upon ourselves to tell this story.
Nevzlin Kogan adds that, The new museum will tell the fascinating story of the Jewish people in a way that is engaging, interactive and cutting edge. In that story there is a place for depression and hardships, but also for success, innovation, strength and creativity, and that is the story we want to tell. The Museum can provide not only knowledge but also an emotional experience, making people feel what it means to be Jewish. We believe that the way to connect the younger Jewish generation to its roots is by portraying a positive Jewish narrative that is, ultimately, a story about thriving.
Contemporary Jewish identity
While the old exhibits story-telling approach will be preserved, the Jewish narrative will be presented in a new and interactive manner. The current exhibit starts with a replica of the Arch of Titus, symbolizing the point of exile from the Holy Land, and ends with the establishment of the State of Israel. Conversely, the new museums timeline will start approximately 2,000 years earlier, with Abraham and Sarah, and will be open-ended.
It was important for us to change the exhibitions basic concept so as to create a place that discusses the meaning of the term Jewish peoplehood not in terms of the past but in terms of what it means today and in the future, and in a manner that engages people of all ages and backgrounds, points out Nevzlin Kogan. It is particularly important when it comes to the younger generations, who are in need of tools to explore their Jewish identity.
The entry point to the Jewish story will be the here and now, with the issue of contemporary communal, individual and cultural Jewish identity. This will be personified by life-size screens showing 18 men and women from around the world who will describe what being Jewish means to them. Shaham-Gover explains that, The idea is to start with the familiar. Because the Museums goal is to make every Jewish and non-Jewish visitor feel an integral part of the story and that it is his or her story, it is likely that if the story started with Abraham and Sarah, we would lose them by the time we reached the exodus from Egypt. This is why we will start with what interests them, the issues they debate and the culture that is more familiar to them.
Learning from the past
To understand the present, one must look back into the past, and that will be the focus of the second part of the Museum. Marking the entry point to this section will be a huge map of the world on which will be portrayed the wanderings of the Jews across the ages. Visitors here will encounter the story, history and narrative of the Jewish people. The main theme will be that ever since the destruction of the Second Temple, there have always been two parallel Jewish centers in the world: Babylon and Israel, Ashkenaz and Spain, the Ottoman Empire and Poland-Lithuania, and now Israel and the US.
The last part of the Museum will present the conceptual framework that has sustained Judaism throughout history, which includes the Bible, the Jewish calendar, rituals from birth until death, the Sabbath, and the covenant between the Jewish people and God and with itself.
One of the old exhibitions most popular attractions, the 21 synagogue models, will be preserved as a separate gallery in the new museum. It will serve to explain how synagogues evolved and what are their functions and meanings today. Children will have the opportunity to build their own synagogue, and visitors will be offered the chance to read prayers written by authors, artists and celebrities, and even formulate their own personal prayer.
The renovated museum will open in two stages. In the summer of 2015, the new Synagogue Gallery will open its doors, accompanied by a large exhibition on Jewish humor. This will coincide with the closing of the core exhibition, which will reopen in 2017. Complementing the physical museum will be an online platform, that will be launched in 2014.
Nevzlin Kogan explains that, We are quite aware of the fact that, statistically, most Jews will not be able to visit Beit Hatfutsot. So we are working to create a major online Jewish identity hub that will engage Jews worldwide and get them to think positively about their identity. If you want to learn about a song your grandfather sang and give it to your son for his Bar Mitzvah, if you want to find a recipe from your grandmothers town, or if you want to read about the current state of anti-Semitism in the world, BH Online will be the entry point to find that information.
The total projected cost of the Beit Hatfutsot renewal project is US$ 82 million. To date, the Museum has raised a total of US$ 27 million: US$ 17.5 million from the Government of Israel and an additional US$ 9.5 million from private individuals and institutions. We structured the new Museum so that everyone aged 3 to 120, Jew and non-Jew alike, can be a visitor – anyone for whom there is a reason to learn something about the Jewish people. We believe that the extraordinary story of our people can be of interest to almost everyone. concludes Nevzlin Kogan.
The NADAV Foundation
In 2003, in response to a request by then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to assist Beit Hatfutsot (The Diaspora Museum), Leonid Nevzlin, founder of the NADAV Foundation, committed to the task. This marked a turning point in the history of Beit Hatfutsot, which has been experiencing a steady revival since then. In fact, the annual number of visitors has quadrupled from 50,000 to an expected 200,000 this year. Following in her fathers footsteps, since 2012 Irina Nevzlin Kogan serves as Chair of the Board of Directors of Beit Hatfutsot. Among other projects of the NADAV Foundation are the Nevzlin Research Center for Russian and East European Jewry at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, the Jewish People Policy Institute and the Nevzlin Center for Jewish Peoplehood at the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) Herzliya.
The NADAV Foundation seeks to ensure that in the 21st century, a knowledge-based sense of belonging to the Jewish people is at the core of Jewish peoplehood. It does so by supporting Beit Hatfutsot and other initiatives designed to promote thoughtful engagement with the rich cultural, religious and historical legacy of the Jewish people and the formation of a substantive and pluralistic Jewish collective identity.
Intriguing special exhibitions
One of the fascinating exhibitions on the horizon is Dreyfus: An Open Case. Beit Hatfutsot Chief Curator Dr. Orit Shaham-Gover explains that, The case of Alfred Dreyfus will be examined through the prism of identity, to show the heroic battle of the first French Jewish officer to prove his innocence and the fact that, after this difficult ordeal, he went on to fight in the first World War.
This exhibit will be followed by Luck and Good Fortunes: Mysticism and Superstitions in Jewish Culture. The way by which contemporary artists engage in a dialogue with a selection of superstitions and their physical expressions, beliefs that seemingly have no place in Judaism, will be explored. Beit Hatfutsot also plans to mark the 30-year anniversary of Operation Moses, the first major wave of Jewish immigration from Ethiopia to Israel. We want to bring artists and curators of Jewish Ethiopian descent to tell their stories, to present the dark and light patches of their exodus until now, notes Shaham-Gover.
The longest-running temporary exhibit is A B See Do, which has been operating since 2010, a testament to its great appeal among kids aged 5-11. The interactive exhibition focuses on the history and rebirth of the Hebrew language and its distinctiveness, while highlighting the vast strength that language has in communicating heritage, tradition and culture.
A B See Dos hip 570 square meter space with its more than 20 stations looks more like an upscale gymboree than an educational platform, but the children learn just the same. By trying to step on moving letters, which then expand into words, searching for the origin of ones name, or pantomiming a words meaning to parents and peers, kids (and adults) inadvertently learn about the Hebrew language.
Here comes the bride
A synagogue in Vilnius, traditional wedding rings, the dybbuk, teffilin, the Henna ceremony, modern Polish houses and mezuzah parchments are just some of the sources of inspiration behind the wedding gowns presented in the new temporary exhibition Here Comes the Bride, curated by Neta Harel and Ronen Levin, which opened this past September in Beit Hatfutsot, the Museum of the Jewish People.
The gowns are the creations of 13 third-year students from the Shenkar College of Engineering and Design, all tutored by designer Ronen Levin. Their assignment was to use the museums artifacts and archives as a source of inspiration for creating wedding garments. Most, however, ended up exploring their familys history and traditions, transforming their personal heritage into high fashion.
Yael Gaizler, for example, styled her dress in the spirit of the Ottoman Empire, influenced by her mothers stories of her grandmothers house in Izmir, Turkey. While describing her artistic process, she notes, I opened the closets in search of items from that period and things my grandmother had left.
The desire to prompt the students to explore their Jewish identity was a central element behind the Beit Hatfutsot-Shenkar collaboration. The impact that the bridal gown exhibit has had on these young designers is extraordinary, notes Irina Nevzlin Kogan, Chair of the Board of Directors of Beit Hatfutsot. Each dress has a personal meaning for the person who created it, and therefore each designer provides the visitor with a glimpse into a hidden world, rich with different customs and Jewish traditions. This makes the visit to the exhibition a fascinating journey through our roots as a People.
The end result of these explorations is a collection of artwork that represents, on the one hand, a wide, diverse and rich collective Jewish heritage and, on the other hand, a vibrant, modern contemporary culture – a microcosm of present day Jewish life. The success of Here Comes the Bride has generated a more high-profile sequel, in which top international Jewish designers will create bridal gowns inspired by their Jewish roots. The project is pending final approval.
The lost generation
The exhibition J.D. Kirszenbaum 1900-1954 – The Lost Generation will be on display at Beit Hatfutsot until January 14, 2014. Kirszenbaum is one of the many gifted Jewish artists and thinkers of his time whose prolific work was crushed by the Nazi regime. Kirszenbaums peregrinations – from his native Staszow, Poland to Berlin, Paris, a forced labor camp in southern France during World War II, and then on to Brazil and Morocco – represent an artistic journey through the major influences of his time, most notably impressionism, avant-garde and native art. This is mirrored by his personal journey, which illustrates his attempt to simultaneously escape from and memorialize the life he left behind in the shtetl, including imagery of local folklore mixed with testimony to deportation and despair.
Curated by Dr. Caroline Godberg Igra, this project is the brainchild of Kirszenbaums great nephew, Nathan Diament, who devoted the past few years to restoring Kirszenbaums reputation to the annals of early modern European art history. Diament is now in negotiations with the Bauhaus Archive Museum of Design in Berlin, where Kirszenbaum once studied under Wassily Kandinsky and Paul Klee, to present the exhibit there.
To support Beit Hatfutsot, visit www.bh.org.il or www.NADAVfund.org.il.