The new wing of Beit Hatfutsot, The Museum of the Jewish People, is attracting lots of interest.Judging by the number of visitors milling excitedly around the place when I popped by recently, it is certainly pulling in the public, and it is chalking up some official kudos in the bargain. MK Avraham Neguise, chair of the Absorption and Immigration Committee, a visitor to the spanking new extension to the Ramat Aviv facility, called for “all government ministries to encourage youth from the periphery to visit Beit Hatfutsot.”That’s not a bad idea at all. Judging by the facilities in the new wing, in addition to the older stuff, there is ne’er a dull moment to be endured by the average visitor.The extension, which opened for business at the beginning of the summer, incorporates more than 7,500 square meters of display space and houses a bunch of fun and intriguing temporary exhibitions, as well as the iconic collection of synagogue models. Ask most people who have been to the museum over its close to four-decade history which of the facility’s items sticks most robustly in the mind, the answer will invariably be the aforementioned miniature houses of prayer.
The renovation program has given the models a new and expansive lease of life. They are now displayed in all their glory in the Alfred H. Moses & Family Synagogue Hall in generously proportioned and well-lit glass cabinets that enable comfortable viewing from every angle. There is also an even smaller version of one of the synagogues not encased in glass that allows the visitor to get a hands-on sense of the building’s proportions and architectural ins and outs.“That allows visually impaired people to experience the model,” explains Beit Hatfutsot CEO Dan Tadmor. “They can touch it.” Tadmor was an energetic and dynamic guide to the new facility, which forms part of a grand overhaul of the museum. The full shebang is due to be unveiled in 2019, at a total cost of $100 million.The new wing provides for an exciting, intriguing and rewarding experience, taking in a wide swath of elements and themes, as befitting the multifarious nature and history of the Jewish people. Chief curator Dr. Orit Shaham Gover was, of course, keenly aware of the wide thematic and historical tracts the museum makeover had to accommodate.“How does one plan a museum for the Jewish people? How can this extensive heritage be expressed in a limited gallery space? Where does the story begin, and where does it end? From which perspective do we convey this timeless saga? How do we portray the challenges and achievements that mark Jewish history? What is our purpose in telling this story, and what is the message we wish to impart?” she muses.“Naturally, there is no one answer. So when the planning team of the Museum of the Jewish People considered these questions, it chose a distinct approach – creating a museum through which the complexities of the Jewish story could be revealed.”Shaham Gover added that the current new facility, and the one that is still in the works, are tailored to take “visitors on a fascinating journey through a unique and ongoing story.” The chief curator identifies a triangular conceptual substratum to the aforesaid objective – a pluralistic and all-encompassing approach, a celebration of creativity and renewal, relevancy and identification.“By interweaving the threads of past and present and illuminating the idea that we are all part of the greater Jewish story, the museum promotes the concept that ‘this story is (also) my own’.”Beit Hatfutsot takes a definitive “get them involved” approach. While it is an enjoyable experience, for example, viewing the exquisitely fashioned synagogue models from communities around the globe, Tadmor, Shaham Gover and the rest of the museum’s planning team want the public to get down and dirty. This is not a traditional viewing gallery, and there is always something for the public to do to enhance their visit.
In addition to the models and displays, the Synagogue Hall offers a plethora of media-augmented information and entertainment options.A large screen in the center of the gallery focuses on the three daily prayers – morning, afternoon and evening services – presenting a broad spectrum of prayer formats, as per the geographic location and cultural milieu of the various communities. That diversity factor is taken an entertaining step further with a humorously spirited film in which media celebrities Jacky Levy and Kobi Arieli describe the similarities and differences between Sephardi and Ashkenazi prayer.There is plenty of interactive endeavor to keep the visitor gainfully engaged at four stations. The museum powersthat- be have clearly done their best to mix the historical with the contemporary to make their offerings as appealing as possible to people of all ages.Take, for example, the Jewish Music in Synagogues slot, where you can hear nine separate piyutim (liturgical songs) performed by artists from across the genre spread. The Interactivity for Children game allows junior visitors to mix and match architectural elements and styles to put together their own virtual house of prayer.There is plenty more on offer in the way of fun and games at another permanent exhibition for the younger crowd at the Tamar and Milton Maltz Family Gallery. The “Heroes: Trailblazers of the Jewish People” layout takes in eight categories of Jewish heroes through the annals of history, including scientists, philosophers, revolutionaries, cultural giants, athletes, courageous individuals and economic leaders.The Heroes facility is officially aimed at the 6-to 12-year-old segment, but when I did the rounds of the place in my stockinged feet – leaving your shoes outside, in lockers, enhances the fun element, and the carpets are suitably tender to your soles – there were plenty of parents and grandparents around, too. The senior family members were also unabashedly taken with hands-on profferings and, besides chaperoning their loved ones, some were happily playing around with the multidisciplinary items on all kinds of legendary figures themselves, besides helping their offspring work the equipment.All told, 143 Jewish “super heroes” are featured, from American-born Maccabi Tel Aviv basketball icon Tal Brody to Eurovision Song Contest winner Dana International, and acclaimed architect Daniel Libeskind to King David, Steven Spielberg, Albert Einstein and much betwixt.The new wing also currently houses a couple of temporary exhibitions, one of which marks the 30th anniversary of the first mass airlift of Ethiopian Jews to Israel. “Operation Moses: 30 Years After” is a moving show centered around a movie by Orly Malessa who herself came on aliya in the titular exploit, as a child.Malessa identified Ethiopian-born Israelis from all over the country who share their first-person stories, each in a five-minute documentary film. Moving and delightful in equal parts, the documentaries run the gamut of the harrowing ordeals endured by many Ethiopian olim and their often rocky road to integration in Israeli society.
There appears to be something for absolutely everyone at the new Beit Hatfutsot, and that includes children of the 1960s and any of their progeny who received a good musical education.The “Forever Young – Bob Dylan at 75” temporary exhibition stretches the addressed Jewish cultural hinterland further, paying homage to one of the most influential artists of the second half of the 20th century. Visitors are provided with some insight into the life and work of the famously inscrutable Mr. Dylan (formerly Robert Zimmerman), through films, images, posters, displays and a vast collection of his original music. His story is relayed through the revolution he generated, his influence on music and his ebbing and flowing connection with Judaism.The exhibition was curated by feted pop and rock expert and media personality Yoav Kutner, who also enriched the exhibition aesthetics with a slew of Dylan LP covers from his private collection.“We engage in Jewish identity,” explains Tadmor. “We are not a religious body. We address everything that is connected to the Jewish people that is not religion.” The CEO notes that the museum’s ethos follows inclusive lines.“We engage in our common history, heritage, values and culture. We also address our language, Hebrew, whether or not we are fluent in it, because it is the language of our forefathers. Jewish peoplehood is the watchword. Jewish identity is about being open and pluralist. Pluralism is one of the foundations of Beit Hatfutsot. You’ll find that in everything we do.”The new wing reflects that and much more. If this first installment is anything to go by, the museum’s planned full makeover should be something to see. For more information: (03) 745-7808 and www.bh.org.il