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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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A rabbi hasn’t walked into the bar ... yet

It’s not every day that a liquor license comes up for sale in Teaneck. (State licensing laws limit the number of licenses in a formula based on a town’s population.)

So when Jonathan Gellis heard that the owner of Vinny O’s in Teaneck was looking to sell the establishment, including the license, after 28 years behind the bar, he realized that only one of the more than 20 kosher restaurants in Teaneck could sell alcohol.

That seemed to be an opportunity.

Mr. Gellis is a stockbroker by day. He’s used to working in a regulated business — and the alcohol business in New Jersey is highly regulated.

Mr. Gellis grew up in Teaneck; his parents moved the family here from Brooklyn in 1975, back when the town had only one kosher restaurant. His four children attend Yeshivat Noam and the Frisch School, and he serves on the board of both institutions. He also is president of Congregation Keter Torah.

 

The converso’s dilemma

Local group goes to New Mexico to learn about crypto-Jews

Imagine that you were raised as a Catholic. Then one day — perhaps as a beloved parent or grandparent lay dying and leaned over to whisper something in your ear — you learned that your family once was Jewish. Your ancestors were converted forcibly some 500 years ago.

For those people all over the world who have had that experience, the next step is not entirely clear. Do they jump in with both feet and vigorously pursue their new Jewish identities, or do they simply go about their business, choosing to do nothing with this new information? These dilemmas, and more, were the subject of a recent Road Scholar program in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

The topic — “New Mexico’s Conversos and Crypto-Jews” — continues to fascinate both Jews and non-Jews, as evidenced by the religious identity of the attendees. Among those participating in this month’s session — there are 10 such programs held each year — were five residents from our area, including this author.

 

How to learn Hebrew

Confronting American Jews’ linguistic illiteracy, many programs offer help

Can you read a Hebrew newspaper or order a meal in an Israel restaurant? If you’re like the vast majority of American Jews, the answer is no.

“Half of Jews (52%), including 60% of Jews by religion and 24% of Jews of no religion, say they know the Hebrew alphabet,” according to last October’s “Portrait of Jewish Americans,” the famous study released by the Pew Research Center.

“But far fewer (13% of Jews overall, including 16% of Jews by religion and 4% of Jews of no religion) say they understand most or all of the words when they read Hebrew,” the report continues.

Alarmed by this finding, the World Zionist Organization, the Israeli Education Ministry, and several partner organizations recently launched the Hebrew Language Council of North America to help more Jews become conversant in the language of their literature, lore, and land — as well as the language of their peers in Israel.

 

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Mississippi burning, remembered

Puffin marks jubilee of Freedom Summer

It was a summer that changed lives.

It was a fight for American democracy in the face of terrorism.

It was dubbed “Freedom Summer,” and it drew 700 college students and young adults to help Mississippi activists fight for civil rights.

The year was 1964.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech the previous August, during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. In Washington, a far-reaching civil rights bill that would desegregate public facilities had been introduced to Congress by President Lyndon Johnson — but quickly stalled and was then filibustered for months.

 

Adding to Jewish life in Clifton

Rabbi Moshe Mirsky heads religious services department at Daughters of Miriam

Rabbi Moshe Mirsky thinks his new position as the director of religious services at the Daughters of Miriam Center/Gallen Institute in Clifton is a perfect shidduch.

Actually, it is not quite a new job. Rabbi Mirsky had already worked there with Rabbi Ira Kronenberg, who just retired from the home this month, in the late 1980s. Back then Rabbi Mirsky was studying for simicha — rabbinic ordination. He worked there once again in the 1990s, while he was teaching at various day schools.

“I would come on the weekends for Shabbat and on yom tov to assist Rabbi Kronenberg,” he said. “I would lead davening, give Torah classes, go to the Alzheimer’s unit, and try to engage the residents Jewishly. I had a special rapport with Rabbi Kronenberg and the residents.”

Indeed, then he already was doing many of the things he is doing now as director of religious affairs.

 

Poor assumptions = poor policy

ZOA’s congressional lobbyist talks about Israel, Oslo, and plans doomed to fail

The two-state solution is a chimera, Joshua London says. It is a lovely vision of something that never can be real, and chasing it — chasing the plan that would make Israel and Palestine two separate states, living next to each other in prickly but sustainable peace — is chasing the wind.

Mr. London, who lives in suburban Maryland, is the Zionist Organization of America’s co-director of government affairs. He will be taking a break from his daily routine — lobbying Congress to further the ZOA’s own understanding of the Middle East — to speak at a parlor meeting in Teaneck on Wednesday.

His goal, he said, “is to bring clarity and critical analysis to the longstanding U.S. policy for support of — and in fact to apply pressure toward — the creation of a Palestinian state from territory that otherwise belongs to Israel, and to do so under the notion that this will bring peace.”

 
 
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