Thursday, May 31, 2012

Contemporary Christian Arabic Paper Ephemera from Akko

While walking along the sea-facing ramparts of old Akko, I passed by an unassuming brown door with a red cross on it; the guidebook and maps didn't list it as a site to visit, but after considering my options for a few moments, I decided to cover my shoulders with my shawl and try the door. I could hear music inside. And I figured that whatever happened, it wouldn't be worse than the time I got trapped in the Mozarab Mass in the cathedral of Toledo (a story for another time).  It was the church of St. John built during the Ottoman period over the site of the Crusader church of St. Andrew.

When I entered the church, there were two children having a music lesson, taught by a woman playing a synthesizer; they were singing hymns and other religious songs. I arrived just in time for a rousing chorus of "uḥibbuka, yā rabbī yesū'."It was lovely, and so I sat in the back pew for a while and listened and followed along on a printed page of the songs, copies of which were spread along all the pews. I knew I'd get exactly one shot at a photograph, and this was the result:

Before leaving, my attention was grabbed by a small table with cards containing different prayers and requests for interdiction by saints. They are Christian texts written in modern standard Arabic rather than texts written in Christian Arabic, but I found them interesting nonetheless.

The hymnal from which the children were singing, recto and verso:

A benediction:

A prayer card for St. Therese of the Child Jesus, recto and verso:

And another one for St. Jean-Marie de Vianney, recto and verso:

Monday, May 28, 2012

The Kingdom of Heaven

Even though it's the better part of a week since my visit, and even though I'm already back in the States, I'm still processing my visit to Akko, so I think I'll just let the city speak for itself. The Hospitaller Citadel photos, the most explicitly medieval of the lot, are here on the front page, and the rest are visible after the jump, for those who are interested.

The Hospitallers' Citadel:

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Pomp, Circumstance and Sweat

I've been in my job now for two years, been done with my PhD for nearly one, and the certificate has been framed and on my wall for the better part of six months. Fortunately, it was just too darn hot in these robes for the hooding ceremony to be anti-climactic. (I still think we should wear academic dress on a regular basis for teaching, though.)

Saturday, May 26, 2012

The Real Reason for the Trip

(Click here if the image is still unreadable upon enlargement.)

The panel I presented on:

Revising a bit during the break in the middle of the session:

Giving my paper:

 And the whole group at the end of the workshop:

(All conference photos by Josephine Gehlhar.)

I've survived my first international presentation, and I think it went quite well. I learned a lot from the other speakers, and my paper was received quite well (*phew!*). One of the really wonderful things that the organizers did was to organize this to be a multigenerational conference, and it was great to meet a bunch of other scholars who are contemporaries and at the same stage in their career as I am, but then also to have feedback from people who are more established, both intellectually and professionally. We all stayed in the same hotel, so we had a chance to chat more informally over meals, as well as deliberate more formally during the workshop. All in all, a completely worthwhile, valuable and great experience.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Accidental (In)Equality: Two Scenes from Transit

Scene: El Al flight 001, en route to New York, approximately 3:30am local time at destination, somewhere miles above the most northeasterly reaches of Canada. An Orthodox man walks up and down the aisle of the Boeing 747, offering to let other passengers put on his phylacteries and recite morning prayers.

Orthodox man: Tefilin?
Me: No.
Orthodox man: Are you Jewish?
Me: Yes, but this is not my custom.
Orthodox man: Oh. You are a girl.

First thought: I can't believe an Orthodox man is suggesting I put on tefilin. Second thought: My hair is short, but come on. Third thought: If only egalitarianism and religious pluralism could be solved by short haircuts for all...


Scene: United States Customs and Border Protection Station, John F. Kennedy International Airport, 7am

Officer O'Gara: Where are you coming from?
Me: Israel
Officer O'Gara: You just put a one on this form. One is  a number. You have to write Israel.
Me: It's an "I." I must have gotten distracted and not finished the word.
Officer O'Gara: I know you people think Israel is number one, but you have to write the name of the country.

First thought: Mustn't argue. Don't want to be detained, especially not with all the Arabic books in my suitcase and backpack. Second thought: Really? I've been awake for going on thirty hours, the last twelve of which were spent in a flying sardine tin of doom and the twelve-plus before that were spent giving a very dense paper on medieval philosophy and attempting to impress colleagues in I've lost track of how many languages, and your mind runs first to the old Jews-are-a-fifth-column-in-America canard? Next time, a "welcome home" would suffice.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Beit Biyalik

This is the home of Hayyim Nahman Biyalik, one of the most important modern Hebrew poets and an important figure in the reinvention of the Hebrew language. I visited there today before the start of the conference.

Photography isn't permitted inside, but it's a lovely house, whitewashed, painted with bright colors and with dark trim — one of my favorite combinations, it reminds me a bit of Barcelona. The exhibition is done very well, too. Bialik's study and library are still set up, and much of his paper ephemera is still on display. It didn't seem to have been the intention, but the exhibit very much highlighted the ways in which modern Hebrew literature, and especially poetry, picked up where the medieval poets left off. I almost fell over to see one of Bialik's drafts where he had marked out the meter — historically, Hebrew poetry utilizes Arabic meter since it doesn't have its own native system of of quantitative metrics. And they had his copy of the Tahkemoni, an important work of literary rhymed prose from the thirteenth century, as well as a variety of other medieval texts, on display in the library.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Little Boxes on the Hillside

After returning from Akko (post and pictures forthcoming — there are lots and I have to scale them down individually to make them small enough to post, so it's taking some time) and having a fantastic lunchtime conversation with one of my colleagues from the conference, I had a bit of time to noodle around the campus of Tel Aviv University. I visited the museum there called "Beit ha-Tefutzot," or literally, the House of the Diaspora. It is a small museum dedicated to post-biblical Jewish history.

My favorite part was a room full of dioramas of famous synagogue buildings around the world.

The synagogue now known as Santa Maria la Blanca, Toledo, Spain:

The Dutch synagogue in the Antilles:

And then there were some other dioramas that I snapped photos of because they'll be useful to me in teaching. First, is an illustration of people putting things into the Genizah room in the Ben Ezra synagogue in Cairo:

The next one is a little preposterous, as it imagines the betrothal of the much-mythologized daughter of Samuel the Nagid in Qairawan: 

And the last imagines the moment when Ferdinand and Isabel signed the decree of expulsion against the Jews in 1492:

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Old Jaffa in Nine and a Half Chapters

Chapter 1

How do you get to Jaffa from Tel Aviv? Walk down the beach and make sure the ocean is on your right.

Chapter 2

Me, upon entering the tourist information center: Do you have maps?
Guy working in the tourist information center: Maps of what?

Chapter 3

My inner historian of religion understands completely. My inner rationalist thinks it's silly. My inner tourist is a little annoyed with the guidebook for not making it clearer. Jaffa is full of loads of old and fascinating churches, mosques and other sites of deep religious significance. You can't go into the vast majority of them, so I felt like I spent much of the day not visiting churches and mosques.

The sign on the house of Simon the Tanner, a building where the apostle Peter is supposed to have stayed: "Entry into this place is forbidden. Whoever enters here does so at his own risk, and there will be consequences."

St. George's Monastery, and its sign, which is just to the right of the edge of the frame of the first photo: "Private property!! Entry for strangers is prohibited."

The slightly ajar front door and chained rear gate of the main Ottoman-period mosque, also not open to visitors.

Chapter 4

The Jaffa Antiquities Museum sort of gave me a sense of what my parents have described Israel as having been like in the 70s: a little funny, a little less sophisticated, a little more sparse.

I genuinely thought that this juxtaposition of a manhole cover and a Roman column base was lovely...

... except for this guy:

Coins, displayed in a pile, but some with the accession-number-side face-up.

And yes, that is Donatello's David being used to illustrate the connection between biblical and Near Eastern histories:

And the place does, quite plainly, need a serious edit of its English-langauge signage. This was the most amusing of the examples:

Chapter 4 1/2

Why does my life seem increasingly like a running Lawrence of Arabia joke?

Chapter 5

One of my favorite places in London is Sir John Soane's House. Imagine Sir John Soane as a slightly batty older Israeli woman, and you'll have some idea of what the Ilana Goor Museum of Applied Art and Ethnography is like.

You keep your ancient Caananite jars in your library windows, no?

Chapter 6

A famous restaurant in Jaffa is called Dr. Shakshuka. My favorite Israeli hole-in-the-wall in New York pays homage to this restaurant with their own shakshuka dish (tomatoes, other veggies, broth, topped with a soft-cooked egg), so I was eager to go and try their food. They were closed, so I went to the other famous restaurant in Jaffa, Mat'am Abulafia. It's actually most famous for its bakery, where there are always lines and where people go to celebrate the end of Passover, but their cafe across the way makes an outrageous shwarma, as it turns out.

Chapter 7

There were Ethiopian weddings taking place all over Independence Park. I wasn't able to find out if this is considered an auspicious time for members of that community to get married, since it coincides with the anniversary of one of the major Ethiopian airlifts to Israel, but either way, they were quite interesting.

Chapter 8

I was finally able to visit the Franciscan church, which is built after the Latin American baroque style (which happened to give me a bunch of ideas for the next time I teach the intro class), but I didn't take any photos there. It, like the others, is a functioning religious site, and I am very conflicted about taking pictures of praying, a topic which will require its own post.

Chapter 9

The Roman ruins seemed to be closed for Shabbat, so I headed back up to Tel Aviv, walking back up the beach with the ocean on my left.