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A Baby, a Cradle, and a Torah that survived the Holocaust

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People are the most valuable finds.

Australian Med Corps

Australian Army Medical Corps Badge WWI

Although the Temple Mount Sifting Project focuses on ancient finds, many of the finds we retrieve are also from the modern era and we are studying them as well. This includes artifacts from World Wars I and II. But we always say that the most important finds are the people who volunteer to sift with us, and the staff with their special personalities and personal stories. On the occasion of Holocaust Memorial Day, Yom HaShoah, we would like to share with you the personal story of the project director Dr. Gabriel Barkay who was born in the Budapest ghetto a year before the end of the war, and a unique Torah scroll which was kept in his cradle.

I was born in 1944 on the same day my mother entered the ghetto, and she had two precious things: the newborn baby and the Torah scroll that was kept with the family. She dragged a large cart with all the things she could carry, and she gave birth to me. There had been horses used to tow the wagons, but because of the starvation in the community, they were all eaten in the weeks before, so there was neither food nor horses. My mother’s grandfather, Reb David Weiss, lived in a family home where several members of his family lived. He was a father of five children, four sons and a daughter who was my grandmother.

He had a private synagogue, and the Torah scroll was there in the synagogue. This Torah scroll was probably written in the 19th century in Romania. From Budapest, the Nazis hardly took Jews to the extermination camps. They planned to keep them hostage for the end of the war, though at the end of the war there were death marches from Budapest to Austria. Most of the people were killed on the way, and others went to concentration camps in Austria. Some died and some remained alive. But my family were probably forgotten in the back.

In November 1944, the Nazis took out all the inhabitants of the ghetto, including me, and took us to the train station, apparently to go to Poland. I do not know exactly what happened. Apparently, the train tracks were bombed and we were taken back to the ghetto and I was left behind. That is how I was saved, and also the Torah scroll that was hidden in my cradle.

After the war we went to Israel, I and the Torah scroll. In 2006 I was invited to a series of lectures in Canada. I met my mother’s cousin, who was then 91, but has since passed away. I told him that his grandfather’s Torah scroll was in my possession. He said, “Wait a minute,” and went into the other room and brought the curtain of the ארון קודש (holy ark) where the Torah scroll had been kept and gave it to me. This curtain was made around 1900. Hannah, wife of Reb David Weiss, embroidered it for his birthday. It is silver threads on velvet. The Torah was once used in my Bar Mitzvah in 1957. Afterward, we discovered that the Torah had mistakes and was invalid, so I made sure that it was fixed. The Torah underwent many hardships, was revised a few years ago, and then was re-inserted into my synagogue in East Talpiot in Jerusalem.  -Dr. Gabriel Barkay

gaby1Dr. Gabriel Barkay (73), the Jerusalem Prize laureate of archaeology, is considered by many to be the greatest expert on the archaeology of Jerusalem. He has excavated dozens of sites, and is known for his discovery of important silver scrolls from the First Temple period. As the blessing on the scrolls appear in the Torah, this is the oldest biblical text ever discovered. Barkay has taught for many years at Tel Aviv University, Bar Ilan University, and other institutions. He is a member of the Israel Antiquities Authority Advisory Council, and is an editor or consultant for several periodicals.

Photo credit for the photographs from the ceremony bringing the Torah to the synagogue goes to Barry A. Kaplan.
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How Did We Get Here?

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Staff Spotlight for February: Zachi Dvira

img_3307How does a computer programmer stumble into directing a hot-topic salvage archaeology project? This is the story of our Director, Zachi Dvira.

After a short hiatus during our crowdfunding campaign, our Staff Spotlight is back on and this month, it falls on Zachi. Many people have read interviews and articles about Dr. Gaby Barkay, but what do you know about the student turned director of our project?

Zachi grew up in Herzliya and only really got started in archaeology at age 25. From age 9, he was programming computers. After the army, he went into computer graphics and animation and even started his own business. One Sukkot, he left his office for eight days, and the heat from the sun coming through the windows destroyed all of his hard drives. All of his files and big projects were lost.

Zachi felt like he needed a change. He had just spent time traveling in the Caribbean and South America and became more interested in archaeology. He was intrigued by St. Augustine in Columbia and its unique culture. He was a city boy, but when he got back to Israel, he started traveling within Israel and visiting the archaeological and historical sites here. He was amazed at the number of things that he didn’t know and that he hadn’t done in Israel. Zachi’s late grandmother also fanned the spark of interest in archaeology and would talk to Zachi about excavations and discoveries.

Zachi had been interested in the Bible since he was a teenager and he had been researching the Torah text and its relation to modern Judaism. After the loss of his files, Zachi went back to programming, but he also wanted to learn archaeology on the side because of his sincere interest in the subject. He also wanted to gain the tools he needed to research more about the Bible and the source of Judaism. Zachi enrolled at Bar Ilan University, and as he learned more and more, he felt like he really began to better understand the text of the Bible and the context in which it was written.

So how did the Sifting Project start?

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Illicit bulldozing in 1999

Zachi was interested in the Temple Mount and he was doing a seminar with Dr. Gaby Barkay about Jerusalem. He had to write a paper about Jerusalem in the 10th Century BCE. At that time, there was a claim that the Temple Mount was not a part of Jerusalem in the 10th century and that it was only added later on.

Even in 1998, there had been reports of trucks leaving the Temple Mount with earth, and when the large Awaqf excavation took place in 1999, someone who had followed the trucks told Zachi where to find the dirt that they had dumped. Zachi had the idea that he could maybe find something from the 10th century BCE and give evidence that the Temple Mount was a part of Jerusalem at that time. He had no idea that it would become a whole project.

With other friends and archaeology students, Zachi surveyed some of the earth removed from the Temple Mount, but it was professors like Dr. Barkay that were able to date and identified the artifacts and who realized that they were dealing with something immensely important.

Zachi and Gaby decided to establish an official project for sifting this debris and the Temple Mount Sifting Project was established in 2004. Zachi was in the middle of his MA studies. I asked him what his dreams are for the project, and he said that because this project has exceeded all hopes and expectations, it is difficult to talk about dreams. The dream of finding a few inscriptions or seals, well we found them. In any excavation you want to uncover more finds that shed a lot of light on history, and with our project, even just the statistics of the finds that we have can lead to new understandings.

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Data-mining TMSP data

Of all things, Zachi is very interested in the implementation of advanced quantitative analysis techniques in archaeology. This is what his MA thesis was about. He researched automatic typology methods and wrote about how to use data mining for analyzing archaeological databases to reveal patterns in the data, which consequently raise new research questions.

While Zachi has found a number of nice coins and some inscriptions for the project, the research and the library is more interesting for him. Like all of us, there are so many things that Zachi would like to research and to delve into, but unfortunately there just aren’t enough hours in the day. This is the never-ending problem of an archaeologist. You learn one thing that leads you into a whole new category of topics you didn’t even know you were interested in, which leads you to something else, and the process of learning and striving to know more and better understand is a lifelong pursuit.

This is what led Zachi to the British Mandate archives where he discovered a whole list of remnants and features on the Temple Mount that he was surprised had not been published. They help fill in the picture of the history of the Temple Mount and how it has been used over time. He wrote a whole article about this and we are now waiting for it to be expanded upon and translated into English. This is also a part of his PhD thesis that he has just started.

Basically, we are very lucky to have Zachi, his experience, and his passion for learning and truth leading our TMSP team. This is just a small glimpse into the man, but hopefully it gives you a little bit of insight into the quiet powerhouse behind our project.

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Discussing stone weights in the lab

Islamic History Recorded

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Staff Spotlight: November

With the Nuba Inscription still fresh in our minds, this month’s Staff Spotlight lands on Peretz Reuven!

peretz_1Originally from Haifa, Peretz is our expert in the Islamic period pottery and artifacts. He originally got interested in the Islamic period while at Hebrew University. He began with Arabic and Islamic history, added in a bit of archaeology, and the rest is history. He has studied under some of the most widely published scholars, including Myriam Rosen-Ayalon, Rachel Milstein, and Hava Lazarus-Yafe. Now he works on many excavations and research projects across Jerusalem and Israel.

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Large Ophel Medallion

Peretz was working on a project with Dr. Eilat Mazar documenting all the walls of the Temple Mount, and researching and publishing the large ophel medallion when he met our director, Zachi Dvira. Zachi invited him to join our project, and now Peretz is researching all of the Early Islamic period pottery found by the Sifting Project. He is also planning to use his experience in researching architectural elements from the Roman, Byzantine, and Islamic periods to research the architectural elements found in our sifting.

The Early Islamic period assemblage from the Sifting Project is very rich in materials. We have a lot of ceramic vessels, many of which are glazed and elaborated. Though most of them are locally made, some were imported from Persia, Egypt, or parts of Europe. We can see that there was a lot of activity on the Temple Mount during that time period, but what is interesting is that many of the vessels are ordinary. For example, we have many cooking vessels and fragments of pipes. Peretz would not say that these vessels represent daily life, for example people coming and eating in an ordinary way, since the Temple Mount is a holy place. Rather, we are familiar with people coming to make celebrations on the Temple Mount as a part of Muslim fests and holidays. There were also people, such as guards, who stayed on the Temple Mount overnight, and our assemblage could represent their daily lives.

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Cut mother-of-pearl inlays which may be from the Dome of the Rock

Peretz does not have a favorite artifact among those that he is researching for the Sifting project because there are too many to choose from that are really interesting. Some artifacts are connected to the building of the Dome of the Rock or to the artists who made the mosaics adorning the Dome of the Rock and the Al Aqsa Mosque. For example, Peretz is excited by the large amount of mother of pearl inlay found by the project. Many of these inlays might come from the dismantling and discarding of the mosaics over the years.

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Gilded glass mosaic tesserae from the Early Islamic Period removed from the Dome of the Rock exterior walls during later renovations.

The buildings of the Temple Mount have mosaics inside and out. Some were dismantled during renovations while others were replaced because they were disintegrating or suffering from the elements. For example, all the outer surface of the Dome of the Rock was covered with delicate mosaics unlike the ceramic mosaics that we have today. In the 1500s, during the reign of Suleiman the Magnificent, all the outer paneling of mosaics were taken off the Dome of the Rock and thrown away. Most likely, some of what we are finding today is from that period. Between dumping and the stories of people cutting off the mosaics and selling or collecting them, it is really nice that some of these artifacts have survived.

In addition to working with the Sifting Project, Peretz has just finished publishing his research on the Islamic period ceramics found in the Givati Parking Lot in Jerusalem and is now working on publishing his research on the Islamic material from the Western Wall tunnels and the Kotel. With Assaf Avraham, he just published his research on the Nuba Inscription. Peretz said that he has always been interested in the connection between Islam and Judaism. He and Assaf decided to do some research on the topic, and during that research Assaf found out about the interesting inscription in Nuba. They decided to do some additional research on the inscription and the results were definitely interesting. Check out the video they published on their finds.

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