Judith Sinclair-Cohen

Musings of a Museum Guide – On Trees and Scrolls.


It’s the three o’clock slot. The Model and Shrine tour at the Israel Museum. By this time of day visitors have usually worked out that there are four free tours in English almost daily, of which this is the last. The ‘Shrine’ is the Shrine of The Book. The ‘Book’ is the Hebrew Bible: The Dead Sea Scrolls, widely considered the most important archeological finding of the 20th century.

Each tour is a snapshot of tourist time. There are those on their first visit to Israel and the perennial pilgrims. There can be anything from seven to twenty-seven people. One Christmas I had more than more than forty people, from nine countries and four different religions with ensuing denominations. Some sport Stars of David. Some crosses. Occasionally both!   Some simply come on a why-don’t-we-stay-a-bit-longer-at-the-museum whim.

As we approach the Shrine of the Book, we stop at two large trees on our right that are made of iron. They are a vestige of the wildly popular exhibition of the work of Chinese activist artist Ai Weiwei, that was held at the Museum in 2016. The artist especially asked that they be placed here next to the Shrine of the Book, to celebrate two ancient cultures: Chinese and Jewish. Each one weighs fifteen tons; Israel’s strongest cranes were used to hoist them into position. Although made from iron they blend in well with the local vegetation of the Museum’s surrounding sculpture garden.

The Shrine’s iconic dome sits at a key location in Jerusalem. The Dead Sea Scrolls are Israel’s national treasure. As such, they are cocooned in conceptual architecture. The scrolls were first found, by Bedouin shepherd boys, in 1947. And ever since that apocryphal rock hit a pot in that Qumran cave, these scrolls have fascinated people. Partly this is because when found, they predated the oldest Hebrew bible in existence by some thousand years.

Since then, many additional scrolls have been found, such that today there are (incomplete) copies of 22 out of 24 of the books that form the cannon of the Hebrew Bible. And with a comparable text this proves a considerable endorsement for religious believers. It is especially moving that these scrolls are written in the same Hebrew font as today’s Torah scrolls, even though they were written some two thousand years ago.

The Museum is proud of its Ai Weiwei trees. Actually it boasts copious permanent collections of fine art, Judaica and archeology – complimented by some dozen annual changing exhibitions – that rival many a Museum in Europe and North America. The Dead Sea Scrolls however, can only be seen here in Jerusalem at the Shrine of the Book, adding to their allure.

The scrolls were written by an extreme group of Essenes living at the time of the second Temple, that called themselves the Yachad Community. They were a self-sufficient collective of celibate men who were pious in the extreme. Devoted to the study and recording of religious texts, to prayer and daily ablutions, they prepared themselves spiritually for what they believed to be the imminent coming of the Messiah. Their plans, however, were devastated when the Roman army encountered them on their march to Jerusalem, and killed them. Luckily some of their writings were stored in nearby caves where, thanks to the dark and arid environment, they survived.

In addition to Biblical scrolls there also exist scrolls of books not included in the Hebrew Bible, such as the Book of Maccabees. There are also sectarian scrolls where members of the Yachad community laid out their philosophy and plans.

The words of these sectarian scrolls tell us why these pious men turned their backs on Jerusalem seeking solace in a, a geographical cul-de-sac close to the Dead Sea, at Qumran: they were horrified by the corruption in the Temple. Indeed, their writings – inscribed with stylus and homemade ink on parchment made from the hides of kosher animals – reflect a pivotal time in human history. It is against this backdrop that Christianity emerged. Most of all, their words bring home the bitter divisions that existed between the different Jewish groups alive at the time.

The Hebrew Bible. Its significance for Jews is clear.  Yet for Christians, and for Western culture, its significance is more subtle. It may not be immediately obvious how much of the Hebrew Bible’s ethos has insinuated its way to today’s values. Social innovations such as a Sabbath, for example. Whether Saturday, Sunday or Friday, the concept of a day of rest – which we now take for granted – was alien to the ancient world, when those who worked, did so 365 days a year.

In addition to his signature sunflower seeds, Ai Weiwei is well-known for his trees; a welcome statement on the environment. He has created many trees, the majority of which are made out of wood reclaimed from southern China, sold in the markets of Jingdezhen and sent to his Beijing studio.  Keen to showcase traditional techniques, he engages Chinese artisans to serve as the sous-chefs of his artistic installations. For each exhibition the pieces of wood are assembled to form trees anew. They are joined by skilled carpenters who use traditional hidden mortise-and-tendon joints on the inside. The tree’s form is then reinforced on the outside by bold metal industrial nuts and bolts. The dissonance of these contrasting techniques thus creates a deliberate tension between what is, and what seems.

Actually, Ai Weiwei had unlikely upbringing for one of the 21st century’s most acclaimed artists. His father Ai Qing, once a celebrated national poet, fell foul of the Chinese authorities. In 1958 when Weiwei was aged one, the family was exiled to a work camp where they lived in a hole in the ground covered by brushwood. Ai Qing was directed to clean the communal toilets. His son has given moving accounts of his father’s determined dignity in the face of such insult. His mother, meanwhile – a veritable Avital Sharansky – continually campaigned for their release. They were able to return to Beijing after the death of chairman Mao in 1976. Indeed, many understand the rudimentary appearance of the bolts on the trees trunks to symbolise the way that the many disparate populations in China were crudely forced together by a totalitarian regime; individual identity holding little sway.

Ai Weiwei’s acknowledgment of the time-honoured traditions, both Jewish and Chinese, is certainly gratifying. Yet, at first glance, these iron installations seem to hold little connection to the oldest editions of the Hebrew Bible.

Certainly, many today would trust more in science than in religion. Although consider the case of identical twins. Taking a genetic perspective, their DNA is practically the same. Yet we still perceive each twin as a person in their own right. This is because, recognition of the individual is now an integral part of Western culture, even if few realise its underpinnings in the Hebrew Bible. This particular principle emerged early on, in Genesis Chapter 1, verse 26, where it is written that man is created in the image of God.

* * *

So easy to lump people together in groups: They are Essenes. They are Romans. They are Bedouins. Christians. Jews, Sadducees or Pharisees; They are tourists, locals, pilgrims, pensioners, schoolkids, students. Yet each is a unique person.

Truth be told, as guides at the Israel Museum, we are just the ‘front men’. Hidden hordes of experts from curators and conservators, to designers and educators work together to identify, contextualise and restore; artifacts on display make up less than ten per cent of the Museum’s collections. Their expertise branches off into dozens of discrete disciplines. The Museum’s exhibitions are exquisitely curated and designed for our benefit. Yet for the Dead Sea Scrolls, there is always a tension deciding what material to share with today’s public and what to preserve for future generations.

About the Author
Judith Sinclair-Cohen is an independent consultant in public health, who lives with her family in Modiin, Israel. She is a guide at the Israel Museum.
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