For members of Pittsburgh’s Jewish community, a bit of history was unearthed this week with a visit from Dr. Gabriel Barkay. The Israeli archeologist and educator was in town to discuss his work on the Temple Mount as well as prior excavations.
Barkay’s visit, which coincided with Yom Yerushalayim and the 50th anniversary of the reunification of Jerusalem, was facilitated by Classrooms Without Borders.
“We are celebrating Yom Yerushalayim, and number one, he fought for Jerusalem as a soldier,” said Dr. Zipporah Gur, executive director of CWB. “But as a famous archeologist who is running the sifting project, he can explain what’s going on in the Temple Mount more so than what we hear in the news.”
Rabbi Daniel Wasserman, of Shaare Torah Congregation, agreed.
In vouching for the award-winning speaker, Wasserman said that he met Barkay during a recent visit to Israel. Shortly after the introduction, the spiritual leader told Gur, who had arranged the meeting, “I want him in Pittsburgh. And if I can, I want him on Yom Yerushalayim.”
As requested, thanks to Gur’s efforts “together with the financial support of Classrooms Without Borders, the Kisilinsky family, Shaare Torah, Temple Sinai and Martin Scoratow,” Wasserman got his wish.
So with the parties in place for a day of celebration, Barkay unearthed a personal narrative intertwined with the drama of modern Jewish history.
“I was born in 1944, in Hungary, several months after entry of the Nazis and SS powers into Hungary,” he said to a group of listeners at Hillel Academy of Pittsburgh.
On the day of his birth, Barkay’s mother entered the ghetto. Along with her newborn child, she possessed another sacred object, a Torah scroll. She placed the baby and the hallowed parchment in a large cart, which she had pushed upon entering the ghetto.
In November 1944, the Nazis “took us out of the ghetto and to the railway station,” Barkay said.
Presumably, we were being taken “to the concentration camps and death camps, but the railway wasn’t working.”
So the group returned to the ghetto, and Barkay and the Torah were hidden again in a crib.
Perhaps recognizing the heightened horror of his tale in a setting full of students, the Jerusalem Prize laureate of archaeology, unraveled the intensified scene of a baby wrapped beside a scroll and remarked, “I am the only person I know who legitimately pissed on a sefer Torah.”
As Barkay continued, listeners discovered relics from his youth, including his later educational activities and efforts during the Six-Day War.
In framing the contrast of a pre and post-1967 space, Barkay remarked, “I grew up in a divided city of Jerusalem in the 1950s and was longing to see the places that I had read about.”
After the close of the Six-Day War, “It seemed to me that the house I lived in had a back room but I never had permission to go in, but now I was allowed to enter.”
From that point on, “every day was a day of discovery in Jerusalem,” he explained.
With recollections of prior excavations, Barkay shared how he and others not only “faced some very unusual events,” but located centuries-old items and spots, such as silver scrolls and burial caves of nobility dating from the First Temple period.
More recently though, “for the last 12 years, I have dealt with sifted soil from the Temple Mount,” he said.
The project, which is conducted under the auspices of Bar-Ilan University, began “in 1999 when the Northern Branch of the Islamic Movement conducted illegal renovations on the Temple Mount and disposed over 9,000 tons of dirt mixed with invaluable archaeological artifacts in the nearby Kidron Valley,” explained the project’s website.
After discovering the dumping, Barkay and Zachi Dvira, another archaeologist, retrieved the 18,000 pounds of presumed garbage and began sifting the contents. In more than a decade since the duo started, nearly 200,000 people have volunteered to help. To date, finds include fragments of pottery, bones, remnants of stone vessels, coins, beads, arrowheads and pieces of ancient buildings.
Learning of the discoveries fascinated the young audience.
“Archaeology is one of the best ways to connect people to the land,” said Gur.
But more so, Barkay desired that students understand the rich connection between his work and their lives.
They should be “proud Jews first of all and to know as much as possible about their heritage,” he said of the hearkeners. “They have roots, and their roots are not in Pittsburgh. Their roots are in Yerushalayim and at the Temple Mount.”
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.