Seventy years ago, the first World Congress of Jewish Studies at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University embodied the fulfillment of a lifelong dream for Yocheved Herschlag Muffs. But that was not because of its first-class scholarship: When immigration to British Mandatory Palestine was blocked, the congress offered the New Yorker an unlikely way into the Holy Land.
“There were no visas; we couldn’t get there, to Palestine,” the 90-year-old told The Times of Israel this week. And so a ruse was launched: Muffs would be granted documents allowing her entrance — provided she could obtain a letter stating she was a Hebrew teacher sent to the conference by a recognized institution.
There were only two problems: she didn’t really know Hebrew and she wasn’t a teacher at a recognized institution.
Muffs, a stalwart member of the Bnei Akiva youth movement, had dropped out of college to learn how to milk cows and clean their excrement during farming training camps in Canada. Many of her cohort did in fact teach Hebrew — at least part-time — and so had little trouble obtaining the required letter.
But Muffs was stuck.
Suddenly, she recalled that her old friend Miriam was the office manager at the new Yeshiva of Central Queens. As a favor, Muffs asked her friend for a letter affirming her affiliation with the institution. But Miriam, devoutly religious and from a pious family, was reluctant to falsify information and asked her mother for advice.
“To go to Eretz Yisrael, you can lie,” said her mother.
“So I got the letter. And then with the letter we went to the British Consulate in New York, in Manhattan. And it was a legitimate letter: I was a teacher there and they were sending me to the conference. And this year it’s celebrating its 70th year,” Muffs said.
Although immigration was definitely not the main goal of the first congress, held in July 1947 at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem on Mount Scopus, it was organized with the help of the Jewish Agency, headed by David Ben-Gurion.
At the opening sessions, Bible scholar Naftali Herz Torczyner (Tur-Sinai), head of the Institute of Jewish Studies at the Hebrew University, said, “With pride and hesitation, in holy awe and happiness that a cornerstone was laid here for the building of the culture of our nation and our land, we hereby open the First World Congress of Jewish Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, as a foundation stone for a future tradition.”
That foundation stone laid back in 1947 has turned into a scholarly empire today. Whereas the first conference saw 75 papers presented, this year there were some 1,700 lecturers. Over 3,000 participants attended the 500 panels held during the week-long event August 6-10.
Throughout the maze-like compound of the Hebrew University’s Humanities building, scholars, students and laymen scrambled down its technicolor octagonal halls to take advantage of a multitude of sessions on Bible, language, history, philosophy, literature, archaeology, and many very esoteric subjects relating to the different epochs of the Jewish people.
There was a constant audible buzz of activity as participants darted from one session to another, sometimes even leaving in the middle of a session to catch a more favored scholar elsewhere. With dozens of choices in each time slot, the event was like an academic’s version of binge-watching on Netflix — with an option for childcare.
Held every four years at Hebrew University since the second congress in 1957, it allows for a meeting of minds between established professors and those who wish to walk in their footsteps. It is a place where smiling emeritus professors are given their due honor, while nervous doctoral students reap the benefits of knowledgable critique. As conceived in its inception, the congress is meant to be a “safe space” to test new ideas and get feedback that is worth hearing.
Winding their way around the plethora of fair-like booths hawking books, computer programs, and private learning institutions, Israel’s finest and internationally known professors floated in and out throughout the week in an atmosphere of semi-controlled chaos. Whether they come for the common area’s kibbitz-fest or to present new research, the camaraderie between the scholars was evident. For some, it is the week’s main draw.
Inside the cramped classrooms, there were sessions that could be likened to sporting matches. Tempers flared over finer points, or the audience oohed over the presenters’ mental gymnastics. In poorly climate-controlled rooms with terrible acoustics, in-jokes abounded as scholars in related fields appreciated the most abstruse niche jargon wordplay.
In one session hosted by the Academy of the Hebrew Language, an unresolved impassioned conversation about verb tenses ensued after a presentation about technology soon to be released to the public. In another about Second Temple archaeology, the lecturer and an older participant agreed to disagree on the true basis of why oil lamps changed their form in Judea.
This congress is not for the faint of mind: At two hours a pop, mental stamina is required to fully appreciate each session’s four research papers. Personally, the brain of this reporter — no scholar — began protesting after two PowerPoint presentations on rarified arcana.
That’s why it was especially refreshing to hear a midday pick-me-up performance on Wednesday of the Piyyut Ensemble of the Ben Zvi Institute, which launched its new CD “Arba Otiyot: Sacred Hebrew Songs from the Saharan Maghreb.” After a foot-stomping, hand-clapping good time — chased by a cup of joe — it was back to the books with a clear head for another marathon afternoon in the Jewish Studies Olympics.