All Kinds of Libraries and Two Trips to the Desert
The crazy variety of libraries in this part of the world speaks to the remarkable diversity of cultures that created them. Like biological mixing zones in the natural environment, I have always felt that the richest places are ones that contain a broad range of culture and perspectives. Before the process of gentrification, San Francisco was one of those places. That’s why the Beats, Hippies and Gays all flocked there before it became too expensive and produced the increasingly economic monoculture we have today. Jerusalem is another remarkable mixing zone of culture that has produced a unique place that contains a diversity that stretches back over thousands of years. As we tiptoe through the political minefields of this part of the world, I try to stay focused on centers of learning and culture that reflect what is good about this place. But we have also tried to use this project to help us have a clear-eyed view of the reality of each country we have stayed in for the last six months.
One of the most contentious places in the universe is what the Jews call the Temple Mount and the Muslims call Haram esh-Sharif (the Noble Sanctuary). Here are the famous Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosque, both sacred to the Muslims. At this same site is the Western (or Wailing) Wall sacred to the Jews. I heard that there was a library of religious books at the Western Wall. This was in the men’s section of the Wall, so Ellen had to cool her heels outside. I didn’t really expect that I would be able to photograph here but when I noticed others taking cell phone photos I did the same and no one seemed to mind. I then pulled out my Nikon to take a few more photos and again no one blinked an eye. Most everyone seemed intent on praying or reading from the sacred texts.
Much later in the day as we were walking home, we passed a large metal box in our neighborhood of Navol’ot (there are sometimes a million different spellings of the same thing in Israel. This is just one of many). We had passed by here many times during our stay in Jerusalem and we thought this was a colorful recycling container. It turned out to be a Geniza. In the Jewish faith the name of God is considered literally sacred. If it is written in a book, manuscript or even a letter it is considered important to ritually bury these objects after they are no longer needed. I was vaguely aware of this custom but was happy to photograph a visual expression of it.
The Issaf Nashashibi Center for Culture and Literature is located across the border in East Jerusalem. It has a mission to promote Palestinian literary heritage and hosting cultural events for the local community. The delightful librarian Dua’a Kirresh explained to us that the Israelis make it very difficult for them to have cultural events in their space because they don’t allow any parking anywhere near the Center. Issaf Nashashibi was a famous Palestinian writer and poet who hosted many literary gatherings in his home when he was alive. His home is now the Center and his collection is the basis of the library’s current collection.
On the same day we went to the Library of the Yad Ben Zvi Institute. This is one of those little gem libraries that we have found throughout Jerusalem. Its mission is to study Jewish communities under Islam and other communities in the Middle East and Asia. Among their possessions are the Aleppo Codex (now housed at the Shrine of the Book) which is the oldest Hebrew codex of the Bible and also documents from the Cairo Geniza from the 12th-13th centuries. They recently produced a centennial exhibition of the controversial Balfour Declaration. I took a quick photo of a romanticized painting of Balfour speaking at the founding of Hebrew University in Jerusalem in the 1920s.
The Al-Aqsa Mosque is one of the most sacred places in Islam. It has also become a flashpoint in in the past that continues up to today. The Mosque itself is open only to Muslims but located right next door is the Al-Aqsa Mosque Library which is open to the public. It was not easy to get into the library both because of the Israelis and the Palestinians. While we were waiting in line to get in, we witnessed a screaming match between a Jewish settler (with an American accent) and the patient guards who were denying him access. I’m not sure what was happening but it was not pretty. After our second attempt we finally got into the Library. It contained several rare books they were scanning as well as a substantial number of people using the library. The Children’s Library was delightful and even included many well-used Harry Potter books. We were hustled out after a short time (because the area closes to non-Muslims) but I did manage to make a few good images of this fascinating and evocative place.
Religion seems to be in the air you breath in Jerusalem. And each faith seems to have their own library. One of our favorites was the École Biblique et Archeolique Francoise. This Dominican Monastery was located in East Jerusalem. They spoke highly of their Muslim neighbors but had little good to say about the heavy-handed policies of the Israeli government that made them feel like second-class citizens. After a wonderful tour we met Father Jean-Michel de Tarragon who is the head of their large photography archive. He was in the midst of scanning over 30,000 old photographs and showed us their first-class collection and equipment. He was very excited to speak with us because we all shared a great passion for the history of photography. He also showed us the latest edition of National Geographic which featured a photo of Fr. Jean-Michel dressed in his robes looking at a photograph. It was a rare treat to meet such an intelligent, gracious and enthusiastic man.
Occasionally, we have a day with no libraries and even no plans. These usually occur during Friday or Saturday Shabbat when most everything including public transportation is closed. On Saturday we decided to walk to the Israel Museum which was open. On the way through a park we see a very old looking building off the distance and discover the Monastery of the Holy Cross which part of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate. Jerusalem is filled with places like this which is why allowing ourselves time to wander the streets is important. Legend has it that the monastery was erected on the burial spot of Adam‘s head—though two other locations in Jerusalem also claim this honor—from which grew the tree that gave its wood to the cross on which Christ was crucified. The current monastery includes parts built by the Crusaders. Apparently, there has been tension here between the Greek and Georgian Orthodox churches over this site. It was a great, unexpected find for us. Few people were there which made the haunting, ancient quality even greater. Even the gift shop was awesome!
Because we lingered so long at the Church of the Holy Cross we had very little time left for the top-notch Israel Museum. After quickly viewing a huge model of Jerusalem set in the time of Christ we never made it out of the ancient history section of the Museum before it closed. Next time…
One of the things that the Fulbright encourages is for us to get out and interact with the local communities. Of course, we have been doing that throughout the Fellowship through the libraries. But a good way to interact with more people is for me to give slide lectures on my work. I gave another lecture at the small kibbutz town of Gezer. Because it is located in a famous wine growing area we were taken to a tour and wine tasting at a very fancy winery before my lecture. Later, during the lecture, I was actually able to keep all the names and facts straight but I noticed that I was very relaxed. I was even able to take a photo of the audience and it seems pretty sharp.
The early part of the next week was spent in the south in the town of Beer-Sheva and the Negev Desert. We were lucky to have a retired Israeli military officer, Ron Avni take us around the area for two days. He was an officer and a gentleman and a very interesting guy. After his long military career, he got a PhD in earthquakes and later become the Bursar for Ben Gurion University. We first went to David Ben Gurion’s hut and library in the small kibbutz of Sdeh Boker. Ben Gurion was Israel’s first Prime Minister and is called the George Washington of the nation. After he stepped down her retreated, Yoda-like, into this kibbutz in the desert. We also visited a Children’s Library in the kibbutz as well as the regular library and archive. Later still, we went to a campus of Ben Gurion University to visit Ben Guion’s archive.
We also visited a library in the community center of the Bedouin town of Tel Sheva. Although it was in a fairly new building in a nice-looking Center the library was completely empty with no books or even book shelves. Where there had once been a projector in the ceiling there were now dangling wires and what used to contain a screen was now an empty holder. Unfortunately, no one was around to ask about the fate of this library. I always feel sad when I see an empty library in a poor community that really needs it. Hopefully, we will find out what happened here in Tel Sheva.
Very close to Tel Sheva was the up-scale suburban town of Omer. This contained one of the great, small libraries we have seen in Israel. We walked in to the library just as they were starting their wonderful children’s reading group. Ron showed us a room dedicated to the memory of the children of this community who had died in the military either in war or through accident. This is another example of how libraries are often the center of civic memory, especially in small towns. The librarians here were exceptional. I was happy to see Ellen riding a small horse in the library. It was great to see my 73 year-old wife still a kid at heart.
We also visited the private library of Professor Zeev Zivan in his home near Beer Sheva. He is a scholar of Bedouin and the Negev and gave us some insight into Bedouin culture.
At the end of this long day Ron had taken us to seven libraries including the restaurant in a shopping mall called The Library. Ron and his wife Chaya were exceptional people and meeting them was one of the highlights of our trip.
The next day we were given a tour of the Zalman Aranne Library at the Ben Gurion University in Beer Sheva. Designed in a Brutalist style it contained many beautiful surprises inside. The Medical School Library was a real gem that was designed to mimic a Bedouin tent. On our way into the library we encountered two different guards who were not going to let us into the library even though we were accompanied by the librarian and Ron who used to the Bursar for the University. Apparently, someone did not get the notice of our arrival and had their nose bent out of shape. Ron Avni is not the type of man who takes no for an answer. Several times I worried we were going to be involved with an international incident as Ron wound up in screaming matches with the very unprofessional guards. Eventually, we were allowed to proceed and I took what I think are some great images in this great library.
Later that afternoon I gave a slide talk at BGU library to a packed house. I am always surprised when so many people come to hear my talk about libraries. In the audience were three young Fulbrighters. They are working here at BGU while they are on their Fulbright in Israel.
Ron took us on a quick tour of the old and new parts of Beer Sheva. Although not beautiful, it is a fascinating place in a beautiful desert environment. On a roundabout in the middle of the city was a statue of Ben Gurion doing a headstand on a pile of books. You gotta love this place!
Part of our stay here was to travel with Ron into the Negev. We saw the incredible view from Ben Gurion’s Tomb. We then traveled to Makhtesh Ramon which is called Israel’s Grand Canyon. It’s been great visiting libraries for the last six months but when we got here I realized how much I longed for the desert and big skies. We even saw a sign that stated “Beware of Camels Near the Road”. That made our day. But the poor Bedouin communities we saw by the side of the road reminded me of poor Native American and Hispanic communities in New Mexico and Arizona. Poverty in the desert has a similar look throughout the world.
We spent a few days back in Jerusalem recovering from our trip and bus ride to and from Beer Sheva. On Saturday we took a tour led by an Armenian man of the Church of the Holy Sepulture. Unfortunately, we got separated from the group in the Old City and spend about an hour in the Church waiting for the group. While there I am fascinated by the endless stream of religious expression by people from all over the world. In this most important of Christian Churches I was moved by the faith of the pilgrims. Although I do not believe in a particular faith, I did feel the power of this place. For better and worse, faith such as this has played a fundamental part of the human condition. We never did find our group but I enjoyed the wait.
The National Library of Israel is our host during our two-month stay here. I gave a slide lecture at the National Library looking at the earlier work on libraries I had done in the US and now the current Fulbright work in Greece, Italy and Israel. The talk was co-hosted by the American Embassy’s American Center and by the Fulbright Israel office. Again, the audience was packed and again I was surprised. This was the first time that I showed the Israeli work and it was a challenge to make a coherent and compelling story. I appreciated being forced to make sense of this Fulbright experience as a whole and the Israel experience in particular.
The next morning at the un-Godly hour of 7:30 AM we went to the Shrine of the Book at the Israel Museum. When we first arrived in Jerusalem we visited this place and now I had permission to photograph the world-famous Dead Sea Scrolls. We are given one hour to work before the Shrine opened at 8:30. Because of our earlier visit I was better able to laser focus on just the parts of the display that were most important. This included the amazing Aleppo Codex. The Scrolls are some of the oldest surviving manuscripts that later became the Hebrew Bible canon. The second oldest is the Aleppo Codex by about 1,000 years. It was mind-boggling to be photographing these priceless objects but it was so appropriate for our project. Ellen and I worked together quickly and efficiently as the clock was ticking. We timed it well and we got out of the Shrine just as the crowds are surging to get in.
As we are photographing the Scrolls we are asked to photograph the Museum’s Youth Wing Collection. It turns out to be fascinating and there is no rest for the weary. We then head out to the Old City to meet our friend MV. She is doing a digital mapping project of Jerusalem and wants me to photograph a 3D map of the city from 1854 that is housed in the archive of the monastery of the Franciscans. This was another interesting place in the heart of the old city. After lunch, we all head over the Library of the Armenian Patriarchate in the Armenian part of the Old City. The building was built in the 1920s just after the Armenian Genocide in Turkey. The collection is much older. Again, I feel the weight of history as I consider what we are seeing.
As we left, MV split but suggested we visit the Armenian Church. It is truly an exceptional and mysterious place. Two groups of young priests seem to be singing back and forth to each other in a beautiful but ethereal way. I know little about the Armenian culture and I vowed that we must go there and photograph their libraries.
As Ellen and I left the church we stop at a wonderful tile and ceramics shop. We buy a few gifts and see this sign of the memory of the Genocide of the Armenians.
The National Library of Israel is huge. It contains 5 million books and owns the world’s largest collection of Hebraic and Judaica. We have photographed part of their collection but come back for more. The rare books that we photograph are astonishing. The maps in the map collection give us a deeper understanding of this place over a long period of time. However, the Photography collection really knocks us for a loop. Photo albums from WWI British soldiers, 19th century photo collections with flower collections included and stereo views were all terrific. What really amazed us were two burned pages that had been rescued from the 1930s Nazi book burning in Berlin by a passing Jewish man who later moved to Israel. Finally, we photographed a collection put together by an American office at the end of WWII. It contained photographs of ex libris stamps from thousands of books rescued by the Americans at the end of the war. These stamps were used to try to return the books to their owners after the Holocaust. It provided me with another way of trying to understand the scale of the Holocaust.
The Schocken Library was smuggled out of Nazi Germany in the 1930s by the wealthy bibliophile Zalman Schocken. It is one of the most important Judaic libraries in the world. Schocken felt that these books became the portable homeland of the Jewish people in exile – setting them apart as well as uniting them. During the Holocaust this library in Jerusalem served as a hideaway for Jewish writers and researchers on the run from Hitler. The building was designed for the library by famed architect Eric Mendelsohn and was gorgeous.
On a rare sunny day we left cold Jerusalem and headed east to the warm Dead Sea and a place called Qumran National Park. We took a bus there which was far less expensive than hiring a cab. Qumran is the site where it is believed the Dead Sea Scrolls were written and later buried in nearby caves to escape the Roman army. It was fascinating to see the spot where all this happened. It was also a good connection with the earlier work we did at the Shrine of the Book with the Scrolls themselves. And it was great to be out in the wide-open desert once again. Although the park was fascinating the tourist shop was pretty tacky. We were lucky not to be there during the high season. As we walked back down the road to the bus stop I couldn’t help but think of that great Israeli movie called The Band’s Visit. As we sat by the side of the empty road in the middle of the desert it seemed earily similar that that wonderful film. But the bus finally showed up and we enjoyed the hour ride back to Jerusalem.
Jerusalem is an entirely unique city with its own unique set of delights and problems. Here is a selection of a few photos from the street. We have less than a week before we fly back to the USA. I will do one more blog from the other side of the pond to wrap it up. Until then…