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Center for Israel Studies Collaborates on Groundbreaking Byzantium and Islam Exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum

At the start of the seventh century, the eastern Mediterranean—from Syria through Egypt and across North Africa—was central to the spiritual and political heart of the Byzantine Empire, ruled from Constantinople (modern Istanbul). Yet, by the end of the same century, the region had become a vital part of the emerging Islamic world, as it expanded westward from Mecca and Medina. Opening March 14 at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Byzantium and Islam: Age of Transition represents the first major museum exhibition to focus on this pivotal era in the history of the eastern Mediterranean.

Steven Fine and Yitzchak Schwartz

Fine and Schwartz of YU's Center for Israel Studies collaborated with the Met on their latest exhibition.

Through some 300 exceptional works of art, the groundbreaking presentation will reveal the artistic and cultural adaptations and innovations that resulted during the initial centuries of contact between these two worlds.

The exhibition features a major catalog entry titled, “Jews and Judaism between Byzantium and Islam,” written by Dr. Steven Fine, director of Yeshiva University’s Center for Israel Studies. Fine was instrumental in the choosing and interpreting the artifacts that illustrate the Jewish experience at this important crossroads. He will present the artifacts at a lecture titled, “Jews and Samaritans in an Age of Transition” on March 18.

“This exhibition illustrates a time when our ancestors preserved their Torah lifestyle while embracing the new—living in a world that had been utterly transformed around them and transforming to meet the challenge,” said Fine. “Not only did they move from being Aramaic and Greek speakers to Arabic speakers, but for the first time manuscripts of chazal were written down. New ways of writing Biblical commentary developed as Jews began to think and write in ways similar to Moslem and Christian academics of their time.”

Mosaic of a Menorah from the Hammam Lif Synagogue (Courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum)

The Center for Israel Studies will also co-sponsor “Perspectives on Byzantium and Islam,” an international conference featuring noted scholars at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on Tuesday, March 20.

“The invitation to be involved in this exhibition from the conceptualization period to the present is very gratifying to me,” said Fine. “Our philosophy of Torah U’madda has infused our participation in Byzantium and Islam, where we have focused on issues that are both globally significant and show the academic rigor and expertise in Judaic studies for which YU is famous.”

Fine was assisted on the project by Yitzchak Schwartz, research associate and coordinator at the Center for Israel Studies. Schwartz, a student at YU’s Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies, spent the last year interning at the Met.

Learn more about the exhibition and upcoming events at The Center for Israel Studies Web site.

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Reception Celebrates Publication of Volume Honoring David Berger

On March 5, Yeshiva University’s Bernard Revel Graduate School hosted a special reception to mark the publication of a scholarly volume of collected essays honoring Dean David Berger, Ruth & I. Lewis Gordon Professor of Jewish History.

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Before a gathering that included three past Revel deans and noted scholars in academic Jewish studies, co-editors Dr. Elisheva Carlebach, Salo Baron Professor of Jewish History, Culture and Society at Columbia University, and Dr. Jacob J. Schacter, University Professor of Jewish History and Jewish Thought at YU, presented Berger with an honorary copy of the book, New Perspectives on Jewish-Christian Relations: In Honor of David Berger (Brill Academic Press). The two spoke about Berger’s substantial contributions to academic Jewish scholarship in multiple fields over the last 40 years, including the impact he has made on their own careers.

“Dean Berger opened up for me a scholarly path I had no idea existed, serving as a model of how to be a colleague and teacher in academia and how to conduct oneself when many difficult questions hang in the balance,” said Carlebach.

Schacter recalled his first academic Jewish studies class with Berger as a student at Brooklyn College: “I encountered a teacher who gave me language, categories and a sense of optimism that somehow these two worlds could coalesce,” he said. “To learn about rishonim in the college classroom for me was not just an intellectual exercise but a profound personal experience.”

The reception was hosted in the President’s Office by Dr. Mordechai Z. Cohen, professor of Bible and associate dean of Revel, who has worked closely with Berger since they assumed leadership of the graduate school in 2008. “Dean Berger has a profound vision of academic Jewish studies and its importance among the Torah U’madda community that makes YU distinct and the flagship of Modern Orthodoxy,” said Cohen.

“For YU to be YU, we needed someone of your vision, goodness, learning and scholarship to take us down the winding road that would strengthen our unique commitment to honoring Torah, honoring thought and making this a center for the world of Jewish ideas and Jewish ideals,” said YU President Richard M. Joel.

Before friends, colleagues and students, Berger reflected on his own multifaceted academic history, describing his journey as a high school student from the Yeshiva of Flatbush to a Yeshiva College graduate and Columbia PhD candidate, including his more than 35 years teaching at YU on both a part and full-time basis. “There’s something very special about YU students and the ideals for which this university stands,” said Berger. “The principle of Torah U’madda applies of course to virtually all academic and cultural fields, but nowhere does it play out more strikingly than at the intersection of Torah in the focused, traditional sense and the disciplines that go by the name Academic Jewish Studies. Many manifestations of this intersection go to the core of a sophisticated understanding of Judaism itself.”

Berger added: “To return to YU full-time in 2008 was to realize one of my central commitments in the ideal environment.”

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