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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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Walling off, reaching out

Teaneck shul offers discussion of Women of the Wall

It is not an understatement to say that the saga of Women of the Wall is a metaphor for much of the struggle between tradition and change in Israel.

Founded 25 years ago by a group of Israeli and non-Israeli women whose religious affiliations ran from Orthodox to Reform, it has been a flashpoint for the fight for pluralism in Israel, as one side would define it, or the obligation to hold onto God-given mandates on the other.

As its members and supporters fought for the right to hold services in the women’s section, raising their voices in prayer, and later to wear tallitot and read from sifrei Torah, and as their opponents grew increasingly violent in response, it came to define questions of synagogue versus state and showcase both the strengths and the flaws of Israel’s extraordinary parliamentary system. It also highlighted rifts between American and Israeli Jews.

 

Shabbat in the White City

Fair Lawn man aims for Guinness-record dinner in Tel Aviv

Jay Shultz is determined to set a new world record while promoting Tel Aviv — usually cited for its nightlife and startup culture — as a great place to spend Shabbat.

The 37-year-old Fair Lawn native, who has lived in Israel since 2006, has earned a reputation as the “International Mayor of Tel Aviv” after a series of grand-scale initiatives geared at positioning his adopted city as welcoming haven for young professional immigrants.

His latest exploit: Through his popular White City Shabbat program, which offers communal meals for young Israelis and immigrants at local synagogues, Mr. Shultz launched an Indiegogo crowd funding campaign to sponsor the world’s largest Shabbat dinner.

 

Testing for genetic diseases

JScreen provides easy, low-cost screening for people of Jewish lineage

Looking for a novel engagement or bridal shower gift? “Forget a blender or another place setting. Give a JGift and help them ensure the best future for their family,” advises the website JScreen.org.

For $99 you can “give the gift of screening,” said Hillary Kener, JScreen’s outreach coordinator. Ms. Kener was referring to the online genetic screening program that is coordinated through the department of human genetics at Atlanta’s Emory University. With this unique program it is possible to be screened for up to 80 genetic mutations. Along with screening, the site provides education and access to genetic counseling related to the screening tests. And all of this can take place in the comfort of your own home or dormitory room.

 

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Doing well, doing good

Israeli band full of New Jersey locals hopes to tour U.S.

If a crowd-funding appeal is successful, the Israeli band G-Nome Project is coming to the United States.

This is not the scientific kind of genome project having to do with decoding DNA, but a musical project launched by four young expatriates — two of them from Teaneck.

It’s also a kind of chesed project. The band’s proposed 10-city “Giving Tour” aims to combine nightly gigs with days of good deeds such as visiting nursing homes and working in a soup kitchen.

This unusual twist was inspired by drummer Chemy Soibelman’s volunteering with Israeli children suffering from cancer.

 

Less is more

Moriah to institute new tuition affordability program

Good news for the middle class — and for Jewish day school affordability.

The Moriah School in Englewood, which runs from prekindergarten through eighth grade, has announced a new tuition affordability program, which will cut tuition for parents making as much as $360,000 a year.

Full tuition at the school ranges from $12,000 for kindergarten to $15,425 for middle school. (The prekindergarten program is not eligible for the tuition breaks.)

“We’ve been talking, as a board and as a community, about tuition affordability and the tuition crisis for years,” said Evan Sohn, the school’s president. “We decided this was the year we were going to address that issue.”

 

Scrolling through Jewish art

Local exhibit looks at text and images in old and new ways

The English letters that Harriet Fincke of Ridgewood learned when she was young are straightforward symbols that combine to form words, just as they are for everyone else.

But Hebrew letters — ah, they are something else again. “They always seemed kind of solid,” she said. “They seemed more like things,” objects in their own right, opaque. “It’s both the meaning and the look, and the relationship between them,” she said.

Those letters were a foundation part of her childhood — she went all the way through school at the Yeshiva of Flatbush. “I’d always had a kind of richly ambivalent relationship with my religious upbringing, and with the text,” she said.

 
 
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