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Museum Musings

All of Israel is Responsible One for the Other

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beryl dean"All of Israel is Responsible One for the Other" -  Kol Yisrael Arevim Ze La’ze - כל ישראל ערבים זה לזה

As a Docent at The National Museum of American Jewish History (NMAJH) in the heart of historic Philadelphia, I have learned more American history than I could have imagined. I have finally come to more fully appreciate the gifts my grandparents gave to me by taking the dangerous and arduous trip to America and the even more difficult “trip” to becoming American. However, it was not until I was able to share the 360 year old story of Jews in America with Museum visitors, that I gained a greater appreciation for the Talmudic statement which is the title of this piece (The Talmud is a legal commentary on the Torah, explaining how its commandments are to be carried out).

On over 100 tours, I have had the pleasure of leading people from all over the United States and the world, Jews and non-Jews, seniors and school age youngsters. Among them, I experienced five groups, in particular, from whom I learned not only about the world beyond my good life in the "lap of liberty” bestowed by America, but also about the meaning and significance to me of the title of this piece.

ISRAEL
IDF soldiers (with translator)

Bruchim ha’ba’im!” or “ Welcome” is my usual greeting to non-English speaking Jewish visitors, followed by my apology, in this case, for not being able to conduct the entire tour in Hebrew.

I soon learned that the soldiers’ English was as good, if not better, than mine. Ya’akov, their very adult chaperone, did not need to translate ... but he did not hesitate to comment in Hebrew on much of what I said. Understanding him, I did not hesitate to respond. Particularly interesting was his comment that America is “too free,” that the rights of the individual have too far surpassed those of the community, state, and nation.

A highlight was my conversation with one of the young soldiers whose parents had immigrated to Israel from the former Soviet Union. His interest was America after the Civil War. That he spoke Russian, Hebrew, some Arabic, and English impressed me as much as his interesting choice of academic study.

Reali School (in Haifa)

Another group from Israel came from the Reali public school in Haifa, one which selects students and trains them to be the future leaders of the Jewish State. After my customary Bruchim ha’ba’im, English was no trouble at all with these very polite, yet normal teens. The real fun for me was “eavesdropping” on their adolescent chatter and exchanges in Hebrew.

ITALY
Group from Italy (with translator):

I signed up to give a tour listed as “visitors from Italy, with the Rabbi as the translator.” After my usual Bruchim ha’ba’im, I found myself chatting in simple Hebrew with the young rabbi, as well as with a charming older gentleman who was introduced to me as the Archbishop. The visitors were part of a Jewish/Catholic tour group from Milan, and the Archbishop explained that he had studied for the priesthood in Israel for a year, where he learned to speak Modern Hebrew.

Many recognize that Italian is one of the most beautiful languages in the world. As I listened to the Rabbi’s melodic voice as he translated my words into Italian, I, with a little bit of help from high school Latin and a mother who spoke French, understood his beautiful words and it was as if I were listening to a Puccini opera!

This group particularly enjoyed the third floor gallery on the New York City Garment Industry when Eastern European Jewish and Southern European Italian immigrants shared the struggle for workers’ rights, a struggle that was transformed by the tragic event of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire. The Rabbi also reminded us of the saga of Operation Solomon (the arrival of Ethiopian Jews to Israel) and that Ethiopia was once part of the Italian Empire.

UKRAINE
Chabad Odessa
(with translator):

I expected a group of women wearing long dresses and sheitls (wigs worn by Orthodox women for modesty) and men with beards in frock coats from “little” Odessa in Brooklyn. Much to my surprise, the group that I watched entering the Museum consisted only of men, of various ages and styles of dress. I had not realized that the group was not from Little Odessa in Brooklyn, but rather from Odessa in the Ukraine!

Again, I started with Bruchim ha’ba’im and found that the group leader happily entered into a conversation with me in Hebrew about where to hang coats, to discover the parts of the Museum that the group wanted to see and where to find the men’s room. My translator spoke perfect English, which he had studied at University where his interest was post-Holocaust history. He was among three or four other members of the group who could speak English, Hebrew, or both.

My personal highlight was Rabbi’s son Shloimi, a delightful nine year old, who asked the best questions of all (of course, translated for me, and my answers for him). As a special treat for Shloimi, we went into the gallery to look at a small artifact of the classic hero “Superman.” After I told him and the men around him that the famous comic hero was created by two young Jewish boys from Cleveland in the 1930s, I asked him where else he had heard something like the Superman story and did he think there was there anything Jewish about it?

I gave him some clues: a baby boy who comes from somewhere else, in some kind of container, is adopted by people not his own, to grow up and become the champion of “The never ending battle for truth, justice, and the American way.” Shloimy struggled a bit, as the young translator repeated my question to him in Russian, he then, with a smile of satisfaction said, “Moshe (Moses)!” The others around him also smiled, calling to their friends who were busy looking at other sections of the gallery. They loved it! Torah and Superman!

As our tour was coming to end, I made sure to get them down to the first floor and the “Only in America” exhibition to see the video and small display about Menachem Mendel Schneerson, their Founder, Rebbe, and Messiah. As we said goodbye I wished them L’hitraot, and safe trip home.

As I reflect on the various groups that I have taken through the Museum, I worry particularly about the precious young men and women from Israel whom I had befriended and enjoyed and about their fates in this past summer’s war with Hamas in Gaza. I wonder about the Italian group that has returned to Europe where antisemitism is, once again, rearing its ugly head. And, each time I hear about Russian encroachments on the Ukraine, I fear for those delightful and impressive young men, now that they have returned to the country from which my grandparents fled to make a life in America for themselves. . .and for me.

By Beryl Dean; Museum Docent