On Preserving the Products of Past Purges

The Bible’s historical chronicles tell us that monotheism was not universal and enforced in the kingdoms of Judah and Israel towards the end of the First Temple period, when Josiah became King of Judah. The society continued to function as a loose confederation of tribes, or of city states, rather than as a unified Kingdom. Depending on locale and time, Pagan practices were tolerated, and even incorporated into the Israelite cult, despite the clear and extreme language in the Torah to the contrary.

I have not been much interested in the details of biblical archaeology. Josiah caught my attention because of a chapter that D gave us called “Did the Exodus Happen?” from the book The Bible Unearthed (Finkelstein and Silberman), shared to deepen our reading of Sefer Shmoys (Exodus).

The archeologists read the final biblical account as the fusion of two stories, filling in legends from a much older Exodus (based on events of a Cannanite migration, flourishing, and expulsion from Egypt six hundred years prior) with many specific details that would resonate in a contemporary (700s BCE) political landscape. The goal was national unity in the face of a recently resurgent and expansionist Egypt. A momentary weakness in the north also contributed to the consolidation of Judah’s power.

Patterns of physical archeological findings and non-findings bolster the authors’ argument about the framing and political function of the Torah accounts. But we know more about King Josiah from the Torah itself, and little from artifacts. Josiah led a revival. His priest ‘found’ and codified texts, concerning the Mosaic code of law. Idols were taken down, not only in the Kingdom of Judah, but in the neighboring kingdom of Israel. Then, Assyrians defeated Josiah in battle. After him, the line of David faltered, and then the Jews were taken into exile in Bablyon.

Three things about this strike me. First, this king brought a religious consolidation and revival, which blended looking to the far past with a contemporary re-edit of the national legend, and either a rediscovery/rewrite or just plain writing of the book of Deuteronomy. Second, he accomplished this in the nick of time, as a coherent and unifying narrative would be needed for the Jews to keep their identity in the Babylonian exile. Third, the physical records help us understand the context all around him, but not him. One online article says that official seals changed at that time from animal imagery to lists of tribal names, consistent with an anti-idolatry wave. There is little physical record about the person himself.

But that’s not really what I originally sat down to write about. I spent yesterday, moved by two news stories, pondering the value of physical artifacts. In Iraq, the Islamic State has been busy destroying 3300 year-old Assyrian monuments and artifacts in the city of Nimrud, with bulldozers and sledgehammers. And, in Tel Aviv, the municipal library gave away their collection of 5000 Yiddish books, for which they don’t have enough readers to bother storing and maintaining.

The first story is horrifying. The arrogance needed to destroy beautiful statues created over 3000 years ago would astonish me, if these were not the same folks who so casually part people’s heads from their necks. With the separation of heads from bodies, they separate themselves from everyone who does not believe as they do. They are the pure ones, the followers of God’s true teaching.

Many smaller artifacts from Nimrud still exist. A couple of huge statues are also fine, having been transported to the British Museum or the Metropolitan Museum of Art when archaeologists could still get away with such things. Others are in Baghdad. Whatever was in the museum in IS-controlled Mosel has been destroyed.

The second news story is becoming repetitive. Of the five thousand Yiddish books, according to the librarian, only 14 were checked out in the last year before they were moved to storage. Here, for those who did not follow the above link and read the HaAretz article, are a couple of highlights. First, the article describes Thomas Kleiner, a retired Protestant minister from Germany, showing up with an empty suitcase with which to take books home:

For Kleiner, the tragedy is not that the library is giving away its entire Yiddish collection but that there are so few Yiddish readers left in the world. Explaining his personal interest in the dying language so heavily influenced by his own mother tongue, he says: “It is a marvelous bridge between the Jewish and German people.”

Second: Daniel Galay, chairman of the Association of Yiddish Writers and Journalists in Israel, has already put 20 books aside that he intends to bring home with him. As delighted as he is with these finds, he says he’s sad about the circumstances. “What we’re seeing here is not only a tragedy for Yiddish literature but a tragedy for Hebrew literature as well,” he notes. “Yiddish literature is the basis for Hebrew literature, and you can’t really comprehend Hebrew literature without it.”

So many themes run through these two stories that I’ve already discussed in this blog over the past months. The primacy of readers, as the only guarantee that what is in books will be valued, and that the books will survive. The ironic fact that contemporary Germans are closer to our language heritage than we are. Trying to make sense of cultural losses that are ‘natural’ compared with those that are ‘unnatural’.

And, as in other cases where I’ve written about different kinds of loss, there is the need for distinctions. The “information” in the discarded library books has been preserved, digitally. It is the books as physical artifacts that are going. Similarly, at least some of the “information” we’ve already learned from destroyed Assyrian artifacts will be retained. And even if the attempt to scrub history is ideologically of a piece with all the murders committed by Islamic State, I would trade all the artifacts in the world for one human being.

There are always people who want to scrub the past. A prison camp in Siberia removes all references to Stalin. Legislators in Colorado require schools to remove all US History content that casts our country in a negative light, while in Arizona, Latinos are forbidden from teaching and learning their history in the public schools.

There are also often artists who, for much more positive reasons, wish that the weight of the past could be lightened, so that people can be present in their own time. I remember when my brother Bill (who emailed me the HaAretz article about the Tel Aviv library) was younger, he expressed the sentiment that Europe would be better off if all their cathedrals and museums were gone, that people should make buildings and art now that reflect who we are now. The Yiddish poets in New York 100 years ago believed that they had no predecessors, and no role models. Even if that radical freedom was illusory, it was a constructive illusion.

In Josiah’s time there were radical challenges and radical opportunities. The past was appropriated and transformed to serve contemporary nation-building aims. Having a record of Biblical times, both physical and textual, can be a source of pride, and can also be used to keep arrogance in check. It’s important to know that we have had our own periods of purification, of slaughtering the infidels, and of rewriting history.

With forensic reading, both books and physical artifacts can help us know more about what really happened in the past. With imagination, both can give us a feel for what it was like to live in a different place, time, and culture. Meanwhile, the people who actually create books or statues, whether they think they are trying to honor the past, or whether they think they are trying to break with the past, are always acting out some dynamic combination of the two.



2 thoughts on “On Preserving the Products of Past Purges

  1. so I had already decided to keep my S. Aleichem books. I wonder if the Yiddish Book Center would be interested in any of the Israeli books. Or perhaps they are duplicates. I’m still hung up on the loss of the Alexandrian library……but the tv pictures of the art being currently destroyed are horrifying.


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