A Visit to the Unique Hassidut Exhibition at the Israel Museum
Join the curator of the new exhibition as we take a glimpse into the colorful life of a sector which is sometimes perceived as black & white
By Yoni Kempinski
First Publish: 6/28/2012, 10:49 AM
The Israel Museum offers an illuminating exploration of the culture of the ultra-orthodox Hasidim in its new exhibition "A World Apart Next Door": Glimpses into the Life of Hasidic Jews.
On view from June 19 – November 30, 2012, the exhibition sheds light on lesser-known aspects of the culture of the Hasidim through photographs, drawings, engravings, video, music, and rarely seen objects relating to the social and spiritual life of this often hidden community.
A World Apart Next Door places a special focus on the clothing of Hasidic men, women, and children, deciphering for visitors the rich codes woven into their garments. The exhibition also explores the connection between the Hasidim and their charismatic leaders, or Rebbes, and the life-cycle events and seasonal traditions that are the foundation of life in the Hasidic community.
“Hasidic culture is a source of great curiosity for many in Israel and around the world,” said James S. Snyder, Anne and Jerome Fisher Director of the Israel Museum. “A World Apart Next Door is a unique endeavor in that its subject, not restricted to a single history or geography, illuminates a global and growing community of the present. We look forward to sharing this exploration of the history and life of the Hasidic community with all of our audiences.”
A World Apart Next Door introduces visitors to the origins of Hasidism, and explores the lives and customs of members of the Hasidic community through approximately 270 works, drawn from public and private collections, as well as objects on loan from the communities themselves, most of which have never been on public view. The exhibition explores the following themes:
The exhibition begins by introducing visitors to the origins of Hasidim and The Baal Shem Tov, the Eastern European rabbi who founded Hasidic Judaism in the 18th century. The Baal Shem Tov’s Tallith, or prayer shawl, and a type of Ukrainian Hanukkah lamp named after him, are among the objects on view. Original, rare first editions of theological texts by founding teachers of Hasidim are also on display. In addition, contemporary photographs from the Ukraine show a world that no longer exists but is still visited by Hasidim making pilgrimages to the graves of past leaders and teachers.
Photographs and films depict important life cycle events, like cutting the hair of a 3-year-old boy for the first time and his entrance to the children’s school, the kheyder, where the language of instruction is Yiddish. Children’s toys, all of which have religious significance, and children’s clothing are also on display.
This part of the exhibition features women’s garments, with a particular focus on traditional headgear that signals the various Hasidic ‘courts.’ Headgear ranges from wigs, wig-pieces, and scarves, to a combination of all three, and also includes elaborate shterntikhl headdresses adorned with pearls and jewels, some of which belonged to the wives of well-known Hasidic rabbis. A film depicts the Mitzvah Tantz, a central wedding ritual in which the bride dances with male family members and with the Rebbe, holding a long modesty belt between her and her partner.
The exhibition examines men’s dress, with its rich inner codes signaling membership in different Hasidic courts. Various styles of prayer, ranging from seclusion (hitbodedut) to enraptured communal singing are depicted on film, and other films illustrate crafts particular to Hasidim, such as making black brimmed hats and shtraymls, or fur hats, commonly associated with Hasidic dress.
The final section of the exhibition explores the life of the Rebbe, the religious and spiritual leader of the Hasidic community. Film footage depicts a tish, translating literally to “table,” a custom that demonstrates the central importance of the Rebbe in Hasidic life and exemplifies the emotional intensity of Hasidic religious practice. During this ritual, the Rebbe eats alone in front of his community, sharing his leftovers (shirayim) with his followers. Objects of talismanic significance are on display, including Kiddush cups made of coins given by the Rebbe and a coat worn by a famous Rebbe from the Vizhnitz court, passed on as precious “holy” legacy. A stunning Torah crown made of gold and precious stones from the regal Hasidic court of the Ruzhyn dynasty in the Ukraine is on display as a special feature.
A World Apart Next Door is curated by Ester Muchawsky-Schnapper, Curator of the Mandel Wing for Jewish Art and Life at the Israel Museum. The exhibition was made possible by René and Susanne Braginsky, Zurich. Additional support was provided by the Aaron Beare Foundation, Durban, South Africa, and the Alan B. Slifka Foundation, New York. The English catalogue accompanying the exhibition was made possible by Jerome L. and Ellen Stern, New York.