It’s About Then, it’s About Now, it’s About Time

 

 

Disaster, success, gleaning, growing

 

How will this turn out? Will some cataclysmic event occur while it’s underway? What will it mean for our future? Those are the questions we’ve been asking ourselves these days, that’s for sure, but no, they have nothing to do with the recent presidential visit. They are the same questions people have been asking themselves at this season in this part of the world (and not only) for thousands of years. The season? Between Passover and Pentecost, the time of the Counting of the Omer. Omer is the Hebrew word for a measure of grain – equal to about six gallons. In the Holy Land spring, barley and wheat are harvested in the season between Passover and Pentecost. The counting took place over seven weeks, 49 days (Pentecost means “weeks” in Greek).

A grain field at harvest time, near the Yarkon Springs, Israel. Photo: Miriam Feinberg Vamosh

Hope, anticipation, almost unbearable tension, dread – sound familiar?  We all experience them, but they were hallmarks of this season in that biblical counting of the passing days. In later times, mourning rituals became associated with this period, although no one can say for certain why . Nogah Hareuveni, founder of Neot Kedumim Biblical Landscape Reserve, wrote that it was because the weather in the Holy Land is very capricious around now. With everything from the “latter rains” to hail storms and heat waves, these 49 days of the Omer were “ripe” with potential for either disaster or success of the harvest, putting people into a very somber state of mind. That’s why the Bible commands sacrificing part of a successful harvest in thanksgiving.

Granddaughter Eliah, all decked out with her basket of fruits to take to pre-school to celebrate Shavuot/Pentecost. Photo: Maya Dubinsky

According to a fifteenth-century scholar, Rabbi Yitzhak Arama, Psalm 67, which in Hebrew is said to have 49 words – one for each day of the counting – should be recited each day of the Omer. Have a look at this beautiful piece of Hebrew poetry and notice the universalist sentiment it shares.

And speaking of sharing, like Passover, Pentecost is a holiday Judaism and Christianity share – according to Acts 2, the Holy Spirit descended on a group of Jerusalemites from all over the world during this very festival. If you study more about Pentecost/Shavuot in the Hebrew Scriptures, you will doing one of my favorite things: focusing on what unites us instead of what divides us.

Enlargements of Israeli children’s drawings on the walls of Dizengoff Center in Tel Aviv, under the motto: “Embracing our Differences.” Psalm 67 tells us that whatever our differences, we’re all in this together. Photo: Miriam Feinberg Vamosh

Eventually, Jews began associating the Feast of Weeks with the giving of the Ten Commandments on Mt. Sinai, based on the opening verse of Exodus 19, where the words “that same day” seem to mean  the “festival of the giving of the Torah” and the Feast of Weeks/Shavuot/Pentecost coincided on the calendar.

Ruth

On Shavuot, we read the Book of Ruth in synagogue. Why? One tradition says Ruth and Naomi came from Moab to Bethlehem around this time of year, and Ruth’s accepting the Israelites as her own people recalls the Israelites’ acceptance of the Torah at Mt. Sinai.

The story of Ruth is, among many things, the saga of a widow – one of the most disenfranchised and at-risk members of biblical society – who  leaves home and everything familiar, accompanies her mother-in-law Naomi all the way through the burning desert (a feat in itself, and not only because of the weather…) from Moab east of the Jordan to Naomi’s home in Bethlehem, to embark on a new life.  It is Ruth’s courage and conviction that propel her forward through history, an example to us down to this very day: She  is the ancestress of King David (who, tradition says, died on Shavuot) and as such, earns her place in the genealogy of Jesus (Matt. 1:5).

And as we read of Ruth gleaning in the fields of Boaz, we learn how Boaz obeyed the biblical injunction to leave the corners of his field unshorn so the poor could take this part of the harvest home (Lev. 23:22). “Why are you so kind to me, to single me out, when I am a foreigner?” (Ruth 2:10), Ruth asks Boaz. In expounding on the connection between this story and Leviticus 23:22, Prof. Judith A. Kates says in the wonderful book Reading Ruth: “Ruth is relying on one of the fundamental principles of Torah law…Leviticus makes it clear that we should understand this obligation as a mode of connection to God…acknowledging that what we have is ultimately a gift to be shared.”

Don’t you agree?

Happy Shavuot/Happy Pentecost!

 

Recommended Reading

Miriam Feinberg Vamosh, Food at the Time of the Bible: From Adam’s Apple to the Last Supper (Herzliya, Israel: Palphot, n.d.)

Nogah Hareuveni, Nature in our Biblical Heritage (Kiryat Ono, Israel: Neot Kedumim, 1980)

Judith A. Kates and Gail Twersky Reimer (eds.), Reading Ruth (New York: Ballantine Books, 1994)

Bench-pressing a Buick and other Strengths

Ten Tips to Getting Through a Medical Crisis

On May 10, 2014, we entered a long, dark tunnel, after a careless driver rammed head-on into Arik’s car as he was taking his mom home. In the aftermath, we found ourselves clinging to the tunnel walls with every light in the distance presaging another oncoming train. You can read some of the details, in my blog post “Of Almonds and Analgesics.”  Suffice it to say it included several departments at two different hospitals for both Arik and his mom. And since Arik is already a wounded warrior, well, use your imagination to fill in the blanks.

My usual blog is filled with biblical references. This time, I’m keeping it to one: “consider the ant” (Prov. 6:6). When you get to the end of this blog, see how the ant I filmed helped me interpret those words. Wow, did she know a thing or two about bearing a burden.

It’s been 28 months, two surgeries and several crises since the accident and Arik is on the road to recovery. I hope others in our situation, working toward recovery, will find these ten tips helpful. But don’t think we consistently did the things on the list below – most are things we wished we had done, or done better.

I don't know first said this, but it went right on our "encouragement wall" (see below)

I don’t know who first said this, but it went right on our “encouragement wall” (see below)

  1. Vent

Tell everyone who’ll listen what happened – family, neighbors you know and those you don’t, friends near and far. It helps.  One of my friends said I complain all the time, and another one said I don’t complain enough. Both were true. But stoic, silent suffering – definitely out.

 

  1. Connect and Delegate

Reach out for practical help! Among the above mentioned neighbors, friends, family etc., find the experts – especially those with either professional or personal experience – to rely on for advice. And among them find people your beloved patient feels at home with who can provide comfort and/or casseroles, do errands and even spell you for a few hours.

 

  1. You know yourselves best

Do you want visitors? If so, make sure you tell people to come – some won’t know otherwise. I posted on our community Facebook page, and it worked! But you’ll have to be able to set limits. For 18 months or so, Arik was only allowed to be up for two hours a day. That was hard when he was having a good time with friends.  Caregiver: you might have to be the sergeant at arms.

 

  1. Speak up

As a long-time paraplegic, Arik knew he should have been more insistent when asking about external fixation for his broken legs. But it was a short trip from the emergency room to the operating room on the night of the accident, and we weren’t exactly focused. Sure enough, there they were sticking out of his legs the next morning. That led to other complications. The nurse’s cheerful announcement the day after the fixations were installed that he could “get up and sit in a chair today!” was somewhat ironic, as he’s been sitting in a chair (a wheelchair) for 42 years.

 

  1. Acquire your own expertise

We can’t all invent Lorenzo’s Oil. But I would never have found Dr. Moti, the plastic surgeon who cared so skillfully for Arik’s pressure sore and brought him back from quite a dangerous place, if not for Google. And when you find an expert, don’t be afraid to cold-call him/her. Seeking out online support groups is one of the many pieces of good advice given by Constance Gustke in her recent New York Times article, “Love and Burnout” about the risk of caregiver burnout.

 

  1. Bite your tongue

You’re closer to the patient than anyone. Mostly that will put you directly in the line of fire of your patient’s frustration and anger (and him/her in yours). Remember, they don’t mean it. One day, maybe after a long night in the emergency room or after a long wait for the home-care nurse, Arik said to me: “@#$*$#^#&@!.” Well, you can imagine, that was unacceptable, and so I said right back:  “#^%*%**@#^$%~@+!”  What a toxic waste of energy for both of us.

 

  1. Say what you think

That might seem like a contradiction with No. 5, but the boundaries of civility have got to be maintained. Someday he/she will get better, and you don’t want too much to be sorry for. If your beloved patient exceeds those boundaries, tell them. Just try not to say: “#^%*%**@#^$%~@+!”

 

  1. The new normal

At some point around the end of month 14, things began to look particularly bleak for moi, the caregiver-spouse, what with the daily bandaging, a full-time job (thankfully, I was able to  work from home), grandmother stuff, cooking and serving three meals a day to the patient, etc. Even with the help of Lea, the incomparable caregiver the Israeli government provides Arik as a wounded warrior, some days it seemed like too much. Our family doctor referred me for a talk with our community social worker. “This is your new normal. You have to make a new contract,” she said.  And that’s what we did. It doesn’t have to be written out or even spoken. But it does have to be the goal.

 

  1. Baby steps – don’t knock them

On the road to recovery, “small” achievements are so important: On our first Hanukkah after the accident Arik wanted to make latkes and he did! As a writer I know I should use more exciting verbs than “make” and “wanted.” But after spending most of the first 8 months in bed, making latkes is a wonderful achievement. So is building Lego with your granddaughter and a million other little things we take for granted.

Month 7 of recuperation; enjoying everything important in life at that moment.

Month 8 of recuperation; enjoying everything important in life at that moment.

 

  1. Ommm….

As a caregiver stress is a constant companion. Send it packing by doing whatever works for you: prayer, meditation, reading Psalms, exercise, breathe, walk, run, swim, watch NatGeo Wild, the waves or the sunset. This is not pampering; it’s essential for your health; as Gustke pointed out, caregivers can suffer from a weakened immune system and the results can be disastrous. I didn’t really know what whooping cough or pleuritis even were…until I got them. One thing I liked for us to do is focus on the pictures of family and words of love on the encouragement wall I placed opposite Arik’s bed.

Our encouragement wall opposite Arik's bed. Sometimes it helped just to focus on the messages we placed there.

Our encouragement wall opposite Arik’s bed. Sometimes it helped just to focus on the messages we placed there.

  1. Tomorrow

In our situation, where recovery was a matter of months – oops, we thought it was going to be months, now we’re more open-ended in our expectations ­– at the end of the particularly bad days, I try to close the day by sharing with Arik what became one of our most valuable, and empirical, lessons: Tomorrow will be better.

 

 

And now, as promised, below: click on the clip and consider… the ant

Point Taken

A Defiant, Prickly, Holy Land Plant with a Message for Then and Now

 

Let’s start with a riddle for cooks: What biblical plant might you use regularly without knowing it appears in the Bible? If you saw it in a jar, you’d probably recognize it, I tell people when I point it out, for example on a hike up to the David Spring at En Gedi. It thrives among the rock terraces around my Judean Mountains home of Har Adar, in the desert and among the stones in the Western Wall, and makes a perfect end-of-summer botanical tale. The answer is – the caper.

Capers as most people know them best...pickled in a bottle.

Capers as most people know them best…pickled in a bottle.

The caper (Capparis spinosa), appears by name only once in Scripture, in Ecclesiastes 12:5, in a dour reference to old age, when “the caperberry shall fail.” But Rabbi Gamaliel, Paul’s teacher, was otherwise inspired by the caper. Looking at Ezekiel’s vision of messianic times when “trees will put out branches and bear fruit” (Ezek. 17:23), he deduced that “not only would it put out a new branch every day, but new fruit every day as well (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 30b). His example? The caper. True, Rabbi G.! The caper bushes I passed on my summer morning walks produced new flowers every day. A single hot summer day is enough to shrivel them, leaving behind a nascent fruit.

A caper bush growing out of a wall in my neighborhood.

A caper bush growing out of a wall in my neighborhood.

The caper bush is also known for its small, mean thorns, the source of one of the plant’s Hebrew names: tzalaf. That brings us to another intriguing connection.  Numbers 27:1–8 tells us about the five brother-less daughters of Zelophahad, who came to Moses asking that they be allowed to inherit land just as sons could. In making their case to Moses, the women mention that their father had “died in his own sins” (Num. 27:1).

Wilting caper flowers

Wilting caper flowers.

What were these? The Bible doesn’t say, but leave it to Rabbi Akiva to fill in the blank. Zelophahad – Tzalaf-khad in Hebrew, he says, means “sharp caper.”  Nogah Hareuveni, founder of Neot Kedumim, the Biblical Landscape Reserve, explained that Rabbi Akiva (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 96b)  believed Zelophahad’s name identified him as the man God ordered put to death for gathering kindling on the Sabbath (Num. 15:32–36). That’s because Rabbi Akiva, a shepherd before his career change, would have spent more than his share of rainy winter days in pastures where dry kindling was hard to come by. But nearby would have been plenty of capers, which thrive  in the dry summer, go bone dry in the winter.

 

The downward thorns that flank each caper leaf appear in an allegory in the ancient Jewish source Genesis Rabba and in various versions in other cultures. They starred in the coded message second-century leader Rabbi Joshua Ben Hananyah gave to his people, to stick to moderation despite growing Roman oppression. He told a story about a lion gagging on a caper stalk, which the king  of beasts cannily persuades a passing crane to extract using its long beak. What was in it for the crane? Suffice it to say that no version of this allegory ends well for the bird.

Sculpture, wolf playing the part of the lion, by Stefan Horota, 1968, in the Berlin's Treptower Park. Wikipedia.

Sculpture, wolf playing the part of the lion, by Stefan Horota, 1968, in Berlin’s Treptower Park. Wikipedia.

My favorite caper image comes from another second-career, second-century sage: the former gladiator Resh Lakish. He said:  “Three are distinguished in strength: Israel among the nations, a dog among the animals, a rooster among the birds, and some say the goat among cattle, and some say even the caper among the trees” (Babylonian Talmud, Beitza 25b).

And from the metaphorical point to literal and back again: May all among us  facing the shallow soil of challenge and adversity these days bloom and thrive through it all, like a caper out of the rock.

Caper fruit and thorns.

Caper fruit and thorns.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

More reading:

Chana Bracha Siegelbaum http://www.berotbatayin.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/07/NaturePinhasCapers.pdf

Noga Hareuveni, Trees and Shrubs in our Biblical Heritage. 

 

 

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

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!

A Cup of Hope on the Seder Table

As first published at Jerusalem Perspective Online

The decades have not dimmed the memory of my parents’ Seder table back in Trenton, New Jersey. It was laden with traditional family favorites, and, more importantly, with the enduring symbols of commemoration. We each had our own little bowl to hold the salt water symbolizing our tears when we were slaves. The parsley was at the ready for dipping into the salt water, symbolizing the new life and joy of our springtime festival of freedom. And of course there was the all-important Seder plate, each object representing an element of the immortal saga. The full wine cup of Elijah was there, too, waiting for the redemptive door to open. My mother added to the symbolism with her signature, green-in-honor-of-spring Passover Jello-and-pineapple ring.

Just under a week ago,  in our home in the mountains of Judah, at my own family’s Passover table, we had all of those, along with a new symbol of which my mother would certainly have approved: Next to Elijah’s cup we set another goblet—brimming with water—Miriam’s cup. I’m glad my granddaughters, and the many families around the world who mark this new custom, will grow up with Miriam, sister of Aaron and Moses, “singing unto them” more powerfully than ever before.

Miriam the prophetess leading praise by the seashore; facing her miraculous spring. Detail of a painting by Riky Rothenberg. Courtesy of Riky Rothenberg.

Miriam the prophetess leading praise by the seashore; facing her miraculous well as the sages pictured it. At left is Serah, daughter of Asher (Gen. 46:17; Num. 26:46), another scriptural woman who sustained the Jewish people throughout the generations, according to legend.  Detail of a painting by Riky Rothenberg. Courtesy of Riki Rothenberg.

What is Miriam’s connection to water? We remember her as “prophetess, sister of Moses and Aaron,” timbrel in hand, leading the women in praise song and dance at the shores of the Red Sea (Exod. 15:20–21).  But there’s much more. The medieval commentator Rashi, explaining Psalm 110:7, interpreted her name as having two parts: mar, a Hebrew word for “bitterness,” plus the Hebrew word for “sea,” yam.  In fact, those are the two elements that bookend the drama of Miriam’s early life, from the bitterness of the slavery into which she was born, to the shores of the Red Sea where she emerges as a public leader, part of a team, as the prophet Micah (6:4) reminds us.

Miriam was a prophet, says Exod. 15:20—the first woman in the Bible to receive this title. The Bible does not tell us what she prophesied, but the ancient sages are there, as always, to fill in the blanks. The two midwives, Puah and Shifra (Exod. 1:15), they said, were none other than Jochebed, Miriam’s mother, and her five-year-old (!) daughter. In this imaginary telling, Pharaoh summons Miriam and Jochebed to his palace to deliver his diabolical edict—to kill the Hebrew baby boys they had delivered. The world’s most defiant toddler then stamped her foot (as I picture it) and warned the Egyptian ruler: “Woe to this man because of his evil deeds when God is finished with him.”

Miriam's well Miriam before Pharoah

A fearless little Miriam tells Pharaoh off at the banks of the Nile. At right, Jochebed enthroned. Detail from a painting by Riki Rothenberg. Courtesy of Riki Rothenberg.

Further evidence of Miriam’s prophetic skills comes from the ancient commentary on Exodus, Exodus Rabbah, which teaches that when the Israelites realized Pharaoh’s plot, “many men decided to remain separate from their wives.” But young Miriam predicted: “a son will be born to my father and my mother at this time who will save the People of Israel from the hand of Egypt.” Persuaded by the sheer power of their daughter’s words, Jochebed returned to her husband Amram enthroned as a queen. She gave birth to a son, “and…the house was filled with a great light like the sun and the moon at their rising.”

Despite her leadership status, in fact, no doubt because of it, the Bible highlights an incident revealing a character flaw. Numbers 12:1-2 finds Miriam and Aaron apparently gossiping about their Cushite sister-in-law and maligning big brother Moses. Miriam bears the brunt of the punishment, struck with leprosy.

However, the same ancient sources who took Miriam to task and accused women in general of being prone to idle talk, also gave us Miriam’s most enduring, positive association, which comes to her only in death. Scripture speaks of Moses’ death and unmarked grave on Mount Nebo (Deut. 34:1-2, 6). As for Aaron, Numbers 20:29 says the whole house of Israel wept for him and mourned him for 30 days. But when it comes to the third member of the triumvirate, there is only the date, “the first month,” and the place, Kadesh (Num. 20:1).

The barren wilderness of Kadesh, where Miriam is buried, as seen from Israel’s present-day border with Egypt in the western Negev. Photo: Miriam Feinberg Vamosh.

The barren wilderness of Kadesh, where Miriam is buried, as seen from Israel’s present-day border with Egypt in the western Negev. Photo: Miriam Feinberg Vamosh.

But then, it is the very next verse that brought Miriam’s cup to our Seder table. The sages who interpreted Scripture were all about connections, and the fact that the death of Miriam is immediately followed by an assembly, not of mourning but of “striving” (Num. 20:3), was simply too good to leave alone.

In answer to the people’s outcry, God tells Moses to strike a rock, bringing water gushing forth (Num. 20:8-12). The Ethics of the Fathers speaks of this well as one of ten amazing sights created on the eve of the first Sabbath after creation—on a par with the rainbow after the great flood, manna, and Moses’ miraculous staff (Ethics of the Fathers  5, 6). In the Babylonian Talmud, Rabbi Jose noted that the well, like other miraculous gifts, was given out of merit for the three wilderness leaders (Babylonian Talmud, Taanit 9a). Because Miriam’s most memorable deeds involved water—saving Moses and leading the women in praise song and dance next to water—the people felt the lack of water most powerfully when she died. And so, in her honor, God caused the well, which had mysteriously disappeared, to return. When the head of each tribe would strike the rock, water would emerge in a stream leading to that tribe’s encampment. Wherever the tribes encamped, there the well would be.

Miriam’s well, as the sages pictured it. Detail of a painting by Riki Rothenberg,

Miriam’s well, as the sages pictured it. Detail of a painting by Riki Rothenberg. Courtesy of Riki Rothenberg.

The legend of Miriam’s well is still with us. Christian pilgrims crossing the Sea of Galilee spot many boats making the crossing with them, pausing mid-lake just like they do. But passengers on other decks are sometimes pilgrims of another faith—their dress clearly identifying them as Orthodox Jews. They are there waiting for a spring—none other than Miriam’s well, which they believe ended up here—to bubble up from the depths of the lake, as it intermittently does, as a sign of God’s faithfulness and healing power.

A 2012 film about reconnecting and renewal bears the name of the fictional town that is its backdrop:  “Hope Springs.” That play on words was not accidental. Hope springs eternal, Alexander Pope said. The cleansing and quenching of our spiritual thirst, the promise of new growth nourished by winter rains of blessing in the Holy Land, are all contained in “Miriam’s cup.”

Women dance, rarely, elsewhere in the Bible (1 Sam. 18:6; Judg. 11:34; 21:21; Ps. 68:25). But it is Miriam who is depicted by the Jewish mystical text, the Zohar, as dancing in Heaven. Miriam’s dance was unique, the very embodiment of praise and hope, which continues to promise that wherever we set our Seder table, in the words of the ancients, “sustenance may be granted for the sake of one individual.”

Sister and brother: through thick and thin: My great-niece Adella (right), her arm around her little brother Cole, remind me of Miriam and Moses, and other shorelines. San Francisco, 2015. Photo: Sierra Schwidder.

Sister and brother: through thick and thin: My great-niece Adella (right), her arm around her little brother Cole, remind me of Miriam and Moses, and other shorelines. San Francisco, 2015. Photo: Sierra Schwidder.

My thanks to the artist Riki Rothenberg (rikiro.art@gmail.com) for her insights about Miriam and for her evocative painting of the prophetess, details of which grace this article.

Lifeline from the Grave

Our recent Purim celebration drew my thoughts to that other biblical woman with a warning for an ancient king: Hulda, teacher and prophetess. This is the story of her tomb, which she shares with two alter-egos from across the religious/ethnic divide.

“Don’t’ worry,” the service person who gave me my new cellphone told me. “All your numbers are in there.” A prophetess, she wasn’t: Virtually all of them had evaporated. Among the few that remained: my shorthand listing of  “Mhmd Hulda’s  tomb crtker.” Whew! That meant I could still call Hulda’s tomb, and Hulda’s tomb could call me back to confirm. Well, not in the creepy sense, like poor Elva Keen in Twilight Zone’s 1964 segment, “Night Call.”

Elva Keen gets a call from the grave, but not Hulda’s…like I can. (Photo: Wikipedia)

Elva Keen gets a call from the grave, but not Hulda’s…like I can. (Photo: Wikipedia)

The phone number from the grave in this case belongs to Mohammed, the guard who’s got the key to Hulda’s tomb. You can usually find him at the Dome of the Ascension, the venerable Christian holy place next door, now abutted by a mosque. In fact, that’s part of what I want to share with you here: Try running down the list of sites in the Holy Land that have been or are venerated by the believers of one religion – or sect of the same religion – and are now zealously guarded by another. It’s quite a good “theory of everything” when it comes down to grasping the complexities of our relationship across the ethnic/religious divide. At the end of this article is a partial list of these sites – please feel free to add to it! But back to the prophetess.

Who was Hulda?

 A time of major regime change in the Fertile Crescent finds King Josiah purging the land of Idol worship. A “scroll of the teaching” has been found; the king wants to know what’s in it. The star  prophet of the time, Jeremiah, is apparently out of town, but Hulda, wife of Shallum son of Hope (Tikvah), one of the king’s courtiers (and, the sages say, Jeremiah’s cousin), is available and brought to court.

Hulda the Prophetess explaining the scroll to Josiah, rendering of a painting by Mantegna.

Hulda the Prophetess explaining the scroll to Josiah, rendering of a painting by Mantegna.

Hulda, whom the medieval Jewish commentator Rashi gleans from the Bible was a teacher, gives Josiah some really bad news for the nation and then softens the blow with some hope for him personally – albeit “from the grave” (2 Kings 22:14–20;  2 Chron. 34: 22–28).

Hulda’s tomb may have been located within Jerusalem at one point and later removed, for biblical reasons. In any case, by the Middle Ages, Jewish pilgrims write that they visited Hulda’s tomb at the top of the Mount of Olives – apparently the same place you’ll find it if you call Mohammed the guard for an appointment. Rabbi Moshe Basulo, who visited Jerusalem in 1522, writes that the tomb was guarded by a Muslim, whom one would pay for oil to light a memorial lamp. Some things never change (or almost never; nowadays there’s no lamp-lighting).

Not everyone was enthusiastic about visits to Hulda’s tomb. In the early nineteenth century, Rabbi Yehosaf Schartz wrote: “And now the hearer will hear and the viewer will see a wondrous thing: How a big mistake, a lie and a deceit and everything is in the hands of the masses of our people to say and believe that there is the grave of Hulda the Prophetess…and now, dear reader. Does the knowledgeable and understanding heart not pain over this thing that Israel goes to worship at a foreign tomb, saying that it is the tomb of the righteous woman Hulda the Prophetess, may we be protected through her.”*

Now that’s what I call a party-pooper.

Hulda’s Tomb, rendering of an undated, unattributed drawing, Zev Vilay, Jerusalem, Vol. 3, p. 368. The entrance to the tomb can barely be seen here, bottom right.

Hulda’s Tomb, rendering of an unattributed drawing, Zev Vilay, Jerusalem, Vol. 3, p. 368. Tomb entrance barely visible bottom right.

Move over Dr. Atkins, here comes the Hulda Diet

When you visit the tomb, you’ll descend a steep flight of stone stairs to the cenotaph – the tomb marker – and see that it’s in a niche up against a stone wall. An ancient tradition says that if you could walk all the way around the tomb, you’d earn a special blessing.

Hulda’s Tomb marker (note the narrow space in back). Photo: Ana Vargas.

Hulda’s Tomb marker (note the narrow space in back). Photo: Ana Vargas.

Obviously the larger you are, the harder this is. Zev Vilnay writes that the guard at the tomb in his day told him:  how “he once saw with his own eyes how an overweight woman tried to go around the tomb and reached a point where she could go neither backward or forward. She cried out ‘Mother Hulda, save me.’ Immediately she was relieved and went around the tomb with no difficulty. That is a sign that the great righteous woman was in her place in Paradise and Allah knows the truth.”**

The first floor of Hulda’s Tomb. To the right of the prayer rugs, ancient steps lead down to the tomb. Photo: Ana Vargas.

The first floor of Hulda’s Tomb. To the right of the prayer rugs, ancient steps lead down to the tomb. Photo: Ana Vargas.

St. Pelagia

To Christians, this very same tomb is occupied by St. Pelagia, a fifth-century actress and singer from Antioch known for her great beauty. Unfortunately, back in the day, that profession would get you ousted from any self-respecting salon and you’d have to endure a variety of epithets I’ll leave to your imagination. In any case, Pelagia, at the behest of her bishop, St. Nonnus, left her old life behind, disguised herself as a man and came to Jerusalem where she lived alone in a monastic cell and died in 457 CE.

St. Pelagia among the courtesans, with St. Nonnus praying for her, 14th-century manuscript. Photo: Wikimedia commons.

St. Pelagia among the courtesans, with St. Nonnus praying for her, 14th-century manuscript. Photo: Wikimedia commons.

Guess what? the squeezing tradition made it across the religious divide: Christian visitors paying their respects to St. Pelagia wrote that managing to circumnavigate even the narrow back of the tomb would get you a ticket to Paradise. So here’s another quiz question for readers steeped in Jerusalem lore: Name two other places where squeezing through a narrow place ensures you Paradise (answer at the end).

A righteous Muslim woman remembered

In Muslim tradition, this is the tomb of Sit’ Raba’a al-Aduwiyyeh. She was born a slave in Basra, Iraq, and according to the story, when her master saw a golden aura surrounding her as she prayed, he decided to free her. She rose to fame as a sufi, a mystic in the Islamic tradition, and is said to have written love poetry to God, whom she called “my hope, my tranquility, my joy.” *** She died in 815 CE. (A mosque by that name hit the news during the Egyptian uprising against Mohammed Mursi, when his supporters took shelter there. But I digress. Or not.)

Husband Arik (who’s finally getting well, we hope) has a new home-visit nurse, a young man named Jihad, who is a born-and-bred Jerusalemite. Jihad told me he’s never been to the tomb, but he is very familiar from his childhood with the stories of Sit’ Raba’a as a healer and a performer of good deeds. Jihad and I discussed the apparent proliferation of Sit’ Raba’a tombs throughout the Arab world, and, as he put away the bandages and washed up after treating Arik, we agreed that this is because the world is hungry for righteousness.

So where can the story of Hulda’s tomb take us? The Bible says no one knows Moses’ burial site (Deut. 34:6–7), ostensibly, we are taught, so it would not become a focus of worship. The following legend regarding that issue might give us a path: “The Roman emperor even sent two army units, charging them:  “Go and see where Moses is buried.”  They went and stood up above and saw it down below; then they went down below and saw it above.  So, they split up, half above and have below; those above saw it when they looked down, and those below saw it when they looked up.  Hence it is said, ‘no one knows his burial place'” (Sifrei Deuteronomy 357).

There are ardent seekers of righteousness and justice among all humanity. We  split, splice, slice and dice ourselves into our own tiny human slots (or allow it to be done to us); but Hulda’s tomb might show we just can’t help having much more in common than we sometimes realize. So let’s not forget the “hope” in Hulda’s name.

I like to tell the story you’ve reading here on site Hulda’s Tomb. This 2013 Women of the Bible tour, with Logos Bible Study led by Dr. Bill Creasy, made the time. Photo: Ana Vargas.

I like to tell the story you read here on site Hulda’s Tomb. This 2013 Women of the Bible tour, with Logos Bible Study led by Dr. Bill Creasy, made the time. Photo: Ana Vargas.

Two other narrow places the faithful try to squeeze through for miracles: The columns under the shrine of the hair of the prophet’s beard inside the Dome of the Rock, and Mary’s Tomb in the Kidron Valley. Can you add any?

Can you add to this list of sites that “share sanctity.”  Church of the Ascension; Church of the Holy Sepulchre; Church of the Nativity; Dome of the Rock; Golden Gate; King David’s Tomb; Rachel’s Tomb; Room of the Last Supper; Samuel’s Tomb; Tomb of Joshua; Tomb of the Patriarchs; Tomb of the Prophets; Tomb of Dan. 

Read more about Hulda in Women at the Time of the Bible.

*Zev Vilnay 1972, The Old City, Vol. 3 p. 370.

** Ibid., p. 369.

*** http://amudanan.co.il/#!wiki=P27399 Hulda’s Tomb (Hebrew).

Of Almonds and Analgesics

 

 

Almond blossoms in my neighborhood of Har Adar

Almond blossoms in my neighborhood of Har Adar.

What a briefly blossoming biblical tree can teach us about a much-needed dose of hope.

Time to ‘fess up about what I’ve been hiding in my how-are-you-we-are-fine emails these past months: Husband Arik’s winter has been a bit on the Jobian side. Alright, I exaggerate; there have been no fatalities, and I suppose it compares favorably with what goes on in the lives of some of you, or of people who sat beside us in the Sha’are Zedek emergency room last week, or in any of the other ERs we’ve visited over the past months. And granted also, there has been no divine pride in righteousness, no diabolical bargains over Arik…that we know of.

The proverbial Sabeans (Job 1:15) had already taken away quite a bit away from Arik back in 1973 when he first became a wounded warrior confined to a wheelchair. Over the years he’s had his challenges, but in May came the car that rammed into his car, the broken bones, his mother’s difficult recovery, the pressure sore. Now, just as that has begun to heal, came the next travail. That’s the one that made me think of Job. No dung heap, no potsherds for the itching, burning, rip-roaring pain, but yet of all things, at all times…shingles. In the head.

Let’s all open our Bibles to Job Chapter 3.

Get it?

After the antibiotics, the first pain specialist gave Arik intravenous lidocaine and then sent us off to a special pharmacy for a big fat bottle of Methadone. On it the pharmacist hath inscribed: “50 ccs, 1 x 3.” Two days later I called the specialist to tell him Arik was very, very sleepy. “WHAT?!!” Nurse Ratchett yelled at me over the phone. “Not three times a day…three times a day as NEEDED.”

“But that’s not what it says,” I protested weakly.

She put the doctor right on the phone. Uh oh.

Doctor: “WHAT? 50 ccs? I said UP TO 50 ccs. And you didn’t take the patch [from the previous attempt at pain control] off? I TOLD you to take the patch off.”

Oh.

A lot of loving attention by our faithful family physician, another week, and another specialist, different meds, a different protocol, and the pain has finally being brought under control…hopefully.

Just in time for the blossoming of the almond tree.

“Jeremiah, what seest thou? And I said: I see a rod of an almond tree… Then said the LORD unto me: ‘Thou hast well seen; for I watch over My word to perform it” (Jer. 1:11).

In Hebrew,  almond is shaked, which comes from a root word meaning diligence. Now that you know this, you can appreciate the prophet’s play on words. The almond is our version of the groundhog, ever on the watch for the passing of winter so it can announce that spring is on the way, which it does by being the first fruit tree to bloom, painting the hillsides of Judea and Galilee in pink and cream.

It’s the almond pit that we find so delicious, unlike its relatives, the peach and the plum – where it’s the surrounding fruit we like. But by the way, the fruit of the immature almond – tart and fuzzy, dipped in salt – is an acquired taste that I first learned about after moving to Israel. Deliciously bitter. Go figure.

In Numbers 17, the almond appears as a symbol of vigor. That’s because Moses created staffs for each tribal leader and planted them at the entrance to the Tabernacle, but only Aaron’s staff budded and produced almonds, within 24 hours yet. Ecclesiastes takes the almond to another place entirely, using the whiteness of its flowers to symbolize the whitening hair of old age: “When men are afraid of heights and of dangers in the streets, when the almond tree blossoms and the grasshopper drags himself along… (Eccles. 12:5).

The sages of the Talmud mention the many benefits of the almond (which botanists tell us originated in Central Asia, spread to India and eventually to the Middle East) including a delicious paste, relish and oil. The first-century physician Discorides mentions almond oil and sap as a treatment for stomach pain, headache and burns.  The fifth-century doctor Assaf Ben Brachiyahu (“Harofeh”) recommended almond oil to strengthen the heart, for breathing problems and kidney stones. And Prof. Ephraim Lev of the University of Haifa tells us that in 12th-century Jerusalem physicians used an almond and sugar concoction as a medication.

But back in the realm of symbolism, the biblical “watchfulness” of the shaked has its dark side, too. Daniel 9:14 uses the same word to tell us that God “watches upon the evil” – as a way of warning us that sin will be punished.

Let’s ask Job what he thinks of that one, shall we?

Or not.

Instead, as we all anticipate an end to our bitter days, whatever form they may take, I hope we can find in the early flowering of the almond, as Jeremiah did, an encouraging symbol joy and renewed strength that comes with spring: “And it shall come to pass, that as I have watched over them, to destroy and to afflict…so will I watch over them to build and to plant” (Jer. 31:28).

 

For more about almonds, see Food at the Time of the Bible, from Adam’s Apple to the Last Supper

An almond grove in Israel. Photo: Nissan Lev-Ran. Pikiwiki Israel.

An almond grove in Israel. Photo: Nissan Lev-Ran. Pikiwiki Israel.

Path Perfect – Reclaiming Jezreel

Twentieth-century Lebanese poet Khalil Jibran, biblical Queen Jezebel and nineteenth-century scholar Edward Robinson all met up one day — at least in my imagination — at one of the most important biblical sites in northern Israel. Read all about it in the article I wrote about this exciting site, first published in the online magazine The Bible and Interpretation, and many thanks to Norma Franklin and Jennie Ebeling for their assistance!

 

Jezreel from The Bible and Interpretation

 

Spiritual Liquid Sunshine: the Blessing of Rain in its Season

It was a lifetime ago, one sunny July day in New Jersey, where I brought our two little Israeli daughters to visit their grandparents, that I made them a little promise: “Tomorrow, girls, we’ll go to the beach if it doesn’t rain.” I’ll never forget the quizzical look they both gave me. “What do you mean, if it doesn’t rain. It won’t rain, mama, it’s summer!”

That’s what I get (among other things) for raising children in the Holy Land. In Israel there might be only one thing that’s guaranteed – it will never rain in July. Or August, or June. Okay, you get the idea. In fact, for about eight months of the year, basically, not a drop.

Then comes the rainy season, now upon us here in the Holy Land. This all-important season is framed by two important meteorological/spiritual events: the “former rains” in the fall and the “latter rains” in the spring (Joel 2:23).  Then, dry again until the fall. That powerful cycle has shaped virtually every aspect of our Jewish faith and culture, as well as that of our desert-born or nurtured sister faiths, for thousands of years and to this day.

Oh, how we longed for water in the wilderness (Ex. 17:1-2; Num. 20:2). Scripture turned that longing into the ultimate spiritual metaphor – for joy and salvation (Isaiah 12:3) eternal life (John 4: 7-14), justice (Amos 5:24), wisdom (Proverbs 20:5), and yes, sorrow (Lam. 3:48) and God’s wrath (Hosea 5:10) as well.

Oleg Jacob and Rachel at the Well 2

Rachel and Jacob at the well. Artist: Oleg Trabish. Courtesy of Palpnot.

It is at the well is where we often find the women of the Bible – drawing water for home and family as one of their many daily tasks. That made cisterns and springs just about the most important meeting place in any human habitation and as such – the backdrop for some unforgettable biblical encounters. Abraham’s servant deemed Rebecca to be “the one” for Isaac when he saw the energy and strength she put into her well-side work (Gen. 24:14–21) ; It was the best place for Jacob to show how his body-building skills had paid off (Gen. 29:10); Moses meets his future wife Zipporah by the well after fighting off rival water-seeking shepherds (Ex. 2. 16-20) And our ancient sages saw the juxtaposition of the death of Moses’ sister in the wilderness and Israelite clamoring for water (Num. 20: 1–2)  as the reason for the appearance of a miraculous spring.  And by the way, forever after, “Miriam’s well,” according to legend, appeared whenever her people needed her special brand of sustenance (eventually plunking, just as miraculously, into the Sea of Galilee where if you watch and wait, you can see it bubbling up to this day).

 

 

Miriam the prophetess leading praise by the seashore; facing her miraculous spring. Detail of a painting by Riky Rothenberg. Courtesy of Riky Rothenberg.

Miriam the prophetess leading praise by the seashore; facing her miraculous spring. Detail of a painting by Riky Rothenberg. Courtesy of Riky Rothenberg.

Water quenches, cleanses, heals, revives and purifies – that was an axiom of our biblical ancestors’ lives. And from there, it’s just a short leap of human understanding to making water the ultimate symbol for spiritual renewal, and for life itself.

 

I hope you’ll find pleasure in the slide show, “Waters of Joy” that I prepared, which includes photos of my favorite Holy Land springs, rivers and waterfalls, accompanied by biblical verses and is set to part of Handel’s Water Music Suite No. 2 in D.

 

Here’s wishing us all rains of blessing in 2015, and may we all draw strength from our deepest wellsprings.

 

 

What “a Mother” Wants: Tale of Darkness – Season of Light

Blog Hannah courage of a mother Gustave Dore

Hannah, Gustave Dore

On this, the seventh night of Hanukkah, I would like to jump into the debate on the meaning of the festival – admiration for the fight against tyranny, esteem/excoriation of cultural separatism, paganism at midwinter  – the sky’s the limit. For my part, at the risk of being considered the Grinch who stole Hanukkah, I would like first to focus on a tragic heroine, Hannah.

This is not the Hannah whose fervent prayers at Shiloh were rewarded with the birth of a son who served the sacred and grew up to lead Israel through war, peace, and extreme regime change. This Hannah is still nameless when she appears in 2 Macc. 7:1 as “mother” and later in that chapter, “the woman,” who watched her seven sons tortured and executed one after the other, and who triumphed in their sacrifice to a higher cause.

Yes, I admit, I’m feeling more than a bit grinchy these days, in light of Arik’s and his mother’s ongoing medical challenges since their car was struck in May. And so I’d better quickly tell you that our little family, from great-grandma Tamar herself down to seven-month old Elia, enjoyed our holiday very much, lighting the candles, singing the blessings, eating jelly donuts we made and thinking of Nili and Ami who will be home with us soon. In the photos at the end of this post, you’ll see the Vamosh-Dubinsky family celebrating Hanukkah from generation to generation. Below is a teaser.

Hope of the future - Hanukkah 2014

“In the candles’ rays I see”* – the face of hope in the future.

But bear with me as I return to a tale of darkness at this season of light. We  learn that the story of this mother evolved as it wended its way from the Book of Maccabees to rabbinic tradition and on into Christian tradition. Scholars say that “the woman” of 2 Maccabees and in the version told by Rab Judah in the Babylonian Talmud (Gittin 57b) becomes Miriam in other rabbinic literature, and Maryam in Syriac Christian sources.

It was only in an early 16-century revision of a 10th-century work, “Josippon,” that she received the name that came down in history. There, the author apparently could not resist a connection with 1 Sam. 2:5, where the biblical Hannah praises her miraculous reversal of fortune: “Those who were full go out to work for bread. But those who were hungry are filled. She who could not give birth has given birth to seven.” Scripture teaches, by the way, that seven sons are the ultimate symbol of divine blessing (Ruth 4:15, Jeremiah 15:9, Job 1:2).

According to 2 Macc. 7: 20-23: “…the mother was marvelous above all, and worthy of honorable memory: for when she saw her seven sons slain within the space of one day, she bare it with a good courage, because of the hope that she had in the Lord. Yea, she exhorted every one of them in her own language, filled with courageous spirits; and stirring up her womanish thoughts with a manly stomach, she said unto them, I cannot tell how ye came into my womb: for I neither gave you breath nor life, neither was it I that formed the members of every one of you; But doubtless the Creator of the world, who formed the generation of man, and found out the beginning of all things, will also of his own mercy give you breath and life again, as ye now regard not your own selves for his laws’ sake.”

To the narrator, this horrific tale seems to be not much more than a human interest angle, because right after he completes his account with the death of the mother, like a news anchor pressed to get everything in before the commercial, in a meanwhile-in-other-news tone, he says: “Let this be enough now to have spoken concerning the idolatrous feasts, and the extreme tortures” (2 Macc. 7:42). He then moves on to a security-related story – Judah Maccabee’s draft efforts and subsequent battles, where his victories as a guerrilla warrior lionized him for all time.

I’ve learned in studying about daily life of women in the Bible that the convoluted family ties of the patriarchs and the matriarchs, with their subterfuge, violence, humiliation and other dysfunctions, were about the perpetuation of family lines at a time when so many died young. But martyrdom is a very different call, one whose circumstances I am fortunate not to be able to imagine.

Some people point out that the lessons of Hanukkah are best served not by glorifying the battles of Judah the Maccabee, but by focusing on the achievements of his brother Jonathan who succeeded him, and is said to have excelled at treaties. But eventually, “us against them” was supplanted (again) by “us against us.” Jonathan’s great-great grandnephews, the sons of Queen Alexandra (Salome) and her second husband, divided the nation in a deadly feud. It can be said that their unceasing and bloody machinations were what eventually brought on Rome’s conquest of our land.

In Gittin 57b Rab Judah intersperses his instances of martyrdom (interestingly, the story of Masada is not among them) with, as was the norm, appropriate biblical proof texts. Transforming the mother’s death at the hands of the tyrants into suicide in his retelling, Rab Judah says: “the woman went up on to a roof and threw herself down and was killed. A voice thereupon came forth from heaven saying, A joyful mother of children.”

“A joyful mother of children”: That reference to Psalm 113:9 is simply chilling. It forces us to ask when death might be perceived as a preferable alternative, even a glorious one. And thus, it forces us to demand of our leaders and those of our neighbors – in our “own language, filled with courageous spirits” – everything possible to rein in extremists, a task we must undertake in honor of the exhortation of Deuteronomy 30:19: “Choose life, that that thou mayest live, thou and thy seed.”

Hanukkah 1985

Our own little seeds, candle-lighting on Nili’s first Hanukkah, December 1985.

 

Hanukkah 2014

Maya, at right, now with her own seeds, Tamar and Elia, lighting the candles with us, Hanukkah 2014.

* “In the Candles’ Rays I see,” by Elma Ehrlich Levinger, a Hanukkah hymn written in 1960.

The “Fourbears” of Jewish Dispute and That’s No Typo

Façade of our synagogue in Har Adar. The doors feature the symbols of the Twelve Tribes; a theme of unity that we strive for today (“unity in diversity” would do just fine if we could get there).

Façade of our synagogue in Har Adar. The doors feature the symbols of the Twelve Tribes; a theme of unity that we strive for today (“unity in diversity” would do just fine if we could get there).

No that’s not a typo – I didn’t intend to write “forebears.”  And I’m not referring to a quartet of big furry animals either. That was just to get your attention. Seriously, these are the four groups in Jewish society in the days of Jesus that were the intellectual and spiritual ancestors of the Jewish People, and they knew how to be ferocious. Some of their roaring echoes right down to us today .  To be fair, scholars usually say only one of these four groups gave rise to modern Judaism, but I believe we can see them all among us today.

 

I haven’t followed the usual order  in which you  see these groups presented. Instead, you’ll see I’ve sandwiched the two most familiar groups between the lesser known, smaller sects – the Essenes and the Zealots – and as you read on, you’ll see why.

I’ve taken the descriptions mainly from the way the ancient Jewish historian Josephus describes these groups. You’ll find these in Josephus famous work,  Jewish Wars, II, 8.

The Sadducees

Alright, let’s start with what is perhaps the most famous of their beliefs because of the pun it gave rise to: The Sadducees did not believe in the afterlife, and so they were…”sad, u cee” (and this was invented before our texting kids thought “u” was the right spelling and would correct the spelling of the last word to “c”). The reason the Sadducees did not believe in an afterlife was because they rejected the interpretations of the Five Books of Moses that the other main group, the Pharisees based much of their belief on, and it is in these interpretations that believe in the afterlife becomes most prominent.

“You are quite wrong”

On this score, Jesus tells the Sadducees: “and as for the dead being raised, have you not read in the book of Moses, in the story about the bush, how God said to him ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob?’ He is God not of the dead, but of the living; you are quite wrong” (Matt. 22:32).

The word “Sadduccee” is the Greek form of the Hebrew root tzadak which also gives us the name Tzadok (Zadok). That’s the name of the High Priest who annointed Solomon (1 Kings 1:39) and many scholars say this group traced its origin to him. Indeed, many of the Sadducees were priests and high officials in the Temple. As such, they controlled the worship, had access to enormous resources, and consequently were the high society of the day. They were educated folk, hence their association with the “scribes” – people who knew how to write and were therefore in charge of copying the Holy Scriptures as well as letters and other important documents that gave them a great deal of power. The Hebrew root word tzedek gives us all the words connected with righteous, including the word tzadkani, which we use today to mean “self-righteous.” Given the power that they wielded, perhaps they considered themselves “righteous.” Scholars also say that the Hebrew name for this group Tzdukim also comes from the way they viewed themselves – as the most righteous of all the Jews.

The Essenes

This group is most famous for living in the desert (scholars often say they are the ones who lived in the famous site of Qumran near the Dead Sea, and who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls), but according to Josephus, they also lived in cities, but in their own small groups. In the communities in which they lived they shared and shared alike, much like the early Christians.  The origin of their name is much less clear than any of the others. Many scholars connect it with the word “humble” or “pious” if it comes from Greek. If it comes from Hebrew, some connect it with the word “silent” or “secret” hashai. Particularly interesting is the idea that their name comes from an Aramaic word for healer, asa, viewing them as knowledgeble in this field. This is the way you will meet them in “The Scroll,  where imagine them as living on a slope above that ancient town, based on the Roman historian Pliny’s description of where they lived. However, most scholars interpret the words “above Ein Gedi” as meaning Qumran, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered. The people who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls clearly believed in the resurrection of the dead, which associates this group with the Pharisees (see below).

The Dead Sea Scrolls also show us how the way the people who wrote them, as many scholars presume, the Essenes, interpreted Scripture had a connection with the way the Gospels did. One example of this can be found in the “Habakkuk Commentary” one of the Dead Sea Scrolls on exhibit in the Shrine of the Book in Jerusalem.  This commentary on the biblical words of the prophet by that name quotes from the biblical text and then, basically, says “this is what it means, how it will be fulfilled in our time.” That is strikingly similar to the way Matthew interprets scripture, for example, Matthew 4:13–16. Perhaps the most significant example of this way of interpretation can be found in Luke 4:14-18, Jesus in the synagogue at Nazareth (see below).

Moving ahead of myself for a moment, this was also the way the Pharisees interpreted Scripture, and, of course, the way both Jews and Christians interpret Scripture to this very day.

The Essenes, according to the Dead Sea Scrolls, also practiced ritual immersion to a greater extent than other Jewish people. Scholars have often pointed out that John the Baptist’s emphasis on water baptism may have come through his stay with this group at some time in his life.

The Essenes had a solar calendar, which was different from other Jews at the time, who observed the passage of the weeks and months, and the holidays, according to the lunar lunar cycle, as Jews do today.

The Zealots

This group, which was vehemently opposed to Roman rule, was founded by one Judas the Galilean, who is actually believed to have come from Gamla in the Golan Heights. Judas began a revolt against Roman rule following its demand for the censusRome demanded in the time of GoverorQuirinius (CITE). This Judas is also mentioned in Acts 5:36–38 as a failed messianic leader.  One of the early leaders of the Great Revolt of the Jews against the Romans (66-73 CE) Menahem, may have been a descendent of Judas; a cousin of Menahem was the leader of the rebels at Masada. There were many offshoots of this sect, including apparently the most extreme of them all, the Sicari, whose name means something like “dagger-wieldersThese people sometimes even killed other Jews who disagreed with their view of how Roman rule had to be cast off by any means, as soon as possible. Becausethis was the group who lived and died at Masada.“The Scroll” talks about them extensively.

The Pharisees

I have left this group until last because they are the stream of Jewish thought and practice from which all of us, Jews and Christians are the descendants. Sometimes it is hard for Christians to imagine that the first Christians came from this group, because Jesus criticizes them so harshly (Matt. 23:1-7 is one of the milder references), perhaps even more than the Sadducees. But everything we read in the New Testament about the method Jesus used to interpret Scripture and the way he engaged others in debate about it, is precisely the way the Pharisees believed was the way to go. For the Pharisees,  after the destruction of the Temple, when Jews sought new spiritual understanding, Scripture should not belong only to the Scribes, to the educated class. Everyone who goes to synagogue should be able to hear the words, be helped to understand them by teachers and preachers, and be able to respond if they disagreed. Perhaps the best example of this type of discourse is to be found in the abovementioned verses of Luke (4:14-28). Jesus reads a portion from the Prophets (the way we still do in synagogue in the Sabbath morning service today), in this case (Isaiah 61:1-2), and then comments on it, what today we would call the sermon.  Some people then begin commenting on Jesus’ words, first, apparently in a positive way, and then, with violent, uncontained anger.

This kind of challenge to Jesus’ words, appears elsewhere in the Gospels, one notable example being the query to Jesus as teacher that gave rise to the parable of the Good Samaritan.  Not only is teaching in this manner still part and parcel of the way we interpret Scripture, in Jewish tradition, challenging authority, one’s peers, debate and downright knock-down drag-out arguing, is part and parcel of Jewish culture.

To conclude this foray into Judaism’s ancient opposing sects, while I yearn for coexistence, I recognize that internal strife is part and parcel of Jewish culture. The eminent historian Prof. Yehuda Bauer said recently in a newspaper article: “Jewish culture is based on these internal conflicts…between the true prophets and the false prophets, in the splitting of the united kingdom into two rival kingdoms that fought each otherl in the disputes between Sadducees and Pharisees; between Hellenizers and Hasmoneias; between the religious establishment and the various Zeolots before the Great Revolt…The endless debates, from the Middle Ages to our own time, constitute the vitality of this people.”*

The Wagtail: a Wintertime Tail…I mean Tale

In the craziness that threatens to engulf us at any given moment, I leave the macro of our political maelstrom to wiser thinkers, and the micro of medical challenges faced by Arik and other loved ones to the experts and to the higher power that guides their hands. For a little peace of mind in the midst of it all, I flee briefly to the natural world no further away than the edges of my Judean Hills hometown. In previous blogs I introduced you to a cucumber that spits to survive and to the symbiotic Atlantic terebinth. This time, I want to tell you about a peripatetic little neighbor of mine that you see in this picture. It’s called the white wagtail (Motacilla alba). Read on, there’s a legend in it for you, too.

 

White wagtail. Photo: Miriam Feinberg Vamosh

White wagtail
Photo: Miriam Feinberg Vamosh

I found the particular wagtail and his mate darting around the bushes they call home on the edge of my little community of Har Adar, just across from the skating park that overlooks the ancient Canaanite city of Hakfira, the biblical Chephirah (there aren’t too many places in the world where a skating park overlooks an ancient Canaanite city, now, are there?). Just beyond Hakfira, by the way, I can see the Ayalon Valley on the edge of which – don’t blink, here’s the Hanukkah connection – at Emmaus, Judah Maccabee defeated the Syrian Greeks (1 Mac. 4:1-25).

Canaanite city of Hakfira (at top left of hill in center) with Qatanah on the slope and the Ayalon Valley in the distance. In the foreground: Har Adar. Photo: Miriam Feinberg Vamosh

The Canaanite city of Hakfira (at top left of hill in center) with Qatana on the slope and the Ayalon Valley in the distance. In the foreground: Har Adar. Photo: Miriam Feinberg Vamosh

But back to our wagtail. This species is well established around the world and very common in Israel, except in the desert. In fact, Israeli schoolchildren learn to recognize it as one of the signs that winter is here, because these tufted tweeters fly in around November and abide with us until March. And while we’re on the subject of their tweet –  to me it sounds something like what you get when you let the air out of a balloon by the neck, very, very slowly (which you might do, once, to amuse grandchildren up to a certain age).

Winging their way to us from points north, each wagtail pair picks a territory and guards it zealously. In fact, because they are so fiercely protective of their small dominion, a wagtail can sometimes be seen doing battle against its own reflection in a car or house window.* Yes indeed, we know a lot about that kind of thing in our part of the world.

Of the 227 bird species the experts say nest in Israel, 143 increased their size and distribution in the 20th century.  The veteran Israeli ornithologist Dr. Uzi Paz just published a new book in which he focuses on several avian species that seem to be thriving due to human presence. In answer to my email query as to whether the white wagtail was among them, Paz responded that this was not his impression, but it was certainly possible. That’s enough for me; I love these little guys.

The wagtail got its name in English because when it’s hopping around searching for insects to eat, it bobs its tail up and down like some old-time telegraph operator beating out an urgent message. In Hebrew it’s called nahlieli – a name that relates to its habitat rather than its body language. The word nahlieli comes from the word nahal, which means stream. Interestingly, it was the famous Jewish writer Mendele Mocher Sforim, all the way back in 1862, who first named the nahlieli, in his book about nature called Toldot Hateva.

White wagtail use this 2

And now for the tale: Nehama and her Mama

A story is told of a little white wagtail named Nehama who lived in Kiryat Ye’arim on the western border of the Tribe of Judah (Josh. 10:9; 1 Sam. 6:21; now Abu Gosh), with her parents and seven brothers and sisters. One day, while Nehama’s mama was busy weaving twigs into a new nest for the next round of family, and her father looked the other way for just a second, little Nehama fledged. She flew over Mount Haruah and over the canyon of Nahal Kfira, and landed in Chephirah (Josh. 9:17, Nehemiah 7:29; now Qatana). But right then, clouds blew in from the west, covered the sky and dropped so much rain that before long Nahal Kfira was a ranging stream. Nehama Wagtail, far from the warmth and comfort of her nest, cried out in terror. Her mother heard her, and immediately took off over the narrow, frothing stream. Her tiny wings tired as they beat against the wind and rain, but with the last of her strength she reached the other side, where she was reunited with her daughter. Nehama’s mama stayed by her side for as long as it took to teach her daughter everything she needed to know to build her own nest, which she did that very year and for many years thereafter.

This story was told to me by…me.  And yes, the similarity to a tale about a certain Willie Wagtail is not coincidental. However, the original ending is rather gruesome and we have enough of those endings around here, so I like my version better and I hope you do, too.

Happy Holidays!

For more of my short stories, all with happy endings and biblical associations, see my book Teach it to Your Children: How Kids Lived in Bible Days. 

* www.yardbirds.org.il.

A spray of pyracantha in its natural setting in my Judean Hills home, with my wishes for a wonderful holiday

Here’s a sprig of pyracantha in its natural setting  near my Judean Hills home, together with my wishes for a wonderful holiday to you and yours.
Photo: Miriam Feinberg Vamosh

 

Go to the Aphid: Because the Alternatives are Galling

I’d like to think the Atlantic pistachio, the biblical terebinth, has something to teach us about ourselves.

Last week on my daily walk in my community of Har Adar I spotted a beautiful red-leaved tree that I had never noticed before. Captivated by the colors, I snapped a few pictures because I wanted to share with you a rare hint of fall foliage in my adopted Holy Land home. Here, fall doesn’t usually trumpet its arrival in a riotous changing of the leaves, but is much more subtle (unlike most everything else around here…).

A terebinth (Atlantic pistachio) showing off that it knows how to do autumn, down the street from my house.

A terebinth (Atlantic pistachio) showing off that it knows how to do autumn, down the street from my house.

Then I realized I didn’t know what kind of a tree it was! But with help from my wise friend, Yaacov Shkolnik and his botanical buddies, I found out it’s a terebinth, a.k.a. Atlantic pistachio (Pistacia atlantica).

The terebinth in the Bible

I didn’t recognize our local tree because it stands a lot taller than its bush-like relatives I point out to tour groups in the Valley of Elah (1 Sam. 17:2), where David fought Goliath (and where I explain that elah is the name of this tree in Hebrew). I also know some of this species that are a lot bigger and more powerful looking in the rare places where such trees have survived for centuries.

The “nuts” among the choice fruit of Canaan that Jacob instructed his sons to take back to Egypt (Gen. 43:11) were pistachios. And in the grisly tale of the Absalom’s death, it was from the boughs of a “great terebinth,”  (alright, yes, some versions do say oak) that the prince was helplessly dangling by the hair when his father’s General Joab found him, and ran him through (2 Sam. 18: 9–15).

Reading more about this species, I found out that Atlantic pistachio seeds were unearthed in an excavation stratum going back some 9000 years in Jarmo, in northeastern Iraq, near the oil-rich, dispute-steeped region of Kirkuk. These seeds were also among seven types of edible nuts found – along with the stone tools to crack them open – at Gesher Bnot Ya’akov near the banks of the northern Jordan River, where our prehistoric ancestors apparently depended on them to enrich their diet some 780,000 years ago.*

Over the ages, the Atlantic pistachio has found many uses – the fruit produced oil used for lighting and medicine and the wood was carved into olive presses and other agricultural devices.  The tree can also be used as rootstock on which true pistachios (Pistacia vera) are produced.

The God factor

God is in the terebinth tree – literally. The Hebrew name of the tree, elah, is derived from the word El – God. Elah, the feminine form of that word, means goddess and is yet more evidence of the sanctity of trees, and their association with goddess worship that the Bible mentions frequently (for example, Jer. 17:2).  On that subject, for more information, I take the liberty of referring you to the chapter in my book Women at the Time of the Bible about women and worship.  Those big old trees that I show people as we travel the country together usually survived because people believed them sacred and brought them their prayers.

Reading on, I learned that the Atlantic pistachio has quite an amazing symbiotic relationship with a certain kind of aphid. Now that gave me pause for thought. Proverbs says: “Go to the ant” – and I’m sure old King Solomon wouldn’t mind if I took a leaf, so to speak, from his book, so we can “go to the aphid” for some wisdom. But first, a little botany.

The fist-sized growths you see in the picture (they’re black now, but in spring they’re coral-colored and so they’re also called “coral galls”) are formed by aphids called Slavum wertheimae. These little guys create a kind of an incubator out of the leaves apparently only of this particular tree. Their young are nourished by the nutrients in the leaves and eventually emerge fat and happy from an opening in the gall.

Blackened galls among the leaves of our local terebinth.

Blackened galls among the leaves of our local terebinth.

Galls – baaaaaad.  At least that’s what the goats apparently tell each other when they come to feed on Atlantic pistachio trees and catch of whiff of the aroma these galls emit. In fact, chemical analysis of these things showed that they emit quantities of stinky organic compounds called terpenes. Scientists observing foraging goats report that the animals turned up their noses at the Atlantic pistachio and went on to seek something less odiferous for lunch. That way the lowly aphids protect the tree from overgrazing.

Research has also shown that the galls release antibacterial and antifungal agents that also protect the tree, and scientists say they look forward to exploring possible agricultural and pharmaceutical value to these natural guardians.**

Thus, what at first glance we see puncturing and deforming the leaves of the terebinth – the aphids in their little gall cradles – actually defend the trees and help them thrive from season to season, century to century (if no one cuts them down).

An ancient terebinth, the kind people worshipped, or, in Absalom's case, could have hung from by the hair. Courtesy of Yaacov Shkolnik.

An ancient “great terebinth,” the kind people worshipped and Absalom could have hung from. Courtesy of Yaacov Shkolnik.

What the terebinth taught me

“For is a tree of the field a man…” (Deut. 20:19): Thus begins an important question Moses asked the Israelites rhetorically when instructing them not to cut down fruit trees when they besiege cities. “For is a tree of the field a man, that you make war against it?”

The Atlantic pistachio says it all: It radiates beauty, its wood is useful, its nuts nourishing, it protects itself and even hosts entities that seem poised to destroy it. No, a tree is not a “man” – “to make war against.” Humans have perfected the “art” of warfare, no doubt about that, and in our country, some are trying their best right now to rip apart a  symbiosis that many believe has sustained our society for decades. And then there’s the Atlantic pistachio, which can teach us a thing or two about symbiosis and  coexistence, most essentially when threats abound.

 

First winter cyclamen leaves poking through a terebinth-leaf carpet under our local tree.

First winter cyclamen leaves poking through a terebinth-leaf carpet under our local tree.

 

 

* Science Blog from The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, February 2002 

** “Gall Volatiles Defend Aphids Against Browsing Mammals.” M. Rostas, D. Maag, M. Ikegami and M. Inbar.www.unboundmedicine.com.

 

 

 

Of Good Deeds and Donkey Scum

As I was taking my daily walk around my hometown of  Har Adar the other day, I came across a weird plant that grows wild in the Galilee and Judean Mountains – as well as in urban abandoned lots, junkyards and cemeteries.  It’s called the “exploding cucumber.” Of course it is. It lies there hugging the ground, looking as innocent as you please, with pretty yellow flowers to boot. But if you step on it, kick it or even touch it, it will explode – literally – catapulting its seeds into the wind. That’s what ensures its survival, botanists tell us.

 

The exploding cucumber (Ecballium elaterium). Late October: Most of the pods are still not ready to pop.

The exploding cucumber (Ecballium elaterium). Late October 2014: Most of the pods are still not ready to pop.

In the Mishnah, in a discussion about how to hang on to ritual purity, an issue that intensely preoccupied the ancient Jewish sages, they note that the “squirting cucumber” as they called it “gives passage to uncleanliness and serves as a screen against it” (Mishnah, Ohalot 8,1).  They might have gotten wrapped up in this because of the plant’s prevalence in cemeteries, where ritual impurity from contact with the dead was considered serious risk.

 

The innards of this plant, which in Hebrew goes by the evocative name yeroket hehamor – “donkey scum” ­ – is poisonous according to botanists. Yet, like many toxins, they say that in the right dosage it can be therapeutic; in folk medicine the exploding cucumber is used in treating jaundice, cataracts, ear and skin ailments.

Call me a masochist, but on my morning walk I like to listen to Israel Radio’s daily talk show, where interviewers elicit outrageous statements by the great and powerful wizards who control our lives. Or call me hope-filled when the show interviews people with ingenious and inspiring startups, studies and initiatives for a better society. On a recent walk, right at the moment I was catching my breath and surrendering to the urge to give our botanical bombshell a little nudge, the radio interviewee was Prof. Oren Kaplan, of the College of Management in Rishon Letzion, Israel. His research: how do people’s reports of good deeds affect others. The study showed empirically what most of us realize instinctively – that good deeds are “catching” – hearing about them spurs some people to do good deeds themselves.  However, according to Oren’s data there’s a catch: Once a person had done a good deed, there’s some tendency to feel smug enough to skate right on by the next opportunity to do good.

Exploding cucumber, November  2014 -  most of the pods are gone with the wind, leaving empty stalks.

Exploding cucumber, November 2014 – most of the pods are gone with the wind, leaving empty stalks.

But I also heard the professor say that morning that he believes we can fight that tendency and go for the good. We can go either way, he says. I say, we can be a “screen for cleanliness or uncleanliness.” Genesis 8:21 has a reflection of that: “The imagination of a man’s heart is evil from his youth,” God says, but right then and there vows never again to punish all of us for being that way.

That day as I watched the lowly plant disperse its seeds so vigorously at the merest touch, I thought: the Exploding Cucumber.  Yes, that definitely works in the part of the world. There are other plants, in the Holy Land and elsewhere, that disperse their seeds through the air more gently, like the milk thistle, or the make-a-wish dandelion. But I like to think of our exploding cucumber as a symbol of the enormous energy we need to keep on doing good. We need this very badly, in a world where we have allowed the power to impact larger events to be taken from us by those who have let impurity through the screen, a world where every one of us “great” or “small” has the capacity to hurt or heal in a heartbeat.

 

Read more about the unusual plants and spices of the Bible in Food at the time of the Bible: From Adam’s Apple to the Last Supper.

As for hope, leadership and losing both, read The Scroll

 

 

 

Solemn Assembly Time is Over – Get Your Umbrellas Ready

 

Happy Simchat Torah!

Happy Simchat Torah!

One of my earliest memories at Har Sinai Temple Sunday School in Trenton, New Jersey, is Simchat Torah. That’s the holiday that we celebrated last week, closing the week-long Feast of Tabernacles – and our High Holy Day season altogether. As a child, the holiday was inseparable from the fun and excitement of making Simchat Torah flags. We would intently transform Elmer’s Glue and multicolored glitter (with varying skills at getting the glitter within the lines) into a salient a symbol of our joy. Then, in the sanctuary during the service, we children waved our handiwork as the Torah scrolls were taken out of the Holy Ark.

Granddaughter Tamar and friend, and Simchat Torah flag, Tel Aviv

Granddaughter Tamar and friend, and Simchat Torah flag, Tel Aviv

 

As you delve into Jewish traditions in your search to better understanding Scripture, I’m sure you will enjoy learning about the joys of Simchat Torah. This is when the cycle of Torah reading is renewed at the holiday service with two Torah scrolls taken out of the Holy Ark so that the chanting of the last verse of Deuteronomy can be immediately followed by the first verse of Genesis.

But looking back to the origins of the holiday, we find that Simchat Torah as we know it first came into its own only in medieval times. What the Bible calls a day of “solemn rest” (Lev.  23:39) and “solemn assembly” (Num. 29:35; Neh. 8:18; 2 Chron. 7:9) because it was the end of one of the three pilgrimage festivals, may have been the best time to gather to bid friends and loved ones farewell, as everyone got ready to depart for far-flung homes after a week of celebration together in Jerusalem.  

That seems to be the point of the description in one ancient source, Tosefta Sukkah (4. 17): “On the eighth day the people were sent off and they blessed the king and went to their tents happy with goodly hearts for all the goodness that God did for David and his people Israel.”

 

The rains of blessing

Be glad then, ye children of Zion, and rejoice in the LORD your God; for He giveth you the former rain in just measure, and He causeth to come down for you the rain, the former rain and the latter rain, at the first (Joel 2:23).

Check out my article The ‘Fourbears’ of Jewish Dispute and That’s no Typo,” where you can learn about the Pharisees as Judaism’s teachers and worship leaders after the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem. It was at this time that the Amidah prayer was composed, which, among its 18 blessings, includes one describing the Almighty as: “He that causes the wind to blow and the rain to descend.”

 Notice the wording of the prayer. This is not a “prayer for rain” as we might first imagine,  say,  “Dear Almighty, please make it rain already, Amen.” Rather, it’s one that acknowledges the climate in the Holy Land – a rainless summer followed (hopefully) by enough winter precipitation to bring everything alive. That’s why our sages implanted in this prayer two versions, which they could switch out in the relevant season. One, which we recite starting at Passover when the dry season begins, calls on the Creator almost exactly like the prayer above, with one important difference: instead of mentioning rain, we settle for whatever the season brings, and so in this case the blessing calls on God as “He that causes the dew to fall.”

If you’ve been on a guided tour of Israel, you’ve probably seen one of the beautiful ancient synagogue mosaics that illustrate the passage of time by means of a zodiac wheel and the four seasons, for example in Tiberias, Beth Alpha, or Sepphoris.

Ancient synagogue mosaic, Tiberias. See winter, depicted as a woman holding an overflowing jar of water, in the left-hand corner. wwwgoisrael.com

Ancient synagogue mosaic, Tiberias. See winter, depicted as a woman holding an overflowing jar of water, in the left-hand corner. wwwgoisrael.com

The sixth-century Ein Gedi Synagogue, in Ein Gedi National Park near the Dead Sea, is another place to see a fascinating ancient synagogue mosaic. (Well, a copy of the ancient mosaic, the original is at the Rockefeller Museum in Jerusalem.)  The most talked-about aspect of this archaeological and artistic wonder is its warning against revealing the “secret of the city” (a story for another time). This mosaic also cites the months of the year and even the signs of the Zodiac – but without the pictures we know from other synagogues, such as the one in Tiberias you see here. What the Ein Gedi synagogue does have, unusually, is a list of the biblical ancestors of the human race according to 1 Chron. 1:1-4.

Original Ein Gedi synagogue mosaic inscription.  Photo: Todd Bolen. Courtesy Todd Bolen, www.bibleplaces.com.

Original Ein Gedi synagogue mosaic inscription. Photo: Todd Bolen. Courtesy Todd Bolen, www.bibleplaces.com.

 

There seems to be a very particular reason the Ein Gedi congregation wrote the inscription this way – and it has to do with respect for God’s plan for the cycle of the year. Too little or too much rain can be life-threatening every year anew.  The Ein Gedi congregation, some 1,800 years ago, may have formulated their mosaic inscription this way to call on beloved biblical ancestors and on God, right in the midst of their listing of the seasons, so that: “While the earth remaineth, seedtime and harvest, and cold and heat, and summer and winter, and day and night shall not cease” (Gen. 8:21–22). *

What an excellent verse with which to end our High Holy Day season and to launch into autumn and the blessed rains of winter that lie ahead.

*Michael Shashar, Sambatyon, Essays on Jewish Holidays. 1987, Jerusalem.

Sukkot – A Season for All Peoples – and a Time to Think Out of the Box

As a tour educator, when I have the privilege of explaining about our holiday of Sukkot to people of other faiths and cultures on guided tours of Israel, I sometimes like to call the holiday “the Jewish Thanksgiving” to draw attention to one of its facets – giving thanks to the Almighty for the bounty of the fall harvest. In our case the harvest does not include the plump orange pumpkins or shiny red apples of my childhood in the northeastern United States. Instead, here in the land of the Bible we give thanks for the harvest of the biblical fruits of the season (Exod. 23:16), such as grapes and olives, and for the strength for the hard work (in Bible days) of processing them into edible products.

Sweet grapes from our burgeoning vine, brought as a welcome-to-the-region gift and planted 28 years ago or so when we moved into our house, by Abu Ghazi, the “patriarch” of the workers from the neighboring Palestinian village, in a different era, who built our house.

Sweet grapes from our burgeoning vine, brought as a welcome-to-the-region gift and planted 28 years ago or so when we moved into our house, by Abu Ghazi, the “patriarch” of the workers from the neighboring Palestinian village who built our home. That was in a different era.

But like all biblical holidays, Sukkot has more than one layer of meaning. It commemorates the Israelites’ sojourn in flimsy “booths” put up during the wandering in Sinai (Lev. 42:53). For more about today’s tabernacles see my Sukkot holiday blog, “Turning Ourselves Inside Out.” In biblical times celebrants were commanded to take “choice fruits from the trees, and palm fronds, leafy branches and willows (Lev. 23:40) and wave them before the altar in the Temple. These plants are known as the Four Species, and today worshippers commemorate the Temple service by waving and shaking them at certain moments during morning prayers in the synagogue or at home. Yom Kippur, which we recently marked, is often considered a very personal kind of commemoration. But like Sukkot, it has universal aspects too. On Yom Kippur we recite the words “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples (Isa. 56:7). The Bible reading for the Yom Kippur afternoon service is the Book of Jonah, whose final verses reflect God’s loving concern for all peoples of the world.

As for Sukkot – we are taught that one universal aspect of Sukkot is the fact that the total number of sacrifices offered during Sukkot was 70 – the biblical number of all the world’s nations. If you’ve had the privilege of being in Jerusalem on Sukkot, one of the three pilgrimage holidays, you certainly sensed the Holy City as a true microcosm of all peoples.

 

An ancient family on Sukkot pilgrimage to Jerusalem, from my book Teach it to Your Children: How Kids Lived in Bible Days (drawing by Mira Hass)

An ancient family on Sukkot pilgrimage to Jerusalem, from my book Teach it to Your Children: How Kids Lived in Bible Days (drawing by Mira Hass)

In fact, the universal and the personal are never very far apart in our tradition. The shape of each of the Four Species reminded the ancient Jewish sages of different aspects of the human body. The lulav (the straight, closed palm frond) – the spine; the oval etrog (citron) – the heart; the small leaf of the myrtle bush – the eyes, and the longer leaf of the willow – the mouth. Holding the Four Species together and shaking them in every direction, the sages said, was a way of “enacting” Psalm 35:10 – praising God as the source of justice: “All my bones shall say: ‘Lord, who is like unto Thee, who deliverest the poor from him that is too strong for him, yea, the poor and the needy from him that spoileth him?’” For added inspiration, check out the connection of this thought to Paul’s counsel to the Romans (12:2). But for a broader, society-oriented take, I thank the rabbi of my hometown of Har Adar, Rabbi Naftali Rothenberg, for his remarks on the Four Species in an article published recently on Ynet. His thoughts, particularly about the etrog, actually do not echo my own, but they did lead me back to thinking about the etrog as a symbol of striving for a more perfect world. This ideal is woven into countless verses in the Bible; for example, one of my favorites is Jeremiah 22:3: “Execute ye justice and righteousness, and deliver the spoiled out of the hand of the oppressor; and do no wrong, do no violence, to the stranger, the fatherless, nor the widow, neither shed innocent blood in this place.”

Etrogs on display at the Har El Mall, near my home, Sukkot 2014

Etrogs on display at the Har El Mall, near my home, Sukkot 2014

Look at the picture I snapped of the Four Species stand in my local mall and you’ll see the green etrogs, set out in rows on the display table next to special cushioning material and boxes to protect it from damage. As you read more about Sukkot and the Four Species, you’ll learn that in Jewish tradition one can try to further honor God by performing commandments with the most perfect objects possible, a concept called in Hebrew hidur mitzvah – “embellishing the commandment.” One example of this is choosing the most beautiful etrog possible. However, to keep it beautiful, it has to be kept closed most of the time, nestled in its cushioning inside a sometimes very elaborate box, taking it out only for the blessing or brief display. But remembering the sages’ comparison of the etrog to the human heart,  let our “etrog” out of the box, to feel and see the invisible, especially “the stranger”  is the way to more powerfully pursue justice and righteousness in our society.

 

Etrogs (citrons) on sale for Sukkot

   Etrog, anyone? You can find out more about etrogs (not actually very tasty unless you make jam out of them) on pp. 48-49 of my book Food at the Time of the Bible: From Adam’s Apple to the Last Supper.

Turning Ourselves Inside Out

 Another Yom Kippur has passed. Our family shares the hope it symbolizes for Jews everywhere, that our efforts to forgive ourselves and others bear redemptive fruit. For Arik it is a more “awe-ful” day, as it marks the beginning of the war in which he was catastrophically injured in 1973, and the beginning of his successful, unceasing efforts to build a new life outside the parameters of what would ever be possible again.

As I write, I can hear my neighbors beginning to build their sukkah, the temporary dwelling in which they will have their meals. For friends less familiar with our Jewish traditions, I would like to introduce you to this wonderful concept. Yom Kippur is devoted to our inner selves. It is a time to focus on rebuilding our spiritual bridges as we consider how more to strive for our better selves in the year to come. Later this week we will begin the week-long celebration of Sukkot, the “feast of booths.” Like so many of our holidays, it has at least two levels: Leviticus 23:33–44 tells us that we are to dwell in booths to remember that the Israelites lived in such flimsy temporary dwellings during the 40 years of wandering in the desert, and it’s the time of the fall harvest.

 

 

Maya and Nili, now a mother of two and a mother-to-be respectively,  having breakfast in our sukkah.

Maya and Nili, now a mother of two and a mother-to-be respectively, having breakfast in our sukkah way back when.

Jewish tradition tells us that we should begin to build our sukkah immediately after Yom Kippur ends – that same evening – four days before Sukkot actually begins. We are told that this is a way to bring together the personal (the soul-searching of Yom Kippur) with the universal (the outside world). For one week, leaving our perfectly good four walls, we turn ourselves “inside-out”. Arik and I taught our girls, Maya and Nili, that as we sat in the sukkah we built on our porch, we should think about families the world over who live their whole lives in structures no stronger than this, or people who have far less than this due to natural disaster or war.

These are the perfect moments to focus on the universal aspects of Judaism – the oft-repeated commandment to do justice (Prov. 21:3; Micah 6:8). At this special time, when the Muslim festival of Id al-Adha, the holiday of the sacrifice and our Yom Kippur coincide for the first time in 34 years, I like to think of the verse where God ponders the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah and God’s hopes for Abraham, the father of both our faiths and ponder the possibilities in interfaith relations: “For I know him, that he will command his children and his household after him, and they shall keep the way of the Lord, to do justice and judgment; that the Lord may bring upon Abraham that which he hath spoken of him.” (Gen. 18:19).

What the bee-eater told me

Last fall, while guiding a group at Qumran National Park, I had the most wonderful opportunity to snap a picture of a bee-eater. Every fall and spring these iridescent migrants visit us.  In a 2011 article in the journal Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology, researchers Nir Sapir, Martin Wikelski, Roni Avissar, Ran Nathan inform us that the bee-eaters apparently know the best time do depart on their migration (see Jeremiah 8:7 re the storks’ talent at this). Their research suggests “that a trend of increasing temperature and decreasing barometric pressure lasting a few days can potentially provide a reliable cue for the birds to adjust their digestive, muscular, and circulatory systems in preparation for the enduring cross-country flight.” High temperatures, these scholars say, facilitate soaring – an energy saver as opposed to flapping their wings. Individual birds have to gauge their go-no-go for that day on a mechanism they evolved for gauging temperature and pressure. These abilities can be essential to the survival of the species.

Bee-eater at Qumran

Bee-eater at Qumran

Now, I’m no bee-eater, but this is what I glean:  Abraham sensed the changing conditions when he smashed the idols in his father’s “idol store,” according to legend, and he soared upward. We, his descendants seem to have lost the ability to soar, constantly doing the wrong thing at the wrong time and flapping our wings to exhaustion or with great harm to our species. It is the responsibility of each of us to get it a little more right in the year to come.

 

 

 

Read my version for children of the ancient legend “Abraham in the idol store” in the chapter on worship in my book Teach it to Your Children: How Kids Lived in Bible Days.