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The Synagogue by the Hot Springs

Symbols of the Temple depicted in the mosaic floor of the 4th century CE synagogue at Hamat Tveriya, just south of modern Tiberius
Symbols of the Temple depicted in the mosaic floor of the 4th century CE synagogue at Hamat Tveriya, just south of modern Tiberius.

Steam rose from the open drain next to the sidewalk where we stood. My class from Pardes Institute was at Hamat T’veriya, listening to Leah Rosenthal review the Talmudic discussion about the use of hot water on Shabbat. Is it permissible to warm food with steaming water from such a spring on Shabbat? Is it permissible to bathe in a hot spring? Well, it depends….

Steam rises from the underground hot water through the chimneys at Hamat T'veriya, near the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee)
Steam rises from the underground hot water through the chimneys near the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee)

Behind her, steam rose from chimneys built into the ground.

Hamat, or Hot Place as it was originally called, sits at the southern end of the modern city of Tiberias. It’s near the southern end of the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee). The hot springs have drawn people to the area for millennia, and are reason Tiberias is located where it is.

If you come here by cab, you have to be sure the driver understands you want to see the archeological area and national park. Most drivers will automatically take you a little further south to the modern installations of Hamat Gader. There, you can indulge in a leisurely soak in the mineral-rich waters that bubble up, pre-heated by geological forces.

In 1985, our family had spent a couple hours at the modern hot springs on a synagogue-sponsored trip. It was late December, and we had just passed several cold damp days in Jerusalem. Between the normal Jerusalem winter chill, and the lack of heat almost everywhere, I had often felt like I could never get warm. I was unenthusiastic about putting on a bathing suit and immersing in an outdoor pool. But the building itself was very warm. My youngest child needed close adult supervision. And the steam rising off the indoor and outdoor pools enticed me.

The warm water quickly warmed even my cold feet. It was so warm and relaxing, I didn’t feel like swimming—I just wanted to drift near the inlet where the hot water entered the large pool.

My son asked me to come to the outdoor pool with him. Standing in the pool was a surprise. The water, heated underground, was hot, but the air above the pool was chilly. I quickly bent my knees to keep as much of my body underwater as possible. I understood the appeal of hot springs, and why Sir Walter in Jane Austen’s Persuasion took his family to Bath.

On our trip current to Hamat T’veriya with Pardes, however, we were interested in the hot springs only in passing. We had come to see the remains of a synagogue from the Mishnaic period.

Past the chimneys venting underground steam, a side path leads uphill a short distance to a modern shed-like building. It protects a fourth century CE synagogue, which was discovered in 1920. The archeologists who excavated the sanctuary discovered two older synagogues under it. A holy place is a Holy Place. If a particular site was hallowed by house of prayer, then it was only logical to build its replacement on the same site.

Visitors are restricted to an elevated platform that runs along two sides of the preserved structure. The remaining walls, about waist high, surround a beautiful mosaic floor. The mosaics follow the same pattern as I’ve seen in other synagogues of the Mishnaic period.

Because it was built in the north, the building faces south. A clear glass sheet stands on the south side, where an indentation in the floor indicates the Aron might have stood. “Ve’ahavta l’rayacha camocha” (You shall love your neighbor as yourself) is painted in black letters on the glass.

The architectural details of the synagogue, however, are not terribly interesting. The mosaics are the focus of attention.

Mosaic floor dedicatory inscriptions in Greek in the synagogue at Hamat T'veriya
Mosaic floor dedicatory inscriptions in Greek in the synagogue at Hamat T’veriya.

On the north side are several inscriptions that sound familiar to anyone who has ever entered a synagogue. One says, in Greek, “May he be remembered for good and for blessing, Profoturos the elder constructed this aisle of the synagogue. Blessing upon him. Amen. Shalom.” Shalom is written in Hebrew. The inscriptions, ancient equivalents of “Dedicated to the memory of Mr. and Mrs. Aaron Cohen,” shows how some things just never change.

Closest to the south wall, a row of mosaics depict symbols of the Temple: shofars, trumpets, an incense shovel. The center of this mosaic shows a large menorah, which had become the prime symbol of Judaism. There are no six-pointed stars in the building, or indeed, in any of the early synagogues. Today’s symbol of Judaism, now called the Star of David or Magen David, did not come into common use until the 17th century CE.

The most striking mosaic, in the center of the floor, is a large circle, enclosed in a square. On its circumference, the circle is divided into twelve sections, each one portraying a sign of the zodiac, or as they are called in Hebrew, a mazal. The term mazal refers to the belief that one’s sign determines one’s fate in life—a belief borrowed from surrounding cultures. We’ve seen zodiac cycle mosaics in other Byzantine era synagogues. They seem to have been a common decorative motif of the period.

Signs of the Zodiac, in mosaic floor of 4th century CE synagogue near the Kinneret
Signs of the Zodiac, in mosaic floor of 4th century CE synagogue near the Kinneret

The signs of the zodiac are symbolic of the sun’s position in the sky at a particular time of the year. Therefore, it is natural to see some symbolic depiction of the sun in the middle of the zodiac cycle. However, this mosaic seems to go a little too far. In the chariot, which carries the sun through the sky every day, stands not the sun, but the figure of a man. Helios, the sun god, rides his chariot across the synagogue floor? That seems strange to our eyes.

Today’s belief in the power of astrology is most likely not the same as it was ancient Israel. Lester Ness postulates that ancient Jews believed that because God created the stars, He controlled their powers. TThe signs of the zodiac were thus visual symbols of God’s power. Jews could not make a picture or a statue of God for their synagogue. Instead, they made mosaics that showed the emissaries through which He worked. In this way, they showed they were both part of the cultures that surrounded them, and also separate from those cultures. Their use of imagery of the zodiac and of Helios symbolized God’s power and control of the world.

The synagogue in Hamat T’veriya is an example of how Judaism has changed over the centuries, yet how it has remained the same. It doesn’t matter how God’s power is expressed. It could be through the astrological power He gave the stars, through the ten plagues that led to the Exodus from Egypt, or through the miraculous survival of the Jews through so many centuries. But our belief in one God remains steady.

The Sages of the Mishna at Beit Shearim

The entrance courtyard to the cave at Beit Shearim in which Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi is buried
The entrance courtyard to the cave at Beit Shearim in which Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi is buried

When Uri Savir was growing up in the early 1950s, the area around Kiryat Tivon was largely undeveloped. On Shabbat, when his father did not have to work, the two of them would explore the surrounding hills of the Galil. They collected mushrooms in the forest. Often they walked to the monument to Alexander Zaid, who had founded the Jewish self defense organization, Hashomer, in 1926. In the late winter and early Spring Uri and his father picked the bright red kalaniot (anemones) that grew wild.

The hills are pocked with caves. Uri and his father never entered any of them. It was too dangerous —you could get cave fever from exploring a cave. But they would stand at the openings and look in, staring at the sarcophagi inside. In those days, the biggest archeological find was a menorah engraved on one cave entrance.

Everyone knew that the menorah was a uniquely Jewish design. Finding it on a burial cave meant that the sarcophagi inside held the remains of Jews. These caves are just outside ancient Beit Shearim, one of the cities where the Rabbis of the late Roman period developed the Mishna. The Mishna, or oral law, is a compilation of Rabbinic discussions and interpretations explaining Torah law. Many of the Tannaim, the sages of the Mishna, were buried in sarcophagi in Beit Shearim. All the burial caves are man-made, carefully dug out of the soft limestone, with alcoves and shelves to hold the deceased. As the vast necropolis was excavated, the graves of many of these Rabbis were identified.

The caves had been discovered in 1830, but little  archeological work was done then. Benjamin Mazar came and did some excavation from 1936 to 1940. In the 1950s, Nahman Avigad continued the earlier work.

By the time Mazar and Avigad started work in Beit Shearim, grave robbers and unscrupulous antiquities dealers had already raided the caves. Nonetheless, it was remarkable how much of historical value still remained. The necropolis has been recognized as a “World Heritage Site” by UNESCO. For this designation, it had to meet two criteria. The first one is that the site demonstrates an interchange of human values, including architecture, technology, monumental arts, town-planning or landscape design. Secondly, the site must offer a unique testimony of a living cultural tradition, or a lost one..

We were touring the Galil with my class from Pardes Institute,  studying the sages of the Mishna.. This tour of places associated with the development of the Mishna was our capstone. Because we had many places to see, we entered only two caves.

One of the highly decorated sarcophagi in the Cave of the Coffins in Bet Shearim
One of the highly decorated sarcophagi in the Cave of the Coffins in Bet Shearim

The first cave we entered has been named the “Cave of the Coffins” by the Nature and Parks Authority. When first excavated, this cave held 135 coffins, twenty of which were carved with decorations. Several of these coffins sit in alcoves of the cave, lighted to show off the animals and plant ornamentation.

At the far end of this cave a menorah has been carved from the wall. Many menorot have been found in the caves, but this one is the largest, standing 1.9 meters high by 1.25 meters wide, a little over 6 feet by 4 feet. The Parks Authority has worked with the Israel Antiquities Authority to preserve it in situ.

The entrance to the Cave of the Coffins has three doorways. Another cave with three doorways sits in a courtyard, deliberately built there. Additionally, benches cut into the hill above the cave, allow visitors to the grave to pray or study All this is in keeping with the stature of Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi, who is buried in this cave. As Nasi, the President or Prince, he was head of the Sanhedrin, the Rabbinical court. His major work was compiling the Mishna, committing the Oral Law to writing so it would not be lost as the Jews scattered throughout the world. His stature was so great, that to this day, he is simply referred to simply as “Rebbi.”

Interestingly, Rebbi’s name is not inscribed anywhere in the cave. However, the names of his two sons, Rabbi Shimon and Rabbi Gamliel, are painted in the chamber closest to the door. A stone inscribed with name of the man that Rebbi had appointed head of the Sanhedrin in his stead, Anina the Younger, was also found here.

In the back of the cave are two graves dug directly in the ground. No coffin was found, just the two graves, side by side, as might have been prepared for a man and his wife. The graves were originally covered with large stones. The structure of this grave is another bit of evidence that Rebbi was laid to rest here.

At the time of his death, Rebbi lived in Tzippori, a larger town about 15 km away. Nonetheless, he left instructions that he be buried in Beit Shearim. He also requested that he not be put in a stone coffin, but be dressed in a simple linen shroud and laid directly in the ground. Today, the custom in Jerusalem is to be buried as Rebbi was—dressed in hand sewn linen shrouds and laid directly in the ground.

Leah Rosenthal teaching a gemara about Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi in the outdoor "classroom" above his grave at Beit Shearim
Leah Rosenthal teaching a gemara about Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi in the outdoor “classroom” above his grave at Beit Shearim

We exited the cave, and climbed the old worn rock steps up the hill into which the burial cave is carved. We sat on the stone benches of the outdoor classroom for a short class. Leah Rosenthal, our teacher, presented an excerpt from the Babylonian Talmud about Rebbi. She joined us on the two day trip to continue the learning we have been doing since last Fall.

Our course has focused on the personalities of the Tannaim, as revealed by what was written in the Mishna and in the Gemara. The Gemara is the record of the discussions of the Rabbis about the Mishna. It records their decisions about the halakha, the religious law. Because the Gemara developed simultaneously in the Galil and in Babylonia, there are two versions, known as the Jerusalem Talmud and the Babylonian Talmud. The excerpt Leah chose to learn with us was from the Babylonian Talmud.

To start, she pointed out that Rabbi Yehuda haNasi was not the first one to compile texts. Rather, he was the sage who had such stature that his compilation was accepted by everyone. He ushered in a new era. From that time, to this day, all students study the Mishna, as compiled and redacted by Rebbi.

Leah chose to highlight Rebbi’s skill as a master teacher. The excerpt starts with his quoting a line from Psalms: “But whose desire is in the law of Lord.”(1:2). Rebbi explained this as meaning that “One can learn only that part of Torah which is one’s desire.”

The Talmud goes on to illustrate Rebbi’s application of the verse from Psalms. Two students, R. Levi and R. Shimon, disagreed about what to study: Psalms or Proverbs. Rebbi decided to study Psalms. They read the first chapter. When they reached the second verse, Rebbi explained it in his usual way. R. Levi stood up and said, “Rebbi! You have given me the right to rise!” He understood that because he did not desire to study Psalms, he would not learn much from that class. Rather, he would learn more from studying Proverbs, as he had originally wanted. Rebbi, by stating that one can only learn well what his heart, had given him permission to study something else.

Flowers and trees bloom at Beit Shearim National Park in March
Flowers and trees bloom at Beit Shearim National Park in March

Sitting at the top of the hill, on the ancient stones, above Rebbi’s grave, we learned some of his work. In those few moments, Leah had brought him to life.

As long as students continue to study Mishna and Gemara, the ancient sages remain alive.

Looking out at the flowering trees and wildflowers scattered in the grass, we had no desire to go elsewhere to learn.

Where is Beit Shearim?

Looking for David and Goliath on Tel Azeka

Children listening to teacher explaining the importance of Tel Azeka, Israel.
Children listening to teacher explaining the importance of Tel Azeka, Israel.

On Rosh Chodesh Adar, the first day of the new month, my class on the tribes of Israel traveled through the land allotted to Judah. This is the land that became the majority of kingdom of Judea, as described in the first book of Kings.

Kalaniot (wild red anemones) in bloom. Be careful not to step on them--they're a protected species.
Kalaniot (wild red anemones) in bloom. Be careful not to step on them–they’re a protected species.

At this time of year, at the end of the rainy season, the land is especially beautiful, because the wildflowers are blooming. The southern part of the country celebrates with a series of special events called Darom Adom, the Red South. The events take their name from the kalaniot, or anemone, which is bright red.

Pardes, where I study, was not the only school on the move. At Tel Azeka we competed for space to sit with groups from at least three elementary schools. The students all looked to be ten to twelve years old. One group must have been from a religious school; the boys were all wearing black slacks and white shirts, the uniform of the day on Rosh Chodesh.

From the top of Tel Azeka it was easy to understand the strategic importance of the site. In the time of the Judges and the Kings, it was a border city, between the Israelites in the mountains and the Philistines in the plain. The tel is located just above the Elah Valley. The young shepherd David began his military career in this valley by killing the Philistine champion Goliath with a well-aimed stone from a slingshot. On the far side of the valley, the Mountains of Judea lead off into the distance.

Near the end of the period of the First Temple, the Assyrians conquered and destroyed the city. Azeka was almost the last to fall to king Sennacheriv before his unsuccessful assault on Jerusalem. The city was rebuilt, only to be conquered and destroyed again less than a hundred years later. by the Babylonians. The Babylonians went on to conquer Lachish and then Jerusalem, where they destroyed the Temple and exiled much of the population to Babylonia.

The Judean Mountains, as seen from the top of Tel Azeka, Israel.
The Judean Mountains, as seen from the top of Tel Azeka, Israel.

We stood there, admiring the view, and enjoying the antics of the beautiful children. I didn’t envy the teachers, especially the ones trying to corral the boys. I wondered how much the boys in the almond trees absorbed of the teacher’s explanation of the Biblical events.

Here in Israel the Bible isn’t a fusty old book. It’s a living text and a guide to the land these boys and girls walk every day. They may not remember the strategic placement of sites. They may never be able spell Sennachariv or Nebuchadnezzar. But they’ll grow up knowing they live in a beautiful land with thousands of years of history.

And if they’re lucky, it won’t be on next week’s test.

The Jordan River at Qasr al Yahud

Baptism in the Jordan River at Qasr-al-Yahud, where Joshua led the Children of Israel into Eretz Israel
Baptism in the Jordan River at Qasr-al-Yahud, where Joshua led the Children of Israel into Eretz Israel

If you’ve ever listened to how the old Negro spirituals portray the Jordan River, you would expect it to be deep, wide, and chilly. To cross it you need to row your boat ashore. The reality is rather different.

At Qasr al Yahud, near Jericho, the river is shallow, narrow, and pretty warm. And because it is an international border guarded by soldiers on both sides, the boat is useless.

Warning that the river is an international border
Warning that the river is an international border

This week, I went to Qasr al Yahud on a tour with my class from Matan, a women’s seminary in southern Jerusalem. We’re studying the territories assigned to each tribe during the settlement of the land of Canaan, as described in the books of Joshua and Judges. And where better to start than at the place Joshua led the people across the Jordan River?

G-d tells Joshua that the Cohanim, the priests, will lead the crossing. The Cohanim will carry the Ark of the Covenant, and when they step into the river, the waters will stop; they will heap up and the Children of Israel will cross on dry land. It sounds a lot like what happened to their parents and grandparents at the Red Sea when they left Egypt forty years earlier.

We know the crossing occurred a few days before Passover, the end of the rainy season. The Tanakh specifically tells us that the river was in flood. The Jordan must have been a mighty river back then, not the paltry stream we see today. In a year of plentiful rain, there would have been a significant flow of water. Photos from 1935 show the Jordan in flood, spread out for miles.

It wouldn’t happen today, even in a year of plentiful rain, because water flow in the river is highly regulated. The three main tributaries of the Jordan—the Dan, the Hasbani, the Banias—come out of the mountains join together just north of Lake Kinneret (Sea of Galilee). The outflow from the southern end of the lake is controlled by the Degania dam, which is rarely opened wide. Very little of the river water flows out the southern end of the lake. Instead it is channeled through the national water carrier to cities, towns, and farms in Israel, or through special pipes to neighboring Jordan.

During rainy season, dry wadis throughout Israel become streams and rivers. Those on the eastern side of the watershed discharge into the Jordan, increasing its flow. Water from farms whose irrigation is not carefully controlled also increases groundwater runoff. Because many Palestinian villages in Areas A and B refuse to connect to sewage treatment lines, surface runoff is highly polluted. Between the low water flow in the river, plus the sewage and other pollutants in the river, by the time it gets to the vicinity of Jericho, it is a ugly greenish brown color.

Neither the small size of the river nor the pollution discourage Christian pilgrims. Every year approximately 300,000 visitors arrive, many to be baptized where John baptized Jesus more than two thousand years ago. Although the exact site of the baptism is unknown, evidence from the Bible points to the area known by its Arabic name as Qasr al Yahud.

Qasr al Yahud, like many names in Arabic and in Hebrew, can be interpreted two ways. It might mean “the Palace of the Jews” or it might mean the “Crossing [Place] of the Jews.” The latter translation refers to where the Jews crossed the Jordan River into the Land of Canaan.

The Biblical description of the river crossing indicates that this is the correct area. It is described as being opposite Jericho. Driving down from Jerusalem, we went past Jericho, and could see its outskirts behind us as we turned onto the Qasr al Yahud access road.

The Jordan River, for all its length from the Kinneret to the Dead Sea, is far below sea level. Near Jericho the land around the river is flat; if it is not too hazy, you can see for miles in any direction.

However, several miles north of Jericho, the mountains of Samaria come right down to the river. When the river is in flood, the mountains can act as a natural dam, constricting the flow. If an earthquake dislodges boulders, the river can actually be stopped here. Earthquakes did indeed stop the flow of the river for several days after an earthquake in 1546. The 1927 earthquake may have also have blocked the river and caused the water to back up for a few hours. Some scholars have theorized that such an earthquake was responsible for the Jordan stopping and the waters heaping up “like a wall,” allowing the Jews to cross without getting wet.

It is unlikely that such an earthquake would cause the waters to accumulate like a wall today, unless it also caused the Degania Dam to collapse.

The Bible records another instance of the Jordan River stopping to allow people to cross it on dry land. In Kings II, Elijah and Elisha walk to the river from Jericho. Elijah hits the water with his cloak, and the river splits so the two prophets can cross. As Elijah ascends to heaven in a whirlwind, Elisha grabs his cloak. He returns to Jericho, using the cloak to split the river so he a can again cross without getting his feet wet.

The people we saw on the banks of the Jordan this week were not worried about getting their feet wet. They had come to Qasr al Yehud specifically to dip in the Jordan’s water, as Jesus had.

 

Baptismal gowns for sale at the gift shop, paid for in your choice of currencies
Baptismal gowns for sale at the gift shop, paid for in your choice of currencies

The gift shop sells white baptismal gowns for the convenience of pilgrims who have not brought their own. Next to the gift shop is an enclosed area for those being baptized to change and to shower. Given the high level of pollution, post-baptism showers, even if not required by religion, are certainly necessary from a health standpoint.

I watched as the priest spoke to a group. They stood on the wooden platform as they prayed together and sang a hymn. Then the priest led them to the stairs. He stood on the second step, getting wet up to his knees. Repeatedly filling a cup with water, he poured it  over the head of each person in turn. After being baptized, most of the people waded out into the waist deep water and dunked themselves up to their shoulders. Out in the deeper water, they lost their seriousness, and laughed as they bobbed up and down. Not one of them approached the floating cord that marked the border between Israel and Jordan.

Many of them posed for photos with their friends as they came back up onto the platform. I took a few photos of them too, but as I did so, I thought of how

Sitting in the shade on the other side of the river, a Jordanian soldier is more interested in his phone than in the people on the Israeli side of the Jordan
Sitting in the shade on the other side of the river, the Jordanian soldier behind me is more interested in his phone than in the people on the Israeli side of the Jordan

I feel when tourists at the Kotel take photos. It always makes me uncomfortable to see a camera pointed in my direction as I pray. Yet, here I was doing the same thing. So I pointed my camera in another direction—towards the wooden platform on the other side of the river.

The Jordanian side of the river is as holy as the Israeli one, but we saw only two or three pilgrims on the opposite bank. The Jordanian soldier sitting there seemed bored. It looked like he was more interested in his phone than in watching the river. Just like the IDF soldiers on our side.

I could only wish that the soldiers on all our borders would have such dull uninteresting duties.

A Modern Grave in the Kidron Valley

The Tomb of the Sons of Hezir, as seen from the western side of the Kidron Valley
The Tomb of the Sons of Hezir, as seen from the western side of the Kidron Valley

The view of the Old City walls above us across the Kidron Valley was impressive. We could see the terraced steep hill we had recently walked down. The tan color of its retaining walls is punctuated by dark green bushes and small trees. The crenelated city wall stands on the top of the hill like a crown. The Old City is on one of the lower hills of the Mountains of Judea; from the top of the Mount of Olives you look down on it. The Tomb of the Sons of Hezir is located near the bottom of the Mount of Olives, in the Kidron Valley. From there, the city looks like the peak of the mountain range.

The Tomb of the Sons of Hezir is carved into the bedrock of the Mount of Olives. From the road just below the city walls, it looks like a large rectangular entryway, held open by two limestone pillars. But from the foot of the Mount of Olives I saw that appearance was deceptive. The columns are merely decoration, carved out of the same rock as the rest of the cave. The actual entrance is on the side. We clambered up some rocks, then ascended three short metal stairways to enter the tomb. From there,we climbed an interior stone stairway.

The central large room is well lit in the late afternoon, as the sun shines in through the pillars. From the inside, it is clear that they serve no structural purpose—they are part of the rock from which the cave was cut. But they do look nice, and the space between them offers a beautiful view of the Old City.

Several smaller caves branch off from this main interior central space. In the second century BCE, the Hasmonean period, when the tomb was built, the dead would have spent their first year in a side cave. Later their bones would have been gathered and placed in stone ossuaries, which remained in the burial cave.

This is one of the few ancient tombs whose identity is known. The names are carved in Hebrew in the architrave, the space above the columns. The inscription translates as: “This is the tomb and the nefesh of Elazar, Haniah, Yoezer, Yehuda, Shimon, Yohanon, the sons of Joseph son of Obed, Joseph and Elazar the sons of Haniah, priests from the sons of Hezir.”

The tomb, the man-made cave where we stood, is the place for the physical body to lie in eternity. It was built during the period when Greek influence on beliefs was prevalent. This included their belief in the separation of body and soul. Thus, a “nefesh,” a special structure to house the soul of the deceased (his nefesh), was constructed behind the tomb. Other tombs from that period, such as the Tomb of Avshalom, feature a nefesh on top.

Because of its layout, experts believe that this tomb was most likely constructed the first century BCE. But, the inscription is of a much later style from around 100 CE. Perhaps no official notice was needed when the descendants of Hezir were entombed. Everyone in town knew which tomb belonged to which family. But as the Jews began to scatter throughout the Roman empire, labeling burial sites became necessary. Thus the list of the names of the sons of Joseph the son of Obed was carved .

When we see tombs, it is natural to ask, “Who is buried here?” But the more important question, the one many people do not ask, is “Who deserves something so impressive?”

Our guide, Re’ut, explained that in the late Hasmonean and Herodian periods there were only a few families who could afford tombs this elaborate. The priestly family of Hezir was one of the older families in Judea and

Zachariah's Tomb isn't actually a tomb, but a Nefesh, a structure built to hold the soul of the deceased
Zachariah’s Tomb isn’t actually a tomb, but a Nefesh, a structure built to hold the soul of the deceased

apparently had more resources than most other families. The family of Hezir is listed in the book of Nehemiah. They were Cohanim who returned in the first wave of resettlement of the land in 539 BCE.

We exited the cave and filed into the space between the tomb of the Sons of Hezir and the next monument, that of the priest and prophet Zechariah. He had run afoul of the government of King Yehoash by attacking idolatry, when the first Temple still stood. On the order of the king, the people stoned him to death. The sages of the Talmud considered his death especially bad. In killing him the people had committed seven separate sins. They had killed a priest, a prophet, a judge, spilling innocent blood, which defiled the Temple. They had murdered him on Yom Kippur  which was on the Sabbath, thus desecrating two holy days.

Like many other recognized burial places in Israel, the tomb of Zechariah does not hold his bones. It’s solid rock, the nefesh of an unidentified tomb. Apparently, souls did not need empty space within which to dwell for eternity. The the Ionic columns and Egyptian acanthus leaf carvings, shows it was carved out of the bedrock during the time of Herod. That was more than five hundred years after the prophet’s death.

I found what was behind Zechariah’s “tomb” more interesting than the structure itself. The space is about ten feet wide, which would have been sufficient for all of us. However most of the area is taken up by two modern graves.

The graves are those of Rabbi Avraham Shlomo Zalman Tzoref 

The graves of Rabbi Avraham Shlomo Zalman Tzoref and his wife, in the Kidron Valley.
The graves of Rabbi Avraham Shlomo Zalman Tzoref and his wife, in the Kidron Valley.

and his wife. Rav Shlomo Zalman was a follower of the Gaon of Vilna (the GR”A), an influential rabbi in nineteenth century Lithuania. The GR”A encouraged his students to settle the land of Israel long before Theodore Herzl founded political Zionism.

The Tzoref family made their to the Holy Land, landing in Haifa in 1811. They first settled in Tsfat, but after the 1813 cholera epidemic, they moved to Jerusalem. Rav Zalman quickly became one of the leaders of the Ashkenazi community. In need of funds, the community sent Rav Zalman to Europe to raise money to support the community. On his way back to Jerusalem, he stopped in Egypt. There he received permission from Muhammed Ali, the ruler of the land of Israel, to rebuild the Hurva synagogue. The original Hurva had been destroyed more than 130 years earlier.

Unfortunately, he did not live to see the building whole and in use. He survived a first attempt on his life. The next attempt was more successful—an Arab hit him on the head with a sword. He lingered for three months before dying of his wounds. He was buried on the Mount of Olives, behind Zachariah’s Tomb. The original grave markers no longer exist. The current tombstones were put on the original burial site more than a hundred years later..

Rabbi Shlomo Zalmon’s influence in Jerusalem and Israel is felt to this day through his hundreds of descendents. His son Mordechai changed the family name from Tzoref (silversmith) to Salomon, in honor of Rav Zalman. One grandson, Moshe Yoel Salomon, founded the city of Petah Tikve. He was among the first people to move outside the walls of Jerusalem’s Old City. Following the 1863 cholera epidemic, he and six friends built the neighborhood of Nahalat Shiva (Homestead of the Seven). Today Nahalat Shiva is a mixed commercial and residential neighborhood in the heart of downtown Jerusalem. It is a vibrant area with two new boutique hotels, and restaurants, many of which feature outdoor seating. It’s a great place to go to buy gifts- shops sell jewelry, ceramics, clothing, and Judaica.

In the national cemetery on Har Herzl, there is a monument to victims of terror. Avraham Shlomo Zalman Tzoref’s name is listed there, the first victim of terror in modern Israel. As we walked back up the hill, I wondered what he would have thought of today’s city. It’s a far cry from the crowded walled city he knew. But I think he would have been proud to pray in newly rebuilt Hurva synagogue, the architectural highlight of the Jewish Quarter of the walled city.

From Hospital to Cultural Center: Hansen House in Jerusalem

Facade of Hansen House, Jerusalem. Note the arched windows, featured in all Conrad Schick's buildings.
Facade of Hansen House, Jerusalem. Note the arched windows, featured in all Conrad Schick’s buildings.

Leprosy.

Throughout history lepers were feared and stigmatized. They were often forced to wear bells around their necks to warn others of their approach. They were forbidden from entering cities. Many visitors to Jerusalem in the 19th century were disturbed by the sight of lepers clustered outside the city’s Zion Gate.

One tourist, however, turned her dismay into action. Baroness Augusta von

Portrait of Baroness Augusta von Kefferbrinck Ascheraden hanging in staff dining room of Hansen House, Jerusalem
Portrait of Baroness Augusta von Kefferbrinck Ascheraden hanging in staff dining room

Keffenbrinck Ascheraden provided funding to build an asylum for people with leprosy. The asylum, located near where the US Consulate is today, opened in 1867. Twenty years later, a new asylum opened between the fashionable Talbiyeh neighborhood and the German Colony. Designed by the renowned architect Conrad Schick, it was named “Jesus Hilfe” (Jesus Helps). However, everyone simply called it the “Lepers’ Home.” Like the other buildings designed by the self-taught architect, the four story Jesus Hilfe is both beautiful and functional. It combines European design with Arab elements, such as arched windows.        

In 1950, the Israeli Ministry of Health took over administration of the asylum and renamed it “Hansen Government Hospital.” In medical circles leprosy had become known as Hansen’s Disease, in recognition of G. A. Hansen’s discovery of Mycobacterium leprae, the cause of the disease. M. leprae is similar to its close relative M. tuberculosis, which causes tuberculosis. Both organisms grow and reproduce very slowly. Therefore, curing a mycobacterial disease requires treatment with several antibiotics for six months to more than a year.

Once they could be cured with antibiotics on an outpatient basis, the residents at Hansen’s Hospital were discharged to home as quickly as possible. They returned to the old Lepers’ Home outpatient clinic for regular checkups and treatment, if needed. A few patients remained at the hospital until 2000. At that time, the last four residents were transferred to nursing homes because they had nowhere else to go. Today, two hundred patients from all over the country receive treatment for Hansen’s Disease at Hadassah Hospital’s outpatient clinic.  

Today, the Hansen’s Hospital building is neither an asylum nor a hospital. After the last patient was discharged, the building fell into disuse, partly because it carried the stigma of leprosy. A friend recalls that during her childhood no one in the neighborhood ever walked on the same side of the street as the Lepers’ Home. Recently the rehabilitated main building reopened as a media and arts center.

The Jerusalem Development Authority, which renovated the hospital building, is now working on the other structures in the complex: the doctor’s house, outbuildings, and gardens. The Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design’s graduate programs, Mamuta group for contemporary art, and the Jerusalem Film and Television Fund have all moved into redesigned spaces in the large building.

The day we toured the newly renamed Hansen House, it was full of people. Besides those who regularly work there, dozens of teenagers attending a computer workshop filled eight rooms. Several other small groups were also touring the complex. In the garden, fourteen crafts people had set up booths to sell jewelry, colorful knit baskets, leather purses and belts, hand sewn clothing, and handmade wooden toys. The stigma of disease seemed gone, destroyed in the process of updating the complex. The resident artists who conducted tours of the building were the only ones who mentioned leprosy.

The name “leprosy” still invokes ancient fear of a disease associated with frightful deformities, one that connotes contamination and impurity. It seemed to strike randomly and could affect anyone. The Bible refers to a condition called tzara’at, usually translated as “leprosy.” Although some of its symptoms, such as swelling and red spots on a person’s torso, are similar to those of leprosy, there are distinct differences between the two conditions. Unlike leprosy, tzara’at could also infect houses and clothing. Tzara’at was a considered a symptom of a moral failing, usually gossip and speaking badly about other people. Treatment included isolation outside the community and specific purification rituals. Interestingly enough, if the swellings and spots were distributed all over the body, the person was not considered to be affected. He remained within the community.

The conflation of tzara’at with leprosy, which was common in the Middle East and Europe, was a disservice to the sick people. Isolation from their communities and being shunned by all who saw them neither helped them recover nor protected their community. Hansen’s Disease is extremely hard to catch. Almost no family members or caretakers of people with Hansen’s Disease have ever developed the disease themselves. The manner in which M. leprae spreads is unknown. Even today, according to the World Health Organization, no one is sure how it is transmitted.

The former Lepers Home in Jerusalem is already being used as a cultural center, even though the renovations are not yet complete. Art exhibits and crafts fairs take place regularly. A long room on the roof level has been refurbished to be used for community events. It was once used as a children’s playroom and for drying clothes in the winter. When we visited, the guide said the room was authorized for gatherings of fifty people or less. When they finish building another emergency exit on the outside, it will accommodate audiences of two hundred people for concerts and films.

Staff dining room, Hansen House, Jerusalem
Staff dining room, Hansen House, Jerusalem

On the first floor, two rooms have been turned into a permanent historical exhibit. The staff dining room features a large glass-topped wood table and chairs. The original white china tea set in the middle of the table looks as if it is waiting for the nurses to come in at tea time. A washing machine stands in a corner ready for the next load of patients’ sheets, and a treadle operated sewing machine is between two windows. The large arched windows on two sides of the room admit ample light.

Across a small hallway from the dining room, is the doctor’s examination and treatment room. The doctor’s appointment record lies open on the desk, waiting for him to make his next entry. A tall glass case of clean instruments gives us a glimpse of treatments that may have been required. There are even a few pill bottles in the case, but if any pills remain inside them, they are sure to be well past their effective dates.

The saddest exhibit is the small case labeled “Patients’ personal belongings.” It contains a small light blue purse with a few coins spilling out of it, a long out-of-date Egged bus ticket, part of a letter written in German, he top portion of a telegram.

Patients' belongings, left behind when they died at Hansens Hospital
Patients’ belongings, left behind when they died at Hansens Hospital

My gaze kept returning to the wedding photo in the upper left side of the case. Who were these people? Had the bride or groom been a patient here? Or was this from a family member’s wedding, an event the patient had not been able to attend? Perhaps it was the only memento of a family that never visited after admitting the sick person to the home. It must have been very important to have been kept so long by a lonely resident whose family never came, not even to pick up belongings left after death.

Thank G-d we have antibiotics to treat M. leprae today.

Parc Adoulam Not Yet Open

Shulie Mishkin next to Roman milestone at Parc Adulam
Shulie Mishkin next to Roman milestone at Parc Adulam

We were on a tour related to the Bar Kochba revolt. On Route 38, southwest of Jerusalem, Shulie Mishkin asked the bus driver to stop by the side of the road. She wanted us to see three Roman milestones. Route 38 follows the route of an important two thousand year old commercial Roman road. She stressed the milestones were not in their original locations; they had been put in this spot so tourists would be able to find them easily.

 However, we didn’t see milestones. All we saw were two small skinny saplings and three holes in the ground. The milestones had been dug up since the last rainstorm.

Milestones are very heavy, being about three to five feet high and two feet across. Why would anyone go to the trouble of digging up three of them?

Someone with sharper eyes than mine pointed to a park across the road. ”Doesn’t it look like there are stones over there?” she asked.

Shulie agreed; it would be worth checking what was across the road. . She had the bus driver take us up the road and then talked some workers into opening a gate to let the bus enter..

Which is how our group from Pardes ended up visiting the new archeological park near Beit Shemesh—a park so new, it has not opened yet.

Parc du France Adoulam stretches for several kilometers, and the new archeological park is a small part of it. The three Roman milestones were just moved here two weeks ago, the man in charge explained. Now they stand proudly on the edge of the parking lot.

The park was still in the construction stage. Unconnected pipes lay on the ground, signs leaned against the buildings, construction trucks were parked in random places. Yet much of it is completed. Many artifacts are arranged in a display area, with explanatory signs in the standard three languages. Several stacks of white plastic chairs stood in the open pavilion on the other side of the parking lot. And a dedicatory grove had been planted, with stone monoliths among the young trees.

The display area behind the milestones attracted my attention. Some stone artifacts found in the area were installed to show how they had been used two thousand years ago. A long wooden beam ran through a heavy stone wheel which sat in a round stone base. In early winter, olives would

A beit bad--ancient olive press--that has been reconstructed from the original stones at Parc Adoulam in Israel
A beit bad–ancient olive press–that has been reconstructed from the original stones at Parc Adoulam in Israel

have been poured onto the base stone to be crushed for oil. As Mort Rosenblum explains in his book Olives, most of the oil is in the seeds of the olives, not in the fruits. That is why such heavy stones are used to crush them. The mashed olives would then be spread on woven mats and taken to the beit bad, the press which would squeeze all the oil out of the mash, just as it is at small presses today. I recognized the olive press at once. The long heavy beam on its fulcrum could have been attached that way only in order to exert heavy pressure on the crushed olives. As part of the reconstruction, the park management had even stacked some mats in the press.

As I walked around to snap a picture of it, I saw a different style olive press. This second one used a large wooden screw to press the oil out of the crushed olives.

The gat--ancient wine press--which was discovered built into the ground at the KKL/JNF Parc Adoulam
The gat–ancient wine press–which was discovered built into the ground at the KKL/JNF Parc Adoulam

A grape press is different. Grapes are so tender when ripe, the juice runs out if you simply put a few clusters of them in a pile. The four foot square stone gat or wine press, just beyond the olive presses, clearly reflects the difference between grapes and olives. Its sides are a few inches high, and in two places carved channels would have allowed the grape juice to run out of the pressing area into the deep stone pits on one end.

Shulie explained the role of milestones in the Roman Empire. But first she apologized to us for not knowing where the stones were. They had been moved from next to the road to the park only two weeks ago. Indeed, one of the milestones had several small pieces of wood holding it in place on its base as the cement finished drying.

Roads held the Roman Empire together, Shulie explained. The Romans built good roads wherever they went, roads being necessary for communication as well as for travel and commerce. With good roads, they could quickly move troops wherever they needed them. A good network of roads also requires signs to make sure travelers know exactly where they are and how far they have yet to travel.

Thus, milestones.

The stones are inscribed with the distance a specific spot in to the nearest city, as measured in Roman mil. A mil was 1,000 standard paces, 0.92 of today’s miles. This part of the inscription was in Greek, the lingua franca of the time. To make sure everyone who passed by understands who was responsible for the road, the name of the Caesar was inscribed in Latin. In addition to his name, the Caesar might be described in terms of one of his major accomplishments. The inscription on the milestone we saw at Parc Adoulam described the Caesar as “conqueror of the Arabs.”

After admiring the milestones we wandered around the park to see what else was there. Several picnic tables stood in a grove of trees closer to the entrance. It would be a lovely place to bring the family for an outing, to eat lunch in a shady place and learn about the production of wine and olive oil.

Several of us walked in the other direction, toward a plaza, with what looked like a fountain in the middle. As we approached, we saw it is not a fountain but a large colorful abstract painting on a round platform, elevated about two feet. In three spots, blue paint extended from the multi-colored central design to the edge. The shape of the central design looked vaguely familiar. And then it hit me. “It’s a map of France!” I said.

But I couldn’t figure out its orientation.

 “That’s north,” said a young man in our group, orienting us. pointing at one side of the map. And pointing to an island on the other side, he added, “and that’s Corsica.”

Of course. Parc du France, map of France.

The stone monoliths in the grove ringed the map, giving it a semblance to Stonehenge. There was a small hill in the middle, which blocked sight lines across the grove. I wondered if the hill had been built there to disrupt the likeness to Stonehenge and its accompanying aura of idol worship.

The monoliths held the dedication plaques. This is a Keren Kayemet L’Yisrael (KKL, Jewish National Fund) park, and the KKL, like the Roman emperors, wants everyone to know who constructed it. The plaques were in only two languages: Hebrew and French. Although the monoliths were were all the same size, the size of the dedications varied, no doubt reflecting the size of donations.

I walked around, reading the inscriptions on the plaques. Although I did not recognize any of the names, I knew the feeling, the need to publicly recognize beloved parents and grandparents no longer among the living.

Plaque dedicated to the memory of French victims of terror
Plaque dedicated to the memory of French victims of terror

The plaque next to the path closest to the entry to the grove brought me up short. The language was stark. It was dedicated to “the Memory of THOSE WHO WERE MURDERED IN ACTS OF TERROR ON ROSH CHODESH KISLEV 5776 in PARIS.”

I stood there a moment reflecting. Other plaques had been dedicated to the memory of loved ones who died at the hands of the Nazis during the Shoah. But this plaque, memorializing people killed so recently had a sharper impact. It brought to mind the line in the Passover Hagadah, “In every generation, One rises up to destroy us.” The reminder seemed antithetical to the purpose of a lovely park, but in Israel, surrounded by countries that seek to destroy us, it is a fact we cannot forget.

Gush Etzion, South of Jerusalem

The Lone Oak Tree of Gush Etzion became the symbol of the aea after it was regained by Israel in 1967
The Lone Oak Tree of Gush Etzion became the symbol of the area after it was regained by Israel in 1967

When I was in Israel for the summer in 1962 with a group of other American high school juniors, we were taken to a hilltop a little south of Jerusalem. The guide waved his hand at the desolate hills before us and told us the history of Gush Etzion, the Etzion Bloc. The Gush was group of four kibbutzim that had been attacked by the Arabs several months before the end of the British Mandate. In April 1948 they were short of ammunition and other supplies to defend themselves. They called on the Palmach, the elite fighting force of the Jewish underground army, for help. The Palmach sent thirty-five young men from Jerusalem to take supplies and armaments to the besieged settlements. They were ambushed by the Arabs, killed, and their bodies mutilated.

The kibbutz of Kfar Etzion was captured on Iyar 4 and all the defenders killed by the local Arab fighters. The defenders of the remaining three communities in the Gush held out another day, until the British Mandate ended. At that time, the Jordanian Legion took over the attack. The Jews, surrounded and out of ammunition, surrendered to the Legion, knowing that the Jordanian soldiers would not murder them. They spent the whole War for Independence in prisoner of war camps in Jordan.

The story of the fighters of Gush Etzion made a strong impression on me. As a teenager, I and my friends were sure that Israel had no hope of ever regaining these areas. Jews would never live there again.

Five years later the Gush was in Israeli hands.

I’ve been to the historical museum at Kfar Etzion twice. A few years ago it was located in a small nondescript building. Photos of the area during the mandate period and the reestablishment of the Kibbutz after 1967 hung on the walls. A short documentary film, mostly in black and white was screened. It reviewed of the history of the area. The land had originally been bought by a European Jew to be used for agricultural settlements. The first Kibbutz established on the site in 1935 failed because Arab attacks. The second settlement, Kibbutz Etzion, was established in 1943, and was starting to grow by 1948. Three other settlements were also established in the area before statehood was declared. All facts, lots of maps, no emotion. I came away knowing more about the Etzion Bloc, but not feeling more connected to it.

Last year a new historical museum opened. The same photos hang on walls throughout the modern multimedia center. But a new video features actors portraying some of the early residents and defenders of the kibbutz. We see them struggling to build the kibbutz, deciding to evacuate mothers and children, fighting until the last day. I knew what was going to happen in the last video—the kibbutz would fall to the Arabs. Even so, I sat there watching it with tears in my eyes, hoping for a different ending.

History doesn’t change just because you want it to. The film ends with the fall of Kfar Etzion. When the lights go on, the screen rises, and visitors are invited into the next room, where a large hole in the floor

Yizkor plaque at Etzion museum. "And I said to you, In your blood you shall live." (Ezekiel 16:6)
Yizkor plaque at Etzion museum. “And I said to you, In your blood you shall live.” (Ezekiel 16:6)

allows you to look into the bunker where the last defenders had held out. Yizkor plaques on the wall list the names of the residents of the kibbutz who had been murdered after they surrendered to the Arabs.

For nineteen years the area of Gush Etzion was part of Jordan. For nineteen years, every spring on the date the settlement fell to the Arabs, the survivors gathered on the hilltop just south of Jerusalem on which I had stood. The mothers and children who had been evacuated, all the widows and orphans, stood where they could see the top of the oak tree of Gush Etzion. They said the memorial prayers, many of them yearning to return to their former homes.

In June 1967, the Jordanians again attacked Israel. Israel had spent the previous weeks begging King Hussein not to attack if (when) war between Egypt and Israel broke out. The King had agreed. But on the first day of the war, Egyptian President Nasser called King Hussein. He reported they were already winning. If Hussein didn’t attack Israel, Jordan would lose out when it came time to divide the spoils. So the Jordanian army attacked Jerusalem, and within a few days lost all of Judea and the Shomron.

The orphans of Kfar Etzion, led by 24-year old Hanan Porat, wanted to return to their homes south of Jerusalem as quickly as possible. The government had not yet decided how much of the territory to retain. But Hanan and his friends told Prime Minister Levi Eshkol they wanted to live in their old homes and pray where their parents had prayed. The Prime Minister gave them his blessing. Two days later the group of exiles from the Judean mountains returned to their home.

There wasn’t much to return to—the Jordanians had destroyed the buildings and uprooted most of the trees. But they rebuilt and replanted. More people joined them, and additional towns were established. Today, there are eighteen Jewish communities in the Gush.

I love driving through the area, looking at the towns and the lush farms. The soil and climate are perfect for wine grapes, and the neat rows of grape vines seem to stretch for miles. The quality of the grapes is reflected by the wines produced by several wineries.

Beit Midrash (main study hall) of Yeshivat Har Etzion in Alon Shvut
Beit Midrash (main study hall) of Yeshivat Har Etzion in Alon Shvut

The climate seems perfect for education as well. Numerous yeshivot have been established in the area. The oldest is Yeshivat Har Etzion in Alon Shvut, established in 1968. About 500 students in the Hesder program combine advanced religious studies with military service. Most of the larger communities in the Gush have a yeshiva– Beitar Illit, the largest town has 25 yeshivas of varying size.

Since the Oslo accords, the land in Judea, which includes Gush Etzion,  and the Shomron has been designated as Area A, B, and C. The Jews all live on land classified as Area C, which is under Israeli civilian administration and security. A sizable Arab population in Gush Etzion lives in Areas A and B. In Area A, civilian administration and all security are provided by the Palestinian Authority (PA). In Area B, the PA provides civil administration and Israel is responsible for security.

These areas are like pieces of a large jigsaw puzzle. Even with a good map the only way to tell which area you are driving through is by looking for subtle clues. For example, black water cisterns are seen on the roofs in Arab communities; the roofs of houses in Jewish communities have white solar water heaters instead. Cars with white or turquoise PA license plates can travel all the roads. Cars with yellow Israeli license plates can only drive in Areas B and C. Roads in Area A have big red signs notifying Israeli drivers that entrance is both illegal and dangerous to their lives.

In 1950, the Israeli government established a memorial day for those who had died in the struggle for the State. David Ben Gurion, the Prime Minister, insisted that Memorial Day be on Iyar 4, the day Kibbutz Etzion fell. Today the day before Independence Day is still observed as a memorial to those who fell in all of Israel’s wars, as well as for victims of terror.

Almost fifty years after I first heard the story of Gush Etzion, I can sit under the 700 year old oak tree in Alon Shvut, and hear the story again. Today it is a better story because it no longer ends with defeat and longing for return. Sitting under the tree, I can remember my feelings as a teenager, my wish that the defenders of the Gush had been successful. As I look around, at the stone houses, the large Yeshiva and Herzog College on the hill, the playground, the vineyards and fruit orchards on the once barren hills, I still cry. It feels incredible that so much life has developed in area that was once forbidden to us.

Where exactly is the Gush?

Children at the Israel Museum

School group learning about the Byzantine period at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem
School group learning about the Byzantine period at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem

On a cold rainy Wednesday morning in December, I went to the Israel Museum (IMJ) with my class from Pardes. We were, by far, the oldest organized group in the museum. Everywhere we went, we crossed paths with groups of children, brought by their schools.

I knew that schools take advantage of the resources of the museum to teach students about history, art, archeology, and religion. When I have taken my grandchildren there, they often express interest in seeing specific things. Last winter on a visit to IMJ with then nine year old Yocheved, she led me to the theater in the Shrine of the Book. She wanted me to see the movie about the time traveling girl. She had seen it when she was there with her class earlier in the year. Then we went into the large white-domed part of that complex to see the documents themselves. As is her practice with any exhibit, she raced through it, allowing me to time to read maybe a quarter of each explanatory sign under the vitrines. Yocheved told me that her school would bring her to the Israel Museum four times that year, and four more times when she was to sixth grade.

When my grandsons were eight-and ten-years old,  I took them to climb a

In front of the Aron Kodesh of the 1700 Vittorio Veneto synagogue at the Israel Museum
In front of the Aron Kodesh of the 1700 Vittorio Veneto synagogue at the Israel Museum

special exhibit. “Bambu” was a construction of bamboo sticks that looked like a forty foot high nest built by a very large messy bird interested in architecture. We had arrived early and instead of just sitting around waiting for our turn, Yakov asked to go see the synagogues which have been brought to the museum from other countries. Not only did Yaakov know what he wanted to see, he led the way to the exhibit.    

So I wasn’t surprised to see groups of schoolchildren in the museum. I was surprised to see the number and variety of groups. In the lobby, a group of preteen Arab girls, dressed in navy jumpers and white blouses, dark slacks modestly covering their legs, was supervised by teachers wearing hijabs. Quartets of teen aged boys raced to complete their worksheets about specific exhibits in the area of Roman antiquities. A corner of the room displaying portions of Byzantine churches and mosaics was occupied by ten or twelve year olds sitting on the floor in a large circle, listening to an explanation of the history of the period. As we walked through a hall that displayed clothes associated with birth, marriage, death, and other life events, we tried to avoid being run over by six or seven year olds being hurried through the room by the teachers.

Leaving the museum, we huddled in the semi-protected walkway waiting for our bus. We were passed by a seemingly endless procession of young children from an Arab school, rushing through the rain from their buses.

It’s wonderful to see all the children. They will grow up understanding the depth of history in this land. They will appreciate the diversity of cultures in this country, the archeological evidence left behind, and the variety of experiences that can be expressed through the arts.

Rockefeller’s Contribution to Jerusalem

Tower of the Rockefeller Museum, Jerusalem, as seen from the cloister
Tower of the Rockefeller Museum, Jerusalem, as seen from the cloister

The Number 1 bus to the Kotel goes past the driveway of the Rockefeller Museum. Its collection of antiquities from the land of Israel makes it one of the great archeological museums of the world. On my trips to the Kotel, I had seen the top of its tower above the trees, but I had never seen the whole building except in pictures. I’ve wanted to visit it for years, but because of the matzav, the situation, I have been too nervous to go on my own. It is in an Arab neighborhood, which makes the trip a little scary. When I finally went there this week with my class from Pardes, we were accompanied by an armed escort.

My nervousness is valid. Over the last year and a half, Arab terrorists have attacked Israelis in the area more than twenty-five times. While we were in the museum an Arab stabbed a policeman in the head with a screwdriver about a block or two away. A policeman who saw the attack shot the Arab attacker to prevent him from injuring other people.

There are some who say that the Arabs have a right to protect what they feel is land stolen from them by Israel. However, that is not the root of the problem. Arabs killing those they consider interlopers did not start in 1967. In 1938 one of the most prominent archeologists of the time, G. L. Starkey, was murdered by an Arab while on his way to the museum’s opening ceremony.

My visit to the Rockefeller was on a tour associated with my course, “Sages of the Mishna.” We were there to learn about the Roman and Byzantine periods during which the sages lived, from about 100 BCE to 220 CE. We couldn’t help but notice the magnificent architecture of the building itself, even though it is much more recent than the antiquities it holds.

The hill on which the museum stands is opposite the northeast corner of the Old City wall. Looking east you can see the whole of the Mount of Olives, from Silwan in the South to the Hebrew University in the North. This was the spot Godfrey de Bouillon chose for the camp of his army of Crusaders before attacking Jerusalem. The Mount of Olives in those days was probably covered with trees. I wonder if he appreciated the view. Or was he too busy planning the slaughter all the Muslims and Jews in the Holy City? Crusader descriptions of the aftermath of the battle revel in the amount of blood they shed.

More than eight hundred later, after a trip to the Middle East John Henry Breasted of the Oriental Institute in Chicago, decided that Jerusalem needed an archeological museum. Archeologists had been excavating in and around the city since the mid-19th century. They had taken many of the best finds back to their home countries in Europe and the U. S. Breasted felt that since the Ottoman empire had fallen and the British had replaced the Turks as rulers of Jerusalem, it would be safe to keep antiquities closer to where they had been found.

Breasted approached John D. Rockefeller and convinced him to fund a museum in Jerusalem. Some of the two million dollars Rockefeller contributed went to buy the site from the al-Halili family, who lived on the hilltop.. The British High Commissioner appointed Austen St. Barbe Harrison, the chief architect of the Mandatory Department of Public Works, to design the new museum. Construction took eight years. The British named it “The Palestine Archaeological Museum,” since it was in British Mandatory Palestine. It officially opened in January 1938 and almost immediately became known as the Rockefeller Museum.

Bas relief of the meeting of Asia and Africa in Israel, over door of Rockefeller Museum
Bas relief of the meeting of Asia and Africa in Israel, over door of Rockefeller Museum

Rockefeller got his money’s worth. The building is magnificent. The British had already decreed that all buildings in Jerusalem must be faced with the local limestone known as Jerusalem Stone. Harrison designed the building to be a combination of the best of Eastern and Western architecture. To carry out the theme, Harrison commissioned Eric Gill to carve bas reliefs in the stone. A bas relief above the entrance to the building depicts Asia and Africa with a palm tree, the ancient symbol of Judea, between them.

The building is wrapped around a lovely cloister that features a pool. Between the arches of the cloister, on both sides of the pool, small bas reliefs depict a symbol for each of the cultures that controlled the Holy Land in historical order. For example, a boat riding curly waves symbolizes the Phoenicians and a winged horse with a human face symbolizes the Muslims.

Bullet holes in wall from 1967 Six Day War
Bullet holes in wall from 1967 war

At the east end of the cloister, you can see bullet holes in the wall. The damage perhaps symbolizes the Israeli period. On June 6, 1967, IDF paratroopers fought their way through several Arab neighborhoods and arrived at the Rockefeller Museum. They were to spend the night there, and then, possibly, attack the Old City.

Meanwhile, an army officer notified Dr. Avraham Biran, the Director of the Israel Department of Antiquities that the Rockefeller was now in the hands of the IDF. Within a few hours, Biran, Nahman Avigad and Yosef Aviram, three of the most respected archeologists in Israel, were at the museum. They, along with brigade commander Colonel Motta Gur, had arrived in an armored vehicle. As they toured the museum for the first time in almost twenty years, the archeologists were joined by some of the exhausted soldiers. It must have been a surreal experience—listening to a lecture about antiquities, given by experts, as bullets periodically flew through the exhibit halls breaking windows and display cases.

They all noticed that the exhibits were exactly as they had been in 1948 when the Jordanians had captured half of Jerusalem. The only thing that had changed was that the Hebrew signs had disappeared. Some of them were plastered over. But in one exhibit hall, high on the wall, you can see the original Hebrew lettering with a rectangular frame. Several horizontal brown stripes line are also visible within the frame. The brown marks are the remains of scotch tape which held a paper covering the Hebrew lettering, hiding it from the sensitive eyes of visitors.

The exhibits themselves are fascinating. In each hall the exhibits are arranged chronologically according to their historical period. Pictures of the excavations or tels where the items were found hang of the walls above the end of the exhibit cases. The legends explaining the exhibits are typed on paper brown with age.

In addition to the items found by archeologists, there are some unusual

Lintel from front door of Church of the Holy Sepulcher Church
Lintel from front door of Church of the Holy Sepulcher Church

exhibits. The carved stone frieze from the lintel above the front door of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher is in the hall devoted to Christianity. At one time when the Church was being cleaned and renovated, the frieze was removed and brought to the museum for safekeeping. But when it was time to return it, a dispute erupted. Under the “status quo” agreement for Christian holy sites in Jerusalem, only the sect that owns an area of the church can clean or fix it. Since the Christian groups could not agree as to who owns the area above the door, the magnificent frieze remains at the Rockefeller Museum.

A panel from ceiling beam of Al Aksa Mosque, which the Waqf replaced in 1938
A panel from ceiling beam of Al Aqsa Mosque, which the Waqf replaced in 1938

The Muslim Hall displays carved wooden panels that decorated beams in the Al Aksa Mosque. The style of the carvings indicate they probably date from the eighth century C.E. In  1938, when the Waqf decided to renovate the mosque, they planned to discard the intricately carved panels. Someone from the museum heard about the project and convinced the Waqf to donate the panels. That is something that could not happen today.

The Rockefeller is now part of the Israel Museum (IMJ). Official ownership of the museum and its exhibits, however,  is still undetermined. A sign on one of the outer doors says “Government of Palestine Department of Antiquities,” although the Israel Antiquities Authority has its offices in the building. Therefore the IMJ has not removed any of the exhibits or made any improvements, such as adding central heating, to the museum. Since it was a cold rainy day when my class toured, and it felt freezing inside.

Someday, in the course of some negotiation or other, the museum will officially end up Somewhere. Whether or not it is in Israel, or in Palestine, or in some as yet unknown political entity, it will still be a beautiful building full of interesting finds. And maybe then it will be renovated. At that time, people who come won’t have to wear coats, scarves, hats and gloves to see the amazing antiquities.