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Isaiah Scroll (Image from Dead Sea Scroll Foundation)

Some of our regulars may have noticed my absence in the last several days. In part, I attended a Southern California show in San Diego’s Balboa Park where I was able to see the present exhibition of the Dead Sea Scrolls at the San Diego Natural History Museum.

One word: WOW!

WOW!

I’m not kidding. Get on a plane and fly there right now.

I’m going to share my personal reflections rather than others’ reactions, but we all left happy including the little one. The San Diego Natural History Museum boasts that this exhibition is “the largest, longest, most comprehensive ever assembled in any country. Spanning two floors and 12,000 square feet.” I think the hyperbole matches reality. This was such a rewarding experience in so many ways that I was sad when the visit had to end.

What resonated with me emotionally and intellectually, especially when I had the chance to reflect on it later, was the way the exhibition guides you from the setting, to the history and finally to the scrolls. The curator, Risa Levitt Kohn, and the team that worked on it did a great job of establishing the story and setting. There was a lot of information to read and hear, but sometimes it was also easy to hang back and experience everything because there were a ton of visual aids.

When you first enter the exhibition, the exhibition halls are filled with enlarged photographs of Israel’s landscape at night and during the day. Some flora and fauna are included as well. I know the work of two of the photographers well, Duby Tal and Neil Folberg. Tal is well known for his aerial photos of Israel and Folberg’s night landscapes are stunning (his day shots are great, too, but I really like his night stuff).

With the images in the first section, it is easy to be swept away to this faraway landscape. The absence of people in most of the photos really helps to communicate the idea of the land where the scrolls were created. As one moves forward through the image gallery, slowly the landscapes turn to images of the desert, revealing its beauty and giving it a sense of life. It really lays a foundation for the entire exhibition.

Later, on another floor, I found a gallery that offered many original prints by these photographers for sale. I’m sad to report that I can’t afford them. Well, I can afford them but it wouldn’t be, uh, prudent.

I have to add that I kept noticing how people were walking through everything quietly and slowly, absorbing the surroundings. They were actually learning, not rushing through or speaking to friends or family. I guess part of the reason is that most people haven’t seen Israel this way. Not a CNN war report in sight.

Prepped with striking images of the landscape, in the next section, we entered an area showing the story of the discovery of the scrolls. It unfolds in photos, films and descriptions and evokes an era when these historians and archaeologists who first touched the scrolls and understood their meaning must have been absolutely captivated by their discovery. Everybody talks about the Bedouins who discovered the scrolls, but for me, there was one photograph which captured my attention. It was of the Arab merchant who served as a go-between and marketed and sold the scrolls. I’m sure he made a tidy fortune.

Some of the history of the scrolls is mixed in with the politics of the era. It was around 1947-1948 and later when most of the original scrolls were discovered and the Qumran caves were on the side conquered by the Jordanians. I understand that Israeli and Jewish scholars had no access to most of the scrolls for many years as a result. There is one plaque describing how no Jews were allowed to join the original team of scroll researchers.

(Please click on the link to see the rest of my review).

There were some scrolls that ended up in Israeli hands when some key scrolls were sold to Israelis (unknown to the seller) through a classified ad in the Wall Street Journal. In this section, there is also a short film of a researcher unrolling a scroll. That scroll had been sitting in caves for 2000 years!

This discovery section folds into the section showing the archaeological explorations of Qumran, the site near which the scroll caves were found. On the opposite wall, the painstaking work of putting the scrolls together again and preserving them is shown. I am describing all of this in brief, but this section was full of information and people were walking through it slowly and intently. There is an image of the scrollery where people sifted through the small fragments of scrolls, trying to piece them together like a puzzle. While the environment appears sterile, you cannot help but think that they’re handling these ancient treasures as part of their day job. Finish the day off with some hummus and what more do you need?

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View of Dead Sea by Neil Folberg (source is San Diego Natural History Museum)

I assume that by design this top floor provided the intro because then we had to descend to the downstairs where the scrolls were kept. You go through a cave entrance, and appropriately enough, it is dark in this cavernous room. This area is also divided into sections. The first part contains photos of Qumran as well as authentic scroll jars and authentic-looking replicas of various pots and plates. There is one photo of a mikveh which stopped me in my tracks, as did another of a flash flood in the Judean desert. I think the flood was shown to reveal how water could arrive in large quantities and then be stored for future use even in this hot and inhospitable area.

Walking through this area was far more interesting than I expected because I assumed that once you’ve seen one ancient pot, you’ve seen them all. Wrong! Listening to the audio tour it seems there are a variety of theories about who lived in Qumran and what they were up to. A pot ain’t always just a pot, especially if different scholars are guessing whether the pot is just a pot or something else…

Between the audio tour, descriptions on the wall and actual artifacts, it took a while to get through this Qumran section. Oh yeah, they had these ancient sandals there and seeing them made my Naot sandals take on a whole new spiritual, almost holy, dimension. Dammit, my forefathers walked in those things over those Judean desert sands a couple of millenia ago.

And with that behind us, we entered the hall with the scrolls. Brrrrrrr….chillin’! No, really, I felt tingles go up my spine in front of some of these.

They are small. Granted. They are also aging and in some cases hard to read. Granted (the museum helps with this by offering enlarged photos and information and translations above each scrolls stand). Some of them are in script I couldn’t decipher. Granted. They are disappearing. Granted. But holy beans, was it amazing to see these things and be able to identify letters and words, to recognize prayers and sections of torah. It was deeply touching. Even those scrolls that are broken up into smaller fragments have a certain aesthetic beauty to them.

It was also interesting to watch others there. Most people in there were probably non-Jewish, but these scrolls held similar importance and may even have had religious significance to them from what I could tell. I was able to look carefully at others because I got into a traffic jam, the exhibition is very busy. Fortunately, that eased up after a couple of scrolls.

The scroll that made me gasp was the Copper Scroll. I don’t know why exactly, because I had some difficulty making out the letters, but this small section of what had to have been a much larger piece is gorgeous. It’s oxidized but seems fairly legible. They only found one of these scrolls and then chopped it up to gain access to the inside parts. On the one hand, this is sad and probably a bad thing to do to an irreplaceable treasure. On the other hand, the researches who did this would not have had access to its contents otherwise.

Not to bore you with more details, because you really have to be there to experience this in full, but from there I moved on to a Psalm scroll, where a quiet female voice sang it back to life. Did I say chillin’? This was understated but had a really strong impact.

Then they showed thousand year old Middle Eastern Hebrew bibles from, of all places, Russia. There is a period of about 900 years from the scrolls to the next bibles that were discovered, and pages from some of these were on display. There were also Hebrew medieval torahs, Middle Ages Christian bibles and modern day Christian bibles. This was the conclusion of the show and a nice way to move from the ancient world to the modern world. It also brought to life how the words of the bible have been passed down to this day.

I know I didn’t do the exhibition justice in this post. The museum will be replacing the scrolls after three months and bringing in a new bunch, so if someone can do it, there’s a good reason to revisit the exhibition. The museum is also hosting a 22 part lecture series that includes a variety of scholars including some of the best known names in the fields of archaeology, bible history and scrolls history. I’m not an expert but I recognize prominent names in the series such as Emanuel Tov, James VanderKam, Esther Chazon, Lawrence Schiffman, David Noel Freedman, Martin Abegg, Eric Meyers, Jodi Magness and others.

The museum should be proud.

About the author

themiddle

28 Comments

  • we all know torah is infallible and any discrepancy with the dead sea scrolls must be the work of a heretical sect.

    /sarcasm

  • I saw it a few days ago. Your review captures the feelings I had. The copper scroll was the best piece.

  • I saw it while I was there on vacation last week. I found the presentation quite good and the flow of the exhibit – first with an introduction of the area in comparison to the San Diego area, then the photos of Israel, and finally photos of the Dead Sea and Qumron.

    They had a good history, as middle said, about the group that found the scrolls and the way they went about “restoring” them (between glass with SCOTCH TAPE).

    Then there were the scrolls, which of course were very cool. The Isreal museum didn’t hand over many biblical scrolls, but the house rules and commentary scrolls were interesting including one that was a greek translation.

    Finally, the downstairs exhibit ended with other written Torot and christian bibles. They also had a great 3d presentation on what Qumron could have been, and included all the different theories of how it was built and used.

    Good stuff. VERY expensive. Over $80 for me, my wife and MIL.

  • Yes, and of course none of you has a word to say about the ongoing controversy over whether any sect whatsoever lived at Qumran and wrote any of the scrolls there, or whether they were not the remnants of libraries from the Jerusalem region, the site being simply a military fortress used for a time as a pottery factory, and never inhabited by any “community” or “group.” This is because the exhibit inspired “awe” in you, but appears to have done a poor job in informing you of the REASONS why an entire series of major archaeologists have rejected the old, Qumran-sectarian theory of scroll origins since 1990. For more details, see my article on the Now Public site, entitled Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit misleads public?

  • Oh, I should have been bored by the exhibition. How stupid of me.

    I went to your complaint on the Now Public site and didn’t think it had merit. I had to read what you claim Levitt Kohn was asked, but when I went to the actual article from the LA Times, nowhere does it say that she was asked this question. That writer made someone smiling sound sinister.

    I think her remark makes sense in light of what I saw. I would think any curator has to make decisions and choices. I don’t know how she made her decisions but plenty of information and choices were offered to me as a visitor. Along with the things I talk about in the post, I think that’s why I was “awed.”

  • Boomer, my wife and I saw the show on Sunday. I don’t think it is expensive because I went to see Carmen at the La Jolla Playhouse a couple of weeks ago and even with subscription prices, I still paid more than forty bucks per ticket for the play. The Scrolls were way better. It was really busy and that’s my one complaint. I should have known to go on a weekday.

  • Sewlew, I saw that article too. We already know who is going to win that battle. The Waqf already has police permission to dig.

    There must be some imams laughing mightily, realizing that their destructive construction projects at the Haram al Sharif get a green light while any Israeli projects, outside the compound, like the Mughrabi bridge, get bogged down in political and legal fights.

  • Nice site you’ve got here, Middle. The photos of kissing women are especially intriguing.

    I thought you should know that you’ve been graced by a visit from Charles Gadda who seems to have a full time job posting attacks against Dead Sea Scroll exhibits. Take a look at this article: lavoice.org/index.php?name=News&file=article&sid=2850

    Then take a look at this article:

    nowpublic.com/dead_sea_scrolls_exhibit_misleads_public

    Same article. One is posted by Charles Gadda and the other is posted by Cultural Critic. In the one posted by Cultural Critic, “anonymous” arrives to post a flattering comment with a link to, you guessed it, a Charles Gadda article.

  • Sounds like a wonderful experience. We can leave the archeological details to the professionals, and stay with the wonder. Wonder is in short supply and wonder is very good.

  • Actually Charles – if thats your real name – you’re wrong. The 3d exhibit does in fact mention the fortress, pottery factory (shows the collecting ponds and such). It does not say that the scrolls were written there, but does give evidence to allow you to make your own decision.

    They do mention that there were rather strange benches that would have been uncomfortable if used for writing, but also does show that there were two inkwells found in the room – one of clay and the other of metal – and how rare that is.

    So there! Pfffttttt

  • This piece in the Daily Telegraph may interest you if you like ancient artifacts that are Torah related.
    http://www.israelunitycoalition.org/news/article.php?id=1531

    Kinda fun. But the main thing is that candle-lighting is inching earlier, just by a minute. Living it today is the main thing.

    If nobody were CURRENTLY RIGHT NOW writing NEW Torah scrolls, all we would have is the bitty bits in the exhibition. That would not do.

    So, if you like Torah scrolls that are not in scraps and shreds, give ten bucks to a Yeshiva or something.

  • JM, thanks for the link. That is interesting!

    Allegro was Right, I publish on Jewlicious using a pseudonym, and I also use this pseudonym when I visit other blogs, so if Charles Gadda does it in those links you gave, who am I to throw stones?

    I will agree that he has a big chip on his shoulder and he doesn’t seem to have a clue about the exhibition.

  • Then again, after rereading your comment, Allegro was Right, I revisited those links and there is an odor of deceit about the way he presented things.

  • Much has been lost. There is the lost beet dessert recipe. Etiquettes and procedures of the past. The language of Aramaic. Weaving and dyeing methods. But: the scrolls made today are made in exactly the same way as back then. Hand-tanned leather, hand-made ink from the same recipe, feather quill pen.

    That is why they cost so much. It takes two years to write a Torah scroll, and fifteen years to learn how to do it.

    That is why a Mezuzah klaf costs forty dollars. A kosher one is made that way, too.

  • I am only just now seeing your various replies. Since you have all seen the exhibit, please tell me if they provide the following information: (1) inkwells have been found in many archaeological sites throughout Israel and Jordan (contrary to the false impression that one of you has obviously been left with); (2) remains of women as well as men were found in the cemetery, not in separate areas (contrary to false claims being made) but scattered among the other graves; (3) the scrolls contain over 500 scribal hands and a large array of conflicting ideas and doctrines; (4) not even a single fragment of parchment was found within the site of Qumran; (5) there is no evidence of original authorship in any of the scrolls, and (apart from the Copper Scroll) they contain no documentary forms such as contracts or correspondence, but are all scribal copies of earlier texts; (6) the type of jars they were found in have been unearthed not just at Qumran, but in various archaeological sites near Jericho and all over the Dead Sea region; (7) similar collections of scrolls were twice found during medieval times in caves near Jericho, and crowds of Jews came down from Jerusalem to remove them; (8) similar and, in part, identical scrolls were found at Masada, where Jews are known to have fled from Jerusalem; (9) the Copper Scroll mentions “books” as being hidden alongside its treasures at least nine times, and some of the items it lists are known from rabbinical sources to be identical with ones that belonged to the Temple in Jerusalem? My impression is that one or two of these facts might be mentioned here or there, but nowhere is the case laid out for the public to see. Yet I have summarized it briefly in a few words right here. I guess I could do more in one little message than the museum could do in its fancy exhibit. Furthermore, have any of you read Golb’s article on “Fact and Fiction in Current Exhibitions of the Dead Sea Scrolls” (you can find the link in my Now Public piece), and if so, can you frankly assert that the erroneous and misleading statements he discusses there are not repeated in this particular exhibit? Maybe I have it all wrong, but nothing you have said so far leads me to believe so. I leave aside the exclusion of all opponents of the old theory from the lecture series, this is an outrageous “decision” made by a woman who initially presented herself as a Dead Sea Scrolls “scholar” and then backed down from her claim (see my update on the Now Public site). And what do you care if I call myself “cultural critic”? I have written about other culturally interesting issues as well including the exclusion of a living giant of modern music from a major jazz venue, so big deal if I use a pen name from time to time. Please focus on the issue; if you can answer my question, maybe we can have a rational discussion of this problem.

  • Wow.

    Okay, I’ve given it some thought although this looks like a pending war.

    Ed. – I don’t want this war here.

    Charles, or whoever you are, how can you even post a comment? You’re attacking the show without having seen it and you bother to tell me that if I can answer your questions then we’ll have a rational discussion? That is sheer unadulterated chutzpah. What hubris. I’m already rational, thanks, and don’t need to take your quiz simply because you haven’t been there.

    I will say to you that your questions reveal that you seek to have an an academic debate about Qumran and the scrolls, not an exhibition. Why don’t you have that debate with academics? Do you really think the average person can absorb or wishes to absorb the nuances of every unresolved matter between arguing academics? It takes a couple of hours to get through that show if you do it fast and probably a lot longer if you do it slowly. Yet you think every plaque should have the current “status of the question” on it? That’s insane. I took classes in bible and ancient Near East in college and went to torah school and still I was impressed with all of the things I learned in this exhibition. I think that many of the people who were there know way less than me and yet they walked around fully absorbed.

    It was informative, powerful and moving! That’s what this type of exhibition should be about, not whether you are satisfied that some scholar’s ideas were exhibited to your satisfaction. This exhibition did the scrolls justice. If I could give it a score, it would be a ten-minus out of ten.

  • Gadda, all you’ve proven is that you know nothing about the exhibition. Your questions have proven this conclusively.

    But more important, by posting more attacks after I asked to stop for the sabbath, you violated my simple request to respect my shabbat.

    Edit:
    I have thought hard about why a Jewish historian or somebody not Jewish who is very familiar with Jewish law would ignore my simple request to respect my shabbat. I concluded that it was my fault maybe even more than yours. I anticipated a war when Allegro wrote his comment around the time you did but I realize now that this is a broad fight which has been going on for years for you.

    This site is not going to be the forum for any war since the only way I can prevent this vitriol and bile from coming into our site is by censorship. Censorship is used rarely on Jewlicious, which says something about the nature of the comments. I think Allegro’s piece proved its case about you using multiple online personalities to promote Norman Golb but this forum will not host this fight. If Allegro wishes to have this war with Gadda, he provided many links to sites where Gadda and these other names have posted comments and he can post there. If Gadda or whoever he is wishes to have a war with Dead Sea Scrolls exhibitions, he has had his say here and can go back to the same sites Allegro showed us.

    I have rolled back time to the point at which Gadda, Allegro and I each took a turn speaking. This allows each of us to get a word in and our readers to get a taste of the debate. Nobody wins and nobody loses. This is enough. I apologize to all affected parties who have had their comments removed. I ask everybody that the future of this discussion reflect the steps I have taken.

  • I feel so … so … so violated! Forget about free speech … what about free kvetching? OY VEY ISMEAR!

    Whatever you want to do is fine with me. If I cared so much, I’d have my own blog. It was entertaining while it lasted though.

  • Holy Toledo!

    Does that mean that Raphael Golb is Charles Gadda?!!!

    If you’re the original Allegro who posted here (your IP is different), then your original post here may have been completely true.

  • Allegro, do you still have what you posted originally? I didn’t keep any of the comments I erased from this discussion.

  • That is incredible!!!

    I will write a post about your site!

    When I censor discussions, usually it’s because some white supremacist or real antisemite posts comments that I refuse to allow. In this case, however, it was somebody Jewish accusing others of antisemitism without any evidence.

    I felt I had to remove everything in the discussion because, as I recall, and I didn’t keep a copy (I’m kicking myself now!), he was calling a professor from UCLA an antisemite without any evidence except that he was involved in a movie that was shown at the San Diego exhibition. It had to be one of the most vicious exchanges we have ever witnessed at Jewlicious. It was a mix of paranoid conspiracy theory with alternating attacks on the San Diego exhibition, the curator of the exhibition, Christians academics in general and this professor (I can’t recall if he also attacked you).

    Then Gadda began using aliases to post his comments in this debate so that it would seem he had the support of others. We get that a lot here, so it’s not hard to know when somebody is doing it. But in that kind of situation it’s hard to ban an IP or to filter it out to spam because he can switch to a different IP.

    When he posted the professor’s name and stated that he was an antisemite, that’s when I decided that Jewlicious was going to lose this battle. We are a popular site and things on our site usually get high Google search rankings. I realized that this professor’s name would get a boost on Google with an accusation of being an antisemite on a site called “Jewlicious.” That’s a heavy charge to make and it didn’t seem to me that this professor had done anything remotely close to antisemitism. As far as I could tell, the only thing this professor had done was make a movie about Qumran that Gadda or Golb didn’t like.

    My solution, as you see above, was to give in and find a “compromise.” I knew that he was on a rampage because this Allegro Was Right commenter posted a really strong article in the comments with evidence showing that there were aliases supporting Norman Golb. By removing those comments, I was giving in to this man, but it also allowed me to remove all the unfair attacks by Gadda and his aliases against other people and get him to walk away.

    I’ll probably write a post about this. Is there anything you want to say about your experience?

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