For those, like me, who may need a Christmas alternative today, let’s blog-travel to Israel, where one of my chief takeaways from my two-week trip last month was how multicultural the Jewish people have been over the centuries. (I had tweeted about this from Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, with images: here, here, here, here and here.)
Jewish cultural diversity, dependent upon where the diaspora led us, is demonstrated by the 18 models of synagogues from around the world in the core exhibition (click on “Faith”) at the Museum of the Jewish People in Tel Aviv. (That museum’s installations are soon to be reconceived by Patrick Gallagher, who also designed the displays at the National Museum of American Jewish History, Philadelphia).
The models at the Tel Aviv museum include this surprising pagoda-synagogue from China…
Kai Feng Fu Synagogue, built in 1163, rebuilt in 1653, now destroyed (recreated from drawings by a Jesuit missionary)
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum
Similarly, the four restored interiors that constitute the Synagogue Route at the Israel Museum, Jerusalem, demonstrate how Jews have “assimilated” architecturally, if not spiritually. This 16th-century carved-wood example from India had been “in danger of being demolished,” according to the museum’s wall label:
Kadavumbagam Synagogue, Cochin, Southern India, 1539-44
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum
Speaking of Jewish diversity, the Israel Museum—an encyclopedic institution with international art, prehistoric to contemporary (particularly strong in antiquities from its archaeologically rich region and in Jewish material culture)—mounted a groundbreaking exhibition that I intently absorbed and that may eventually travel to a museum near you—A World Apart Next Door: Glimpses into the Life of Hasidic Jews.
Although no venues have been finalized at this writing, the wall text gives a clue about where the show might find an audience as avid as the one in Jerusalem:
Although the Holocaust decimated Hasidic Jewry and destroyed its centers in Eastern Europe, the Hasidim have been highly successful in creating thriving communities in Israel and in many Western cities, notably London, Antwerp, Montreal and New York.
More ethnographic exhibition than art display, this fascinating look at an insular group that is mysterious to most outsiders (including most Jews) attracted some 180,000 visitors during its more than five-month run—a blockbuster by that museum’s standards.
Although they had not previously visted the museum in appreciable numbers, about half the audience came from Hasidic communities. They were attracted by the insightful, detailed depiction of their world, which owed much to the ability of the museum’s Yiddish-speaking ethnography curator, Ester Muchawsky-Schnapper, to gain the communities’ trust and cooperation.
According to the Israel Museum’s director, James Snyder (who discusses the show in the CultureGrrl Video below), “many museums are interested” in a possible traveling version of “A World Apart Next Door” (which closed on Dec. 1). For now, you can vicariously experience the show through its catalogue.
The exhibition was richly endowed with photographs and videos shot under the auspices of the Israel Museum, capturing common activities of daily life, as well as customs and apparel that may seem puzzling to the uninitiated (but are elucidated in the exhibition):
Opshprekhn: A ritual to draw out the evil eye, Pinsk-Karlin Hasidim, Jerusalem, 1999
Photograph by Joshua Haruni (marred by the glass reflection in my photograph of the photograph)
All forms of attire, including this array of children’s clothing, are extensively represented and invitingly installed:
Hasidic tradition holds that the majestic fur hats worn on the Sabbath and festive occasions transformed a humiliating decree—forcing Jews to wear animal tails as part of their clothing—into a symbol of pride.
There are also some splendid ritual objects, such as this gold Torah Crown, lavishly embellished with silver, diamonds, rubies, emeralds and turquoise:
Photo by Lee RosenbaumAs a mother of a bride-to-be, I was particularly interested in this wedding dress and its various accoutrements—a bit removed from CultureDaughter‘s simple-but-elegant choice:
Bridal dress, Nadvorna court, contemporary, wild silk
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum
Let’s hear more now about the exhibition from Snyder, director of the Israel Museum since 1996. Before that, he was deputy director at the Museum of Modern Art, where he played a central role overseeing its 1984 Cesar Pelli-designed expansion. Informed by that experience, he recently managed the Israel Museum’s $100-million expansion and campus renewal project, with new facilities designed by James
Accompanied by the museum restaurant’s non-Israeli background music (which you’ll recognize), Snyder will explain that Hasidim flocked to this show “as a point of pride….Normally, if you’re a member of one of those communities, what you read in the media is not always positive.” This was an uncritical, sympathetic portrayal that struck a responsive chord in its subjects.