The Scattering Reassembled

The Museum of the Diaspora in Tel Aviv

It was Dr. Nahum Goldmann, founder president of the World Jewish Congress, who first had the idea.

He had labored long and hard for the birth and development of a Jewish state in Palestine Like most European Jews of his generation, he was proud of the youth growing up there, bold and self-confident in a land of its own. But he was disturbed, too, by what he felt was becoming a warped idea of the Jewish past.

For the muscular self-assured Sabras, born to the sound of gunfire, the history of their people began with King David, conqueror of the Philistines who gave their name to Palestine, conqueror also of the holy city of Jerusalem. This history went on for ten centuries, sometimes glorious, always sanguinary, during which the Jews fought for survival against greedy neighbors, amid the endless clashings of the superpowers of those times, Egypt and Assyria, Babylon and Persia, Macedonia and Rome. It came to an abrupt stop in A.D. 70, when the Roman legions of the Emperor-to-be Titus stormed the walls of Jerusalem, razed their holy Temple, made their holy land a Roman province.

Then came a long hiatus, for a people scattered century after century in outer darkness, till suddenly light shone anew in 1947, when a national Jewish history was renewed with the birth pangs of the state of Israel.

More than 1800 years are skipped over in this perspective, covered with what many feel is a veil of shame. Descendants of the Maccabees, facing encircling enemies, do not like to be reminded of what they regard as submissive generations, living on the sufferance of foreigners in alien lands, always in the shadow of persecution, always prepared for flight.

Such an attitude, thought Goldmann, meant abandoning a priceless heritage of the past. There was nothing shameful about those 19 centuries: they represent an achievement unique in world history.. No other people, so torn from its roots and scattered to the ends of the earth, has managed to maintain its identity, faith, customs, language and codes of conduct so virtually intact, even while. Jewish creativity was leaving its mark on all the nations where the wanderers paused to rest. Rather than forget this, Goldmann proposed, let us build a museum that will be a permanent reminder to the Israelis, as well as to all the Gentile world, of "the greatness and the creativity and, in its own fashion, the heroism" of what historians call the Diaspora (a Greek word meaning scattering, dispersion) of the Jews.

In 1959 the decision was made to build what would be called Beth Hatefutsoth, Museum of the Jewish Diaspora, in Tel Aviv. For a dozen years experts and learned men wrangled over the form such a museum should take. At last in 1970, an overall plan was adopted, based on the ideas of an Israeli poet, Abner Kovner. Money was raised in Jewish communities throughout the world, with a small sum coming from German war reparations. An international competition was held to choose an architectural plan, and the result is a concrete cube with a disconcerting resemblance to a World War II blockhouse. It stands on the campus of Tel Aviv University and was opened in 1978.

It is easy to see why Beth Hatefutsoth was so long in taking shape. It had to be designed to cover an endlessly varied life in scores of countries, over centuries of change, from rich communities like those of Moslem Spain to miserable communities like those of Yemen, to lost communities like those of China. It had to cover migrations, persecutions, major discoveries in the sciences, dazzling achievements in the arts, life in village hovels, life in royal courts. A history of the Jews cannot help spilling over into a history of the world. And this museum was to be only four stories high.

The overwhelming scope of the material that belongs in this museum is equaled only by the paucity of physical remain. There are books aplenty, illustrations in old manuscripts, letters, legal proceedings, millions of documents. But the objects that would ordinarily fill a museum's shelves and stand in its halls or hang on its walls have almost all gone with the wind.

Not a stone remains of the great Greco-Roman synagogue of Alexandria where worshipers clustered in such numbers that a flag had to be waved to those in the rear to let them know when to say Amen.

Of the rich community in the Roman province of Cyrenaica, today's Libya, little survives but a broken millstone with a fragmentary inscription recording the repair or a road during a Jewish insurrection.

A few synagogues transformed into churches are all that are left to recall the wealth and pride of the Jewish community in Spain during the seven centuries when Spain was a Moslem country.

The desert sands blow over the academies of Sura and Pumbeditha in the Persian Empire where rabbis once sat year round settling for all time questions of law and the meaning of obscure verses of Scripture.

All the intense life of thousands of villages in Eastern Europe, which two or three generations ago formed the largest Jewish community in the world, was snuffed out in three or four years of Nazi efficiency.

To recreate these vanished world, the museum had to be built from the ground up, its exhibits made rather than collected. The final design is largely the work of James Gardner, known as G, the imaginative Englishman who gave us the pull-down trays on our passenger airplanes and the superstructure of the QE2 as well as the dummy tanks which fooled the Germans into thinking the main invasion in June 1944 would come across the Straits of Dover, and a whole batch of museums built around ideas which were generally considered too difficult to be covered by visual displays.

Visual displays demand physical objects, and where could you find the physical objects? A wandering people forced to live by its wits produced generation upon generation of gifted craftsmen and artists needed to produce all the myriad objects need to maintain and adorn daily private and community life. But the patterns of daily Jewish life have been repeatedly torn apart by spoliations, pogroms, expulsions, extinctions.

Gardner did not want to design a tombstone, he proposed a glimpse into a living past, the bustle and color of daily life along with the great achievements of all those extinguished generations.. He used modern audiovisual techniques - films, filmstrips, backlighted transparencies, projections. Visitors see films of Jewish life in modern out-of-the-way communities. They listen in Hebrew or in English translation to a debate over the principles of charity in a modern yeshiva (rabbinical school) or a discussion of current events between Jew and Greek in the harbor of first-century Alexandria. They see an animation tracing the travels of Benjamin of Tudela in the 12 th century. They put questions to a computer and receive print-outs giving complete information about the composition and history of any of some 3,000 Jewish communities ranging from ancient Egypt to today's Midwest.

All this makes for impressive displays. But there are other appealing aspects to the museum that are also more old-fashioned. They consist of scale models, diagrams, sculptured figures, mural paintings - the work of a team of modern artist-craftsmen reconstructing detailed scenes of Jewish life through the ages.

Not one of these was done in Israel. In previous historic periods, almost any Jewish community would have been able to provide any number of skilled craftsmen for this kind of work. But in Israel, where every young person wants to become a state-of-the-art electronic technician, no one wants to go back to the old arts-and-crafts village life and relearn the old skills of weaving and pottery and stone-cutting and carpentry. So the bulk of the work was done in London, where in innumerable little workshops at the end of little side streets there are artisans dressed in homespun clothes, drinking homemade cider, capable of producing perfect replicas of medieval gowns, Roman javelins, Mongol tents, alchemists' crucibles, or whatever else is needed by producers of epic movies, by Madame Tussaud's wax works or adventurous museum-makers like G.

It was not an easy job getting all this done correctly enough to please the local experts and the local critics. Controversy over fine points has been a Jewish specialty over the ages, and clamorous teams of academic authorities and politicians and learned passers-by leaned heavily over the shoulders of the designers of every exhibit, criticizing every minor detail.

Knotty problems arose everywhere.

The cross is a symbol which in a Jewish museum may stir up unpleasant memories of the Holy Inquisition and burnings at the stake. So wouldn't it be better not to put a cross on the dome of a Byzantine church in sixth-century Jerusalem?

How can you make a frieze showing rabbis at work in the Sassanian period (fourth to sixth centuries), when the center of Jewish intellectual life was in the Persian Empire, if no art work of that period shows living creatures except for one tile showing a camel? (Answer: you get a skilled artist-modeler to invent one and produce works "good enough" in Gardner's estimation "to be in the British Museum if they were authentic" and you are pleased when a figure from your frieze turns up as an illustration in a scholarly history of the Sassanian Empire.)

How do you design a boat from a century from which archeologists have found no fragment of a boat?.

Every one knows that European Jews in the Middle Ages wore distinctive pointed "lampshade"hats, but what were the hats made of - leather, canvas, basketwork, horn, or what?

If you are reproducing the blindfolded figure of Synagoga from the facade of the Strasbourg cathedral, do you use the restoration presently standing there and familiar to every tourist, or do you try to recreate the 13th century original from old documents, and how can you be sure the documents are accurate?

Since the goal of the museum was to represent daily life in the past, what you would have seen if you were living in another century, you may have to fill in pieces of surviving monuments and artifacts. The Arch of Titus in Rome is a natural candidate for this museum because it shows Roman soldiers carrying the Menorah, the seven-branched candlestick which was the holiest object in the Second Temple at Jerusalem, in triumph through the streets of the eternal city. Some of the heads and limbs of these soldiers had been broken off in the course of time, and they had to be replaced with heads and limbs that would pass muster as truly Roman.

The plans for the vanished synagogue of Kai Feng-Fu, whose congregation of Oriental Jews was swallowed up in the mass of China a century ago, had to be reconstructed from drawings made by Jesuit missionaries in the mid-19 th century.

The lovely ceiling paintings of the 17 th century wooden synagogue of Chodorov were consumed by German fire in World War II. Only black and white photographs survived, but artists could use these and surviving bits of contemporaneous work to bring back to life their scampering animals and green meadows.

There is no fakery here The objects in Beth Hatefutsoth are unapologetically what they are: replicas, reproductions, reconstitutions. They are an attempt to blow life into the dry bones of the past, to make the visitor share the daily ebb and flow of work and pleasure and ritual and danger in the Diaspora.

The ground floor of the Museum has room for temporary exhibits, an auditorium, a cafeteria, offices The permanent exhibit starts after a walk up a concrete stairway into a wide stone-paved gallery. Its entrance lies between two huge roughhewn blocks. They look immeasurably weighty, and when they were left in the driveway on delivery day a truck-driver demanded a bulldozer to get them out of his way. Then two Arab boys picked them up and carried them on their shoulders upstairs: they are fiberglass replicas of stone that once formed part of the wall the second Temple of Jerusalem.

This temple was built by Zerubbabel after the return from the Babylonian captivity, to replace the first temple, Solomon's temple, which had been destroyed by King Nebuchadrezzar, as described in the Old Testament's Book of Kings. [In the Bible, only in the book of the prophet Jeremiah is the name of this great king spelled correctly.] It was immensely enlarged by King Herod the Great. When the Roman legionaries of Titus besieged and stormed the city in AD 70, they were so enraged by the fanatic ferocity of the resistance of the defenders (the "Zealots") that they methodically smashed the Temple to pieces, leaving nothing standing but part of the western wall, which over the ensuing centuries became the Wailing Wall where Jews from all over the world came to bemoan their shattered past.

The year 70 became the year from which the beginning of the Diaspora is generally dated. In point of fact, there were considerable Jewish communities abroad before then. Many of the exiles had stayed on in Babylon instead of returning to Palestine, and turned it into a great commercial and cultural center: the most authoritative version of the encyclopedic book which generation after generation has taught pious Jews the fine points of their faith and their laws and rituals is called the Babylonian Talmud. The first translation of the Hebrew Bible into a foreign language (in this case Greek) was made on an island in the harbor of Alexandria under one of the successors to Alexander the Great, Congregations of Jewish farmers, merchants, artisans (like Saul of Tarsus, a tent-maker by trade, who changed his name to Paul while on a preaching mission to the Jews of Cyprus), were spread through all the provinces of the Roman Empire.

However until the year 70, the life of all these communities revolved around the ceremonies and festivals of the Temple in Jerusalem. When the Temple was destroyed, logic might have dictated the death of Judaism. Instead, the rabbis went on reinterpreting the Law of Moses, replacing the physical Temple of Jerusalem with a spiritual one, weaving an immensely complex pattern of duties, prayers, observances, that all Jews would be bound to follow from birth to death, no matter where the wanderings of their permanent exile might bring them.

Single-minded passionate loyalty to his Law would preserve the Jew's identity through all his wanderings. He might speak a variety of languages - Yiddish in Eastern Europe, Ladino in Spain and Turkey, Judeo-Arabic in North Africa, Judeo-Persian in Afghanistan, Judeo-Tat in the Caucasus, even ancient Aramaic, the language of Jesus, in Persia - but he always prayed in Hebrew. In his daily business he might dress like an Englishman or a Chinese or whatever people among whom he lived, but at the appointed hours of every day he put a prayer shawl around his head and shoulders, and bound phylacteries around his left arm and head. He obeyed the laws of the land he lived in, but when it came to belief and standards of conduct he deferred to the authority of rabbis who might be living or have lived thousands of miles away.

Beth Hatefutsoth displays a fragment of correspondence between the community of Sijilmassa in Morocco and the rabbis of Babylonia a continent away in the eleventh century. The question is raised whether it is lawful to eat dead locusts, and the answer comes, after lengthy debate and due consideration of principles and precedents, that they may be eaten if they come out of a storage bin but not if they come out of a basket.

The Law guaranteed that the Jew would always be different from his neighbors. Distinctiveness inevitably insured him varying degrees of puzzlement, annoyance, sometimes blind hostility. A Christian bishop of Alexandria, in a letter shown on a vitrine on the third floor of the Museum, was neither the first nor the last man in history to be bewildered and annoyed by the strict observance of the Jewish sabbath: "On our way from Cyrene to Alexandria, a great storm arose. The Jewish captain and sailors had secluded themselves to pray, leaving the ship unattended to toss on the raging billows because it was Sabbath eve, a time when they desist from work. Nor was the Jewish captain deterred by the anger of the passengers, one of whom brandished his sword over him." But the rabbis recognized that even divine rules like the Ten Commandments must be relaxed on certain occasions: when at midnight the high seas threatened to break up the ship, the captain consented to "seize the tiller and steer the ship, because danger to life offsets the Sabbath."

How so many disparate individuals living in so many disparate cultures could still form a single people is the subject of three section of the Museum. Labeled Family, Community, Faith, these form a whole, illustrating of bonds of continuity in Jewish life. Every stage of life has its fixed patterns: birth, the circumcision of male infants on the eighth day (illustrated by Rembrandt drawings as well as by a plastic figure-group), the bar mitzvah which admits the 13-year-old boy to adult responsibilities in the congregation, marriage, death.

Each season of the year is marked by holy days, days of mourning like the Ninth of Ab when the Temple was destroyed, days of rejoicing like the Passover when the people were delivered from Egyptian bondage. A diorama reconstructs a Passover feast, a seder, in 14 th century Spain: the clothes and domestic architecture are different, but the songs and the stories and the wine are the same as they were in eighth-century Baghdad, as they are in twentyfirst-century New York.

By choice or necessity, most Diaspora Jews have lived in constricted, tightly knit communities, inside which a whole gamut of institutions helps keep the traditional ways of life alive. The Museum has a remarkably detailed model of a medieval German ghetto, with more than 100 little figures, engaging for the most part in typically Jewish activities: studying in the Hebrew school, thrashing out fine points of doctrine in the yeshiva, butchering animals in the ritual fashion which alone makes them proper to eat, soaking in ritual baths, organizing charities for the poorer members of the community, preparing the last rites for the dead.

There are models of 18 synagogues, which are themselves a kind of roster of the Diaspora, passing through every style of architecture, from the classic columns of second-century Sardis in Asia Minor, through the Moorish arches of Spain and the pagoda-roof of China, to the ultramodern design of Frank Lloyd Wright in a suburb of Philadelphia.

The synagogue has always held an honored place in Jewish life, but the essence is not in the building but in the congregation. A plaster group of the sculptor Astrid Zydower transmits this feeling. It shows a prayer room in London where some shabbily dressed men have come together. Prayer in Judaism is a communal as well as a private matter: in public worship nothing can begin until a minyan, a group of at least ten males, has formed. The tenth man is just entering, the others are getting ready to open their tattered prayer books; one of them is helping an inexperienced boy to put on his phylacteries correctly.

Zydower was herself born in a Jewish family in Poland, but she was smuggled out of the country to escape the Nazi terror. and was brought up as a Christian in England. Working on this commission filled her with a fascination for the way of her fathers, and the sculptured group is bathed in a kind of serenity which constant repetition of this ritual has brought into the lives of untold generations.

The Museum illustrates how the Jewish communities of the Diaspora could maintain themselves and their values, isolated pockets in an alien and often violently hostile world. But the isolation was never total. No matter how narrow life could be, and behind ghetto walls in medieval Europe it could be fearfully stifling, there had to be contact between the Jews and the Gentiles among whom they lived. These interactions are taken up in the next two sections of the Museum, labeled Culture and Among the Nations.

A central place in Among the Nations is occupied by one of the most dramatic and colorful of all the episodes of the Diaspora, the rise and fall of the Jewish community in Spain. For hundreds of years, under relatively tolerant Moslem rules, the Jews lived a true golden age, spreading through all the life of the peninsula, rising to positions of power, amassing wealth, producing some of the most skillful physicians and subtle philosophers of the early Middle Ages. Two Jew especially are shown at the heights of power and glory:

Hasdai Ibn Shaprut, a tenth-century physician and diplomat, is seen in a series of painted panels. As adviser to the Caliph of Cordova, he negotiates with envoys from the German emperor. As head of the Jewish community, he dispenses justice, protects the oppressed, receives communications from the King of the Khazars, a Turkish people on the banks of the distant Volga who had converted to Judaism, and who according to a periodically revived theory may be the principal ancestors of most living European and American Jews. As private citizen, he converses with sages and poets in his garden.

Samuel Ha-Nagi, a couple of generations later, rose from perfume vendor to chief minister of the Moslem King of Granada and commander of his armies. A diorama shows him sitting in his tent on the eve of a battle, composing a poem of farewell to his son.

The picture darkens as the Christians drive remorselessly southward in their reconquest of Spain. The Moslems turn fanatic in the hour of defeat. The new rulers at first tolerate the Jews, but are determined to convert them. In a diorama with a connected sound track in Hebrew and English, we can watch and listen to a debate at the court of a king of Aragon in 1263 between Nahmanides, a Jewish scholar, and a Catholic monk, himself an apostate Jew. Such disputations were common enough at medieval courts. Since Christian set the ground rules. and also acted as judges, the choice of winner was never in doubt.

Another diorama shows the Dominican friar Saint Vicente Ferrer breaking into a synagogue and demanding the conversion of all Jews to the faith of Christ. Still another shows the last baleful act of the drama: King Ferdinand and queen Isabella listen to the pleas of Jewish leaders against the decree of expulsion from Spain. But Torquemada, the Grand Inquisitor who was rumored to have a Jewish ancestor or two (as did King Ferdinand), holds up a crucifix before the faces of the rulers and hardens their hearts. The Jews must abjure their religion or leave the kingdom.

The result, as texts along the wall inform us, was that thousands of Jews perished at sea, thousands were taken by pirates and sold into slavery, thousands remained behind as more or less sincere converts. But thousands more made their way to Protestant Holland and Ottoman Turkey, both implacable foes of Spain.

Subsequent scenes show the Jewish exiles bringing their knowledge and their industry to the aid of their new hosts. With their talents for finance, they help found the Amsterdam Stock Exchange, they branch into diamond cutting and making optical instruments, and they help the Dutch become the dominant commercial nation in Europe. In Turkey, they make superior guns and munitions for the armies of the sultan and rise to key positions in the government until in the course of time the Ottoman Empire sinks into corruption and decay, intolerance toward minorities rises, and the rich Jewish communities suffer,

History in the Diaspora is, as a text one of the walls puts it, "a continous drama of settlement and expulsion, disaster and recovery." The Jews are welcomed to the courts of Western Europe in the early Middle Ages. Christians are not allowed to lend money at interest, but the rulers need loans. All goes well till the unpaid interest piles up to the point of being unpayable, and the Jews are expelled. ("Do you know why Ireland is the only country in Europe that has never thrown out the Jews?" asks a character in Joyce's Ulysses. "Because she was the only one that never let them in.")

Jews are slaughtered by fanatical Crusaders on charges of poisoning wells and spreading plagues; they are forced to wear yellow badges of shame; they are shut up in ghettoes, they are forbidden to own land. They are invited to Eastern Europe by the princes of Poland and Lithuania to serve as middlemen between them and their peasant subjects, to become barbers, butchers, doctors, furriers, shoemakers, weavers, goldsmiths. Eventually both princes and peasants will make them victims of merciless pogroms.

Throughout all the wanderings, a dream remained constant, the hope for a return to Zion. Throughout the Diaspora, false Messiahs periodically arise, claiming to have been sent by God to lead his people back to the promised land. Only at the end of the 19 th century does a practical plan for the restoration of a Jewish state in Palestine emerge. A section of the Museum, called Return, documents the formation of the Zionist movement, the slow tide of immigration rising to a flood as Hitler starts to dominate Europe, the proclamation of the new state of Israel in 1947.

In every generation a certain percentage of the Diaspora population has slipped away from its past, has been completely assimilated in the Gentile world, like the congregation of Kai Keng-Fu. Others without losing their Jewish identity have made their mark in and sometimes profoundly transformed the general life of their times. And so we have a gallery of scores of great or interesting or merely odd personalities, children of the Diaspora who became internationally famous, a richly mixed bag containing Spinoza; Heinrich Heine; Jonas Salk; Levi Strauss who clad the American cowboy and eventually the whole world in blue jeans; Sidney Franklin the Brooklyn matador who killed over 5,000 bulls; the Rothschilds; Modigliani; Saul Bellow.

Outsiders looking in on this singular people often tend to form stereotype, like the rapacious hook-nosed moneylender of anti-Semitic cartoons. Actually the Jew of the Diaspora might be almost anything: farmer, trader, shopkeeper, silversmith for the Yemenites, slave trader for the Kings of Bohemia, lion tamer for the Kings of Aragon, and his physical traits might vary as much as his choice of trades.

This spectrum is richly illustrated in a display where lights are continually flashing in the darkness as 16 screens project photographic galleries of Jewish faces throughout the contemporary world. There are some 200 in all - blond Jews, black Jews, sturdy mountaineers and gentle scholars, a vast array of facial characteristics, a cross-section of mankind.

Beth Hatefutsoth is intended to be a record of achievement, and its prevailing tone is one of victory over recurring difficulties. But there are continual reminders that the great victories are balanced by great disasters, that a recurring theme of Jewish history has been woe. The visitor waking up from floor to floor climbs a circular stairwell in which there hangs from the ceiling a cagelike iron structure 50 feet high designed by Charles Forberg of New York. An eerie light in the center and solemn music help identify this as a memorial column, commemorating centuries of martyrdom .At its foot are "Scrolls of Fires" - illuminated poems recalling the great tragedies that have befallen the Jews since 586 BC, when Solomon's Temple was destroyed, down to Hitler's holocaust of 1939-45.

Outside the building the visitor steps back into the peaceful university canvas. Students are running on the grass between courses. The exiles are safely at home. But it takes no more than the distant whine of an Army fighter plane or the siren on an ambulance that may be on its way to the scene of a suicide bombing to recall that the final chapter is not yet written, the story has no guarantee of a happy ending.

©1978, 2003 Robert Wernick Smithsonian Magazine June 1978