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From Qumran to Teaneck

Dead Sea Scrolls and advanced technology

 
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Zuckerman’s West Semitic Research Project uses technology to study scrolls
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Bruce Zuckerman is founder/director of the West Semitic Research Project.

Digitizing the Dead Sea Scroll fragments in Teaneck led to an important discovery, said Bruce Zuckerman, professor of religion in the College of Letters, Arts & Sciences at the University of Southern California and founder/director of the West Semitic Research Project.

While the shooting itself took only several days, later analysis, conducted back at USC, revealed a possible new tool for refining the dating of the scrolls.

“We were very pleased; it was a complete surprise,” he said.

Zuckerman said he had known about the Teaneck fragments for a long time, “though not exactly what was there.”

Last year, he received a call from Weston Fields, executive director of the Dead Sea Scrolls Foundation, who “is very good at finding interesting things.” Fields — who wanted to support an exhibition of scrolls at the Milwaukee Public Museum — told him that he had approached Archbishop Mor Cyril Aphrem Karim of St. Mark’s Syrian Orthodox Cathedral in Teaneck.

“He said that no one had carefully examined the scrolls for a long time and asked if he could take a fragment to Milwaukee. The archbishop was gracious and sincerely interested in being helpful to scholars. He said he would allow one fragment to be used there.”

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Steven Fine of Yeshiva University, left, and Kenneth Zuckerman, West Semitic Research, photograph a Dead Sea Scrolls fragment using Highlight-RTI (Reflectance Transformation Imaging). Courtesy Yeshiva University

According to Zuckerman, Fields further proposed that it would be a good time to get the fragments photographically documented, something that had not been done since the 1940s. Would Zuckerman be interested?

“I said I’d make it happen,” said the WSRP founder.

Reflecting now on his experience in Teaneck, Zuckerman said “the archbishop was a model of cooperation. He and his colleagues were really wonderful to us.” And not only were they well-treated, but the study team also made a significant finding.

Initially, he explained, the four-member group was planning for the first time to use reflectance transformation imaging technology (RTI) on Dead Sea Scrolls — an imaging tool first shown to him 12 years ago by Hewlett Packard scientist Tom Malzbender, who demonstrated the concept by manipulating images of a bowl of rice. The aim was to get a detailed picture of the texture of the skin of the scroll, in order to gauge its condition primarily for purposes of conservation. In addition, he thought he might learn more about the hair follicle patterns on the skin. “I thought we might be able to pick something up,” he said. Pointing out that every skin is unique, “like a fingerprint,” Zuckerman said he hoped the technique might tell his team what kind of animal was used for the scrolls and would allow them to match fragments based on common patterns of follicles.

Shooting a series of 32 images at different light angles — later combining them into a master image allowing him to move the light around — Zuckerman found that he could see the skin patterns very clearly.

But even more, after enhancing the reflectivity of the surface, “we realized we could see the thicknesses of the ink strokes on top of the skin. In fact, we could even see the thicknesses of individual ink strokes and see which were made first, second, third.”

This has significant implications for paleography, he said. Traditionally, scholars have looked at the overall shape of the letters when studying ancient scripts. Now, with RTI, they can see much more — offering tantalizing new possibilities for the study of
the Dead Sea Scrolls.

One expert in the field has suggested that more than 50 of the scrolls were written by the same scribe, he said. “She looked at them and evaluated them by eye, but if we could get RTI images of these texts, we would have better empirical evidence to guide and test this kind of expert opinion.”

“It got us all very excited,” he said, noting that his Teaneck team included longtime colleague and WSRP associate director Marilyn Lundberg, Yeshiva University history professor Steven Fine, and Zuckerman’s brother Kenneth, a technical photographer with some 30 years experience photographing ancient texts, whom he credits with developing many of the techniques WSRP uses today.

“Almost every one of our advances is something he thought of,” said Zuckerman, joking that his brother was “born with a camera in his hands.”

The research project — created to make available high-resolution images of ancient Near Eastern texts — was founded by Zuckerman in the early1980s. The group focuses primarily on areas along the Mediterranean, looking at texts in Hebrew or in similar languages.

InscriptiFact, the database application that makes this information available — what Zuckerman calls “the distribution end of the project” — was begun in the late-1990s and became active as a public resource in 2004. Now, said its founder, it contains more than 50,000 images and is used by scholars in some 40 countries.

The professor recalled that in the 1970s, first as a graduate student and later as a “new Ph.D., I was always frustrated when I tried to study ancient inscriptions closely related to the Bible. You can’t read it if you can’t see it,” he said. “It’s hard enough even if you can see it.”

He cited one case where there were “20 different readings of a crucial passage, all depending on one murky photograph … yet major issues would turn on how you read that, how you interpreted a letter. I asked, ‘Why doesn’t someone work on that?’”

Solving the problem was not so easy, he said, pointing out that generally, “scholars can’t shoot and photographers can’t read,” noting that even the most photogenic pictures are often inadequate because a photographer, no matter how technically expert, cannot do the best documentation if he or she does not have scholarly foreknowledge.

Realizing that someone should try to master both disciplines, he set out to learn more about available technology.

“I didn’t have to go too far for help,” he said. “My brother was on the cutting edge of photography and computer imaging technology.”

According to Zuckerman, one of the reasons for WSRP’s success is that “we use technology as an incentive,” approaching museums and other collectors and telling them that WSRP will make the pictures, it won’t cost them a dime, and it will enhance the study of the collection itself.

“Our only request is that we be allowed to post [the images] on our database,” he said. While the site, InscriptiFact.com, is not “purely public,” users are asked to abide by a simple set of rules, agreeing that images will be used for study or education purposes and that — if a user wants to reproduce the image — he or she seek permission from the item’s owner. Once a user has agreed to these conditions, access is free of charge.

Zuckerman said he loves involving students in his work. “They’re the next generation; the ones who will be leading the charge.”

He said that Fine’s YU students “are incredibly well-trained. They can read ancient Hebrew like The New York Times. I can give them a better view — show them what’s possible,” he said. “It’s a natural relationship.”

In addition to his own students and YU students, Zuckerman has also worked with groups from the University of Illinois who have done high-resolution imaging of the school’s collection of Mesopotamian seals.

“It was a groundbreaking project,” he said, adding that “the idea is to give students a wonderful opportunity to use the technology. They take to it like a duck to water.”

Zuckerman said he has done some work with Dead Sea Scroll fragments at Azusa Pacific University in California and hopes, by the end of this month, to have begun work on a collection in Fort Worth, Texas.

“We have new ideas to try,” he said, adding that he is “trying to establish proof of concept before going to major collections like those in Israel. They don’t like to pull [the scrolls] out for no good reason. They need to make sure there’s a justification.”

He said he has just begun to test the combination of RTI and infrared imaging. While the latter has proved effective with scrolls, “no one has ever applied both together. We’ve adapted a camera that will allow us to do that.”

Whether his new technology will change the face of scholarship still remains to be determined, said Zuckerman.

“But I am confident that it will change things, that we will have a level and quality of information that we didn’t have before. How that plays out in terms of what we learn, I don’t know. We have to take this step by step and see how it goes.”

But, he promised, “we’ll move this material into the public domain with all deliberate speed.”

 

More on: From Qumran to Teaneck

 
 
 

The Dead Sea Scrolls: Scenes from a tragicomedy

The story of the Dead Sea Scrolls discovery and fate — and how fragments ended up in Teaneck — “is enormously interesting,” said Hershel Shanks, the founder of the Biblical Archaeology Society and the editor of Biblical Archaeology Review.

The author of several books on the scrolls, he was instrumental in widening scholars’ access to them. (And that is a story in itself.)

The story “goes back to 1947,” he said in a telephone interview from Rehovoth Beach, Del., “when the first scrolls were found by the Bedouin” in a cave in Qumran, near the Dead Sea. More than 900 were eventually discovered in the Judean desert, in 15,000 fragments.

 
 

Yeshiva University students and professor take up the Dead Sea Scrolls challenge

“The problem with doing ancient history is that you don’t have very many sources,” said Steven Fine, professor of Jewish history at Yeshiva University and part of the group convened by Bruce Zuckerman to study the Dead Sea Scroll fragments at St. Mark’s Cathedral in Teaneck. “You have to squeeze out as much as you can from everything that does exist.”

Fine, who also heads YU’s Center for Israel Studies, is clearly excited by the project and the doors that Zuckerman’s work have opened for students in the field.

He said that Zuckerman, a friend for some 30 years, first approached him when he was a graduate student in Jerusalem.

“I got a call saying, ‘Stop everything. Next week we’re photographing the Dead Sea Scrolls at the Shrine of the Book.”

 
 

Fragments of history from the Dead Sea Scrolls

Throngs of Jews walk past St. Mark’s Syrian Orthodox Cathedral in Teaneck every Shabbat on their way to shul, unaware that the church is the caretaker of an ancient and precious piece of Jewish history.

When Archbishop Mar Athanasius Yeshue Samuel arrived in New Jersey in 1949, he brought with him four scrolls and fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls, which include the earliest known texts of books of the Bible. Although the scrolls were later sold to an Israeli archeologist, Samuel kept the fragments and they are to this day under the care of the Eastern Diocese of the Syrian Orthodox Church, headquartered in Teaneck.

 
 
 
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Remembering Rochelle Shoretz

Sharsheret founder, dead of breast cancer at 42, recalled, through tears, with great love

The skies were stormy last Sunday when Rochelle Shoretz, 42, succumbed to complications from breast cancer.

Rain continued falling Monday as more than 500 people gathered at Gutterman and Musicant in Hackensack to mourn and eulogize the mother of two teenage sons, who lived in Teaneck and was the founder and executive director of Sharsheret, a locally based national nonprofit organization providing health information and support services for thousands of young Jewish women living with breast or ovarian cancer.

Many of her friends and relatives said that the rainy gray horizon seemed symbolic of the great light that was leaving this world.

In his eulogy, Rabbi Shalom Baum of Congregation Keter Torah in Teaneck noted that this Shabbat’s Torah portion centers on the kindling of the eternal light in the Temple sanctuary. “It seems that, ironically, our light — Rochie Shoretz — has been extinguished,” he said. “But she would reject that conclusion categorically. … Rochie, you are already a light to so many.”

 

Welcome WIZO

Women’s International Zionist Organization opens local branch

What’s WIZO, and why might it make you think of Julius Caesar?

Think about dividing a large territory into regions.

WIZO is not a shortened version of Dorothy’s magic-performing over-the-rainbow friend the Wizard of Oz, but the very serious and very successful Women’s International Zionist Organization. If you haven’t heard of it (and if you live in the United States, the odds are that you haven’t), that’s where the Julius Caesar part comes in.

Caesar, remember, famously wrote that “All Gaul is divided into three parts.” The founders of women’s Zionist organizations were even more ambitious than the conquerors of the French. They divided the world into just two parts. Hadassah — an organization you most definitely have heard of — got the United States, “and WIZO got the world,” Galina Shenfeld said.

 

Turning point

Local man rises above injury to start home health aide venture

Ronald Gold’s life is so dramatic that it’s hard to resist the temptation to start with a cliché.

The story of his life is about the moment when everything changed, the second that split it inexorably into before and after. The time when he almost died, when his understanding of himself in the physical world ended, when through great pain he was reborn.

But really, the person Mr. Gold became after the terrible accident that rendered him paraplegic was a logical outgrowth of the person he was before. His integrity, athleticism, ambition, courage, tenacity, brains, competitiveness, and strength — as well as, yes, his deep Jewish connections — not only saved his life but allowed him to embark on this next part of it.

 

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Turning point

Local man rises above injury to start home health aide venture

Ronald Gold’s life is so dramatic that it’s hard to resist the temptation to start with a cliché.

The story of his life is about the moment when everything changed, the second that split it inexorably into before and after. The time when he almost died, when his understanding of himself in the physical world ended, when through great pain he was reborn.

But really, the person Mr. Gold became after the terrible accident that rendered him paraplegic was a logical outgrowth of the person he was before. His integrity, athleticism, ambition, courage, tenacity, brains, competitiveness, and strength — as well as, yes, his deep Jewish connections — not only saved his life but allowed him to embark on this next part of it.

 

Working for smart guns

Mahwah rabbi forms coalition to help cut back on gun violence

It would have been entirely understandable if Rabbi Joel Mosbacher wanted to ban all guns. Just collect them all, melt them into a lump, and be done with it.

Rabbi Mosbacher’s father, Lester Mosbacher, was eulogized as a “gentle soul” in 1992; he died, at 52, after he was shot by a burglar who was holding up his store on Chicago’s South Side.

His murder was the textbook definition of pointless — Mr. Mosbacher was shot in the head and arm by a petty thief who got nothing from the robbery and was tried, convicted, and then released for retrial, which never happened. Nothing ever happened, except that Mr. Mosbacher remained dead.

For years, Rabbi Mosbacher, the spiritual leader of Beth Haverim Shir Shalom in Mahwah, bottled his rage. And then, just a few years ago, he took its distilled essence, nourished by news stories of other shootings, equally senseless, like his father’s murder causing sudden, catastrophic, and lifelong pain to survivors as their own lives had to reweave themselves around a gaping hole, to lead a new campaign.

 

Working for smart guns

Rabbi Mosbacher reacts to the Charleston massacre Last week’s shooting at the Emanuel A.M.E. church in Charleston, South Carolin

Last week’s shooting at the Emanuel A.M.E. church in Charleston, South Carolina, which left nine people dead after their murderer, Dylann Roof, sat with them at Bible study for nearly an hour before spouting racists tropes as he gunned them down, has brought the issue, which always simmers just below the surface, to an angry boil.

“On the one hand, Charleston is another in a series of mass shootings that seem to happen almost weekly at this point,” Rabbi Mosbacher said. “That speaks to part of the core of this problem, which is access to guns. People will say all sorts of things. They say it is a question of mental health. Yes, it is — but it’s not fundamentally about mental health. I don’t think that we have significantly more mental health problems here than in Europe.” But laws controlling gun ownership are far more stringent in the rest of the Western world, and the numbers of shootings are correspondingly lower.

 
 
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