In Babylon

by

Exile in Babylon
Irving Finkel

This event took place on 22nd February 2009

Posted by Naomi Alderman

What would one do without Jewish Book Week? Its programme is always full of such treasure, I feel I have only to dip my hand in to come out clutching gems. And the joy is: one can simply dip in, pick a subject about which one knew next-to-nothing and come out feeling well-educated.

So my highlight of the 2009 Book Week wasn’t one of the many well-known writers or raconteurs but a talk I’d picked on a whim: Irving Finkel’s talk on Babylon. I say a whim. I’d been to see the exhibition at the British Museum – and why is it that every exhibition at the British Museum these days seems to be superb, unmissable? – and thought Finkel’s talk might throw new light on it. I didn’t really have higher hopes than that, but I should have.

I think it’s fair to say that Irving Finkel is one of the most electrifying, passionate, exciting speakers I’ve ever had the pleasure to hear. For an hour, he led the audience through the true meaning and import of various cuneiform tablets. Which, yes, sounds pretty dry. But it really wasn’t.

Did you know, for example, that the British Museum holds a clay tablet used to signify a deposit at a Babylonian ‘bank’ by a person whom the Torah tells us met the prophet Daniel? We have an actual object that was in the actual hand of someone who met the actual Biblical figure Daniel. He of the lion’s den.

Did you know that Rembrandt was friends with a Rabbi who helped him compose the inscription in the painting Belshazzar’s Feast? Did you know that Mene, Mene, Tekel uFarsin is a list of weights of increasingly small size as used in Babylon? Did you know that various scholars have tried to prove that Rembrandt could never have been friends with a Jew but that  – Professor Finkel was fantastically entertaining on the subject of his academic rivalries and disputes – it can certainly be proved that this was not the case?

I know all these things now, and more. I can impress my friends with them, I can discuss them at cocktail parties. I fully intend to get myself invited to the kind of cocktail parties where people will be impressed with this knowledge.

Honestly, there’s not much more wonderful in this world than listening to a great teacher with a passion for his subject telling you things you’d never have known any other way. After he’d been speaking for a few minutes, I turned to my friend and whispered: “Wow, isn’t he a great speaker?” and she replied in a low mutter: “I know. I think I want to marry him.”

Jewish Book Week. It’s not just a series of talks, it’s a forum for passion of all descriptions.

Naomi Alderman

Naomi Alderman

Posted by Naomi Alderman

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