Miriam Feinberg Vamosh

Hannah on an Ancient Hilltop – A Tale for the New Year

On the Jewish New Year, the sacred readings reverberate with the triumphs of the vulnerable and the powerless. On Rosh Hashanah we remember that Sarah’s longing for a child was requited (Gen. 21) – and  Hannah’s humiliation came to an end when her son Samuel was conceived (1 Sam. 1–2). In her thanksgiving song, Hannah compares that miracle to no less than victory over enemies, evil, death and injustice.  The Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 11a) also says this was the time of year that the hopes of another barren woman of the Bible were fulfilled  – Rachel (Gen. 30:1).

Hannah and Eli the priest. Engraving by German painter Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld (1764–1841). Wikimedia Commons.

There’s even part of the sacred liturgy of Rosh Hashanah that’s couched in terms of birth: Congregations around the world chant the hymn Hayom Harat Olam,  which means (freely translated) “this day is pregnant with eternity,” reflecting the belief that Rosh Hashanah is the world’s birthday.

A few weeks ago, I asked my husband Arik if he wanted to take a little archaeology-themed drive to a rocky hilltop not far from our home that I had read might be the burial place of Hannah. I didn’t realize until I stood among the ruins there that a Rosh Hashanah message was hidden among them.

Hannah times three

It dawned on me there that we now have three places to remember Hannah in the Holy Land. The first, of course, is where Scripture says Hannah prayed for a child – Shiloh, next to which an elaborate visitor center now stands. The second is Ein Karem, at the Church of the Visitation – where Elizabeth and Mary met when both were pregnant. That’s the perfect place to read Mary’s paean of praise, the Magnificat, which she traditionally uttered there. Hannah comes into our midst naturally as we compare the Magnificat to Hannah’s prayer.

And now a third place – this hill, called Burj el-Haniyah in Arabic, and Horvat Hani in Hebrew.  It’s marked by the remnants of an ancient convent excavated some 18 years ago by a team led by Uzi Dahari and Yehiel Zellinger. The intersection of an unpaved forest road with the path to Horvat Hani, on a rocky mound in the western Bethel foothills, is almost invisible. But what I would like to see here very clearly is an intersection of three traditions remembering a remarkable woman of Scripture.

Wall of the convent, visible from the dirt road that passes Hurvat Hani, “Hannah’s Ruin.” Miriam Feinberg Vamosh.

Archaeologists tell us that the complex that once stood here contained a church, crypt, convent, tower, seclusion cells for nuns (which, by the way, could be locked from the inside, which is not the case in men’s monasteries) a kitchen, pilgrims’ accommodations, dining room, courtyard, olive presses, a winepress, storage cave and cisterns!  Human bones were also unearthed. The bones were only of infants, children and women, whereas archaeologists say they normally find at least some male skeletal remains in such a mix. Hence, they conclude, this was a convent.

Artist’s rendering of the church and convent over Hannah’s putative burial place. Courtesy of Uzi Dahari.

When I was there last month, almost everything was overgrown but the church apse, and I barely caught a glimpse of the cave openings, choked with thick, dry vegetation. After my time on the hilltop, when I hopped back into the van where Arik was patiently waiting, the first thing I said was: “I forgot my cellphone in the van.” “I know,” he responded laconically. We admitted that we both realized I could have ended up at the bottom of one of those ancient caves…Not the kind of drama I had come to invoke!

People may have started coming here to pay homage when only an arcosolium (arched-ceiling tomb) stood on the hill, built in the second or third century CE, and containing, the archaeologists say, a number of female skeletons. But pilgrims really started streaming in apparently  in the fifth century when the convent was first built, with the tomb now in a place of honor under the church apse. And even after the site was abandoned, girls and women, probably Muslims from surrounding villages, continued to be buried there. But who was the revered lady in the tomb? Part of the Arabic name of the site, Haniyah, has led scholars to conclude she was Hannah.

But which Hannah?

Among the scriptural women named Hannah, or Anna, is Jesus’ grandmother and the Temple-residing prophetess of the New Testament. And then – and perhaps most intriguing –  there’s Samuel’s mother. That Hannah, the Bible says, was from Ramatayim-Tzofim (1 Sam. 1:1), and the Church father Eusebius, whose lead pilgrims would have followed, identified  Ramatayim-Tzofim as as a place he called Remphis, east of the pilgrimage magnet of Lod (Lydda). Following the thread of name-related clues, we find that Remphis apparently morphed into the present day village called Rentis, which can still be seen from the ruined church walls.

Apse of the church at Horvat Hani, “Hannah’s Ruin,” looking east toward Rentis. Miriam Feinberg Vamosh.

One of the three mosaic inscriptions in Greek unearthed at the site, in fact, right in the church, reads:  “Remember O Lord, Anasia, “the abbess” (or “the most pious”).

Inscription honoring “Anasia, the abbess,” or “the most pious.” Courtesy of Uzi Dahari.

The story of Hannah has many lessons that cross the boundaries of faith and culture. One was taught by the ancient rabbinic sages:  Hannah’s experience shows the power of prayer as it pours from the heart. (And that’s knowing how important structure is to Jewish prayer services.) And moving from form to essence – Hannah’s prayer,  as well as the Magnificat, speak volumes about the power of change, and the possibility of an end to suffering symbolized by that ultimate transformative experience, childbirth.

May Rosh Hashannah be a time of rebirth and new beginnings for us all.

 

Thanks to Dr. Uzi Dahari for his assistance with information and illustrations.

Hurvat Hani is an off-the-beaten track ruin in the Samarian foothills northeast of Shoham and northeast of road 444. It appears by that name on the 1:50,000 map of Israel (available in Hebrew only). There are no English signs at the site. Colleagues and others interested in reaching Hurvat Hani can contact me for more specific directions.

Want to know more?

Bolton-Fasman, J. 2016. Hannah’s Prayer: A Rosh Hashannah Story. https://www.jewishboston.com/hannahs-prayer-a-rosh-hashanah-story/

Cook, J.E. 1999. Hannah’s Desire, God’s Design: Early Interpretations of the Story of Hannah (Journal for the  Study of the Old Testament Supplement Series 282).

Cohn, G.H. 2000.  A Prayer for Rising Above the Routine.  https://www.biu.ac.il/JH/Parasha/eng/rosh/coh.html) (a   ccessed Aug. 22 2018).

Dahari, U. and Zelinger,Y., with contributions by L. di Segni, Y. Nagar and E. Klein. 2016. The Excavation at Ḥorvat Ḥani – Final Report and a Survey on Nuns and Nunneries in Israel. In: Knowledge and Wisdom. Archaeological and Historical Essays in Honour of Leah Di Segni (Studium Biblicum Franciscanum  Collectio Maior 54).

 

 

 

Carob Trees, the Bible, and Righteous Gentiles

Sweet, nutritious carobs are a blessing in the bone-dry Holy Land summer. What’s more, they embody a message of hope and  striving for a higher level of humanity.

Following my recent video blog from “carob land” a few weeks ago, here are my promised further thoughts on the tasty, healthy summer fruit  Ceratonia siliqua a.k.a. the carob. Another name for the fruit is St. John’s bread, because it’s said to have nourished the baptizer in the wilderness. Or did it? Read on and find out more.

Carob pods. Aaron Vamosh.

According to 2 Kings 6:25 the besieged and hungry people of Samaria couldn’t even afford to buy “doves dung.” But a different reading of the Hebrew, instead of “doves dung” tells us  that “seed pods” – possibly of the carob – were the commodity in question. Arguing against that idea, however, botanists say carobs were too rare in Bible times to have been cited in that context and and carobs only became more common in the Roman era and then in modern times.

Let’s see where else carobs appear in the Bible. A biblical term recalling the carob – according to  ancient sages – is in 1 Sam. 2:36, appearing as a “piece of silver.”  Medieval scholar Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra said that the root of the word agora (translated as “piece” and  which came to mean “penny” in modern Hebrew) was in the word gera, which he surmised meant “carob seed.”  About 15 of these small, lightweight seeds are found in each 7-8-inch pod.  The gera, the carob seed, was quite standard in size and weight and so it apparently morphed into the word “carat,” which is now used to indicate the weight of a diamond.

Carobs might also appear in the New Testament as the “husk,” sometimes translated as “pods” in Luke 15:16. In Greek that word is keration, also reminding us of  the word carat.

But why is the carob tree called “St. John’s Bread” when the English New Testament (and the Greek) clearly say he was eating “locusts”?  The first question is whether John, who as a Jew would have taken his dietary cues from the Bible, would have eaten locusts? The answer is yes, and, well, even yum, at least according to some Jewish culinary tastes,  mainly in the old days – some species of these meaty bugs are kosher according to Deut. 14:20 and Lev. 11:21–22.

The Oxford English Dictionary weighed in on John’s diet too. It says that the carob tree was nicknamed “locust” akris (plural, akrides in Greek) because of the shape of the pods and the way they clustered on the tree, and so John was therefore indeed dining on carobs, not actual locusts, together with his wild honey.

St. John the Baptist , by Hieronymus Bosch, 15th century. Wikimedia Commons.

Later interpreters tried their hand at this linguistic mystery, noting that the writings of the Ebionites, an early Judeo-Christian sect (who were considered heretical and died out) may have influenced later church scholars who also pondered John’s diet. Ascetics and non-meat eaters, Ebionites, some scholars say, couldn’t abide the thought of John eating meat, so they substituted enkrides, honey cakes, for akrides (locusts).

And Why is a Righteous Gentile like a Carob?

Carobs grow throughout Israel these days. But botanists tell us they have only truly proliferated in recent centuries, after the land had become degraded and the forests denuded. That’s where connection between non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews in the Holocaust – known as Righteous Gentiles – come in:

Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem,  planted a carob tree in memory or in honor of each Righteous Gentile they could find. I’ve never seen an official explanation for the choice, but one day, I think I found out. I was guiding a group of British gardening enthusiasts, visiting formal gardens all over Israel. One of these is the magnificent Rothschild Gardens in Zichron Ya’akov. At one point our guide shared what she said was a horticultural mistake: “We planted carob trees on the lawns. Because we water the lawns regularly, the carobs get too much water and they don’t bear fruit – carobs only bear fruit under stress, where no other fruit will grow.” Right then and there, I connected to the Yad Vashem carobs: They symbolize the people who “bore fruit” in a desert of evil and immorality.

Avenue of the Righteous Gentiles. Wikimedia Commons.

I would like to end with another carob tale meaningful in our desire to lives a life of service. It’s about a sage and miracle worker named Honi, (known as the Circle Maker; remind me to tell you that story another time): Honi was walking on the road and saw a man planting a carob tree. “How long will it take for this tree to bear fruit?” Honi asked the man. The man replied, “Seventy years,” to which Honi replied:  “And do you think you will be around to eat its fruit?” The man answered: When I was born, I found carob trees planted by my father and grandfather. Just as they planted for me, I am planting for my children” (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Ta’anit 23a).

 

 

I dedicate this blog to the memory of  my  sister, Lucy Weil Feinberg  (July 29, 1948–July 31, 2018), who loved nature and lived a life of service devoted to protection of all who are weak and at risk.  May the memory of her works inspire us all to do the same.

 

My thanks to Tova Dickstein and Susan Weingarten for sharing their carob knowledge with me.

Want to know more?

Brock, S. 1999. From Ephrem to Romanos: Interactions between Syriac and Greek in Late Antiquity. Variorum Collected Studies Series Brookfield, Vt. Chapter X: .The Baptist’s Diet in Syriac Sources. Pp. 114–124.

Kellhoffer, J.A. 2005. The Diet of John the Baptist: Locusts and Wild Honey in synoptic and patristic tradition Tuebingen 2005.

Carobs, John the Baptist and Righteous Gentiles

To subscribers and friends, shalom!

I invite you to come with me on a short visit to “carob land”. Watch and enjoy…a blog about carobs to follow soon!

 

 

 

 

On “Baseless Hatred”

A Ninth of Av Message to my Subscribers and Friends

Have I ever taken you to Jerusalem’s “Herodian Mansion” ? If so, you might remember the story that I want to share with you again here in honor of Tisha B’Av. That’s the annual day of mourning and fasting now upon us, when  Jews recall the destruction of both Temples and other disasters in Jewish history.

As I told you the story, we would have stood together around a heap of ash at this restored, first-century wealthy home. The ash was left by the fire that engulfed the Upper City of Jerusalem a month after the Romans burned the Temple. But read on  to see that this time, I end a sad tale on a note of optimism, one that goes to the very heart of our Judeo-Christian tradition.

The story appears in two ancient Jewish sources: Lamentations Rabbah (4:3) and the Babylonian Talmud (Tractate Gittin 55b-56a). That Talmudic tractate is actually devoted to divorce. And as you know, my historical novel, The Scroll, revolves around a divorce document – a real one – found in the Judean Desert in the 1950s, but issued at Masada before it fell to the Romans. In The Scroll I imagine the fate of a woman who split from her husband in the midst of one of the worst tragedies the Jewish people faced at the time, and of her descendants. One of its main themes is same as the reason the ancient Jewish sages said the Temple was destroyed: “baseless hatred” (Talmud, Tractate Yoma, 9b).

The destruction of the Temple and the Sack of Jerusalem. Nicolas Poussin, 17th century. Wikimedia Commons.

The age-old tale is about two men, one named Kamza and the other, Bar Kamza. It’s often quoted to this day as a prime example of baseless hatred.

It goes like this:

There were two men with similar names living in Jerusalem, one named Kamza and the other, Bar Kamza. When the story opens we know nothing about them except that Kamza was a friend of a wealthy man (who is not named) in Jerusalem.

Bar Kamza was the wealthy man’s enemy. One day, the ancient tycoon planned a banquet. As was the custom, all his friends everyone got a personally delivered verbal invitation. Kamza was on the list and of course, Bar Kamza was not.

But by mistake, the servant announcing the banquet went to Bar Kamza’s house instead of Kamza’s! Worse still, Bar Kamza actually showed up! The wealthy host was enraged to discover his enemy Bar Kamza at his door, about to crash his party.

Wealthy banquet, unknown painter, 1st century, Pompeii. Public Domain.

“Be gone!” he bellowed to Bar Kamza. But Bar Kamza begged to stay, just to save face. He even offered to pay for the banquet! The wealthy man refused.

Fuming, the humiliated Bar Kamza planned his revenge. He went to the Roman governor and lied that the Jews were eating the sacrifices the Romans had been sending to the Temple, considering them “blemished” and improper for sacrifice, and were substituting “pure” animals for the sacrifice.

At first, the governor did not believe Bar Kamza. And so he devised an entrapment for his fellow Jews: “If you do not believe me, send an officer and some sacrificial animals with me, and you will immediately know that I am not lying.” Bar Kamza accompanied the Roman officer and the animals to Jerusalem and at night, while the officer was asleep, Bar Kamza secretly made all the animals ritually impure.

When the animals reached the Temple, the priest in charge saw that they were blemished and indeed, he substituted others.

After this happened three days in a row, the officer reported to the emperor that Bar Kamza had told him the truth. Burning with anger, the emperor sent his legions to Jerusalem to destroy the Temple.

The Lamentations Rabbah version adds another level: “Rabbi Jose said: “The meekness of Zechariah b. Abkulas burnt the Temple.” By this the sages meant that Rabbi Jose – who was present at the feast and knew the Jewish tradition that humiliating a person was tantamount to murder – could have exerted his moral authority to stop the host from disgracing Bar Kamza. But he chose not to intervene.

But Gittin, the tractate on divorce, uses the story to explain a verse in Proverbs, 28:14: “Happy is the man who is anxious always, but he who hardens his heart falls into misfortune.” What’s the connection? The late-11th-century Jewish scholar Rashi tells us that the moral of Kamza and Bar Kamza is that being “anxious always” is to be constantly aware of the ultimate outcome of your actions.

As always, I’d like to leave you with a positive thought, one at the very crossroads of our Judeo-Christian tradition. The Jewish folklore expert Esther Shekalim tells us that right on in the afternoon of the mourning and fasting day of the Ninth of Av, in the midst of sorrow, families in the Jewish diaspora of Libya the young men would, of all things, hold donkey races. Why? According to the Jerusalem Talmud, the Messiah is born on the Ninth of Av. Their donkey competitions are said to have honored of Zechariah 9:9: “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your King is coming to you; He is just and having salvation, Lowly and riding on a donkey, a colt, the foal of a donkey.”

 

Visitors at reconstructed ancient village of Kfar Kedem in the Galilee enjoying a family donkey ride. Goisrael.com.

According to our folklore expert, this old custom comes from an idea modern psychology now supports: That by imagining, symbolizing and acting out a longed-for new reality, we can make hope come true.

Please feel free to share this post.

Want to read more?

You can find a fuller version of the Kamza Bar Kamza story on my website here.

Rabbi Joshua Berman, Kamza and Bar Kamza, who was at fault?http://www.biu.ac.il/JH/Parasha/eng/devarim/ber.htmlTdajudaics.com.

 

King David’s Mother: She Stands for Us

Shavuot (Pentecost), among its many aspects, is the traditional death date of King David. This is an opportunity to return to my theme “Of King David’s Women,” and this time, I want to tell you about David’s mother. She’s mentioned twice in the Bible, but like most of its female characters, she has no name. And so the sages filled in the blanks in riotous color. They said her name was Nitzevet, which means “standing woman.”

Life in the Hareem. John Lewis (1858). Wikimedia Commons.

In Psalm 69:8, David wrote: “I am a foreigner to my own family, a stranger to my own mother’s children.” Why, the sages asked. They found the answer in the convoluted path David’s family took on its way to establishing the best known dynasty in Judeo-Christian tradition.

David was the great-grandson of the Moabite Ruth, whose story we read on Shavuot and who famously joined her fate to the Israelites. But Jesse, after years of marriage to the Israelite Nitzevet, the mother of his seven sons, suddenly realized that as a prominent public figure, his part-Moabite status was an impediment.

Jewish tradition accords Ruth high honors but the law in Deut. 23:3 explicitly forbade intermarriage with Moabites. So, the sages said, Jesse felt compelled to cast Nitzevet out. This was for Nitzevet’s own good, they said – Jesse didn’t want to impugn Nitzevet’s status as the wife of a despised Moabite.

The separation lasted for three years. Jesse became lonely and wanted more children. And so he took a Canaanite slave woman, who could provide him with a child of unquestionable lineage. This was possible, it was said, because if Jesse were to emancipate the slave, their children could be recognized as full-fledged members of the tribe.

Compassion Births a Plan

What an awkward, painful situation. Nitzevet and the slave woman, living alongside each other, meeting every day at the loom, the grinding stone or over the cooking fire, neither of them with any real way out. And then, out of compassion, the slave woman came up with a plan, using one of the few tools biblical women had: subterfuge. She would switch places with Nitzevet on Jesse’s sleeping pallet that night. This apparently worked well enough, because Nitzevet became pregnant.

But from the moment her pregnancy began to show, Nitzevet’s own sons, ignorant of the bedroom switch, shunned and shamed her as an adulteress. The conscience-panged Jesse forbade his sons to harm her or the child, and eventually Nitzevet gave birth – to David. Jesse recognized the child as his own, although, like some biblical Cinderella, David was relegated to shepherd status, distanced from the family, a “stranger,” “hated without reason” (Psalm 69:4). Only twenty-eight years later – when Samuel the prophet anointed David king of Israel “in the midst of his brothers” (1 Samuel 16:12–13) – was the dignity of both mother and son restored. According to one source, it was at this point that Nitzevet uttered the words ascribed to David in Psalm 118: “The stone that the builders rejected….”

Anointing of David, Veronese, 16th century. Wikimedia Commons.

What’s the Moral?

Some people in their anguish distance themselves from God, and some come closer. David, it was said, was among the latter. Women commentators have put a new gloss on the moral. They say Nitzevet is the one to be admired for bearing her pain with dignity and faith and for passing on her strength to her son David. What’s more, the story of “Standing Woman” doesn’t end in the Bible or its interpretations over the ages. It’s timeless and universal. Nitzevet stands for us. We can change the ending.

 

 

Further reading:

Chana Weisberg, “Nitzevet, Mother of David: the Bold Voice of Silence. https://www.chabad.org/theJewishWoman/article_cdo/aid/280331/jewish/Nitzevet-Mother-of-David.htm#comments

The legend of Nitzevet is based, among other sources, on the following sources:

Babylonian Talmud Baba Batra 91a.

Eliyahu KiTov. Sefer HaTodaah, 1958 (Hebrew on line http://sifrei.blogspot.co.il/2014/03/blog-post_9.html, p. 302­–303, the section on Sivan and Shavuot tells about Nitzevet). English translation, Feldheim, 1998.

 Yalkut HaMachiri http://hebrewbooks.org/pdfpager.aspx?req=32637&st=&pgnum=205 (Hebrew).

 

Chickpeas and Parched Grain: the Lunch Date that Launched a Dynasty

What’s the connection between an Israeli culinary favorite and women of Scripture?

Our next major religious festival is Pentecost, on May 20. But in between is another holiday. No, not Lag B’Omer, which we marked last week, on the 33rd day between Passover and Pentecost. I’m talking about International Hummus Day, marked on May 13. Google it.

A hummus field in Galilee, with Mount Tabor in the background. Photo: Eitan F, Wikimedia Commons.

This blog is about hummus, which is mentioned in the Bible once, in the story of Ruth, though not by that name.  In Ruth 2:14, Boaz said to our heroine, who’d been hard at work harvesting his barley all morning: “Come here, and eat of the bread, and dip your piece of bread in the vinegar.” Hard to imagine serving vinegar to a hungry lady you want to impress…not even balsamic vinegar, as the Israeli author Meir Shalev has pointed out, and not even “wine vinegar” as the New International Version translated the Hebrew word hometz (that’s the modern Hebrew word for vinegar). And elsewhere in the Bible where hometz is mentioned, it’s not something you’d consume by choice (Prov. 10:26, Psalm 69:21, for example, and see Matt. 27: 48). So what was the dip? Some say it must have been hummus – pureed chickpeas.

Fresh hummus before toasting.

When we adjust our biblical lens to imagine Boaz offering Ruth pita dipped in hummus rather than vinegar, it becomes a different story, literally. Hummus  with a little olive oil, salt, garlic and lemon (in our day that is, no lemons in the Bible), is delish, and apparently for Boaz, it was a surefire way to get a second date.

Everybody likes to try the pureed version of hummus when they come to Israel. I’d like to tell you about a less well-known way to enjoy it. The next course of that memorable Bethlehem lunch date was parched grain, a biblical staple. “Parching” basically meant toasting the green, still-sweet heads of grain in a pan over the fire. You can do the same thing with hummus in the pod. And I do just that,  for the few weeks a year I can get it fresh in the fruit and veggie shop in our neighboring village of Abu Ghosh. But if you’re not going to be passing through Abu Ghosh or an open-air Israeli or Middle Eastern market any time soon, I’ve been told that in the U.S. you can sometimes find fresh hummus at farmers’ markets and specialty stores.  So here goes: Heat a medium-size skillet with a tablespoon of olive oil and sprinkle some sea salt in the bottom. Place a layer of fresh hummus, right in the pod, in the pan and shake it around for a few minutes, browning it nicely on all sides. That’s it. Put the whole pod into your mouth to get the salty flavor, holding on to the end of it, then pop out the chickpeas (two or three per pod usually), remove the pod and discard. Hands get oily, have napkins handy. Fun for the whole family, and an idea for a little home-school project.

Fresh hummus in my skillet, almost ready to munch on.

Speaking of the whole family, as you snack on your toasted hummus, or dip your pita in hummus puree for that matter, you can teach a Bible lesson on charity from the book of Ruth: Remember how Ruth, whose great-grandson was King David, went out to glean? She was harvesting the stalks in the corners of the field that Boaz had left for the poor, as commanded by Leviticus 23: 22:  “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not wholly reap the corners of your field…You shall leave them for the poor and for the stranger.” As the ancient Jewish sages said: “Why was the Book of Ruth written? To teach us the greatness of reward for deeds of lovingkindness” (Ruth Rabba 2:14).

Happy International Hummus Day.

The Gleaners, by 19th-century artist Jean-François_Millet. The artist was criticized in his day for too “social-minded” a subject.

 

For further reading:

“Toasted grain” makes a dramatic appearance early in my historical novel, The Scroll (Koren).

For more about biblical foods check out my Food at the Time of the Bible, Women at the Time of the Bible (Palphot), and Teach it to Your Children: How Kids Lived in Bible Days (Avi Media).

 

 

 

The Budding Biblical Promise

In memory of my late mother-in-law, Tamar Vamosh, a Holocaust survivor, who loved flowers, life and The Mikado

A pomegranate bud in my garden.

I’d like to take a break in my series on the women in King David’s life and today, Holocaust Memorial Day, when sorrow over the past and worry over the future plague so many, turn to thoughts of beauty and hope spurred by biblical springtime. Such thoughts were the “weapons” that my late mother-in-law, Tamar, a Holocaust survivor, wielded to win her battle to live and love after the Holocaust had robbed her of so much.

I’d like to share today how Scripture’s original Hebrew deepens our understanding of springtime in the Holy Land.  Passover is behind us, and we’ve begun the seven-week period before Pentecost (Lev. 23:15–16) known as “the counting of the Omer.”  This was and still can be a fearful time for Holy Land farmers. Most of the rainy season is over. But a downpour, not to mention a hailstorm, could destroy ripening grain (Exod. 9:18), while a sudden searing wind from the desert was the mortal enemy of tiny olive blossoms and budding grapes (Job. 15:33). Farmers sighed in relief as each day was counted toward the calming of the skies and a successful harvest (omer means “sheaf” in Hebrew).

Grape buds on our vine, planted 30 years ago by Abu Ghrazi, from the nearby Palestinian village of Bidu, as a gift from his own vineyard.

As my husband Arik and I strolled last week along a forest path near my community of Har Adar, we saw some beautiful flowers blossoming. “How about that,” I remarked: “There are the flowers that the Song of Songs talks about.”

“What flowers,” asked my better half.

Arik is a native-born Israeli. He and I, a native-born member of the Trentonite Tribe of New Jersey, communicate in both Hebrew and English, often in the same sentence, in a language alternatively known as Heblish or Engbrew. But when it comes to the Bible, Arik relies on the original Hebrew, and in that regard has been my teacher for 37 years now. Hence, his question.

“Well, you know, I pontificated confidently, “in the Song of Songs, it says: ‘For lo, the winter is passed/The rain is over and gone/The flowers appear on the earth/and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land” (Song of Songs 2:11–12).

After a spirited digression to explain to Arik what “Lo,” means, not to mention “the voice of the turtle,” we got back to our subject: “It doesn’t mean wildflowers,” Arik corrected me, “it means fruit-tree buds.” We immediately turned to The Oracle (Google) to compare the Hebrew and English of the verse in question. Arik was right, of course. The word in Hebrew is nitzanim, buds. But couldn’t they be wildflower buds, I persisted?

White, sage-leaved rock rose (Cistus salviifolius Lotem Marvani).

Probably not, I realized as we continued down the path. Back in New Jersey it was “April showers bring May flowers.” The King James translators must had the same idea in mind, picturing the Holy Land spring based on their experience of the English countryside. But by April in Israel, we hope and pray the heavy showers are over and thus: “the rains are over and gone.” The colorful tapestries of wildflowers – cyclamens and anemones among them – which had appeared with the first rains of fall (the Bible’s “former rains,” Joel 2:23) – have wilted and dried. They’ve been “thrown into the furnace” (Matthew 6:30), that is, burned under the Holy Land sun.

Sage leaf rock rose (Cistus salviifolius Lotem Marvani).

Maccabee’s blood (Helichrysum sanguineum), also known as red everlasting or red cudweed (Esther Inbar, Wikimedia Commons).

A few flowers still come out now, like the blushing pink or white rock rose, mustard plants that create brilliant yellow carpets, and the tiny, droplet-like flower known locally as Maccabee’s blood. In contrast, the verse in Song of Songs is telling us about the budding fruit trees like the pomegranate and the olive, on which people’s livelihood depended in ancient times.

Flowers or buds, fruit trees or wild blooms, Hebrew or English, springtime hope and renewal can be common ground wherever we live. In this case, I can’t help recalling, of all things, the words of The Mikado’s Nanki-Poo: “That’s what we mean when we say that a thing/is welcome as flowers that bloom in the spring.”

 

An apple blossom from a tree in our front yard, which daughter Maya planted under a rock as a child – just to see what would happen! Apples are not indigenous in the Holy Land (“apple” means something else in the Bible, wouldn’t you know), but I couldn’t resist sharing.

For more about  Hebrew and the agricultural cycle in the Holy Land, see:

Miriam Feinberg Vamosh, “Where the Language Meets the Land .”

Miriam Feinberg Vamosh, Food at the Time of the Bible: From Adam’s Apple to the Last Supper (Palphot), pp. 7, 24, 37.

Nogah Hareuveni, Nature in Our Biblical Heritage.

This Passover, a Tiny, Inspiring Find

Woman holding a coin from the Jewish revolt, Jerusalem March 2018. Courtesy of Eilat Mazar/ the Hebrew University of Jerusalem

When I saw the photo at right, provided to the press by the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and archaeologist Eilat Mazar, my mouth dropped open. It’s as if reality raided my literary imagination (instead of the other way around!). There she is! The unnamed woman in this picture ponders a tiny Jewish rebel coin she grasps. It was one of a trove discovered in Mazar’s Ophel excavation in Jerusalem south of the Temple Mount. Even the stone walls in the background eerily recall the scene from The Scroll, a scene that played out (in my mind’s eye) at the fortress of Masada, after the destruction of the Temple. Here’s the scene as I wrote it:

The stone was loose and she pried it out easily. Behind it lay a small bronze box, whose top was beaten into a delicate chain of rosettes. Inside was…a purse with the twelve silver shekels, with which her mother had entrusted her after her father was killed. It would easily pay the first three months’ rent on the house in which they would live after they left Masada, her mother had said—triumphant, of course…after the last of the conqueror’s soldiers had left Judea forever. More than two years had passed since she had last opened the coin purse. It had had no value for her on the mountain. Neither did a single little bronze coin, minted in the white-hot forge of the revolt, brought to the fortress by refugees from the fallen city. Now it gleamed dully at her when she opened up the purse. Its inscription “Jerusalem the Holy,” seemed to mock her.

Mazar and her team found the tiny bronze coin together with dozens of others in a cave south of the Temple Mount. The finds unearthed in the cave take us back to the last desperate days of the first revolt of the Jews against the Romans (66–70 AD). Numerous pottery fragments were also found, mainly jars and cooking pots. The dates on the coins and their inscriptions reflect the backdrop of the times I sought to bring alive in The Scroll.

These coins bore the mark – literally – of the Jewish rebels’ fight for independence.  The coins, which by their very minting rejected Roman dominion, bore unmistakable Jewish symbols such as the Four Species, invoking the Feast of Tabernacles and joyous pilgrimage to the Temple. Moreover, they advertised each year of Jewish freedom. The legend on the earlier coins reads: “Year 2 of the freedom [herut] of Zion,” proclaiming the hope for liberation, just at hand, they believed. But, as Mazar pointed out, seared into the later coins, produced after the deadly Roman siege on Jerusalem had begun, was a cry for divine intervention: “Year 4 of the redemption [geulat] Zion.”

The cave in which the coins were discovered is a large one – 21 x 47 feet. The archaeologists say that one amazing aspect of the discovery is that such a large cave, which was partially visible to boot, was never again reused after the Temple was destroyed.  It’s almost as if  it was waiting for Mazar’s team to reveal it to us, to remind us of the precious gift of freedom that we celebrate on Passover.

As for the fate of my imaginary character and her coin in The Scroll? Hint: She was one of the survivors of Masada. She trod the same desperate road as the rebels who left those coins behind in the cave, until she reached her destiny’s crossroad. For me, she symbolizes every woman of faith who  chooses life against unimaginable odds.

Some of the Jewish rebellion coins, recently discovered in Jerusalem. Courtesy of Eilat Mazar/the Hebrew University of Jerusalem

May  this Passover and Easter bring the blessings of renewed strength and hope for all.

 

Leafy-Vine-Stitched-8-Inch

Want to know more?

The Scroll; An Unforgettable Holiday Read

Women of The Scroll and Women of the Bible – Advanced Level Survival Skills Instructors 

Beyond The Dovekeepers