Haredim flock to museum exhibit about hassidim

Israel Museum exhibit called “A World Apart Next Door: Glimpses into the Life of Hassidic Jews,” attracting haredim from all sects.

Haredim visit the Israel Museum 370 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Haredim visit the Israel Museum 370
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
The traditional way that hassidic men wear their coat is with the right side closed over the left side. This is because the right symbolizes mercy and the left symbolizes judgment, and they want their clothing to be an expression of the wish that God’s mercy will triumph over all.
This is just one of the tidbits from the Israel Museum’s exhibit on hassidic Judaism called “A World Apart Next Door: Glimpses into the Life of Hassidic Jews.” Surprisingly, though, the most enthusiastic visitors to the exhibit are not the secular public but haredim (ultra-Orthodox).
Despite the fact that the museum is open on Shabbat, haredim from all sects, both hassidic and non-hassidic, have come to the museum in record numbers since the exhibit opened on June 19. It runs until December 1.
Exhibit curator Ester Muschawsky-Schnapper, a 30- year veteran of the museum, believes haredim are drawn to the exhibit for two reasons. First, because their communities are fairly isolated even within haredi neighborhoods, and there’s the natural curiosity to see how other ultra- Orthodox sects celebrate their traditions.
Muschawsky-Schnapper said that in her five years of research one of the biggest concerns was not modesty or how she would portray something, but whether she would give enough space in the exhibit to a specific stream of Hassidism.
The second reason haredim are drawn to the exhibit is to understand how the outside world views their community.
“In an organized, concentrated way, [the exhibit allows them] to see how somebody from outside sees them, and this puzzles them a lot,” said Muschawsky-Schnapper.
“You don’t see your own culture organized in rational categories,” she explained. “This is the researcher who does that, or the ethnographer who does it. To see it in such categories is nevertheless news for them.”
As he exited the exhibit on Wednesday a hassidic man who declined to give his name said he felt “a little weird” that he and his community were part of a museum exhibition.
“It’s not defaming the subject, it’s taking a picture,” he explained. “It presents it correctly and there are some new and interesting things.”
But the man, a leading rabbi in the Polish hassidic community in Jerusalem, said he felt like hassidim were presented as “the other” so that secular people could gawk, and he worried that most of the secular public came to stare at their differences rather than to appreciate the close-knit hassidic community.
“You can ask anyone here. No one came to learn,” he said. “It’s like a zoo. You don’t go to a zoo to learn zoology, the same way you didn’t really come here to learn anthropology.... It doesn’t reveal anything. It gives a view from the outside but it doesn’t show the meaning of hassidut.”
The rabbi added that he understood the pull of the exhibit for haredim.
“I went through everything [in the exhibit] and I tried to understand – what does it say to a man from the outside?” he asked. Just as the secular public is curious about haredim, haredim are also curious about what the public thinks of their lifestyle, he explained.
The fact that the museum is open on Shabbat did not bother the rabbi, who said it was clear that the exhibit had not been intended for haredim. If the museum wanted to build an exhibit for haredim it would not have music during the three-week mourning period leading up to Tisha Be’Av and would have gender-separate viewing hours, he said.
Haaretz incorrectly reported this week that the museum would offer separate viewing hours to accommodate haredi visitors. Some haredi groups have reserved after-hours tours (a practice common with very large groups) that are gender-segregated, according to the museum spokeswoman, however the regular museum hours are not gender-separate.
Muschawsky-Schnapper said that during her research she had hoped the exhibit would be received warmly by the haredi community. She added that she was worried about “stepping on someone’s toes” and making a mistake that would lead the community or its rabbis to shun the exhibition.
The museum also made a major effort to appeal to the haredi media. It held separate press conferences for these journalists and retained a haredi public relations firm to market the exhibit – which has been widely and for the most part favorably covered on haredi radio and in the community’s newspapers and websites.
Secular visitors to the exhibit on Wednesday said that while it didn’t present new information it was impressive and a little overwhelming to see it all concentrated in one place.
Shaike, a resident of the Galilee, said he left with the reinforced notion that the hassidic and secular communities were literally “worlds apart.”
“It gives a different perspective to all the army discussion about the Tal law [equal draft for haredim], that maybe we don’t need to put them in the army because it would really break them and break their way of life,” he said. “Maybe it would be dangerous for us, too, as a secular state.”
Shaike and his wife, Bracha, faulted the exhibit for focusing just on the happy aspects of hassidic life while ignoring issues like death and discord within the community.
Muschawsky-Schnapper said the harshest criticism had come from secular visitors who wanted to know why stone-throwing and violence from extremist sects of haredi communities had been left out. But that was the point of the exhibition, she said. “Journalists like to write about the scoop; no one writes about warm family life.”
The exhibition has also inspired groups to meet and hold discussions, including a group of women teachers from the Beis Yaakov school system who met with a group of secular Tel Aviv women.
“I hoped this would be an outreach,” said Muschawsky- Schnapper, who had an entire hassidic branch of her family that perished in the Holocaust. “My personal aim was to bring hearts together.”