Putting dialogue at the forefront

A special exhibition at the Museum of the Jewish People at Beit Hatfutsot is called “Let There Be Laughter – Jewish Humor Around the World.”

THE MUSEUM’S special exhibition on Jewish humor, ‘Let there be laughter’ (photo credit: ELAD SARIG)
THE MUSEUM’S special exhibition on Jewish humor, ‘Let there be laughter’
(photo credit: ELAD SARIG)
Tucked in the heart of Tel Aviv University is Jerry Seinfeld’s kitchen from his TV show Seinfeld. A few steps away is a replica of typical Israeli living room circa 1980s with a mauve couch, discolored beige tiles and, of course, a TV that takes up half the room. Adjacent to that is a darkened room where one can listen to a hologram-like image of Israel’s most famous comedians delivering their best material.
No, it’s not some alternative universe where humor reigns – but a special exhibition at the Museum of the Jewish People at Beit Hatfutsot called “Let There Be Laughter – Jewish Humor Around the World.”
The museum conveys how – from the Yiddish humor of the early 1900s to the cutting wit of today – Jews around the world have cemented their place in comedy lore.
“The humor exhibition is a blockbuster – 110,000 people have visited it since the Passover opening – but it also tells an important story. A big part of our Jewish identity is humor,” said museum CEO Dan Tadmor. “When you research Jewish humor, whether it’s Sephardi or Ashkenazi, through the ages it has been pretty much the same outlook for Jews everywhere – the outlook of Jews as the minority and underdog.”
Jews are also great communicators. From humor to literature to politics, we Jews love to talk.
But when it comes to dialogue between communities, specifically American and Israeli ones, there isn’t nearly enough of it, fears Tadmor.
“It’s high time for everyone in the Jewish world to ensure dialogue exists,” he said during a conversation in his Ramat Aviv office. “It doesn’t mean we will solve the problems instantly, but it does mean if we want to solve these problems and regain unity, it has to be through dialogue, which is not happening enough.”
For 41 years, the museum has told the “unique and ongoing story of the Jewish people,” Tadmor explained. But as the facility enters the final stage of an ambitious and comprehensive $100 million face-lift, it has made engagement and dialogue its number one priority.
Tadmor credits the possibility of this rebirth to stability: long-standing government support alongside a successful capital campaign under the leadership of chairwoman Irina Nevzlin.
The second phase of renewal, which is slated for completion in late 2019, will show visitors a completely new and highly interactive permanent exhibition on three floors dedicated to Jewish identity, culture and history.
At the heart of the bottom floor will be the Andrew and Ann Tisch Center for Jewish Dialogue, a 7,000-square- foot space that can host groups of various sizes. Carving out such a large chunk of space in the biggest Jewish museum in the world is integral to Beit Hatfutsot’s new vision for inclusiveness and engagement with the entire Jewish world. Once construction is complete, the museum will span more than 60,000 square feet of display space, and Tadmor expects the number of annual visitors to double from 200,000 to 400,000.
Additionally, in the spirit of dialogue, the new permanent exhibition will be interactive on a number of levels.
“We’re incorporating dialogue into everything we do. Our educational initiatives will infuse the notion of dialogue, both in terms of pedagogical technique and through highlighting the need to talk to each other, to be open and listen,” Tadmor said.
While this may be the new official theme for the museum, it has, since its inception, been quietly fostering conversations between communities.
“Beit Hatfutsot has always been about dialogue. It’s a place where one Jew sees how other Jews live and have lived. We’ve been doing education and outreach for 41 years. We’ve always been about dialogue without calling it that specifically,” Tadmor explained. “But now [the renovation project and interactive exhibitions and the Tisch Center] put us at the forefront of that.”
This is being done not only because it complements the museum’s mission to lend a voice to every Jew regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation or denomination, but also because of necessity.
After all, the way in which the museum conveyed information 40 years ago is vastly different from today. The advent of new technology has presented a great opportunity for engaging visitors.
“When Beit Hatfutsot opened in 1978 it was considered cutting-edge technology because we had speakers and videos. But, of course, that grew dated. Today’s technology, from simple interactives all the way to augmented reality and virtual reality, gives us huge options,” Tadmor said.
Taking advantage of that technology has also extended to the museum’s databases, which currently hold over six million entries. The museum is now in the process of making all that data – about genealogy, family names, photographs, videos, music and communities – accessible to the general public online (and completely free of charge).
But perhaps the best starting point for fostering dialogue is to show what all Jews have in common. Beit Hatfutsot understands this and sees the museum as a celebration of these commonalities.
“We believe we need to remind ourselves of the huge base of what unites the Jewish people. We have a common history, culture, values, homeland and language – even if all of us don’t speak it fluently,” Tadmor said. “We chose to be the only museum in the world to tell the Jewish narrative in its entirety and to tell it through a pluralistic prism.
“Our only agenda is to strengthen a sense of belonging through engagement in Jewish identity,” he asserted plainly.
With hundreds of delegates set to descend on Tel Aviv as the GA kicks off this month, that seems like a noble mission that many people should support.
This article was written in cooperation with The Museum of the Jewish People at Beit Hatfutsot.