Saturday, January 19, 2008

MORE REVIEWS of The People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks.

By Ursula K. Le Guin in The Guardian. Excerpt:
Full of action but with no leavening of humour, no psychological revelations, no vivid language to focus description, the chapters grind on. Most unhappily for a historical novel, there is little sensitivity to the local colour of thought and emotion, that openness to human difference which brings the past alive.

Brooks expends a good deal of anxious effort in trying to bring a modern sense of justice and ethical judgment into places and ages where it is an anachronism. People sneeringly call such anxiety "political correctness", a term that once had meaning but now reflects only the arrogance of the person using it. Brooks's earnest goodwill deserves respect, but the fact is a novel can get away with anachronism only when it is completely invisible, and these attempts to right old wrongs are all too visible. In the same way, a kindly feminism informs Brooks's efforts to invent women who were important to the creation and existence of the precious book - a tall order, among the old rabbis - but she persists; and so we find that the artist of the lovely illuminations was a woman, and a black one at that. This is not in itself impossible; the explanations are plausible; and I'd like to believe it - but I can't. The person, the artist, the world of the artist, have not been made real enough to allow me to believe it. It's just wishful thinking. It has not taken on the fierce reality of fiction.

So in the end I wonder if this might not have been a better book if, forswearing invention, the author, an experienced journalist, had simply followed the true and amazing story of the Sarajevo Haggadah. I wish someone could make a story or a poem of Buturovic's life and death. I know I will never know the story of the Iraqi with his arms full of books and his face full of anguish.
And anothe brief one by Simmy Richman in the Irish Independent. . Excerpt:
As the action switches from Sarajevo to Vienna, Venice, Barcelona and Jerusalem, Brooks concludes that the world is made up of two types -- those who would destroy books and those who would give their lives to save them.
(Background to the book and to the Sarajevo Haggadah here.)
FREAKANOMICS AUTHORS Stephen J. Dubner and Steven D. Levitt invoke the Jewish sabbatical year in their NYT column "Unintended Consequences":
How long have such do-good laws been backfiring? Consider the ancient Jewish laws concerning the sabbatical, or seventh year. As commanded in the Bible, all Jewish-owned lands in Israel were to lie fallow every seventh year, with the needy allowed to gather whatever food continued to grow. Even more significant, all loans were to be forgiven in the sabbatical. The appeal of such unilateral debt relief cannot be overestimated, since the penalties for defaulting on a loan at the time were severe: a creditor could go so far as to take a debtor or his children into bondage.

So for a poor Jewish sandal maker having trouble with his loan payments, the sabbatical law was truly a godsend. If you were a creditor, however, you saw things differently. Why should you lend the sandal maker money if he could just tear up the loan in Year Seven? Creditors duly gamed the system, making loans in the years right after a sabbatical, when they were confident they would be repaid, but then pulling tight the purse strings in Years Five and Six. The resulting credit drought was so damaging to poor people that it fell to the great sage Hillel to fix things.

His solution, known as prosbul, allowed a lender to go to court and pre-emptively declare that a specific loan would not be subject to sabbatical debt relief, transferring the debt to the court itself and thereby empowering it to collect the loan. This left the law technically intact but allowed for lenders to once again make credit available to the poor without taking on unwarranted risk for themselves.

The fallow-land portion of the sabbatical law, meanwhile, was upheld for centuries, but it, too, finally gained a loophole, called heter mechira. This allowed for a Jew to temporarily “sell” his land to a non-Jew and to continue farming it during the sabbatical year and then “buy” it back immediately afterward — a solution that helped the modern state of Israel keep its agricultural economy humming.

The trouble is that many of the most observant Israeli Jews reject this maneuver as a sleight of hand that violates the spirit of the law. Many of these traditionalists are also extremely poor. And so this year, which happens to be a sabbatical year, the poorest Jews in Israel who wish to eat only food grown on non-Jewish land are left to buy imported goods at double or triple the regular price — all in order to uphold a law meant to help feed the poorest Jews in Israel.
This is used in support of a critique of unintended consequences they say arise from the Americans With Disabilities Act and the Endangered Species Act.

Friday, January 18, 2008

VERY LITTLE TIME to blog today, but do also check out the updates to yesterday's posts.
JODI MAGNESS will also be lecturing at Columbia University/Barnard College:
Jodi Magness

Archaeologist and Distinguished Professor in Early Judaism
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Fellow, Center for Advanced Studies at Princeton University

Monday Feb. 4, 2008
6:00 pm
Held Auditorium
304 Barnard Hall

Barnard College

Open to the public

part of

The Underground Lecture Series:
What Archaeology Tells Us About Ancient Israel

sponsored by
Scholars for Peace in the Middle East
and LionPAC

Thursday, January 17, 2008

ANOTHER HEBREW SEAL INSCRIPTION from Eilat Mazar's City of David excavation:
First Temple seal found in Jerusalem
By ETGAR LEFKOVITS (Jerusalem Post)

A stone seal bearing the name of one of the families who acted as servants in the First Temple and then returned to Jerusalem after being exiled to Babylonia has been uncovered in an archeological excavation in Jerusalem's City of David, a prominent Israeli archeologist said Wednesday.

The 2,500-year-old black stone seal, which has the name "Temech" engraved on it, was found earlier this week amid stratified debris in the excavation under way just outside the Old City walls near the Dung Gate, said archeologist Dr. Eilat Mazar, who is leading the dig.

According to the Book of Nehemiah, the Temech family were servants of the First Temple and were sent into exile to Babylon following its destruction by the Babylonians in 586 BCE.

The family was among those who later returned to Jerusalem, the Bible recounts.

There's a photo too. The biblical references are Ezra 2:53 and Nehemiah 7:55.

(Via Yitzhak Sapir on the Canaanite list.)

UPDATE (18 January): Again on the Canaanite list, Teodor Bors suggests that the seal reads שלמת (Shelomit, a woman's name?) rather than Temech. The "het" does look strange. What do you think?

UPDATE: Christopher Heard discusses this and other issues at length at Higgaion.
JODI MAGNESS will be lecturing at Purchase College in New Jersey on "The Archaeology of Qumran and the Dead Sea Scrolls" in February.
DAVID PLOTZ does Herodion and talks about Israeli-Arab politics and questions about antiquities looting.
I certainly understand how such looting disrupts research. One Israeli archaeologist complained to me that two coins that could revolutionize understanding of his subject had appeared on the antiquities market, apparently the result of looting. Since he couldn't confirm where the coins came from, he didn't know whether they were genuine.

Even so, I appreciate the psychic longing to own a piece of the Bible, perhaps because I already do. When we got married 10 years ago, my wife's then-boss, Marty Peretz, gave us a gorgeous Book-of-Kings-era pitcher. I have no idea if it was looted—it comes from a very reputable Jerusalem store—but I find it hard to care too much. I love looking at the pitcher, wondering if any of my ancestors drank from it, and marveling that it has come all the way down through history to us. And then I rationalize it: As any archaeologist will tell you, the Israeli government and Israeli museums have warehouses stacked roof-high with ancient pottery vessels and coins, objects that no one needs to study anymore but that can't be sold, because they're national treasures. So, I confess that I sympathize a bit with the Arab looters and antiquities dealers. Everyone else in Israel is getting something out of the Bible: Why can't they?
A SEMINAR ON THE TALPIOT TOMB has been going on at Princeton:
Archaeologist hid 'Jesus tomb' for fear of anti-Semitism, widow says
By Jonathan Lis, Haaretz Correspondent
Tags: Jesus, Israel, Jerusalem

The widow of the archaeologist who discovered the tomb in Talpiot that some believe to be that of Jesus of Nazareth, explained Wednesday in Jerusalem to a gathering of senior archaeologists and other scholars why her husband kept his discovery a secret.

In an emotional voice, Ruth Gat said that Yosef Gat, a Holocaust survivor, was afraid a wave of anti-Semitism would ensue if he did so. Speaking at the three-day Third Princeton Symposium on Judaism and Christian Origins at Mishkenot She'ananim in the capital, Gat also said, "I thank God his fears did not come true in light of the discovery of the tomb of Jesus of Nazareth."


The cave was uncovered in 1980, but was not made public until the mid-1990s. Last year, the story became widely known with the release of the documentary film >"The Lost Tomb of Jesus"

The film presents a cave uncovered in 1980 during construction work on an apartment building in the southern Jerusalem neighborhood of Talpiot. The tomb contained 10 ossuaries. Hebrew letters were inscribed on some, including those Jacobovici says should be read: Yehuda bar Yehoshua, Matya, Yose, Maria, and Yeshua bar Yehosef. The bones of 35 individuals were also uncovered, interred over three to four generations.

"I fell off the chair," Jacobovici said Wednesday following Gat's presentation. "She said the leading archaeologist, who I thought had claimed it was nothing, actually thought he had discovered the tomb of Jesus of Nazareth, and as a Holocaust survivor was afraid it might lead to anti-Semitism."

Although most of those who spoke at Wednesday's seminar said it was possible the tomb was that of Jesus, Jacobovici's film was taken with a grain of salt.

"What Simcha did was good work, as long as it stays in the right perspective," said archaeologist Professor Shimon Gibson of the University of North Carolina. "We, the archaeologists and the historians, spend our lives trying to evaluate the information collected over time. The journalist, however, makes one film and moves on."

Professor Israel Knohl of Hebrew University said Wednesday that he saw no reason not to evaluate the tomb as Jesus' family tomb, although there was no unambiguous proof. He said surrounding caves should be excavated in order to obtain more proof, and explanations for various contradictions in existing evidence should be sought.

I have too many past posts on the Talpiot tomb to list them all here, but if you're interested in background, run the search term "talpiot" through the Google search facility at the top left.

For more on Simcha Jacobovici see the update to this post.

UPDATE: The Jerusalem Post has an article on the Princeton seminar too.

UPDATE (18 January): Time Magazine takes up the story. This is amusing:
Charlesworth, who is also a Methodist minister, says that the possible discovery of Christ's tomb will illicit mixed reactions among Christians.
I think the writer means "elicit."

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Jerusalem approves controversial Mughrabi bridge project
By Akiva Eldar, Haaretz Correspondent
Tags: Mughrabi Bridge, Israel

Jerusalem's district planning and construction committee has approved a controversial plan to restore the Mughrabi bridge leading to one of the entrances to the Temple Mount, construction that caused an outcry among Muslims and generated protest from the Jordanian and Turkish governments in June.

The plan, approved two weeks ago, also includes expansion of the women's section of the Western Wall plaza.

It's not clear to me if this is the final go-ahead or not:
The Jordanian information minister announced progress in talks on restoring the bridge, but a Jordanian official told Haaretz Tuesday that Jordanian authorities are not aware of any change to the status quo, including expansion of the Western Wall plaza.
DAVID PLOTZ does Jerusalem:
To find the house of David, one of the Bible's most vivid heroes, a man who talked to God, killed giants, and unified Israel—that was like winning the Bible lottery.
If, of course, it's really the palace of David. Interesting overview of the current situation.
700 Years In the Life Of a Book
Books | Review of: People of the Book

By CLARE McHUGH (New York Sun)
January 16, 2008

A cursory description of Geraldine Brooks's "People of the Book" (Viking, 384 pages, $25.95) might make the novel sound like a distaff, Jewish version of "The Da Vinci Code." That's because Ms. Brooks, who won the Pulitzer Prize for her last novel, "March" (2005), has now produced a historical mystery starring a strong-willed heroine determined to ferret out the truth about a valuable medieval Hebrew manuscript nearly lost and then found again in war-torn Bosnia.

In reality, "People of the Book" is of much more substance than Dan Brown's overwrought, silly, and ultimately distasteful thriller could ever hope to be — yet Ms. Brooks's work is just as entertaining. She has accomplished something remarkable, fashioning a story that is compelling and eminently readable, even as she maintains high intentions and an earnest purpose.


Tuesday, January 15, 2008

THE NABATEANS get a nice little capsule history on the website of the Jordanian Government. I don't think I've noticed it before.
JALDABAOTH wants the head of Metatron. Trust those two not to get along.

Monday, January 14, 2008

JACOB'S ICONIC FACE: Manuscript Boy has the latest at Hagahot.
THE SAN DIEGO DEAD SEA SCROLL EXHIBITION was the best ever for the Museum of Natural History:
Nearly 400,000 people view Dead Sea Scrolls exhibition

By Scott LaFee

January 7, 2008

BALBOA PARK – Make it the Dead Seen Scrolls.

After 192 days on display, the San Diego Natural History Museum's much-publicized exhibition of the Dead Sea Scrolls – the oldest known copies of the Hebrew Bible – closed yesterday.

It was the museum's most successful show ever.

About 393,000 people visited the exhibit at the Balboa Park museum during its six-month run, organizers said. While that's less than pre-show predictions of more than 450,000 visitors, the figure substantially exceeds the museum's attendance of 289,000 visitors the previous year.

THE RUMORS ABOUT THE TOMB OF CYRUS continue to propagate:
Iran Plans on Destroying Tomb of King Cyrus, Friend of the Jews

by Ezra HaLevi

( Iran is planning on submerging the tomb of King Cyrus (Coresh), the Persian King known for authorizing the Jewish exiles to return to Jerusalem to rebuild the Holy Temple.

According to a report by Omedia, an Iranian organization is demanding that the International Criminal Court take action against those responsible.

The Iranian ayatollahs are planning on destroying the tomb as part of a general campaign to sever the Persian people from their non-Islamic heritage; Cyrus was thought to be a Zoroastrian and was one of the first rulers to enforce a policy of religious tolerance on his huge kingdom. Journalist Ran Porat quoted a young Iranian who said that the measures being taken by the Islamic Republic’s regime include the destruction of archaeological sites significant to this heritage.

“The government is in the final stages of constructing a dam in southern Iran that will submerge the archaeological sites of Pasargad and Persopolis – the ancient capital of the Persian Empire,” the report states. “The site, which is considered exceptional in terms of its archaeological wealth and historical importance, houses the tomb of the Persian King Cyrus.”

Last year this story was circulating, but it seems to have been refuted. But claims persist that the rise in humidity could damage the tomb (see here and here).
DAVID PLOTZ on doing archaeology in Israel: "It's like opening the door on a blind date and discovering it's Kate Beckinsale."

Sunday, January 13, 2008

MORE ON THE RESCUE OF THE SARAJEVO HAGGADAH: Ellen Birmbaum e-mails to note that the Wikipedia article reports:
A full history of the remarkable man, Dervis Korkut, who saved the book from the Nazi officers who sought it, is told in the December 3, 2007 edition of The New Yorker magazine. The article, entitled "The Book of Exodus" also by Geraldine Brooks, sets out the equally remarkable story of the young Jewish girl, Mira Papo, that Korkut and his wife hid from the Nazis just as they acted to save the Haggadah. In a twist of fate the story reveals how Mira Papo , then an elderly woman in Israel, brought about the safety of Korkut's daughter - from the Serbian genocide of the 1990's.
The New Yorker article is not available online, but you can read the abstract here. As Ellen notes, "it would be pretty hard to beat this story, even in a novel!"

Background here and here.