A Haunting Experience at Nova Festival Exhibit

I recently planned a short trip home to New York but I had no actual plans…until I read that the Nova Music Festival Exhibition had been extended through my impending visit. You know, the exhibit honoring the 401 innocent people who were murdered at the Nova Music Festival on October 7, 2023. The same exhibit that saw large anti-Israel protests outside when it first opened. And yes, these same “protestors” who caused House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries to say this:

“The recent protest at the Nova Music Festival Exhibition in lower Manhattan, where some participants chanted antisemitic slogans, endorsed the repugnant actions of terrorist groups like Hamas and celebrated the deaths of hundreds of innocent civilians is unconscionable and un-American. The egregious behavior on display designed to justify the killing of Jews has no place in a civilized society.”

The organizers must have heard that I was coming and needed to share my take with my fellow TC Jewfolk.

The "car skeleton" from the Nova Festival site on display in New York (Jeff Mandell for TC Jewfolk).

The “car skeleton” from the Nova Festival site on display in New York (Jeff Mandell for TC Jewfolk).

The exhibit was in a large space directly across the street from the New York Stock Exchange – maybe selected on purpose due to the pre-existing security measures. It wasn’t lost on me that at this corner of lower Manhattan sat the center of the economic universe, a statue of George Washington at Federal Hall, and the Nova Exhibition. The 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center was just blocks away. On 9/11/01 and for weeks after, the path I took from the subway to the exhibit was blanketed with dust and debris. The attack on the World Trade Center was meant to disrupt our economy, disrupt our American way of life, disrupt EVERYTHING in New York City, and was, of course, a statement about our country’s support for Israel. Maybe I’m crazy, but I couldn’t stop thinking about this as I stared at George Washington on that cobblestoned corner.

The exhibit was unlike any I had ever seen before – thoughtfully laid out in a massive event space. The organizers made it perfectly clear that everything we saw was authentic – every single item, both large and small, was taken from the Nova Music Festival in Southern Israel. But unlike most museum exhibits, these items were not behind glass or off limits to those walking through the space. The idea was for this to be an immersive experience, one that would resonate with you long after leaving Wall Street.

A yahrzeit candle and cards written by visitors at the Nova Festival exhibit in New York (Jeff Mandell for TC Jewfolk).

A yahrzeit candle and cards written by visitors at the Nova Festival exhibit in New York (Jeff Mandell for TC Jewfolk).

Upon entry there was a short film explaining what the Nova Music Festival was, who was there, and what was happening before the attack. I stood there with a couple of dozen other visitors with my heart racing – I knew what was going to happen,of course. I tensed up, clenched my fists, and a feeling of complete anger took over. The film stopped at 6:29 a.m. – the moment the attacks began.

The first part of the exhibit contained the tents of some festival-goers – filled with sleeping bags, and camping chairs, and sunglasses, and other personal items. There were multiple video screens showing the Hamas-made videos of the attacks. There were more video screens showing festival-goers hiding, praying, and saying goodbye to loved ones. Each one was more painful to see than the previous one – who lived and who died? Were these the last words and the last images of these innocent lives?

These were sacred spaces and personal items and it felt a little uncomfortable to walk in them, to touch them. I know that the families gave their permission, but I still couldn’t shake these feelings of unease as I walked through the exhibit.

Throughout the exhibit were first-hand accounts of what had happened in those harrowing hours of 10/7. There were stories of heroism, of good luck, and of bad. One of the larger pieces was the bar – meticulously set up exactly as it was on that fateful day. There was a profile of a bartender, a woman who could have escaped but who stayed behind to tend to the wounded. She too was murdered. There were Coca-Cola branded coolers on wheels – filled with ice I was told. One festival go-er hid in one for hours and somehow survived. The Hamas terrorists never opened it and unlike the porta potties that were riddled with bullet holes, they didn’t shoot at it either. What a miracle.

A card written by a visitor to the Nova Music Festival exhibit in New York. The card reads: "We will dance again.We will never forget. Am Yisrael Chai." The last line repeated in Hebrew. (Jeff Mandell for TC Jewfolk).

A card written by a visitor to the Nova Music Festival exhibit in New York (Jeff Mandell for TC Jewfolk).

Naturally, the car skeletons are the most shocking things to see. They weren’t blocked off in any way so you can see up close what happens to a 3,000-pound vehicle when it’s intentionally set ablaze. You imagine (if you can) what happened to the innocent people in those cars. Trust me – it will haunt you.

Then the tables of personal items left behind by the dead and the living. I saw a Yankees hat and a Batman backpack and kippot and pocket prayer books and makeup kits and everything else you would need for a music festival in the desert. It immediately reminded me of the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC and the thousands of pairs of shoes on display. But again, these items weren’t behind glass. They were right in front of you – able to be touched if you so desired.

The photos of all who were killed that day posted in memoriam reminded me of the 9/11 Museum. And then it hit me – I’m almost numb to this now. The Holocaust Museum in Washington, Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, the 9/11 Museum in New York, and now this. Memorializing and documenting the attacks on my country, my city, and my people have become a cottage industry of sorts. I’m getting used to this and that’s just a horrible thought.

I have two major takeaways from this exhibit that I can’t make more clear.

  1. There was NOTHING political about it. Not one bit. Those protesting outside should be ashamed of themselves on many levels. This was an exhibit about the Nova Music Festival and what happened on 10/7. Period.
  2. The people who attended the festival – those lost, those injured, and those who narrowly escaped with their lives – are the LAST people Hamas should have targeted. These are peace-loving, spiritual, happy people who just wanted to listen to music and dance. Sure, the vast majority were Jews. Sure, the Israelis in the bunch served their country. But there was nothing anti-anything at this festival. I would bet many of them, like so many of their fellow Israelis, were protesting their own government in the weeks leading up to the attacks of 10/7. Its not like I need more evidence, but attacking these people at that event absolutely proves that Hamas has only one mission – and it isn’t to “Free Palestine.”

The Nova Music Festival was about music and dancing and friendship and joy. No one there deserved what happened and as we Jews say a lot, we will never forget. But the survivors in the Nova community have a better one: “We will dance again.”