A Hasidic rabbi holds a modesty ribbon tied around the waist of his daughter on her wedding day. He dances to the cheers and stomps of hundreds of ultra-Orthodox men. She wipes tears from under her face-covering, overwhelmed by emotion.
As a child, she may have joined in playing Mitzvaland, a board game that features religious commandments such as honoring your mother and father and customs such as kissing the mezuzah, a tube containing a prayer. The video of the bride and her father is being screened in a room adjacent to the games.
They are all part of Israel Museum’s “A World Apart Next Door: Glimpses Into the Life of Hasidic Jews,” a portrayal of ultra-Orthodox culture. It has drawn crowds and is being sought by museums around the world.
“The reaction has been quite amazing,” museum director James Snyder says. “It’s extraordinary because you don’t think of doing an ethnographic exhibition that becomes a blockbuster.”
The display comes as Israel struggles to bring the Hasidic community and other ultra-Orthodox Jewish men, who mostly study, into the workforce. A new coalition was formed and dismantled over the wording of a law that intends to gradually draft ultra- Orthodox men previously exempt from military service unless they left religious study. The Hasidic movement is one community among the haredi population.
A growing social protest is forming around the slogan “Equal Burden,” which calls on the government to step up efforts to insure the haredi community serves and works.
“In daily life you can’t avoid a political dimension,” Snyder says. The show gives “the opportunity to learn the background of a community that is central to that discussion.”
The museum itself became the center of the debate when it offered, after regular visiting hours, special segregated viewing to allow members of the Hasidic community to attend.
“Separating women as if they are impure is unacceptable at any hour of the day, not after regular visiting hours and not before,” Larry Abramson, an artist and former head of art at Bezalel Academy of Art and Design, who teaches at Shenkar College in Ramat Gan, Israel, said on Army Radio.
The special hours, which were offered for three weeks, were “in response to a request by members of the community whose culture is on display and for whom there is special need for segregated viewing,” Snyder says.
The museum always offers help to special needs groups such as the handicapped and elderly. In the end, despite the offer, there never was any segregated viewing because the community came during regular hours and didn’t make any special requests.
The show also features footage of communal singing and a “tish,” a ceremony that demonstrates the importance of the rabbi, or rebbe, and the emotional intensity of religion. The Hasidic community is differentiated from other Orthodox Jews by its devotion to a dynastic leader called a “rebbe,” distinctive clothing and a greater study of the inner aspects of Torah.
“It is nice to be able to see these ceremonies that you wouldn’t be able to take partake in” says Andrea Vogel, a 32- year-old nurse from New York. “It lends not just understanding but tolerance, and answers a lot of questions I, as a Jew, have about the Hasidic community.”
Vogel stressed the importance of having the exhibition travel abroad, especially New York City, where there are tensions between the Hasidic and secular communities.
The exhibition includes photographs of the Lubavitcher rebbe handing out dollar bills in Brooklyn, New York.
There is also an image from the Ukraine of the Rosh Hashanah ritual of tashlikh, a prayer for forgiveness that includes the symbolic casting off of sins into water. Ultra- Orthodox men in nylon aprons are seen examining wheat in a field during a harvest in Israel.
Adam Moshe Levy, a seminary student and father of six from Jerusalem, says the exhibition may help soften hearts and lead to tolerance. At the same time, he says that it emphasizes “particularly weird occasions.”
“These people are doing the same things I would also do, although maybe not in the same way,” he says. “They also have to go to the supermarket and get their children’s hair cut and do everything that everyone else does too.”
“A World Apart Next Door: Glimpses into the Life of Hasidic Jews” runs through Nov. 30 at Israel Museum on Ruppin Blvd., Jerusalem. Information: http://www.english.imjnet.org.il/HTMLs/home.aspx
Muse highlights include Scott Reyburn on the art market, Greg Evans on U.S. television and John Mariani on wine.
To contact the writer on the story: Gwen Ackerman in Jerusalem at firstname.lastname@example.org.
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at email@example.com.