Dr. Yifat Thareani (she/her)Research Archaeologist
Nelson Glueck School of Biblical Archaeology
Please tell us about your Jewish journey and your journey to HUC.
I was born and raised in an Iranian-Jewish family. My grandparents, who were quite Orthodox in their beliefs, came to Israel (then Palestine) in 1920. Thus, I was born into my Jewish identity, which was initially a traditional one, and I have shaped it through time according to my values and beliefs.Working in a profession in which one knows when God was born and that he had a wife, and being a biblical archeologist from a quite critical school, constantly challenges your Jewish identity in a way that you have to rethink and modify it all the time. Between these two dichotomies of tradition and science, I choose the different Jewish elements that express my identity: keeping kosher at my home; celebrating Passover according to the most strict Orthodox rules; fasting on Yom Kippur, etc. These are the things that my grandmother did; this is what my mother does, and this is what I choose to preserve. At the same time I choose to highlight the humanitarian aspects that are embedded in Judaism, so my identity is very traditional on one hand but very post-modern on the other hand.
Consequently, I feel blessed and privileged to work for the last 20 years or so at HUC’s Jerusalem campus. The personal and collective support that I receive, and the special place that the Nelson Glueck School and its legacy hold, are one-of-a-kind.
Please tell us about your work as a research archeologist with the Nelson Glueck School of Biblical Archeology. What are some of the most exciting projects you have worked on?
My way to biblical archeology and to the Nelson Glueck School happened accidentally. At the turn of the millennium, I was working at Tel Aviv University as the teaching assistant of Dr. David Ilan, my colleague and partner in directing the Tel Dan excavations. Writing my M.A. thesis about the archaeology of core-periphery relations in Israel’s Negev Desert, I was interested in expanding my studies into my Ph.D. that focused on ancient desert urbanism. There was this one site of Tel ‘Aroer that Dr. Avraham Biran, the legendary former director of the Nelson Glueck School, excavated during the ’70s, but it was never published apart from one article. I knew that the archaeological remains found in this dig were extremely important, so I asked David if I could see it and he took me to Jerusalem to see Biran, who was already 94 or 95 years old, and was very charismatic and generous. Dr. Biran granted the publication rights and a grant, a gesture that was about to change my professional life.
When I started to explore Tel ‘Aroer, I found that it has many commonalities with my life and my beliefs. Life in the desert frontier during the First Temple Period involves multicultural existence and a pluralistic experience that were promoted by empires, local kingdoms, semi-nomadic society, and others. Even if it’s not the post-modern pluralistic choice that is made in high philosophical theories, but a multicultural reality that is dictated by an ancient imperial hegemony.
Situated at the southern-most point of the Kingdom of Judah, sites such as Tel ‘Aroer were ethnically varied. Contrary to the ethnic homogenous impression that the Bible creates, Judah’s southern frontier inhabited diverse ethnic groups who coexisted side by side. Other than the Judean administrators and population, there were Edomites of semi-nomadic orientation who resided in the region forever, as well as Arabs who brought camels’ caravans bearing spices and exotic goods that found their way to the palaces of the ancient Near East. Living together is expressed through the diverse material culture assemblages, various names and scripts, different lifestyles and foodways.
The currently dominating theory of Interpretive Archaeology argues for the dominance of the subjective – the archaeologist as a story-teller. Consequently, the biography of a scholar highly influences his or her archaeological interpretation. It is therefore most likely that if ‘Aroer was handed to another archaeologist, its story and highlights would have been quite different. While archeologists are fascinated by destructions, which inspire our imagination and enrich our collections of museums, we should bear in mind that most of the time, the ancients lived peacefully, collaborated, and coexisted with one another – archaeology of peacetime.
Born and raised in south Tel Aviv, in the underprivileged district of the city, I lived with various people from various places, most of whom were from a low socioeconomic background, Ashkenazi and Sephardic together. An Orthodox elementary school that was followed by a secular education, coupled with a traditional Orthodox mother and a quite anarchist father, made my upbringing very colorful, though conflicting at times.
Today I explore the Iron Age II (First Temple Period) at Tel Dan, which is the most beautiful inheritance that a biblical archeologist can dream of. Situated on one of the sources of the Jordan River, Dan was the ultimate answer to segregated monotheistic Jerusalem. It was a pluralistic, open, varied place that was culturally influenced by the Phoenicians, Aramaeans, Israelites, and Assyrians. Often notoriously mentioned in the book of Kings, because of Jeroboam’s cultic arrangements and the golden calf that brings to mind the ultimate sin that appears in Exodus, it seems to be a much more open, colorful, and varied place than centralized Jerusalem. Digging this summer, we hope to discover more hidden faces of this beautiful place.
Please tell us about your research topics during your graduate postdoctoral studies in Paris and Haifa and why they are so important.
My Parisian work started in 2011, when I was accepted to a new postdoctoral program in the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes. I had just received the publication rights of Iron Age II Tel Dan, and I sensed that in order to fully understand the different cultural legacies that are present at the site, I would have to step out from the borders of modern Israel. This realization derived from Dan’s location at the crossroads that connects Damascus with Tyre and the Kingdom of Israel with the northern regions.
It turned out that our perception of the past is influenced and shaped by modern borders. I feared that it would narrow and limit my views and understanding, so I went to study the Ancient Near East in Paris where I was integrated with a French team that excavated in Syria and in Kurdistan, in areas that are considered to be the heart of the Assyrian Empire. There, I was able to contextualize Dan from a Mesopotamian perspective.
During my stay in Paris, HUC continued to employ and support me. My studies there enabled me to look at Dan from an entirely different perspective, not only from the South, from the kingdoms of Judah and Israel, but also from the northeast, from Syria and from Assyria. It opened an array of new questions and contacts. Owing to that, we are comparing today the material culture that was found in Dan with that of the Assyrian capitals or of other provinces near the Euphrates river. I am part of a group of scholars that work on the Assyrian empire without actually considering modern borders – a strong message by itself. I also think that it’s related to the spirit of HUC, being an open and accepting place for so many for so long.
It is this dance between the global and the local that I am interested in. Ancient empires and their strategies for controlling frontier zones, distant areas with various ecological conditions, from the marshes of the Hula Valley in the north to the desert sand of the Negev in the south; from the Mediterranean coast in the west to the highlands of Transjordan in the east. I am exploring the kind of strategies that empires, especially the Assyrian, exerted in their rule. On the other hand, I am looking for the local indigenous response to the imperial presence, the price that people were willing to pay under hegemonic rule, and how they collaborated with empires, how they declared their ethnic identity in time of a growing global interaction, and how they expressed their resistance as well.
Describe HUC in one word.
What do you enjoy in your free time?
Spending time with my almost two-year-old son, of course, and living in Jaffa, which is a fascinating place by itself. Twenty two years ago I founded a scout house in the neighborhood of Shapira, where I grew up, which HUC greatly supports. We started with 10 kids from 10 different nationalities. Some of them are legal, some of them are illegal – sons of refugees and work immigrants. On the eve of the COVID we had 450 kids from 53 nationalities: Jews, Christians, and Muslims all together. I work with passion and I bring this multicultural insight into my everyday life. I try to apply it both in the past and in the present.