A day at the museum

A million years passes so quickly when you’re having a good time.

Israeli museum archeology wing_521 (photo credit: (Tim Hursley/Courtesy of the Israel Museum, Jerusa)
Israeli museum archeology wing_521
(photo credit: (Tim Hursley/Courtesy of the Israel Museum, Jerusa)
A$100 million face-lift certainly offers a new look. In the case of the revamped Israel Museum, it also presents a fresh perspective. During a press tour last month, members of the Jerusalem Journalists Association saw much which was familiar, but saw it in a different light.
We started, fittingly enough, in the Samuel and Saidye Bronfman Archeology Wing, where archeologist Yoav Farhi brought the exhibits to life – a particularly neat trick when it came to the cast of the skeleton of a woman and her dog buried together some 14,000 years ago. This suggests that the domesticated animal was not just a man’s best friend.
Another woman of note is a work of art: Not just any work of art, but the oldest known artwork in the world – a female figurine created almost a quarter of a million years ago, excavated at Birkat Ram on the Golan Heights.
One of the special aspects of the Israel Museum, as director James Snyder likes to point out, is that some 95 percent of the archeological exhibits were found locally.
Farhi made no bones about using archeology to emphasize the link of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel. The “House of David” inscription, for example, is part of a monumental stele of the ninth century BCE found at Tel Dan, commemorating the military victories of the king of Aram, and providing archeological evidence, not just biblical evidence, of the existence of the Davidic dynasty.
One of the most poignant exhibits is a letter from a simple agricultural worker to the governor, complaining that his shirt has been unfairly and illegally taken from his back by his employer. Known as the Reaper’s Plea, the potsherd on which the petition was written in ink dates from the seventh century BCE, and was found near Yavne. Marvelously it shows that humble worker though he was, the reaper was well aware of biblical law and his rights, and incidentally also observed Shabbat.
I couldn’t help feeling sorry for the wronged reaper. I’m still wondering how long it took for his petition to reach the governor, whether he ever got his shirt back and what state it would have been in.
There were other mysteries, too. One arose as we looked at an informal sketch of the Temple vessels – including the menora – found engraved on the wall of a house near the Temple Mount, and dating from the first century BCE. The relative simplicity suggests that the image famously depicted on Titus’s Arch was either not the original menora or had undergone the Roman equivalent of Photoshop. Perhaps, suggested Farhi, the emperor had to produce something splendid enough to justify the costly military campaign.
Further along, in what is sometimes referred to as the Jesus of Nazareth Corner, we saw a stone inscription which is the only known artifact bearing Pontius Pilate’s name. It was grimly close to a skeletal heel bearing the marks of crucifixion.
THE LOSS OF the Temple was so devastating that it’s still mourned today. Studying the Roman coins on display, we also realized just to what extent the failed Bar Kochba Revolt continues to have an impact. As Farhi noted, it resulted in the Romans erasing the Jewish presence from Judea and, of course, the birth of the name Palestine.
Our trip naturally included the Shrine of the Book, which is such a hallmark that Snyder calls it “the Mona Lisa of the Israel Museum.” Here, curator Adolfo Roitman explained not only about the importance of the scrolls – “the oldest known biblical manuscripts in the world; they are literally priceless” – but also the significance of the architecture in which they are housed.
The building, designed by American Jewish architects Armand P. Bartos and Frederic J. Kiesler, while considered a landmark of modern architecture is also intended to express a spiritual side, to be a literal shrine. Even its location next to the Knesset, government compound and the Jewish National and University Library was aimed at showing the kind of respect accorded the ancient texts and the building that preserves them.
Chief curator-at-large Yigal Zalmona later told us the conception of the museum – as the baby of the colorful Boris Schatz, before Teddy Kollek got into the picture – was also sparked by the desire to showcase national treasures with the rise of modern Zionism.
YOU CAN’T cover nearly a million years in one short day. I skipped many of my favorite exhibits, briefly visiting only one of the four reconstructed synagogues, for example: the Suriname synagogue with its white sandy floor.
While most of my colleagues headed for the modern Israeli art section before leaving, I wandered around the Youth Wing and then headed back to the Mandel Wing for Jewish Art and Life, hoping to spend more time among the collection of 120 Hanukka lamps.
One thing led to another and I found myself first lost in time and then, finally lost among the Impressionist art. I can’t think of a better way to end a trip to the museum.
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