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Chanel No. 5 A.D.

By Miriam Feinberg Vamosh

When I brought the young woman I called Rebecca in The Scroll to the Dead Sea oasis of Ein Gedi, I wanted to make her fate spring from the pages. And thanks to archaeologists and historians, I  believe I found the perfect backdrop – the balsam industry.

Balsam was a mysterious ancient plant whose sap exuded from its shrubs “like tears”* and whose scent and salve sold for double its weight in silver**

In a strange twist of history, the plant the ancients knew as commiphora opobalsamum became extinct. But a subspecies, commiphora gileadensis, is now being raised in the Erlich family orchard in the Dead Sea Valley in the hopes of producing the precious substance once again in our region!

Balsam production factory, artist’s rendering (Daily Life at the Time of Jesus, p. 77, courtesy of Palphot).

Balsam production factory, artist’s rendering (Daily Life at the Time of Jesus, p. 77, courtesy of Palphot)

Fascination with balsam goes back millennia, and the discoveries don’t stop. Recently, a two millennia-old water system was unearthed in a new Israel Antiquities Authority excavation of a site first found in the 1960s near Ein Bokek near the Dead Sea.

Balsam production pool at En Bokek (photo: Dr. Tsvika Tsuk, Israel Nature and Parks Authority)

Balsam production pool at En Bokek (photo: Dr. Tsvika Tsuk, Israel Nature and Parks Authority)

The English Bible translates the Hebrew name – afarsimon – as “balm” (Genesis 37:25). For Jeremiah, afarsimon symbolized hopelessness:  “There is no balm in Gilead.” The opposite message is conveyed in the traditional spiritual “There is a Balm in Gilead.”

Artist’s rendering of what may be a balsam factory at Enot Tsukim on the Dead Sea (courtesy of Dr. Tsvika Tsuk, Israel Nature and Parks Authority)

Artist’s rendering of what may be a balsam factory at Enot Tsukim on the Dead Sea (photo courtesy of Dr. Tsvika Tsuk, Israel Nature and Parks Authority)

Scent and the City

I recall a story about a man with a sign on his desk that said: “my job is so secret even I don’t know what I’m doing.” The people of Ein Gedi knew what they were doing alright (making balsam products); they just didn’t want anybody else to know. They kept their secret so well that nobody actually does. At Ein Gedi National Park, the mosaic floor of the ancient synagogue has an inscription cursing anyone who revealed “the secret of the town” –   “He whose eyes range through the whole earth and who sees hidden things will set his face on that man and on his seed and will uproot him from under the heavens.”

Inscription on the mosaic floor of the Ein Gedi synagogue containing the “curse of the secret” (photo courtesy of Dr. Tsvika Tsuk, Israel Nature and Parks Authority)

Inscription on the mosaic floor of the Ein Gedi synagogue containing the “curse of the secret” (photo courtesy of Dr. Tsvika Tsuk, Israel Nature and Parks Authority)

I hope that in The Scroll, I’m able to give readers even a whiff of what I imagine was the ancient aroma’s allure, so powerful that robbers in Sodom could sniff it out in the homes of the wealthy and steal it at night (Talmud, Sanhedrin 109a). As for the plant-to-perfume process, I believe I moved my plot to a peak by showing how some scholars say the sap was made into the costly unguent, and the branches boiled in tubs and mixed with olive oil for a less expensive product.

At Arugot Fort, near Ein Gedi, a fourth-century AD tower dating to the preserved to a height of 18 ft (and probably originally three stories high, with thick with thick walls and a rolling stone to seal the door, was probably a balsam factory. It served as inspiration for scenes in “The Scroll.” (courtesy of Dr. Tsvika Tsuk, Israel Nature and Parks Authority)

At Arugot Fort, near Ein Gedi, a fourth-century AD tower preserved to a height of 18 ft (and probably originally three stories high), with thick walls and a rolling stone to seal the door, was probably a balsam factory. It served as inspiration for scenes in The Scroll. (Photo: Dr. Tsvika Tsuk, Israel Nature and Parks Authority)

But balsam in The Scroll is more than a plot device. Just as ancient balsam production began with the “tears” of the sap and ended (hopefully) with “reaping in gladness” – those very words from Psalm 126:5 encapsulate hope, across the generations, in the story I tell.

 

Want to know more? 

“Three Chapters of Balsamon History,” by the Erlich family. www.jerichovalley.com

“A Balsam Factory” in: Daily Life at the Time of Jesus, by Miriam Feinberg Vamosh (Palphot) p. 77.

“The Balm of Gilead.” Biblical Archaeological Review. October 1996, pp. 18–20.

“Balsam Perfume” – the ancient juglet in the Israel Museum. http://www.imj.org.il/exhibitions/2013/Herod/en/balsam.html

Qumran in Context, Yizhar Hirschfeld (Hendrickson 2004) pp. 207–209, 216–220, and see index for many more references to balsam. (The late Prof. Hirschfeld, scientific adviser on some of my books, told me he hoped that original balsam plant material could still be found at Ein Gedi and that some day  a finished product would be produced jointly by all the countries in our region.)

*Josephus, The Jewish War 1, 1, 6.

**Pliny, Natural History 12, 54.

 

 

 

 

 

Review of The Scroll by David Bivin of Jerusalem Perspective

Honored to have The Scroll featured on Jerusalem Perspective.  Subscribers to my website are entitled to a 20% discount on purchase through the publisher. Please contact me and I’ll send you a discount code to insert when purchasing!

A Gripping New Novel about Jews and Christians in First-century Israel

King David Saw it on the Web

Are Your Kids and Grands Afraid of Spiders?  Tell Them What King David Thought about Them

Spiders are not exactly way up there on my list with raindrops on roses or whiskers on kittens. But every spring morning I take a walk, I love the sight of their webs glistening with the morning dew on the ornamental junipers like the fairy veils of a different culture. The other day, I began thinking about what the Bible says about them. I hope home-schoolers, grandparents and others will enjoy sharing what I found.

Spider webs 2

Spider webs gracing the ornamental junipers. Har Adar, Passover week 2016. (Miriam Feinberg Vamosh)

Isaiah said evil men “weave the spider’s web” (Isaiah 59:5).  Good image, if we want spiders to continue being the stuff of our nightmares. Sir Walter Scott sure thought so, turning the web into the ultimate liar’s lair in his unforgettable two-liner about tangled webs.

Job 8:14 says if we forget God our “trust shall be a spider’s web,” in other words – fragile. Wait, what? Oh well, without Google and NatGeo TV, how could Job could have known that a given weight of spider silk is as strong as the same weight of steel?

And then comes Proverbs 30:28: “The spider skillfully grasps with its hands, and it is in kings’ palaces.” What do you think, good press for the six-leggers?  Coming after other verses describing creatures “little upon the earth, yet exceedingly wise” (Prov. 30:24), the answer seems obvious. And here’s where knowing Hebrew comes in handy. As I mentioned in my blog entry “Where the Language Meets the Land” sometimes things get lost in translation.  Out of some 52 English translations of this verse, I found that about 28 call the creature a lizard, not a spider!  In Hebrew, the word for lizard is smamit (in modern Hebrew, it refers to a Mediterranean house gecko). Scholars did wonder how a literal lizard turned into a scriptural spider, especially because the usual biblical word for spider is different. Even Rashi weighed in on it (he stuck with “spider” by the way).*

A Mediterranean house gecko. Is this what Proverbs 30:28 meant? (Wikipedia)

A Mediterranean house gecko. Is this what Proverbs 30:28 meant? (Wikipedia)

And now, for the tale I promised you. The much longer and more involved original comes from an early medieval source called “the Alphabet of Ben Sirach.”  The backdrop is En Gedi on the Dead Sea. If you have photos of your own visit to that beautiful oasis, you can show them when you tell the story, which springs from David hiding from Saul in I Samuel 24.

“And it was when David was hiding in a cave from King Saul that God set a spider who spun a web over the opening of the cave and the cave was closed up by the web. [Saul said] surely no one has entered here for if he had entered he would have torn the web apart. And so he went away and did not enter the cave. When David emerged and saw the spider, he kissed him and said: ‘Blessed by your Creator and blessed be you.”**

David's Waterfall, En Gedi (wwwlgoisrael.com)

David’s Waterfall, En Gedi (wwwlgoisrael.com)

In other words, we might say, every creature has its purpose in the great skein, I mean scheme, of things.

multi eyed spider on web clipart

 

*There are several versions of this story. I found this one in Humanism in the Talmud and the Midrash by Samuel Tobias Lachs, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1993.

** Proverbs, The Soncino Books of the Bible: Hebrew Text & English Translation with an Introduction and Commentary, edited by Rabbi Abraham Cohen and revised by Rabbi A. J. Rosenberg (New York : Soncino Press, 1993),  p. 207), quoted on www.kjvtoday.com.

 

Riding the Lion

What was – what is – the siren call of the rebel movement that began at Masada and effectively ended with the Bar Kokhba war, but continues to evolve to this day?

Bar Kokhba the fearsome warrior, by Arthur Scyzk. Courtesy of the Eretz Israel Museum, Tel Aviv

Bar Kokhba the fearsome warrior, by Arthur Scyzk (1927). Courtesy of the Eretz Israel Museum, Tel Aviv

What would you do if you were there, on the last, catastrophic day of the Roman siege of Masada, with your enemy at your gates? Would you have taken the lives of your family, as commanded by the Jewish rebel leader Elazar, to spare them captivity? And what of the generations that followed? Surely their forebears’ crushing defeat taught them that the sanctity of life outweighed all other considerations. These are some of the questions I explore in my historical novel “The Scroll.” And there they were – the very same, old-new questions that challenged me in “The Scroll” – in a striking new exhibit at the Eretz Israel Museum, Tel Aviv, “Bar Kokhba: A Historical Memory and the Myth of Heroism.”

The ancient Jewish sages are thunderously silent about Masada, on whose final moments the plot of “The Scroll” takes off on a multi-generational trajectory. And yet today, Masada is one of Israel’s flagship Israeli tourist sites and a UNESCO World Heritage Site to boot.

Aerial view of Masada. Courtesy of the Israel Tourism Ministry, www.goisrael.com

Aerial view of Masada. Courtesy of the Israel Tourism Ministry, www.goisrael.com

In contrast, the leader of the second revolt, some 60 years later, Bar Kosiba, has been a controversial figure, from his day to ours. You might know him better as Bar Kokbha, which means “son of a star” – to Rabbi Akiva he was the messiah himself. But the sages’ consensus about Bar Kokhba is best encapsulated in a Talmudic pun on his name – Bar Koziba – “son of a deceiver.”

And yet as the exhibit shows, as a symbol, Bar Kokhba, like Masada, was transformed over the generations. From the mid-19th century, in the hands of Jewish ideologues, artists, poets and playwrights he morphed into a musclebound, quintessential model of Jewish heroism. An 1840 novel published in Germany by Rabbi Shmuel Meir even depicted him defeating and riding a lion. The establishment of the State of Israel saw that symbol become even more deeply ingrained.

 

 

Archaeological finds from the Bar Kokhba period in Judean Desert caves. Notice the basket at right. Courtesy of the Eretz Israel Museum, Tel Aviv

Archaeological finds from the Bar Kokhba period in Judean Desert caves. Notice the basket at right. Courtesy of the Eretz Israel Museum, Tel Aviv

View of ther Eretz Irael Museum exhibit. The sculpture of the musclebound Bar Kokhba in the center is by 20th-century sculptor Chanoch Glicenstein. Courtesy Eretz Israel Museum, Tel Aviv.

View of ther Eretz Irael Museum exhibit. The sculpture of the musclebound Bar Kokhba in the center is by 20th-century sculptor Chanoch Glicenstein. Courtesy Eretz Israel Museum, Tel Aviv.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Like “The Scroll,” the Bar Kokhba exhibit explores the idea that if your hero can ride a lion, the final outcome notwithstanding, words like “victory” and “freedom” take on new meanings.

The exhibit features rare film footage of the moments of discovery of human bones, in the Judean Desert “Cave of Horrors.” According to scholars the remains, carefully placed in woven baskets, were those of Bar Kokhba’s rebels and their families, starved to death by the Romans. But if the rebels all died, who put those skulls and bones in those baskets? That is a question asked – and answered – in “The Scroll.”

Shomer Hatzair Youth Movement Bar Kokhba Troop banner celebrating their hero, painting on silk. Courtesy of the Eretz Israel Museum, Tel Aviv.

Vintage Shomer Hatzair Youth Movement Bar Kokhba Troop banner celebrating their hero, painting on silk. Courtesy of the Eretz Israel Museum, Tel Aviv.

Please visit the Menorah Books website to order your copy of The Scroll, and for a special 20% discount for friends and subscribers, please contact me. Thank you!

A Masada Survivor’s Fate – Told through a Real Archaeological Find

So pleased to share the following article with you about the archaeological find on which my historical novel, The Scroll – recently published in paperback by Menorah Books – is based. The article was first seen on the website Israel 365. 

“Two women and five children.” As a tour guide, I never fail to notice that no matter how tired and sunbaked my group may be at the end of their Masada visit, these five words perk them up.

By that moment I have already shared the story leading up to the deaths of almost 1,000 rebel Jews at Masada in 73 CE. I have already told them that when we want to know what happened on that Judean Desert plateau in the wake of the Roman siege and its last blood-soaked chapter, there’s only the ancient historian Josephus to turn to. When I tell them about the two women and five children Josephus says survived, people always ask me: “What happened to them?” And I have to tell them the truth –Josephus says not one word about their fate.

Aerial view of Masada. Courtesy of the Israel Ministry of Tourism: www.goisrael.com.

Aerial view of Masada. Courtesy of the Israel Ministry of Tourism: www.goisrael.com.

And so I resolved to discover my own answer to the mystery. It came to me because of the only other place where the name of the Masada fortress appears in antiquity: on a scroll – the one that gave my book its name – discovered in a Judean Desert cave in 1951. The content? Terms for the dissolution of the marriage of one Joseph and Miriam. The dateline? Masada.

What was the story behind this couple?

As committed as they were to fighting to the death for the cause of Jewish freedom, why in the world would they become so sidetracked by mere marital discord?

Photo of the actual divorce document on which The Scroll is based. Courtesy of the IAA

Photo of the actual divorce document on which The Scroll is based. Courtesy of the IAA

And then came my “what if?”  What if one of the two women who survived Masada was the Miriam of the divorce document? What if there was another reason that she and Joseph ended their marriage? With trepidation I cold-called Magen Broshi, the former curator of the Israel Museum’s Shrine of the Book, to ask if my idea had merit. “Say anything you want. We have no idea what happened to her,” he said with typical Israeli gruffness.

As I then broadened my research, I learned that the Babylonian Talmud, Ketuboth (9a) states: “Everyone who goes out into the war of the House of David writes for his wife a deed of divorce.” The purpose of so doing, the sages said, was that in case a warrior died, but his death could not be verified, the widow would not be left in limbo – “chained” – as the Hebrew term aguna is rendered in English, unable to move on and affirm life as Jewish law, custom and tradition certainly intended.

I was inspired to write The Scroll because I wanted to discover and share how Miriam of Masada was able to face life despite all the horrors she had seen, turning her back on everything familiar. I wanted to bring to life how the generations that came after her understood her sacrifices and found their own answers, including their response to the hopeless disaster of the Bar Kokhba war. I wanted to infuse readers with the minutia of daily life of the Jews and Christians who peopled first-century Judea, Galilee and beyond, because I believed, as I still do, that in the minutia of their daily lives we can find answers to more than just ancient questions. We can learn life lessons from history that will help us understand the geo-political and religious tensions of today.

Ballistae -- fired at the rebels by the Romans. Miriam Feinberg Vamosh

Ballistae at Masada,  fired at the rebels by the Romans. Miriam Feinberg Vamosh

 

The Scroll – Now in Paperback for the First Time

I’m so pleased to share with you that my novel, The Scroll, has just come out for the first time in a paperback edition, published by Menorah Books in Jerusalem. If you enjoy historical novels and love delving into Jewish and Christian life and lore in the ancient Holy Land, I know you’ll find The Scroll a memorable and powerful read, and discover its message for our times

You can order The Scroll through Menorah Books by going to www.menorah-books.com. I’ll be letting you know when it’s available on Amazon in the weeks ahead. And of course you can still purchase the ebook edition on Amazon.com and other leading sites. Find out more about The Scroll by clicking on the special page dedicated to it right here on my website  and in my recent blog post “Beyond The Dovekeepers.” In particular, I hope other authors out there will enjoy reading Susan Reichert’s article, “On Holy Ground,” published in Southern Writers Magazine a while back, in which I describe the process of writing The Scroll.

 

 

 

 

“On Holy Ground” by Susan Reichert: How I wrote The Scroll

An article about the exciting process of writing The Scroll

My Granddaughters’ Great-Great-Great Grandmother

The “new year of the trees” is the perfect opportunity to look at the family tree of the intrepid clan into which I have the privilege of being grafted – through my grandchildren.

Tu B’Shvat, which falls this this year on Monday, January 25, celebrates the budding trees, and is marked by planting in our ancient land and ceremonies praising the tillers and the builders that came before us. Over the centuries, Tu B’Shvat itself blossomed with multiple meanings, as it moved from this land to the wider Jewish world and eventually back here as “the new year of the trees.”  It seems only fitting tell about one  tiller and builder, a member of the venerable Chizik clan – my granddaughters’ great-great-great grandmother Hannah Chizik.

I knew the name Chizik long before our granddaughters’ mother (our daughter Maya) married into the family; in fact, long before she was even born. In the memorial room at Tel Hai the Upper Galilee, I would tell visitors the little I knew of Sarah Chizik’s life, under her intense and somehow knowing gaze –  how at age 22, she, together with seven comrades (including their leader Joseph Trumpeldor) fought to the death in 1920 to defend Tel Hai farm.

The Chiziks: First row, seated, left to right: Sarah, Brayna, Shmuel, daughter-in-law Sarah, Baruch. Standing: Aharon, Hannah, Yitzhak. Photo from an article in Ma’ariv, April 30, 1987, by Orit Harel.

The Chiziks: First row, seated, left to right: Sarah, Brayna, Shmuel, daughter-in-law Sarah, Baruch. Standing: Aharon, Hannah, Yitzhak. Photo from an article in Ma’ariv, April 30, 1987, by Orit Harel.

After Maya married Yonatan, Sarah’s great-great-grand-nephew, I learned more of the Chizik clan’s lore. Lives simply lived, with more than their fair share of everything from youthful shenanigans to scientific research, art, deeds of daring-do and  leadership in gender and Zionist Movement politics in Palestine.

I began to learn more about Sarah’s short life than one sad portrait on a memorial wall could convey. They say she was a talented bookkeeper and by age 16 was watching over the family’s farm expenses. (I shared this family tidbit with Yonatan’s sister Yael, who is a graduate in accounting from Tel Aviv University.) I learned that Sarah was one of eight siblings, the children of Shmuel and Brayna Chizik, who arrived in this country in 1907 from Ukraine, following their eldest son, Baruch, who became a plant expert.

The youngest, Yitzhak, was born in at the pioneering Sejera farm in Galilee and eventually became the “first Hebrew pilot.” After earning a master’s degree at the London School of Economics, he was also Israel’s consul in Chicago. I learned that another brother, Ephraim, left the family’s Galilee farm to become a Hagannah commander and was killed defending the Hulda farm in the Judean Foothills during the riots of 1929. Ephraim, Yonatan’s grandfather, was named after him.

Sculpture at Hulda in memory of Ephraim Chizik and comrades.

Sculpture at Hulda in memory of Ephraim Chizik and comrades.

After following her brother Baruch to Palestine, Hannah studied painting and weaving at Bezalel in Jerusalem, and eventually joined the women’s farm at Kinneret (founded by women determined to farm as equals alongside the menfolk, which, it turns out, even among young socialist firebrands was not a foregone conclusion! You can read more about them in my suggested reading below).

 

Farmers at Kinneret; back row, fourth from right, Hannah Chizik.

Farmers at Kinneret; back row, fourth from right, Hannah Chizik.

In 1921 Hannah went to Vienna to study agronomy and five years later, she founded a women’s farm in Tel Aviv, on land leased from the city. Under her leadership, for some 20 years the 12 women at the farm cultivated a vegetable garden, raised chickens and flowers, and sold their produce to the residents of the budding new city on the Mediterranean.

"Kinneret Courtyard" today a heritage site near the Sea of Galilee.

“Kinneret Courtyard” today a heritage site near the Sea of Galilee.

In 1936 a new building in the Bauhaus style was built on the site. It housed a center for at-risk youth, also run by Hannah and in 1943 the “Tehran children” lived there for six weeks. The house was struck on July 9, 1948 during an Egyptian bombing raid on Tel Aviv. In 1951 Hannah died of a heart attack. Finally, in the 1990s building was restored. It now houses various courses hosted by the Tel Aviv municipality. In a March 21, 1997 terror attack, three young women were killed at the coffee shop in the building.

Hannah married Meir Dubinsky, who left Russia in 1913 for the United States and settled in Milwaukee. Yonatan’s father, Roni Dubinsky told me that his grandfather’s real name was actually Dubovic. But in a classic Ellis Island story, he came in with a group of Poles and everybody else had “sky” at the end of their name, so the clerk dubbed him “Dubinsky.”  A Chizik cousin and keeper of the family annals, Ido Barel, told me Meir was considered the black sheep of the family because he insisted on moving to Eretz Yisrael!

Pioneers in training. Top row, middle, my granddaughter’s great-great uncle Meir Dubinsky, Hannah’s husband. Bottom right, seated, Golda Meir.

Pioneers in training. Top row, middle, my granddaughter’s great-great-great uncle Meir Dubinsky, Hannah’s husband. Bottom right, seated, Golda Meir.

Baruch Chizik published a book of botany and plant lore in 1930, called Agadot Tzimhiel.  His niece, Naomi Chizik, told the Jerusalem Post in an interview that one of the legends in the book depicts Moses standing on Mount Nebo on the day he died and feeling a dry plant brush against his leg. He asked God if this was a sign that he, too, would wither away forgotten. God replied: “take some water and pour it onto the plant.” When Moses did so, the plant came to life and bloomed as a rose. “Do not fear, Moses. Your memory will be a blessing forever,” God said.

There is so much more to tell, but even more to hope for: My little granddaughters, Tamar and Elia Dubinsky, the newest flourishing branches on this family tree, may you grow to help make this land everything your amazing ancestors dreamed it could be.

The youngest Dubinsky (to date...) flanked by her grandpas, Arik Vamosh, left, and Roni Dubinsky, right

The youngest Dubinsky (to date…), Elia, flanked by her grandpas, Arik Vamosh, left, and Roni Dubinsky, right

A partial family tree, showing granddaughters Tamar and Elia's direct connection to Hannah Chizik and her forbears.

A partial family tree, showing granddaughters Tamar and Elia’s direct connection to Hannah Chizik and her forbears.

vine design

Further reading

The Chizik Clan

http://www.jpost.com/Magazine/Embroidering-the-past

Article by Orit Harel Ma’ariv, April 30, 1987 (Hebrew).

 

 

The Women’s Farms in Palestine

S.Reinharz,Timeline of Women and Women’s Issues in the Yishuv and Israel

http://www.brandeis.edu/hbi/publications/workingpapers/docs/reinharz4.pdf

Pioneers and Homemakers: Jewish Women in Pre-State Palestine, ed. D.S. Bernstein. Albany, 1992.

The “Tehran children”:

http://www.yadvashem.org/yv/en/exhibitions/this_month/february/11.asp