My daughter’s eyes light up as she checks out a newly opened art exhibition complete with identity cubes, multimedia postcards, micro-calligraphy portraits, an image of David Ben-Gurion made with grains of rice, and colorful cardboard hands that resemble trees. She studies each hand and reaches out to touch it. “I like the blue hand, Ima,” she says excitedly.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen my three-and-a-half-year-old so interested in an art exhibition. This might be due to the fact that the creators of the artwork are also children, who have taken part in a unique project spearheaded by Partnership for Jewish SchoolsS (PaJeS) to mark 75 years since the founding of the State of Israel.
The exhibition, entitled “ISRAEL75: Building Artistic Connections,” is located at the Ben-Gurion Heritage Institute near Sde Boker. It features the work of elementary school children from 15 Jewish schools around the world, such as England, Ireland, Scotland, Finland, and the US.
What is the unique children's art exhibit?
“It’s very interesting to see how Jewish children outside of Israel perceive the Jewish state today,” says Esther Suissa, the head of programs at the Ben-Gurion Heritage Institute, during the opening night of the exhibition on July 5.
“I’ve been living in Israel for 36 years, and there is something about this artwork that resonates very strongly with me – that simple love, and connection, for the Jewish state through a child’s eyes, uncomplicated by cynicism,” comments Suissa, who is originally from London.
Nic Abery, the educational consultant for the UK-based PaJeS, spearheaded the project both this year and five years ago. She explains that the Israel75: Building Artistic Connections project connects 11 museums and heritage institutions to schools in the Diaspora. The Israeli institutions this year include the National Library of Israel; the Herzl Center; the Israel Museum; ANU; the Tel Aviv Museum of Art; the Ben-Gurion Heritage Center; the Babylonian Jewry Heritage Center; the Tower of David; the Mishkan Art Museum; and Yad Vashem.
The museums provided high-resolution photos and information regarding the origins, patronage, and narrative of each item for the teachers and students. In addition, Abery, who curated the exhibition, compiled a comprehensive training program, including lesson plans for the teachers on the project’s website. She also offered synchronized Zoom training and the chance for teachers to meet the curators or museum educational personnel. Finally, once the students’ artwork was completed, the teachers either transported or mailed the pieces to Abery in London.
“At the very beginning of the project, we asked all the students to comment on what Israel means to them. Their comments ranged from reflections of the state being a place of Jewish heritage, religious identity, and personal connections, to a hot and sunny holiday destination,” Abery tells the Magazine.
After completing the project, Abery notes that the Jewish students from Helsinki, Dublin, London, Glasgow, and Detroit gained a “deeper understanding” of the different people who have made Israel their home, thanks to the learning and exploration of the various artwork and historical objects.
“Art and objects are ambiguous. The reflective artworks in the exhibition demonstrate how one initial object was interpreted in many ways by students,” she elaborates.
One example is the Bread Stamp with the symbol of the Temple menorah, which was a type of seal thought to mark baked goods during the Byzantine period, on display at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.
“The Bread Stamp led one group of students to produce cubes reflecting their school identity and its connection to Rabbi Jonathan Sacks and Israel, while another school’s students produced their own stamps portraying their personal connection to Israel,” Abery, a former museum educator and teacher, further explains.
Another school learns about a unique piece of Middle Eastern jewelry, a silver and turquoise anklet that was once popular among Iraqi Jews, whose children would wear them until the age of four. According to local tradition, the anklets would ward off demons and enable mothers to locate their toddlers anywhere in the house. After viewing photos of the bracelets, which are on display at the Babylonian Jewry Heritage Center in Or Yehuda, the students draw their own versions of beaded anklets and symbolic charms.
Other students take inspiration from the first postcard in Hebrew that David Ben-Gurion sent to his family back in Poland upon his arrival to Jaffa in 1906, on display at the Ben-Gurion Heritage Archives. Some students create their own colorful postcards written in Hebrew, while others create a collaborative collage of Hebrew texts in the shape of the map of Israel.
“At a time when Israel is questioning its own identity and future, it is vital that kids who have only ever known Israel’s existence are given the chance to explore, analyze, and reflect on its many faces,” comments Abery, who brought all the artwork with her on the plane to Israel.
One of the highlights for the students was being able to see their artwork on display in London’s JW3, the city’s Jewish community center.
“One moment that will remain with me was seeing the young artists themselves walk around the exhibition in London, enthusiastically and excitedly enjoying seeing and commenting on how the piece had been displayed,” Abery recalls.
Because not all the students and their parents could travel to London or Israel to see the exhibition, PaJeS also worked on an impressive online digital gallery with Moyosa Spaces. The works can be viewed at moyosaspaces.com/portfolio/israel75/.
Following its summer showing in Midreshet Ben-Gurion, the exhibition will move to Ein Harod in the Galilee in September.
In addition to PaJeS, the project also has the backing of the World Zionist Organization, the United Jewish Israel Appeal, and UnitEd, a subsidiary of the Diaspora Affairs Ministry working with schools across the Diaspora.
“It’s a huge privilege to host this exhibition here in Israel and to see the different families and groups visiting the Negev, coming by to enjoy the amazing artwork of these children,” says Shmil Adler, the deputy CEO of the Ben-Gurion Heritage Institute.
“The communication between Israel and world Jewry is something David Ben-Gurion invested much energy and effort in. To view Israel through the eyes of kids in London and Dublin really is an amazing opportunity for us,” Adler says.
“David Ben-Gurion would have enjoyed seeing this art exhibition,” she adds. “It was important for him to regularly correspond with youth. He saw kids as leaders of today and not tomorrow. There is definitely that spirit of Ben-Gurion’s legacy captured in this project.” ■
The writer made aliyah from Calais, Maine, in 2004. She works as an English teacher in Midreshet Ben-Gurion, where she lives with her family.