Threshold To History

An intricately carved 11th-century door highlights YU exhibit exploring the daily life of medieval Jews in Egypt.

12/17/2013
Culture Editor
Photo Galleria: 

We know when the walnut tree used to build the wooden ark for the Ben Ezra synagogue in Cairo was cut down. Through carbon tracing, researchers have determined the date sometime after 1043. And researchers have also shown that the ark was first used in the 1080s and restored and redecorated over time. What remains a mystery is how this medieval carved door ended up in storeroom of a Fort Lauderdale auction house in the late 20th century.

A Miami Beach dentist named Barry Rangone noticed it at an estate sale in around 1990 and had a feeling it wasn’t the usual collectible. So he bought it for $37 and brought it to the attention of scholars who were able to identify its origins. In 2000, the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore and the Yeshiva University Museum jointly purchased it from him.

The door is now the centerpiece of an illuminating exhibition, “Threshold to the Sacred: The Ark Door of Cairo’s Ben Ezra Synagogue,” on view at the Yeshiva University Museum.

Jacob Wisse, the museum’s director, describes the door as both “a doorway into a physical biography of the place, and to the ideals, and religious, spiritual and intellectual character of the community.”

The exhibition originated in Baltimore, although new objects from sister institutions at the Center for Jewish History were added to this exhibit. The door was shown briefly at the Yeshiva University Museum, soon after it was acquired, but this is the first time that it has been shown as the focal point of an exhibition. Visitors have the opportunity to see it very closely, and to notice the grain of the wood, the markings of age and layers of reconstruction.

The Ben Ezra synagogue in the Fustat section of Cairo is also significant as the place that housed what is now known as the Cairo Geniza, the storehouse of communal documents and texts, from the 8th to 18th centuries. In 1896, Solomon Schechter rediscovered the geniza in a space behind a wall in the women’s section. Most of the more than 100,000 papers — frayed, fragile and dusty — dated back to a period between the 10th and 13th centuries.

The ark door was not included in the materials that Schechter shipped back to Cambridge and then to New York for study.  He did take a number of wooden wall panels inscribed with the names of donors, and in New York, he had made them into a Torah ark for use at the Jewish Theological Seminary, where he became president. Those panels are included in the exhibition, along with 18 original geniza documents, earthenware and metalwork from the period, an ancient Israelite tombstone, inscribed textiles and ivory plaques that were luxury items of the time. Other highlights include an intriguing hand-drawn navigational map by a Jewish cartographer showing the many ports around the Mediterranean in a hybrid of Levantine languages and photographs of a more recent renovation in the 1980s and 1990s. Detailed information about dating the door is available on iPad kiosks.

The exhibition opens with a quote from Judah Halevi, from around 1140, “O God, each age narrates/Your wonders to the next,” going on to emphasize the idea that Egypt is not just a place of exile, but a place of biblical import, where God’s presence can be felt — where, addressing God, he writes, “Your miracles took place.”

The wall texts explain historical connections and describe how the objects represent ties to the surrounding Islamic community. The 12th century was a period of religious tolerance, and Fustat was a commercial center. Wisse points out that the Jews’ expressions of beauty echoed Islamic traditions.

The ark door is skillfully decorated on both sides (the facing door is missing), and experts can show that it was reconstructed over time. A medallion motif on the front, with four corner designs, was probably carved after the door was installed. Also on exhibit is a 14th-century, leather-bound Koran, whose cover design elements are similar to those on the ark.

The idea of doors and gates appear with some frequency in biblical text and in other Jewish writing and imagery. Doors represent openings, entranceways to the Divine presence, to the unknown or to something new. Many early books feature doors on their title pages, thresholds to new knowledge. “All beginnings require that you unlock a new door,” Rabbi Nachman of Breslov wrote. On these ark doors are inscribed the words from Psalm 118, “Open to me the gates of righteousness” (verse 19) and, below, “This is the gate of the Lord” (verse 20).

There are no photos or paintings of individuals in the exhibit (other than a photomural of Solomon Schechter at work on the geniza documents in the Cambridge University Library in 1898), but the hands of craftsman and the stories of their lives are felt, as well as the stories of the people whose lists and letters were discovered in the geniza.

Among the geniza fragments are a love poem by Judah Halevi, a list of objects provided by a groom for his bride’s dowry, an alphabet primer to teach children Hebrew, a handwritten copy of a portion of “The Guide for the Perplexed” by Maimonides, a letter asking for financial aid from the Jewish community and a genealogy chart, written in Hebrew and Judeo-Arabic, tracing a 12th generation family back 67 generations to King David, and then 32 more generations back to Adam.

Never before has the geniza had such a cultural moment, with this exhibition, Dara Horn’s new novel “A Guide for the Perplexed,” set in part in Fustat and the recent non-fiction books “Sacred Trash” by Adina Hoffman and Peter Cole and “Sacred Treasure” by Rabbi Mark Glickman. Horn’s masterful novel, with appearances by Schechter as well as the Rambam, uses the geniza as a way of exploring the nature of human memory.

The famed Jewish traveler, Benjamin of Tudela, passed through Fustat — once considered one of the world’s great cities — and the Ben Ezra synagogue, and writes about the Jews as very wealthy. His account of his travels between 1160 and 1173 in Asia, Europe and the Middle East, was printed in Constantinople in 1543, translated in to Latin and later translated into Yiddish. A Yiddish copy from YIVO’s collection, printed in Amsterdam in 1691, is included here, along with a Hebrew version reprinted in 1895 in Munkacs.

At its peak in the 11th century, Fustat was home to about 3600 Jews. As people began relocating closer to the center of Cairo, the Ben Ezra synagogue declined. In Cairo during the first half of the 20th century, there were 80,000 Jews. Now less than 50 remain. The Ben Ezra synagogue is now in the part of the city known as Old Cairo and is maintained as a historic site.

Walking amid these antiquities and relics in the exhibition, one can’t help but wonder about the state of the Ben Ezra synagogue now, in light of the recent uprisings in Egypt. Yeshiva University Museum officials say they are unaware of any damage to the site. Architect and historian Phyllis Lambert, who spearheaded the most recent restoration and documentation of the synagogue from 1980 to 1993 through the Canadian Centre for Architecture, where she is the founding director, concurred, saying that she hadn’t heard of damage either.

Lambert edited an impressive 1994 book about the project, “Fortifications and the Synagogue,” which is available for perusal in the exhibition. In an introduction, she writes about first encountering the space, “Despite layers of dust on every object and fixture, the sanctuary has a venerable appearance.” The book includes an unforgettable 1979 photograph by Israeli photojournalist Micha Bar Am of the beadle of Ben Ezra, Shehâta Ibrâhîm Mûsâ, leaning on a gate outside of the synagogue, looking ahead.

“Threshold to the Sacred: The Ark Door of Cairo’s Ben Ezra Synagogue” is on view at the Yeshiva University Museum at the Center for Jewish History, 15 W. 16th St., through Feb. 23, 2014.

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