The Israel Museum

The most famous museum in Israel is the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.  Founded in 1965, it was primarily built to display the numerous archaeological finds from throughout the country.  It is located across the street from the Knesset, Israel’s government building, and houses approximately 500,000 items.

Perhaps the most popular display at the Israel Museum is the Shrine of the Book, which is a smaller building on the Museum complex that houses the Dead Sea Scrolls.  More information about the Dead Sea Scrolls can be found in my Previous Post.  These First Century A.D. era scrolls are the oldest Biblical texts ever found (not including a tiny Biblical inscription found at Ketef Hinnom).

Right outside the Shrine of the Book building, visitors can see a huge model depicting Jerusalem from the Second Temple Period, the time that the Dead Sea Scrolls were written.  The model was originally built for the Holy Land Hotel in 1966, a year before Israel took of control of the Temple Mount area.  People, including my dad, would visit the Holy Land Hotel just to see the model.  However, the model was disassembled into 100 parts and moved to the Israel Museum in 2006.

This is the model of the Second Temple in Jerusalem.

The Israel Museum’s archaeology wing is probably its second largest attraction, after the Dead Sea Scrolls.  It not only houses archaeology found in Israel, but also archaeology from other areas of the world, especially the Middle East.  One famous item displayed there is the Ketef Hinnom inscription, which I mentioned above as being the oldest Biblical text ever discovered.  In 1979, Dr. Gabriel Barkay found two silver scrolls that contain the priestly blessing from Numbers 6:23-27.  He found them in a burial cave in Jerusalem’s Hinnom Valley.  (Fun Fact: the word Gehenna is an anglicanized version of Gei-Hinnom גֵי־הִנֹּם‎, which means “Valley of Hinnom.”  Because it was used as a dump and a place where evil kings performed child sacrifices in ancient times, the word came to be associated with Hell.)  Today, you can visit the burial caves where the Ketef Hinnom inscription was found by going into the Menachem Begin Heritage Center and asking if you could see their archaeolgical garden.

These are the Ketef Hinnom inscriptions, which are the oldest Biblical texts ever discovered.

In addition to archaeology, the Israel Museum has also become Israel’s main art museum.  However, I am less knowledgable and interested in art, so do not know what famous pieces they have there.  While at the museum, I did not have enough time so sped through the art wing.

One other wing at the museum is called the Jack, Joseph, & Morton Mandel Wing for Jewish Art & Life.  This wing houses Judaica from throughout the centuries and throughout the world.  My favorite part of this wing is called “The Synagogue Route.”  This exhibit is a reconstruction of four synagogues, using pieces from the originals.  It includes synagogues from 18th century Italy, 16th century India, 18th century Germany, and 18th century Suriname.  From what I remember, as you walk into each of the gorgeously recreated synagogues, you hear Jewish music playing from that synagogue’s country and time period.

In the archaeology wing, you can see a nail in the heel of a Jewish man who was crucified by the Romans. Physical evidence of Roman crucifixions are rare finds.

Google Arts & Culture created a Virtual View of the Israel Museum, in case you are interested.

Sources and Further Reading

Friedman, Matti. “In a Stone Box, the Only Trace of Crucifixion.” The Times of Israel. March 26, 2012. https://www.timesofisrael.com/in-a-stone-box-a-rare-trace-of-crucifixion/ (accessed September 26, 2020).

“The Israel Museum.” Google Arts & Culture. https://artsandculture.google.com/partner/the-israel-museum-jerusalem (accessed September 26, 2020).

“The Model of Jerusalem in the Second Temple Period.” The Israel Museum. https://www.imj.org.il/en/wings/shrine-book/model-jerusalem-second-temple-period (accessed September 26, 2020).

“Welcome to Museum.” The Israel Museum. https://www.imj.org.il/en/content/welcome-museum (accessed September 26, 2020).

Syriac Orthodox Monastery of Saint Mark in Jerusalem

The city of Jerusalem has a 16th century Ottoman wall surrounding its Old City.  The area within these walls is allotted into four sections: the Jewish Quarter, the Muslim Quarter, the Christian Quarter, and the Armenian Quarter.  Although Armenians are Christian, they were the first country to nationally convert to Christianity, so they have kept a presence in Jerusalem for centuries.  That is why they have their own quarter.  Despite the name, none of the quarters are solely made up of one group of people.  In fact, hidden away in a narrow street of the Armenian Quarter is St. Mark’s Monastery.

St. Mark’s Monastery is not Armenian but Syriac Orthodox.  When people hear of the Syriac Orthodox Church, they assume that it is connected with the country of Syria.  However, that is not the case.  Syria gained independence from France in 1946, but the Syriac Orthodox Church is one of the oldest churches in the world.  According to an article (“National and Ethnic Identity in the Neo-Assyrian Empire and Assyrian Identity in Post-Empire Times.” Journal of Assyrian Academic Studies 18, no. 2 (2004): 5-22) by the Finnish Assyriologist, Simo Parpola, the words “Assyrian,” “Syriac,” and “Syrian” all derive from the word Ashur, the name of the Ancient Assyrian Empire.  Since the Assyrian Empire once dominated the Middle East, its name influenced the region.

During the first few hundred years of Christianity, before the Catholic and Orthodox churches even split, churches from across the globe held ecumenical councils.  During the fourth ecumenical council in A.D. 451, called the Council of Chalcedon, the churches excommunicated those adhering to monophysitism, which states that Jesus only had a divine, not human, nature.  Those expelled included the Armenian Apostolic Church, the Coptic (Egyptian) Orthodox Church, and the Syriac Orthodox Church.  Today, these latter churches claim that their theology was misrepresented at the Council, and that they did still believe in Jesus’ humanity.  Regardless, because of this early split, these Eastern Churches developed on their own.

This is the Syriac inscription over the entrance to Saint Mark’s Monastery.

Most people from the Syriac Orthodox Church (also known as the Jacobite Church, because of one of their bishops, Jacob Barradaeus) lived in what is present-day Turkey.  They built a church in Jerusalem in the sixth century A.D., which became St. Mark’s Monastery. According to Syriac Orthodox tradition, it was built over the Upper Room where Jesus had his last supper.  Today, anyone can visit the church and have a tour with the caretaker.  Fortunately, when I visited the church, the caretaker allowed me to go downstairs to the site of the earliest church.  The current church was built on top of it.  Archaeologists did not discover this earlier church until 1940.

The authenticity of this Syriac inscription found at St. Mark’s Monastery is debated.

The Syriac Orthodox Church’s liturgy is in a modern dialect of Aramaic.  That is because, prior to the Islamic invasion of the Middle East in the seventh century A.D., the Middle East’s lingua franca was Aramaic.  After the Islamic invastion, those who did not convert to Christianity kept their Aramaic language and did not replace it with Arabic.  The modern Aramaic script is called Syriac.  If you attend a service at St. Mark’s Monastery, you can hear the Aramaic liturgy and see the Syriac prayer books used.

If the Syriac Orthodox Church is not confusing enough, I would like to add one more confusing element to it.  Today, many adherents of the Syriac Orthodox Church consider themselves ethnically Aramean, because they speak the Aramaic language.  Since they lived in the Middle East before the Islamic conquest, they are certainly not Arab, even if most of them can speak Arabic today.  However, it is only in the 20th century that the Syriac Orthodox Church adopted the Aramean identity.

St. Mary’s Assyrian Apostolic Church in Worcester, Massachusetts, mentioned on this commemorative bookmark, is now called the Syriac Orthodox Church in Shrewsbury, Massachusetts.

The identity of the Syriac Orthodox Church remains a controversial topic today.  Whereas some, but not all, from the Syriac Orthodox Church consider themselves Aramean, others call themselves Assyrian.  In fact, one of the founders of Assyrian Nationalism in the early twentieth century, Naum Faiq, was born into a Syriac Orthodox family.  Assyrian nationalists claim that they are descended from the ancient Assyrians and want to build an Assyrian homeland.

Members of the Assyrian Church of the East also believe that the Syriac Orthodox Church is descended from the ancient Assyrians.  Similar to the Syriac Orthodox Church, the Assyrian Church of the East is an ancient Middle Eastern church that speaks Aramaic (although an Eastern dialect, unlike the Syriac Orthodox Church’s western dialect).  It was excommunicated from the mainstream church at the third ecumenical council in A.D. 431 (the Council of Ephesus), because its members were associated with the heretic Nestorius.  According to those from the Assyrian Church of the East, who also identify themselves as descendants of the ancient Assyrians, the reason why the Syriac Orthodox Church stopped calling itself Assyrian in the twentieth century was because it wanted to distance itself from the Assyrian Church of the East.  This was not only for religious reasons, but primarily because they did not want to experience the same fate as the Assyrians, who were massacred in Simele, Iraq in 1933.  At Simele, between 3,000 to 6,000 Assyrians were killed by the Iraqi government, both for political and religious reasons.

This photo is in the public domain and taken from Wikipedia. It explains the splits in the churches that use Aramaic liturgy.

Although the Syriac Orthodox did avoid its own massacre, it did not escape massacre earlier in the 20th century.  Approximately 200,000 members of both the Assyrian and Syriac Orthodox churches were massacred during WWI, along with the one million Armenians murdered during the Armenian Genocide.  Many Syriac Orthodox people moved to Israel after that, and still live there today.  Throughout the 20th century, many others moved to Sweden and the United States.  If you are interested, a Syriac Orthodox Group in New Jersey has recently uploaded over 2,000 Syriac Orthodox and Assyrian books online here: https://archive.org/details/bethmardutho.

St. Mark’s Monastery has a connection with the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947.  I plan to write about that soon. (September 20 Update: Here is the Post about the Dead Sea Scrolls.)

Sources and Further Reading

“Dayro d-Mor Marqos.” Syriac Orthodox Resources. http://syriacorthodoxresources.org/ChMon/HLand/YerusalemSMark.html (accessed September 13, 2020).

Donabed, Sargon and Ninos Donabed. Assyrians of Eastern Massachusetts. Charleston: Arcadia, 2006.

Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Monophysite.” https://www.britannica.com/topic/monophysite (accessed September 13, 2020).

Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Nestorianism.” https://www.britannica.com/topic/Nestorianism (accessed September 13, 2020).

Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Syriac Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch and All the East.” https://www.britannica.com/topic/Syriac-Orthodox-Patriarchate-of-Antioch-and-All-the-East (accessed September 13, 2020).

Parpola, Simo. “National and Ethnic Identity in the Neo-Assyrian Empire and Assyrian Identity in Post-Empire Times.” Journal of Assyrian Academic Studies 18, no. 2 (2004): 5-22. http://www.jaas.org/edocs/v18n2/Parpola-identity_Article%20-Final.pdf (accessed September 13, 2020).

Yad Vashem and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

April 21, 2020 is this year’s date for Yom HaShoah, or Israel’s Holocaust Remembrance Day.  Israel commemorates the day by sounding a siren for 2 minutes throughout the country.  During that time, the entire nation is required to stop what they are doing (including driving), until the siren stops.  “Yom” means “day” in Hebrew, and “Shoah,” which is a word used several times in the Bible, means “calamity.”

Yom HaShoah always falls on the 27th day of the Jewish month of Nissan, since that marks the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.  When the Nazis invaded Poland and started WWII on September 1, 1939, they forced all of its Jewish inhabitants to live in certain enclosed areas (ghettos) within their cities.  Since Warsaw is the capital of Poland, that city held the largest of these ghettos.  The Nazis gradually transported people from the ghettos to concentration camps, so in 1943, the remaining survivors in the Warsaw Ghetto had had enough, and revolted against the Germans.  Although the revolt was unsuccessful, it was the largest Jewish uprising during the Holocaust.  The 2002 film The Pianist depicts this tragic event.

Dr. Janusz Korczak took care of orphans in the Warsaw Ghetto. This memorial to him is in Skokie, Illinois, a town that had the largest Holocaust survivor population outside of Israel.

The two largest Holocaust museums in the world are Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C., respectively.  Israel’s museum (Yad Vashem means “a memorial and a name” and comes from Isaiah 56:5) began in 1953, five years after Israel became an independent nation.  The United States’ museum was completed forty years later, in 1993.  Both museums are free, crowded, provide tours in several languages, and incorporate the video testimonies of survivors as part of their exhibits.  Both also have amazing websites filled with primary sources such as photos, video testimonies, documents, etc.  Additionally, Yad Vashem has a database of all of the documented victims of the Holocaust, as well as a database of all of the documented “Righteous Among the Nations,” or individuals who rescued Jews during the Holocaust.  Yad Vashem has also planted a tree for every known Righteous Among the Nations, with the name of a rescuer placed on a plaque beneath each tree.  Visitors can see the trees as they walk around the Museum’s grounds.

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C.

Perhaps two of the most visceral memorials at Yad Vashem are the Children’s Memorial and the Hall of Names.  The Children’s Memorial is a separate building on the Museum’s grounds, memorializing the approximately 1.5 million children who died in the Holocaust.  It contains photos of children, and a candle placed in the center of the room, with mirrors reflecting the candle’s light throughout the space.  The Hall of Names contains books of the names of victims, as well as a domed ceiling with the photos of many victims spread across it. (The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum also has a room full of victims’ photos.) However, Yad Vashem’s main exhibit ends in hope. It ends with a large window overlooking the city of Jerusalem, which is a way of showing visitors that Hitler’s goal of annihilating the Jews failed.

The most visceral display at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum is the shoe collection.  It displays 4,000 shoes, on long-term loan from Majdanek concentration camp near Lublin, Poland.  When you hear that six million Jews died during the Holocaust, it just sounds like statistics.  However, when you see 4,000 different types of shoes piled on top of each other, the reality that each one belonged to a unique individual who died makes the numbers sink in more.

Quote located on one of the walls of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

I have also written about the third largest Holocaust museum in the world: The Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center.

Sources and Further Reading

“The Central Database of Shoah Victims’ Names.” Yad Vashem. https://yvng.yadvashem.org/index.html?language=en (accessed April 18, 2020).

Gilad, Elon. “Shoah: How a Biblical Term Became the Hebrew Word for Holocaust.” Haaretz. May 1, 2019. https://www.haaretz.com/jewish/holocaust-remembrance-day/.premium-shoah-how-a-biblical-term-became-the-hebrew-word-for-holocaust-1.5236861 (accessed April 18, 2020).

“The Righteous Among the Nations Database.” Yad Vashem. https://righteous.yadvashem.org/ (accessed April 18, 2020).

“Yom Hashoah.” BBC. April 27, 2011. https://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/judaism/holydays/yomhashoa.shtml (accessed April 18, 2020).

Church of the Holy Sepulchre

One of the most popular tourist destinations in Jerusalem is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, located where many Christians believe Jesus was crucified, buried, and resurrected.  It was built during the reign of Constantine the Great in the 4th century A.D., destroyed several times, and rebuilt or enlarged several times.  Currently, the Church is closed, due to the COVID-19 outbreak.  The last time the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was closed to the public was in 1349, also due to sickness: the Black Plague. 

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is the domed building to the left.

I have been inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre several times, but still consider it as confusing as a maze.  Therefore, I unfortunately cannot provide directions on how I arrived at any of the interesting places that I have seen there.

Several different church groups have a section of the Church allotted to them.  These are the Greek Orthodox Church (they are easy to identify because their priests have ponytails), the Roman Catholic Church, the Armenian Apostolic Church, the Coptic (Egyptian) Orthodox Church, the Syrian Orthodox Church, and the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.  The latter four are known as “Oriental” Churches, each using liturgy in languages unique to themselves (Armenian, Coptic/Egyptian, Aramaic, and Ge’ez, respectively). 

The most crowded part of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is a small building inside the high-domed Church, which is allegedly over Jesus’ tomb.  You must stand in line to enter this little building, known as the Edicule, where a priest directs the visiting pilgrims.  I did not enter the Edicule, so cannot share more information about it.  There are other ancient tombs nearby the Edicule, which you can find by entering a nearby doorway.  The Church of the Holy Sepulchre also includes a stone where the cross was said to be, and a variety of different relics (I remember a bone being one of them, but do not remember more).

Since the early Christian church endured enormous persecution when it began, nobody can be sure if the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is over the actual place where Jesus died.  However, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is built over ancient tombs that may date to that period.  Jesus is believed to have been buried outside of Jerusalem’s city walls.  Since the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is inside the walled Old City of Jerusalem, this may seem confusing.  However, the current walls of the Old City were built during the 16th century under the Ottoman Empire.  I was told that the Church of the Holy Sepulchre would have been outside of Jerusalem’s city walls during the Roman era.

Tombs inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

I had the opportunity to go on the top of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre’s smaller dome, because I had a wonderful professor who received permission to take her class up there.  This dome was part of the section of the Church owned by the Greek Orthodox Church.  In addition to going on top of the dome, we also went into a little room below it, where people work on repairing broken icons that churches send to them from all over the world.  My professor also took us to a part of the Church’s roof that is accessible to the public, and is the section owned by the Ethiopian Church.  Additionally, she took us to a water tunnel beneath the Church.  However, I, unfortunately, cannot remember how to find any of those places.

The roof of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre’s smaller dome.

Whether you are Christian or not, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is worth the visit.  If you are lucky, you will hear a church procession singing beautiful liturgy.  You will also smell spices, probably frankincense, throughout the entire building.  However, you must also be prepared to see visitors lighting candles and kissing various objects, which may be strange to people who do not follow those traditions.

A view of the Christian Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City from the roof of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

Sources and Further Reading

Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Church of the Holy Sepulchre.” https://www.britannica.com/place/Holy-Sepulchre (accessed April 10, 2020).

Vaiciulaityte, Giedre. “The Muslim Keymaster of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre Closed Its Doors for the First Time Since the Black Plague in 1349.” Boredpanda. April 8, 2020. https://www.boredpanda.com/church-of-the-holy-sepulchre-key-master/?utm_source=google&utm_medium=organic&utm_campaign=organic (accessed April 10, 2020).

Hanukkah in Jerusalem

In the United States, Christmas has become a very commercialized holiday.  Sometimes, as early as September, you can already find Christmas-related items at the store.  Amidst these Christmas items are often a few items related to the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah (sometimes spelled Chanukah, because it has the guttural “H” sound).  However, Hanukkah is actually considered a minor Jewish holiday.  The most important Jewish holidays are the ones found in the Bible, especially Leviticus 23, whereas, the story of Hanukkah occurred after the Old Testament had already been completed. There isn’t a Hanukkah museum, but I had the privilege of experiencing Hanukkah at its birthplace, Jerusalem.

The reason for Hanukkah’s popularity in the United States is that it falls around the time of Christmas.  It became a way for the Jewish community to not feel completely left out around Christmastime.  However, unlike Christmas, it never falls on the exact same day each year, because it follows the Jewish calendar, which is lunar, not the Gregorian calendar, which is solar.  It still falls around December, though, because the Jewish calendar has a leap month every few years, which helps keep the months on a similar timeline. (The Muslim calendar, on the other hand, is lunar, but doesn’t have leap days or months, so its holidays can occur at any time of year.)

Whereas most of Israel shuts down during the major Jewish holidays found in Leviticus 23, life typically continues as normal during Hanukkah.  On the first night of Hanukkah, I went to the Western (or Wailing) Wall in Jerusalem. This was a retaining wall surrounding the Second Temple and was built by King Herod the Great in the first century B.C. It is the only structure remaining that had a connection with the Jewish Temple, which the Romans completely destroyed in A.D. 70. The reason why I went to the Western Wall at night is because Jewish holidays begin at sundown. This is because the creation narrative found in Genesis 1 repeatedly says, “And there was evening and there was morning the first day,” “second day,” etc. for each of the six days of creation, implying that the day began in the evening.

While at the Western Wall (which is considered the holiest site in Judaism, due to its proximity to where the Temple once stood), the chief rabbi of Jerusalem lit the first candle of a giant menorah (the Hebrew word for “lamp”).  Afterwards, people danced in the street, and one group even projected a slideshow of images related to the Hanukkah story, with the “Pirates of the Caribbean” soundtrack playing in the background!  I was especially pleased to see that the surrounding bakeries were all selling sufganiyot (jelly doughnuts) as well.

A Hanukkah menorah at the Western Wall in Jerusalem in 2010.

The reason for lighting the menorah and eating sufganiyot is connected.  The story of Hanukkah comes from the first and second books of Maccabees, which are two books found in the Apocrypha.  The Apocrypha is Jewish writings that date to after the timespan of the Old Testament, but before the Roman occupation of Israel.  Some of it is history, and some of it is not.  Judaism never recognized the Apocrypha as divine canon, although the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches did and added it to their Bibles (the Protestants later removed it from theirs). 

The books of 1 and 2 Maccabees describe how the Seleucid Empire, a remnant of Alexander the Great’s Greek Empire, tried to Hellenize Israel and make the inhabitants worship their gods.  In order to do this, the Greeks, under the leadership of King Antiochus IV Epiphanes, desecrated the Jewish temple and sacrificed a pig within it.  However, a group of Jews under the leadership of a man named Judah Maccabee (Maccabee was his nickname and means “hammer” in Hebrew), fought and overcame the Greeks.  After that, Israel remained independent for a brief period of time, until the Romans arrived. 

After Judah’s victory, the Jews tried to rededicate the Temple.  The Hebrew word for “dedication” is “Hanukkah,” so the holiday is also known as the Feast of Dedication. (The New Testament even references it in John 10:22.)  The rest of the Hanukkah story actually comes from later tradition.  According to the story, the people were upset when they realized that the 7-branched menorah (or lamp) that was supposed to always continue burning in the Temple, was no longer lit.  They tried to find some oil to relight it, but only found enough oil that would last for one day.  However, the light ended up lasting for 8 days, just long enough for them to replenish their supply.  That is why a menorah is lit on Hanukkah each year, and why the holiday lasts for 8 days.  Additionally, that is also why a Hanukkah menorah (also called a Hanukkiah) has 9 branches instead of 7 branches, like what would have been found in the Temple.  Each of the 8 branches represents one of the 8 days of Hanukkah, while the extra middle branch is used to light each of the other 8 branches.  For each night of Hanukkah, a new candle is lit, until all are completed on the 8th day.

A common Hanukkah tradition among children is to play with a spin top called a “dreidel.” Historically, the four letters found on a dreidel stood for the phrase “A great miracle happened THERE.” However, Israeli dreidels now say, “A great miracle happened HERE” On the left is an American dreidel, with the Hebrew letter “shin,” which stands for the word “there.” On the right is an Israeli dreidel with the Hebrew letter “peh,” which stands for the word “here.”

Finally, the reason why sufganiyot (doughnuts) are eaten on Hanukkah, is because they are an oily food, so are a way to remember the miracle of the oil.  Israel’s sufganiyot are much more delicious than the ones in the United States.  This may partially be because Israel has a wider variety of flavors than just the traditional jelly-filled ones.  For example, there were some donuts that were topped with pistachio, halva, and even sweet popcorn.  Fried potato pancakes are also a popular Hanukkah dish, because they are oily. 

Sufganiyot at Roladin Bakery in Jerusalem.

Sources and Further Reading

Encyclopaedia Britannica, s.v. “Hanukkah.” Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2019. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Hanukkah (accessed November 30, 2019).

Rude, Emelyn. “Why Jelly Doughnuts Are Eaten During Hanukkah.” Time, December 7, 2015. https://time.com/4138749/sufganiyot-jelly-doughnut-hanukkah-history/ (accessed November 30, 2019).