The Israel Museum
Lisa Alcalay Klug
Jewish bridal costume from Yemen in the Jewish ethnography collection.Although the Romans stole ancient Israel’s greatest treasures with the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash, the richest collection of Jewish artifacts, archaeological finds and works of art still resides in Jerusalem. Fittingly, you’ll find it all across the street from the Knesset, the parliamentary headquarters, at the Israel Museum.
Several departments comprise the museum, including Judaica and ethnography, archeology and the legendary Shrine of the Book, which contains a fascinating exhibit on the Dead Sea Scrolls. With its art garden, a youth wing and an additional hall for special exhibitions, it comprises a massive complex that would take days to explore.
One way to make it more digestible is to pick up “Inside the Israel Museum: A Family Guide” (The Israel Museum, 2000). This award-winning book offers an entertaining behind-the-scenes look at museum life and special points of interest. Another option is to join one of the daily scheduled English-speaking tours that are free with admission.
On a recent visit, I joined a Museum Highlights tour, which operates every day the museum is open. Much like “Inside the Israel Museum,” the tour began at the start of civilization. Among a surprisingly diverse number of items, our guide showed us a huge elephant tusk and other remains of life in Israel dating back to pre-Biblical times. And we went on to other incredible discoveries. There were examples of 429 pieces of mostly copper objects, including maces and mace heads, crowns and scepters, dating back thousands of years that were found in a cave in the Judean Desert. Eight gold rings from the same period were discovered in a nearby cave. And game boards from the ancient city of Arad from shortly thereafter.
The list also included mosaics, sarcophagi, coins, glass and odd-shaped keys from the time of the Bar Kochba revolt that were attached to doorknobs and handles.
As we continued our journey through the ages, we were amazed by giant Egyptian body-shaped coffins and a tiny ivory pomegranate that ostensibly decorated the priestly clothing worn by Kohanim during the First Temple period. There were also numerous examples of early Hebrew writing, such as the remnants of tiny silver scrolls discovered in the burial cave of a priestly family in Jerusalem. The scrolls contain the ancient Kohanic blessing from the Book of Numbers (6:26): “May Hashem bless you and keep you. May Hashem make His face to shine upon you and be gracious unto you. May Hashem turn His countenance to you and grant you peace.” The scrolls were written more than 2,600 years ago, when Solomon’s Temple was still standing.
As time moved ahead and we continued toward the modern period, we entered the Judaica collection, which included an impressive display of Torah scrolls, complete with beautiful mantles, silver crowns and other ornaments and wimples (embroidered cloth Torah binders). We found nearly every imaginable ritual item, illuminated haggadot and even several synagogues and a sukkot reconstructed under the museum’s roof. When we sat under the striking hand painted ceiling of the Horb synagogue from southern Germany, we even heard recorded cantorial chanting.
As we passed through the nearby Jewish ethnography collection, it served as a visual manifestation of the incredible diversity of the Jewish people. Mannequins displayed the great variety of Jewish clothing from around the world, from elaborate, bejeweled Yemenite wedding attire to an Ethiopian woman’s woven cotton dress and the lace bonnets of a European house frau.
Time did not allow a thorough visit of the many other departments, which display prints, drawings and photographs, maps of the Holy Land, fine art, architecture and more. One thing you likely won’t find in any other country is the fascinating collection of Israeli art, which reflects the country’s history of social and political change and the changing nature of Israeli identity among artists such as Reuven Rubin. In his striking self portrait, a cyclical, flowing pattern in Rubin’s sweater echoes the rolling waves on the sea behind him. “I feel myself reborn,” he wrote. “All is sunshine, clear light and happy creative work.”
When you go:
The Israel Museum is located along the 9, 17, 24/24a and 99 bus lines. The museum is open most days from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., including Saturday (with advance tickets available for Shabbat observers); closing time is 2 p.m. on Fridays. Hours on Tuesday are 4 to 9 p.m. The museum is closed Sunday. For more information, visit www.imj.org.il.
LISA ALCALAY KLUG is a widely published freelance writer, photographer, editor and writing coach. A former staff writer for the Associated Press and Los Angeles Times, her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Jerusalem Post, Forbes.com, Shape, Self, Men's Fitness and many other publications in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom. To learn more visit www.lisaklug.com