Monday, 26 Jul 2021

From the Editor: Postcards from the Holy Land

L. H. McMillin

A trove of images haunts me. Amassed by a scholar of the Bible, this collection includes photographs, clippings from newspapers, and hand-colored slides of Palestine and Israel dating back to the 1930s. The images include the candid and the historical and depict the seemingly archaic world of camels, deserts, and ancient manuscripts as well as the present day of motorcars and kibbutz settlers.

This collection was amassed by the eminent American scholar Herbert G. May, who traveled to Palestine, Israel, and other sites in the Middle East between the 1930s and 1960s. A professor of Biblical literature, philology, history, and archaeology, May collected hundreds of images: some of these he bought in the market, others he cut from magazines or periodicals; still others he took himself. These were transformed into lantern slides that he could show in his lectures at Oberlin College and for academic presentations. Many of the images were hand colored by his wife, Helen May. These images are now digitally housed in the Special Collections at Oberlin College. I first encountered them on-line, and I have returned to them repeatedly, drawn by their suggestions of other worlds and times.

Some of the images document important moments in Biblical studies – the finding, for example, of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the 2300-year-old paper fragments discovered by shepherds in the caves near Qumrum and pored over by eager scholars. Other images seem documentary and ethnographic, attempts to capture local life and picturesque villagers. Some of the shots were captured by a camera specially rigged to take images at 90 degrees so that the subjects of the photos would not know they were in the lens. Others were candid, of people May knew personally. Still others were prepared slides purchased from the market, or images that were produced by a professional photographer who posed his fascinating subjects in a studio: a rabbi in fur with a high hat, a woman in embroidered dress with a basket on her head.

In what follows, I have taken the liberty of treating the images as postcards, of a sort. If the image is the front of the picture postcard, the writing beneath each one is a message from a fictional character I call simply “H.”

The title for each image is taken verbatim from Oberlin’s Special Collections, which are themselves drawn from May’s notes. Contextual information on the original image sometimes precedes it in italics.


Ain Feshbha [sic] Caves.

Between 1946 and 1956, the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered by some shepherds in the Feshkha caves near Qumran in what is now the West Bank; these fragments revealed heretofore unknown texts and included the second-oldest example of manuscripts that became part of the Hebrew Bible. The diversity of texts in a number of languages suggests the richness and diversity of religious thought. The manuscripts themselves date to about ca. 4th c. BCE.

The manuscripts were first discovered in 1946 by three Bedouin shepherds, who were exploring a cave in the hills when they discovered the papyrus fragments inside clay jars. The majority of the manuscripts were found in what came to be known as Qumran cave 4.

Dear F., How our sense of the Book changed when three shepherds decided to do some climbing! Today Jafar led us to the Ain Feshkha caves where the scrolls were found. There is reason to believe that more caves shelter more pots which in turn conceal more texts, or, at least fragments thereof. Jafar led us to the site where the first mss were found. Rock and dust gave way with each step. We sifted the grit in two caves, filtering the earth through loosely woven baskets, letting the earth fall through our open hands. Nothing here now. Nothing but the sense that these caves, these openings tucked within massive rock, may be full of secrets. H.


Mrs. May w/ Narcissus

Today, all day, my darling daughter, Mother and I thought of you. I hope things are well at school. Perhaps you do not think so much of us while we are away, and that’s as it should be. It is spring here now, as I hope it is there for you. Today Mother and I were driving back to Haifa and she saw these narcissus waving to her from the banks of the Kishon. I had the driver stop and we both went out to gather them. I laughed at the greedy way she clasped them to herself. When you were born your grandmother brought daffodils from her own garden. Ever after I have thought of them as your flower, and as a sign that the Spring was opening in us, because of you. You will think me very silly for writing such a thing, I’m sure. But this is the way fathers are. I hope one day you will learn for yourself: love for one’s own child is the purest, truest love, no matter what, my darling. Father


Washing Clothes

May had a camera outfitted to allow him to take photos at 90 degree angles. Thus, while it would appear that he was pointing the camera in front of him, he was actually capturing an image to his direct side. This apparatus allowed him to take photos of people and things that were otherwise off-limits or where photographing might not be welcome.

Dear G, I took this from the car (as you can perhaps tell) using the trick camera. Although women are supposed to be shy and demure here, this siren caught my eye, even as I aimed my strange box at the back of the driver’s head. I am always amazed at how many women and children can occupy such a small space here; they live one on the other, their limbs and trunks and heads connect into each other in one happy puzzle. And I in my motor car, with my trunk and suitcase and camera bag and guide, am cut off and utterly alone, sick of Arab subterfuge and Zionist bravado, pining for a bit of Yankee know-how and an honest word. And then this girl smiled at me. And I arrived once again. H.


River Jordan, Place where Jesus was baptized

May was involved in the creation of the Revised Standard Version of the Bible.

My dear Helen, On first glance, you might think that this photo was a mistake, for it’s hardly picturesque, and would seem hardly to warrant the effort of setting up the camera, taking the picture, and then tinting it. The water is still, the scrubby tree is bent, as if leaning over for a drink, but the scene is not remarkable. Until one learns that this is the River Jordan, and here the site where Jesus was baptized, or is believed to be so. Then you see John in his loincloth, gaunt on a diet of locusts and honey, wild-eyed and fierce, prophesying the One who will baptize not with water but with the Holy Spirit. And then, if you keep looking, you can see that One, humble before John, asking to be baptized. There He is in the water, and then emerging from it, while the Holy Spirit descends from above. For a moment, the picture is complete, contained and gilded like the painting in the old fellowship hall: Jesus framed and golden, a dove floating above him. “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” End of story. Then I look at the river, the scene, and I remember the sacrifice that God will make of that Son. Always, H.


Oil press, Jerusalem

Dear J., Took this photo the last week in the old city. The man seemed not to understand why I would point a black box at him and his camel. People have been pressing olives in much this way since Roman times — since before the time of Christ. Indeed, a common archaeological find is a stone oil press – their structure hasn’t changed much over the years. In this one, as the man feeds olives into the chute at the top, I am tempted to believe I have walked back into a previous century. I can imagine the few heretical followers of this man named Jesus among the crowds in the market outside the doors, while inside the blinded camel goes round and round. Yours, H


See more of May’s images here. Longtime readers of Away will recognize that some of these images have graced our pages before. Images are used the permission of the Oberlin College Special Collections. Special thanks to Ed Vermue.

L. H. McMillin teaches at Oberlin College, where May taught for many years. She is the founder and editor of Away.