AMSTERDAM — If you have ever tried to shlep a child through the galleries of a museum, you’ll know it’s an experience best enjoyed in the company of adults.
But the JHM (Jewish Historical Museum) Children’s Museum in Amsterdam stands as a stark exception to that rule. The three-level museum, which rubs shoulders with the adult-oriented Jewish Historical Museum, is a delightful, bright space that invites children – Jewish and other – to learn how the rich tapestry of custom, tradition and law weaves its way through Jewish life.
Rather than having visitors stare through glass panels at untouchable objects, the children’s museum encourages interactivity at every turn, using multimedia screens to depict the lives and studies of Jewish children in Holland.
Max the Matzo leads kids through the imaginary Hollander family’s Jewish home through interactive multimedia presentations. The ground floor is a craft room where kids can paint and draw. There are pages printed with Jewish themes for colouring and art supplies neatly stacked, though with strict instructions that they may only be used under supervision. Since there was no supervision on this level, we ascended to the second floor and found ourselves in a bright red and blue kitchen, the colours clearly demarcating meat from milk.
“Would you like to braid some challah?” came a voice from the kitchen. Our timing was impeccable that day. I’d arrived with my twin girls minutes after a local school group had left the building, and the kitchen was still bustling with activity. In no time, my girls were seated at the table learning the fine art of challah braiding with freshly baked dough. Using edible ink and rice paper, they stamped the underside of the challah and left it to bake while we explored the room further.
This kitchen is a Jewish educator’s dream. At every turn is information explaining the intricacies of kashruth. A shelf painted green contains easily recognizable pareve items and information about the separation of meat and milk accompanies the blue and red shelves, with their corresponding sinks.
The library and study are on level two, with children’s books about the holidays in Dutch, English and Hebrew, and an assortment of Judaic literature. In the multimedia presentation on this level, we see the Hollander children learning about loving they neighbour as thyself. But it’s the third-floor music room that really magnetizes the kids.
Press a button in the music room and it fills with the beautiful melodies of Jewish music. The shelves of a large cupboard hold items of significance to the Jewish holidays, and everything is available for touching and playing. There are masks on the Purim shelf, a shofar on the Rosh Hashanah shelf and a seder plate with removable fake food on the Passover shelf. This is a space where kids can refresh their memories of the Jewish festivals and enjoy an environment where nothing is off limits.
While the Jewish Historical Museum next door is full of the sad facts of the Holocaust and the devastating effect it had on Holland’s Jewry, there is no sadness in the children’s museum. These three levels are about learning through exploration and encouragement, and offer a warm, positive environment that is pure celebration of the joy of being Jewish.
“Until it was renovated three years ago… the former Jewish Historical Museum was not especially attractive to children and not a lot of children visited,” Annelie Spaans, the Jewish Historical Museum’s spokesperson, says.
Petra Katzenstein, the museum’s director, says, “We found our inspiration in the fact that children in the Netherlands are often only informed about Jews in the context of the Second World War. They don’t know any Jews, and sometimes believe that they are all dead. So we show the life and daily activities that everyone, whatever their background, can relate to.
“The goal of the children’s museum, which opened in December 2006, is to give the visitor the opportunity to get to know Jewish culture and knowledge. That’s the best and most positive way to deal with prejudices and fear of what is different.”
So if you’re passing through Amsterdam with kids in tow, be sure to make this museum – one out of some 51 in the city competing for tourists’ attention – a priority.
For more information about the JHM Children’s Museum, visit www.jhm.nl.