From ‘Diaspora’ to ‘Jewish people’

Beit Hatfutsot Museum is trying to shift paradigms when telling the Jewish story.

May 4, 2017 19:04
Beit Hatfutsot

Albert Einstein is one of the featured ‘Jewish Heroes’ in Beit Hatfutsot. (photo credit: YAAKOV BRILL)

Beit Hatfutsot in Tel Aviv is commonly translated as the Museum of the Jewish Diaspora.

This is the name that appears on many English websites for travelers. In the last few years, however, the museum has been undergoing a process of renewal that includes the name itself.

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It is now called the Museum of the Jewish People. Is this just the result of a semantic quibble or does the name change reflect something deeper? Irina Nevzlin, chair of the museum’s board of directors, says it’s the latter.

“We believe you have to look at the Jewish people as a whole, not in terms of the Diaspora and Israel anymore.” For thousands of years, before the State of Israel, Jews were first and foremost a people, she said.

Today Jews number roughly 15 million worldwide, with the majority living in Israel and the United States. And though continents separate them, Nevzlin said, “They were all around the world long before the age of globalization and the creation of the Internet. We were always a global people.

“First of all, we had family connections. We were also linked by languages and trade. So, on a practical level, globalization is nothing new for us. Our view of the world is larger by definition because we didn’t have our own home. It plays to our advantage – our situation of being completely open and the world being small – it is something we are quite used to.

“Our interconnectedness internationally means we are stronger, more innovative and resilient. The name change is about telling that story, which is one of strength and creativity.

The word ‘Diaspora’ does not let us see the kind of strength we have as a people.”

Nevzlin believes that celebrating strength is a novel approach to recounting the Jewish story in a museum setting.

“Many Jewish museums tell stories about the Holocaust that are certainly important. Or they focus on geography and how the Jews lived here or there.”

But this, she explained, seems to be the extent of it. What’s missing from such narratives? “First, there’s no place that tells the story of the Jewish people now,” she said. “With many museums you get the feeling that Jews are not here anymore. We used to be those people and then something happened.”

Nevzlin clarified that the Museum of the Jewish People does not wish to bypass history.

It confronts head-on the darker chapters of the Jewish narrative but keeps the central focus on the here and now – the living, breathing, dynamic, creative and evolving Jewish people of today. Such a vision is not merely word play, replacing “Diaspora” with something else, she warned; rather, it constitutes a “paradigm change.”

The museum opened its doors in 1978. Initially, it covered the history of the Jewish people up until 1948. But with the renewal process, which has extended the story into the present, the museum inaugurated a new wing in 2016. It has already drawn in many visitors.

The wing features a prestigious collection of synagogue models from all over the world, each revealing the synagogue’s different functions, from social gatherings and events, to study, work and prayer.

Another section displays Jewish “heroes” throughout history: scientists, philosophers, revolutionaries, cultural giants, athletes, courageous individuals and economic leaders. Yet another exhibit celebrates Bob Dylan’s legacy and influence.

A fourth exhibit gives voice to those who immigrated from Ethiopia to Israel in the 1980s as part of Operation Moses, tracing their trials and tribulations as they attempt to carve out a space in Israeli society.

The museum is planning to inaugurate a new core exhibition in 2019 as part of the second phase of its renewal. The exhibit will begin with contemporary Jewish identity and culture, including performing arts (dance, theater, film and television and music), literature, languages, modern art and Jewish contributions to world culture.

The second floor will consider the unique and ongoing story of the Jewish people, from time immemorial to the present.

Here Jewish history will be viewed through a prism of parallelism, exploring both its light and shadows.

At the heart of the museum an open atrium will connect the three floors of the building. This space, which once displayed the persecutions and suffering of the people, will now be a bright space celebrating optimism and the Jewish capacity for hope. A sculpture of light will rise to the ceiling, symbolizing the Jewish belief in a better future.

What else makes this museum unique? Nevzlin explained that visitors to a museum want to know what they will find during the tour.

“We don’t want them to know,” she said. “We want them to be surprised because we believe that the story is sometimes told in a very obvious way... There are so many colors, so much creativity. We want to celebrate that.”

With the sheer number of customs, traditions, stories and artifacts to choose from – culled out of the rich layers of Jewish history, past and present – how are decisions made about the content of exhibits? “No curator will tell you that it’s enough,” said Nevzlin. The basic principle is to celebrate Jewish peoplehood while being inclusive and pluralistic. “We do not choose the right way of being Jewish or living in a certain way. That is not our job. Our job is to show all the available options."

“We believe we are family and that family needs to learn about one another, to understand one another and become connected.”

Inevitably, however, a museum must make decisions. What happens when faced with tough choices about what to display and what not?

“We are like other museums. We have a lot of ideas and creative people who are passionate,” said Nevzlin. “This creates a sense of mission, and a sense of mission creates a lot of passion.”

In the end, she explained, “you build a proper team of people who follow a proper decision-making process.” The result is that exhibits speak to our times, she said.

Does the museum offer hints about what connects these sprawling traditions and customs? What links Jews across time and space?

“We know that something connects. That is unquestionable. But we don’t always understand it.” People might use words like “continuity, belonging and peoplehood,” she said.

The connection “is much more emotional than intellectual, and words do not help us understand, but we know we belong in some way, and this makes us stronger throughout the world.”

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