Making the Besht of a good job

An exhibition focused on the Ba’al Shem Tov draws attention to both the iconic rabbi and the Jewish National and University Library.

311_Drawing of Polish Jews (photo credit: Courtesy)
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.
Although 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.”
The 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.”
Besides spreading 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 about.”
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.”
The 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.
Graffiti aside, 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.
Another 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 free.