311_Drawing of Polish Jews.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The leading figures of the religious world may have something of a PR problem – albeit, some posthumously. They are either revered by observant followers as some inviolable icon or largely ignored by people of a more secular persuasion.
As academic director of the Jewish National and University Library, on
the Hebrew University's Givat Ram campus, Prof. Hagai Ben-Shammai
explains that part of the reason for holding the new In the Footsteps of
the Besht exhibition, which opened at the library last week, is to
convey the message that the subject of the display – the Ba’al Shem Tov
(a.k.a. the Besht) – was also a warm-blooded human being.
there are no known existing pictures of the Ba’al Shem Tov, the
exhibition includes a generous number of paintings and drawings of
shtetl scenes, naturally including a Chagall or two, and several
portraits of venerable Jews holding and/or smoking a lulkeh. “The lulkeh
was a type of long-stemmed pipe used in the Besht’s time,” explains
Ben-Shammai. “With the exhibition, we have tried to convey the ambience
and a taste of what life was like when the Besht lived.”
timing of the show marks the 250th anniversary of the Ba’al Shem Tov’s
death and the 200th anniversary of the passing of his famous
great-grandson, Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav. While today almost everyone is
familiar with Rabbi Nahman’s name – thanks to the ubiquitous graffiti
that spells out something along the lines of “na, na, na Nahman
me’Uman,” referring to Rabbi Nahman’s hometown – the Ba’al Shem Tov has
not benefited from equivalent wall daubing.
“Maybe if there were
graffiti with ‘ba ba ba Ba’al Shem Tov,’ perhaps that would have made
the Besht better known here, but I’m not sure that’s the sort of
publicity I’m looking for,” says Ben-Shammai. The library academic
director feels that the Ba’al Shem Tov’s lower public profile is
something of an injustice, which he hopes the exhibition will go some
way to righting.
“The Besht brought Kabbala to the masses,” he
explains. “Most Jews at that time were largely uneducated and, other
than the basic holidays and Shabbat, knew very little about the Jewish
religion, even about kashrut. The Besht hoped to reach out to them and
draw them more into Judaism through Kabbala.”
the word farther and wider about the Ba’al Shem Tov, Ben-Shammai hopes
the exhibition will also put the word out about the National Library.
“This is the first show here based on what you might call the library’s
new approach. The library is trying hard to reach out to the general
public. We don’t want to be seen as a cloistered ivory tower hidden away
on the university campus. In fact, if you ask the ordinary person on
the street what they know about the library, an optimistic estimate
would be that eight out of 10 would have no idea what you’re talking
If that is the case, it’s a great shame. The National
Library houses untold literary, historical and artistic treasures from
the Jewish world. “We have the largest collection in the world of Jewish
and Israeli music,” states Ben-Shammai. “We have over 30,000 hours of
recordings here, and we keep adding to them. We have archives of Israeli
composers – 250 of them – and they keep growing. We also around 75,000
microfilm reels with photographs of Jewish publications from all over
the world – that’s well over 90 percent of all the Jewish publications.
We have had musical evenings of classical music and popular Israeli
music. I think those sorts of events, and the new Besht exhibition,
bring the public to the library.”
It is largely believed that the
Ba’al Shem Tov was the founder of the hassidic movement, and the
exhibition contains copies of letters and texts relating to the Ba’al
Shem Tov’s teachings, written by his disciples. “The Besht wrote very
little himself”, explains Ben-Shammai, “but we have quite a few letters,
for example, that describe the Besht’s amazing healing powers. The
title ‘ba’al shem’ refers to what may described in contemporary parlance
as ‘a healer’ who used mystical powers to cure illnesses.”
mundane elements of the exhibition feature a letter written by Rabbi
Nahman to his daughter, in Hebrew, dated about three and a half months
before his death, in which he explains what debts she should collect for
him. The letter was recently discovered by exhibition curator Dr.
Esther Libess and is now being shown to the public for the first time.
Scenes from locations that featured strongly in the Ba’al Shem Tov’s
life, including Medzhybizh where he died, are also included. And sayings
of the Ba’al Shem Tov are projected onto a wall “to draw visitors into
his spiritual world,” explains Ben-Shammai.
Hassidism has become more popular in recent years. Today, thousands
visit Uman, in Ukraine, every year in the hope of absorbing something of
Rabbi Nahman’s spirit in the place where he spent his latter years. The
exhibition includes a late 19th-century painting of a handful of
hassidim reciting the Tashlich prayer next to a river in Uman. Next to
it is a photograph of the same spot taken in 2004, which shows thousands
of hassidim praying along the banks of the same body of water.
exhibit features an early 20th-century photograph of the site of Rabbi
Nahman’s grave with a single compact building. “I was there five years
ago,” relates Ben-Shammai. “Today, that small building is completely
surrounded by a complex of large buildings, all devoted to Hassidism.
It’s quite amazing.”
More than anything, Ben-Shammai says he is
keen to make the Ba’al Shem Tov and his legacy accessible and appealing
to the general public.
“You know, it’s not very exciting just to
look at writings, even old ones, lying in a glass cabinet. You have to
show books and texts in a visual context that draws the viewer’s eye.
You have to show different objects, including everyday items, and add
explanations about the writings – when they were written, by whom and to
whom. That brings the exhibits to life so the public doesn’t just look
at the exhibition as a museum piece. After all, the Ba’al Shem Tov was a
lively and intriguing person, and I hope visitors to the exhibition
will get that.”
The In the Footsteps of the Besht
exhibition, in the Berman Hall of the National Library, on the Givat Ram
campus of the Hebrew University, will run until October 1. The
exhibition is open to the public from 9 a.m. to 7:30 p.m.
Sunday-Thursday, and from 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. on Friday. Admission is