On the last day of Chanukah I decided to visit the Israel Museum for some fun on my own. Guiding and group tours were not allowed, so I could only stand back and watch the many people walking through the galleries, knowing there must be something important but not sure what and where to look, or how to make sense of things. Occasionally I would jump in with a “did you know?” and give a mini-tour. I watched an older couple with their 7-8 year old grandson.
“This is so boring,” he exclaimed. “Try to have fun”, said his grandmother, while grandfather sat on a bench talking on the phone, disengaged. Sadly, I see this so often in museums.
My journey to the world of museum education was not straightforward. I stumbled upon it. My father, then an Israeli tour guide, urged me to visit Ancient Egypt Transformed: The Middle Kingdom, a Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibition, during my teaching stint in the US. Seeing ancient Egyptian artifacts was cool, but I didn’t know what to do with it, and sort of felt lost. And then he surprised me with a visit and we walked the galleries while he pointed out dates on plaques; “this is from the time of Yehoshua” and “this is from the time of the Avot”. And then I got it. As we say in Israel nafal ha-asimon - "the coin dropped" - it fell into place: When seen in the context of Jewish History, we connect our identity to the history and archaeology of many cultures.
This notion is oversimplified, but it was the first step on my path to becoming a museum educator. I would like to share with you one example, connect it to Purim, and then offer you a virtual tour related to Purim and the Persian Empire, so you can experience this for yourself.
Let’s begin with an example from far away. Avraham Avinu. Avraham was born in Ur Casdim (known as Ur of the Chaldeans) in Mesopotamia, near the Persian Gulf. Ur is one of the first cities in the world; a powerful commercial trading center on great rivers, and therefore a very wealthy society. Its rulers built canals and dykes to keep the waters from flooding their typically mud brick homes, and also built Ziggurats - “stairways to heaven” - with idolatrous temples on top. They believed in the thunder god, sun god and moon god.
All of this is somewhat familiar to us from our stories of Avraham smashing the idols, but it is nowhere the impact of going to Ur itself; or the next best thing - going to a museum displaying Ur's treasures. Seeing the gold, silver, carnelian and lapis lazuli once in its royal tombs; or the massive structures they built, you begin to realize that Avraham's story is perfectly placed in the context of the center of civilization in his time. To get up and leave Ur is akin to saying “we’re going to leave behind infrastructure, sanitation, supermarkets and transportation, and make our way in the jungle or the desert”. A daring, perhaps even a crazy move. Avraham walked away from civilization's heart and its truly grand achievements in the pursuit of truth; and let me tell you that his story can best be told in the museum, when you can appreciate the challenge of his day.
I would highly recommend, on this matter, reading Rabbi Dr. Joshua Berman’s recent Ani Maamin: Biblical Criticism, Historical Truth, and the Thirteen Principles of Faith (Maggid Press, 2020).
Now to Purim. The Persian Empire, a.k.a the Achaemenid Persian Empire (not the Parthians or Sassanian Persians who ruled in later Mishnah and Talmud times), led the world in a challenging and mysterious period of Jewish History. Challenging to understand - because of chronological difficulties. To make a very long story short, Seder Olam counts 52 years for the Persian period, with four kings: Cyrus, Darius, Xerxes (Achashverosh) and Artaxerxes. Greek historians and relatively meager evidence of Persian empire itself indicate ca. 210 years, and 11 kings. Those include Cyrus, three different kings named Darius, three different kings named Artaxerxes, Cambysus and Xerxes. An introduction to these issues is offered by Mitchell First, in Jewish History in Conflict: A Study of the Major Discrepancy Between Rabbinic and Conventional Chronology.
Mysterious - because most of what we know about Persia is either from Tanach, or from Greek historians, who were the enemies of Persia. The Greeks portrayed the Persians negatively, as barbarians (although ‘barbarians’ is a Greek word for foreigners). In fact, they were the barbarians of Greek history. We don’t really have an unbiased source of their history. And this is where the excavations in Susa (Shushan) and other Persian cities, and in palaces and tombs come to bear. These major discoveries shed light on the story in new ways, and can now learn about its sophisticated culture; appreciate the Persian Empire’s multilingual administration (think מדינה ומכתבה ככתבה ועם ועם כלשונו); their swift messenger system (הרצים יצאו דחופים בדבר המלך והדת ניתנה בשושן הבירה), and their luxurious banquets (והשקות בכלי זהב וכלים מכלים שונים).
The palace architecture and Shushan’s artifacts bring lo life the story’s setting: identifying the palace gate, the womens' palace area; the dress of the royal guards as portrayed on palace walls, and more. Seeing all this transforms your appreciation of the story and this period of Jewish history.
I invite you to see some of these fantastic discoveries with me, on an exclusive virtual tour that will take you not only to the locations themselves - Shushan, and other cities in ancient Persia - but also to some of the world's great museums, to see the actual palace artifacts.
“In the Days of Achashverosh" is the first of a series of exclusive virtual tours that will be available in the coming months. The next one is a special Pesach tour of Ancient Egypt - so make sure to subscribe on the homepage to get notified.
The excitement of Jewish learning and Jewish history when meeting the stories themselves is an eye-opening experience, which I hope will enrich your enjoyment of Purim and Pesach this year!