Monday, February 16, 2009

My Vacation, so far...

Being on vacation has allowed me to spend time on all manner of occupations, interesting and boring. I've spent hours listening to poetry at, reading about kabbalah, klezmer, and other things that don't start with k, cleaning the apartment in anticipation of my parents' arrival, etc, etc, etc.

On Friday, I made good use of my free time by accompanying my friends Jessica and Nikki (both Rabbinical students) to Tel Aviv, where they wanted to visit a crafts market and look for talitot. The weather was gorgeous, and we took our time strolling among the hair ties, gadgets, hand-knit finger puppets, and Judaica before we visited an artist who does exquisite hand-painted silk table runners, challah covers, and talitot. Jessica and Nikki each ordered a custom designed tallit that I'm sure will be absolutely stunning. After lunch, we went for a stroll on the beach. Amazing. I ended the day with a table full of Shabbat dinner guests, where the food was flavorful and the conversation diverse, and together with these friends I watched evening stretch into night.

I'm not much of a believer in Valentines Day - it reminds me of high school when how loved you were was judged by the number of times the student council interrupted your classes to bring you balloons with heart shaped notes attached, or how many bouquets of flowers you hauled around with you from homeroom to gym to math class. But Daniel and I managed a magnificent Valentines Day, conveniently timed to coincide with Shabbat. We went to services, played several rounds of Spit (Daniel, of course, was the winner), ate baked apples, drew funny creatures with crayons, and spelled "Happy Valentines Day" out while playing hangman. We spent the afternoon getting our pictures taken by a photographer friend - it was terrific fun walking around the city posing in front of walls, bushes, and graffiti. We've only seen a few of the end products, but they are quite lovely.

We arrived home in just enough time to call our families and wish them happy V-days before we went out to dinner with friends and invited them back to our apartment for Settlers of Catan. My evening ended with a phone call to a dear friend in America, and I crawled into bed long after Daniel was already sound asleep. All of this makes me rethink my dislike for a day set aside to remind us how much love we are so blessed to enjoy - wholly, unabashedly, and (unlike the high school memories above) uncompetitively.

Yesterday I joined Daniel's class on a history-centered field trip to Tzippori. Tzippori, also known by the Greek Sepphoris, is about an hour and a half away from Jerusalem, is in the central Galilee region. I am excited to tell you all about it but please bear with me as I don't remember everything and this is, after all, a description of Daniel's history class and not mine, so my knowledge of the time period is quite lacking.

A brief history: The town, now mostly ruins, dates back to the Hellenistic era, and was the administrative capital of the Galilee region under the Roman Empire in the mid-first century BCE. Earlier names for the city include Eirnopolis (city of peace) and Diocaesarea (The Emperor is G-d). By the second century, Tzippori (Like a bird - probably because it is at the top of a hill) was a center of Jewish life. The Sanhedrin (legal body) headed by Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi was located in Tzippori at the beginning of the third century, during which time Jews made up a majority of the population. A Roman pagan population existed alongside the Jewish population of Tzippori, and because of this Tzippori is often used in the Talmud when examples are needed of the interaction between Jews and non-Jews in the public sphere. In 363 Tzippori was destroyed by an earthquake, but it was rebuild soon thereafter. Under Byzantine rule, the Christain community of Tzippori grew, and under Arab rule, the city declined in importance. Arab and Islamic dynasties continued to control the city, with a brief interlude during the Crusades, up until its conquest by Israel in the war of 1948. Throughout this period of time, the city was known by the Arabicized name of the Greek original: Saffuriya. During the 1948 war, Israel captured Tzippori and most settlers fled toward Lebanon. Those who remained or returned from refugee camps were later expelled, and many settled in nearby Nazareth. In 1949 immigrants from Morocco and Tunisia, later joined by Rumanian immigrants, formed a moshav at Tzippori.

Our first stop in Tzippori was the acropolis, which had been the center of town - the marketplace. From there, we walked to the theater, where we discussed the character of theater and how it is represented in rabbinic sources. Theater in the late Roman period in Tzippori was not a presentation of the classics: Sophocles, Aristophones, etc., but was instead a place where accessible commentaries on life in Tzippori were staged: largely mimes and satires. This allowed for an airing of tensions and in particular a representation of stereotypes and discomforts with Jewish practices, particularly as theatergoers were more often Roman than Jewish. Aphitheaters, such as the Coloseum in Rome or the performance space at Caesarea were the site of more large-scale and much more violent activities: here the gladiators would fight large animals or one another for their lives. The Talmud views this as morally repugnant, but nevertheless permits Jews to go to the amphitheaters. Famously, when the gladiators faught, the emporer would signal whether the gladiator would be allowed to live or die, and he would make that assessment based on the cheers of the crowd. Thus, a Jew was allowed to go to the amphitheater in order that, by his cheers, he might be able to save a life. In addition, a Jew could go to the amphitheater to witness the death of another Jew, in order that his wife would not be bound in her marraige and would be able to remarry.

We visited a Roman villa which contains a beautiful mosaic floor, dating from the 3rd century and depicting Roman cults. In one part of the frame is the face of a woman who has been dubbed the "Mona Lisa of the Galilee." The seats would have been arranged in a u-shape around the mosaic, and people would have eaten, drank, and reclined in front of the mosaic which pictures Dionysus, Pan, and other figures drinking. Following the Roman villa, we visited the site of another mosaic, located in a building that was erected at the beginning of the 5th century over the ruins of buildings from the Roman period and was in use until the end of the Byzantine period. Inside the building is an almost-intact mosaic depiction of celebration for the rise of the water level of the Nile river. Although Egypt was far away from Tzipori, the Nile, a constant source of water for a desert nation, was legendary as a symbol of wealth, prosperity, and plenty. Also in the building are mosaic depictions of a variety of hunting scenes, including one of Amazon women hunting.

It was at this point that we broke into partners for a text study (I studied with Daniel). We studied the following text, found in the Talmud in Avodah Zarah 16b,17a:

The rabbis have taught: When Rabbi Eleazor was about to be imprisoned on account of sectarianism, he was brought to the [Roman] court to be tried. The judge said to him, "Does a man of your age busy yourself with such things?" He answered, "The j/Judge is just towards me." The judge thought that Eleazor was speaking of him [the judge]; but he thought upon his Father in heaven. Then the judge said to him, "Since you think I am just, then you are acquitted." Now when Eleazor came home his disciples presented themselves to him to console him, but he would not be consoled. Then Rabbi Akiva said to him, "Permit me to tell you something of what you have taught me." He answered, "Say on." Then said Rabbi Akiva, "Perchance you have once given an ear to heresy, which pleased you, and for that account you have been arrested for heresy." Eleazor replied, "Akiva, you have reminded me! I was once walking in the upper streets of Sepphoris; there I met with one of the disciples of Jesus the Nazarene, Jacob of Kfar Sechanya, who said to me, 'It is found in your Law (Duet. 23:19), Thou shalt not bring the hire of a whore. . . into the house of. . . thy God. What may be done with it? May a latrine for the High Priest be built out of such gifts?' And I answered him nothing. He said to me, 'Thus has Jesus the Nazarene taught me, For the hire of a whore has she gathered them, and unto the hire of a harlot they shall return.' (Micah 1:7) From the place of filth they come, and unto the place of filth they shall go.' This explanation pleased me, and on this account I have been arrested for heresy, since I transgressed the scripture, Remove your way far from her (i.e., heresy). (Proverbs 5:8)

What we saw as happening here was that Rabbi Eliezar asked his followers what he could have done to displease G-d such that G-d would allow him to have been accused of sectarianism. Rabbi Akiva answers him that perhaps he had once been pleased by an interpretation that came from a non-Jewish source, and this explains his arrest, which Rabbi Eliezar confirms to be the case. Thus, even appreciating and enjoying the interpretations of a non-Jewish source, whether one practices them or not, is enough of a problem for G-d to allow Rabbi Eliezar to be arrested. Moreover, the interpretation that Rabbi Eliezar enjoys parallels his own story: according to Jesus, money earned through prostitution can be used to build the latrine of the high priest, because it comes from filth and so it can be used, if in a demeaning way. Although the source of the money is tainted, the end product is not tainted. Rabbi Eliezar comes to realize that if the source of something (an interpretation, money, etc) is improper (whether by prostitution or by sectarianism), the ending result (the interpretation, the latrine, etc) cannot be good, even if the same interpretation or latrine could have been produced in the exact same way by a proper source. The source of things matters. This story shows the extent to which the Rabbis were afraid of neighboring cultures, in part because they were so similar to one another - both drawing from the same sources and interpreting them in similar ways - that it was hard to maintain boundaries and not to be influenced by the other. In this sense, although Tsippori was a fairly diverse society, home to Romans, Christians, and Jews, the Rabbis were very concerned about the idea that their followers could value the intellectual products of other cultures, and in this passage they solidify Rabbinic authority by declaring that even if the Rabbis and the Christians were to arrive at the same idea, nevertheless adopting the idea from a Christian source would be inappropriate. We had to assume that the Rabbis would only be so fearful if this kind of exchange of ideas between Jews and non-Jews was actually happening, and often.

Our final stop in Tzippori was a synagogue. It is believed that there were once about 18 synagogues in Tzippori, but only one has thus far been excavated. It is a long, narrow building measuring 8x21 meters, and, curiously, not directed toward Jerusalem. We spent some time studying the mosaic on the floor of the synagogue, which contains depictions of the binding of Isaac, lions, Temple objects, and at the center a Zodiac wheel surrounded by representations of the four seasons. This is an interesting juxtaposition of traditional Jewish and Roman symbols, and was a fitting end to our discussion about Jewish fears about and practices of incorporating non-Jewish ideas into their lives and worldviews. We prayed mincha together in the synagogue before returning to the bus to head back to Jerusalem.

On the way to Jerusalem we stopped in Beit Shemesh, a small city just outside Jerusalem, where we had dinner at a terrific restaurant called Tavlin (Spice). It's a vegetarian restaurant with flavorful food made with locally grown spices. Adjacent to the restaurant is a giant spice store with every type and combination of spice imaginable. Daniel and I bought two kinds of granola, two blends of spices for rice, and one blend of spices for soup. We are very excited to get cooking!

In a few days Mom and Dad will be here and I can't wait! I'm sure I'll be writing about my adventures with them soon.
In the meantime, for those who don't know, my exciting news is that I have been accepted to the Jewish Theological Seminary's PhD program in Jewish Literature. I'm still waiting to hear from other schols before I decide if this is where I want to go, but I am terrifically excited and relieved to know that there's a school out there who is willing to admit me.

1 comment:

Elyse Crane said...

Jessica, thanks for taking us on this fabulous journey - I thoroughly enjoyed your historical references and by the end, I could almost smell the spices!

Love and best wishes -