Thursday, March 20, 2014

Excerpt from Simon Schama's New Book: "The Story of the Jews"

We're delighted to be able to share an excerpt from Simon Schama's new book. As longtime fans of his work, we'll also be tuning in to WNET on Tuesday for the premiere of his show, also called The Story of the Jews. Click here for more information and to watch video previews.

Excerpt from The Story of the Jews: Finding the Words 1000 BC – 1492 AD by Simon Schama

In Egypt

In the beginning – not the imagined beginning of patriarchs and prophets, and certainly not the beginning of the whole universe, just the documented beginning of ordinary Jews – in that beginning, a father and mother were worrying about their son.

This son, a soldier boy, was called Shelomam, an Aramaic version of my Hebrew name, Shelomo. His father’s name was Osea, which was the middle name of my own aba. The time was two and a half millennia ago, in 475 BCE, the tenth year of the reign of Xerxes, the Achaemenid king of Persia who, though much bloodied in Greece, was still ruler in Egypt, where Shelomam and Osea lived. Xerxes had another decade on the throne before being murdered by his most trusted officer, Artabanus the Hyrcanian, who did the deed in cahoots with a helpful eunuch. Jesus of Nazareth would not be born for half a millennium. If the several writers of the Hebrew Bible are to be believed, it had been around eight hundred years since Moses had led the enslaved Israelites from Egypt into the desert mountains where, in possession of the laws given directly by Yahweh – indeed written with His very finger – they turned, despite recurring flings with idolatry and a yen for many other gods, into something resembling Jews.
The exodus from the flood valley of the Nile, the end of foreign enslavement, was presented by the Bible writers as the condition of becoming fully Israelite. They imagined the journey as an ascent, both topographical and moral. It was on the stony high places, way stations to heaven, that YHWH – as Yahweh is written – had revealed Himself (or at least His back), making Moses’ face hot and shiny with reflected radiance. From the beginning (whether in the biblical or archaeological version), Jews were made in hill country. In Hebrew, emigrating to Israel is still aliyah, a going up. Jerusalem was unimaginable on the low fluvial plain. Rivers were murky with temptation; the sea was even worse, brimming with scaly monsters. Those who dwelled by its shores or shipped around upon its waves (like the Phoenicians or the Greeks) were to be detested as shifty, idolatrous and unclean. To go back to Egypt then, in the eyes of those for whom the exodus was the proper start of everything Jewish, was a fall, a descent to brazen idolatry. The prophets Ezekiel and Jeremiah – the latter even when he had gone to Egypt himself – had warned against this relapse, this un-Jewing. Those who fully succumbed, Jeremiah warned, would become ‘an execration and an astonishment, a curse and a reproach’.
Heedless, the Israelites not for the first or last time disobeyed, trotting back to Egypt in droves. Why not, when the northern kingdom of Israel had been smashed by the Assyrians in 721 BCE, and a century later the kingdom of Judah was likewise pulverised by the Babylonians? All these misfortunes could, and were, interpreted by the writers of the Bible narratives as YHWH’s chastisement of backsliding. But those on the receiving end could be forgiven for thinking: much good He has done us. Some 30,000 rams and ewes sacrificed for Passover in the Temple by King Josiah; a mass rending of raiment in contrite penitence for flirting with false gods; no help at all in fending off whichever hellish conquerors came out of Mesopotamia with their ringlets and their panthers and their numberless ranks of archers and javelin-men.
So the Israelites went down from their lion-coloured Judaean hills to the flood country of Egypt, to Tahpanhes on the delta, and Memphis halfway south, and especially to Pathros, the south country. When the Persians arrived in 525 BCE, they treated the Israelites not as slaves but often as slave owners, and above all as tough professional soldiers who could be depended on, as much as Arameans, Caspians or Carian Greeks from the western Anatolian littoral, to suppress Egyptian uprisings against Persia. They would also police the turbulent southern frontier where Nubian Africa began.
Shelomam, Osea’s boy, was one of these young men, a mercenary – it was a living – who had been posted south all the way to the garrison of the Hayla hayahudaya, the Judaean Troop, on the island of Elephantine, just downstream from the first cataract of the Nile. Perhaps he had been assigned to caravan convoy, guarding the tribute of elephant tusks, ebony and Ethiopian boys that had been the pharaoh’s due from Nubia and was now sent to the Persian governor in his place.
The father, Osea, was writing from Migdol, probably located on the eastern branch of the Nile delta, where Shelomam had previously been stationed. His letter, sent five hundred river miles south to await the soldier boy’s arrival on Elephantine, was written in Aramaic, the daily tongue of the region and the entire empire, on the pressed-reed writing surface of papyrus. Patched together though this particular piece was, papyrus degrades very slowly. If kept from light, the ink remains dark and sharp. The square-form script, the same elegant style in which Hebrew would be written from the time of the Second Temple to our own, is still crisply legible. In Jewish memory it is as though Osea had written just yesterday. A worried father is a worried father. He can’t help letting the boy know how he feels, right away, at the top of the letter: ‘Well-being and strength I send you but from the day you went on your way, my heart, it’s not so good.’ And then, the inevitable clincher, the three words Shelomam must have known were coming, even without Osea having to write them, the phrase all Jewish boys hear at some point; the phrase from which history unfolds: ‘Likewise your mother.’
A classic pre-emptive strike. My own father, Arthur Osea, was known to resort to it shamelessly when, as in the case of Egyptian Osea, he was on the back foot, worrying that the news which followed might not make his son altogether happy. ‘Don’t worry . . . your mother’s a bit upset about this but . . .’ Now what might get his pride and joy, his Shelomam, all bent out of shape? Trouble with pay and kit? Oh, don’t get in a snit. ‘That tunic and the garment you wrote
about, they’re made, all right? Don’t get angry with me because I couldn’t bring them to Memphis in time (for your journey south). I’ll bring them so you have them on your way back.’ The pay? Yes, well, bit of a problem there, my boy. ‘When you left Migdol, they wouldn’t send us your money.’ Worse, when Osea made enquiries about the back pay owing, he got the brush-off default mode for the minions of empires. Tremendously sorry, actually not my department, you see, but please do by all means forward your complaint to the appropriate officials. ‘When you come back to Egypt, give them what for and they’ll give you your pay.’ So listen, my son, Osea goes on, brushing off any notion that he’d failed his boy in the crucial matter of the kit: ‘don’t cry. Be a man . . . Your mother, the children, everyone’s well.’

It would be good to know in more detail how Shelomam lived in the frontier world of Jewish soldiers on Elephantine, but the letter stayed there, so perhaps he never made it to Elephantine, never got his tunic or his pay. Or perhaps he did, and left the note behind. At any rate, there it remained for two and a half millennia until an American amateur Egyptologist and ex-journalist for the New York Herald Tribune, Charles Edwin Wilbour, bought clay pots full of papyri from women digging for sebagh fertiliser on the island mounds in 1893. ‘All these pap. from Kom shown me by three separate women at different times,’ Wilbour wrote in his diary. But once he saw the papyri were Aramaic, and twenty-seventh dynasty, he lost interest. Grander, older, pharaonic antiquities were his game.
Twenty years before, he had left Manhattan in a hurry when his crony, the king of city graft Boss Tweed, who had put some nice contracts Wilbour’s way for his paper business, had been booted out of town. In Paris, ancient Egypt gave Wilbour a new life, its stupendous history learned from the eminent scholar Gaston Maspero. He rigged out a dahabiyeh so that he and his wife, Charlotte Beebee, an ardent suffragist, could sail the Nile with all conveniences, stopping by to help with digs in Karnak, Luxor, Thebes. High-domed Germans, French and British Egyptologists found his Yankee enthusiasm entertaining, sometimes even useful. Occasionally Wilbour would go and see Flinders Petrie in his rude tent and thought the British archaeologist
ostentatiously spartan for camping like an Arab.
Sporting a prophetic beard, Wilbour made the Nile his living room for nearly two decades. When, near the end of that time, he stood on the mounds of Elephantine amid the grubbing women, he knew that the sebagh they were after for their crops was the pulverised
debris of ancient mud bricks, with enough hay and stubble mixed in to give it nitrous potency. But he was certainly unaware that somewhere beneath his feet was a decomposed Jewish city, the first we can reconstruct in the thrumming drone of its daily business: its property-line disputes over rooms and houses, exits and access; its marriages and divorces; its wills and prenups; its food and its dress; its oaths and its blessings. Oblivious to all this, Wilbour took the
papyri, neatly folded and bound, addressees on the outside as they had been in the fifth and fourth centuries BCE, to the Paris lodging where he expired in 1896.
Ten years later more extensive troves were found by German expeditions who picked at their content, took them to Berlin and Paris, and published a little more. Needless to say the British, whose pithhelmeted dominion Egypt had become, were not far behind. Papyri and inscribed clay potsherds – ostraca – duly ended up in the usual destinations – Oxford and the British Museum – and when the archaeological proconsuls chose to be grandly magnanimous, in Cairo. Some papyri were published in the early twentieth century but it was when the papyrus hoard passed to the Brooklyn Museum that the curtain truly rose on the marvel of Jewish Elephantine.

From THE STORY OF THE JEWS by Simon Schama Copyright © 2014 by Simon Schama. Reprinted courtesy of Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

Image: Simon Schama at Ben Ezra Synagogue in Cairo, Egypt.
Credit: Tim Kirby, ©Oxford Film & Television 2012

Simon Schama at Ben Ezra Synagogue, Cairo, Egypt

Simon Schama at Ben Ezra Synagogue, Cairo, Egypt

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Home Grown Winter Olympics

With the Winter Olympics at hand, I propose an addition to the Olympic games: The New York Winter Pentathlon. It takes no special equipment, sponsors aren’t necessary, and you can practice all the time, especially on your commute to and from your office.  While you don’t get extra points for your dismount, the judges will take Depth of Slush Lagoons, Grumbling with Style, and Snide Comments from Your Friends in Chicago under consideration.

The first event is Ice Skating.  Ice skate from your front door to a mass transportation hub, grabbing awkwardly at your opponents as you fly by. Points are awarded for not falling or for catching an opponent.

The second event is Wrestling. Long a staple of the original Greek Olympics, it was eliminated as a sport and then reinstated after an outcry, no doubt from coaches, wrestlers, and parents of wrestlers. It is not a winter sport, but the International Olympic Committee will make an exception. Once the train arrives at your mass transportation hub, push your way into the car and start grappling with the nearest passenger. Points are taken off for grappling with a person of the opposite sex. A crowded car is no excuse for sexual misconduct.  Get off the train and walk away. Least agitated participant wins.

Event number three is the Balance Beam. As you walk to your destination, balance carefully on the lumps of frozen snow to stay off the ice and to keep from getting splashed by a passing cab. Points are awarded for staying upright and splash-free.

The fourth event is the Anxious Long Jump.  Typically an athlete gains momentum by running and jumping as far as possible, but in this event one scopes out the relative angle of the slush-filled corner and leaps from point A to point B, fueled by the hope that good judgment and better depth perception leave the jumper high and dry.  No points are awarded because nobody wins this event.

The final event is another round of Ice Skating because there is a heck of a lot of ice out there.

The 2014 Olympics: Watch globally, compete locally.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Meet David Krakauer, Master Clarinetist and Movie Lover

On January 29, we’re thrilled to be presenting the world premiere of The Big Picture, a cinematic concert featuring clarinet master David Krakauer. The Big Picture explores the intersection of music and Jewish identity in iconic movies of the last 50 years. In advance of opening, David Krakauer took the time to tell us a little about his inspiration and what this music means to him.

MJH: What’s so fascinating about the movies? For instance, there is a lot of wonderful music written by Jews for the theater.

DK: Going to the movies is an incredible way for people to come together and share a collective experience. Movies have a way of sweeping people along in a very specific way. I think The Big Picture will give people that kind of experience heightened by the live performance aspect.

MJH: How did you choose the films and the songs? 

DK:  It was an incredibly interesting process to discuss as a team which films would work the best together in terms of making a cohesive show. However the most personal one for‎ me is from the Woody Allen set: "Si Tu Vois Ma Mere" (from Midnight in Paris). The composer of that song is the great New Orleans jazz clarinetist/soprano saxophonist Sidney Bechet who spent the last ten years of his life in Paris. Although I never met him, Bechet has taught me so much. His amazing composition opens and closes Midnight in Paris and really captures the very essence of the romanticism of the City of Lights.

MJH: How did your family history inform The Big Picture? 

DK: This collection of pieces really tells the story of the Jewish people in America: from immigration through post war assimilation coupled with the deep emotional reverberation of the Holocaust. In listening to this narrative, I really connected with the story of my family’s journey from Eastern Europe and their struggles over tremendous adversity to finally be able to succeed. 

MJH: If you could have written the score for one movie, which would it be?

DK: It would have been amazing to write the score for Avalon, but then again I have to say that Randy Newman’s music is absolutely perfect for this film. That theme has totally gotten under my skin.

MJH: What do you want audiences to take away from the concert?

DK: I hope that people will be moved by the tremendous contribution that Jewish culture has brought to the cinema, but at the same time see the universality of this contribution. The struggle to find one’s place in the world is everyone’s struggle.

The Big Picture will run January 29 through February 23.

The performances also feature Rob Schwimmer, piano, various keyboards and theremin; Sara Caswell, violin; Mark Helias, double bass; Sheryl Bailey, guitar; and John Hadfield, drums and percussion. The concert is enhanced by dynamic visuals from Light of Day/The Cutting Room which complement the themes and moods of the music.

For more information, sound clips, and for tickets, visit

Photo courtesy of GMD Three

Monday, December 30, 2013

A Sacred Gift for the Auschwitz Jewish Center

This blog comes from Shiri, the U.S. Director of the Auschwitz Jewish Center, who was happy to share this beautiful story in time for the new year. 

Something wonderful happened at the Auschwitz Jewish Center recently. Rabbi Kevin Hale, who is also a Sofer (a Jewish scribe of sacred scrolls), helped breathe new Jewish life into our new building in an incredibly meaningful way. 

Backing up a few months, his connection to the AJC started  when he discovered our Kickstarter campaign last spring which raised more than $28,000. Some 250 supporters from around the world helped us raise much needed funds for renovating the last Jewish home in Oświęcim (Auschwitz) and turning it into Café Oshpitzin, a welcoming space for international visitors for education and dialogue.

Not only did Rabbi Hale donate to the campaign, but he reached out to us because he wanted to contribute more than money, he wanted to bestow a very special gift.  He was headed to Oświęcim on a retreat and told us that he had intended to write a kosher mezuzah scroll while there. He very kindly offered that scroll to us for the doorpost of Café Oshpitzin.

We believe that this mezuzah scroll, written in the AJC’s Chevra Lomdei Mishnayot Synagogue, is the first to be written in Oświęcim in more than 70 years.

Photos courtesy of the AJC.

Monday, December 23, 2013

What are your plans for Dec. 25?

The countdown begins to the busiest day of our year. Dec. 25 this year will be especially exciting because we are welcoming back Joshua Nelson and his Kosher Gospel Choir for two concerts. Previously playing to sold out crowds at the Museum, Josh’s combination of jazz and gospel styles makes melodies like Adon Olam and Oseh Shalom sound like you’ve never heard them before. Listen to an interview with him on YouTube (with a little music thrown in for good measure). I am listening to my copy of Hebrew Soul, his 2004 CD, while I’m finishing my work this afternoon.  Tickets are still available for the 1 p.m. and 3:30 p.m. shows. Buy your tickets now. There is plenty of time for a movie and Chinese after the show.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Shalom, Bonnie

In the history of the Museum of Jewish Heritage – A Living Memorial to the Holocaust, we have observed a lot of life cycle events of the staff. Engagements, marriages, births of children and grandchildren, b’nai mitzvahs of said children and grandchildren, but today we mark just the second retirement.

Bonnie Gurewitsch joined the Museum in 1990 (following our merger with the Center for Holocaust Studies, where she had worked previously). She curated or co-curated many MJH exhibitions, including two award winners, among them: Citizens Betrayed; Scream the Truth at the World; Ours to Fight For; Daring to Resist; Beyond Swastika and Jim Crow; and Against the Odds.  She worked on research for the inaugural Core Exhibition; integrated CHS items into our cataloging system and library; conducted video interviews; acquired artifacts for the collection; assisted researchers; lectured regularly at Education Department trainings; and so much more! 

Bonnie is a true teacher, and as one of her many students, I can say that we will miss Bonnie greatly, and we wish her a happy and fruitful retirement.

Photo: Nancy Fisher

Monday, December 2, 2013

Giving Tuesday, A Day to Make a Difference

This blog is from Emily, who, along with many other staff members, is very excited about taking part in #GivingTuesday for the first time.
We all know about Black Friday and Cyber Monday, and now we have Giving Tuesday, a new day to add to our holiday calendars. Giving Tuesday is a day dedicated to encouraging philanthropy and to helping cultivate a culture of giving throughout the United States by asking individuals to donate to a nonprofit of their choice. Giving Tuesday launched last year with 2,500 organizations participating and raising a total of $10 million. This year, there are 8,302 participating organizations, including our Museum.
 For Giving Tuesday, we are encouraging people to support our Interfaith Living Museum. This is a dynamic program that brings together Jewish and Muslim fifth graders from New York City to learn about one another. Over the course of six months, these students visit each others’ schools and places of worship and curate an exhibit together that showcases their own families’ treasured cultural artifacts.  As they realize how much they share and have in common, friendships develop among students who otherwise wouldn’t have had the opportunity to meet and spend time together. 

As one participant explained, “I learned that people who believe in different things aren’t very different, and two people who believe in different things can easily make a great friendship.” 

There is no cost to the schools to participate in this important program. In order to continue providing funding, the Museum is asking for donations to help keep the program free for participants.

The program is predicated on the belief that it is possible for the next generation to live in a world whose currency is mutual respect, an appreciation of cultural differences, and a knowledge of shared values. Because it is within our power to give the students the tools to help make the world a better place, we embrace this opportunity to provide an enriching learning experience to so many young people.                  

To learn more, please visit our Giving Tuesday website by clicking here.  

Photo by Melanie Einzig