‘My Family Story’: Jewish History Recounted Through The Eyes Of Children
Thousands of youth take part in annual ‘My Family Story’ international competition
Nobel Laureate, author and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel once said, “we must see in every person a universe with its own secrets.” It is a poignant message to not view human beings as abstractions, one the Beit Hatfutsot Museum of the Jewish People in Tel Aviv took to heart in its new exhibition, “My Family Story.”
The worldwide competition’s winning projects, chosen from some 20,000 entries all exploring Jewish heritage, went on display over the weekend. For the 23rd edition of the annual event, Jewish students created artistic works to depict their family histories. The exhibition promotes an unconventional approach to the recounting of history, via photographic documentation, the presentation of personal artifacts and even through music—combined into a unified narrative told from the vantage point of children.
“We have 24 countries participating this year,” Tamar Sorek, Head of Program Development at the Museum of the Jewish People, told The Media Line. “It’s not just about figuring out your roots and your heritage, it’s also about transforming it into an artistic display and finding the essence of your family story.”
The families of dozens of winners gathered around the displays on Thursday ahead of the exhibition’s opening, listening to students describe the creative process behind each installation, sculpture or video. The students, who received a free plane ticket to Israel, came from far and wide, some from countries with prominent Jewish communities such as the United States and Canada, and others from more remote regions with tiny Jewish populations like Kazakhstan and Costa Rica.
Eleven-year-old Allen Delijani’s family members lived in Iran up until shortly after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, following which they escaped and started over from scratch in Los Angeles, California. For his project, Allen wove a small, traditional Persian carpet with a Star of David at its center, which was accompanied by a colorful photo album containing detailed biographies of several of his relatives.
“I put the Star of David because when my mom went to school as a young girl, [the administrators] painted an Israeli flag on the floor so that kids would step on it,” Delijani related to The Media Line. “My mom would carefully time her steps so she wouldn’t step on the Star of David. It’s a reminder to me to make sure I’m thankful for what I have.”
The Delijani family story is multi-faceted and reflective of the important role Persian Jews played in pre-revolutionary Iran. One of Allen’s ancestors, Hakim Nour Mahmoud, was in the 19th century the personal physician of King Naser al-Din Shah, who commissioned in his honor an intricate silk carpet depicting Jewish biblical scenes (now known as the Beth Tzedek carpet). Moreover, Dr. Mahmoud reportedly treated the then-Grand Ayatollah’s pregnant daughter when she fell gravely ill. To express his gratitude, the Ayatollah issued an edict barring Muslims from harming any Jew.
“The story of Iranian Jews is basically a story of survival,” Caroline Delijani, Allen’s mother, asserted to The Media Line. “We researched it and found that the [Beth Tzedek] carpet is today in a museum in Toronto, Canada. We don’t know how it got there but the carpet became the symbol of our family being woven together as one. We’re all beautiful because we’re all together.”
The vast majority of the displays at the “My Family Story” exhibition demonstrate how events from the 20th century, one of the most tumultuous periods in Jewish history, continue to have profound effects on young Jews’ connections to their cultural and religious heritage. Among the central themes, are the major waves of Jewish immigration before, during and after the Holocaust and following the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, when there was a mass exodus from Arab and Muslim countries.
Elisa Cohen, 11, journeyed all the way from San Diego, California with her winning entry, a mixed-media sculpture comprised of Sabbath ritual cups and clay figurines depicting her family members.
“This project is supposed to represent how important Judaism and religion are in my family,” Cohen, who emphasizes the importance of Jerusalem in her work, told The Media Line. “I’m really happy that I got to know where I really come from.”
For Elisa, one of the most fascinating stories she uncovered was her great-grandfather’s role in aiding U.S. intelligence operations during the Second World War. “My great-grandpa [Carlos Wellman] was originally from Poland and in World War II he escaped to Guadalajara, Mexico. The U.S. army then took him up to New York to use him as a spy during the war. One of the [seven] languages he spoke was German so he could understand what the Nazis were saying.”
Untangling the nuances of Jewish history through personal stories is one of the goals of “My Family Story.”
“This project teaches children that there is not one overarching narrative of the Jewish people, rather the story of the Jewish people is made up of 14.6 million smaller stories,” Itamar Kremer, Director of the Koret International School for Jewish Peoplehood at The Museum of the Jewish People, contended to The Media Line.
“At this event, children learn that, in fact, each person has their own meaningful story.”