Son of a star

Putting a modern spin on an ancient hero at the Eretz Israel Museum.

Judean hero on a horse: Black-andwhite drawing from ‘Bar-Kochba Stories’ by Shlomo Sekulsky, illustrated by Avigdor Luisada (photo credit: ZIMZUN PUBLISHING TEL AVIV 1964)
Judean hero on a horse: Black-andwhite drawing from ‘Bar-Kochba Stories’ by Shlomo Sekulsky, illustrated by Avigdor Luisada
(photo credit: ZIMZUN PUBLISHING TEL AVIV 1964)
We all know the story, at least in its basic outlines. A little more than half a century after Roman soldiers under General Titus destroyed the Second Temple and laid waste to Jerusalem, the province of Judea rose up in one last desperate revolt against Rome. The rebels hoped to free the land from Roman rule and return it to Jewish government, sovereignty and independence.
Apparently triggered by the decision of Emperor Hadrian to establish a Roman city in Jerusalem, the Jews rose up in 132 CE and established a government, with an array of civil and military institutions, that lasted for almost four years. The revolt soon turned into a fullfledged war, with large fighting forces on both sides.
The Jewish forces were led by Shimon Bar-Kosiba, later known as Bar-Kochba.
After the Romans suffered several defeats, Hadrian sent Julius Severus to Judea. Severus, an accomplished general who had successfully suppressed similar uprisings against Rome in northern Britain, made short work of the rebellion, which came to a brutal end, with the Romans slaughtering the Jewish population. In addition to the many Jewish casualties – estimated at around half a million people – thousands of Jewish prisoners of war were sold into slavery in the markets of Gaza and Hebron.
As if that weren’t enough, Hadrian gave orders to erase the very name of Judah, and from then on, the erstwhile Roman province of Judea became the Roman province of Syria Palestine.
OUR MAIN historical source about this second-century uprising is third-century Roman historian Cassius Dio, writing some 80 years later. His detailed account of the revolt chronicles the massive Jewish enlistment in the battle, as well as the civilian construction of an underground system of tunnels, storehouses and shelters. There are subsequent references to Bar-Kosiba in the Talmud by Rabbi Bar-Yohai and Rabbi Yohanan, as well as a rather negative Christian reference by Archbishop Eusebius of Caesarea in his History of the Church, describing Bar-Kochba as “murderous” and a “bandit.”
Then we have roughly 1,800 years of total silence about Bar-Kochba, during which his name appears nowhere and his memory is apparently forgotten – until the 19th century, when he is “resurrected,” revived and recreated as a model of Jewish strength and dignity by Jews awakening to the Enlightenment and the first stirrings of modern Zionism.
“Bar Kokhba,” the current exhibition at the Eretz Israel Museum in Tel Aviv, aims to chronicle the process by which a shadowy, little-known second-century rebel, forgotten for almost two millennia, was restored to public consciousness and made a romantic figure in the 19th and 20th centuries.
“Bar-Kochba is an icon,” says exhibition curator Sara Turel. “From the historical point of view, we have the archeological evidence, the textual references and so on, but for the next 2,000 years, no one speaks of Bar-Kochba and the tragedy of the end of the revolt against Rome,” she explains.
“The renaissance of Bar-Kochba comes with the Haskala [Enlightenment] and Zionism of the 19th century,” Turel says. “It was, in fact, at the Zionist Congress of 1898 that Max Nordau spoke of ‘muscular Judaism,’ and Bar-Kochba thus became the historical image of this. Bar-Kochba became the ‘New Jew.’ And after this, both in the Diaspora and in the pre-state British Mandate, Bar-Kochba became the iconic symbol of Jewish strength, dignity and pride.”
He became, she adds, a controversial figure starting in the 1980s.
“The revolt ended so badly, the results were so bad, [that] even the very name of the country, Yehuda, was erased and replaced with ‘Syria Palestina,’” she says.
The Bar Kokhba exhibition at the Eretz Israel Museum has been two years in the making, and Turel calls it “very eclectic.”
“We have archeological material, historical material, photographs, even contemporary art. It will run until June. People must come very quickly. Tomorrow!” she exclaims.
And as Maya Cohen Mossek, a museum research specialist and assistant to Turel, begins to walk me through the exhibition, she declares: “And if not tomorrow, the day after!” WE BEGIN in a dark blue reception area, where we see a video of kindergarten children at Kibbutz Eyal singing “Long ago in Israel lived a man named Bar-Kochba.”
Mossek explains: “This song is something that every kid in Israel learns at kindergarten age. And what they are singing is that Bar-Kochba was a hero, he was a great warrior, and his star went with him wherever he went.”
We then move into a large area displaying the history of the period of Bar-Kochba, which includes archeological remains found in the 1960s by archeologist/general/ politician Yigael Yadin and others.
“We know that Bar-Kochba did indeed exist,” Mossek says. “We don’t know what family he came from. We don’t have any idea what he looked like. But we know that he existed.”
Among the evidence are several letters, which we see on display. These “Bar-Kochba letters” were discovered in caves in the Judean desert, where they were preserved by the dry climate. Some are written in Hebrew, others in Aramaic; two were written in Greek.
“We know from these letters that he was a very strict leader,” she says. “He sent very specific orders to his soldiers, along with very detailed descriptions of the punishments for non-obedience. We know that his name was actually Shimon Bar-Kosiba. This is how he signs the letters. Later, he got a different name from Rabbi Akiva, the spiritual leader of the revolt. Rabbi Akiva thought that Bar-Kochba was the Messiah.”
As we take a turn around the history and archeology gallery, which comprises Part 1 of the exhibition, Mossek explains: “We have chosen to show a lot of objects from the daily life of the period because so little is really known. We want to present what we actually do know.”
We are thus treated not only to the letters, but also to a small but fascinating array of pots, textiles, jewelry, glassware and two small medical instruments in the form of silver spoons. We also see small lead weight bearing the name “Shimon Ben-Kosiba, Prince of Israel.” On the back is a palm frond that we also see on the back of a cache of Bar-Kochba coins. Also on display are pictures of the two sorts of caves used during the revolt: caves of refuge for displaced civilians, and caves for soldiers to hide in and launch fresh attacks.
THE MOVE to the bright light of modern history in Part 2 of the exhibition is almost jarringly abrupt. Here, we encounter the rediscovery of Bar-Kochba in the 19th century and his reformation as an icon.
We see that in 1840, a German-Jewish journal known as the Israelitischer Musen Almanach published a novel by Rabbi Shmuel Meir titled Bar-Kochba the Messiah King. What begins as a fairly straightforward, realistic historical study takes a fantastic turn as it describes Bar-Kochba fighting a lion, defeating it and then riding it in triumph.
Fourteen years later in Vilna, writer Kalman Schulman published a Hebrew translation of the novel under the somewhat lengthy title The Ruin of Betar: A Wondrous Story about the Heroism of Bar-Kochba and the Destruction of Betar by Hadrian, the Emperor of Rome. The translation of this new work began to appear in Yiddish, English, Arabic and Ladino, and was followed in 1882 by, of all things, an opera about Bar-Kochba by Abraham Goldfaden.
A dramatic adaptation of Meir’s novel, the opera was presented as a “Zionist drama” emphasizing the protagonist’s power and force. It premiered on May 5, 1883, in Odessa. It was later translated into English and performed in London in 1904, and in New York in 1917. After 1,800 years as a footnote in Jewish history, the legend of Bar-Kochba burst into life and spread like fire throughout the Jewish Diaspora.
We see large photographs and actual copies of the libretto as we enter this part of the exhibition, along with title pages from both Meir’s and Schulman’s works. We then see the rapid and widespread sprouting of student, cultural and sports associations inspired by Bar-Kochba.
One 1903 flyer advertises a Bar-Kochba Association cultural event in Vienna featuring Martin Buber as guest speaker.
“They named themselves after Bar-Kochba, they were inspired by Bar-Kochba, and most common were sports associations named after Bar-Kochba,” Mossek says.
“This was the result of Max Nordau’s speech at the World Zionist Congress, extolling the idea of ‘muscular Judaism.’ There were maybe hundreds of these Bar-Kochba sports associations.”
This is clear from the numerous photographs of young Jews – mostly, but not exclusively, men – running, lifting weights, doing gymnastics and posing for the camera in group photos, everyone in gymnastic uniforms.
Almost simultaneous with the formation of these groups was the creation of Zionist youth movements inspired by Bar-Kochba.
We see pictures and banners of such groups as Hashomer Hatza’ir, Bar-Kochba movements in Germany and Galicia, and, of course, Bnei Akiva, a youth movement that drew its name from the students of Rabbi Akiva, who according to their narrative were Bar-Kochba’s soldiers.
(The Betar youth movement famously took its name from Bar-Kochba’s last stronghold.) Mossek says: “What we also see in the 1920s are these groups starting to celebrate Lag Ba’omer. They didn’t start lighting bonfires yet, but they did go out into nature.”
The exhibition displays pictures of such activities in places ranging from Galicia to Algiers. We even see a banner from Havana, Cuba, dated 1955, as well as one from Iran.
As we move into the period of Israel’s early statehood, we see numerous examples of how the Bar-Kochba legend was used as nation-building ideology, with examples from children’s education curricula, youth-movement activities and the elevation of Lag Ba’omer as an important annual celebration, now replete with bonfires.
THE EXHIBITION ends with the gradual transformation of Bar-Kochba from undisputed hero to controversial figure as the revolt and Bar-Kochba’s instigation of it became increasingly called into question. This began, says Mossek, in the 1980s.
“As a result of the revolt, more than a half a million Jews were killed; others were sold by the Romans as slaves; the name of Judah was erased,” says Mossek. “Since the 1980s, the old myth of Bar-Kochba has been critically evaluated and challenged.”
Among the evidence for this are videotaped debates, contemporary paintings and even a bit of recorded music by John Zorn, the American jazz musician and composer who recorded the album Bar Kokhba. 
“Bar Kokhba” is on until June 18 at the Eretz Israel Museum, 2 Haim Levanon Street, Ramat Aviv. For further information: (03) 641-5244 or