Category Archives: Writers & Thinkers

Jews in the Wonderful World of Literature, Thought, and Scholarship

Jews of the Week: Babatha and Yadin

The War Hero Archaeologist Who Made a Revolutionary Discovery

(Credit: PBS/Nova)

Babatha bat Shimon (c. 104-132 CE) was born in the town of Mahoza by the Dead Sea to a wealthy Jewish family originally from Ein Gedi. It was in this area that Israeli archaeologist Yigael Yadin discovered a leather pouch with her belongings in 1960. The documents inside included her legal, financial, and marriage contracts, presenting an eye-opening picture of the life of an upper-class Jewish woman two millennia ago. An only child, Babatha inherited all of her father’s date palm orchards when he passed away. She married her first husband, a man named Yeshu, while still a teenager. He died several years later, after which she married another date farmer named Yehuda. One of the discovered documents shows that Babatha lent her husband a sizeable loan (interest-free, of course). When he also passed away, Babatha seized all of his property as collateral. The documents reveal a number of legal battles that Babatha had to overcome, as well as her impressive financial and business acumen. She spoke several languages and was well-educated. During the Bar Kochva Revolt, Babatha fled from the Romans and hid in a cave, together with one of Bar Kochva’s generals, named Yonatan. It is believed she was killed in the war shortly after. Archaeologist Richard Freund has said that Babatha “revolutionized the way that we think about Jewish women in antiquity.”

Yigael Sukenik (1917-1984) was born in Israel to Polish-Jewish parents. He joined the Haganah at 15, leaving several years later after a dispute with Yitzhak Sadeh. He decided to follow in his father’s footsteps and become an archaeologist. While studying at the Hebrew University he changed his last name to “Yadin”. When Israel’s Independence War broke out, Yadin returned to the newly-formed IDF and became the head of its operations. The following year, he became Chief of Staff. One of his first duties was going to Switzerland to study their army-reserve organization. He then created a similar reverse system in Israel. After resigning from the IDF to protest defence budget cuts, Yadin returned to academia. His doctoral thesis on a translation of the Dead Sea Scrolls won an Israel Prize. He travelled around the world to find and purchase lost and stolen Dead Sea Scrolls to return them to Israel. Meanwhile, Yadin excavated some of the most important archaeological sites in Israel, including Masada, Hazor, and Ein Gedi. During the Six-Day War, he returned to the military to advise the prime minister, and years later was part of the Agranat Commission that investigated the failure of the Yom Kippur War. As a result of this, he formed a new political party, Dash, which sought to fight corruption and restore confidence in Israel’s government. The party won a whopping 15 seats in its first election, and soon joined the new Likud coalition under Menachem Begin. Yadin became deputy prime minister, and played a critical role in the Camp David Accords. He wrote a number of bestselling books, taught at the Hebrew University for over 30 years, and was a renowned expert on the Qumran Caves, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and the Bar Kochva Revolt.

Words of the Week

Also I have seen under the sun, that in the place of law there is evil, and in the place of justice there is evil.
King Solomon (Ecclesiastes 3:16)

Jew of the Week: Ephraim Kishon

Father of Israeli Satire

Ferenc Hoffman (1924-2005) was born in Budapest, Hungary to a secular Jewish family. He loved to write from a young age, and won a prize for a novel he wrote while still in high school. He was also an avid chess player. During World War II, he was first expelled from university before being imprisoned at a number of concentration camps, ending up in the Sobibor death camp. One of the ways he survived is by challenging the guards to chess matches. Another is by maintaining his sense of humour. After the Holocaust, he went by the name Franz Kishunt, studying sculpting and art history while also writing satire. In 1949, he escaped communist Hungary and made aliyah, becoming “Ephraim Kishon”. He was a passionate Zionist and would staunchly defend the State of Israel for the rest of his life—often being disparaged by the media for his hardline views. Within two years of settling in the Holy Land, Kishon was fluent in Hebrew (he literally hand-copied an entire dictionary) and began writing satire for a number of papers. His most famous column was Had Gadya in the Ma’ariv newspaper, which he wrote almost daily for over 30 years. Kishon soon became Israel’s greatest and most famous humourist. He also wrote popular plays, an opera, and books that have been translated into some 40 languages, including So Sorry We Won! about the Six-Day War. In the 1960s, Kishon entered the world of film. He wrote, directed, and produced five movies, the first being the critically-acclaimed Sallah Shabbati, highlighting the struggle of Mizrachi Jewish refugees to Israel. The film won a Golden Globe and was nominated for an Oscar, making Kishon the first Israeli with that distinction. (The film also launched the international career of Israeli actor Chaim Topol, most famous for portraying Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof.) Kishon’s fourth film, The Policeman, also won a Golden Globe and was nominated for an Oscar. Not surprisingly, Kishon has been credited with opening up Israeli cinema to the world, and paving the path to Hollywood for Israelis. He won a long list of awards, including the Bialik Prize and the Israel Prize. He was a billiards champ, a pioneer in the field of computer chess, and even created a board game (“Havila Higiya”) once popular in Israel. Kishon has been called the “father of Israeli satire”, and inspired an entire generation of Israeli humourists.

Words of the Week

The State of Israel wasn’t founded so that anti-Semitism would end. It was founded so that we could tell the anti-Semites to shove it.
– Ephraim Kishon

Jew of the Week: Eilat Mazar

Israel’s Indiana Jones

Eilat Mazar (1956-2021) was born in Israel to a family of archaeologists, and grew up playing and learning on excavation sites. Her grandfather, Benjamin Mazar, was the State of Israel’s first official archaeologist, and was the president of the Hebrew University. Eilat studied archaeology at the same university, and began her field work in 1981. She made a big splash right away by discovering the Royal Quarter of the ancient City of David in Jerusalem, including what is thought to be the royal palace of King David himself. She went on to uncover some of the biggest finds of the last century, including parts of the walls built by King Solomon, the seal of King Hezekiah, and the seal of the Prophet Isaiah. Mazar was driven by her belief that the Tanakh records actual historical events (whereas many of her secular colleagues often viewed the Tanakh as mythology). She would say that “I work with the Bible in one hand and the tools of excavation in the other.” Over the decades, her work played a major role in helping to prove the authenticity of the Bible. Mazar discovered countless treasures from the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem, and was a vocal activist trying to stop Palestinian and Jordanian authorities from destroying Jewish artifacts on the Temple Mount. (The worst case of this was in November 2000, when some 6000 tons of precious earth from the Temple Mount was illegally excavated by the Waqf and dumped in a landfill.) In 2013, Mazar discovered a large cache of treasure from the 7th century that contained a gold coin depicting a menorah, shofar, and Torah. She taught at the Hebrew University and published three books on archaeology, along with dozens of journal articles. She also paved the way for more female archaeologists to enter the field. Despite suffering from an illness, Mazar continued working and digging. Sadly, she passed away earlier this week. Israel Prize winner David Be’eri said that she “will forever be remembered as a pioneer standing shoulder to shoulder with the greatest scholars of Jerusalem throughout the ages.”

Archaeological Proof for the Torah and Exodus

Words of the Week

I fully understand that any minority would prefer to be a majority, it is quite understandable that the Arabs of Palestine would also prefer Palestine to be the Arab State No. 4, No. 5, No. 6 – that I quite understand; but when the Arab claim is confronted with our Jewish demand to be saved, it is like the claims of appetite versus the claims of starvation.
Ze’ev Jabotinsky

Some of Eilat Mazar’s biggest finds (clockwise from top left): gold medallion with menorah, shofar, and Torah scroll from the 7th century CE; seal of King Hezekiah, 7th century BCE; King Solomon’s walls, 10th century BCE; seal of the Prophet Isaiah, 7th century BCE.