Yeshiva University News » CIS

Professor Steven Fine Leads Rome Research into Aftermath of Temple Destruction

From June 5 to 7, 2012 an international team of scholars led by the Yeshiva University Center for Israel Studies in partnership with the Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Roma undertook a pilot study of the Arch of Titus in the Roman Forum, the ancient civic center of Rome, Italy. The focus of attention was the Menorah panel and the relief showing the deification of Titus at the apex of the arch.

The Menorah from the Temple in Jerusalem as depicted on Rome's Arch of Titus

The arch was originally dedicated after the Emperor Titus’ death in 81 CE and celebrates his victory in the Jewish War of 66-74 CE, which climaxed with the destruction of Jerusalem and her Temple in the summer of 70 CE. Read the rest of this entry…


YU Center for Israel Studies Partners with MET on Middle East Exhibition

On May 6, a group of students, alumni and members of the Yeshiva University community huddled around an ancient book. On its pages, in blue, red and yellow, were the letters of the Hebrew alphabet, carefully traced and shaded in by a child’s hand in the timeless tradition of children learning to read and write.

The primer, found in the Cairo Genizah, was at least 900 years old.

The artifact was one of many the group viewed in a behind-the-scenes tour of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s new exhibition, “Byzantium and Islam: Age of Transition (600-900).” This is the first major exhibition to explore the religious and cultural change in the Middle East as it transitioned from being the wealthy southern provinces of the Roman/Byzantine Empire into the emerging Islamic world. For its presentation of Judaism—its history, art and literature within that context—the MET turned to an expert in Greco-Roman and Late Antiquity cultural Jewish history: Dr. Steven Fine, professor of Jewish History and director of the Center for Israel Studies (CIS) at YU.

“Understanding the roles of Jews and Judaism in this time period is integral to understanding this moment of cultural change, and vice versa,” said Fine. “Though Jews were a minority even then, they were [and are] a minority through which one can understand other cultures in interesting ways.” Read the rest of this entry…


Center for Israel Studies Yom Iyun Explores History of Religious Zionism in America

Few things divide and provoke American Jews like the question of Zionism.  Though many wish to remember otherwise, this was also the case before the founding of Israel in 1948; and, though many wish to forget, the story of Zionism in America belongs not just to Labor Zionism, dominated by culturalists and secularists, but also to Orthodox Jews.  Recently Yeshiva University’s Center for Israel Studies held a study dayon the history of religious Zionism in America.  The questions raised by this history have profound implications for the future of Jews and of Israel. Read the rest of this entry…


Center for Israel Studies Presents Yom Iyun on April 22 Honoring Bernard Rosensweig and Sol Roth

Yeshiva University’s Center for Israel Studies will present a Yom Iyun [Day of Learning] exploring the history and thought of Religious Zionism in America on Sunday, April 22 at Furst Hall, Room 501, 500 West 185th Street, New York City.

Speakers at the event include Rabbi Yosef Blau, mashgiach ruchani [spiritual advisor] at YU, on “The Beginnings of American Religious Zionism: The Early Years of Mizrachi in America, 1903-1925″; Rabbi Shalom Carmy, professor of Jewish philosophy on “Art and Philosophy in Zionist Thought”; Dr. Jess Olson, assistant professor of modern Jewish history, on “The Agudah Comes to America: Misunderstandings and the creation of Politicized Orthodoxy”; and Rabbi Dr. Michael Rosensweig, YU rosh yeshiva, YU, on “Zionism in American Halakhic Writings.”

The Yom Iyun will honor longtime YU professors and leaders in the community Rabbi Dr. Bernard Rosensweig and Rabbi Dr. Sol Roth. To learn more visit or email


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.


Festival of Jewish Folktales Honors Peninnah Schram

On November 6, students, academics, professional storytellers and members of the public gathered at the Yeshiva University Museum to share tales rich with tradition, personal meaning and religious discovery during “Folktales of Israel: A Festival of Jewish Storytelling Honoring Professor Peninnah Schram,” an event organized by YU’s Center for Israel Studies.

Jess Olson

Jess Olson, associate director of the Center for Israel Studies, offers greetings at the Nov. 6 event.

“So much of the story of the Jewish people is feeling and sharing the warmth of our tradition,” said Yeshiva University President Richard M. Joel. “People like Peninnah Schram, who has been here with us at Stern College for 42 years, work to ensure that true communication does not become a lost art, but continues to involve words, heart and soul.”

Co-sponsored by Stern College for Women, the YU Museum and the American Zionist Movement, the conference featured storytelling legends such as Dr. Dan Ben-Amos, professor of folklore and Near Eastern studies at the University of Pennsylvania and editor of the major series Folktales of the Jews; Rabbi Saul Berman, professor of Jewish studies at Stern College and an inaugural fellow of the Tikvah Center for Law and Jewish Civilization at New York University Law School; and Ellen Frankel, former CEO and editor-in-chief of the Jewish Publication Society.

In addition to keynote lectures that considered the significance and role of storytelling in Jewish education and tradition, performances explored tales which ran the gamut from a legend about the staff of Elijah to a young woman’s emotional first journey to the Western Wall. Schram’s colleagues and former students also spoke about her influence in their own development as storytellers.

“Jewish tradition, being part of the oral world literature, contains the jewels and the core of oral traditions the world over,” said Ben-Amos. “In that sense, storytellers like Peninnah are drawing upon a tradition that is dynamic, classical and an influence on world literature. It’s a real pleasure to celebrate the contribution Peninnah has made in oral and written storytelling—she is a pioneer in the field.”

“Folktales are an essential part of Judaism because of the way we tell ourselves about our past determining our future,” said Dr. Steven Fine, director of the Center for Israel Studies. “Bringing this element of the mesorah [transmission of tradition] to life is what YU is all about.”

The festival honored Peninah Schram of Stern College for Women.

The festival honored Peninah Schram, professor of speech and drama at Stern College.

For Yaelle Frohlich, a former student of Schram’s at Stern College who is currently pursuing a master’s degree at YU’s Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies, the festival was an opportunity to celebrate a mentor and to delve deeper into a field that has fascinated her since childhood. “I came as a fan of Professor Schram’s, but also because I have a special love of Jewish folklore,” said Frohlich. “The chance to hear about it from an academic perspective was too good to miss.”

The festival culminated with a heartfelt performance from Schram herself, as she shared the complex relationship of her grandparents, parents and children to Israel in a piece called, “Five Generations Rooted in Israel.” She was also presented with an honorary volume of collected folktales, Mitzvah Stories: Seeds for Inspiration and Learning. Published by Reclaiming Judaism Press and dedicated to Schram, the book contains 60 original stories by professional storytellers, members of the rabbinate, and others.

“This is better than an Oscar,” said Schram, who is a recipient of the Covenant Award for Outstanding Jewish Education and the National Storytelling Network’s Lifetime Achievement Award. “An Oscar stays behind glass but this book is a living document with never-before-told stories centered around mitzvot—you can dive right in.”

She added: “It’s up to each of us to take these stories in our rich Jewish repertoire and transmit them the next generation. We must wear the mantle of responsibility to perpetuate the Jewish oral tradition.”


Center for Israel Studies to Present on Birnbaum Family Archive on November 10

Dr. Jess Olson, associate director of the Center for Israel Studies at Yeshiva University and author of Nathan Birnbaum and Jewish Modernity: Architect of  Zionism, Yiddishism and Orthodoxy (forthcoming from Stanford University Press), and Shulamith Berger, curator of special collections for the Yeshiva University Libraries, will address The Nathan and Solomon Birnbaum Family Archive: A Treasure Trove for the Study of Modern Judaism on Thursday, November 10, 2011, from 2:45 – 4 p.m.  in Furst Hall, Room 535, 500 West 185th Street, New York, NY on YU’s Wilf Campus in Washington Heights.

Nathan Birnbaum

Nathan Birnbaum

In the presentation, which is open to the public at no cost, Dr. Olson will discuss the place of Birnbaum as a major figure in Jewish political and intellectual history and the role of the archive in bringing his life and work to life. Berger will discuss the uniqueness of the archive as one of the last independent repositories of Jewish documentary history.

The Nathan and Solomon Birnbaum Family Archive: A Treasure Trove for the Study of Modern Judaism is the single greatest archival collection to document the history of Jewish nationalism still held in private hands. Composed of tens of thousands of documents and images, it offers an unparalleled window into the world of Jewish politics in Europe from the 1880s until the eve of the Holocaust.

Just before his death in 1937, Nathan Birnbaum, a founder of Zionism, leader in Yiddishism, later ba’al teshuva and leader in the inter-war Agudath Israel, instructed in his will that his papers be taken to safety in England with his eldest son, Solomon. This collection of manuscripts, letters and publications traveled with Solomon and his family as they made their way across the Atlantic from postwar England to Toronto. The archive includes thousands of letters from luminaries such as Theodor Herzl, Martin Buber, Franz Rosenzweig, Jacob Rosenheim, Judah Magnes and many others, as well as an extensive collection of Jewish periodicals, many of them not found in other collections.


Center for Israel Studies Presents a Festival of Jewish Storytelling Honoring Peninnah Schram on November 6

Yeshiva University’s Center for Israel Studies will present “Folktales of Israel: A Festival of Jewish Storytelling” on November 6, 2011. The festival, co-sponsored by Stern College for Women, the Yeshiva University Museum and the American Zionist Movement, is free and open to the public and will take place at the YU Museum, Center for Jewish History, 15 West 16th Street from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Peninah Schram

Peninah Schram, renowned Jewish folklorist and storyteller will be honored at the Nov. 6 festival.

Bringing together internationally renowned story tellers and scholars, the festival will be dedicated to the art of storytelling in and about the Land of Israel. The festival will highlight the beauty of Israel and its peoples, presenting through scholarship and performance some of the ways that storytellers have transmitted their love of Israel through the ages.

The festival honors Peninnah Schram, a world-renowned Jewish folklorist and storyteller who is professor of speech and drama at YU. Schram is a recipient of the prestigious Covenant Award for Outstanding Jewish Educator (1995) and has been awarded the National Storytelling Network’s 2003 Lifetime Achievement Award “for sustained and exemplary contributions to storytelling in America.”

“There is power and beauty in shared stories,” said Schram, who has authored ten books of Jewish folktales. “Since storytelling is a dialogue, it creates more understanding and community between people serving as a thread between hearts. This event will celebrate the stories of Israel that are so connected to each of the storytellers and the keynote speakers. I feel blessed to be honored by this magnificent festival.”

Featured storytellers at the festival include: Arthur Strimling, Barry Bub, Cherie Karo Schwartz, Ellen Frankel, Goldie Milgram, Jennifer Rudick Zunikoff, Laura Simms and Noa Baum. Keynote presentations will be given by Dan Ben Amos, professor of folklore & Asian and Middle Eastern studies at the University of Pennsylvania; and Rabbi Saul Berman, associate professor of Jewish Studies at Stern College.

“Folktales of Israel brings together scholars and performers, students and rabbis to celebrate all that is good about Israel,” said Steven Fine, director of the Center for Israel Studies and professor of Jewish history. “At this moment in Israel’s history, telling Israel’s stories is an act of hope and promise.”

For more information, to view the full schedule or to register for the festival, visit


Center for Israel Studies Hosts Scholars for International Two-Day Conference featuring “Talmudic Archaeology”

An international conference organized by the Yeshiva University Center for Israel Studies (CIS)—“Talmuda de-Eretz Yisrael: Archaeology and the Rabbis in Late Antiquity”—attracted some 300 scholars, students and community members. Attending were more than 100 students from the Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish StudiesYeshiva College and Stern College for Women, and from area universities.

Professor Eric Meyers of Duke University

Professor Eric Meyers of Duke University

The March 27-28 conference was hosted by Steven Fine, professor of Jewish history and director of the CIS, and Aaron Koller, assistant professor of Bible at YU. The Yeshiva University Museum and Revel co-sponsored the event.

In his summation report to YU Provost Morton Lowengrub, Fine made special note of student enthusiasm in interactions with attending scholars, from the Yeshiva, University, Duke University, Bar-Ilan University, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Hebrew Union College, Jewish Theological Seminary, DePaul University, Nyack College, University College London and Yale University.

“Our students treated the scholars like rock stars,” Fine wrote. A number of his own students from a Revel seminar class in Talmudic archaeology were paired for luncheon discussions with professors whose works they had recently studied, an arrangement Fine described as a “teaching moment.”

“Yeshiva University has a long and distinguished history of scholarship on Talmudic Archaeology,” said Fine. “The first professor of Jewish History at YU, Nahum Slouschz, was the first Jewish archaeologist, and such greats as Rachel Wischnitzer, Louis Feldman and Yaakov Elman have written on the relationship between the rabbis and material culture.”  YU Museum has mounted a number of exhibitions on this theme, including Fine’s own award-winning Sacred Realm: The Emergence of the Synagogue in the Ancient World (1996).

Presenters at each day’s sessions—the first day at the YU Museum, the second on the Wilf Campus—focused on the sometimes puzzling evidence of artifacts, comparing these findings to ancient rabbinic writings, especially Mishnah, Talmud, Midrash and liturgical poetry, piyyutim [liturgical poetry]. Each speaker explored a different way that material culture and text help illuminate the culture of the ancient rabbis in the land of Israel in the Greco-Roman period.

“If we’re lucky, we can try and make [text and material] interpret each other,” said Professor Galit Hasan-Rokem of Hebrew University. For historical reconstruction, “one is not superior to the other.”

Of individual conclusions drawn from such interpretation, Professor Eric Meyers of Duke University cautioned, “None of this is a slam-dunk. It’s highly contentious.”

Professor Daniel Sperber of Bar-Ilan University

Professor Daniel Sperber of Bar-Ilan University

Yonatan Adler of Bar-Ilan suggested that archaeology reflects the masses more than the writings of the Jewish elite. Nonetheless, he said, “We need both. The tensions become interesting.”

But often in poetic writings, “allegory outdoes reality,” according to Professor Laura Lieber of Duke University, whose paper dealt with Jewish marriage customs of the early Byzantium period—for which there is virtually no material evidence.

Mentions of bridal “gold crowns” and “silver cups” in wedding poetry are neither “inherently religious” nor necessarily regal, she said. A crown could mean simple garlands, and only a tiny percentage of Jews had the wherewithal for silver goblets at wedding rituals.

Other speakers dealt with issues of idolatry, color in the Jerusalem Temple, mosaics that reveal ties to ancient Jewish homiletics (midrash), historical geography and the earliest text of the Talmud yet discovered.  Lawrence Schiffman—the newly appointed vice-provost for undergraduate education at YU and professor of Jewish studies—presented “Of the Making of Books: Rabbinic Scribal Arts in Light of the Dead Sea Scrolls.”


YU Hosts Renowned Scholars to Discuss “Talmuda de-Eretz Israel: Archaeology and the Rabbis in Late Antiquity,” March 27-28

Yeshiva University’s Center for Israel Studies presents an international two-day conference on March 27-28 entitled Talmuda de-Eretz Israel: Archaeology and the Rabbis in Late Antiquity. The conference, co-sponsored by the Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies and the Yeshiva University Museum, is free and open to the public and will take place at the YU Museum, Center for Jewish History, 15 West 16th Street on Sunday March 27 and YU’s historic Washington Heights Wilf Campus, Furst Hall, 500 West 185th Street on Monday, March 28.

Dr. Steven Fine

Dr. Steven Fine

“In the last century, massive strides have been made toward the integration of archaeology into the study of rabbinic literature and of rabbinic literature into the study of classical archaeology,” said Steven Fine, director of the Center for Israel Studies. “This paradigm shift has altered the ways we view the rabbis, their literature, Jewish history and the broader Roman world. This conference will focus explicitly upon intersections between Palestinian rabbis and archaeology from the vantage point of rabbinic literature.”

The scholars participating in the conference include Yaakov Elman, professor of Judaic studies at Revel; Steven Fraade, Yale University; Ozer Glickman, rosh yeshiva at YU’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary; Galit Hasan-Rokem, Hebrew University; Eric Meyers, Duke University; Lawrence Schiffman, vice provost at Yeshiva University; and Daniel Sperber, Bar-Ilan University.

For more information, to view the full schedule or to register for the conference, visit