If It's Broke, Fix It

The Jew's role in life is to strive to make a better world - that is the main message of the new and unique Children's Museum at Amsterdam's Jewish Historical Museum.

I have often regretted the fact that I am no longer a child. Considering the Jewish people's tumultuous history, I have less often regretted the fact that I am a Jew. But this is the first time I regretted both at the same time: As a visitor to the new and impressive Children's Museum in the Jewish Historical Museum in Amsterdam, I knew too much about the subject, and was too old to experience this wondrous adventure in full.

The Jews and Amsterdam have a common history - some of it illustrious, some much less so - that has unfolded over 400 years. Spanish Jews facing forced conversion, and especially Jews from Portugal, found refuge in Amsterdam, where they could continue to practice their faith safely. True, they were not accepted into the professional guilds, but they were nevertheless part of the city's social fabric, a fact reflected, for example, in the nickname used by all Amsterdam residents for their city - "Mokum," a distortion of the Hebrew word makom (place).

The Jewish Historical Museum is located at the heart of Amsterdam Jewry's memorial and heritage sites. Not far away is the Esnoga, the Portuguese synagogue where Baruch Spinoza was once excommunicated. The museum itself is inside the complex of Ashkenazi synagogues - the Great Synagogue, the New Synagogue, the Third Synagogue and the so-called Obbene Synagogue, all buildings from the 17th and 18th centuries.

The current Jewish Historical Museum opened in 1987, the new version of a museum founded in 1930, whose artifacts were stolen by the Nazis and which was formerly only partly restored. Not far from there is the site where the Jews of Amsterdam were rounded up for expulsion, first to Westerbork and then to the death camps (most of Amsterdam's Jews, some 100,000 people, perished in the Holocaust). Turning this memorial site into part of the museum is the next project contemplated by museum director Joel Cahen, once the chief curator of The Israel Diaspora Museum in Tel Aviv.

In the meantime, Cahen is proud of the museum's reopening after a renovation, and of the new Children's Museum, the only one of its kind in the world. The moving force behind it is Petra Katzenstein, curator and cantor, who led me on a tour through the three surprise-packed floors. The museum opened only in December 2006, but its concepts had already been tried out in a temporary exhibition on the premises called "Where Mokum is Home," visited by some 50,000 children between 2000 and 2005.

On the museum's ground level, intended for children aged 8 to 12, you can watch a movie (in Dutch, English or Hebrew) starring the animated character of Max the Matzo. Max, brainchild of Israeli artist Ram Katzir (and perhaps inspired by Mickey Mouse), explains to parents and children who and what a Jew is. But the eye of the adult visitor is drawn to a large picture on the opposite wall, a picture that looks very familiar. At the center is an average-looking family, a mother, father and three children, surrounded by many characters from different periods in history. At the bottom of the picture appears a colorful slogan, "Sgt. Kosher's Jewish Hearts Club Band," a variation on the famous Beatles' album cover.

The Hollander family ("Hollander" means "Dutch"), whose home the three-story museum is supposed to be, is surrounded in the picture by 84 Jewish men and women from different periods, including King David, Anne Frank, Marcel Marceau, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, Groucho Marx and Karl Marx, Dr. Spock, Sigmund Freud, Maimonides, Marilyn Monroe, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Alfred Dreyfus, Ilan Ramon, Job Cohen (Amsterdam's Jewish mayor, who survived the war in hiding as a child), Moses (seen smashing the tablets of the Ten Commandments), Steven Spielberg, Amos Oz, Barbra Streisand, Sammy Davis Jr., Theodor Herzl, Bob Dylan, David Ben-Gurion and Jesus Christ.

Max the Matzo

The picture constitutes one answer to Max the Matzo's question "Who is a Jew, and why?" The second floor provides the opportunity to ponder these questions in more depth, without an overload of religious or didactic content, on a large wall designed to resemble a children's primer. There are pictures, accompanied by words, which were chosen by Ram Katzir from the story of the Creation - heaven, earth, place - following the order of the Hebrew alphabet.

The string of words leads to the conception of Judaism presented by the museum's designers: The Jew's role in life is to strive in his actions to make a better world, reflecting the Jewish concept of tikkun, correction or reform). In the next-to-last picture a small boy is fixing a flat tire on a bicycle, and the last picture shows Planet Earth with a small band-aid somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. Even a small repair job can do some good in this large world.

The opposite wall is devoted to exploring, with words and pictures, the essence of the Torah, which, according to Rabbi Akiva is, "Love thy neighbor as thyself," and the development of this essential message as per Hillel, "That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow." Children visiting the museum are also asked to ponder the dilemma of how to love your neighbor as thyself when you don't love yourself all that much. On the other side of the wall, in a narrow corridor, there is a brick wall, a reproduction of a synagogue wall. A mouth made of bricks, set into the wall, tells the story of the Obbene Synagogue, whose history encompasses the glory and catastrophe of the Dutch Jews and the Hollanders - the real and imaginary family that lives in the rooms of the museum.

The truly interactive experience can be found in the kitchen, where visitors have a chance to knead and bake challah. The kitchen, of all places, is used by the designers of the museum to demonstrate that there are many kinds of Jews in the world, as there are many kinds of baked goods (as drawn on a poster designed by Katzir): Max the Matzo, of course, Tzipi the Chocolate Matzo, Gitte the Pita, Benny the Bagel, Ayala the Challah. The kitchen table is a map of the world with the Jewish Diaspora scattered across it.

One of the last things left to do at the museum is to visit the room where different instruments characterizing Jewish music are displayed, from the shofar (ram's horn) to the clarinet; you can also see a film there in which the Hollanders sing a song about niggun (traditional Jewish song or melody), written by poet Judith Herzberg and composer Jeff Hamburg. And finally, there is the bedroom, represented by a large canopied bed. Young visitors are invited to climb onto it and hear, among other things, young Benji Hollander wondering in his dream what being Jewish means to him and his family.

The transient visitor - namely, myself - may get the rather surprising impression that two topics are not emphasized here: the Holocaust and the State of Israel. This, of course, is less than accurate, Cahen and Katzenstein explain to me (the latter, since the museum opened, has been in demand around the world as an advisor on how to design a children's museum). The Holocaust, they say, does come up in the stories told by the wall of the ruined synagogue, and the Jewish state is well represented, for example, by Ayala the Challah in the kitchen. Nevertheless, the Judaism that the museum presents to its young visitors is a complex, multifaceted phenomenon, which includes religion, but is mainly cultural heritage in a broad, optimistic and humanistic sense. As Max the Matzo sums up in his futuristic dream rap text: Make peace, at home and abroad, and if something breaks, fix what is needed, fix the world, for that is the Jewish way (it sounds better in Dutch).

The tour is offered to teachers and students at Amsterdam schools as part of the city museums' enrichment program. Cahen says that if people ask him "why they should visit a Jewish museum for children, of all places," he says that it is important for the modern world to get to know the minorities living in it, in the spirit of very vital tolerance. This may be the small tikkun that the Jewish museum can offer to children.