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October 23, 2014 | 29th Tishrei 5775

Taxidermy

Galilee Diary #549, September 21, 2011
Marc Rosenstein

The house of Israel named it manna; it was like coriander seed, white, and tasted like wafers in honey. Moses said: 'This is what the LORD has commanded: Let one omer of it be kept throughout the ages; that they may see the bread that I fed you in the wilderness, when I brought you out from the land of Egypt.' And Moses said to Aaron: 'Take a jar, and put one omer of manna in it, and place it before the LORD, to be kept throughout the ages.' As the LORD commanded Moses, so Aaron placed it before the Pact, to be kept.
         -Exodus 16:31-34

On a recent trip to South Africa, we had the opportunity to visit the Basotho Cultural Village in the Drakensburg Mountains. This is a visitors' center featuring a traditional village representing local tribal traditions, but also including reconstructions of homes from different periods, showing the influence of Dutch and then British colonization, and modernization in general. The site employs local guides and actors, and is done tastefully and professionally, so that one can learn a lot and not feel subjected to touristic kitsch. It was fascinating to us, and we found various parallels to traditions we had encountered in other places (Ethiopia, Bedouins). Shuni, our young guide, was bright, knowledgeable, and personable. Apparently most of the visitors are not tourists like us, but Black African school children brought there to learn about their heritage. I mentioned that it seemed that this museum was displaying a culture that was disappearing - and our guide agreed.  He said that the kids from the cities and townships find it boring and pointless, whereas village kids still find much with which to identify.

For the past twenty years, my friend Amin has been operating the Museum of Palestinian Arab Culture in the Galilean town of Sachnin. In the former Turkish governor's house, it displays tools and utensils and furnishings representing pre-modern village home life, crafts, and agriculture - customs that began to fade already in the early 20th century. The museum has had its ups and downs based on municipal politics, but has been pretty stagnant for years, even though its depiction of the social hierarchy in the village diwan (meeting room) is very effective.  During the museum's heyday, most of the visitors were Arab school children, coming to learn about their heritage.

And on the campus of Tel Aviv University, one can visit the well-known Diaspora Museum, which is currently going through an upgrade and rebranding as a museum of the continuity of the Jewish people. Originally, however, it aimed to serve Israelis, especially school groups and soldiers, depicting in impressive multimedia exhibits the Jewish culture of the Diaspora in all its rich variety. One could get the impression that the models of synagogues, and the dioramas of families celebrating holidays and life cycle events, were intended to familiarize Israelis with a culture that was long ago and far away.

The phenomenon of cultural change - and the attempt to somehow preserve and teach respect for what has been lost - are common themes around the world.  We move on, but we are nostalgic for where we came from - and we feel the need to show it to our children, and to instill in them respect for it. Everybody wants progress - but no one wants to be rootless. Ideally, the changes happen slowly, the culture evolves, integrating new tools and new ideas into a strong, healthy rootstock. Unfortunately, too often in the past two centuries, the changes have been so radical and even violent that the past (Basotho tribal culture; Palestinian agrarian life; the Diaspora) finds itself stuffed and mounted in a museum, a blunt instrument for strengthening the ethnic identities of bored, globalized teenagers. Does this endeavor indeed strengthen identity? Can we allow ourselves not to try? Are we doing it, maybe, after all, for ourselves? And what's wrong with that?

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