"A senator came to Israel as part of a mission to learn more about the country and the issues," recalled Herta Amir at a ceremony for the Israel Museum's honorary fellows on June 7. "This senator told me that finally she came to the Shrine of the Book. She stood right behind a little Israeli boy who was trying desperately to decipher the Dead Sea Scrolls. She said, 'If a child in Israel attempts to read a scroll that was written thousands of years ago, then the land belongs to him.' And so you can see how the past impacts the present and the future."
Herta and Paul Amir, real estate developers in Los Angeles, were the primary donors to the Israel Museum's project to renovate the Shrine of the Book, closed for a year and reopened June 7, preceding the honorary fellows ceremony. About 300 members of the museum's International Council attended the invitation-only event, including Alice and Nahum Lainer, Jewish education and arts philanthropists in Los Angeles.
The ceremony began in the courtyard outside the shrine -- a white, tear-shaped dome replicating the top of the containers in which the Dead Sea Scrolls were found. James Snyder, museum director, then led the crowd through the dimly lit cavern-like monument, where ancient documents are housed in rectangular glass containers -- including eight of the most complete scrolls discovered, as well as the Aleppo Codex from the 10th century C.E., one of the most famous handwritten Bibles.
After council members had time to view the displays on three levels, King David Peace Drummer's Yagel Har-El, dressed all in white, stood on the top level and blew a long shofar, then recited the Shehecheyanu blessing for new occasions.
The impetus for the renovation, Snyder said, was that the shrine was just short of four decades old.
"It had suffered substantial wear and tear over the 40 years of its life," he explained. "We wanted to make sure we were presenting the Dead Sea Scrolls in a way that was conservationally appropriate -- that provided conditions which would not promote the scrolls' deterioration.... We replaced or renewed every material, updated all the mechanical systems and light systems and installed new showcases that would allow [the scrolls] to be kept and shown in the most environmentally appropriate way."
According to the Israel Museum, the shrine is considered a masterwork of modern architecture and an international landmark. It was designed by architects Frederick Kiesler and Armand Bartos.
"The Dead Sea Scrolls are among the Israel Museum's greatest treasures, and the shrine where they are preserved and displayed is also one of the truly distinctive architectural jewels of the last century," Snyder said.
Excavated in the Qumran caves in the Judean Desert in 1947, the scrolls represent a turning point in the study of the history of the Jewish people in ancient times, bringing to light an unprecedented trove of biblical literature. The scrolls' contents fall into three major categories -- biblical, apocryphal and sectarian.
The biblical manuscripts comprise 200 copies of books, representing the world's earliest evidence of biblical texts. The sectarian manuscripts cover a wide variety of literary genres -- including biblical commentary, religious-legal writings and liturgical texts. The apocryphal manuscripts comprise works that previously had been known only in translation or had not been known at all.
Scholars have concluded that some of the scrolls were written or copied by an ascetic Jewish sect, identified by most scholars as the Essenes, who existed alongside the Pharisees, Sadducees, early Christians, Samaritans and Zealots. Together, these groups comprised Jewish society in Israel during the late Hellenistic-Roman period, from the rise of the Maccabees through the destruction of the Second Temple (167 B.C.E.-70 C.E.).
Other scrolls were written or copied elsewhere and formed part of the library of the Qumran community. Most of the scrolls were written in Hebrew, with a small number in Aramaic and Greek. The majority of the scrolls were written on parchment, with rare examples on papyrus. Although a few scrolls were discovered intact, the majority survive as fragments.
The Shrine of the Book was designed to evoke the experience of discovering the scrolls, as well as to represent the spiritual messages conveyed in the scrolls' writing. The monument's restoration, Snyder said, "ensures the preservation of the scrolls for the benefit of generations to come."
Loolwa Khazzoom is the editor of "The Flying Camel: Essays on Identity by Women of North African and Middle Eastern Jewish Heritage" (Seal Press). You can find her on the Web at www.loolwa.com.