Life & Culture

Inside the new home of the Codex Sassoon - the world's oldest Hebrew bible

The Anu Museum acquired the bible after it was sold by Sotheby's for $38m


When it opened in 2021 it was hard to know which audience Tel Aviv University’s Anu museum was aimed at. Anu means “we” and the museum, which replaced its 1978 predecessor, the Beit Hatfutsot Museum of the Jewish Diaspora, had undergone a $100 million revamp. After a decade of planning, it relaunched itself as “the Museum of the Jewish People”.

Spread across 7,000 square meters, it is everything its predecessor was not: it’s full of digital and audio-visual displays and exhibits, but lacks the usual range of historical artefacts one might expect from a more traditional museum. The objects it does display are judiciously and carefully curated, and are combined with a vast array of modern museum techniques, the type of which could easily have seemed kitsch and gimmicky but are here put to extraordinary effect to enhance and expand one’s experience.

Where museums once prided themselves on their collections, Anu instead seems prouder of its coherent design, which it uses to represent a broad vision of Judaism past and present. At times, it looks like it is clearly trying to explain Judaism to people who don’t know much about it — no easy task. It ambitiously tries to cover just about everything throughout all periods of Jewish existence. Its vision is unashamedly pluralistic and inclusive, and gives even the most dedicated Jew of one denomination or another plenty to explore in areas he or she might not often be inclined to think about.

Yet being based in Israel, it must also attract a sizeable Jewish audience, who no doubt know at least something about Judaism. To them, it reveals nuggets of information and knowledge they might not have known, despite their own engagement with Jewish life. Even when the information is familiar, Anu offers it up in such a clean and tidy way that it helps contextualise and crystalise it in the much wider, rich tapestry that is historic and contemporary Judaism.

One artefact the museum is proud to be adding to its collection is the Codex Sassoon, the oldest and most complete Hebrew Bible, which was auctioned at Sotheby’s for $38.1million earlier this year, when it was acquired by the American Friends of Anu thanks to an extraordinary donation from Ambassador Alfred H. Moses, of Washington DC, and the Moses family.

The book dates back to around 900CE and consists of 24 books presented in 792 pages made from several hundred sheepskins. It will become part of the core exhibition and permanent collection of Anu, going on display this coming October.

Named after its most notable owner, the avid collector of Judaica David Solomon Sassoon, it is said to have been created by a Jewish scribe in Egypt or the Levant. It has miraculously been preserved for more than 1,000 years, for the majority of which time it was kept out of public view.

The museum favours breadth over depth of information. Nothing is explored in intricate detail, with all the descriptive text tightly limited to just a few words per sentence, and just a few sentences per information board. It is unashamedly designed for a 21st- century attention span, and to that end is careful to include not just a sweeping view of Jewish history but also plenty about the vibrancy of recent and current Jewish life.

No section truly allows visitors to delve deeper into its subject matter, but there are so many different sections that Anu acts as a decent starting point and an overview, allowing visitors to go on to research what they might be interested in elsewhere. Its slight American style might put off visitors from elsewhere in the world, though it does in fact cover a wide variety of Jewish experiences.

There is a definite suggested path through the museum that visitors are advised to take. Starting on the third floor, the opening gallery aims to show us that “there are many and diverse ways to be Jewish”. A series of large, vertical-orientation screens show individual interviews with Jews from around the world. A Reform lesbian rabbi from the United States talks directly to the viewer on one, while an Israeli Moroccan Jew explains himself on another. Massive photos represent different Jews from around the world, and as you weave through the screens and hear each interview’s audio fade away and another’s take over, you get a sense of how varied we are as a people.

So much thought has clearly been given to how the museum can remain non-judgmental and politically correct. It doesn’t try to offer a view of what “normal” Judaism is, instead offering up a range of versions of Judaism. I must admit I was unaware of some of them, and was grateful for the mini explanations.

There are sections on Jewish food, Jews in film, Jewish theatre, Jewish music, Jewish comedy and even Jews on TV. A gallery of famous Jews is represented by caricatures drawn by the Israeli illustrator Yirmi Pinkus called “Luminaries”.

The museum then takes us through “The Journey”, a more straightforward, chronological exploration of Jewish history, from Abraham to the present day. The audio-visual material here is once again well-produced, but occasionally a little less exciting.

Anu’s strength is also its weakness. The museum tries to tell the story of the Jewish people, while also acknowledging there really is no one single story to tell. Its vision is pluralistic, including an increased emphasis on women in Judaism and the Mizrahi experience, compared to its predecessor. That is admirable and essential, but it also inevitably draws attention to our divisions as a people.

As many increasingly feel the fault-lines between Orthodoxy and more progressive forms of Judaism, the museum struggles to answer the question of what all these types of Jews really have in common. Is there really one single, cohesive “Jewish people” to explore any more?

The Codex Sassoon goes some way to answering that question. The Hebrew Bible is not just the origin and basis of all forms of Judaism, but also of Christianity and Islam. It is what we all have in common. The Codex Sassoon’s survival itself mirrors the miraculous story of the survival of the Jewish people.

Anu’s pluralistic vision of the Jewish people might seem questionable right now, especially as Israel is going through something of an identity crisis in which Orthodoxy and Secularism are battling for control of the Jewish state. In fact, this extraordinary museum’s non-judgmental mapping of our differences, traced back all the way to the bedrock of our origins, might well suggest the way forward at this crucial time of uncertainty. There is no better time to visit.

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