News headlines last week reported on the rare archeological find of a private Kingdom of Judah-era toilet discovered in the remains of a luxurious mansion in Jerusalem. Haaretz noted the presence of dozens of bowls around the ancient lavatory, about which an Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) official speculated: “they held air freshener, an aromatic oil or incense – anything to make use of the facility less onerous” (“Biblical-era Toilet With Possible Air Fresheners Found in Jerusalem“).
While aromatic oil might have done the olfactory trick in the First Temple-period bathroom, all the fragrant incense in ancient Judah can’t conceal the stench of media reports that erase the long, rich Jewish history of ancient Israel.
The Associated Press’ short article last week on the unusual toilet find was a prime example of news media dumping on Jews’ ancient history in their ancestral homeland (“2,700-year-old toilet found in Jerusalem was a rare luxury“). The leading news agency cited the “rare ancient toilet in Jerusalem dating back more than 2,700 years” while diligently failing to note the historic period in question: the First Temple Period.
The IAA press release, for its part, was clear and explicitly began: “A rare toilet cubicle from the First Temple Period, which was part of an ancient royal estate that operated at the end of the Kings of Judean period (7th century BCE). . . ” (All emphases added throughout.) The IAA statement repeatedly emphasized the historic period of Jewish sovereignty in the ancient homeland:
“Beneath the toilet, a septic tank was discovered, containing a large amount of pottery from the First Temple Period and animal bones. The finds were carefully collected, including the soil fill. Their investigation may teach us about the lifestyles and diets of the First Temple people, as well as ancient diseases.”
About the significance of the pottery and animal bones, the AP carefully edited the IAA’s information, excising the reference to “First Temple.” The news agency’s redacted text read:
“Animal bones and pottery found in the septic tank could shed light on the lifestyle and diet of people living at that time, as well as ancient diseases, the antiquities authority said.”
Similarly, while the IAA noted the First Temple-style designs carved into the architecture, AP again stripped the site of its Judean identity. The IAA detailed:
“Impressive architectural items were discovered in the excavation, including stone capitals designed by an artist, bearing a style typical to the days of the First Temple, and small architectural columns that served as railings for windows.”
“It is fascinating to see how something that is obvious to us today, such as toilets, was a luxury item during the reign of the kings of Judah,” IAA Director Eli Eskosido added in the organization’s press release. “Jerusalem never ceases to amaze.”
In contrast, AP wrote of a non-specified era in which unidentified people lived:
“The archaeologists found stone capitals and columns from the era, and said there was evidence of a nearby garden with orchards and aquatic plants — more evidence that those living there were quite wealthy.”
Who lived there then? Who reigned? Whose toilet was it? The AP never said. Indeed, the words “Judah” and “First Temple” don’t appear once in the wire service story.
Similarly, all the mint, thyme, hyssop and parsley in the Levant failed to mask the bitter odor dished up by Joan Nathan’s New York Times column last month (“This Rosh Hashana Salad Is a Fresh Take on Ancient Flavors“). Stripping ancient Israelites from the landscape of their homeland, the prominent Jewish cookbook author and Times contributor began her Jewish holiday column: “When planning meals for the fall Jewish holidays, I often think to the food from Canaan.”
Canaan – not ancient Israel. Not the Kingdom of Israel. The column offered up a consistent foul flavor. Its headline in the international print edition, on the eve of Yom Kippur, was “The ancient flavors of Canaan in a salad.” The digital subheadline was: “For the Jewish New Year, Joan Nathan composes a dish that pays tribute to foods that the biblical Canaanites might have eaten.”
Nathan quoted professor of archeology Eric Cline:
“Many of the simple but hardy ingredients that we should toss in a salad, like olives and lentils, would also be at home with the Canaanites. Imagine a woman in the Galilee gathering greens and fruits to complement the main dish. We would be surprised at how familiar yet exotic her salad would have tasted.”
It’s a passage that is highly sensory, envoking smell, taste and imagery to stimulate the reader’s imagination of the Canaanite woman – not the Israelite woman. Though the column is purportedly about Jewish culinary traditions around Jewish holidays, the Times contributor cited Canaan/ites repeatedly, but never Israelites.
Echoing AP’s unnamed “people” who lived at the time of the toilet, Nathan wrote: “For years, I have been playing a game, seeing how I can go back and taste what people would have been eating more than 3,000 years ago.”
Mirroring AP’s avoidance of the First Temple Period and the Kingdom of Judah, Nathan effectively eliminated Israelites and the Kingdom of Israel from her journalistic diet. No amount of pleasing incense, aromatic oils and herbs, pastoral imagery or sensuous language makes the odious erasure of ancient Jewish history more palatable.