It was a mild, spring Sunday afternoon in 2011 – and I was carrying out my supervising duties at the Jewish Museum of Australia.
I was standing near the entrance when I looked upon a mature woman in traditional Islamic clothing. She was wearing a long black abaya, the overgarment worn by some women in Muslim-majority countries, and a hijab, which covers the head. Her beautiful face was uncovered, and from the first minute we made eye contact I knew that something special was about to take place.
They were a family of five. I will call the mother, Aisha. Her daughter, Reba, was wearing a deep pink hijab, and her three younger brothers were all dressed in Western attire. There was an air of high self-esteem about all of them. They were from Dubai. Reba had recently completed studying medicine and was doing a three-month stint at The Austin Hospital. As they were approaching the Jewish Museum of Australia, a-female stranger asked them if they were Muslim. Upon hearing ‘yes,’ she said in amazement, “..and you’re going to visit the Jewish Museum!”
After I welcomed them, the daughter approached and asked if I would personally show them around the Museum. As I led Aisha and Reba through the Timeline, we watched a few of the DVDs: In the Beginning (Beresheit), The Wanderings and The Diverse Jew. They were impressed walking over the Jerusalem sandstone. Aisha runs a school in Dubai. Her father holds an important position, so she did not want publicity, and yet at the end of their visit they happily asked if we could be photographed together. I did not question this.
Aisha had tremendous knowledge of Judaism and said that she had studied the Old Testament for years. She wanted to know about the Jewish population in Melbourne, and my experience of living in Israel. She told me that they try to visit museums wherever they go, and the questions they posed were varied and thought provoking. “Do we have many Muslim visitors?” was one of the questions. I shared with them some of our past exhibitions, and they were suitably impressed. We discussed respect for individuals, and the need not to stereotype. Aisha loved the fact that we have so many school groups experiencing the Museum in such a positive light.
We stood in the archway of the Timeline and spent time looking at Jacques Wengrow’s mind-blowing Shoah painting, The Holocaust (1991–1996). They wanted to absorb the 6000 faces representing the six million Jews and all the detail therein.
The Australian Timeline evoked questions about the varied countries represented in people’s search to find a friendly, welcoming country. They loved the rituals and seemed to know a lot about the High Holy days. The compliments were flowing along the way.
I left the Theresienstadt exhibition until last. We walked through slowly and they read as much as possible. And then, as if planned, one of the survivors was sitting there with a friend, watching the DVD. I introduced Aisha and Reba. They shook hands and I left them alone to talk quietly for about fifteen minutes. They thanked her repeatedly and told me that they had never been in the presence of a survivor of the worst atrocity ever committed.
It was time to leave and the genuine appreciation for what they had experienced was written over both their faces. I know that if they lived in Melbourne, I would be able to continue my dialogue with this mother and daughter. We focused not on the differences between us — but on what we had in common.