Today I went with a friend to see the new exhibit on Jewish life in Babylon between the First and Second Temple periods which is at the Bible Lands Museum in Jerusalem.  We got there about 10 minutes before the free tour in English was about to begin, and as it was my first time going through the exhibit, I thought it would be useful to have a tour with the local expert.

The standing exhibit at the Bible Lands Museum is quite interesting.  The entire museum was founded in 1992 to house the personal collection of Professor Elie Borowski.  The exhibit has a definite flow through history and moves seamlessly from one culture to the next, all focusing on factors influencing the Sacred Bridge between Egypt and Mesopotamia which gave rise to monotheism.  The various sections are numbered with arrows showing the direction you are meant to take in order to maintain narrative continuity.  Really , the museum is quite nicely done, despite the obvious focus on the collector’s favorite types of items (seals).  I find the right mix of order and “wanderability” which is sorely lacking in many modern “museums” especially the dreaded “museum experiences” which take the visitor from one room to the next, all synchronized to move groups through at a set pace,  with no possibility for wandering around and spending more time on exhibits which interest you more.

There is a certain lack of academic stringency as most of the collection was “acquired” and not uncovered as part of a registered, licensed excavation, but I am willing to forgive that and accept that this is the way of the archaeological world, especially since the end result is that this collection is being shared with the public and not collecting dust in a basement somewhere.  The removal of context takes away from the finds themselves, but does not take away from the story.

We started the tour with the local guide who told us that we were going straight to the new exhibit on Jewish life in Babylon, and I was happy.  My friend hadn’t been to the Bible Lands Museum in 15 years and we would tour that afterwards on our own.  We made our way down to the basement and into the exhibit.  Our guide started with the history of the end of the First Temple Period – so many kings and so much politics!  She clearly knew her facts as she went through the history in impressive detail.  It was difficult for me to understand how the average museum-goer would have any understanding at all of what she was saying – so much history and so little time.  I was lucky, being a tour guide I have a basic knowledge of many things, but the poor Japanese tourist who was with us looked like a deer caught in the headlights.

We moved into the room which focused on Jewish life in Babylon and saw the clay tablets with cuniform writing which were the real focus of the exhibit.  Again, these tablets were “acquired”, but they told the story of the day-to-day life in the Jewish community.  The Jews living in Babylon kept their names and their community structures, and founded Jewish study halls.  They wept for the destroyed Temple and named their area after their previous home, Judah.

Then, just as suddenly as the Jewish community had been exiled from the Jewish homeland, Cyrus, the Persian king, allowed for the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem (as well as of all religious buildings which had been destroyed by the Babylonians).  The Jews were free to go home after living in Babylon for less than 100 years.  But they didn’t and they went on to have high scholarship and write the Babylonian Talmud.  The community emigrated as a whole to Israel in 1950.  The end.


After our tour ended, my friend needed some time to process.  “Wait, so after the Temple was rebuilt in Jerusalem, the Jews of Babylon didn’t all go back?”
“Nope.  Most stayed in Babylon.”
“But it wasn’t an impossible journey.  Just a few weeks. Why didn’t they go back?”
“Well, they were really comfortable in Babylon.  They had their businesses, their communities, their aging parents.  Life was good.”
“What about their Jewish life?  How could they justify staying in Babylon as Jews?”
“They had study halls – the best in the world.  And their scholarship was unprecedented – we follow the Babylonian Talmud more than the Jerusalem Talmud (written in Israel at the same time – the 3rd/4th century C.E.).”
“So it’s just like today, right?  People don’t want to come to Israel although they can.”
“Yep. Not much changes.”
“And when the Babylonian community came to Israel as a whole.  The entire Babylonian community in Babylon was gone just like that.  How did that happen?”
“Ah, that.  Well they were actually kicked out by the Muslim government when the state of Israel was declared.”
“So 2600 years of Jewish history in Babylon came to an absolute halt?”
“Do you think there are any guarantees?  Yes, there are no more Jews in those places – none, zero, efes.”
“Yes, it doesn’t seem that there are many guarantees for Jews in many places today either.”

Somewhere in my friend’s questions at the end, she had found the story inside the facts.  It just reiterated for me how important framing is when teaching/guiding.  Our local guide was obviously knowledgeable.  She forgot that in order to really teach us about this important period of history, she would need more than facts – she would need a story which would hook us and make us care about the questions and the events, and be able to relate it to our own experience.

There is a saying in tour guide circles that you should never ruin a good story with facts, generally taken to mean that it doesn’t matter if your facts are a bit iffy as long as the story is good. Today I saw another meaning to this saying: don’t focus so heavily on knowing all the facts or you may lose the story – kind of like seeing the trees without seeing the forest.


  1. Hi Leiah (Susan), This is your long lost auntie Philly with a reply. Just wanted to tell you that I have been reading some terrific Christian fiction books about the two times when the Jewish people returned to Israel. The author’s name is Lynn Austin and she follows the Biblical account accurately. The first book is “Return to Me”, and the book that I am reading now is “Keepers of the Covenant”, when Ezra petitioned Artaxerxes to allow more of the Jews to return. These books are called the Restoration Chronicles, she has another great series of books called Chronicles of the Kings.

    1. I will certainly take you up on your Museum offer if I come to Israel again. I hope to get there again. I loved our trip and remember being surprised and delighted at how beautiful it is there! I hope that you can get the books, I would like to know what you think of them.

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