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Jewish Journal

New Tales From a Post-Exodus Egypt

by Naomi Pfefferman

April 8, 2004 | 8:00 pm

Statuette of King Necho, circa 610--595 BCE. Photo ©Brooklyn Museum of Art

Statuette of King Necho, circa 610--595 BCE. Photo ©Brooklyn Museum of Art

Now that we've just finished two seders celebrating our escape from Egypt, a new exhibit at the Skirball Cultural Center demonstrates that not every Jew got out of Egypt -- or wanted to.

"Jewish Life in Ancient Egypt: A Family Archive From the Nile Valley," revolves around 2,500-year-old papyrus scrolls from a cache of hundreds unearthed on Elephantine Island -- the oldest extra-biblical evidence of Jews in Mitzrayim.

The exhibit is the latest in a trend of document-based art shows, such as 1998's "Sigmund Freud: Conflict & Culture," which illuminate history through the display of papers and related objects.

"Jewish Life" comes alive through the remarkable, Aramaic-language scrolls, which describe a Jewish community on lush Elephantine 800 years after the biblical exodus. Apparently there were no hard feelings, because these people were descendants of Jews who had voluntarily returned to Egypt after the Babylonians conquered Jerusalem in 586 B.C.E. While elite Jews were forced into exile in Babylonia, many soldiers and common folk relocated to Egypt, which proved to be a multicultural mecca, not an anti-Semitic hellhole, according to the exhibit.

The core of the show is eight legal documents that belonged to an interfaith family in the fifth century B.C.E, when the religiously tolerant Persians ruled Egypt. The papyri tell of Ananiah, an official at the Temple of Yahou (a.k.a. Yahweh), and his wife, Tamut, who, in a twist on the haggadah story, was an Egyptian slave owned by a Jewish master, Meshullam (he allowed her to marry and to own property, per the custom of the day).

According to a real estate deed from 437 B.C.E, Ananiah and Tamut bought a two-story mud brick fixer-upper on the main drag in Khnum, a village named for an Egyptian deity. Their neighbors included Persian soldiers and an Egyptian who managed the garden in the local temple dedicated to Khnum.

Like his fellow Egyptians, Jewish Ananiah probably continued the traditional form of Israelite worship that had been practiced in pre-exilic Judah. He likely burned incense to Yahweh, performed animal sacrifice and worshipped deities such as the queen of the heavens, who in the Elephantine area had a temple across the river from Yahou's. This kind of "monotheism-lite" apparently enraged the prophet Jeremiah, who rebuked Egyptian Jews for "making sacrificial smoke to other gods" in the Hebrew Bible.

According to the Elephantine papyri, local Jews swore oaths to regional deities. Sharing religious and cultural traditions was de rigueur, as evidenced by the exhibit's papyri and accompanying artifacts. A headless but still stately statue of Ptahhotep, an Egyptian treasury overseer, wears Persian robes and an Egyptian chest ornament. A quirky terracotta sarcophagus lid from a Jewish cemetery suggests that some Jews were buried in anthropoid stone coffins resembling those of their Egyptian neighbors. At the Skirball, the exhibit, which originated at the Brooklyn Museum, will feature five-inch ceramic figurines of Astarte, the queen of the heavens, worshipped by Jews and non-Jews on Elephantine.

"The show is fascinating because it depicts how different cultures and communities lived in harmony on one small island," said Tal Gozani, the Skirball's associate curator.

"It's especially relevant because when we think of Jews in Egypt, we think of the Exodus, not of the tranquil Persian period," said Erin Clancey, the museum's associate curator of archaeology.

Even the exhibition's origins were multicultural. It began when farming families found Ananiah's archives on Elephantine in 1893 and sold them to pioneering American Egyptologist Charles Edwin Wilbour, who stashed them in a tin biscuit box at the bottom of a trunk. There they languished until his daughter found them and donated them to the Brooklyn Museum in 1947.

Cut to 1999, when the museum's Edward Bleiberg, an Egyptologist and Reform Jew, read the papyri and began turning them into an exhibit.

"I immediately felt a strong connection to these ancient people," he told The Journal.

Bleiberg, like Ananiah, is married to a non-Jew, in his case, a Methodist from a small town in Georgia. He had recently purchased a 750-square-foot fixer-upper -- about the same size as Ananiah's -- in a diverse neighborhood in Brooklyn.

As Passover approached last week, he noted one other connection to Ananiah: The Egyptian Jew celebrated the holiday, albeit a rudimentary form, as evidenced by a document unearthed at Elephantine that refers to a "festival of unleavened bread."

Written long before the codification of the current haggadah, the letter calculates the dates that Elephantine Jews were to abstain from bread in 419 B.C.E., based on the Jerusalem lunar calendar.

As for Ananiah's specific observance, he probably ate matzah made from millet, an Elephantine crop, and enjoyed some kind of culinary feast, the curator said.

"He may have been aware of the basic story of Passover, but he had to see it as something he didn't take literally," Bleiberg added. "Passover must have been a problematic holiday for Egyptian Jews, because they were celebrating leaving Egypt, and yet they were still there."

And, as the exhibit shows, no boils, frogs or locusts proved necessary.

The exhibition opens April 30 and runs through July 18. On May 2, Edward Bleiberg will discuss "Scenes From a Marriage: A Jewish Family Archive From Ancient Egypt." For more information about the exhibition, call (310) 440-4500 or visit www.skirball.org . p>

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