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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 do-it-yourself disease’

Before Saddle Brook walk, families of ALS patients talk about the disease’s impact

In early 2014, just shy of his 12th birthday, Eitan David Jacobi of Teaneck told his parents he was having trouble raising his arms. It was particularly hard for him to shoot basketballs.

This was a first for the youngster, said his mother, Rabbi Lori Forman-Jacobi, who described her son as an active, funny, and very social kid.

In fact, she said, he had spent the previous summer as a camper at Ramah Nyack. And when he fell off a horse in early November, “we told him to get back on.” Usually that’s good advice. But Eitan did not have the strength to stay on the horse.

“We didn’t have a clue,” Rabbi Forman-Jacobi, a past vice-principal of the Bergen County High School of Jewish Studies. “It took us until Thanksgiving to get to a neurologist.” By that time, Eitan was “unable to reach to get to the microwave or to open cabinets.”

 

An ‘unwavering Jewish compass’

As he transitions out of his CEO job, supporters talk about Avi Lewinson

Last week, the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly announced a major change in its professional leadership.

According to a press release, the “exciting changes” saw its CEO, Avi Lewinson of Demarest, leave that position to become a fundraising consultant. He will be replaced in the JCC’s executive suite by Jordan Shenker, who had worked for the JCC Association of North America as a consultant to large JCCs, including to the Kaplen center.

Mr. Lewinson has been at the JCC for 25 years, and at its helm for most of that time. Since the announcement of his role change, his many supporters have been reminiscing about his work there.

 

Nostra Aetate 50 years later

Local rabbi looks back at half-century of progress since ‘radical’ document was published

Judaism and Christianity have shared the world for just about two millennia, and it seems fair to say that for most of that time, the relationship could have been better. Much, much better.

In the last half century, though, the relationship between Jews and Christians — and particularly between Jews and Roman Catholics — has changed radically, Rabbi Noam Marans of Teaneck says

(EDITOR’S NOTE: Our conversation with Rabbi Marans preceded the Vatican’s announcement this week that it would recognize the “state of Palestine.” The story is updated below.)

It was in 1965, 50 years ago, that Pope Paul VI promulgated Nostra Aetate, a surprisingly brief but thoroughly revolutionary Vatican II document that reworked the church’s relationship with non-Christian faiths.

 

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Burning questions

Rabbi Lawrence Troster reflects on papal environmental letter

On Sunday, Rabbi Lawrence Troster of Teaneck will march through downtown Rome to Vatican City.

The march is being organized to support Pope Francis’ call for action on the environment embodied in the papal letter, or encyclical, he released last week, called Laudato Si (“Blessed Be”). An international interfaith coalition, Our Voices, whose goal is “bringing faith to the climate talks,” is organizing the march. Among the coalition’s members are the American interfaith group GreenFaith, where Rabbi Troster is scholar-in-residence.

This is a period of increased activity for Rabbi Troster and the broader Jewish environmental movement, jumpstarted by the papal letter that Rabbi Troster called “amazing” and leading up to global talks on a new treaty to fight global warming scheduled for November in Paris.

These next few months, Rabbi Troster said, will see the environmental issues taking a higher profile on the Jewish communal agenda, as it becomes a priority for the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center in Washington, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, and a group he is organizing of rabbis and cantors called Shomrei Breishit. He hopes it will surface in high holiday sermons, and in interfaith actions during Sukkot.

 

A new home for Bonim

‘Builders’ moving to Rockleigh

When Bonim was created in 2002, it brought together volunteers of all skill levels to fix, renovate, and refurbish homes for Jewish families and individuals who could not afford to do it themselves.

Over the years, the group’s mission has not changed, though the number of individuals, families, and groups it helps has grown each year, surpassing 100 at last count. What has changed, however, is Bonim’s official home.

As of July 1, Bonim — formally called Bonim Builders, though “bonim,” in fact, means builders — will become part of the Jewish Home Family, based in Rockleigh, moving from its longtime home at the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey.

Carol Silver Elliott, president and CEO of Jewish Home Family, sees the new placement as “ideal.”

 

Musical mitzvah raises money for AIDS organization

Local teen (and friends) perform for a good cause

Haworth teen and stage performer Jeremy Shinder had his first gig when he was 2. It was when his grandfather, Rabbi Frederic Pomerantz, called him up to the bimah to play drums at Temple Beth-El of Northern Valley in Closter.

It is fitting, then, that his recent bar mitzvah celebration — which included a benefit concert for Equity Fights AIDS — took place at that same synagogue.

In fact, his bar mitzvah spanned two synagogues, said his mother, Rabbi Rebecca Shinder, religious leader of Temple Beth Shalom in Florida, N.Y., and associate rabbi at Tenafly’s Temple Sinai for many years.

“My shul is small, so we did Friday night there,” said Rabbi Shinder, who also is the congregation’s cantor and educational director. “It was packed. My father had done a jazz service [at Beth-El, where he is now rabbi emeritus] and Jeremy wanted that to be part of his bar mitzvah celebration. He played the drums for it. We brought in musicians through former congregants at Beth-El.”

 
 
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