It’s true: Haredim are taking over the country and they’re starting with the Israel Museum.
The newest exhibit to visit the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, entitled in English, “A World Apart Next Door: Glimpses into the Lives of Hasidic Jews” shows exactly what its title suggests: fascinating “Glimpses” into the world of Hasidic Jews, but not much beyond that. I was personally drawn into the exhibit by my own interest of Hasidic thought and culture, so for me it was very cool to see all of the objects, testimonies, and media that the museum brought together. But I felt that the exhibit left many questions unanswered, which, for the wrong crowd, could be very damaging.
That’s not to say that it was a boring exhibit. They display includes a wide variety of objects from older Hasidic communities, like a prayer shawl that apparently belonged the Ba’al Shem Tov, the legendary 18th century founder of Hasidic Judaism , as well as videos and pictures documenting life-cycle rituals and holiday celebrations from Hasidic communities in Israel. Anyone who makes their way to the exhibit will be able to step into a Hasidic court to witness the Rebbe pass out fruit baskets on Tu B’shvat or sit in on an emotional Slichot prayer service where thousands of Belz Hasidim cry to God for forgiveness before Rosh Hashanah comes along. The exhibit satisfies a certain curiosity for anyone who ever wondered how Hasidic Jews live their lives in between the headlines that they create. But as I left the museum after an emotional hour of putting myself in their shoes, kaftans, and shtreimels, I ultimately found my fellow museum patrons to be a more of a nuanced and enticing exhibit than the collection itself.
I overheard several snide and cynical comments in response to many of the pictures and videos. “She must be so humiliated,” someone commented about a video of an emotionless young bride, who stood in the middle of a packed event hall. Her face was covered as she slowly paced around the room across from the Rebbe, who danced on the other side of the hall, with a long satin rope connecting the two.
Though it seems to be a scary and demeaning ceremony to an outsider looking in, I would imagine that as a young Hasidic girl who grew up dreaming of her wedding night, this moment was an incredibly important source of pride for her and her family. There were some explanations in the exhibit, but I worry that the foreign rituals and emotions that are presented without the proper context will generate more fear than respect or appreciation. I don’t think that this is the Israel Museum’s goal.
One group of visitors that I was actually surprised to see was the many Hasidim who also came to check out what was going on in the museum. I expected them to be upset by the treatment of their ritual objects and books as archaeological artifacts. I was proven wrong by what I saw as I walked around the exhibit. I saw parents explaining to their numerous children the importance of the books on display or legendary tales from the old Polish synagogues whose pictures were hanging on the walls. One man I spoke with, a visiting Hasid from New Jersey saw this exhibit as a source of pride. “This is MY rebbe! That’s a picture of MY Bubbe’s village!” he explained to me as we spoke next to a replica of Rabbi Nachman’s chair. For many Hasidim, this exhibit is an opportunity to explain the inner workings of their world and hopefully create some room for understanding.
The one conversation I had that left me with the most questions was with a visibly agitated man with a heavy European accent. I was looking at a picture of a Ukranian village he asked me if I know why this picture is important.
“Of course you don’t,” he said. “You’re too young to know…In this village 15,000 Jews were slaughtered by their neighbors. 15,000 Jews! But the Israel Museum won’t tell you that.”
I wasn’t expecting to have this discussion at an exhibit on Hasidic Jews, but the topic is often unavoidable. This man’s dissonance with the narrow approach of the exhibit made me only more aware of the several directions in which the curators could have taken this exhibit but chose not to. In a way, the exhibit is like the Hasidic world itself; trapped in time and unaware of its present surroundings.
Only a few dozen meters away from the museum, the Knesset is currently trying figure out a way to draft many of the subjects in this exhibit into the army. The women in the wedding videos and celebratory pictures travel to those elaborate event halls in the back of buses and walk home from them on gender-segregated streets. The Eastern European villages from which these communities emerged are filled with unmarked graveyards of the millions who used to live there but were slaughtered in pogroms in the 19th and early 20th centuries or in the Holocaust. You wouldn’t have learned any of this from visiting the Israel Museum.
I left the museum somewhat unsatisfied, yearning for more. I’m not sure if it was for more glimpses into the Rebbe’s court or for the “full” story on where these people come from and where they’re living now. But regardless of how I felt, anyone who is in the Jerusalem area between now and December and has even the smallest sense of curiosity about Hasidim, should go to the Israel Museum and join in on the farbrengen.