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June 02, 1995 - Image 64

Resource type:
Text
Publication:
The Detroit Jewish News, 1995-06-02

Disclaimer: Computer generated plain text may have errors. Read more about this.

E

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isitors to Jerusalem may
need to inform their taxi-
drivers, as I had to on a
recent trip to Israel, that
yes, dear Shmuel or Shlomo,
there is a Bible Lands Museum.
It's on Museum Row, just op-
posite the Israel Musem and
across Ruppin Street from the
Knesset — and, in its own right,
Bible Lands is one of the city's
"must see" destinations.
Established only within the
past five years and not yet em-
bedded in the itineraries of the
country's tour guides — a well-
trained and most knowledgeable
group of men and women —
Bible Lands has quickly taken
its place as one of Jerusalem's
major institutions. A day com-
bining visits both to Bible Lands
and to the adjoining Israel Mu-
seum, Billy Rose Sculpture Gar-
den and the Shrine of the Book
(venue of the Dead Sea Scrolls)
is a day well spent. Both muse-
ums offer excellent lunches,
served in attractive surround-
ings and at attractive prices.
Currently, the handsome,
white Bible Lands building
houses, in addition to 20 per-
manent exhibits on the ancient
lands mentioned in the Bible, a
new and unique show, "The Jew-
ish Presence in Ancient Rome,"
about the oldest, continuous
Jewish community in the Dias-
pora.
Opening just a few months af-
ter the establishment of Vatican-
Israel relations, the show
represents the first cultural ex-
change from the Vatican to the
Jewish State and symbolizes the
recent progress towards region-
al peace and ecumenical har-
mony.
The artifacts on display —
statues, oil lamps, inscriptions,
tombstones, wall paintings —

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The Bible Lands Museum in Jerusalem.

were carefully chosen from the
enormous stores of the Vatican,
as well as of a number of other
Italian museums.
They establish the fact that a
Jewish community was formed
in Rome as early as the 2nd cen-
tury BCE; and that, a century
later, it had grown to 50,000 per-
sons. Today, there are about
15,000 Jews in Rome, descen-
dants of the first settlers, and
heirs of an unbroken history of
more than 2,000 years.
Although nothing is known of
the earliest settlers, the First
Book ofMaccabees does record a
first visit to Rome made by en-
voys from Judea in 161 BCE. In
that year, Judah Maccabee sent
a mission to establish friendly
relations with Rome immedi-
ately after his victory over the
Syrian general, Nicanor. The
Judean ambassadors appeared
before the Senate and received
written assurances of friendship
and protection.
By 139 BCE, there was evi-
dently an established Jewish
community; a document of that
year relates that the consul Cor-
nelius Hispalus expelled an un-
known number of Jews from
Rome because they had been
proselytizing among non-Jews.
When Pompey conquered
Judea almost a century later, he
brought hundreds of captives
back to Rome; their numbers in-
creased with every act of rebel-
lion by the Jews of Judea against
the occupying power. The Jew-
ish writer, Philo of Alexandria,
notes that "having been brought
to Italy as captives, they were
freed by their owners and not
forced to violate their ancestral
customs."
Once freed by their masters
or ransomed by fellow-Jews, the
captives settled down in Rome

as part of the growing commu-
nity. Dr. Joan Goodnick West-
enholz, curator of the exhibit and
editor of the catalogue which ac-
companies it, has extrapolated
from the many inscriptions and
other items on display, a picture
of what life must have been like
in this community.
Most members of it were in
the lowest socio-economic class
and lived in the poorer and least
desirtable neighborhoods of
Rome. Jewish pedlars and beg-
gars were familiar sights. The
poet Juvenal suggests that the
synagogues (there were about 12
in Rome) were stations for the
beggars. He writes: "The palsied
Jewess ... will tell you dreams of
any kind you please for the
smallest of coins."
On the other hand, most Jews
were probably craftsmen and
small tradesmen, according to
the epitaphs — mainly in Greek
or Latin, a few in Hebrew —
which she has translated. Also,
there is Alexander, the butcher;
Rufinus, an ex-soldier; Aquila,
the tentmaker; Jewish actors
like Alityrus and Menophilus.
There is one sarcophagus in
the exhibit decorated with the-
atrical masks which belonged to
a Jewish woman named Fausti-
na. Was Faustina herself an ac-
tress, the Sarah Bernhardt (or
Tovah Feldshuh) of her day?
There is no certain answer.
But Dr. Westenholz, extrapo-
lating from the archaeological
evidence in the show, concludes
that women were able to achieve
considerable status, possibly in
the theater but most certainly
in the synagogue. Several in-
scriptions show that women held
the same positions of honor as
men; women are named as
priestesses, congregation presi-
dents, trustees and donors who
used their own money to finance
synagogue repair and construc-
tion.
Dr. Westenholz adds that the
exact role of women in prayer re-
mains controversial. She says
that the evidence for separate
areas for women in the syna-
gogue is "far from clear ... there
is no indication that these
(rooms or courtyards next to the
main sanctuary) were for the use
of the women."
The exhibit curator concludes:
"Taken together, both the Jew-
ish and the non-Jewish sources
make it clear that women
prayed in the synagogue along-
side men."
There are inscription-s-which
deal with women in other roles,

(

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