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The blue fringe

North Jersey olim uncover and revive the rare blue of tachelet

 
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You’ll never look at the color of the sky the same way after reading “The Rarest Blue,” a new history written by Passaic native Baruch Sterman with his wife, Teaneck-raised Judy Taubes Sterman, who live in the Israeli town of Efrat.

Recently awarded the Jewish Journal Book Prize, “The Rarest Blue,” which its authors call a miocrohistory, tells the story oftechelet, the biblical blue shellfish dye whose recipe was lost for 1,300 years and rediscovered in modern times through detective work and the help of experts in archeology, chemistry, marine biology, zoology, Jewish texts, and art history.

In the ancient Mediterranean world, shellfish-dyed fabrics fetched up to 20 times their weight in gold and were used for royal robes in Persia, Babylon, Egypt, Greece, and Rome. Huge fortunes were made and lost to dye-making. Battles were fought over control of the industry.

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Judy and Baruch Sterman

But with the fall of the Roman Empire, the complex technique was forgotten.

For Jews, the colors weren’t just for show. The elusive sky-blue techelet is mentioned 50 times in Hebrew scriptures. The “flagship” passage, repeated twice daily by the faithful, is Bemidbar (Numbers) 15:37-39:

“God spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the Children of Israel and say to them that they shall make themselves tzitzit (tassels) on the corners of their garments throughout their generations. And they shall place upon the tzitzit of each corner a p’til [thread] of techelet ... And you shall see it and remember all of the commandments of God and you shall do them.”

Physicist Baruch Sterman, 51, and two Jersey-born friends also living in Israel, Ari Greenspan and Joel Guberman, have played a major role over the past 20 years in reviving the fulfillment of this biblical injunction. Sterman has been researching the topic — from religious, historical, and scientific perspectives — for more than 20 years, giving him more than enough material to write a book.

“I love reading about a subject where you see how the entire world changed because of this one subject — like salt, the mosquito, or the screwdriver,” Sterman said. “Judy and I would read these microhistories, and find that they started out interesting but along the way they lost our interest. We felt our story would be fascinating from beginning to end.”

The beginning is shrouded in mystery. The Torah provides no instructions on how to manufacture the dyes needed for tzitzit, priestly garments, and the decorative textiles in the Tabernacle. Passages in the Talmud that shed some light on the process are hard to decipher, Sterman writes.

One of the “aha” moments the Stermans tell of in their book was when a mid-19th century marine biologist saw a fisherman smearing his shirt with snail guts. He watched in fascination as the rays of the sun turned the yellow stains sky blue — the telltale color of techelet.

Fast forward to the late 20th century, when Ptil Tekhelet, the Israeli nonprofit co-founded by Sterman to produce and promote the dye, started manufacturing the dye anew. Ptil Tekhelet offers marine tours of its snail-gathering operation on the Mediterranean and factory tours at its string-dyeing facility in the Judean desert. They sell about 1,000 sets of blue tassels every month.

Sterman’s involvement began with a phone call from Guberman about Eliyahu Tavger, a young rabbinical student who’d painstakingly identified and harvested a few of the murex snails needed for the procedure and had made a pair of strings for his own tzitzit in 1988.

A few years later, when Guberman met him in a Jerusalem library, Tavger was looking for someone skilled in scuba diving to help him collect more of the sea creatures, and Guberman suggested Greenspan and Sterman for their underwater expertise. These four men later founded Ptil Tekhelet.

“We weren’t content to just take a few shells and make a few strings, and now over 200,000 people are wearing techelet today,” Sterman said. “We had to change the world, and we became obsessed with it.”

The four founders all have careers separate from this venture. Sterman is in high tech, Tavger now is teaching in Russia, Guberman is a physical therapist, and Greenspan is a practicing dentist, mohel, shochet, and scribe.

“On a typical day, I spend half my time working in computers and databases, and the other half in some way, somehow, working on techelet—whether answering emails or working on different articles or going to the factory where we are constantly trying to improve our production methods,” Sterman said.

The book was geared to a wide audience because the science and history of color is of broad interest. It was written with input from a rabbi, an electrical engineer, a detective novel enthusiast, and Judy Sterman’s father, former Yeshiva University English literature professor Leo Taubes, who moved to Jerusalem from Teaneck about 10 years ago.

“Many times the three of us sat at the dining room table and banged around the sentences together,” said Judy Sterman, who works in the Ptil Tekhelet office and recalls the days when the dye was manufactured on her porch. “It was not always smooth sailing, but it was a tremendous bonding experience among the three of us.”

She noted that they jumped into the project with no knowledge of the publishing industry. “But like the techelet project itself, writing the book was incredibly rewarding,” she said, adding that “The Rarest Blue” is sold at Teaneck’s Judaica House and on Amazon.

The Stermans’ North Jersey relatives include Judy’s brothers, Rabbi Michael Taubes of Teaneck and Danny Taubes of Paramus; Baruch’s brother, Howie Sterman of Teaneck; and his sisters, Fern Roth and Shari Schwartz of Passaic. His mother, Barbara, now lives in Florida.

“I have three loves in life,” Baruch Sterman said. “My wife and family, my religion, and science. To be able to take all of them and mix them together was really a dream come true.”

 
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Not just blah-blah-blah and pizza

Mahwah shul develops programming for pre- and post-b’nai mitzvah kids

So now there’s a how-to-write-a-blessing class. “The parents are really appreciative,” Rabbi Mosbacher said.

“I used to meet with b’nai mitzvah kids and their families twice,” he added. “Now we meet seven times in the course of a year. The last one is right before the bar mitzvah. Now I’m thinking the last one should be after the bar mitzvah. It’s a lot of time on my part, but it’s time well spent in developing a relationship with the kids and with the families.”

While these efforts are designed to connect children and their families to the congregation before the bar or bat mitzvah, the synagogue also has changed its post-b’nai mitzvah connections to the children.

 

Reworded interdating rules sow confusion, controversy

United Synagogue Youth convention may have eased standard … or not

What’s in a name — or a word?

As it turns out, quite a lot. Take the word “refrain,” for example.

At its annual international convention in Atlanta this week, some 750 members of United Synagogue Youth voted to change some of the wording in the organization’s standards for international and regional leaders.

Most of the changes are clear, easily understood, and warmly welcomed. For example, the group added provisions relating to bullying and lashon hara — gossiping. Leaders should have “zero tolerance” for such behavior, the standards say.

 

French Jews face uncertain future

A look at some stories from a local leader

In the wake of the terror attacks at the Charlie Hebdo magazine office and the Hyper Cacher grocery store — a kosher market — I participated in a Jewish Agency mission to Paris.

Our delegation of Americans and Israelis arrived last week to show solidarity with the French Jewish community. We also sought to better understand the threat of heightened anti-Semitism in France (and, indirectly, elsewhere in Europe). We met with more than 40 French Jewish community leaders and activists, all of them open to sharing their concerns.

On January 7, Islamist terrorists murdered a dozen Charlie Hebdo staffers as retribution for the magazine’s cartoon depictions of the prophet Mohammed. Two days later, another terrorist held a bunch of Jewish grocery shoppers hostage, killing four, which French President Francois Hollande acknowledged as an “appalling anti-Semitic act.”

 

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A school grows in Englewood

Moriah, first local Jewish day school, celebrates turning fifty

It was 1971, and Dr. Norman Sohn was finishing his training in Boston. He and his wife, Judith, were faced with a decision. Where would they go next? Where would they settle down?

As a newly fledged surgeon, the world was open to him. He could get a job almost anywhere. He was originally from Manhattan, and his wife was from New Rochelle, so the New York metropolitan area made sense to them.

They knew they wanted a yeshiva education for their children — Dr. Sohn had gone to the Rabbi Jacob Joseph School on Henry Street in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, a school that combined religious and secular studies in a way that was progressive for its time — and they also wanted the luxury of choice. They didn’t want a one-school city, as Hartford and even Boston were at the time. “What really attracted me was the multiplicity of neighborhoods that were hospitable to Orthodox people,” Dr. Sohn said. “But here there were so many that if one didn’t work out, there was another.”

 

Sounds of joy

Children’s choir ranked number one by congregation

Perhaps if Tzipporei Shalom’s music were to be reviewed by a professional critic, the word “wow” might not find its way into the finished product. But to the congregants of Congregation Beth Sholom in Teaneck — home to the children’s choir — the word seems just about right.

“It was the top-rated program in two synagogue surveys,” said Ronit Hanan, the shul’s musical director, who co-founded and co-directs the group with congregant Adina Avery-Grossman.

The a capella singing group has appeared with Safam, recorded a selection on a CD with the noted chazzan Netanel Hershtik, sung with Neil Sedaka, and joined with the synagogue’s adult choir, Tavim, on special occasions, most recently at CBS’s recent Shabbaton. They also participate in an annual community-wide junior choir festival together with choirs from local Reform congregations.

 

Affordable BRCA screening available for all Ashkenazi Jews

A new program at Yeshiva University’s Albert Einstein College of Medicine and Montefiore Health System in the Bronx is offering affordable genetic testing for the Ashkenazi Jewish BRCA cancer mutations.

Anyone who is of Ashkenazi Jewish descent, with at least one Ashkenazi Jewish grandparent, is eligible for the testing for a modest fee of $100.

For many years the recommendations to test for the gene were based on family or personal history of breast or ovarian cancer. But a research study recently revealed that in the Ashkenazi Jewish population, the risk of harboring BRCA cancer genes is high whether or not there is a family history of breast and ovarian cancer.

One in forty Ashkenazi Jews carry genetic glitches in their BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes that elevate the risk of breast and ovarian cancer to as high as 80 percent by the time they are 80 years old. In fact, the landmark study of randomly selected Ashkenazi Jewish men in Israel found that “51 percent of families…harboring BRCA1 or BRCA1 mutations had little or no history of relevant cancer.”

 
 
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