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“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

Where the Rest Is History – Literally

This Christmas, let’s make an armchair visit to a humble rocky outcrop on the road to Bethlehem. It marks the place where Mary, about to give birth, sought respite, a storied site of miracles and celebration, where one of the largest churches in the Holy Land once stood majestic.

Just a few days from now pilgrims will be making their way from Jerusalem to Bethlehem to celebrate the nativity. All eyes are turned to the famous little town where colorful spiritual pageantry abounds. But that’s not where I’m going to take you now. We’re going to little known site on the road to Bethlehem.  No church stands there now, no lines of pilgrims wait to enter – that’s because there are no doors and no roof. Virtually all you see above ground is a mound of bedrock reaching up to the endless sky and a few fallen pillars. And yet, about a millennium and a half ago, no Christian would pass by here without looking up in awe and stopping to pray, praise and proclaim.

a view of the Kathisma – “Mary’s seat.” Here it looks a bit forlorn. But look at the next picture! (Photo: Miriam Feinberg Vamosh)

A view of the Kathisma – “Mary’s seat.” Does it seem a bit forlorn?  Look at the next picture! (Photo: Miriam Feinberg Vamosh).

It’s the Church of Kathisma – that word means “seat” in Greek – and it marks the place where tradition says Mary rested on the way to Bethlehem, just before giving birth to Jesus.

Mary’s pre-partum rest was mentioned often in ancient texts as far back as the second century, and eventually, so was the church that marked it, which became world-famous. Yet it managed to disappear, seemingly without a trace. And though archaeologists knew of significant Christian ruins lacing this hillside, the location of Kathisma might still be a mystery if not for its accidental discovery during road construction in 1992, and its excavation, by Dr. Rina Avner of the Israel Antiquities Authority.

The ruins are located in an olive grove on the northeastern corner of the intersection of the main Jerusalem-Bethlehem road, with the road leading east to Herodium.  They’re not officially open to the public, though…see above…there’s no door to stop you. The ancient rock where Mary rested is unmistakable – rising from the ground about 60 inches high, 6 feet long and 11.4 feet wide. And once you’ve spotted it, you then can’t miss the remains of the octagonal walls and a few of the columns, now fallen, which once surrounded it.

Here we are – a group of Marys, Maries, Marias, Mary Janes… and one Miriam – everyone in our group with a version of the famous name, invited to sit on the rock for a photo to commemorate our visit. Photo: Dr. Bill Creasy

Here we are – a group of Marys, Maries, Marias, Mary Janes… and one Miriam – everyone in our group with a version of the famous name, invited to rest on “Mary’s Seat” for a photo to commemorate our visit. Photo: Dr. Bill Creasy

The building was huge – it measured 114 feet long and 123 feet wide. As ancient pilgrims circumnavigated its three concentric octagonal corridors, they could glimpse the famed stone seat, and could break off from time to time to pray in a number of chapels along the hallways. The chapels were carpeted with multi-hued mosaics in intricate patterns – geometric designs, leaves, vines, fruit and flowers galore, along with motifs from the world of jewelry and even textiles, the later ones bearing a remarkable resemblance to the mosaics of the Dome of the Rock.

These gorgeous mosaic floors have all been covered up to protect them until such time as they can be properly displayed. In the early days after the discovery, I was sure that the powers that be – ecclesiastical, political and academic – would get together right away to reconstruct this once-magnificent building. You guessed it…I’m still waiting.

Detail of a mosaic from the Kathisma (courtesy of Dr. Rina Avner).

Detail of a mosaic from the Kathisma (courtesy of Dr. Rina Avner).

And now, a little history and tradition: The first mention of Mary resting just before Jesus’ birth goes back to the second-century Gospel of James, and was associated (and continued persistently over the centuries to be so) with the story of another biblical birthing mother –  Rachel the Matriarch – only a few miles to the south, where her tomb still stands, meaningful to all three monotheistic faiths. Legends about the rock abound (you can read more about them in the resources I list below). By the fifth century, the Feast of Theotokos (“Mother of God”), had been instituted, probably the earliest celebration devoted to Mary, Scholars say it took place at a specific site on the road to Bethlehem where the Kathisma was eventually built, endowed by a wealthy widow named Ikelia. Later the building was expanded and parts were remodeled. In the eighth century part of the church was converted into a mosque, with Marian veneration persisting here at least until the ninth century.

The jewel in the crown of the Kathisma’s many magnificent mosaics is one that symbolically recalls the oft-repeated legend of an exhausted and thirsty Mary sustained by a date palm that bent its branches toward her so she could eat its fruit, and a miraculous spring that emerged from its roots. The Muslims adopted this tradition as well; a version of the story is also found in the Quran.

The date palm mosaic at the Kathisma (courtesy of Dr. Rina Avner)

Kathisma date palm  (courtesy of Dr. Rina Avner)

At the Kathisma, don’t let appearances deceive you. Viewed with the eyes of the soul and imagination, this is one powerful place! I still hope that such an evocative site, which weaves together some of the most beloved of our different religious traditions – will someday be restored as a monument to our shared human spirit.

Merry Christmas to one and all.

Detail of a mosaic from the Kathisma (courtesy of Dr. Rina Avner).

Detail of a mosaic from the Kathisma courtesy of Dr. Rina Avner).

Learn more in the resources below:

Rina Avner, “The Recovery of the Kathisma Church and Its Influence on Octagonal Buildings.” Offprint from One Land–Many Cultures, Archaeological Studies in Honor of S. Loffreda (Studium Biblicum Franciscanum Collectio Maior 41). Jerusalem 2003.

And in the same offprint, Leah Di Segni, A Greek Inscription in the Kathisma Church.”

Rina Avner, “The Kathisma: A Christian and Muslim Pilgrimage Site.”  ARAM Offprint, Volume 18­-19 (2006–2007).

Miriam Feinberg Vamosh, “The Most Important Ancient Church you Never Heard of.”

http://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/travel/tourist-tip-of-the-day/1.564737

No author cited, “The Church of the Seat of Mary” http://www.mfa.gov.il/mfa/israelexperience/history/pages/the%20church%20of%20the%20 seat%20of%20mary%20-kathisma-.aspx.

Rina Avner, “Jerusalem: The Kathisma Church.” New Encyclopedia of Archaeological Excavations in the Holy Land. Vol. 5 (Israel Exploration Society 2008), pp. 1831–1833.

Vered Shalev-Hurvitz, Holy Sites Encircled: The Early Byzantine Concentric Churches of Jerusalem. (Oxford University Press 2015), pp. 117–141.

Flames of Faith and Freedom: Now that’s a Force to Be Reckoned With

The “graves of the Maccabees” are about as unlikely a place to find shared Judeo-Christian heritage as a Star Wars movie, but there it is

Now that I have your attention, I’d like to share with you something about fire that’s not the outer-space, cinematic, blockbuster kind. I want to tell you about a different kind of fire – the flames of the Hanukkah candles, which each night grow brighter and will reach their brightest light on Sunday night.

Hope of the future - Hanukkah 2014

I learned recently that the first association of Hanukkah with fire is in 2 Maccabees 1:18 where it is called the “feast of tabernacles and of the fire” (KJV) and where the author traces a heavenly fire that “was given to us when Nehemias offered sacrifice” (v. 18), a fire that had been hidden and miraculously appeared.

Similarities between these verses and the story of the fire-bringing, fire-breathing prophet Elijah, whose heroism, like that of the Maccabees, reaches across religious differences, are unmistakable. The backdrop in both is a violent rejection of idol worship. But beyond that, you’ve got your sacrifices laid on an altar with wood (2 Macc. 1:21; 1 Kings 18:23, 33); you’ve got your water pouring and sprinkling  (2 Macc. 1:21; 1 Kings 18: 33–35); in both stories a cloud rolls in (2 Macc. 1:22; 1 Kings 18:44 ); and in both, a wondrous fire is kindled (2 Mac. 1:22; 1 Kings 18:38–39). Also in both stories, major praying and praise are part of the picture (2 Macc. 1:24–29; 1 Kings 18:39).

I leave my interfaith reflections for the moment to share with you how I celebrated Hanukkah week. In addition to candle-lighting, gift-giving, dreidel-spinning and latkes-eating, I decided that for my required continuing education day to renew my Israel tour guide license, I’d join a trip to Maccabee country, only about an hour from where I live, to see the newly discovered tombs some like to call the “graves of the Maccabees.” What a treasure trove! Even my favorite subject – what our faiths have in common – was represented.

Our guide was Dr. Amit Re’em of the Israel Antiquities Authority, who lives in Modi’in, the modern city named for the home town of the famed Mattathias and his sons, first and foremost the iconic Judah the Maccabee.  As Re’em took us around Modi’in, regaling us with stories of antiquities on every hill and dale, he explained that Holy Land scholars have been on a hunt for the Hasmoneans (the dynastic name of the Maccabees) for over 150 years  To make a long story short (for more info see suggested reading at the end of this blog), Re’em and his colleagues were drawn, like French, British and Israeli archaeologists before them, to the site where the ancient village of el-Medyeh once stood. As it turns out, that site, called Horbat HaGardi, has a lot to recommend it as the authentic Hasmonean home town. And that’s despite the fact that a nearby burial site, Qubur al-Yahud (“the graves of the Jews”) – whose tombs, though really old, actually belonged to anonymous ancient pagans or early Christians – has meanwhile become the “official” spot. By the way, try saying the name el-Medyeh out loud; it sounds like Modi’in, which is another of several recommendations for its authenticity, as you’ll read below.

There’s an old tomb building at the site, where one Sheikh Garbawi (“the sheikh of the west”) is buried. In recent years, local devotees of Mattathias have utterly disregarded the Muslim origins of the sheikh; for them this is none other than the final resting place of the priestly paterfamilias of the Maccabees, and they have even installed a tombstone stating as much.

 

Part of the arched entryway to the tomb of Mattathias, a.k.a. Sheikh Garbawi

Part of the arched entryway to the tomb of Mattathias, a.k.a. Sheikh Garbawi.

The tombstone with the words "Mattathias the high priest" and a dedication, in the Sheikh Garbawi tomb structure

The tombstone with the words “Mattathias the high priest” and a dedication, in the Sheikh Garbawi tomb structure.

An ancient tomb, no matter who is believed to be buried there at any particular historical juncture, can indicate the ancient origins of a burial site’s sanctity. This, despite the occasional conversion from one religion to another inspired by regime change. In this case, another indication that something sacred going on here is an array of scary, hands-off-or-you’ll-die type legends, Re’em told us.

This is what 1 Maccabees has to say about the tomb: “Then sent Simon, and took the bones of Jonathan his brother, and buried them in Modi’in, the city of his fathers… Simon also built a monument upon the tomb… and raised it aloft for all to see, of hewn stone behind and before. Moreover he set up seven pyramids, one against another, for his father, and his mother, and his four brothers….about which he set great pillars, and upon the pillars he made all their armor for a perpetual memory, and by the armor ships carved, that they might be seen by all that sail on the sea” (I Macc. 13:25–30).

The July 20, 1870 edition of the London newspaper The Globe reported that based on earlier finds, the French scholar Victor Guerin had announced the discovery of  “a sepulchral vault two meters [about 6 feet] in length and one meter in width, and 70 centimeters [about 27 inches] deep. It was paved with mosaic work of red, black and white stone…Each chamber we know was surmounted by a pyramid and the place where these pyramids had been fitted into the rest of the building was still visible. It was surrounded by a portico resembling the peristyle of a Greek temple….”

By the time Re’em and his team got to the site a few years back, virtually none of these above-ground remains were left. But then, the excavation started…

The Sign of the Cross

Are these indeed the tombs of the Maccabees? Re’em told us, as he told local and foreign press after the discovery last summer, that he won’t go that far at this early stage. But in addition to similarities with the description 1 Maccabees – including clear signs of a magnificent building, a lofty location that could be seen from a distance, and the name of the site – at the bottom of one of the burials his team discovered, of all things, a mosaic cross. Never before, Re’em said, has a cross like this been found at the bottom of a tomb. And so – taken with all the other evidence – it seems that ancient Christians venerated these tombs as those of the Maccabees.

Now, why would they venerate the Maccabees?

Portion of a mosaic cross, normally covered for protection with the cloth you see at bottom, which Re’em pulled aside with a flourish for us to see.

Seen from above, part of a mosaic cross. With a dramatic flourish, Re’em pulled aside the cloth you see at the bottom to reveal it to us.

Christian reverence for the Maccabees goes back a long way. For example, the famed fifth-century Madaba mosaic map considered it important enough to be illustrate and caption, as you can see in the part of the map I’ve included below.

Portion of the Madaba Map. Below the walled city of Jerusalem, the arrow I’ve inserted points to the Greek words: MOΔΕΕΙΜ · Η ΝΥΝ ΜWΔΙΘΑ ˙ ΕΚ ΤΑΥΤΗC HCAN OI MAKKABAAIOI (“Modi’in, which is today Moditha; home of the Maccabees”).

Portion of the Madaba Map. Below the walled city of Jerusalem, the black arrow I’ve inserted points to the Greek words: MOΔΕΕΙΜ · Η ΝΥΝ ΜWΔΙΘΑ ˙ ΕΚ ΤΑΥΤΗC HCAN OI MAKKABAAIOI (“Modi’in, which is today Moditha; home of the Maccabees”).

Re’em explained to us that for Christians as well as Jews, the Maccabees symbolized victory in the war against idol worship and its cruel demands of monotheists. Now, remember the Elijah connection – the prophet who first brought back his own flock, kicking and screaming, so to speak, to the worship of the one God. So did Mattathias. His sons then fought valiantly to cast off the yoke of the Greeks, in what is often cited as the first recorded war for religious freedom. And there’s no better time than Hanukkah to remember that this is another shared value of our faiths whose flame must never be allowed to die, but only to grow greater, like the flames we kindle this week.

 

 

A “burning bush” (actually a firethorn, or (pyracantha), near my home in Har Adar.

A “burning bush” (a firethorn, or pyracantha), near my home in Har Adar. Another fire connection for the season.

For more information, here’s some suggested reading.

“The ‘Real Graves’ of the Maccabees?’ By Miriam Feinberg Vamosh and Ruth Schuster

http://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/travel/tourist-tip-of-the-day/.premium-1.561333

Excavation Report on Horbat HaGardi, by Amit Re’em, Israel Antiquities Authority

http://www.hadashot-esi.org.il/Report_Detail_Eng.aspx?id=1712

Where is Modi’in? By Prof. Yoel Elitzur http://etzion.org.il/en/where-modiin

Last year on Hanukkah I shared thoughts on the heroine Hannah:

http://miriamfeinbergvamosh.com/what-a-mother-wants-tale-of-darkness-season-of-light/.

“Why do we really light candles on Hanukkah?” By Elon Gilad.

http://www.haaretz.com/jewish/features/.premium-1.690282

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Finds that Tie Us

Within the space of a few weeks highway construction and a family’s living room renovations have brought to light two ancient pools of faith in the Judean Mountains that reveal love of heritage – and kindred traditions.

I never get tired of it – that the ordinary magnificence of daily life thousands of years ago lives down the road from me.  This time, it’s a newly discovered Jewish ritual bath on a mountain of Judah and a baptistery in a valley over the horizon, which remind us of the people who walked here before us;  people who shared – and still share – more than we sometimes imagine.

Mikveh discovered under an Ein Karem living room. Photo by Assaf Peretz, courtesy of the IAA

Mikveh discovered under an Ein Karem living room. Photo by Assaf Peretz, courtesy of the IAA

According to tradition, Ein Karem is the “village of Judah” where Mary came to visit her cousin Elizabeth when both were pregnant (Luke 1:29–35).  You may recall spending time with me in the tranquil courtyard of Ein Karem’s Church of the Visitation. There, thanks to what I learned years ago from Sister Joan Cook, I love to explore the Magnificat (Luke 1: 46–55), together with Hannah’s praise song (1 Sam. 2:1–10) delving into the ways the lives of these women link the Old Testament and the New.

Mary and Elizabeth, from a painting in the Church of the VIsitation, Ein Karem.

Mary and Elizabeth, from a painting in the Church of the Visitation, Ein Karem.

It was from Ein Karem last week that media reports emerged of a family renovating their home and finding a 2,000-year-old ritual bath – beneath their living room! Experts say the large rock-hewn miqveh was made in careful accordance with Jewish laws governing water purification. Among the finds inside were pottery vessels dating to the time of the Second Temple (first century CE) and signs of a fire that may be have occurred during the Great Revolt (66-70 CE) . Stone vessels, of the type known to have been used particularly by Jews, were also found.

I was impressed with the way the Israel Antiquities Authority’s Jerusalem district archaeologist Amit Re’em was quoted on the radio news report I heard about the find. He said it was more proof that the village was a Jewish community 2,000 years ago, and he reminded Israeli listeners how important Ein Karem was in Christian tradition as the birthplace of John the Baptist, connecting our traditions as they should be connected.

The owners of the house told the press that their strong feeling of the historic value of what they had found and their civic duty trumped misgivings about what would happen after they reported the find. (I wonder if they feared they would have to make their house a national park!) And so they contacted the Israel Antiquities Authority, and, as they were quoted in an IAA statement:  “Representatives of the IAA arrived and together we cleaned the miqwe. To our joy and indeed to our surprise, we found them to be worthy partners in this fascinating journey.”

Miqveh on the mountain, baptistery in the valley, just another day at the IAA

Ritual immersion goes back to the Bible (in Leviticus and in Mark 7:4 for example; for a more symbolic take, see Psalms 26:6) and came into Christianity as baptism, as you may have learned in Bible study. Many such installations began as natural springs, such as Ein Karem (“spring of the vineyard”) and the layer spring, Ain Naqa’a (“spring of the pool”*),  next to where the baptistery was found. And that brings me to the other find I want to share with you. It’s also a water purification installation – this time, a baptistery – discovered during highway construction in a valley just beyond my own Judean Mountains home. I drive through the cloud of construction dust at that interchange at least three times a week, and one day some weeks ago I noticed that work had stopped, a few storage containers had been brought there, and the Israel Antiquities Authority flag was flying. The next thing I knew, the IAA had announced that a church had been discovered dating back to Byzantine times (fourth–seventh centuries).  Among the finds the IAA salvage dig unearthed was a fine cross-shaped baptistery in one corner of the church, surrounded by a mosaic floor.

Baptistery found during highway work near Abu Ghosh. Photo: Assaf Peretz, courtesy of the IAA.

Baptistery found during highway work near Abu Ghosh. Photo: Assaf Peretz, courtesy of the IAA.

Oil lamps, coins, glass vessels and abalone shells were all found here; archaeologists believe it was a stop for pilgrims making their way between Jerusalem and the coastal plain along “highway 1” – as it was some 15 centuries ago.  The road went through what is now my neighboring town of Abu Ghosh, where Roman-period remains include a milestone, now incorporated into an outer wall of one of the most beautiful churches in the country, marking (one of the sites of) Emmaus (Luke 24:13–35).

Before the baptistery was covered up to preserve it, the IAA took people on tours to see it, including a special trip for members of our community of Har Adar.

It’s finds like these, one beneath a modern home attesting to Jewish water immersion rites in the hometown of John the Baptist, and the other alongside an ancient-modern highway – that recall and reinforce bonds bridging faith and time.

*Thanks to my colleague Hassan Amar for the Arabic translation of Ain Naqa’a

 

Oil lamp found by IAA archaeologists in the baptistery near Abu Ghosh. Photo: Assaf Peretz, courtesy of the IAA.

Oil lamp found by IAA archaeologists in the baptistery near Abu Ghosh. Photo: Assaf Peretz, courtesy of the IAA.

From South Carolina to the Northern Sea of Galilee

The perpetrators of the vicious hate crime against the historic church at Tabgha are the ones who are the idol worshippers

It’s not the same, good people will say to me. There’s no connection between the arson attack on the historic Church of the Multiplication of Loaves and Fishes on the Sea of Galilee and the murderous rampage at the historic Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina. All religions and races have fanatics; there are lunatics everywhere, good people will say.

But it doesn’t take a much closer look to see the line between the hate crime in Charleston early on Wednesday evening U.S. time, and  the hate crime on the Sea of Galilee early Wednesday morning Israel time; and it might be a straighter one than many good people wish to imagine. The thought is almost too chilling to bear: In a place where they burn church buildings (and hundreds of books, according to the media), lives could someday be snuffed out, to paraphrase the poet.

Storage rooms, office space, roof beams, wooden doors and a reception room of the church were torched beyond repair; a 19-year-old tourist and a 79-year-old volunteer were slightly injured from smoke inhalation, the media reported. Graffiti was also spray painted, in Hebrew, the holy tongue, on the wall: Elilim khrot yikhartun.

This phase is from a prayer that observant Jews repeat three times a day, known as the “Aleinu.” It begins: “It is our duty to praise the Master of all, to acclaim the greatness of the One who forms all creation.” It then goes on to state: “For God did not make us like the nations of other lands, and did not make us the same as other families of the Earth. God did not place us in the same situations as others, and our destiny is not the same as anyone else’s.” Later on it says: “Therefore we put our hope in You, Adonai our God, to soon see the glory of Your strength, to remove all idols from the Earth, and to completely cut off all false gods; to repair the world…”

Elilim khrot yikhartum means “completely cut off all false gods.”

The perpetrators are the idol worshippers. These few extremists are the ones with the false gods. The idol worshippers are also those who teach them that this act – so fundamentally wrong – is fundamentally right.

Just hours after the fire, 16 yeshiva students were arrested on suspicion of involvement. The police were unable to tie any of them to the crime, and they were all released. But would anything have changed even if they had been charged? Churches and mosques in this country have been suffering for years now from increasing acts of vandalism – 17 Christian and Muslim places of worship in the past three years, according to Haaretz. But charges have yet to be brought against anyone. Will this change now?

The Israeli police recently arrested dozens of people involved in organized crime. The police and the Shin Bet security service are experts at finding the people who plot, who throw stones, who steal computer files from the army, who kidnap and murder. Many have been charged and punished for their crimes. Surely, this spate of vicious vandalism is a challenge they can meet just as well.

Let us urge the authorities: Find the perpetrators, and weed out the so-called rabbis who teach these travesties. They are so few – among so many people of all faiths in this land and around the world who show us daily and hourly how to love our fellow humans. Prosecute those few extremists to the fullest extent of the law. That seems to be the only way they will learn one of the most basic tenets of our faith and culture:  In the ancient words of Rabbi Hillel:  “Do not do unto others what is hateful unto you. All the rest is commentary; go and learn.”

Good people will speak, good people will write. But that’s really nothing. And we all know what happens when good people do nothing.

Where the Language Meets the Land

In honor of the holiday, here are some Hebrew expressions to share with members of your Bible study group – they’ll love learning them!

At Shavuot/Pentecost our holy days once again occur in tandem, as they did on Passover. And of course, it’s more than just the dates on the calendar. Pentecost tells the sacred story of a unique global convergence of languages in Jerusalem. In the Hebrew Scriptures, Shavuot, the end of the period known as the Counting of the Omer, has come to mark the giving of the Ten Commandments to Moses at Sinai. It’s also is the time we read the story of Ruth, a woman from another religion and culture, no less than another world in those days, who obstinately entwined her fate with ours; Ruth is the great-grandmother of King David and this, too, is part of the bridge of shared tradition that we work to strengthen.

Ruth, harvesting in the fields of Boaz, detail from a painting by Oleg Trabish. Courtesy: Palphot.

Ruth, harvesting in the fields of Boaz, detail from a painting by Oleg Trabish. Courtesy: Palphot

Another tradition of the Shavuot holiday is an intensive night of Bible study. And so, of all directions I could go this time, I hope this blog will be a gift with value if you love the Hebrew word, like I do. You can build entire Bible studies just around these and many others expressions that I’ll save for another time. And as I did in my blog on Hulda’s tomb, I invite you to contact me and share some some of the biblical expressions you’ve come across that we still use; I’d love to publish them here.

As in any language, “lost in translation” can be a problem with Hebrew.  Hebrew is regarded by some as a simple language because it’s built on roots, as your Hebrew teacher may have explained. That means that once you know one word you know many. But sometimes roots grow in unexpected directions, don’t they? My favorite example comes from an article I recently edited, where the very erudite academic author wrote that he had arrived at his conclusions by “crucifying the information.”  Luckily, my knowledge of Hebrew kicked in, and it took me only the briefest “whaaaa?” moment for me to realize that he actually meant cross-referencing the information! The connection is in the three-letter root tz – l- v which in Hebrew’s economic way, give us crucify, cross reference, crossroad, and many other terms.

But back to Hebrew expressions. Many ancient expressions are still used both in modern Hebrew and in English. Here are some of these and how we use them now:  “nothing new under the sun” (Ecc. 1:9) – ho-hum, been there done that; “double-edged sword” (Psalms 149:6; Prov. 5:4, Heb. 4:12) – hey, watch out, that could come back to haunt you; “by the skin of my teeth” (Job 19:20) – whew, that was a close call; and “scapegoat” ­– pin it on some poor guy and head for the hills (Lev. 16:21–26).

Two expressions, still used in Hebrew but that never crossed the translation divide, come from the land itself. I thought of both of them on the trip I am fortunate enough to drive every week now, through some of the most evocative countryside in Israel – to the Jezreel Valley village of Kfar Yezekiel to visit my new grandbaby, Dan.

China and Sinai

 This one doesn’t come from the Bible, but the source is a way to enrich your Bible study; it’s downright cool to be able to drop something into the discourse like “Well, according to the medieval commentator Rashi…”:

The expression is based on verses in the Torah portion we read a few weeks ago: Leviticus 25:1–2. “The Lord spoke to Moses at Mount Sinai: ‘Speak to the Israelites and tell them, ‘When you enter the land that I am giving you, the land must observe a Sabbath to the Lord.’”

The sign reads: “Here we also keep the Sabbath of the Land”  Mount Gilboa is in the background. Photo: Miriam Feinberg Vamosh

The sign reads: “Here we also keep the Sabbath of the Land.” To the east, behind the sign, you can see Mount Gilboa in the background. Photo: Miriam Feinberg Vamosh

As I pass the Megiddo Junction, with Mount Gilboa on my right and the Hill of Moreh straight ahead, I notice a sign put up haphazardly in the field, flanked by grain fields, another symbol of Shavuot, ripening under the spring sun: The sign, surrounded by weeds, says: “This field keeps the Sabbath of rest for the land.” Perhaps surprisingly to some readers, this is not the norm in the Holy Land; hence, the signs that have popped up here and there during this sabbatical year.

The Hebrew word for the “Sabbath of the land” is shmitah.  The expression I want to share with you is  ma inyan shmita etzl Har Sinai? That means “what does the sabbatical of the land have to do with Mount Sinai?” (It’s catchier in Hebrew, trust me.) The abovementioned Rashi, scholars say, asked the question because he wondered why, when the Bible says all the commandments were given from Sinai, this one was singled out as having been given from Mount Sinai (Lev. 25:1). Was it more important than the others? Or was it to say that it is just as important as all the others, even if it doesn’t seem applicable to everyone at all times in all places in the world?

Wild barley ripening near Tel Jezreel. Photo: Miriam Feinberg Vamosh

Wild barley ripening near Tel Jezreel. Photo: Miriam Feinberg Vamosh

And so, when Hebrew speakers wonder what in the world one thing, anything, has to do with another, they ask: “What does the sabbatical of the land have to do with Mount Sinai?” (I date myself by recalling a parallel saying: “What does that have to do with the price of tea in China” but actually, since the price of everything in China now has to do with everything in the world  I guess we need a different expression anyhow.)

Adding insult to injury, in a really, really bad way

 The last leg of my weekly journey to grand-Dan takes me past the fascinating biblical archaeological site of Tel Jezreel. Then comes a winding bit of road that dips right down to the valley floor. On the right is a rather jarring sight  – a sort of ski slope, complete with artificial snow and a ski-lift –  a creative attempt by local entrepreneurs to get folks to spend more time and money in the valley after they’ve run out of biblical sites to explore, countryside restaurants to enjoy and hikes to take. Right down the road from the ski slope is the likely location of the vineyard that Queen Jezebel goaded her husband Ahab into stealing from its rightful owner, the hapless Naboth (1 Kings 21). Not only did he steal it, the Bible says, but Jezebel had Naboth framed for blasphemy and executed. Well, along came the prophet Elijah with chilling words that to this day Hebrew newspapers and pundits use when they want to say that so-and-so (usually a politician) has done something not only dastardly, but then doubled up on the dastardliness. The expression is: Haratzakhta vegam yarashta, which means:  “Have you killed and also taken possession?” “Insult to injury,” the equivalent expression in English, pales in comparison, don’t you agree?

 

The Jezreel Valley floor, not far from the likely site of Naboth’s vineyard as seen on a hazy spring day from from Tel Jezreel. Photo:  Miriam Feinberg Vamosh

The Jezreel Valley floor, not far from the likely site of Naboth’s vineyard, as seen on a hazy spring day from Tel Jezreel. Photo: Miriam Feinberg Vamosh

Your kids and grandkids will enjoy learning about Hebrew language and expressions in Teach it to Your Children, How Kids Lived in Bible Days.

 Read more about Jezebel in  Women at the time of the Bible.

 Read more about Shavuot/the Feast of Weeks in Food at the time of the Bible: From Adam’s Apple to the Last Supper

 

Beyond The Dovekeepers

 

The Dovekeepers by Alice Hoffman tells the story, according to its blurb, of what four women brought to Masada. Its premier last month as a miniseries gives me the perfect opportunity to tell you more about my novel, The Scroll, a unique take on events as I imagine them, not only on that tragic, barren Judean plateau – but far, far beyond; events that continue to impact our lives to this day.

 

My book cover, showing the Judean Desert where the actual scroll on was discovered, and the writing on the scroll Warning! Spoiler! Notice the hint of the woman’s figure over which the scroll is superimposed...as she leaves the cave.

My book cover, showing the Judean Desert where the actual scroll  the book is about was discovered, and the writing on the scroll. Warning: Spoiler! Notice the hint of the woman’s figure over which the scroll is superimposed…as she leaves the cave. Design: Emotive studio

Two weeks ago I visited daughter Nili and her husband Ami for the first time in their new home in the veteran community of Kfar Yehezkel in the Jezreel Valley. Thrilled is the word – at the birth of their first baby, and our first grandson, that they’ve come back to live in Israel after eight years in the wilds of Tucson Arizona and…of course, thrilled that from their back porch I can see the heights of Mount Gilboa where the Israelites battled the Philistines, Tel Jezreel, where Queen Jezebel preened and died, the spring where Gideon chose his few good men; in short, Scripture-steeped scenery wherever I look.

 

But when the sun dipped behind Jezreel and night fell at Nili and Ami’s little home…I admit it, the charms of their new, big-screen TV beckoned.  And Nili, one of my most loyal fans, said to me: “Ima, guess what’s on! That miniseries about that other book about women from Masada! Let’s watch!”

 

“That other book” – only the unofficial president of The Scroll’s unofficial fan club would call it that – is The Dovekeepers, Alice Hoffman’s novel about women and Masada. Lately I’ve seen it on the reading list of tour groups who visit Masada as, I’m pleased to say, so is The Scroll, my novel about one particular woman of Masada, her fateful choices and those of her descendants.

In The Scroll, a fateful document speaks differently to each generation. Detail of a drawing by Amelia Verbeke.

In The Scroll, a fateful document speaks differently to each generation. Detail of a drawing by Amelia Verbeke.

 

The historian Josephus’ enigmatic mention of the women survivors of Masada has given rise to several books over the years. The first one I ever read, back in the ‘70s, was called “The Voices of Masada,” and I never forgot it. Authors who have explored this theme usually tour Masada in preparation for using its archaeological remains as a backdrop. I feel particularly blessed to have visited Masada hundreds upon hundreds of times, studied it for decades and told its story to thousands of people right on the spot where it all happened. But it was once I learned about the amazing discovery of an ancient scroll in the 1950s in a Judean Desert cave – not at Masada and years before the Masada excavation – that I knew this was the story I wanted to put down in writing.

The actual ancient document on which my novel, The Scroll, is based. Dateline, Masada, just before its fall. Courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority.

The actual ancient document on which my novel, The Scroll, is based. Dateline, Masada, just before its fall. Courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority.

The document discovered is a divorce decree, which mentions the name of Masada, a date – before its fall – and the names of the husband and wife. My book is based on that scroll and on these people – real people! Who were they? Why did they divorce? What happened to them afterward, and how in the world did that document get from Masada to a cave east of Bethlehem were it was eventually unearthed?

The Dovekeepers, its PR says, tells about what certain women brought to Masada. The Scroll is about what other women took away with them – and that’s only the beginning. The Scroll will introduce you to the three generations I imagine descended from one of the women who survived the inferno and how she – and her descendants – faced the cruel and unremitting challenges of those times, all the way down to the Bar Kokhba Revolt.

As you read The Scroll, you’ll be right there in your mind’s eye with my heroine (I had a different visual image in my mind before The Dovekeepers movie…I think it was actress Jenifer Connolly… but fine, now I can only picture her as Cote de Pablo) – from holy Jerusalem to Masada, to the worldly ports of Caesarea and Alexandria, to the bustling, multicultural metropolis of Beit Guvrin in the Judean lowlands, to tiny Bethlehem and magnificent Sepphoris,  back to Jerusalem and on to the oasis of Ein Gedi. You will get to know not only the heroine, her mother, her son, and her granddaughter, but the world as it was then, peopled by Jews, pagans and the first Christians with all the vastly complex interactions that so profoundly affects who we are today.

Click here to purchase

 

Cote de Pablo – as in NCIS, she plays a nice Jewish girl who ends up in an unexpected role…and thanks to this casting coup in The Dovekeepers, she’s inside my head as the heroines of The Scroll – all three generations of them!

Cote de Pablo – as in NCIS, she plays a nice Jewish girl who ends up in an unexpected role…and thanks to this casting coup in The Dovekeepers, she’s inside my head as the heroines of The Scroll – all three generations of them!