Noe Valley Voice July-August 2007

Florence's Family Album

By Florence Holub

Editor's Note: Voice columnist Florence Holub, 88, wrote this essay, about an historic exhibit at the de Young Museum, for the May 1994 issue of the Voice. Unfortunately, the Dead Sea Scrolls are no longer on loan to San Francisco. However, you can check out hundreds of images and translations of the 2,000-year-old documents by searching Google Images or Internet sites such as or, the site for the Shrine of the Book in Israel, the museum that currently houses the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Early this year [Spring 1994], the de Young Museum presented a series of lectures to prepare docents to conduct tours of its exhibit "The Mystery of the Dead Sea Scrolls." Although I attended the lectures, I didn't expect to participate as a docent, because any knowledge of the Bible that I had gathered during my childhood had long slipped away.

After all, it has been 63 years since I took the streetcar to the corner of 15th and Dolores streets, where the Swedish Lutheran Ebenezer Church was located, and received classes in my family's religion. (Yes, this is the same building which, though it survived the 1906 quake, burned down in 1993.)

A year after my church confirmation, my younger brother Warde was supposed to follow in my footsteps, but instead of going for instruction, he played hooky, spending his carfare on candy until Pastor Lundstrom informed our parents of his absence. It took one evening of exasperated scolding, then two weeks of accelerated tutoring by the merciful pastor, but Warde finally graduated with his the skin of his teeth.

Thenceforth, he and I rejoiced in the present, leaving the study of the scriptures to the theologians.

When I had children of my own, I did not herd them down the same path that my brothers and I had walked. Instead, the Sabbath found us visiting museums or romping in the sunshine at the beach.

Eventually, however, guilt impelled me to speak to my children of never having shown them the inside of a house of worship. Jan, our 4-year-old son, retorted indignantly, "You did, too! Don't you remember how we went to church when Mrs. Kinsey died?"

So we did!

When Eric, our youngest, was 2 years old, I attempted to explain the meaning of Christmas, telling the story and showing him a small nativity scene. But he claimed the baby Jesus doll for his own and carried it wherever he went.

One day, I rushed down to 24th Street to do some last-minute shopping with little Eric in the stroller. In the busy Glen Five and Ten, he accidentally dropped his baby. To alert me, he let out a howl of desperation: "Jesus! Jesus!"

The other shoppers turned their heads to glare disapprovingly, so mother and child left the store hurriedly.

Then when Eric was 5 and Easter was upon us, I tried to explain that the day was not just about candy and bunnies, but about the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ.

Eric wasn't ready for that. He looked at me in disbelief and declared, "You told me not to believe in ghosts!" I was forced to agree with him, and vowed never to speak upon holy themes again.

However, this spring, due to the many requests for tours, the de Young called up most of its docents for duty, including me (gulp). I had to cram for two weeks before I felt qualified to give a tour, but there I was--35 years after being silenced by my children--attempting to talk about one of the most important religious artifacts of the 20th century.

For those like me who need their memory refreshed, the Dead Sea Scrolls is the name for a collection of Hebrew and Aramaic liturgical writings, including many books of the Old Testament, which had been secreted away in caves on the shores of the Dead Sea, the salt lake that now separates Israel and Jordan. The documents date from 200 B.C. to 70 A.D.

The story of their discovery is a tantalizing one. In 1946, a young Bedouin shepherd who was searching for a stray animal just by chance tossed a stone into a slit in a cliff and heard the sound of breaking pottery. Although it was illegal to do so, he and two companions entered into the cave and removed seven rolls of crumbling leather parchment, plus two of the jars the manuscripts were stored in.

Over the next 10 years, Bedouins and archaeologists alike scoured the cliffs in search of more treasure. They found 10 more caves that yielded two nearly complete scrolls, and tens of thousands of fragments.

In the decades that followed, scholars have concluded that the Dead Sea scribes were members of a pious sect of celibate monks, who retreated to the desert to copy their sacred manuscripts, then hid them in caves for safekeeping from the Roman legions. It was the absence of light and moisture in the caverns of the arid desert that protected the scrolls from disintegration.

The conservation and restoration of these documents has been an enormous undertaking, however. There were no how-to books on the care of 2,000-year-old parchments, and reconstruction was like trying to put together a huge jigsaw puzzle, with 90 percent of the pieces missing.

Eight specialists were appointed in the early 1950s to begin this slow, tedious process, which eventually stretched over 40 years. It wasn't until three years ago [1991] that certain fragments of the scrolls were released for public viewing. The majority of the original scrolls now reside in a specially-built museum in Jerusalem called the Shrine of the Book.

On loan to the de Young Museum are [were] 12 original documents from the Dead Sea caves, including sections of Leviticus, the third of the five books of Moses, and Psalms, a collection of hymns and songs (not by King David, although he is mentioned).

The exhibit also features a fragment from the most mysterious of all the scrolls, the War Rule, which mentions an unnamed messiah from the branch of David, a judgment, and a killing. This document has been called "The Pierced Messiah" by some factions and is thought to refer to Jesus, but is completely discounted by others. Was this Jesus? We may never know for sure.

Even in traveling exhibits, the scrolls are displayed in cases that brighten and dim as viewers enter and leave, thus minimizing the amount of light falling on the fragile organic material. If you have the opportunity, don't hesitate to join the throngs who come from far and wide to peer at these antiquities.

Unless I am Dead wrong, you will absolutely loveth the Seaing. And I'm sure my brother Warde would have too. Amen.