By Sarit Kattan Gribetz
Teaching in Pandemic Times
In August 2020, a new fall semester began. Whereas in past years there was palpable excitement on campus as students returned from summer break and reunited with friends in classrooms and hallways, this year was different. After a difficult spring, during which Fordham abruptly closed mid-semester in March 2020 when New York City and much of the rest of the world went into lockdown, and a harrowing summer of illness, death, and isolation, we were back in class but not on campus. I met my students on Zoom, in our virtual classroom, each student a small tile on my screen.
How would we manage to learn together in this new setting and under such challenging circumstances? I wondered. And, more importantly, how would we become a community – which, to my mind, is the foundation upon which deep learning is built – with all of us so far away from one another?
I need not have feared. In the second week of our semester, I sensed that before we could turn to analyzing artifacts and discussing texts, my students were eager to check in with one another, to hear how their classmates were doing. How was Hannah handling quarantine? Did Liliya find a job? Did Adam make it back to New York? And so, every other week, we took a few minutes to share our “highs” and “lows.” As I look back at that semester, my “low” was that we weren’t able to meet each other in person and discuss our sources around an actual seminar table, as I have done with my students in semesters past; the cadence of a voice or the squinting of an eye is often enough to signal that we might need to spend more time unpacking an idea, and a subtle knowing smile can prompt me to encourage a shy student to share a brilliant idea I see taking shape in her mind. But my “high” more than made up for it: watching my students embrace the challenge of learning in far from ideal circumstances, and seeing how dedicated they were to this task, even as they were caring for sick relatives, working multiple jobs, or zooming from disparate time zones – and learning so much.
Despite pandemic and political upheaval, I set high course expectations. As a final project, each student was asked to choose a manuscript, facsimile, or book from Fordham’s Special Collections or an artifact from Fordham’s Museum of Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Art that related to the topic of our course; conduct original research; write a catalogue essay; and, collaboratively, curate an exhibition. Most students worked remotely, accessing manuscripts and library resources only digitally. Together, we created an exhibit catalogue that is now online (you can download it here). What these students accomplished is a testament to how much can be done these days in a virtual world, and also no doubt reveals its limits.
The course, titled “Medieval Jerusalem: Jewish, Christian, Muslim Perspectives,” centered on the history of Jerusalem from the Jebusites to the present day, focusing especially on the city’s importance to Jews, Christians, and Muslims across the centuries. During our class sessions, we examined archaeological, architectural, and artistic sources; passages from the Hebrew Bible, New Testament, and Qur’an, along with their rich traditions of commentaries; accounts of pilgrimage and travel; legal and historiographical texts; and many other genres, all designed to provide diverse angles through which to study Jerusalem’s rich history. This final project was designed to encourage students to continue these explorations independently, by pulling yet another source off the shelf, closely analyzing it, and contributing their own piece to the study of Jerusalem’s history. By producing their own original scholarship, I hoped that my students would not only learn some of the skills it takes to create new knowledge but also come to recognize the power that they have to do so – and, most importantly, the sense of responsibility to do so with honesty and integrity to the sources, people, and histories in them.
The construction of space, both physical and conceptual, is always an overarching theme of my Jerusalem course. How could it not be in a course centered on a city? But this semester, the theme of space resonated in new ways. Examining the topic of space and our relationship to different spaces was especially poignant during a time when most of us were largely confined to our personal spaces, when we were unable to gather together in the space of a classroom, when proximity itself was dangerous and even lethal. Yet one of the most comforting aspects of this semester for me was when we were able to join together in our zoom room to create a virtual space – a virtual classroom – in lieu of a physical one. I cannot help but wonder how our own situatedness in space affected the ways in which we studied the space of Jerusalem, and how studying the history of a place so far away impacted our experiences of staying put. When we discussed the idea of sacred space, reflections about domestic spaces entered into the conversation (a theme I don’t recall from previous semester when I taught this same course): a dining room table, a bedroom, a garden, a view. Being home because of the pandemic and reading about the temple as God’s dwelling prompted us to consider the many ways in which the domestic and the cultic intersect in ancient sources. When we analyzed pilgrimage narratives, we wondered anew about the function that such tales of travel served for those unable to travel. Verbal and visual descriptions of a pilgrim making her way through the city, building by building and street by street, helped us vicariously make our own way through Jerusalem from afar in a context in which traveling to the city was impossible for us, as it was for the original recipients of these medieval texts.
In every course I teach, I always remind students that context matters. The context (historical, cultural, political, literary, artistic, economic, and so on) of our sources matters; the context of later readers (i.e. the transmission history of our sources) matters; and our own context (as interpreters of texts, as historians, as people) matters. Reflecting on our own context as learners encourages us to be aware of what we bring of ourselves and our circumstances to our readings of sources, and it also prompts us to be deliberate in how we apply our new-found understanding of the past to our current world. I’ve therefore shared some reflections about teaching and learning during pandemic times to provide some context for the work we produced together.
Overview of “Jerusalem in the Stacks” Catalogue
If one can’t travel far, one is prompted to make the most of what one has at home. This is exactly what we did here in our exhibition catalogue. This catalogue’s title, “Jerusalem in the Stacks,” gestures to the many unexpected places in Fordham University’s library where one can find Jerusalem if one is looking for it. All one needs to do is take a book off the shelf, peer inside, and begin to ask questions. That’s what each student did with a single item at the library; together, it became a collection.
The catalogue is divided into four themes: “Devotion”; “Regional Relations”; “Visualizing the City”; and “Education.” Each theme represents a different aspect of Jerusalem’s history, and each manuscript and object within the catalogue was researched by a different student.
The section titled “Devotion” highlights four objects that represent different modes of devotion – biblical interpretation, prayer, music, and religious rituals – both in the city and by those who incorporate memories of or aspirations for the city from afar.
A Glossa Ordinaria on the Minor Prophets highlights the rich ancient and medieval commentary tradition that engaged with biblical references to Jerusalem; Jerome’s translation of the biblical books is dedicated to Paula and Eustochium, two fourth-century women with deep ties to Jerusalem.
The Rothschild Miscellany represents a collection of Jewish texts of different genres, in which Jerusalem often appears, not least in the section on the Psalms and through an elaborately illuminated depiction of King David with his harp, which appears in the opening pages of the manuscript.
Jerusalem also appears frequently in the Saint Michel Hours, a book of devotional prayers that brought monastic piety into lay settings.
Finally, a simple piriform unguentarium from Jerusalem, likely used in ancient funerary rituals, reminds us that in addition to texts – their study and recitation – objects played important roles in devotional practices in the city.
“Regional Relations” highlights Jerusalem’s place in a broader network of cities, empires, trade routes, and diasporas. As with all cities, it is not only defined by its local history and those who inhabit it, but also by others who interact with the city from outside it (to visit, to conquer, to rule over it, to write poetry about it) and by the relations it has with other places. In this section of the exhibition, we explore five examples of contact between Jerusalem and its region: the Roman Empire, late antique Egypt, medieval France, modern Amsterdam and England.
A portrait of Hadrian from the Levant demonstrates how Roman imperial figures found creative ways of inserting themselves into the daily lives of their subjects, even those far from Rome. Through such portraits, several of which have been discovered in the region, the Roman emperor Hadrian – who re-founded Jerusalem as a Roman colony and named it “Aelia Capitolina” – was able to fashion himself as both an omnipresent, even divine, figure, and also a local resident present on a daily basis.
The path of a single piece of Roman glass, however, reminds us that imperial travel to Jerusalem was but one part of far more intricate regional relations, which also entailed the production and shipment of goods along Roman roads, including glass from Egypt to Jerusalem and elsewhere.
This section also includes an indulgence from William of Adam, a French Dominican who spent much of his life traveling the world. Though the indulgence was produced and remained in France, William is known for his calls to embark on a new Crusade to reconquer Jerusalem, reminding us that even local politics often set its sights on global ambitions, indulgences having long played a role in the Crusades.
An Ashkenazi Mahzor with Yiddish commentary from Amsterdam spotlights a particular Jewish community that made its home not in the holy land but in Europe, and its annual celebration of Sukkot, a holiday with deep connections to the temple in Jerusalem, not least because of traditions that link the dedication of the two temples with this holiday.
Likewise, Chaim Weitzman’s little pamphlet arguing for why the Jews ought to return and live in Palestine uses ancient traditions about Jewish attachment to Jerusalem to argue for their modern return in the twentieth century.
How did people imagine Jerusalem? Artists depicted Jerusalem in the media of their day, whether through elaborate illuminations, simple illustrations, affective drawings, or photographs. Each image tells us just as much (or more) about the person who created the image as it does about the city. The third section of the exhibition features examples of “Visualizing Jerusalem,” highlighting diverse modes of visual expression, each preserved in a different type of source, from the medieval, early modern, and modern periods.
The Flemish Apocalypse’s illumination of a New Jerusalem attempts to illustrate a heavenly city, along the lines of several other Apocalypses that provide differing visual interpretations of the Book of Revelation’s reimagination of the holy city.
The illustration of Jerusalem in a manuscript of Nicholas Lyre’s Commentary on Ezekiel depicts the city more simply and schematically, with walls and gates, leaving the details to the imagination of the reader.
In contrast, a sixteenth-century Jewish Italian pilgrimage text provides quite down-to-earth drawings of sites along an actual pilgrimage route, depicting sacred tombs along the way to Jerusalem paired with the city’s many gates, sacred sites, and shrines, and commentary written above and beneath each drawing. The manuscript, signed by its Florentine owner, is small enough to fit into a travel bag to accompany a pilgrim to the Holy Land.
Complementing these early modern drawings is a set of 30 stereoscopic photographs that capture a pilgrimage from Jaffa to Jerusalem. These photographs are part of a collection of a 100 such photographs, accompanied by detailed explanations of each location on the back of each card. These photographs, which became 3-dimensional images when viewed through a stereoscope, were designed to transport American Protestant readers of the Bible to the holy land without ever leaving their living rooms. They also served as supplemental religious educational materials.
The last theme explored in the catalogue is “Education.” Because of Jerusalem’s importance to Jews, Christians, and Muslims, the city is often found in educational contexts in all three religious traditions, from family rituals to children’s literature. In this section, we feature books that were designed to be used in familial contexts; each book cultivates a particular type of relationship with the city.
We begin with the Barcelona Haggadah, used by Catalonian Jews during the holiday of Passover. The Passover seder, a discussion and reenactment of the Israelite exodus from slavery in Egypt, is designed primarily as an educational experience in which parents teach their children this part of their heritage. The manuscript includes a full page that reads “Next Year in Jerusalem,” a traditional exclamation recited towards the conclusion of the seder ceremony, which functions as a hope for a good future and an eventual return to Jerusalem.
A mid-nineteenth-century chapter book titled The Child’s History of the Fall of Jerusalem narrates Josephus’ account of the Jewish revolt against Rome in the late 60s C.E. in the form of a story that a father tells his two young children. This book, published by the American Tract Society, an Evangelical Christian institution, fosters interest in the ancient history of Jerusalem, in particular before and after the time of Jesus, and ends with Charles Wesley’s hymn, “The New Jerusalem.”
A more recent illustrated children’s book, Michael and the Monster of Jerusalem, attempts to tell a more religiously pluralistic history of Jerusalem as a city sacred to three religious traditions and therefore also a city that has found itself in the midst of conflict for centuries. This history is narrated not by a parent but by an imaginary monster named Methusalem, a name that evokes both the biblical figure “Methuselah,” the oldest man who ever lived, and the city of Jerusalem, called “Salem.” The book contains a preface written by the former mayor of Jerusalem, Teddy Kollek, who playfully bemoans not having heard of this “non-tax-paying resident of the city” until reading Michael’s tale.
Finally, the catalogue ends with an exploration of books that are explicitly written to promote peace among Jerusalem’s diverse religious populations as well as among those outside the city who likewise feel deeply connected to the city from afar. Both stories feature pairs of Jewish and Muslim boys who discover, through the course of their interactions with one another, that they have just as many similarities as differences, and that one of the things that binds them is their love of their city, Jerusalem.
Focusing on items that are found in Fordham’s collection – whether original manuscripts or facsimiles – forced us to be creative in the connections we made. We weren’t able to resort to the most famous objects found at the Met or the British Museum. As a result, there are quite a few objects that are remarkable precisely because they are quite ordinary, such as a Mahzor that a regular congregant would hold in a synagogue in Amsterdam, or a stained book of hours with tattered pages that must have been used and cherished before anyone thought to preserve it. The limitations of the collection also prompted us to consider books written and published in the US that touch on the history of Jerusalem, and to wonder what role they played for American readers – including readers in our very own university library.
The artifacts cover much ground, from ancient glass to medieval manuscripts to modern literature. But there are also significant gaps, which reflect absences in Fordham’s collection. The most striking absence is that of Islamic texts. Fordham has long collected Christian materials, and more recently began acquiring Judaica as well, but it has not yet begun to build a substantial collection of rare Islamic texts. In class conversations, we brainstormed various ways of dealing with this gap in the context of our exhibition. The first was to acknowledge it, thereby making the absence noticed. In addition to acknowledging the gap, one student pointed out that while none of the manuscripts, books, or objects were produced by Muslims nor do they contain an Islamic text, some of the objects were produced in Muslim Jerusalem (for example, the stereoscope photographs, taken at the turn of the twentieth century in Ottoman Jerusalem) or created outside of Jerusalem at a time when the city was under Islamic rule (such as William of Adam’s indulgence, composed when Jerusalem was in Mamluk hands). Some of them even depict Muslim Jerusalem (most strikingly, the Casale Pilgrimage, which includes drawing of late sixteenth century Jerusalem), or discuss Jerusalem’s Muslim residents (as Weitzman’s text does). Thirdly, we incorporated more recent children’s literature that, though not rare, makes an effort to be deliberately pluralistic in its presentation of the city and its history. Highlighting these historical contexts and expanding what the collection includes are some of the ways in which we’ve attempted to include Jewish, Christian, and Muslim dimensions of Jerusalem in this exhibition, despite the limitations we faced.
“Next Year in Jerusalem”: Looking Ahead
The very last sources I shared with my students during our final moments of our final class meeting were a number of Passover Haggadot, in which the phrase “Next Year in Jerusalem” appears. I explained that when Jews say this phrase, they mean it in at least two ways. First, they mean it literally, that they hope that by next year redemption will have arrived and that they’ll be living in a restored Jerusalem. But they also recite it figuratively, as a generalized hope for the future – a hope that next year will be better, that they won’t be in the midst of a pandemic, that they’ll be somewhere else, in a way that they’ll figuratively be in Jerusalem. I thought it was fitting to end our class in this way, with this doubled hope, that one day – in the not too distant future – each student be able to visit Jerusalem, the city about which we had just spent a full semester learning, and also that each of them will find their way to their own Jerusalem, wherever that might be, once it’s safe for each person to emerge from their homes. And as I tell each group of students I teach, I hope that they will stay in touch – that they will send back their pilgrimage narratives and reflections from their journeys, wherever those take them.
The exhibition catalogue, “Jerusalem in the Stacks,” can be downloaded here.
As for those of us still on campus, there will also be several more upcoming exhibitions and catalogues highlighting the expected and unexpected places where Jerusalem appears in the Fordham Library. There are new boxes of old books to explore, still uncatalogued, waiting for us in the back rooms of the library, as well as many other pages to peruse in the stacks. Stay tuned!
Jerusalem Exhibition Details
A companion in-person exhibition, also titled “Jerusalem in the Stacks,” features some of the pieces that Sarit’s students researched for the catalogue as well as many additional pieces from the Fordham collection. It is currently on display at the Special Collections in Walsh Library on Fordham University’s Rose Hill Campus through the end of 2021. The in-person exhibition was curated by Sarit Kattan Gribetz and Magda Teter, with the generous assistance of Vivian Shen of the O’Hare Special Collections.
Sarit Kattan Gribetz is Associate Professor of Classical Judaism in the Theology Department at Fordham University, and served as Acting Director of Fordham’s Center for Jewish Studies in 2020-2021. Her first book, Time and Difference in Rabbinic Judaism (Princeton University Press), received a National Jewish Book Award for Scholarship. She is currently writing her next book, Jerusalem: A Feminist History.