“This is the story of a people which was scattered over all the world and yet remained a single family; a nation which time and again was doomed to destruction and yet, out of ruins, rose to new life.” —Abba Kovner
On the final day of our tour, we visited The Museum of the Jewish People. Up to this point, the focus of the trip was an attempt to understand “Jewishness” in the context of Israel, whether we were visiting an archeological site or a contemporary synagogue. Therefore, we were engaged in a process of observing and subsequently drawing conclusions about how Judaism exists in Israel, from the perspective of an outsider looking in on the daily lives of Israeli-Jews and the monuments that preserve their history. It is important to note that this is a very particular story, one that is tied to the land itself, before and after the declaration of the state. I personally found that ending the trip at this museum was the best way to wrap up the course. It served as a reminder that Jewishness in Israel and in diaspora are not two entirely different worlds, but rather connected through fundamental values that tie these people together, whether or not Israel is their national home. These values include “family, community, faith, culture, and return to Zion,” all of which are emphasized in the museum’s various exhibits. Is this approach to Jewish identity oversimplified, though? Furthermore, is it an idealization and essentialist pursuit for unity? These questions will be addressed throughout my discussion, but first let us turn to the overarching goal of the museum, which is to highlight what all Jews have in common, primarily the fact that despite the struggles and devastation they have faced, Jews continue to flourish and succeed while maintaining a memory of who they are, a memory that is connected to personal and collective identity.
We began our tour in a room decorated with a dozen display screens looping various portraits of Jews from around the world. The quote that accompanied the exhibit reads as follows: “behind the variety in these faces lies a common heritage: the Jewish family tradition and the Jewish way of life.” It was here that our guide posed an unanswerable question: how can you identify a Jew physically, or scientifically? Of course, the answer is that we cannot, it is simply not possible. All Jews are like any other person—we cannot identify them based on visible, genetic or hereditary traits that are easily identifiable. That said, how can we identify what it is that Jews have in common? To tie the discussion back to my early blogs, what unites all Jews is the Beit Knesset, a “house of gathering,” or a synagogue, where Jews go to study, pray, and interact (socialize, communicate) with other Jews. This place of gathering represents a shared faith, which cannot be seen physically, but can be mutually experienced. A physical and spiritual element of Jewish faith that unites all Jews and all synagogues is the presence of the Torah scroll. It is the written word of god, but also treated like a person who is buried if the scripture is damaged and can no longer be used for prayer or study. Synagogues, however, are always changing, always influenced by the trends and cultural influences of the places in which they are located. Therefore, what unites Jews is a particular way of life. This point is encompassed by Abba Kovner’s poetry: “a tree may be alone in the field, a man alone in the world, but no Jew is alone on his holy days.” That said, unity is found in shared memory.
As we have discussed throughout the course, collective memory in Judaism is typically associated with holy days. These include, but are not limited to the destruction of the temple, the foundation of a Jewish state in the land of Israel, Shabbat (remembering creation and the exodus), and Passover—all of which are, for the most part, essential to Jewish memory, identity, and experience. The cultural markers of identity include circumcision, which is a sign of the covenant and a ritual that integrates the child into Judaism (or baby naming for girls). Following this ritual, it is also crucial to educate Jewish children as they grow. This process is complete upon his/her bar/bat mitzvah, an event that is considered to be an individual choice, or a personal decision to take responsibility for integrating oneself into the Jewish “way of life,” where one becomes part of the collective. With that in mind, what are some of the other ways that Jews around the world integrate themselves in this collective dialogue, and how does Beit Hatfutsot facilitate this process?
“YOU ARE PART OF THE STORY”
This short film was screened at the 35th Anniversary Gala of Beit Hatfutsot: The Museum of the Jewish People, in New York on December 13th, 2013. It highlights the museum’s mission, which is to remind all Jews that they are part of a unique story. The story is one that has the ability to unite Jews around the world through a global institution that tells the history of their people, whether they made a life in Europe, North America, Latin America, or Israel. It also serves to strengthen their common identity and sense of belonging by highlighting the importance of supporting and learning about Israel as the Jewish state, as well as those who live outside of it. As seen in the video, there is particular emphasis on tikkun olam, the healing or reparation of the world. The term is derived from a kabbalaistic interpretation of creation, where the divine essence necessarily contracted in order to make room for creation. Therefore, all humans are made of god’s divine spark, which lives in a world of good and evil as a result of Adam and Eve’s transgression.
The purpose of humanity, then, is to put these pieces back together in order to perfect the world to come. Considering the context of the video, this narrative functions as a great metaphor for the museum. It suggests that all Jews around the world carry this spark, which, from a theological perspective, is a part of god, but it is also an element of one’s “Jewishness” that draws them to heal the world through social justice. My jewish learning explains that “tikkun olam remains connected with human responsibility for fixing what is wrong with the world. It also appears to respond to a profound sense of deep rupture in the universe, which speaks as much to the post-Holocaust era as it did in the wake of the expulsion from Spain and other medieval Jewish disasters.” Tikkun olam is therefore a realm of responsibility and action that leads to profound cosmic and historical change.
The message of the film, which plays on this theme, is deliberately inspiring, leading many to leave youtube comments such as these, “our blood runs in many races, but all lead back to Israel,” “we are a mosaic of culture and stories,” and “keep spreading the message of Tikkun Olam…it’s the salvation for our planet.” As an outsider looking in, the film seems to be a very clever and successful marketing scheme. According to the museum’s website, it is in the early stages of its renewal project and it needs donors to make this possible. How do they accomplish this goal? First, with an underlying message that suggests that healing the world, and Jewish identity within it, means preserving Jewish history on a personal and collective level through social acts of charity. Second, they must convince the viewer that this is a worthy cause. This is done by creating an emotional story that all Jews from diverse backgrounds—ethnic, racial, social, economic, and geographic—can identify with and respond to. There are a range of stories portrayed in the film, many of which emphasize the fact that Jews, time and again, have had to make sacrifices for the hope of a better future. We see this with the father and daughter who have walked months to reach Israel, but the daughter is resentful. She feels like an outsider, that she is different from the rest, but her father sees hope in her wearing the Israeli Defense Forces uniform. This speaks to the wave of immigrants who have made aliya and are building a new life in their new home, Eretz-Israel.
There is also a sense that older generations necessarily make sacrifices for the younger and that their lives were very different, insofar as they fought different fights in order to defend their Jewishness and their role in the collective community, whether male or female. For example, the grandmother who stood in synagogue and demanded that her Rabbi tell her where in the Torah it says that girls cannot celebrate their bat mitzvah. Through all of this, we learn that faith is the source of courage and that being Jewish is standing up for what you believe in. On a deeper level, the message of the film is this: Jews have a special place in the world as the “chosen people.” A father tells his son that responding to the earthquake in Haiti and the desire to help was “the most Jewish thing there is—tikkun olam.” This implies that there is a part of the Jewish identity that allowed this individual to intuitively respond crisis and to help in the repair or healing of those events, in order to correct injustices done to all people, Jews and non-Jews alike. Furthermore, the man who witnessed the injustice of apartheid was drawn to help because he identified with the atrocities having heard the stories from the generations before him and how they struggled to live and maintain their Jewish identity.
This narrative I have outlined, and the anticipated response from the Jewish viewer of the film, is best stated in one of the youtube comments: “Isn’t it great to know we are part of the chosen people whose accomplishments are unequalled by any other people?” This speaks to the Biblical epithet of the Jews as god’s “chosen people,” which serves as an affective tool, on the part of Beit Hatfutsot, for calling the Jews of the world together to support the museum. This, however, is not a unique approach. The Declaration of the Establishment of the State, also appeals to the “Jewish people throughout the diaspora to rally round the jews of Eretz-Israel in the tasks of immigration and upbuilding and to stand by them in the great struggle for the realization of the age-old dream—the redemption of Israel.” The mission of the museum is not only parallel to the statement made in the declaration, but it is also proved to be deeply significant to the state that the Knesset passed The Beit Hatfutsot Law in 2005, which defines it as “the National Center for Jewish communities in Israel and around the world.” Therefore, recognizing the power of this institution to unite diaspora Jews with the state of Israel as a result of their “chosenness.”
Eugene Borowitz argues that this concept of “chosenness” is highly significant for diaspora Jews, which creates a sense of identification with Israeli Jews, despite their experiential differences. In modernity, the focus of this chosen identity is not so much a theological concern relating to religious beliefs and ritual practices that bind one to god, but rather an emphasis on humanitarian activism through “participation in the gentile world.” Although Borowitz’s paper mainly addresses how secularism has displaced religiosity, a discussion that I will not go into here, he does make some valuable observations that are worth noting when studying Jewish identity among diaspora Jews. He argues that the “worldly” Jew’s concern for humanity is not tangential, but rather “a significant part of [his/her] sense of Jewish responsibility.” There is, to a certain degree, a unique chosenness that diaspora Jews do identify with, but having lived among non-Jews, who are not so different from them, has led to an acceptance of a universal human community, rather than being limited to an exclusive one.
With the dispersion of Jews following the Holocaust, the key founders of the museum, Nahum Goldmann and Abba Kovner, were concerned with how to maintain a sense of unity between the Jews of Israel and those abroad. Thus, they created a space that would “connect Jewish people to their roots and strengthen their personal and collective Jewish identity.” The museum describes itself as bringing to light “the essence of the Jewish culture, faith, purpose and deed while presenting the contribution of world Jewry to humanity.” This ultimately serves to strengthen “Jewish education, culture, and institutions outside of Israel.” Is that to say that all is clear between these two communities? That there are no difficulties that a shared “way of life” cannot overcome? The reality is that things are not that simple. Part of the reason why some distinction has been made between Israeli and Diaspora Jews is the increasing emphasis on personal experiences and individual definitions of “Jewishness” that are tied to personal responses to religious, cultural, political, and existential events, such as the foundation of the state or the Holocaust. The responses given in Katz, Levinsohn, and Levy’s survey on Jewish and Israeli identity also seem to question the “oneness of the Jewish people.” It becomes clear that when these issues are addressed on an individual level, Israeli Jews do feel a sense of solidarity with the Jews of the Diaspora, but also a conflicting acknowledgement of difference between them. This sense of internal conflict is further expressed by those who believe that “Israeli Jews and Diaspora Jews share a common fate,” or a level of interdependence, despite their difference (but this common fate, like “Jewishness” and “Israeliness” is difficult to define). To an outsider, this highlights that Beit Hatfutsot’s mission highly idealizes what it is to be Jewish, insofar as it is a difficult (and near impossible) task to piece together a universal and all-encompassing definition of “Jewishiness” that satisfies its inherent multiplicity.
The fact that the two founders of the museum were involved in Zionist movements and explicitly advocated for a “healthy diaspora,” makes it clear that there is a particularly secular, rather than theological approach to the issues addressed at Beit Hatfutsot. This means that there is also a disconnect between the haredi Jewish worldview and the Jewish worldview portrayed at the museum, which openly advocates the importance of reaching out to the world outside of Israel. Despite the efforts on the part of the museum to unite a people under a common thread, there are many exceptions (i.e. many who are resistant to the state or particular forms of Judaism) and these tensions are not easily overcome. Throughout my travels in Israel, this has proven to be the state’s greatest challenge: addressing and coming to terms with the diversity of Jewish identity—a reality that was further explored on our final stop at Beit Hatfutsot: The Museum of the “Jewish People.”
Borowitz, Eugene B. “The Chosen People Concept As it Affects Life in the Diaspora.” Journal of Ecumenical Studies 12 (1975): 553-568.
Katz, Elihu, Hanna Levinsohn, and Shlomit Levy. “The Many Faces of Jewishness in Israel.” In Jews in Israel: Contemporary Social and Cultural Patterns, edited by Uzi Rebhun and Chaim I. Waxman, 265-284. Hanover: Brandeis University Press, 2004.
Beit Hatfutsot: The Museum of the Jewish People:
Abba Kovner, biography:
Nahum Goldmann, biography: