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UNC students and archaeologists recapture a buried world of Judaism while abroad

(From left to right) Jocelyn Burney, Magness and Shua Kisilevitz discuss strategy at the excavation site in Huqoq, Israel. (Photo by Will Melfi)

By Cailyn Derickson, UNC Media Hub

HUQOQ, Israel — A line of military tanks rolled down the streets of Jerusalem. A screeching siren pierced the air, and people ran from their houses and ducked into bomb shelters.

“Are those the air raid sirens?” Jodi Magness asked her friends.

It was 1973 and the Yom Kippur War had just broken out. Syria and Egypt had invaded Israel.

Magness, 16 at the time, and her friends climbed onto the roof of an apartment building. Below them, they watched a never-ending line of military vehicles drive into the distance. Jerusalem was under a black-out, and the city was dark. The lights from the surrounding villages speckled the sky line.

Five weeks earlier, Magness had persuaded her parents to let her move from Miami to finish high school in Israel. Now, she knew her parents would be worried for her safety, but there was no other place Magness wanted to be.

For the past 40 years, Magness, a prominent archaeologist and scholar of religion at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, has had the courage to walk her own path, both physically during the Yom Kippur War and professionally as she has challenged long-held opinions about Jewish history.

Magness, a Kenan Distinguished Professor for Teaching Excellence in Early Judaism at UNC, reclined in a foldable chair at the edge of the excavation of a historic ancient Galilee village named Huqoq. She extended her legs onto the plastic table out in front of her. Below her, students and staff swung pickaxes, shoveled dirt into wheelbarrows and dusted stones of mosaics. Normally, she would be in a trench working, but this week in June, she didn’t feel well. So, she observed.

Her eyes hid behind children’s red sunglasses that she bought in Dubai. She said her head was too small for adult sunglasses. She wore a tan, wide-brimmed bucket hat that covered her hair, which was tightly cropped on the sides and accentuated by a short rattail.

“I got a tail in 1988 and I’ve kept it ever since,” Magness said. “Because someday it will come back into style and I’ll be ready for it.”

Her sharp intellect is evident in the way she speaks, and her memory, at least about history and archaeology, is encyclopedic. She glows when she talks about her family and her cats, and she can’t be stopped once she starts. Her clothes suggest her sense of humor. She wears shirts with archaeology puns, such as “Ya dig?” On a field trip, when she was a tour guide, her shirt read “Keep calm and follow Jodi.”

In her UNC classroom, as soon as she steps in front of the projector, she is bubbly and talkative. She paces with her hands crossed behind her back just as she does at the dig. Her voice livens with excitement and it’s contagious. She loves questions about her work and pauses to answer them as soon as a student’s hand goes up.

Robert Rhinehart, a rising junior at UNC, is on his second summer in Huqoq. He was in Magness’ class last year and now plans to pursue a career in archaeology because of Magness’ influence.

“What Jodi is doing with this excavation is reshaping the way we think about Judaism in this historical period,” Rhinehart said, “which is also crazy to think about that you’re a part of her historically changing research.”

And historically changing is right. Magness started the dig in Huqoq in 2011 to prove her own theory about Jewish settlements. But, in 2012, she discovered mosaics where she didn’t expect them, and that not only flipped the excavation project on its head, it ignited controversy with archaeologists who disagree with her conclusions.

Magness wanted answers to what she calls her two research questions.

Magness in front of photos of some of the mosaics uncovered at the site. (Photo by Adriana Diaz)

Her colleagues believed Jewish settlements declined in conjunction with the rise of Christianity in the fourth century. Magness argued that settlements actually flourished. She also believed that if settlements flourished, ancient Jewish synagogues would be dated later to the fourth or fifth century, rather than when her colleagues dated them to the second and third century.

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And not to her surprise, Magness discovered she was right.

“We have here a synagogue that was built in the early fifth century and the houses in the ancient village that were built at the same time, and then flourished through the sixth century, even into the seventh century,” Magness said. “So, we have clearly a Jewish village that prospered and where you have a synagogue that’s built like, what, 75 years after the legalization of Christianity, so to my satisfaction, we’ve answered those questions. But that doesn’t mean that I’ve convinced my colleagues to think otherwise.”

She doesn’t feel the need to convince her colleagues, though. Magness is content proving it to herself.

And the mosaics she and her team uncovered were remarkably detailed. In a panel featuring the biblical story of Jonah, the team was able to identify different species of fish, along with an octopus and a dolphin. A scene depicting the construction of the Tower of Babel portrays workers with different skin colors, clothing and hair styles. Other images include biblical stories such as Noah’s Ark, Samson, and the Red Sea closing over Egyptian troops.

Magness first visited Israel when she was 15. She was on a summer tour with other teenagers and from the moment she left the country, she knew she had to return.

Magness wanted to finish her senior year in Israel, but her Hebrew wasn’t good enough to go to a traditional high school. She found a school for English-speaking immigrants in the Negev Desert, and she spent an entire year trying to persuade her parents to let her go.

Originally, they refused, so Magness would speak only in Hebrew, which she knew her parents didn’t understand.

They finally relented.

Magness (Photo by Jilly Kuehn)

In Huqoq, Magness slowly stood from her table that oversaw the site, and like prairie dogs, diggers lifted their heads. Magness was on the move. Without hesitation, she walked on the white sandbags that outlined each section of the dig, known as squares. 

“Hi Jodi,” students said. She smiled.

She stopped at a square on the southern end of the site. Her arms crossed behind her back, as usual. Magness peered over the edge of the square and watched a student in baggy sweatpants, a loose long-sleeve shirt and bucket hat, as he lifted out dirt-filled buckets.

“How are you feeling today? Have you been drinking water?” she asked.

A day before, the University of Toronto student was dehydrated and couldn’t work. Magness insisted she drive him back to the communal settlement where the dig team stays so he could rest.

“Oh. Jodi, I’m already on my third bottle,” he said. He beamed at her.

“Good. Keep drinking.”

Before the student had time to respond, a section supervisor pulled Magness aside to ask her something.

“Cheers again, Jodi,” the student said just loud enough for Magness to hear as she walked away.

“She really has a great sense of treating other people equally and very well,” said Jim Haberman, Magness’ husband. “She’s imbued this dig with her personality. So, at any rate, I think the dig is really a tremendous reflection of Jodi and how positive and how good she is.”

Haberman, a professional photographer, has worked on the site for two summers.

Archeological students dig in Huqoq, Israel on June 10, 2019 under the direction of Magness. (Photo by Will Melfi)

“I told him I’m not going to pay for a photographer when I’m married to one,” Magness said. “As long as he doesn’t have to dig, he enjoys coming and of course, we have the best photos because we have the best dig photographer.”

Magness met Haberman at an ice-skating rink in Boston when she was teaching at Tufts University. Every Tuesday at the rink, it was adult skate night. Every third or fourth song was for couples, and everyone else had to get off the ice.

Magness, who was at the rink that Tuesday because she was going to miss her usual skating class on Saturday, caught Haberman’s eye. He asked Magness to skate. She said yes and he eventually asked for her phone number.  

“And suddenly she was flustered,” Haberman said. “And you know, Jodi Magness does not get flustered very easy.”

They have been together since 1992. They got married when they moved to North Carolina in 2002 because that was the only way Magness could put Haberman on her benefits. They don’t have any children, but they are close with Magness’ three nephews, one of whom she adopted.

When her nephew, Mike Miller, who is 30 now, was entering his junior year of high school, he wasn’t getting a good education and was getting into some trouble, Magness said.

“I said to my sister, ‘Chapel Hill has the best public school system in the state of North Carolina. If you want, send him up. He can come and he can go to Chapel Hill High. He can live in a nice neighborhood and make good friends and get a good education.’ So, he did.”

In order to enroll him in the local school system, Magness had to adopt him. He lived with Magness and Haberman until he went to UNC-Pembroke. He now works for the Carrboro Fire Department.

Her other nephew, Stone Magness, 21, worked on the dig this summer. Magness invited him to Chapel Hill for Thanksgiving this year and after hearing Magness talk about her work, he wanted to experience the site.

“She’s an amazing person in every aspect of her life,” he said. “She’s super busy but always finds time to have fun and do things she wants to do. She’s very amazing. She writes novels and I can’t imagine when she has the time. She travels. She goes to India for a couple months — almost every year because she loves the culture. And she teaches for fun. It’s not something that she needs to do.”

But her biggest love, Stone Magness said, are her cats.

Magness (Photo by Jilly Kuehn)

Two summers ago, Magness and her husband brought a stray cat back from the kibbutz, the communal workspace near the dig site. It was about half a year old, and the cat was so malnourished that its ribs were visible.

Haberman, who kept feeding the cat, insisted they couldn’t leave the cat in Israel, so they got paperwork for the cat approved by the veterinarian of the State of Israel, bought the cat a plane ticket and ordered her a cat passport. Haberman named the cat Zoe because that summer, they found a zodiac cycle in a synagogue mosaic.

Zoe and their other cat, Squeaky, aren’t allowed outside, so Haberman installed cat doors on each floor for the cats to go out on the porches.

On the site, Haberman and Magness don’t interact much. Haberman often keeps to himself. Similar to his wife, he watches the dig, but his presence is quieter. In contrast to her husband, Magness’ presence is felt the second she steps onto the site.

“I’m just happy to see her having this dig because of all the archaeologists that could have stumbled on this — it was dumb luck,” Haberman said. “The mosaics happen to be there. That’s what got her notoriety. But I’m so glad that it happened to her because among other things, she’s a great archaeologist. She knows so much about what she’s doing and how things need to be done. She’s going to take tremendous care to make sure that it’s done perfectly.”

Magness’ dream of being an archaeologist since she was 12 came true in her first year of college. She worked on a dig site in the Jordan Valley. But because she had no experience, she didn’t actually dig the first week. She washed pottery shards found at the dig, which she referred to as the worst task.

“It wasn’t like I had this great experience right from the start digging,” Magness said. “But it didn’t matter. I loved archaeology.”

She earned degrees in archaeology and history from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in 1977. But she didn’t know if she wanted to continue in archaeology.

Magness was burned out. She didn’t want to go to graduate school, and she knew she couldn’t do medical school. Her uncle got a law degree and she felt she could too, so she applied to law school.

A few law schools accepted her, and she was set to move back to the United States in the fall. Then she attended a lecture in Jerusalem in which Nahman Avigad, an Israeli archaeologist, described his recent discovery of the cardo, usually the main street found in Roman cities, running north to south.

“I thought to myself, ‘I don’t really want to go to law school,’” Magness said. “And I thought to myself, ‘I really don’t want to go back to the United States. I think I’ll stay here. I think I’ll go work in a field school instead.’ And on the spot, I decided that’s what I was going to do instead.’”

Magness worked as a guide in Ein Gedi, a nature reserve near the Dead Sea, for three years. In 1980, she returned to the U.S. and worked as a canvasser for the Clean Water Action Project. She still wasn’t planning to return to archaeology, but while she was in Philadelphia, she visited the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology and second-guessed her decision.

“I had been to the university museum when I was a little girl, but not since then,” Magness said. “I was wandering around the university museum, and I thought, ‘Wow I really like archaeology, and I really miss studying this stuff.’”

She walked upstairs in the museum and made an appointment to talk to the chair of the archaeology department about applying to graduate school. The following fall, she started graduate school, and in 1989 earned her doctorate in classical archaeology.

It was 8 a.m. and students started slowing down. They knew it was about breakfast time. They had been up since 4 a.m., walked 1.5 miles to the dig site at 4:30 a.m. and hadn’t stopped digging since they arrived.

Magness stood at the top of the dig site, took in a big gulp of air and screamed — “Breakfast!”

Students set down their wheelbarrows, pickaxes and shovels, and lined up around the breakfast area. Four rectangular whiteboard tables were formed in a square around a thick tree. A small gas stove stood about a foot off the ground.

On every table, each food item was labeled with marker. Students were dishing out pancakes, eggs with cheese, and eggs without cheese. One table, which was the same every day, had lettuce salads — usually with apples and tomatoes — canned tuna, whole pickles and olives. The next table always had slices of marble pound cake and containers of cereal.

“Our breakfasts are absolutely amazing,” Haberman said. “No dig eats like this in Israel. I can guarantee you. Her last dig was not like this. It all comes from Jodi.”

Once the 50 staff and students were gathered on stones and straw mats on the dirt ground, Magness called for the group’s attention. First, she always asked for everyone to say thank you to the breakfast crew. Then, she began her announcements for the day. After that, it was time for one or two diggers to tell their personal stories.

“Today’s life story is Connor,” Magness announced.

Connor Henderson, a student from Western Carolina University, smiled. She started the way all of the stories began: “I was born at a very young age,” she said.

Everyone in the group clapped. She started talking about her hometown — China Grove, North Carolina, where the population is fewer than 4,000 people. Everyone listened. Two more students shared. Then, with the same intensity she had when she screamed “Breakfast!”, Magness shouted “Back to work!”

This article was originally published as a part of the UNC Media Hub program in the School of Media and Journalism and has been republished by The Daily Tar Heel. Cailyn Derickson is not a regular writer for The Daily Tar Heel.