Book Review: Scribbling and drawing on the wall

By: Rabbi Rachel Esserman

Judaism does not lack written documents from ancient times – writings that were usually produced by the elite of the society. The thoughts of the non-elite were rarely passed down through the generations, leaving scholars to puzzle how this group may have differed from those who could afford to pay and/or produce written text and artwork. However, as Karen B. Stern notes in “Writing on the Wall: Graffiti and the Forgotten Jews of Antiquity” (Princeton University Press), one form of communication by the non-elite did manage to survive, although the material has been studied far less than that of the rabbinic elite. That format was graffiti – both textual and pictorial representations that appeared on the wall of synagogues, tombs, market places, municipal buildings and other areas people gathered.
Stern notes that, in contemporary times, graffiti has a negative image, but that was not true in ancient times: “Ancient people viewed applications of messages... desirable, even normal activities inside of their respective environments. The writers did not apply their words to deface or defy, but rather, to exhibit their devotion to deity, their imperatives to comfort or protect their dead ancestors, and their factional and civic pride.” These writings/markings were found across Roman Europe and Palestine. Stern believes that a scholarly analysis of this material will offer “new light on some of the most elusive features of ancient history – the daily lives and activities of individuals – documented in raw and unedited form.”
The first question that Stern addresses is how to identify graffiti – ways to differentiate it from other markings. She notes that, at times, it’s difficult to determine what is graffiti and what is simply poorer quality commissioned work. If the markings mention the generosity of particular individuals – noting that they helped fund the projects – then they do not qualify as graffiti. These commissioned markings and/or drawings were usually prominently displayed. Stern notes that “donors both purchased the rights to commission writings or decorations inside a space and paid professionals to exact their work. Display of such modes of writing in prominent locations thereby serves multiple functions in reflecting, advertising, and reinforcing the social, economic, and political means and legal holdings of the individuals they name.”
Graffiti, however, was applied to buildings without permission so individuals could interact with others – whether that other was their deity, deceased loved ones or other members of their ethnic group. Stern offers a working definition of the term as a way to make this determination: “Graffiti are those markings (whether words, images, or both) applied in an ‘unofficial’ capacity and in social and dialogical ways, regardless if their applications were anticipated, lauded or denigrated by their audience.” Noting that the term graffiti is an “anachronistic category,” she emphasizes the need to think of it in a neutral way.
The graffiti Stern focuses on appeared in a variety of places and she systematically discusses examples in order to discover why people might have made the markings. For example, when she looks at graffiti found in ancient synagogues, Stern suggests that rather than being disrespectful of the building, the markings were people’s way to interact with a divine being and other members of their community. Of additional interest, is that some Jews were fluid about how and where they created graffiti: “Certain graffiti [found in a synagogue] suggest that some Jews conducted their prayers inside designated prayer halls or houses of study, specifically among other Jews, as rabbinic texts often imply or recommend. But some graffiti demonstrate that other Jews comfortably prayed in ways that some rabbis explicitly and implicitly forbade: they did so by making pilgrimages to loci of pagan and Christian worship and wrote inside of them.” 
How did Stern decide which markings came from Jews? Many of the writings/markings contain Jewish names or specific Jewish symbols. Other graffiti was found in specific Jewish sites, for example, mortuary contexts. Stern notes that, while rabbinic writings seem to discourage spending time in cemeteries, evidence points to Jews regularly visiting their deceased. Some writing speaks directly to deceased relatives, for example, writing that says “no one is immortal,” and “good luck in your resurrection.” Others offer curses to those who would disturb the graves. These curses included “emplacement of skeletal figures inside of graves” or “animals around doorways... Their artists might have believed that such figures offered greater protection to the dead than verbal curses – even illiterate demons or tomb robbers could understand the threats implied by their presence.”
Stern discusses other examples of graffiti, including those in public places such as marketplaces, municipal buildings or theaters. These very public markings show how Jews felt comfortable displaying their religious identity in public areas – an engagement in public life that is not always reflected in rabbinic writings. The author does note that the amount of this interaction may not have been the same in all areas of the Roman empire, but she does believe there was far more interaction than has previously been suggested.
In “Writing on the Wall,” Stern does an excellent job reviewing and interpreting ancient graffiti, including discussions of specific examples. The book also includes photos of these markings, many of which are difficult for lay readers to translate or understand. Stern’s book is definitely a scholarly work, rather than one aimed at a popular audience. However, anyone interested in Jewish daily life in antiquity may find much of interest.