Miriam Feinberg Vamosh

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.

 

 

 

 

 

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!

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