Wandering Jews, Seen Through Children's Eyes

Jewish children from around the world use art to tell their family story, now at Tel Aviv's Beit Hatfutsot.

In one display, descendants of a Jewish family that journeyed long ago from Poland and Romania to the shores of Costa Rica are represented by beautiful hand-painted babushkas bearing their likenesses.

In another, a Chinese multi-sectioned puzzle expresses the tensions and conflicts within one extended Israeli family: the religious aunt married to an atheist uncle, the mother who grew up under Syrian fire on a border kibbutz and the grandparents who survived the Holocaust only to be poked fun at for their “yekke” German-Jewish origins when they immigrated in Israel.

In yet another, a model of a theater dressing room embodies the story of a Holocaust survivor from Warsaw who was forced to give up a career on stage and whose children and grandchildren ended up in Spain.

And in still another, the violin of a long-dead great-uncle from Lithuania is used to trace the story of one family’s journey from Eastern Europe first to Mexico, then to Costa Rica and back to Mexico.

The creators of these artistic displays are among 30 children from a dozen different countries who will be honored at a special ceremony on Wednesday at Tel Aviv's Beit Hatfutsot, the Museum of the Jewish People, as the winners of the 2013 “My Family Story” competition.

This year is the competition's 17th, but as Ron Merkel, director of program development at the museum’s International School of Jewish Peoplehood Studies, explained, this year marked a turning point.

“In the past, submissions typically consisted of albums,” he said. “This year, we put special focus on artistic installations that tell a story, and we were absolutely blown away by the level of creativity exhibited in many of the works.”

And even if some parents were involved in coming up with ideas and implementing them, Merkel said, “as far as I’m concerned, all the better.”

A common theme in many of the installations, he noted, was the Holocaust.

The competition is open to fifth- through eighth-graders in Jewish day schools and Jewish Sunday schools abroad, as well as a select number of schools in Israel. Merkel says 126 students from 76 schools, 50 of them outside Israel, submitted entries.

Ten winning entries were selected from each of three geographic categories: Israel; Latin America and Spain; and North America, Europe and Australia. The prize for best work of all will be presented to Yael Mayer from Colegio Jaim Weitzman in Costa Rica for her display of babushkas.

This is also the first year that submissions to the competition will be incorporated into the core exhibition at Beit Hatfutsot. The goal of the competition is to help young Jewish children connect to their roots by encouraging them to explore their family histories. PELIE, the Partnership for Effective Learning and Innovative Education, recently provided funding to promote the program more widely in the United States.

As a result, this year more than 20 schools in the United States participated, most of them Sunday schools, compared to just seven schools a year ago.

The 20 winners from abroad each received as a prize a round-trip plane ticket to Israel so that they could participate in this week’s ceremony. The Israeli winners each received an iPad.

Judy Maltz