Teaching with Collections: Religious Intersections in Jerusalem

Dr. Jonathan Gribetz, and Librarian Deborah Schlein, right

The class was led by Dr. Jonathan Gribetz, left, who reached out to Libararian Deborah Schlein, right, to bring his class to Special Collections. Photo by Brandon Johnson.

This fall semester, a first-year class of students visited Princeton University Library (PUL) Special Collections to visualize the importance of the city of Jerusalem to three major faiths: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Led by Jonathan Gribetz, Associate Professor in the Department of Near Eastern Studies and in the Program in Judaic Studies, the seminar investigated the foundation of the holy city through a variety of sources, ranging from biblical lamentations to archeological excavations, and international political resolutions.

“I have had the opportunity to spend several years living in Jerusalem as part of my academic research,” said Gribetz. During his most recent visit, Gribetz proposed to teach upon his return a Freshman Seminar about the city that would incorporate both textual and non-textual materials.

In some class meetings, students would examine passages from the Hebrew Bible, New Testament, or the Quran. In others, they would study medieval pilgrimage itineraries, modern nationalist polemics, or United Nations resolutions.

Gribetz also wanted to include personalized videos in the course. “This past summer, with the support of a grant from the Center for Culture, Society, and Religion, I filmed my visits to many key sites in Jerusalem so that students could see and experience, if remotely, what the places they were studying look and sound like today,” he said.

But in an effort to better bring Jerusalem to life, Gribetz reached out to Near Eastern Studies Librarian Deborah Schlein to arrange a visit to PUL Special Collections, where students could get their hands on original, historical artifacts that document the city. 

After preliminary conversations, Schlein took to organizing the materials she’d share, including physical examples of passages from the Quran the class had read as well as maps and paintings. A large component of her planned materials were textual, such as those on the Mi’raj, or the Night Journey of the Prophet Muhammad. 

“That’s when Dr. Gribetz told me that none of the students read Arabic in a scholarly way,” Schlein said. “If students don’t read the language, they might get the idea of the materials, but they won’t be able to think about them in an international history tradition.”

From there, Schlein retooled her planning process to incorporate more visual materials — large, fold out maps or ornate book covers — and sought input from two of her colleagues. 

After enlisting the help of Eric White, the Scheide Librarian and Assistant University Librarian for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts, and Graphic Arts Librarian Molly Dotson, the seminar’s visit to Special Collections expanded to incorporate items like “Peregrinatio in Terram Sanctam,” a 1400s work by Erhard Reuwich that includes a fold-out travel map, as well as a series of stereographs, allowing students to view locations like the Dome of the Rock in 3D.

Even after nailing down the right materials to share, Schlein admitted bringing students of any level to Special Collections can pose a challenge. Gribetz’s class required two major student projects: a paper on an item from the Princeton University Art Museum or Special Collections, as well as a detailed proposal for future peace in Jerusalem. 

“I've gotten questions from undergraduate and graduate students alike that start out very broad,” Schlein explained. "While this is always the first step in the research process, we want them to think about what resources are at their disposal, who created them, and even sometimes how they got here. 

“So I will often counter with questions such as 'what time period are we talking about, where does the material of interest come from, and are you considering items produced by a variety of different historical actors, including those who disagreed with each other?' We sit and think together through these questions and then they start to look deeper into what the materials can tell them."

For first-year student Joe Nickerson, who intends to concentrate in the School of Public and International Affairs, he enrolled in the course to learn about the capital of Israel and about the perspectives of other religions and their connections to the city. 

“I really enjoyed the visit to the Special Collections because of the sheer access I now know I have as a Princeton student,” said Nickerson.

For his final project, Nickerson created a proposal for the Jerusalem Storied Tours of Eastward Pilgrimage Sites tourist company, which focused on educating tourists through tours of Jerusalem from the steps of past figures like King David, Jesus, and Muhammad. 

“This tourist company would reinvest 100 percent of its profits into Jerusalem communities, and all groups with a stake in Jerusalem would hold representation on the company’s governing board.”

Alternatively, Nickerson’s classmate Eli Soffer attended the course to follow his interests in the Arab-Israeli conflict. 

Eli Soffer looks at a 3D stereograph of the Dome of the Rock.

Eli Soffer looks at a 3D stereograph of the Dome of the Rock. Photo by Brandon Johnson.

“I took this freshman seminar because of both my broad interest in international affairs, but more specifically due to my personal connections to the conflict,” Soffer said. “My father was born in Israel, and I am a citizen, and pre-Covid visited the country almost every year. I wanted to get a more academic perspective on the conflict and the history of the region, and centering the course around the ancient and holy city of Jerusalem seemed engaging.”

Soffer’s proposal for peace in the region included both expanding the Jewish prayer space of the Davidson Center and renovating the Al-Marwani mosque located at Temple Mount.

“I’d excavate beneath the Temple Mount to expand the Jewish prayer space of the Davidson Center further west, renovate a little-known mosque, Al-Marwani, beneath the Temple Mount, and then make a multi-cultural pantheon between these two prayer spaces, acting as a literal and metaphorical bridge between the two religions contesting control of the Temple Mount,” Soffer said.

The seminar’s study of Jerusalem warranted other visits to PUL branches as well. Gribetz and his students met with Curator of Numismatics Alan Stahl to learn the history of Jerusalem through coins. 

“For students who had just read the New Testament narrative of Jesus' overturning the tables of the moneychangers to then walk over to Firestone and hold a coin that could have been on one of those tables was a remarkable experience,” said Gribetz.

An example of a fold out map shared with Gribetz’s class in Special Collections.

An example of a fold out map shared with Gribetz’s class in Special Collections. Photo by Brandon Johnson.

The class also visited Assistant University Librarian for Special Collections Public Services Sara Logue in Mudd Library, where students thumbed through archival materials related to Jerusalem, such as files from American politicians and diplomats who have engaged with Jerusalem as part of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

“I find Jerusalem to be the most fascinating city in the world. Jews, Christians, and Muslims have deep religious attachments to Jerusalem and each has ruled the city at different times over the past three millennia,” Gribetz said. “Even though Jerusalem is a relatively tiny city, a course about it allows students to explore major issues in history and religion, including the interconnected histories and theologies of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam; the construction of sacred space; and experiences of exile and the longing to return.”

As much as this class served as an introduction for the first-year students to both Jerusalem and the Library, it also helped Schlein in her continual growth as a Librarian. 

“Doing this kind of work teaches me what the Library actually has in its collections,” Schlein said. I was a graduate student here until 2019 so I had an idea, but it wasn’t until I started teaching these classes that I began to understand the breadth of what our collection holds in terms of subject coverage for materials from the Islamic world. It’s a constant learning process.”

Published on February 8, 2023

Written by Brandon Johnson, Communicatons Strategist

Media Contact: Barbara Valenza, Director of Library Communications