The Making of an Exhibition: “A World Apart Next Door: Glimpses into the Life of Hasidic Jews,” an Ethnographic-Curatorial Perspective, Israel Museum, 2012

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The exhibition A World Apart Next Door: Glimpses into the Life of Hasidic Jews was on display at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem in June–December 2012. A large exhibition spread over seven exhibition halls, it offered objects, photographs, and films. A catalogue in two versions (English and Hebrew) was published.1

The Hebrew title of the exhibition was חסידים: לא רק שחור לבן. (Hasids: Not Just Black and White). Owing to their mostly black clothing, the ultra-Orthodox are often referred to in Hebrew as “Blacks” (shchorim), which loses its meaning when translated into English. This was the first-ever ethnographic exhibition on this subject and intentionally titled in Hebrew to allude specifically to the adherents to Hasidism, Hasidim, and not to the ideological movement itself, Hasidut (Hasidism), so as to focus on the people and their way of life as a reflection of their ideas and religiosity. According to Hasidic belief, the physical world is infused with religious significance, so this approach was also suitable from the Hasidic point of view.

What led me to choose this topic for an exhibition is a question I was often asked, but found difficult to answer. One may be curious about and fascinated by things for reasons that are not always explicable. It is the subjective attraction of the researcher to his/her topic, as an ornithologist may be interested in birds from an early age and an astrophysicist in the universe, neither being able to clarify why. Hasidim explained my interest in the mystical, by telling me that my soul was looking for it, knowing that I had Hasidic ancestry, or even more explicitly, that my Hasidic grandmother (whom I never knew) was having her voice come alive through me.

With all my attraction to the subject, I knew from the beginning that I had to balance my empathy with scientific, objective methods, and be both part of and apart from my subject. I had to avoid a romanticizing impression of the subject or voyeuristically depicting the “other” as an exotic stranger. The word “glimpses” in the exhibition’s title underscores the fact that one is able to convey only a partial view of a culture in an exhibition, as a culture can never really be shown in its entirety. It does not reflect the way the press titled it—“Secrets of the Sects: A Peek into Hasidic Homes and Closets,” insinuating a voyeuristic, even forbidden approach to a “secret” world.2

The challenge was—and it is a typical dilemma of ethnographers/anthropologists in general—to walk the fine line between neutral objectivity and becoming immersed in the society being researched through total empathy, thus losing the essential perspective. In other words, I had to keep my distance while coming closer all the time. It is thus not surprising that many of my colleagues were worried that I would be drawn in completely and turn into a Hasidic woman during the preparations for the exhibition.

One of my aims was to introduce the “closed” Hasidic culture to the outside world, to bring their adherents nearer to us and us nearer to them. This is especially important in a city like Jerusalem with its large Hasidic population, which one encounters daily, without its being familiar. The exhibition was meant to open a door, which turned out not to be locked at all, revealing that imaginary walls are sometimes erected through misconceptions.

Some 250,000 visitors came in less than six months, and many viewers declared that after having seen the exhibition they feel more knowledgeable and closer to Hasidic society; this total includes Arab visitors, who said that they had no idea what joyful family life goes on inside Hasidic homes to which they usually have no access.

Another aim was that the Hasidim who visited the exhibition—and there were many—would engage in a dialogue with others: non-Jews, nonreligious, and differently religious Jews. There was indeed such a dialogue in the middle of the exhibition space, where all the visitors mingled. I resisted the proposal to have separate hours for men and women, as that would have meant that the ultra-Orthodox would feel obliged to come during those hours and so would not have met with non-Haredi people.

For many Hasidim, their visit to the exhibition was the first time they had ever come to the Israel Museum, which had always been regarded as a secular place where “one doesn’t go.” After the exhibition, which according to some of the ultra-Orthodox press “brought Jewish hearts together” (kiruv levavot), the greatest gratification I could have hoped for, ultra-Orthodox Jews are now regular visitors to the museum.3

From the beginning, the aim was not to make political statements, but to concentrate on the cultural aspects of Hasidic life through customs, costumes, books, and ceremonial and mundane objects, the visual aspects of a culture that are suitable for a museum exhibition. Many questions arose: How, for example, should one display objects infused by their previous owners with sublime significance and endowed with a “holy aura,” such as objects used by a Rebbe who is considered to be a “tsaddik,” a kind of holy man? In the mundane setting of a museum environment, such an object would perhaps become estranged, turning into a kind of objet trouvé. A way to overcome this dilemma was to put objects of limited aesthetic value like a one-dollar bill given by the last Lubavitcher Rebbe to each of his visitors, into the same space with artistically elaborate objects, such as the precious Torah crown from the Ruzhiner Rebbe’s court.4 In this way, material differences were ignored while stressing the common ideological background, namely both having sublime significance by their association with venerated Rebbes. For instance, a coat made for a Rebbe in the appropriate style but never worn by him was displayed for its stylistic attributes alone, as for Hasidim the mystical dimension was then absent.

To convey a whole culture through a few representative objects is no easy task, but I am convinced that through the microcosm of a few objects, one can get a glimpse into the macrocosm lying behind it. Indeed, in some strange way, after having been lifted out of their original environment and set within the aesthetics of a museum exhibition these objects took on an additional quality.

During the research preceding the exhibition, we sought the advice of anthropologists, historians, and philosophers of Hasidism. They were most helpful, as were their books, articles, and lectures. But they had never to face the challenge of how to bring a subject with religious content, sociological consequences, and ideological depth to the general public by visualizing it. Curators know that the public does not want to read long texts on the walls, but rather wants to see things. The question was, then, how to show the Hasidic way of life to an ideally broad public—a public made up of all religious denominations and nationalities, a public representing the religious and nonreligious spectrum of Israeli society, young and old, erudite and less so, familiar with the subject and totally unaware of it. These are considerations each curator has to face with every exhibition, but it is only in the case of ethnographic exhibitions conveying the culture of a living society—in this case living nearby—that the exhibition becomes vulnerable to resounding reactions.

It was clear from the beginning that the exhibition would be on Hasidim “only” and not include other branches of ultra-Orthodox society, for example, the so-called “Lithuanians” (Heb. Lita’im, Yidd. “Litvishe”), or Sephardi Orthodox Jews. The most natural approach then seemed to show each Hasidic group or “court” (each presided over by a Rebbe) and its characteristics. But it soon became evident that this would be a cul-de-sac. It was obvious that one would not be able to do justice to all the courts because an exhibition always depends on the extent of the material available, either in the museum collections or what can be borrowed or bought, and that is not predictable. Thus the conclusion was that the exhibition would be organized by topic, that each topic would be represented by objects, photographs, and films from various Hasidic groups, and that we would try to have representative objects from as many groups as possible without regard to their size or importance. This occasionally triggered criticism from larger Hasidic groups that felt that they had not received adequate attention, but in general it was accepted.

The exhibition began with a historical introduction to Hasidic culture with the most important first-edition books of Hasidism and symbolic milestone objects, such as the prayer shawl (tallith) of the Ba’al Shem Tov, founder of Hasidism, and the chair of Reb Nahman of Bratslav (the only object in the exhibition that was a copy, as the original would not be lent out) (fig. 1). An entire wall was covered by the enlarged image of a family tree of Hasidic dynasties initiated by the Ba’al Shem Tov (ca. 1700–1760), an item especially appreciated by Hasidic visitors, who enjoyed looking for their roots (fig. 2). Then followed in separated spaces: the major customs of Hasidim represented in large photographs, the world of Hasidic children including their toys so different from those of other children, the world of Hasidic women, of Hasidic men, and finally of the Hasidic Rebbe, a characteristic concept of Hasidism. In contrast to the ubiquitous light walls, the walls of the last room were painted dark blue to create a spiritual atmosphere. These displays were followed by a theater showing documentaries of Rebbes with their followers during holidays and Tish celebrations, a uniquely Hasidic custom.5

Fig. 1.
Fig. 1.Peter Lanyi, Hasidic women looking upon the partial prayer shawl said to have belonged to the Ba’al Shem Tov, 2012, Jerusalem, photograph. Loan: Hechal Shlomo Museum, Jerusalem.

Citation: IMAGES 10, 1 (2017) ; 10.1163/18718000-12340071

(© The Israel Museum, Jerusalem.)
Fig. 2.
Fig. 2.Peter Lanyi, Hasidic visitors with the curator in front of the Family Tree of the Ba’al Shem Tov, Międzyrzec Podlaski (Mezrich), 1926, 2012, Jerusalem, photograph.

Citation: IMAGES 10, 1 (2017) ; 10.1163/18718000-12340071

(© The Israel Museum, Jerusalem.)

As I noted above, each individual topic was represented by objects, photographs, and films. For example, in the women’s hall there was a depiction of a Mitsve tants, a characteristic part of a Hasidic wedding, which became one of the most controversial items in the exhibition.6 For Hasidim, on this occasion the bride is elevated to a royal position, whereas for the non-Haredi public she was seen as a dominated object on a leash, an extraordinarily clear example of how—despite explanatory labels—an exhibition item can be subject to many different interpretations.

In the men’s section, in addition to a film that focused on communal prayer, there was a documentary about how shtreimels (fur hats) are made, which is a very carefully guarded craft.

A “costume-wall” was placed in each of the halls (fig. 3). Costume was thus a leitmotif throughout the exhibition, intended to visualize the rich variations in Hasidic dress, the differences that characterize the various groups, and the resulting relevant Hebrew, English, and Yiddish vocabularies. Many of the costumes had to be bought. Some rare examples from the past, such as an unpretentious wedding dress and some fur hats from eastern Europe were proof that Hasidic costumes are also subject to change. However, the focus was on contemporary Hasidic dress as an identifying factor of belonging, of interior hierarchy, and gender differentiation. Hasidim regard their dress as a sign of distinction, preventing assimilation to the outside world, gentile as well as secular Jewish. Clothing thus has the important role of proclaiming the identity of the wearer. At the same time, it was a factual, nonprovocative subject with which to start my research, allowing me to make my first contacts unlike, for example, unwelcome inquiries into political or economic matters. Another factor that helped my approach to Hasidic society was my knowledge of Yiddish.

Fig. 3.
Fig. 3.Elie Posner, installation photograph: Clothes worn by Hasidic rabbis, 2012, Jerusalem, photograph.

Citation: IMAGES 10, 1 (2017) ; 10.1163/18718000-12340071

(© The Israel Museum, Jerusalem.)

Throughout the preparations and the running of the exhibition, there was no end to the worries about possibly unintentionally offending Hasidic feelings, which would result in them shunning the exhibition. Much to my surprise, the offense went the other way. Deeply ingrained anti-religious feelings sometimes came to the fore, especially when guiding the public through the exhibition. But in this way, discussions among the visitors developed that were totally in accord with what the exhibition was all about, that only through dialogue can we reach more understanding and discard prejudiced ideas.

As noted, in order to mount this exhibition, we had to augment the limited holdings of Hasidic objects in the museum collection through borrowing or buying. Some objects were also donated. In the event, Hasidim were gracious about helping me acquire objects, but their support did not come immediately, as there was initially suspicion about my project and me. The field work was a long and sinuous process filled with obstacles on the one hand and the most rewarding positive feedback on the other. Mistakes owing to ignorance of the customs were generally confined to the beginning of the work when I was not yet familiar with all the aspects of “modesty” (Heb. tsni’ut). Usually “mistakes” were explained to me gently, but at times also rather bluntly. With time, I learned to dress “properly” always trying to have some detail to indicate to the Hasidic insiders that I don’t belong, as I didn’t want to “play Hasidic,” but only show my respect. This was most appreciated. The Hasidim’s greatest worry at the beginning was that I am “a journalist who just wants a scoop, a scandalous or sensational story, and takes photos without permission and then disappears never to be seen again.”

It is in the nature of an ethnographer, however, to want to come back and build a relationship of trust and confidence, which takes time. When the word spread—as it did with amazing speed—that I visited Hasidim of various courts at home, interview them, go to weddings, holidays and tish events and nothing appeared in the press, fears were calmed. It was interesting to note their strong intuition concerning people and their intentions. Male photographers who accompanied me to take pictures of male-only environments were sometimes not let in or thrown out quickly, whereas others were accepted immediately. Such decisions were built on first impressions. The permission to take photographs (limited of course because of religious reasons to weekdays) was an absolute necessity as was the permission to show them in the exhibition and publish them in the catalogue. There was an instance when I was asked to take a film out of the exhibition (for which there had been previous permission) but where the people shown had changed their minds during the exhibition. In another case, I was asked not to show a photograph in the Hebrew version of the catalogue after it had already appeared in the English version. Both wishes were observed.

It was interesting to see that not only the non-Hasidic and non-Jewish publics were curious about the way of life of Hasidim, but also Hasidim themselves were curious to know more about other Hasidic sects.

The exhibition was widely covered by the international press, a sign that there is much curiosity about Hasidim worldwide. Until then, Hasidim were often known to the general public only from newspaper photographs depicting them mostly in confrontations with the police at demonstrations. Frequently photographers publish photographs of Hasidim that depict them at “picturesque” moments, deliberately showing what must seem to the uninitiated to be strange or bizarre, while often not giving a sufficient explanation of the situation. It often seems to be done in order to be more sensational and shocking. For instance, to catch a momentarily distorted face on camera creates drama, but does it reflect a general state of affairs? For the exhibition and catalogue I tried to choose photographs that would provide ethnographic information while at the same time be artistically significant.

There was obviously no lack of dilemmas throughout the preparation of the exhibition. For instance, should one show in a film a Rebbe in a very tipsy state during Purim celebrations, the only occasion on which one is allowed to drink too much? It was included because it reflects typical behavior for the holiday of Purim, which of course had to be explained. Another dilemma was whether to show a photo of a Russian tsar’s fur crown, similar to the Hasidic shtreimel, but with a cross on its top. It was decided to crop the cross out of the photograph (with the necessary permission) in order not to offend ultra-Orthodox visitors, who are generally very sensitive to the symbol of the cross.

This exhibition was designed to depict the way of life of a society very different from the majority with respect and dignity. If we succeeded, it could lead us to look at other societies and their cultures with more openness and tolerance, even if they are very different from our own.7

1

Ester Muchawsky-Schnapper, A World Apart Next Door: Glimpses into the Life of Hasidic Jews, (Jerusalem: The Israel Museum, 2000).

2

Tamar Rotem, “Secrets of the Sects: A Peek into Hasidic Homes and Closets,” Haaretz, June 1, 2012, accessed December 24, 2016, http://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/secrets-of-the-sects-a-peek-into-hasidic-homes-and-closets-1.433858.

3

Here are two of the many haredi sources where the term kiruv levavot was used to describe the exhibition: Sari Roth, ‘Be-chadarei chadarim’, Be-chazera la-shteitl. Peres nehene be-taarucha ha-chasidit. Accessed on August 1st, 2012, www.bhol.co.il/43253. No author, ‘Kikar ha-Shabbat’, Hasidim—Lo rak shachor lavan, Accessed on November 28th, 2012, www.kikar.co.il.

4

On the one-dollar bill: The seventh and last Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, used to give a one-dollar bill intended for tsedaka (charity) to every person who came to him to get his blessing. This was in order to provide an example and spread the custom of helping others. Most kept the bill itself for its auspicious powers, see photograph of dollar-giving in Muchawsky-Schnapper, A World Apart Next Door, 43.

The Torah Crown from the Ruzhiner Rebbe’s court is made of gold, silver, diamonds, and other precious stones and is believed to have been commissioned by the Ruzhiner Rebbe for his son, the Rebbe of Shtefanesht in ca. 1825. It was lent to the Hasidim exhibition by the Gilbert Collection, on loan to the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. See Muchawsky-Schnapper, A World Apart Next Door, 35.

5

A Tish (literally, table) is a festive event in which the Rebbe shares his meal with his Hasidim, distributing pieces of food from his plate, known as shirayim, as a sign of blessing. See Muchawsky-Schnapper, A World Apart Next Door, 58–65.

6

The film depicts the father of the bride, in this case a Rebbe, dancing with his daughter, each holding one end of a long belt to prevent immodest contact, while the bride in her shyness barely  moves. See Muchawsky-Schnapper, A World Apart Next Door, 46, 52–57.

7

Many people helped in mounting this exhibition and I will always be grateful to them all. The list is too long to be detailed here, but they are acknowledged in the catalogue. Special pivotal figures without whom the project would not have been possible were the director of the Israel Museum, James Snyder, who supported the project in all ways from beginning to end; the chief curator of the Mandel Wing for Jewish Art and Life, Daisy Raccah-Djivre, who guided the process with constructive advice; my curatorial assistant Revital Hovav, who was invaluable with her ever-optimistic, vital support; and the exhibition designer Chanan de Lange, who knows how to translate ideas creatively into a visual experience.

If the inline PDF is not rendering correctly, you can download the PDF file here.

  • View in gallery
    Peter Lanyi, Hasidic women looking upon the partial prayer shawl said to have belonged to the Ba’al Shem Tov, 2012, Jerusalem, photograph. Loan: Hechal Shlomo Museum, Jerusalem.
  • View in gallery
    Peter Lanyi, Hasidic visitors with the curator in front of the Family Tree of the Ba’al Shem Tov, Międzyrzec Podlaski (Mezrich), 1926, 2012, Jerusalem, photograph.
  • View in gallery
    Elie Posner, installation photograph: Clothes worn by Hasidic rabbis, 2012, Jerusalem, photograph.

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