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View of Hekhal (ark), Ben Ezra Synagogue
© Richard Pare, Spertus Museum of Chicago

Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies

610 South Michigan Avenue

Chicago, IL 60605


Written by Julie Greiner
The Spertus Institute is located at 618 S. Michigan Avenue, Chicago, Illinois - directly across from Grant Park and near Chicago's Museum Campus. Spertus invites visitors to encounter the realm of Jewish history, religion, art and culture through its exhibitions and programs. The Spertus Museum houses a collection of over 10,000 objects, artifacts and works of art spanning 3,500 years of Jewish history and features permanent and temporary exhibits. The Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies
is dedicated to preserving the Jewish legacy and to utilize its wisdom to shape the future. Collections of the Institute include: art works, artifacts, rare books, periodicals, videos, music, archives and electronic databases.

Discovery Second to Only The Dead Sea Scrolls

The 19th century discovery of a synagogue vault stacked high with dust-caked, discarded writings from the 9th Century C.E., put to paper by ordinary individuals as well as some of Judaism's most illustrious figures - continues to cause the greatest stir amongst religious historians outside of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

A Gateway to Medieval Mediterranean Life Exhibit

This exhibit of the
Conservator Infilling Paint Loss at the Women's Wall
© Richard Pare, Spertus Museum of Chicago
writings displays 41 authentic documents and fragments from the Cairo Geniza, or repository dating back to the 9th Century C.E. These detailed accounts of Mediterranean life in the Middle Ages were left behind by a community centered around the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Old Cairo, Egypt. Included are personal correspondences from some of Judaism's greatest scholars, including the great rabbi, philosopher and physician Moses Maimonides and the Spanish-Hebrew poet Judah Halevi.

The Geniza fragments refer to a time of relative tolerance and peaceful co-existence amongst people whose identities were largely defined by their religious affiliation. The people of the Geniza composed their documents in a variety of languages including Hebrew, Arabic, Judeo-Arabic, as well as Aramaic. They offer fascinating and often intimate details of people's everyday lives, such as a wife's appeal to her husband to return home from a long journey; a teacher's

letter to the parent of a misbehaving student; rabbinic court records of a business woman's affair with a married man; trade and commercial contracts, Jewish relations with Muslims and Christians and many other various issues. Despite the passage of time, the issues that engaged the Geniza community remain as timeless and relevant today, as ever.

Renovations of The Ben Ezra Synagogue

The Synagogues Jewish community dispersed with the passing of nearly a millennium, and the Synagogue was abandoned and left to decompose with time. Anwar Sadat, the former Egyptian President, did major restoration on
View of the Ben Ezra Synagogue Interior
© Spertus Museum of Chicago
the Synagogue with plans for an interfaith center. Visitors to the exhibition at the The Spertus Institute's Exhibit of The Gateway to Medieval Mediterranean Life in Chicago will be transported back in time to the Middle Ages. The visitor will enter the gates of the Ben Ezra Synagogue and its surrounding neighborhood, complete with a fountain and modern Cairo teahouse. The visitor then enters a three-dimensional cut-away of the Geniza, where they will encounter a dramatic multi-screen audio-visual presentation that brings to life the writers and subjects found in the Geniza's documents.

Hebrew Paper of 15th Century Egypt

Fragment No. T-s 13J21.10 - Letter from a wife asking her husband to return home: This woman is clearly not pleased with her husband's long absence on a business trip and insists that he abandon any plans he might have for travelling to Turkey, and return home to his wife, daughters and son-in-law. She also advises him that his tax problems may be solved if he elicits the help of the physician, R. Solomon. "...implore you from the bottom of our hearts not to go further, either by sea or by land, because we have heard that you have the intention of leaving for Turkey. I swear to the Lord that, if you do this, you must not speak with us any more; and if you do this, which will make the world despise us and cause a quarrel between your son-in-law and your daughter, who is pregnant, you will inflict pain upon your daughter and perhaps she will suffer a miscarriage..."

Spertus Museum Location

The Spertus Museum, located at 618 South Michigan Avenue, Chicago, is open Sunday through Wednesday, 10 a.m. - 5 p.m.; Thursday, 10 a.m. - 7p.m. (closes at 5 p.m. in January and February); Friday 10 a.m. - 3p.m.; closed Saturday.
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Last Updated: September 23, 2015