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A Mission for the Jewish Museum of Venice

After six hours of hard work we raised our heads from the notepads and looked at each other: the Jewish Museum of Venice now had a mission. Well, it always had had one, of course, but there were no words to convey it: I’m certain you see the irony of a Jewish community struggling to turn life into words.

So we had to debate, argue, and then write it down. And there it was. It was a good mission – it was a joy for the eyes, it was useful, it looked honest and empowering.

The Jewish Museum of Venice believes that the sharing of stories builds a community. For 60 years now, we have done our best to be compelling narrators of Jewish history. We are the guardians of an amazing cultural heritage where everyone can discover themselves in a millennial encounter with otherness.

Is there anything more Other, to an Italian, than being in Venice? I doubt it. Venice may be temporarily thought of as “Italy”, but you just need to scratch the seaweed and you’ll discover an altogether different story.

Is there any kind of Otherness more radical than being Jewish? Venice Jews: the place where the word “ghetto” originates from. That’s as Other as it gets.

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But let’s be focused: the museum acknowledged the encounter with Otherness as the core idea about who it is and what it does. Could we devise ways to translate this into manageable actions?

If you want to meet others, there should be someone who greets them. This called for a renewed effort, on the museum’s part, to engage the young members of the Jewish community. We gathered some of them and produced 360° photos to upload on Google Street View. We opened an instagram account and decided we didn’t want “influencers”: we wanted the staff and community members to feel confident that their own voices would be welcome, and yes, they were entitled to tell stories about the museum. Like @franzheller with his unique, ironical look on things. His presence on Instagram is Jewish, Venetian, LGBT, professional, informal. That’s the way to go.

franz heller mev museo ebraico venezia on instagram

We also reached out to the local Wikipedia community, made sure we learned their rules, and then wondered if we could create value; we found out we could, and we improved their page on Daniel Bomberg, a belgian printer whose Talmud – one of the first to be printed at all, around 1520 – is in Venice.

We addressed issues of relationships between the wardens and the audience, and identified steps that could be undertaken in order to improve things.

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We developed a new voice on Facebook, one that would be faithful to the idea of a “compelling narrator”, and “guardians of an amazing cultural heritage”. This means, among other things, feeling entitled to tell stories about jewish cinema, recipes and jokes. If you understand Italian, follow for some sharp, bitter laughs on Monday mornings.

My work with the staff finished months ago. They tell me they see “more followers and more engagement on social media; we meet more teenagers now, they’re bright and sharp; they help us to organize concerts ad parties and they asked us to have meeting rooms and a free admission monthly date.”

Most of them aren’t Jewish, by the way. But that’s precisely the point.

Giorgio Manganelli, a great, obscure Italian author, during the Eighties wrote that what’s wrong with the western civilization is its unwillingness to acknowledge that there is in fact a Fundamental Question (yes, just like in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy).

Only that this Question is in fact “Am I Jewish, deep down inside?”

Of course the answer is not 42 but “hell, yes”.