Monday, August 13, 2012
The crowd standing in front of the video projected on to the museum wall was unusual. A young woman with loose curls tumbling over her bare shoulders and clad in tiny denim shorts craned to get a better view; just behind her stood two ultra-Orthodox Jews in customary heavy black overcoats and wide-brimmed hats.
This sight, rarely seen in Jerusalem, was an illustration of the remarkable success of an exhibition examining the life and culture of the 250-year-old Hasidic Jewish movement. In a city where ultra-Orthodox Jews have become such a visible and influential presence, their way of life is a mystery to most outsiders.
A World Apart Next Door, the aptly titled exhibition at the Israel Museum, has become an unexpected success since opening two months ago. It is attracting round 1,300 visitors each day – big numbers for a city with a population about a tenth of London's. Half the visitors are from the ultra-Orthodox community.
"It's a phenomenon – a kind of a blockbuster. It's definitely exceeded expectations," said James Snyder, the museum's director. "For the ultra-Orthodox, it's the first opportunity to see their communal culture elevated and celebrated in a museum setting. For everyone else who sees members of the community on the streets, it's an opportunity to learn about a culture of which you can't help but be aware, but about which you know little."
The exhibition displays historic and contemporary photographs and artefacts, with separate sections focusing on the lives of men, women, children and rabbis. Clothing and headwear, some bought especially for the show and some borrowed from members of the community, are accompanied by explanations of different dress codes and requirements.
Most compelling are the videos, around which crowds gather throughout the day. Some, projected on to big display spaces on the walls, show religious gatherings and festivals, dancing and singing. An extraordinary wedding scene shows an apparently tense masked bride being led around a big arena by a dancing rabbi as male guests, dressed in customary monochrome, ecstatically and rhythmically sway and stomp. The women – forbidden from dancing in the presence of men – appear subdued.
Smaller screens show interviews with Hasidic Jews: a young mother explaining the role of women in the community; a hatmaker describing his trade and displaying his skill; a boy having his first ritual haircut at the age of three. All are presented with empathy, and many show not just devotion and reverence, but joy and exuberance.
Curator Ester Muchawsky-Schnapper, who spent 18 months assembling the exhibition after five years of research, said there was some co-operation from the community, but she also encountered anxiety and hesitation. "I spent a lot of time building relationships of trust," she said. Photographers and videographers were careful to observe religious and cultural mores.
She is delighted with the exhibition's reception. "I expected it to be a success, but not to this extent. I didn't dream of it. It has created dialogue between groups that otherwise would never meet."
The museum, aware that the ultra-Orthodox may be unwilling to visit the exhibition in mixed-sex groups or in the company of those outside their communities, ensured that rabbis knew that special after-hours group sessions could be arranged. "There has not been a single request," said Snyder. "It's extraordinary to see all these people side by side, and talking to one another."
He was also prepared for tensions between the ultra-Orthodox and other Jews to surface in the context of the exhibition. Many Israeli Jews, both secular and religious, are deeply resentful of the ultra-Orthodox communities over their exemption from compulsory military service. They also complain of an unfair economic and social burden, given that many ultra-Orthodox men spend their lives in full-time subsidised religious study while fathering very large families.
"These issues have not come up. The abrasion that exists on the street is not present at the museum," said Snyder.
The exhibition, which runs until 1 December, contributed to a record July for the museum, with 84,000 visitors. It is expected to travel abroad next year, following requests from museums in Europe and North America.
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