Jewish life, portrayed in stone

This mosaic is from a group of floor mosaics unexpectedly discovered in 1883 in Tunisia. A French army captain, Ernest de Prudhomme, ordered his soldiers to make a garden in his backyard in Naro, the town now called Hammam Lif. Instead they unearthed what proved to be the remains of an ancient Jewish synagogue.

In 1905, some of the mosaics from this building were acquired by the Brooklyn Museum in New York. They are currently on display at the museum until June 4 in the exhibition, "Tree of Paradise: Jewish Mosaics From the Roman Empire." Their meaning is discussed in a new book by Edward Bleiberg, the museum's curator of Egyptian, classical, and ancient Middle Eastern art.

Since their discovery, some 300 other synagogues have been identified around the Mediterranean, significantly changing the picture of Jewish life in the late Roman period.

For a start, these floor mosaics - essentially Roman in character - are far from dull. They can't be simply characterized as decorations. Their vitality, figurativeness, and appreciation of the natural creation are not so strictly in line with the Mosaic law against "graven images" as might be expected. Also, being distinctly Roman in their style and craftsmanship, they show a degree of mutual acceptance between the Jewish community and their neighbors.

There are Jewish symbols to be found among the mosaics (menorahs, for example), but much of their iconography - fishes and birds, a fountain, a lion - is not, as religious symbolism, exclusively Jewish. The basic theme of the floor is creation and paradise.

One surprise, given the low status of women in Jewish worship by the Middle Ages, is that a mosaic inscription (in Latin) translates: "Your servant, Julia Nap., at her own expense, paved the holy synagogue of Naro with mosaic for her salvation."

"Julia's financial support for the floor suggests that the floor's symbols represented ideas she shared with the congregation about Judaism," Dr. Bleiberg observes in his book. "And Julia believed ... that personal salvation was a concern in the coming Messianic Age." He adds that such a belief is foreign to Judaism today.

When this synagogue was built, laws had already been introduced by the Roman authorities, intent on imposing Christian orthodoxy on towns and cities, to prohibit the building and even the repair of Jewish synagogues. But the lively Naro synagogue mosaics suggest that such edicts had not yet been very effective.

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