From RBG’s Iconic Collar to E.T.: Inside Israel’s Newly Renovated Museum of the Jewish People

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Welcome to the newly renovated and renamed ANU Museum of the Jewish People.
Welcome to the newly renovated and renamed ANU Museum of the Jewish People at Tel Aviv's University.Credit: Hadas Parush
Naama Riba
Naama Riba
Naama Riba
Naama Riba

After a decade-long revamp, Beth Hatfutsot Museum of the Jewish Diaspora, a mainstay of the Tel Aviv University campus, has reopened as ANU – Museum of the Jewish People. (Anu means “us” in Hebrew.) The only thing missing was a dedication, another casualty of the coronavirus crisis.

The museum contains an extensive exhibition on Jewish history and communities – from Iceland to the Philippines – not to mention the luminaries. It also displays works by Jewish artists, as well as contemporary and antique Judaica.

A visitor at the renovated ANU Museum, inside Tel Aviv's University's campus, last week.Credit: Hadas Parush

In honor of the reopening, U.S. President Joe Biden wrote to Alfred Moses, co-chair of the museum’s board of governors: “The Jewish people and their history have always held a special place in my heart. Over the course of my career, I’ve had the honor to meet and work with every Israeli Prime Minister since Golda Meir. ... The United States and Israel are great partners, and the bond between our two countries remains unbreakable today, as it has been since 11 minutes after Israel’s founding, when the United States became the first nation in the world to recognize it.”

The revamp cost $100 million – $18 million from the government and $30 million from the Nevzlin family, some of whose collection is featured at the museum. (The Nevzlin family is a part-owner of Haaretz. Irina Nevzlin, wife of Health Minister Yuli Edelstein, chairs the museum’s board). Another $52 million came from dozens of donors in Israel and abroad.

Inside the renovated ANU Museum. Credit: Hadas Parush

A decade ago, $100 million was also the cost of renovating the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, but in that case most of the money went to improving the building, while at ANU the bulk is for upgrading the exhibition.

Like the Steinhardt Museum of Natural History, a museum at the university that opened a few years ago, ANU deploys plenty of technology, including 50 films and 25 interactive exhibits.

“You could easily spend two weeks here,” says museum director Dan Tadmor. As for all the technology, he says: “Our aim was for the technology to help tell the story rather than be the story. At the museum there’s a balance between objects and technology. Children today are mainly looking at screens, but I think that if you come to the museum with your nephew, he’ll remember items he saw here and not just interactive things.”

The idea for the museum was proposed in the 1950s; the debate was whether to build it in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv. In November 1960, Haaretz reported that Jerusalem Mayor Mordechai Ish-Shalom considered resigning his membership in the Israel committee of the World Jewish Congress after the Congress’ longtime president, Nahum Goldman, “announced that Beit Hatfutsot, which would bear his name, was to be built in Tel Aviv.”

Tired brand

The cornerstone was laid in 1966, with the museum designed to preserve the memory of destroyed Jewish communities, and to preserve treasures of the Jewish people from across the Diaspora.

The building was designed by architects Itzhak Yashar and Eli Gvirtzman, and was dedicated in 1978 after 12 years of construction. Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis was among the guests at the grand opening.

Jewish memorabilia: A guitar which used to belong to the late musician Leonard Cohen, on display at ANU.Credit: Hadas Parush

The new museum was a success story and considered avant-garde in its exhibition methods. Some 400,000 people visited the place in its first year. In the ‘80s and again in the early 2000s, the museum fell into financial straits and was on the brink of closing. A recovery plan coupled with the recruitment of new donors kept the doors open.

The architects for the latest renovation were Elad Melamed and Daniel Mintz; in 2012 Mintz won the Rechter Prize for his design of the International School for Holocaust Studies at Yad Vashem. Mintz says there were thoughts about demolishing the original building and putting up a new one.

“I think that from a cultural standpoint, that wasn’t necessary,” he said. “I believe in brutalist architecture, the style to which the building belongs.”

A visitor at ANU.Credit: Hadas Parush
Late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg donated one of her lace collars, left, and a copy of her autobiogarphy to the ANU Museum.Credit: Hadas Parush

During the planning stage, the work was split between two design firms; Mintz-Melamed remained in charge of the architecture, while American designer Patrick Gallagher was tapped to craft the exhibits, which boosted fundraising.

From the outside, the building has hardly changed. Mintz says the place is similar to the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, which was also designed by Itzhak Yashar. “The entire skeleton is exactly like the Tel Aviv Museum, as are all the modules and details,” Mintz said. “Only the granulite facing is different. We thought all this should be shown.”

Tadmor notes that dozens of suppliers were on board, so the construction project provided income for a raft of companies racked by the pandemic.

Video dispalys at ANU. The museum’s adjustment in the feminine and feminist context is notable.Credit: Hadas Parush

The new exhibition display is completely liberated from the museum’s original agenda of functioning as a commemoration site. You can start a tour of the building from several locations. I started out with a multimedia exhibit where prominent Jews describe “what being Jewish means to me,” all in 60 seconds.

In one segment, Efrat Rotem, a Reform rabbi, tells how she’s a lesbian who came out at age 20. “I grew up in a secular home and at age 30 I began asking questions about my Jewish identity too … which today is a place where there’s a big, big, big amount of freedom,” she says.

From there you can continue to a central part of the museum devoted to Jewish culture, with displays on various fields of culture using film, multimedia, stories and artifacts. A costume from the Batsheva Dance Company’s 1993 show “Anaphase” is one object on display for the section on dance.

The view of Tel Aviv from the ANU Museum's rooftop.Credit: Hadas Parush

Among the exhibits on cinema is an excerpt from the 1967 classic “He Walked Through the Fields,” with Assi Dayan as the heroic sabra, as well as scenes from Joel and Ethan Coen’s “The Big Lebowski.” There’s also a model of little E.T. himself, designed by Steven Spielberg. This part of the museum also contains a host of displays from the worlds of literature, music and theater.

On a tour of the building with chief curator Orit Shaham-Gover, the museum’s adjustment in the feminine and feminist context is notable. A large 3D display presents illustrations by Yael Bogen on important Jewish women.

Next door is an interactive display on philosopher Hélène Cixous, economist Elinor Ostrom, politician and scholar Naomi Hazan, Zionist leader and Holocaust survivor Haika Grossman-Orkin and others.

Minimal representation for the Holocaust

The entrnce to ANU. From the outside, the building has hardly changed. Credit: Hadas Parush

Another installation on women includes Zionist and Israeli leaders Henrietta Szold, Golda Meir and Shulamit Aloni, as well as UNESCO chief Audrey Azoulay from France, while another is on U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Another features Jewish women from Muslim countries including singers like Algeria’s Line Monty, Iraq’s Salima Murad and Morocco’s Zohra al-Fassiya.

Dan Tadmor, ANU’s director: 'We’re not in the business of hoarding and storing things away. We want to show things'

The museum is giving broader exposure to Jews from Muslim countries, including a 16th-century Bible from Constantinople (now Istanbul) with translations in Aramaic, Judeo-Arabic and Persian-Arabic, along with the Rashi commentary. There are also passports belonging to Jews from Arab countries who left in the 1940s and ‘50s, and a collection of documents that belonged to Jews in the DP camps of Europe after World War II.

The Holocaust receives minimal representation – in a single space with a work by artist Gustav Metzger that uses the iconic photograph “Liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto” and a pile of rubble below it.

The museum also includes contemporary as well as historical Judaica. There’s Manfred Anson’s 1986 Liberty Menorah whose nine branches are each shaped like the Statue of Liberty, with a key figure or event in Jewish history inscribed underneath it. There’s the 2003 “Hanukit” by Reddish Studio made of matches attached to an aluminum base. There’s also Irit Abir’s “Ironic Passover Plate” from her Garage Judaica collection, a plate shaped like a steam iron and topped with small brass dishes.

Yael Bogen’s display on important Jewish women, at the ANU Museum of the Jewish People.Credit: Hadas Parush

There are also gems like a 1908 case and crown for a Torah from Cochin, India, which is decorated in a typical southern Indian style. The museum received the Torah in 2017 as a gift from Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi during his visit to Israel.

I asked Tadmor, ANU’s director, why the museum will have few changing exhibitions, noting that it doesn’t have a large collection compared with other museums.

“When we started out, there was no collection, because the old museum was based on replicas,” he said. “Now there’s a collection. We don’t hoard things and put them in storage. We borrow things, acquire them or receive them as gifts – and only things that we intend to display. Otherwise, we won’t take them. We’re not in the business of hoarding and storing things away. We want to show things.”

Another key question is the changing of the name from Beit Hatfutsot, a very familiar brand in Israel.

“When you’re launching a totally new museum, it should have a new name,” Tadmor said. “The word tfutsot [diaspora] expresses an outlook that draws a line between different types of Jews – those in Israel and those in the Diaspora – and derives from the discourse that prevailed in the ‘50s and ‘60s. The terminology is outdated and no longer fits the reality. We did an in-depth survey and found that ‘Beit Hatfutsot’ has come to have a negative value as a brand.

The entrance to ANU, the renovated Jewish museum in Tel Aviv.Credit: Hadas Parush

“When the museum opened in 1978 it was groundbreaking and marvelous, and I take my hat off to the generation of its founders – Shaike Weinberg, [Abba] Kovner and others – but over the years it grew obsolete, both physically and thematically. What was marvelous in 1978 was still okay in 1988, but a decade later it was already tired. People got a dark and old-fashioned museum experience.

“We decided on the name ANU after considering about 100 different names. We feel that the name is inclusive and unifying, and aptly reflects the museum’s values.”  

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