This exhibit at “Discovery Times Square” [1] is about the Dead Sea Scrolls and other Biblical-archeological finds; some dating back to the First Temple period. An unrelated exhibit on “CSI” in another part of the same building requires a separate admission.

     The advertising might sound as if the exhibit will only be here until Jan. 3rd, 2012. In fact, the “10 Commandments” fragment (the most complete parch-ment version of this text extant) will be on display only until then. The rest of the exhibit, including other scroll-pieces, will be here from now until 4/15/12. I’m sure it’s no accident that it straddles the months between Hanukah/ Christmas and Passover/Easter. So, there’s still plenty of time to see it.

     The day I saw it  (during a holiday week), the crowds (and crowding) made it impossible to view it comfortably or with much close attention. One of the ushers told me that thousands, rather than hundreds, were attending the exhibit. Management could have organized this better and/or responded more quickly to the unusual attendance. The staff was doing the best they could, but they were clearly outnumbered and overwhelmed. They deserve great credit for staying as cool and polite as possible under extremely stressful circumstances. 

     The website says that the entire program can be seen in about an hour. I was there for 2 1/2 hours and had to leave before finishing my viewing. I was reassured, however, that it’s ordinarily much less crowded and  more comfortable to view.

     Groups of 60 at a time were given entrance to a “waiting area,” on the walls of which were Biblical quotations in Hebrew and English. In the air around us we could hear the recorded voice of a young woman chanting a verse from Torah, B’reishith/Gen. 12:1 — the introductory verse of parshah “Lech L’cha” — using Ashkenazic trop. Of course, no cantillation system had been fixed at the time of the Dead Sea Scrolls, let alone even earlier.  Nor would a woman’s voice have been heard reciting Torah in public — especially using the “trop” system — before the recent few decades. So, in strictly historical terms, this was anachronistic and in contrast with the historical accuracy to which this exhibit otherwise aspires. But it certainly helped create an appropriate “mood” for entering the exhibit. It also introduced the “chronological” sub-theme of the exhibit, which progresses from earlier archeological evidence of a “Hebrew” presence in the land, through the destruction and first Exile, up through the later time of the Qumran community and its destruction by the Romans around 68 CE. Some very good history is on display here, that can be an excellent teaching/learning aid — especially if preceded or accompanied by a printed timeline.

     We then entered the actual beginning of the presentation. A young man introduced the exhibit to us with a fine audio-visual display. Afterwards, I privately corrected his pronunciation of a Hebrew word he used, that had appeared on a piece of pottery he was describing. Who knows if he’ll remember, or even care?  A bit more attention to a simple detail like that only adds to the authenticity of the exhibit. But it’s also true that only an infinitesimal number of people would have noticed it. Much more significant was the fact that the inscription to which he referred, the word “lamelech” — “for the king” — inscribed on the handle of an ancient jar, was written in the “Canaanite” Hebrew script that was used during the First Temple period, rather than the more familiar “Assyrian” or “square” script that came into use only during or after the first exile, and which is still in use today.  While unmentioned in the introduction, it appeared on pieces in the exhibit, and was explained on the audio-tour. The Dead Sea Scrolls themselves are written in a form of the later “square” script, that would be generally more familiar to those who know Hebrew today. The “Canaanite” script would be undecipherable to even the most Hebrew-literate person today (scholars excepted).

     I’ve seen photographs of ancient pottery, etc., many times, but actually being near something that was made and handled by an Israelite “relative” in centuries now hallowed in Scripture, especially with the “Canaanite” Hebrew script on it, echoed in me as part of my own personal history; something I never felt from photos or digital displays. That alone gives this exhibit great educational and cultural value.

     Even seeing pottery without any writing on it, or flint “sling balls” used by invading armies against an Israelite fortress, made the history immediate to me; as if everything that ever happened to any of my “family” happened to me, too. I’ve rarely experienced anything quite like this feeling!

     The audio-guide was reasonably priced, easy to carry and use, and very helpful. The overall exhibit nicely combined the objects themselves with written explanations posted near them. Although mostly “visual,” there were some “aural” (listening) and “tactile” (touching) elements, too. But there was plenty to maintain interest, just as it was.

      A short documentary film explained how the first scrolls were found, and how they were subsequently handled (thankfully, it was also a chance for me to sit down for a few minutes). The original team of scholars were experts in ancient texts, but not experts in handling ancient parchment. Receiving the scrolls in the form of thousands of fragments (I’ve heard in other lectures that the antiquities dealers, realizing that they had a “gold mine,” would tear the ancient parchments to shreds, and sell the fragments by the bagful. When the price went up, another bag would miraculously appear). The “scholars” are shown scotch-taping — yes, scotch-taping — the fragments together, happily smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee (in cups standing right next to the exposed, 2000 year-old fragments) while they did so. The good news: 50+ years later, the fragments are being handled with infinitely greater care.

     There was a 3000 lb. stone block on display that had fallen from atop the Western retaining wall — presumably during the Roman attack in 70 CE. A replica of a section of the Kotel (“Western Wall”) had been mounted around it — into the crevasses of which people were putting “kvittlech” on pieces of paper provided by the exhibitor, just as they would at the real Kotel in Jerusalem. It seemed strange to me. But I guess it gave the exhibit an extra “interactive” element. Again — this exhibit is as at least as much about entertainment as it is about education. While not necessarily meant for younger children, this would almost certainly leave a lasting impression on them. There’s nothing wrong with that! 

     A nearby TV screen with a live-feed showed people at the Kotel in real time.

     Although this exhibit is about Jewish history (or, at least, a history that involves Jews), the exhibitor made attempts — some more subtle than others — to make it more “universal;” i.e. related to Christianity and Islam, where possible. Some of the commentary on the audio-guide also said that  Archeology, not Biblical text, gives the more “historically accurate” view of what happened during the First Temple or “Iron Age” years. This introduced a certain “science vs. religion” element that can be characteristic of “Discovery Channel” documentaries. So, although the emphasis of the exhibit isn’t necessarily “Jewish” history or religion per se, it should be of great interest to Jews of all denominations (or none).

     Most Jewish groups have some  interest in the Essenes or the Dead Sea Scrolls. It’s fascinating to see handwritten Hebrew from so long ago; some of it almost micrographic (e.g. the tiny tefillin from Qumran), even if you’re not at all actively religious. Older Hebrew school students and adults who might view the exhibit could prepare  by reading about 1st Temple-period Jewish history (especially in TaNaCh itself), about the Essenes, and about the Dead Sea Scrolls. That way, you’ll get a lot more out of it, and enjoy it much more, too. 

     As Jews, we might also be surprised, after so many centuries of hostility and separation, at how much curiousity and interest there is about “Old Testament” Israel and Judaism among Christian churches and individuals. We share a large piece of Scripture, especially the books of “Samuel,” “Kings,” and Chronicles,” etc. This exhibit certainly provided “common ground” — something we all relate to, in ways that aren’t exclusive of each other’s.

     For example, one display showed a typical house in the First Temple period. Surrounding a small inner courtyard was a 2-story structure, reminiscent of a “carriage-house.” People lived on the top floor. Animals lived on the bottom; partly, it was explained, to provide warmth as their body-heat rose. Technology not changing much between the First and Second Temple periods, perhaps this also explains the reference to an “upper room” in Jerusalem mentioned in Luke 22:12-13 and Acts 1:13-14.

     I thoroughly recommend seeing this exhibit. Educators can prepare their groups and classes as I’ve suggested above (or in whatever ways you feel are best), and follow up back home with what are sure to be fascinating Q&A’s and discussions. If reading the “historical” books of Scripture can be a preparation for seeing this exhibit, it’s also true that the exhibit can be used to encourage people to give more attention to those books than they otherwise might. Viewing the exhibit, I’m sure that many people will have the same personal, visceral reaction as I did.

     Just be careful about when you choose to go!

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[1] For more information, see: http://www.discoverytsx.com/exhibitions/dead-sea-scrolls

         

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