“Beginning with Abraham right up to today and beyond, we tell the unique 4,000-year-old story of the Jewish people,” Itamar Kramer, Director of Education told Israel Today. “ANU” – Hebrew for ‘us’ is the name of the new Museum of the Jewish People, which tells the ongoing extraordinary story of our nation.
After 14 years of planning and construction, the aging 42-year-old Beit Hatfusot or Diaspora Museum on the campus of Tel-Aviv University has been transformed into the largest museum of the Jewish people in the world. “We call the project ’ANU’ because this is ‘our’ story,” Kramer said as we began the tour. “We want every Jew in the world to know that they belong to Israel and the worldwide Jewish community. Each one of us has a part to play in the story of the Jewish people,” he said.
The original Beit Hatfusot, or Diaspora Museum, opened in 1978 thanks to the vision of Nahum Goldmann, president of the World Jewish Congress from 1954-1977. Then in 2005, the Israeli Knesset passed the Beit Hatfutsot Law that defines the museum as “the National Center for Jewish communities in Israel and around the world.”
“This was also Ben-Gurion’s vision for the museum,” Kramer pointed out. “To communicate that world Jewry is very much a part of and included in the Zionist project. Since then, over 4 million visitors have passed through the original Diaspora Museum.”
What is a Jew?
My tour began at the top floor where we are asked the question, “What does it mean to be Jewish?” With cutting-edge polyphonic and multi-modality exhibitions we are lead through the maze of modern Jewish identity found in Jewish culture, art, folklore, literature and personal stories of how Jews in Israel and around the world, religious and secular, live their lives, express their faith, and the many different ways in which Jews contribute to society.
Many of the exhibitions are interactive, and on this floor, for example, I looked up the foods my great-grandparents would have eaten in the “old country” and uploaded the recipes directly from the exhibit to my mobile phone.
“Here we want you to think about what it means to be Jewish,” Kramer said. “How has the Jewish story changed over the years and what connects us? You can find yourself, and your story, but part of our goal is for you to meet someone else, a person and a story that is part of our community, someone you have never considered before.”
Where have we come from and where are we going?
On the second floor, entitled “The Journey,” we travel through time from ancient Jewish history to modernity and meet cultures, lands, religions and languages we passed through over the millennia. There were times when we were persecuted and others in which we prospered, and though we were always seen as immigrants, in every land through which we passed we established great centers for learning, culture and “Jewish Wisdom.”
Our wanderings ended with the Holocaust and the establishment of the State of Israel, the Jewish state. The visitor is invited to walk through our history in exile and back to our national homeland and the multi-ethnic, cultural and religious mosaic that is Israel today.
“Here we are asking the question not only Who am I, but also what is my place in the community? What does it mean to be a part of our people and how do I express my belonging as a Jew, a Zionist and a part of Israel?” Kramer explained.
Of particular interest to our Christian readers in this section is the history of the relationship between Christianity and the Jewish people, captured in readings, images and stories through the Christian era.
At an exhibition here I was able to look up my family tree and follow their journey around the globe all the way back to our home in Israel. Another station allows visitors to look up Jewish communities around the world, find out what they are doing, how you can get involved, and download updated contact information to your smartphone so you can get in touch with them.
Why am I Jewish?
On the ground floor, called “Foundations,” we meet the ideas and traditions that have held the Jewish people together through the generations. The main exhibition on this floor are the magnificent models of synagogues from around the world representing the centers of Jewish prayer and learning that have been at the heart of Jewish life throughout history. This exhibition was part of the original Diaspora Museum showing how Jewish tradition allowed for unique expression in every culture, language, and nation.
Other installations include exhibits on Sabbath, Covenant, Hebrew Calendar, Rites of Life like Bar Mitzvah, and the Bible.
A family excursion to ANU would be a great opportunity to introduce children to the world of Jewry, as there are many exhibitions for kids to get involved. You can also begin your tour by searching for your origins, find your namesake in the Bible, build your family tree, or make a family crest based on the particular values your family holds dearly.
There are apps for audio guides, and you can listen to original speakers, professional actors, or a popular podcaster leading young people through the museum.
There are also designated tours for example through the history of Spanish Jewry, past and present, or tours geared for Christian groups and those wanting to explore the unique relationship between Judaism and Christianity.
Sometimes including everyone means honoring no one
Though there is much to learn in this “museum,” which is more like a multi-media tour including 40 original films produced exclusively for ANU, I left somewhat disappointed. Some of that was nostalgia for the old Diaspora Museum where the emphasis was clearly on the history of Jewish traditions, the biblical festivals and the wisdom of our sages that have held the Jewish people together all these generations.
ANU tells a different story. “We built this museum to highlight the pluralism of Jewish life around the world. We want everyone to feel included. A place for all of us,” my excellent guide Kramer kept pointing out. I came away with the impression that in trying to present Jewish life as pluralistic and inclusive of anything that might be considered Jewish ultimately leaves us without anything that is meaningful about being Jewish, except just being “us.”
I asked Kramer, who was certainly as promised “our best guide,” to explain the success of Jewish people in the sciences, medical fields, law, literature, arts, finance, high-tech and almost any field they put their hands to. Instead of pointing to the emphasis on study in Jewish tradition, or the power of Jewish faith and hope in the one true God, he immediately recommended Amy Chua, well-known author of the book Tiger Mother. Chua writes that there are three qualities that “propel certain cultural groups (here she is referring to the Jews) to disproportionate achievement.” Her conclusion is that this stems from a superiority complex, insecurity, and impulse control. “All of America’s most successful groups believe that they’re exceptional, chosen, superior in some way,” she writes.
In other words, psychological idiosyncrasies brought about Jewish wisdom. Not 4,000 years of prayer, hope and longsuffering, but a “superiority complex and insecurity”?! How is a superiority complex possible given that we have been the scorn of all the earth? And insecurity? Have we not survived the darkest horrors of this world by trusting and hoping in the Almighty?!
To promote the idea that psychology can explain how Jewish people have survived and prospered is an attempt to erase millennia of tears, hopes and prayers, and likewise ignores the riches of God-inspired faithfulness throughout the ages, thus relegating the miracle of Jewish survival to happenstance.
American Jews will certainly enjoy seeing Sandy Koufax’s original bat and glove and the story of his refusal to pitch in a World Series game on Yom Kippur. But the overall experience at ANU may have struck-out by trying to present “Jewishness” as simply “Us” without giving proper place to the sacred traditions that have held our people together through the nightmares of Jewish existence. The concept of universal pluralism and extreme inclusiveness being promoted by the Museum of the Jewish People is a modern philosophical morality based on universal civil rights and equality, not Torah, nor the thousands of years of Jewish revelation of the divine will for humanity which is the exclusive contribution of the Jewish people to the world in the Bible.