Visiting a flea market in old Amsterdam, Harvey Herbert bought an old but inexpensive Roman coin that caught his eye. He didn’t realize that this impulse purchase by a browsing tourist was about to change his life.
Back in New York, Herbert found a companion for his Dutch souvenir in the form of an ancient Judean coin from the Maccabean period. Curious about it, he read books and archaeological journals, haunted museums and visited Israel.
Somewhere in the process Herbert, a ruddy Brooklyn Heights attorney with a quiet manner, found himself the United States’ leading collector of carved inscriptions from the First Temple period. The 30 inscriptions are in paleo-Hebrew, an alphabet that resembles a series of splayed twigs and bears scant resemblance to modern Hebrew lettering.
Herbert confesses his passion “an expensive hobby.” He declines to fix a dollar amount on expenses to date.
Along the way Herbert, the son of a secular New York City cop, encountered the Chabad movement and became increasingly drawn to Orthodox Jewish life. The turning point came on a visit to the Western Wall in Jerusalem.
“I’m affiliated with Chabad; I follow the Rebbe,” he says, a reference to Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson. “To say that all this came to me as a surprise,” he adds, “is an understatement.”
Herbert donated his collection to the Brooklyn Museum, where it was on public display for several years. When the museum abruptly terminated the arrangement, he queried Hershel Shanks, editor of the Biblical Archaeology Review, for advice. Shanks suggested two likely new candidates for Herbert’s collection: the Harvard Semitic Museum and the Living Torah Museum in Borough Park. Herbert chose the latter, impressed with its casual symbiosis of archaeological scholarship and religious conviction and because, he says, “I knew that people would see it.” Herbert also became a leading financial donor for the museum, as well as an occasional lecturer on his collection.
The Living Torah Museum, operated by Rabbi Shaul Shimon Deutsch, has become a must-see stop for visitors to the chasidic enclave of Borough Park since its opening in 2002, drawing an estimated 600,000 visitors to date. Rabbi Deutsch, a neighborhood fixture, is also known for his large food programs serving the needy and for his two-volume biography of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, “Larger than Life.” His museum is likely the only place where one can see artifacts of Jewish life ranging from deep antiquity to modern time all offering themselves to the visitors’ touch (a practice which unnerves some experts) and all contained within the space of three adjoining family homes. (The museum also has a branch in upstate Fallsburg.)
At present the museum is experiencing a severe financial crisis that is threatening much of its future operations, especially its expansive collection of stuffed animals representing every species mentioned in the Bible. Rabbi Deutsch estimates $1 million is needed to plug the budgetary gap. Nevertheless, visitors continue to flock to the museum’s doors, eager to pay the $10 admission fee. To pare expenses Rabbi Deutsch recently closed a museum branch in Lakewood, N.J.
The good news is that the antiquities collection, which contains Herbert’s donations (as well as another highlight in the form of a walk-in replica of the biblical Tabernacle) and forms the core of the museum’s holdings, remains unthreatened.
The Herbert collection includes an intact three-handled clay wine storage jug once used by Judean soldiers and donated by Herbert, a singular find from the reign of King Hezekiah; it continues to hold a well-lighted place of honor in the middle of the main exhibit room. At the same time, Herbert’s seals, bullas (the clay that receives the seal’s impressions) and merchants’ stone weights receive placement in more odd niches of the museum, which may cloud their real historical significance.
The lettering remains clear and sharp throughout the Herbert collection, narrating a vivid portrait of daily life in home and marketplace in the ancient Holy Land, at once mundane and exotic.
One ivory seal, with the bird-image imprimatur as well as the name of the Bible’s King Ahab from the ninth-century B.C., is the only one of its kind in the world but lacks the appropriate chain of provenance that would satisfy scholars. Similarly, a bulla sports a motif of a king bestowing a clutch of arrows to a warrior that is the sole visual depiction from the Judean chain of monarchies.
Herbert acquires his relics from auction houses, chiefly Christie’s, and dealers. He knows the perils of doing business inside a market rife with frauds and forgeries.
“I’ve never been stuck with a fake,” he says. “If something doesn’t look right, if it looks a little too good to be true, I just won’t buy it.”
Herbert considers himself lucky that he acquired his pieces when he did.
“The market has been dead for the last several years,” he says. The cause, he explains, is not so much the persistent recession, but an explanation even simpler. In the early 1970s, the Israeli government declared all ancient relics retrieved on national soil the property of the state. Hence, any objects in private hands would have to have been dug up before that date.
The rare relic entering today’s market, he says, tends to come from estate sales or from owners strapped for cash.
“Archaeology scholars come all the way from Israel to hold the Hezekiah jug in their hand,” says Rabbi Deutsch, the director of the Living Torah Museum. He pointed out that, in Jewish tradition, Hezekiah was not just another in a long line of kings but was held to have messianic potential.
He added that Israeli government experts also travel to the museum to employ Herbert’s artifacts as a standard by which to judge the authenticity of artifacts allegedly found on their national soil.
Steven Fine, director of Yeshiva University’s Center for Israel Studies, says: “As tools to understanding history, these inscriptions can be very important. They are how their authors presented themselves to their peers. They are the voice of the ancient.”
A guest at the museum lingers in front of Herbert’s glass cases. Yisroel Behar, 11, takes a long look at the old Hebrew lettering on the dried clay bullas, so unlike the alphabet he knows from his yeshiva studies in Israel. He also says he would prefer to do his business at his local store back home with the stone weights and accompanying iron scales, as laborious as they may be, to the simpler method of paying with modern shekels. He pronounces the impression left by both exhibits with the same single word: “cool.”
Herbert recalls a bar mitzvah present he made of a Maccabean coin that he gave to the son of a rabbi. “The young man told me it was the best of all his gifts,” he recounts. “He said it blew him away.”
Says Herbert: “When I first read the Bible, I didn’t believe it was the story of a real people in a real country. But these artifacts prove to me, and they prove to the world, that Jews are not newcomers to the land of Israel.
“They tell the story of our ancestors. They are our family history.”