Aliya Stories: Every object tells a story

Beyond exhibiting items, museums can have an important role in society.

Judy Jaffe-Schagen (photo credit: SOPHIE JAFFE)
Judy Jaffe-Schagen
(photo credit: SOPHIE JAFFE)
Moving from her native Amsterdam to Yavne’el in the Lower Galilee was quite a culture shock for Judy Jaffe-Schagen.
Even after 15 years, she still eagerly awaits her summer trips to Holland. But it was love that brought her to Yavne’el and anchors her there still.
Although she and her sisters went once a week to Hebrew school and were raised in a traditional home, the Schagen family never visited Israel. Judy’s first trip was in 1995, when she spent half a year at the World Union of Jewish Students in Arad.
“I wanted to learn more about Israel. I was always fascinated by it,” she says.
Prior to this, she had pursued an education in history and art.
“My mom is a potter and we went to museums all the time, which at one point we hated but learned to appreciate,” she relates. “I did a bachelor’s degree in history and a master’s in economic social history because I didn’t want to be pinned down to a certain era.”
In her senior year of university she interned at the Jewish Historical Museum in Amsterdam and afterward became a researcher there.
“I looked for objects that could be on display and for the story of objects that were already on display,” she says. This area of interest would later loom large in her work in Israel.
Following WUJS, she returned to Israel in 1996 to work at Yad Vashem researching Righteous Gentiles from Holland.
“That year there were nonstop bus suicide attacks and I felt I was risking my life riding to Yad Vashem,” she recalls.
“But during that time I met my future husband, Richard.” Born in Boston, Richard had been living in Israel for 20 years and had two sons from a previous marriage. He works as an American patent agent.
“Richard was living on a hilltop in the middle of nowhere and then told me he moved to the ‘big city,’ which was Yavne’el. His sons lived nearby and we wanted to be somewhere they could walk to on Shabbat.”
She jokes that after her return to Amsterdam, “Richard kept calling and I kept answering. After four years I asked the museum for unpaid leave. They didn’t agree to that, so I quit and moved to Israel. For the first 10 years in Israel, I continued to do freelance research for the museum and I wrote a blog for a Jewish website and articles for two Jewish magazines in Holland, mostly about art in Israel.”
She and Richard married in the oldest Ashkenazi synagogue in Amsterdam and then returned to Yavne’el. They have three daughters: Leah, 14; Molly, 12; and Sophie, nine, who enjoy a close relationship with their two older brothers and newborn nephew.
The girls, who share their mother’s interest in art, speak Dutch with their mom and English with their dad. Being fluent in Dutch allows them to speak seamlessly to their maternal grandparents and aunts when they visit Holland.
“I love Israel, but I didn’t come here because of Zionist feelings. I came out of love for my husband. Life in Yavne’el is challenging. It’s an amazing way for the children to be brought up, but when Leah’s first word was ‘tractor’ I got really worried and that never stopped,” Jaffe-Schagen relates with a laugh.
About 10 years ago, Jaffe-Schagen’s father sent her a published oration from a Dutch professor in object history.
“I contacted her because it really spoke to me,” she says. “I visited her in Amsterdam and at the end of the meeting she said it seemed totally clear that everything I’d done until now had led me to this area of research. She suggested I do a PhD and she would be my adviser.”
The project became Jaffe-Schagen’s entrée to learning more about Israel and its people. Over the course of seven years – starting on the day she found out she was pregnant with Sophie – she began visiting Israelis from different backgrounds, often several generations of one family, and speaking to them about their treasured and ordinary possessions.
“Wherever I visit people I look at what they have in their homes and I want to know the stories about what is displayed. I also like to see what is not displayed because there’s an equally important story there, too.”
Then she took a closer look at the objects museums present about the same groups of people and discovered that when the story presented to viewers differs from the family’s story – or when the link between home and museum is missing entirely – the object is transformed into something much different.
She decided to delve into understanding the role of museums and the stories they choose to tell, seeking answers to questions such as why the Israeli government supports certain cultural institutions and not others, why Arab museum exhibits focus on contemporary art and why Ethiopian museum exhibits focus on ethnographic art.
Jaffe-Schagen’s doctoral thesis turned into a book, Having and Belonging: Homes and Museums in Israel, published by Berghahn Books this year as the fifth volume in the series Material Mediations: People and Things in a World of Movement.
“The objects in homes and museums that are the subject of this study are linked to eight groups – Chabad, Moroccan, Iraqi, Ethiopian, Russian, National Religious, Israeli Christian Arab, and Israeli Muslim Arab,” she writes in the introduction. “The groups are defined by historical, ethnic, religious and political positions in various combinations.
By focusing on objects and personal stories, the connection between material culture and citizenship will become visible. By combining homes and museums as the places where objects are researched, more will be known about the forming of the nation-state and its identity.”
She has been talking with a curator at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art about mounting an exhibition on her research.
“I established a collection of 66 objects from all these groups and would like them to be together in one room and invite everyone there,” she says.
“I saw I was the only one who was visiting these amazing families, and in ethnic museums I’d never see anyone there from another community. I was depressed that there was no exchange of stories and objects. We all need to sit and have coffee together.”
Because most of the groups she researched have other cultural institutions besides museums, her present research is about how these institutions are connected with one another.
Jaffe-Schagen did post-doctoral research at the University of Haifa and at the Amsterdam School for Heritage and Memory Studies at the Amsterdam University and now has a post-doc position at VU University in Amsterdam.
“It’s an inner drive; I don’t do it for the money. I struggle every year to find research grants. I do this research because I love it so much, and I hope by finding answers I can contribute to Israeli society becoming a place where every group feels it belongs and is respected,” she says.