West L.A. is home to three Jewish-themed museums. The Museum of Tolerance is the West Coast’s answer to D.C.’s Holocaust Museum, though less epic in scale. It’s also a bit broader in content: from the Holocaust, it branches out to displays on racism and genocide around the world. The Skirball’s main galleries are dedicated to Jewish culture, displaying objects used in the homes, businesses, and worship places of Jews all over the world from the medieval era up to current day. There’s even a room with catalogued snippets of home movies and audio interviews on different aspects of the American Jewish experience. While both of these museums are kid-friendly, only the last—the Zimmer—is designed specifically for children.
On a Sunday afternoon, I meet my old high school friend Lisa and her 6-year-old daughter, Sydney, at the Zimmer. It’s not technically billed as a “Jewish” museum, just a regular children’s museum, but its location on the first floor and basement of a high-rise called the Jewish Federation Building is the first indication that this play space might have a special message. When I arrive, Lisa and Sydney are already deep inside and I get stopped by the security guard for being childless and then let through once Lisa comes to vouch for me. Beyond the ticket booth, a few items remain stationary in a blur of activity: a full-scale ambulance with spinning red lights, a make-believe theatre stage with an exploding trunk of costumes, a replica of a jet with the bobbing heads of tiny pilots.
One display stands out. It’s in the center of everything and the floor has been cut away so that it continues on the level below. A giant wall of levers and gears and pegs sports a sign declaring this the “World’s Largest Tzedekah Pinball.” I’ve seen “tzedekah” translated as “charity” or “justice” and my sense is that it encompasses any generous or kind act. Pucks released at the top fall through the open spaces, ricocheting off obstacles here and there. I suppose it’s meant to symbolize the complicated course of life with each collision representing an opportunity to do a good deed. The pucks rain down on the roof of a little house below.
On bottom floor, I stroll down a tiny main street complete with shingled roofs and streetlights. Each lovingly rendered storefront invites playacting: wait tables at the Blue Bagel Café, organize inventory at Bubbie’s Bookstore, wrap yourself in a prayer shawl at the mini-synagogue.
Beyond the pretend synagogue, Lisa and I take a seat as Sydney joins a group of kids on a life-size boat in a sea of soft balls.
“So, how did it go?” Lisa asks. She’s curious about my dates with the other members of my old high school gang: Nina, Deb, and Becky. I had been so anxious about the prospect, I’d considered abandoning my goal of seeing each of them, but decided I had to do what was right, not what was easy. So I arranged to meet each friend separately. I hoped to provide my undivided attention and convey my sincerest apologies for having disappeared so thoroughly from their lives.