Contextualizing a Culture Change

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.”

On May 9 the Center for Israel Studies led University faculty and staff on a private tour of the exhibition.

Assisted by CIS coordinator and MET intern, Yitzchak Schwartz ’11YC, a student at YU’s Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies, Fine has been deeply involved in the exhibition from its conception, writing a major catalog entry, “Jews and Judaism between Byzantium and Islam,” and playing an instrumental role in the choice and interpretation of artifacts that illustrate the Jewish experience at the crossroads of late Roman and Islamic cultures. Over 300 masterpieces of Christian, Islamic and Jewish art are displayed in the exhibition.

During one of two special tours for members of the YU community, Fine and Schwartz spoke about their work collecting and studying the artifacts and provided intriguing contextual information about pieces such as the alphabet primer throughout the exhibition. Fine encouraged visitors to get as close as possible to the ancient works. “This exhibition is especially great for Jewish studies because it shows how Jews lived through the ages in a tactile way,” he said.

Pointing to a bronze plate with scalloped edges that dates back to the middle of the first millennium, Fine said, “I taught that on a slide last week, but there is nothing better than coming here and studying the objects the ancient Rabbis were talking about and seeing them right in front of you, viscerally. To understand the world of our ancestors, you must understand where they lived and who they lived with.”

Fine and Schwartz had been involved in the MET exhibition from its conception, writing a major catalog entry and playing an instrumental role in the choice and interpretation of artifacts.

For Schwartz, the opportunity to collaborate on this exhibition with curator Helen Evans and top academics in a multitude of fields has been one-of-a-kind. It has also given him the credentials to contribute research to other notable exhibitions, such as Fine’s forthcoming Museum of Biblical Art exhibition, “The Samaritans: A Biblical People,” which is rare for a new graduate.

“I’ve always been fascinated by Jewish art and history, especially the art of the synagogue, and YU gave me the tools to explore these subjects I am so passionate about in a serious and informed way,” said Schwartz. “Since the beginning of my undergraduate studies at YU, Dr. Fine has been a very proactive and caring mentor and has opened doors for me in academia and museum work that have been transformative to my research and career.”

Abby Schoenfeld Zimmerman ’09SC, who attended the tour with her family, was fascinated by the exhibition’s framing of three distinct but overlapping communities. “It’s interesting to view Jewish history in context,” she said. “You don’t usually get to see the relationships and cross-influences of that time and the influence Judaism had on other cultures. It’s incredible to have these experts and scholars at YU who can work together with experts of other fields of knowledge to figure out how we all got to where we are today.”

“Byzantium and Islam” is on display at the MET through July 8. For more information about the Center for Israel Studies, visit

Read the review in The New York Times

Leave a Reply