“Writing on the Wall: Graffiti and the Forgotten Jews of Antiquity” by Karen Stern— Looking Back in Time

Stern, Karen. “Writing on the Wall: Graffiti and the Forgotten Jews of Antiquity”, Princeton University Press, 2018.

Looking Back in Time

Amos Lassen

We do not have much information about the daily lives and practices of the Jews of antiquity. What we do have are the various perspectives that have come to us through the writings of Josephus, Philo and the rabbinic writings of the Talmud and the Mishnah but very little about the average “man on the street”. Artistically we have commissioned art, architecture and formal inscriptions that have existed

on tombs and synagogues but these are reflections of the elite and those with influence. We know almost nothing about those Jews who did not fit into the elite class. These Jews are the focus of this fascinating study by Karen Sterne who takes us on a journey to meet the forgotten Jews of antiquity and we do so by looking at the vernacular inscriptions and drawings they left behind and that give us an idea on how they lived day to day.

Throughout the eastern and southern Mediterranean, Mesopotamia, Arabia, and Egypt, ancient Jews scribbled and drew graffiti everyplace (in and around markets, hippodromes, theaters, pagan temples, open cliffs, sanctuaries, and even inside burial caves and synagogues). It is these markings that tell us about the men and women who made them- the same people whose lives, beliefs, and behaviors do not appear anywhere else. Writer Stern gives us compelling analogies with modern graffiti practices, the connections between Jews and their neighbors that have been overlooked until now and that show “how popular Jewish practices of prayer, mortuary commemoration, commerce, and civic engagement regularly crossed ethnic and religious boundaries.”

Through this graffiti, we gain an intimate look into the forgotten populations who lived at the time that Judaism, Christianity, paganism, and earliest Islam were at a crossroads. Ancient Jewish graffiti from around the Roman world, was used as a means of expression. We read of the lives and concerns of ordinary Jews who were eager to leave their mark in public and private spaces and did so with personal messages and symbols. There is so much to be learned here about ancient Jewish literacy and the relation between image and text as well as personal identity.

Informal messages were etched and painted by Jews of antiquity onto a variety of media. We see that the Jews of late antiquity were involved in the same kinds of markings of space for ritual, social, and individual reasons as did their non-Jewish contemporaries. We also see the ways Jewish practices set them off from their neighbors.

I cant help but wonder why it took so long for us to even be curious about how the Jews of antiquity lived and how this book will make such a big differences when we think about daily life at the time. I realized as I read that my traditional, modern definition of the word graffiti would need to be updated and just redefined. What a fascinating read this is.

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