Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Birthday at the Israel Museum

I wasn’t sure how I would feel on my fiftieth birthday—in a strange place away from my family and friends. I hoped it would be good, but had no great expectations. I woke, got myself up and out the door to go to the Israel Museum. It was supposed to open at 9, but I got the bus early and headed out the half-mile way by 8:10. As I walked, I called home where they enthusiastically sang the requisite song. Hearing my family sing to me as I looked across a Jerusalem valley toward the Knesset—not a bad thing at all.

It turned out the museum didn’t open until 10 and I got there at 8:45. Fortunately, they let me to wander the grounds in the cool and quiet of the morning. I walked by the model of Jerusalem prior to its destruction, through the sculpture garden (some seriously weird, others terrific), and between the black wall and white dome that together make up the Shrine of the Book, where the Dead Sea Scrolls are kept. Then a cup of coffee and eavesdropping on Hebrew conversations with more or less comprehension. Finally Brian and Steven showed up and we headed into the museum. Most of it is actually closed for a serious restoration, but that turned out to be no problem at all—there was enough to keep up going the entire day; had the rest been open it would have been a two day visit anyway. I went on the Hebrew tours of the model city and of the Dead Sea Scrolls. I didn’t get all of it, but I know the stories well enough to fill in the gaps and, for the Dead Sea Scrolls, I repeated the tour in English. I found that listening to lectures is terrific—I don’t have to understand and respond, so I can begin to get pieces and put them together. Easier than the rapid-fire news or other TV shows.

I have written at length about my response to the Wall—almost idolatry of a sort. But when I entered the Shrine of the book, a warm round room, with two thousand year pieces of writing preserved and displayed, writing that is still read aloud today in an unbroken chain, an unbroken scroll of writing and generations, I felt everything that I didn’t feel at the Wall—connection to people, to God, to history, to the meanings of the story. Even writing about it, I feel overwhelmed. And how fortunate to have been there on my birthday! How blessed I am! (By the way, this is a country in which everyone, even the fairly secular say “b’ezrat ha-Shem,” with God’s help. Unlike in the US, it isn’t a statement of religious politics, simply a comment on the reality that life isn’t always in our control.)

Steven and Brian left the museum before me to go off and rest, but we were to meet again to see an art exhibit on Jewish identity and then they were going to take me out for my birthday—really sweet of them and very much appreciated by me. Once again, I found myself waiting, this time in a great restaurant attached to the “Artist’s House” (right next to the Betzalel School for Art). I didn’t get any to eat but sorbet, but it was some of the best sorbet I’ve had. I was pretty disappointed in the exhibit, but the evening was fun—a beer for me, a dinner that was odd but excellent (scrambled eggs with Israeli salad), and interesting conversation about what we had seen during the day. Steven and I are both knowledgeable Jews engaged in our respective Jewish communities; Brian is a Christian, although how or if he practices wasn’t clear and I’m always reluctant to do a third degree on that. So much of the evening was spent discussing and explaining Jewish life and practice in the past and present.

Part of what we discussed was the politics of presentation—I went on the tours as much to hear what was presented and how it was presented as to learn (I know this history pretty damn well, as I found out yet again). However, what was interesting in the tour of the Dead Sea Scrolls, for example, was who was named and who was not (the shepherd boy who found the scrolls was never named, for example, nor was the man who bought them from him). It was also a remarkably conflict-free version of the tale—not mentioning, for example, the secrecy surrounding many of the non-Hebrew Bible texts. For a long time, these texts were controlled by the Dominicans, who were more interested in protecting theology than publishing the results they found. In the past five-ten years, complete translations of the schools have been published, but what the Scrolls may mean to Christian theology in particular is still in process—and clearly somewhat frightening to Church leaders. None of this was even hinted at in the tour—none. Why not? My guess would be the desire not to offend. Too bad—it is an interesting and important story. More here: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dead_sea_scrolls.

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