More than two million names have been entered in the computerized database of worldwide Jewish family genealogies; visitors can explore their ancestry and record family trees for future generations.
The Nahum Goldmann Museum of the Jewish Diaspora, known as Beth Hatefusoth, opened in May 1978 on the Tel Aviv University campus in Ramat Aviv. In addition to a permanent exhibit, synagogue models and more, the museum is home to remarkable archives covering music, film, photographs and genealogical resources, which are relatively unknown within Israel.
Today, its Web site indicates that its new name is the Museum of the Jewish People, as its focus is on all the Jewish people, not only those in the Diaspora.
Despite years of financial woes, the museum's talented and creative experts continue their important work.
A favorite destination for visitors is the Feher Music Center. Beth Hatefusoth's director Yuval Shaked creates a treasure trove for musicians, cantors, genealogists and others, with materials ranging from liturgical to folk to pop in many Jewish languages.
Visitors can hear pieces at listening booths, browse through a biography database; find music by title, opening words, text source, composer and writer, ethnic or religious tradition, geographical origin, language, period, content, performer; listen to music or view films of musical performances, traditions and musicians.
The peripatetic Shaked's travels have uncovered even more gems.
In Minsk, he found Iranian Jewish music recordings in the new Jewish Museum. In Kiev, he saw a wax cylinder and manuscript collection including the Beregovsky collection, where that ethnomusicologist wrote down the melodies of nigunim and folk songs in the 1920s. In the Ukrainian National Archives, the fifth volume of a major ethnographic music collection is being worked on. Recorded from 1910 across the Soviet Union, it features professionals and ordinary people performing in localities when many of our ancestors still lived there.
Recently completed is the digitization and sound enhancement of more than 200 magnetic tapes of the collection of famed singer-ethnomusicologist Ruth Rubin (1906-2000). The Hebrew, Yiddish and English material was recorded in the 1950s-60s in North American retirement homes and donated to Feher by Haifa's AMLI Music Library. Among the finds, says Shaked, were pre-state songs with completely different versions from those we know today.
The Margolies Collection includes unreleased 78 RPM records of cantor Gershon Margolies, chief cantor of Vienna's Leopoldstadtgasse Synagogue, where he served until 1938. It also includes art songs set to Hebrew and Yiddish texts, composed by Aryeh Abrahamson, a relative of Margolies's wife, from the Abrahamson cantorial dynasty (some 14 cantors) in Austria-Hungary.
The Hans Hirschberg Collection was amassed by organist and scholar Hirschberg (1922-2003) and brought to Israel in the 1930s, when he left Berlin for Kibbutz Mesilot. It includes photographs, glass slides and negatives documenting such events as the 1912 visit of Kaiser Wilhelm II to the Fasanenstrasse Synagogue, as well as books on the history, architecture, art and music of German synagogues. It includes Hirschberg's two-volume book, publications, letters, and even the technical specifications of every Berlin synagogue organ.
On a 1950 visit to Berlin, Hirschberg found the remains of a siddur in the ruins of the Prinzregentenstrasse Synagogue, and organ pipes of the Oranienburgerstrasse Synagogue. "The condition of these items is remarkable," Shaked says, opening boxes to reveal the artifacts.
Shaked smiles when he speaks of 83-year-old Ramat Gan resident Shimshon Gitelman (born in David Gorodok, Belarus) who twice went into the studio to record 30 songs, and then another 60, dedicated to the memory of his family and to all of David Gorodok's Jews.
Six months ago, Shaked adds, a dozen Israelis, formerly of Alexandria, Egypt, came to him. "The youngest was 80. One was the brother of famous spy Eli Cohen." They sang together and individually for nearly an hour, recording music as it was sung in Egypt. Another cantor from Alexandria was located in Sao Paulo, Brazil, and his collection of music and photographs is also at Feher. This summer, a conference of Egyptian Jews was held in Haifa, and Shaked is preparing a CD to go with the conference book.
Shaked says that a Russian Jewish theater music collection, including recordings, pictures and manuscripts, is in danger of being lost in the Ukraine. The collector wants to donate it to Beth Hatefusoth, but there have been some problems.
With more than 40 recording projects on his calendar, Shaked is trying his best to get the projects funded, recorded and published.
Last year, Shaked produced a double CD on Amsterdam's Ashkenazi community musical traditions, including pre-WW II historical recordings, chants and songs performed by the Great Synagogue's choir. A 136-page bilingual booklet, packaged with the CDs, provides articles on community and choir history, biographies of recorded cantors, all recorded prayer and song texts, translations and notes.
Window on the world
The Oster Visual Documentation Center, headed by Zippi Rosenne, has a growing computerized database of more than 60,000 images, documenting Jewish life and creativity. It is one of the most important international repositories offering a comprehensive collection of the Diaspora.
It keeps growing, says Rosenne, as individuals send in photographs. In the last two years, some 2,000 images of past and present Jewish life have been added.
A valuable resource for scholars, publishers, journalists, the media, institutions and organizations, the center covers essential aspects of Jewish life: communities, synagogues and public institutions, culture and art; holidays and ceremonies; family and home life; lifestyles, trades and professions; personalities and events.
In February 2004, the center received the prestigious Herbert and Leni Sonnenfeld Collection. With more than 100,000 negatives, slides, transparencies and prints, this photographer couple's collection was donated to the museum to be preserved in an institution dedicated to the documentation of Jewish life for future research, study, documentation, exhibitions and publications.
The images cover historical events in the history of the Jewish people from the 1930s throughout the 20th century. Some icons are Jewish children waving from a train en route to Palestine, and Jewish youth dancing the hora aboard a ship to Haifa.
Soon to arrive is a new collection of some 3,500 35-mm color slides on Jewish subjects by photographer Than Wyenn.
According to Rosenne, the department is kept busy providing photographic services to the public, including researchers, editors (books, magazines, exhibition catalogues) and other museums.
The Film Archive, headed by Gila Cohen, holds about 900 titles on all aspects of Diaspora Jewish life, including a short 1930 amateur film on my grandfather's shtetl of Suchatow (Austria-Hungary/Poland/Ukraine).
Cohen says the collection includes DVD, BETA and VHS and has just grown, as films have been acquired or donated by individuals. Nearly all the old format titles have been digitized at Yad Vashem, according to an agreement of the Claims Conference, Yad Vashem and Beth Hatefusoth.
Additionally, the museum has produced for sale 30 documentaries on a variety of topics. Titles include Jewish communities around the world, pre-Holocaust Eastern European Jewish life, Jewish history, Jewish art and contemporary Jewish identity dilemmas, rare archival material and historic footage of Jewish life and family scenes, along with rare footage of Eastern European Jewry between the two World Wars.
A unique collection of amateur films, covering Eastern Europe between the wars, Western Europe, North Africa and the US, illustrates the growing availability of technology.
Visitors may view films in study areas or in the Visual Documentation Center. Cohen is available to advise on all aspects of the collection. She also asks those who may have home movies documenting Jewish life to consider donating them to the Film Archive to enrich the collection, preserve the images, and make them available to the public.
Members of the tribe
At the Douglas E. Goldman Genealogy Center, visitors search a computerized database of thousands of worldwide Jewish family genealogies and register their own trees. Center director Haim Ghiuzeli frequently speaks at international genealogy conferences.
More than two million names have already been entered. International visitors can explore their ancestry, record and preserve family trees for future generations, and add branches to the global Jewish family tree.
Through the ages, as Jewish families migrated by force or voluntarily, they left behind memorabilia, carrying only memories that were rarely written down, thus causing difficult problems for today's family history researchers.
Today, genealogists record information on their families to make sure this vital information is preserved. There is always the possibility that once your family tree is entered, you may discover other family ties.
The center has a collection of traditional graphic trees - an art form made obsolete by computer software. Most represent the family as a tree with branches and leaves, like the biblical Tree of Life.
An important holding is the 1,200-roll microfilm collection, courtesy of the late Prof. Yitzhak Halbrecht - the only duplicates in Israel of LDS microfilms of original Polish records - but only a fraction of what the Mormon's Family History Library holds.
The museum is the only institution in Israel and the only Jewish institution in the world with a major collection of LDS microfilms. Volunteers extracted more than 150,000 of these records, and all entries are or will be available on the independent Jewish Records Indexing-Poland database (www.jri-poland.org).
The records are challenging, as they are in cursive Polish handwriting or in Russian or German. A team of mainly volunteer experts has been reading and translating records into English. By appointment, visitors may view films, search translations, or order online a photocopy of any record.
Family history research is encouraged among Israeli and international junior high school students ages 11-14, with the museum's annual My Family's Story: The Professor Y. Halbrecht International Family Tree Competition.
This year's event is the 11th, and each year participant numbers have increased. In the 10th competition, more than 15,000 students in eight countries entered, more than 300 were semi-finalists and 50 were selected for award judging. Every year, the quality and the creative aspects of the entries increase, along with use of modern technology.
Additional resources are:
* A resource fully digitized last winter, the Dr. Meir Padoa Collection offers hundreds of Italian family trees dating to the 16th century - some 800 family names and thousands of individuals - and documenting Italian Jewish history.
* The Database of Jewish Family Names was created 20 years ago and has nearly 20,000 entries on the origin and meaning of Jewish family names.
Entries include etymology, variants, geographical areas and more, with information from scientific research, onomastic and other dictionaries, Jewish traditional sources and information supplied by the public. The center appreciates receiving new information for family names.
One can e-mail data to firstname.lastname@example.org
* A Community database provides information on international Jewish communities, compiled from many sources. Some 3,500 entries, in English and Hebrew, are available.
Integrating the databases
The museum and HP are preparing a completely new retrieval system that will integrate all museum databases - a crucial step for continued future progress, says the staff.
The first full version of the new system is being tested, and after corrections and improvements, it will permit visitors to perform a comprehensive search of all databases.
Museum director Hasia Israeli says the final version may be available in early 2007, in conjunction with the opening of the renovated first floor of the museum.
I asked the genealogy center's Ghiuzeli how it would help me find information about Mogilev, Belarus, my main city of interest.
"Entering 'Mogilev' as a search term should bring up all genealogy records with a Mogilev connection, as well as slides, photographs, films and music," he said.
This means I would be able to listen to a piece performed by a cantor in Mogilev, see photographs and films of Mogilev and its families, and access genealogical records listing this city in any field.
Making it work
Beth Hatefusoth director Hasia Israeli shared a presentation prepared for donors and the board, illustrating the history of financial problems and the recovery phase.
Her predecessor, Ranny Finzi, reduced the museum's deficit to about $200,000 by 2005. "That was good," Israeli says, adding that she believes the deficit will be eliminated entirely by the end of 2006. "The museum is running much more efficiently."
However, individuals who commented under protection of anonymity are concerned by the stringent "efficiency." According to some, it means that necessary supplies cannot be purchased, even for nominal amounts, while others who depend on volunteers to enter data say that equipment needs to be repaired to continue the work.
Israeli repeatedly addressed the importance of balancing everyday needs and the deficit, adding that limited funds are prioritized strictly. When asked about equipment repairs so volunteers can continue their work, she stressed that there were other needs more important.
Although the perception is that money is again flowing, Israeli says that development funding is specifically earmarked, while daily expenses come from stretched resources. "Every day is a balancing act of priorities," she says.
A major donation came from Leonid Nevzlin's $5 million over five years for the International School for Jewish Peoplehood Studies, with other funding from the Claims Conference, the Jewish Agency and the government.
The institution, says Israeli, is in the recovery phase, with some projects to be completed by 2012. "We are on track," she says, adding that the Ministry of Finance endorsed the plan in June. "This will rebuild the government's financial participation, and a major improvement is that Beth Hatefusoth is now a budget line item."
These are two ongoing parallel tracks, she says. One is the daily running of the museum; the other is the need to develop content, physically renovate the facility and permanent exhibits.
Some employees are concerned that Nevzlin's organization is filling key staffing positions. In response to a direct question, Israeli denied this, but she also said that such a large donor "would like to be involved."
Also a concern is that although all job openings are to be first announced internally, advertisements have appeared in the English press without prior notice to employees, who were unaware until they saw the ads.
Israeli says that for a long time, staffing was ignored through the periods of downsizing; now positions are being redefined. This, she says, has caused tension and a work dispute among the employees, the Histadrut and the museum. The employees say they do not want to strike and would much prefer to solve the dispute through negotiation and understanding, even though according to a recent article in the Hebrew weekly Tel Aviv, the Histadrut has given them permission to strike.
When the museum was opened in 1978, it centered on the Diaspora. Today, Israeli says, this view has changed among cultural institutions, and the Jewish people are one people. By law, the museum is termed a "national center for Jewish communities" unique in the world.
The foundation includes the museum and the school, which together center on education and learning, while the school will be a hub for ideas, initiatives and encounters, educational activities and content.
On the agenda is the upgrading of the old-fashioned exhibits into a multimedia virtual environment that can be changed easily as desired.
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