If you have ever tried to schlep a child through the galleries of a museum, you'll know it's often not a completely pleasurable experience.
But the Jewish Children's Museum of Holland stands as a stark exception to that rule. The three-level museum that rubs shoulders with the adult-oriented Joods Historisch Museum in Amsterdam is a delightful, bright space that invites children to learn how the rich tapestry of custom, tradition and law weaves its way through Jewish life.
Rather than have children stare through glass panels at untouchable objects, the museum encourages interactive learning at every turn, using multimedia screens to depict the lives and studies of Jewish kids in Holland.
"Max the Matzo" is a friendly face that leads kids through the imaginary Hollander family's Jewish home. The ground floor is a craft room, where kids can paint and draw. There are pages printed with Jewish themes for coloring, and art supplies neatly stacked, though with strict instructions that they may only be utilized 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, 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.
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, there's information explaining the intricacies of kashrut. A shelf painted green contains easily recognizable pareve items, while the remaining blue and red shelves, with their corresponding sinks, discuss the importance and meaning behind the separation of meat and milk.
The library and study are also on level two, with children's books about the holidays in Dutch, English and Hebrew, and an assortment of Jewish literature. In the multimedia presentation on this level, we see the Hollander children learning about loving thy neighbor as thyself.
But it's the third-floor music room that really fascinates the kids. Press a button, and the television fills the room with the beautiful melodies of Jewish music. The individual 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 Pesach plate with removable fake food on the Passover shelf. This is a space where kids can unpack and pretend, refresh their memories of the Jewish festivals and relish in 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 Jewish community, there is no sadness in the children's museum. These three levels are about learning through exploration and encouragement, offering a warm, positive environment that is a pure celebration of the joy of being Jewish.
That's important, says Annelie Spaans, spokesperson for the JHM. "Until it was renovated three years ago, at a cost of 800,000 eruos" — some $1.2 million — "the former Jewish Historical Museum was not especially attractive to children, and not a lot of children visited," she explains.
For those who came, their understanding of Jews and Judaism was inevitably connected to World War II. "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," says Petra Katzenstein, director of the JHM.
"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's different."
For information, visit: www.jhm.nl.