Student Docents Explain the Artifacts of “The Arch of Titus” Exhibition
On Friday, December 8, Yeshiva University students enrolled in “Arch of Titus: Between Rome and Jerusalem,” took on the roles of museum docents and shared their learning with other YU students, staff and faculty as well as members of the community at the Yeshiva University Museum. The course, taught by Dr. Steven Fine, Dean Churgin Professor of Jewish History and director of the Center for Israel Studies, is tied to the Museum’s current exhibition, “The Arch of Titus: From Jerusalem to Rome, and Back.”
Students in Fine’s class studied the history, iconography and literature connected to the Arch, which depicts sacred vessels, including a menorah, being carried back to Rome by soldiers after the sack of Jerusalem in 70 C.E. As part of their course work students had to select one artifact from the exhibition, study it in depth and present it to Museum visitors.
Dov Brand, a sophomore from Staten Island and one of the docents, was pleased with his performance. “I was nervous at first because I’m interested in computer science and engineering, and have never done this before. But I learned a lot from my peers, and my spiel got a lot smoother over time.”
Dr. Jill Katz, clinical assistant professor of archaeology, brought students from her class, “The History of Jerusalem,” to the exhibition. “I wanted my students to come,” she explained “because it ties in directly to the religious, political, and cultural history of Jerusalem that they have studied. I also wanted them to understand how these kinds of exhibitions are created, as well as to showcase the YU Museum and the scholarship YU produces.”
“One of the pieces that made the greatest impact on me,” she added, “was the coin of Antigonus Mattathias, which has the earliest depiction of the menorah on a coin. I was familiar with the coin from pictures, but I had never appreciated how tiny it is. In it I see a small nation and its beleaguered leadership in the waning days of the Hasmonean Dynasty [ruling Judean dynasty 142 – 63 BCE)], boldly asserting its independence both politically and culturally.”
Emily Ornelas, a freshman at Stern College for Women from Los Angeles who is taking Katz’s course, was most impressed by a 1913 postcard of the Arch inscribed by Sigmund Freud with the phrase, “The Jew Survives it.” “For me, Freud’s postcard, linked his own time with the time of the Arch, as if they were happening at the same time, and I found that very exciting.”
Dr. Ronnie Perelis, Chief Rabbi Dr. Isaac Abraham and Jelena (Rachel) Alcalay Chair in Sephardic Studies and associate professor of Sephardic studies, also brought students from his current class, “New World Encounters: Narratives of Discovery and Conquest from Columbus and Beyond.”
“One of the main themes we explore in the class,” Perelis explained, “is how the past is always present, and how we always look at the past from our present situation. I thought the students would gain a lot from seeing how the image of the menorah was transformed throughout history, and how ancient ideas and images can have a major impact on the present.”
Perelis especially liked the variety of proposed seals for the early state of Israel and how they reflected such different world views and sensibilities while all having the menorah at their center. “I am always touched,” he said, “how clever the Jews are as they figure out how to survive in dignity.”
Daniel Feldan, a sophomore from Boca Raton, who is taking Perelis’ class, found all the artifacts interesting because “they fit in with my own interests in studying how the world is, but also how the world could be when people get hold of an idea.”
Director of Museum Education Ilana Benson was grateful to Fine for organizing the day. “By focusing on visible, concrete details about a designated object, the students reinforced the Museum’s educational mission to use objects to open windows onto Jewish history. Even more gratifying, though, was watching the excitement and natural curiosity of the students as they engaged with the docents. This is exactly the response we try to spark for all of the Museum’s educational programming.”
Dr. Jacob Wisse, director of the YU Museum, was thrilled to have the students there. “Watching—and hearing—students so engaged with other students through the objects and through the overall experience of the exhibition brings to life the mission of the Museum,” he said. He added that “the cacophony and deep engagement of learning is something we often hear associated with the beit midrash, and not usually with museums. But the sound of the students in the gallery was beautiful—the sound of joyful learning, of students deeply engaged with each other through the Museum, through the exhibition, through the dynamism of our history and culture.”
Fine was also pleased with his students’ performance, and they, in turn, were thankful to him for giving them the opportunity to teach others about what they had learned. “This is what faculty research, scholarship and our university museum together can do for our students,” he said. “Allowing them to experience the joys of scholarly process as they themselves build and are built.”
“The Arch of Titus: From Jerusalem to Rome, and Back” will be on view at the Museum through January 14, 2018.