Recently, on a particularly rainy day, I decided that we needed to get out of the house. I piled everyone into the car and told my two boys that we were going on an adventure. The Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) offers an amazing museum experience filled with incredible artifacts and art. I knew this was a place that I would love to get lost in and enjoy—as an adult—but then I thought about my children. Is an art museum really a place that 6- and 9-year-old boys can appreciate? I was skeptical to say the least, but we decided to give them the benefit of the doubt and drive the 20 minutes to get to mid-town Detroit. The DIA is free for residents living in one of the nearby counties (Oakland, Wayne, or Macomb), so I figured if the art museum experience was a failed experiment, I wasn’t losing any money on admission.
We walked into the lower level of the museum and straight into the exhibit on Ancient Egypt. Immediately, the kids focused on the real mummy on display and started to ask questions about burial practices in ancient Egypt. They also saw some hieroglyphic representations of Egyptian workers serving Pharaoh. The kids immediately said, “Eema, those must be the Israelites because they were slaves to Pharaoh!” I said it was possible, but I wasn’t entirely sure.
We then stumbled upon some artifacts from the Babylonian time period. The kids chimed in with another question, “Didn’t the Babylonians destroy the Temple in Jerusalem?”
“Why yes, they did!”
OK, so far I’m thinking this is going pretty well. The kids were interested and even excited about what they were seeing. They were analyzing and they had questions! More importantly, they were applying what they saw to their own Jewish lives and knowledge. We moved on to the next floor.
The Detroit Institute of Arts offers kids the opportunity to play a little bit of a hide and seek game. They offer clues throughout the museum and ask kids to look at the artwork surrounding them to find the answer. My 6-year-old was really into this. It became his job to search out the questions, and we helped him find the answers in the art. We made our way through other parts of the museum slowly, making observations about the types of art we liked and other types that we didn’t understand. We entered one section made up of biblical and religious art. I didn’t notice this theme, but my 9-year-old did immediately and picked up on a painting of Sodom and Gomorrah and a picture of Lot’s wife looking back at the destruction of the cities. He knew this story from the Torah and he shared it with his little brother through the piece of art in front of us.
We saw art depicting the story of creation, heaven, and hell, the time of Jesus, and angels. Each piece encouraged my boys to wonder about their Judaism. They were able to put the paintings in a historical context. While they were doing this, I was thinking how grateful I was for the education they are receiving at Hillel Day School. We work daily to teach our children about Jewish life and observance and to provide Jewish experiences for them, but Hillel is teaching them how to analyze what they see and apply it!
Here I was, walking through the museum almost in tears because I was witnessing my own children find themselves and their Jewish story in the art in front of them. I really underestimated them. They were schooling me at this point.
Just before we had to leave, we stumbled into an area just for children to sit and sketch. The museum offers special moveable drawing tables and chairs as well as art supplies for any children who are so inspired to take a moment to sketch something. I assumed my boys would not be interested in this, but immediately my 9-year-old was asking for pencil and paper so that he could sit and sketch a piece of art he had noticed. It was actually a Japanese pencil drawing from the ‘60s, but he said, “Eema, that’s the tree of life and I want to draw it so Abba can put it in his office.”
Holding back my emotion, I said, “Wonderful bud! He will love that.” My 6-year-old was much more interested in checking out the knights in full armor that lined the next hallway with their swords and shields. My niece, who was with us visiting from Boston, graciously took him to check it out while I watched my little artist in action.
After everyone was ready to head back home, I realized that my kids taught me more in this art museum than I could have ever taught them. They can relate to art in a wonderfully open-minded way as only children can. The fact that their Jewish life and knowledge accompanied them through the journey only made it that more special. We owe many thanks to the Detroit Institute of Arts and to Hillel Day School for a phenomenal family adventure, and I am already looking forward to our next trip to that incredible mid-town museum.
This post was written by current Hillel parent, Rebecca Starr, and originally appeared in Kveller.