One of Shlomit Etzion’s handcrafted quilts. (photo by Nir Falay)
Despite being generally considered the cradle of ancient civilizations and the source of the world’s monotheistic religions, the Middle East region is not known for its quilting. Yet, even in Jerusalem, you will find dedicated quilters.
Quilting is the process of sewing two or more pieces of fabric together to make a thicker padded material. Quilting is done all over the world, from Europe to America, to Southern Asia. While we don’t know its origins, we do know that, for many years, people quilted their clothes. Moreover – despite the Middle East not being recognized for its quilting – the earliest piece of quilted garment comes from the figure of a Pharaoh, dating to around 3400 BC, the period of ancient Egypt’s First Dynasty.
Shlomit Etzion, a Jerusalem resident since birth, said she has always worked with her hands. Her mother encouraged her to do handcrafts and she recalls that she started with embroidery. For a time, Shlomit considered going to a high school where she could pursue that, but decided not to go that route. In the end, she began quilting after she finished her university degree.
What would compel someone to begin quilting? For Shlomit, it was the beauty of traditional quilts. She likes Amish quilts and has even visited Amish quilters. She also likes the quilts of Native Americans. That is not to say, however, that she does art quilt, which employs both modern and traditional quilting techniques to create art objects. An art quilt is an original exploration of a concept or idea rather than the handing down of a pattern. It experiments with textile manipulation, colour, texture and/or a diversity of mixed media. Since this is not the type of work she creates, Shlomit describes herself as a traditionalist who uses traditional patterns as a jumping off point.
(As an aside, there are a number of quilt patterns based on the Hebrew Bible. They include Jacob’s Ladder, the Children of Israel, Joseph’s Coat of Many Colours and the Star of Goshen.)
In the beginning, Shlomit worked using scraps from old clothes and sewing by hand, just as was originally done in the United States. But now she buys her material, because it offers her more choices. She only uses cotton, as she likes the feel of it. When she visits the United States, she always goes to fabric stores to shop for material. However, there are now a few stores in Jerusalem that have a good cloth selection.
Shlomit uses a Bernina quilting machine, but there is a lot of picking of materials, measuring, pinning and cutting to do by hand. To secure her pieced top, the insulating fabric and the backing fabric, she brings her materials to a woman with a long-arm machine. Amazing as this may sound, Shlomit pointed out that nowadays, instead of sewing, some people even glue their pieces together.
In her work, Shlomit often uses the nine-patch on point (consisting of nine evenly sized blocks stitched together). However, she has also made stunning quilts using the jelly roll pattern – for which the fabric is pre-cut and you can use a simple sewing method to put it together – and the log cabin pattern. In log cabin quilts, there is a repeated single block pattern of light and dark fabric strips that represent the walls of a log cabin; a centre patch, often of red cloth, represents the hearth or fire. Other geometric shapes such as trapezoids or right-angle triangles might appear in her quilts.
Shlomit likes fall colours the best – oranges, tans, brown shades. Because she is a red head, for a period of time she steered away from greens and blues. As a child, she had been pushed to wear those colours.
Life in general inspires her art, and living in Jerusalem plays a role, she said.
She derives tremendous joy from quilting, she added. She can sit for a whole day doing it. She enjoys not just the sewing, but also the technical work. She probably has 50 to 60 completed quilts at home, she said.
In Israel, unfortunately, people are not very interested in paying the price that quilt handwork commands, so her sales have covered the cost of her supplies, but not the hours she has spent making the quilts.
She prefers to work alone, but, when quilting meetings are held in Jerusalem, she joins the group. The Jerusalem quilting group is not formally active, though. Members seem to get together most regularly when they have an exhibit for which to prepare. While some readers may have seen movies or read books – such as Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace or Whitney Otto’s How to Make an American Quilt – in which people attend quilting bees, working on the same quilt, this does not happen in Jerusalem. Like many groups, the Jerusalem quilters have met less often because of COVID-19 concerns.
Even though they aren’t an active group per se, the Jerusalem quilters have had some lovely exhibits at the International Convention Centre, the Jerusalem Theatre, the YMCA and the Mormon College. (See israelquilt.com/en/quilting-groups for more information.) Shlomit herself has exhibited in the United States and in the United Kingdom.
I suspect this quote about quilts originally targeted the receiver, rather than the giver: “Blankets wrap you in warmth, quilts wrap you in love.” In Shlomit’s case, however, the physical making of the quilt is a form of love.
Deborah Rubin Fields is an Israel-based features writer. She is also the author of Take a Peek Inside: A Child’s Guide to Radiology Exams, published in English, Hebrew and Arabic.
Then-mayor of Jerusalem Nir Barkat and Nomi Levin Yeshua at the Jerusalem Foundation of Canada gala in Toronto in 2014. (photo from Nomi Levin Yeshua)
This article is the first in an occasional series about people with British Columbian roots having positive impacts in Israel and elsewhere.
When Nomi Levin Yeshua went to Israel in 1990, she wasn’t committed to staying there. Almost three decades later, the Vancouver-born and -raised woman can look back on a career that has impacted the face of Jerusalem and Israel.
Thanks to a chance meeting over Shabbat lunch with her grandmother’s former neighbour’s sister – “You know Israel,” she said, laughing – Yeshua had barely arrived in Israel when she got a job as assistant to the assistant to Teddy Kollek, Jerusalem’s mayor – but the job was more than that.
Shula Eisner, Yeshua’s new boss, had been working for Kollek since 1965, just before he began his 28-year run as mayor. Kollek was chairman of the Israel Museum and, before that, had served 11 years as director general of the prime minister’s office under David Ben-Gurion. In that role, Kollek effectively created almost all of the government agencies in the new state.
“One of the things he believed was that there had to be a national museum,” Yeshua told the Independent recently while in Vancouver for a milestone birthday of her mother, Shanie Levin. “He went around raising money to start the Israel Museum. He had an office there and [Eisner] was originally hired there to work with him with all the foreign donors. Then he was elected mayor and he kept to the Israel Museum office.”
In 1966, Kollek founded the Jerusalem Foundation, where Yeshua now works.
“That was his way of creating a forum for supporters of Jerusalem around the world, to be part of creating a new vision for Jerusalem. Then, a year after that, with the Six Day War and the reunification of the city, suddenly everything was just multiplied,” she said.
Yeshua acknowledged that Kollek’s multiple roles as mayor, head of the national museum and leader of a major foundation would probably not be sustainable today, but that was a different time.
“For him, it was all fluid,” she said.
To accommodate his different hats in the era before email or even fax machines, there was a driver who shuffled between offices, taking papers back and forth.
When Eisner moved over to another foundation, she handed her baton to Yeshua, who worked with Kollek through his last years as mayor and continued until a few months before he passed away, in 2007. She continues to run all donor relations for the Jerusalem Foundation and she personally handles Canadian fundraising for the organization.
The Jerusalem Foundation was started by Kollek because he saw that Jerusalem was a very poor city.
“A lot of religious institutions that don’t pay taxes at all are in Jerusalem, so he knew that it was always going to be a challenge for the city to have a balanced budget, to expand the city, to develop the city, to provide for the citizens of the city, so he knew that he was going to need to raise money,” she said.
Kollek pioneered a fundraising model that is now almost universal across Israeli and Jewish philanthropy.
“He connected every donor to a specific project and they knew that their money went to that project and they could come – and now their grandchildren come – and see those projects. To this day, they can still track the money. The Jerusalem Foundation was really at the forefront of that movement of changing the way people were giving to Israel. Now, it’s taken for granted, but it wasn’t back in the late ’60s and early ’70s at all. That was Teddy,” she said. “He wanted people to feel personally connected to the city, to the project, to the place.”
The foundation emphasizes “shared living” and is now focused on a vision for 2030.
“This is a city that is completely about how to exist together in this space that we share. It’s not just Arabs and Jews. It’s also secular and religious, it’s poor and rich, it’s all kinds of divisions that exist in the city,” she said. “But how do we share and how do we understand each other better?”
One major project is Hand-in-Hand School for Bilingual Education.
“Bilingual education is something that Canadians completely understand but Israelis less so. This is a school that teaches in Arabic and in Hebrew, in mixed classrooms. The rest of the Israeli education system is – we don’t like to use this word but it’s the truth – segregated,” she said. “There are Jewish schools, there are Arab schools and then, even within the Jewish schools, there are religious and nonreligious. This school brings together all of the different population groups and at all times there is an Arabic-speaking and a Hebrew-speaking teacher in the classroom.” There are now six such schools around the country.
Another area of the foundation’s work is helping the most vulnerable populations in the city, through projects such as Springboard, which develops programs primarily through the education system to push gifted kids into opportunities their financial situation might not otherwise permit.
The Jerusalem Foundation is also the city’s second-largest funder to the arts, after the municipality.
“We really believe that a modern and thriving city should have a good cultural scene. Culture is not just for one population group. All members of the community should be cultural consumers. But you have to create culture that is appropriate for those people,” she said. “For example, there is a dance troupe for ultra-Orthodox women. They only perform for women, of course, because otherwise that wouldn’t work for them. But they’re really doing amazing stuff and giving these ultra-Orthodox women who want to dance an opportunity to have a really high-level, professional dance troupe within the system that works for them.”
The foundation is also building a new Hassadna Conservatory of Music.
“They help kids ages six all the way through high school with classical music education and they also provide a special program for children of Ethiopian descent who don’t necessarily have the financial means to get musical training and they have a special program for special needs kids that’s integrated,” she said.
Yeshua credits her Vancouver upbringing as foundational to her worldview and accomplishments. She grew up in the Habonim Dror Zionist youth movement and was a camper, counselor and camp director at Camp Miriam. At home, her Jewishness was nurtured in a pluralistic way.
“In terms of how my mother brought us up, Jewish identity wasn’t limited to our religious identity,” she recalled. “National identity was something that was acceptable, cultural identity was very much encouraged. I think growing up in the very open community of Vancouver – to me it always seems that way, at least – it allowed me to be Jewish in a way that I felt good with and it wasn’t only one way to be Jewish.”
Yeshua acknowledged that “many people feel somewhat alienated from Israel today.”
“I want people to understand that there is a way to engage with Israel, to support Israel, and not contradict your own value system or what you think is acceptable,” she said. “What we do with the Jerusalem Foundation is something that people can respond to, relate to, understand – to protect Jerusalem as a city that is for everyone.”
Crews from the office of the Rabbi of the Western Wall remove tens of thousands of written prayers from the Western Wall. (photo by Gil Zohar)
On April 10, equipped with long sticks, crews from the office of the Rabbi of the Western Wall removed tens of thousands of written prayers, which worshippers had wedged into crevices at the holy site over the previous half year. The painstaking work is done twice annually, in advance of Passover in April and Rosh Hashanah in September, to ensure space for new prayers. The notes that are removed are buried in Mount of Olives Cemetery.
The origin of the practice of placing small folded sheets of paper between the cracks of the 2,000-year-old ashlars is unclear. According to tradition, God’s female presence (Shechinah), has never left the holy site.
A retaining wall of the Temple Mount, built by King Solomon circa 960 BCE and destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE, the Kotel Maaravi (Western Wall) stands today beneath a religious plaza known in Arabic to Muslims as al-Haram ash-Sharif (the Noble Sanctuary). Jews believe the holy hill marks the navel of the world from where God began his creation 5779 years ago; the site also marks where Abraham brought his son Isaac to offer him up as a sacrifice. Muslims consider the Western Wall to be where Muhammad tethered his winged steed al-Burak when he ascended to the Seventh Heaven. And Christians believe Jesus was one of the millions of Jewish pilgrims in antiquity who came here during the festivals of Passover, Tabernacles and Pentecost.
From 1948 until 1967, when East Jerusalem was under the control of Jordan, Israelis were prohibited from visiting the site.
The stamp of “Ikar, son of Matanyahu.” (IAA photos courtesy Ashernet)
The 2,600-year-old stamp of “Ikar, son of Matanyahu” was among the artifacts uncovered in archeological excavations at the Givati Parking Lot, in City of David National Park in Jerusalem. The dig was conducted by archeologists from the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) and Tel Aviv University and, according to TAU’s Prof. Yuval Gadot and IAA’s Dr. Yiftah Shalev, the artifacts were found inside a large public building that was destroyed in the sixth century BCE, probably during the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BCE. Large stone debris, burnt wooden beams and numerous charred pottery shards were discovered, all indications that they had survived a fire.
The stamp and bulla (seal impressions), which are about one centimetre in size, were deciphered by Dr. Anat Mendel-Geberovich of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Centre for the Study of Ancient Jerusalem. “The name Matanyahu appears both in the Bible and on additional stamps and bullae already unearthed. However, this is the first reference to the name Ikar, which was unknown until today,” said Mendel-Geberovich.
According to Gadot and Shalev, “These artifacts corroborate the highly developed system of administration in the Kingdom of Judah and add considerable information to our understanding of the economic status of Jerusalem and its administrative system during the First Temple period, as well as personal information about the king’s closest officials and administrators who lived and worked in the city.”
Running has become one of the most popular sports in Israel, with both the Tel Aviv and Jerusalem marathons attracting thousands of competitors. The Jerusalem Marathon on March 15 attracted some 40,000 runners, including 4,600 athletes from more than 80 different countries. Six different runs were offered, one of which was designed for competitors with special needs. The main event was won by Kenyan runner Ronald Kimeli, 33, who ran the 42.2 kilometres in two hours, 18 minutes and 47 seconds.
The landmark synagogue before being
dynamited by Jordan’s Arab Legion in 1948. (photo from Wikipedia)
A cornerstone laying ceremony was held May 29,
2014, for the rebuilding of the Old City of Jerusalem’s Tiferet Yisrael
Synagogue, which was dedicated in 1872 and dynamited by Jordan’s Arab Legion in
Speaking nearly five years ago, then-Jerusalem
mayor Nir Barkat declared, “Today we lay the cornerstone of one of the
important symbols of the Jewish community in Jerusalem. The municipality
attaches great importance to the preservation and restoration of heritage sites
in Jerusalem, and we will continue to maintain the heritage of Israel in this
Citing Lamentations 5:21, Uri Ariel, housing
minister at the time, added, “We have triumphed in the laying of yet another
building block in the development of Jerusalem, a symbolic point in the vision
that continues to come true before our eyes: ‘Renew our days as of old.’”
The two politicians symbolically placed a stone
salvaged from the ruined building, and construction was supposed to take three
years, according to the Company for the Reconstruction and Development of the
Jewish Quarter in the Old City of Jerusalem Ltd. (JQDC), a public company under
the auspices of the Ministry of Construction and Housing.
Fast forward to Dec. 31, 2018, and the exercise
was repeated, this time with the participation of Jerusalem minister Zeev
Elkin, construction minister Yoav Galant, deputy health minister Yaakov Litzman
and Jerusalem Mayor Moshe Leon. But, this time, according to the JQDC, much of
the project’s NIS 50 million (approximately $18 million Cdn) budget has been
secured, in part thanks to anonymous overseas donors. With the Israel
Antiquities Authority’s salvage dig of the Second Temple period site headed by
Oren Gutfeld completed, work can now begin in earnest.
Fundraising to purchase the land for the
Tiferet Yisrael, also known as the Nisan Bak shul, was initiated in 1839 by
Rabbi Israel Friedman of Ruzhyn, Ukraine, (1797-1850) and his disciple Rabbi
Nisan Bak, also spelled Beck (1815-1889). While der Heiliger Ruzhiner
(Holy Ruzhyner), as his Chassidim called him, purchased the hilltop in 1843,
the mystic didn’t live to see construction begin.
His ambitious plans in Jerusalem reflected his
grandiose lifestyle in Sadhora, Bukovina, in Galicia’s Carpathian Mountains,
pronounced Sadagóra in Yiddish. There, he lived in a palace with splendid
furnishings, rode in a silver-handled carriage drawn by four white horses and,
with an entourage, dressed like a nobleman, wore a golden skullcap and clothing
with solid gold buttons, and was attended by servants in livery. This unusual
manner was accepted and even praised by many of his contemporaries, who
believed the Ruzhiner was elevating God’s glory through himself, the tzadik
(righteous one), and that the splendour was intended to express the derekh
hamalkhut (way of kingship) in the worship of God.
In one incident, described in David Assaf’s The
Regal Way: The Life and Times of Rabbi Israel of Ruzhin (Stanford
University Press, 2002), the Ruzhiner’s Chassidim noticed that, notwithstanding
that their rebbe was wearing golden boots, he was leaving bloody footprints in
the snow. Only then did they realize that the gold was only a show and his
shoes had no soles. Indeed, he was walking barefoot in the snow.
Rabbis Friedman and Bak were motivated by a
desire to foil Czar Nicholas I’s ambitions to build a Russian Orthodox
monastery on the strategic site overlooking Jerusalem’s Temple Mount. Bak
consulted with architect Martin Ivanovich Eppinger. (Eppinger also planned the
Russian Compound, the 68,000-square-metre fortress-like complex erected by the
Imperial Russian Orthodox Palestine Society west of the Jaffa Gate and outside
the Old City, after the czar was outmanoeuvred by the Chassidim.)
Bak, who both designed the massive synagogue
and served as its contractor, spent more than a decade fundraising and six
years building it. Inaugurated on Aug. 19, 1872, he named the three-storey
landmark in honour of his deceased rebbe.
According to a perhaps apocryphal story, the
quick-witted Bak was able to complete the ornate synagogue thanks to a donation
from Kaiser Franz Joseph of Austria-Hungary. In 1869, while visiting Jerusalem
en route to dedicate the Suez Canal, the emperor asked his subjects who came
from Sadhora in the remote Austrian province of Bukovina why their synagogue
had no roof. (In 1842, having spent two years in Russian prisons on charges of
complicity in the murder of two Jewish informers, Rabbi Friedman fled to
Sadhora and reestablished his resplendent court.)
Seizing the moment, Bak replied, “Your majesty,
the synagogue has doffed its hat in your honour.” The kaiser, understanding the
royal fundraising pitch, responded, “How much will it cost me to have the
synagogue replace its hat?” and donated 1,000 francs to complete Tiferet
Yisrael’s dome, which was thereafter referred to by locals as “Franz Joseph’s
Tamar Hayardeni, in “The Kaiser’s Cap”
(published in Segula magazine last year), wrote that, while the kaiser
made a donation, the dome was in fact completed with funds provided by Rabbi
Israel of Ruzhyn’s son, Rabbi Avrohom Yaakov of Sadhora (1820-1883).
In the winter and spring of 1948, the dome
served as a key Haganah military position and lookout point for the Jewish
Quarter’s outgunned defenders.
Children were recruited for the battle for
Tiferet Yisrael. Some as young as 9 built defence positions. The “older” ones –
12 or so – carried messages, food, weapons and ammunition. Some were killed,
including Grazia (Yaffa) Haroush, 16, and Nissim Gini, 9, who was the youngest
fallen fighter in the War of Independence. Like the others who fell in the
defence of the Jewish Quarter and were buried there, his remains were exhumed
after 1967 and reinterred on the Mount of Olives.
Badly damaged by heavy shelling, the synagogue
was blown up by Jordanian sappers on May 21, 1948. A few days later, following
the neighbourhood’s surrender on May 25, the nearby Hurva Synagogue – the main
sanctuary of Jerusalem’s mitnagdim (anti-Chassidic Ashkenazi followers
of the Vilna Gaon) – met the same fate.
With the rebuilding of the Hurva completed by
the JQDC in 2010, Tiferet Yisrael became the last major Old City synagogue
destroyed in 1948 not rebuilt.
Hurva is a stone-clad, concrete and steel
facsimile of its original structure, updated to today’s building code and
equipped with an elevator. The same is planned for Tiferet Yisrael.
The reconstruction of faux historic synagogues
has not been without critics. Writing in the Forward in 2007 as the
Hurva was rising, historian Gavriel Rosenfeld, co-editor of Beyond Berlin:
Twelve German Cities Confront the Nazi Past (University of Michigan Press,
2008), noted the manifold links between architecture, politics and memory.
“The reconstruction of the Hurva seems to
reflect an emotional longing to undo the past. It has long been recognized that
efforts to restore ruins reflect a desire to forget the painful memories that
they elicit. Calls to rebuild the World Trade Centre towers as they were before
the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks represent a clear (if unrealized) instance of this
yearning. And the recently completed reconstruction of Dresden’s famous
Frauenkirche – long a heap of rubble after being flattened by Allied bombers in
February 1945 – represents a notable example of translating this impulse into reality.
“And yet, the reconstruction project is
problematic, for in seeking to undo the verdict of the past, the project will
end up denying it. Denial is inherent in the restoration of ruins, as is
frequently shown by the arguments used to justify such projects. In Dresden,
for example, many supporters of the Frauenkirche’s restoration portrayed
themselves as the innocent inhabitants of a city that was unjustly bombed in
1945, thereby obscuring the city’s longtime support for the Nazi regime and its
war of aggression during the years of the Third Reich. Similarly, the physical
appearance of the restored Frauenkirche – despite its incorporation of some of
the original church’s visibly scorched stones – has effectively eliminated the
signs of the war that its ruin once vividly evoked.
“In the case of the Hurva,” writes Rosenfeld,
“the situation is somewhat different. If many Germans in Dresden emphasized
their status as victims to justify rebuilding their ruined church, the Israeli
campaign to reconstruct the Hurva will do precisely the opposite – namely,
obscure traces of their victimization. As long as the Hurva stood as a hulking
ruin, after all, it served as a reminder of Israeli suffering at the hands of
the Jordanians. [Mayor Teddy] Kollek said as much in 1991, when he noted: ‘It
is difficult to impress upon the world the degree of destruction the Jordanian
authorities visited upon synagogues in the Old City…. The Hurva remnants are
the clearest evidence we have today of that.’ Indeed, as a ruin, the Hurva served
the same kind of function as sites such as Masada and Yad Vashem – which, by
highlighting the tragedies of the Jewish past, helped to confirm the Israeli
state as the chief guarantor of the Jewish people’s future.
“At the same time, however, it seems the
Hurva’s existence as a ruin conflicted with the state of Israel’s Zionist
master narrative: the idea that, ultimately, heroic achievement triumphs over
helplessness. In fact, in the end, it may be the project’s ability to confirm
the national desire to control its own destiny that best explains its appeal.
Israel faces many intractable problems that make present-day life uncertain.
But, in the realm of architecture, Israelis can indulge in the illusion that
they can at least control and manipulate the past. In this sense, the Hurva’s
reconstruction may express deeper escapist fantasies in an unpredictable
Rosenfeld’s theorizing about architectural
authenticity made little impression on the JQDC chair, Moti Rinkov. Indeed the
JQDC, together with the Ben-Zvi Institute, recently published High Upon High,
in which 12 historians trace Tiferet Yisrael’s history. Rinkov noted at the
second cornerstone ceremony: “The renovation and restoration of the Tiferet
Yisrael Synagogue in the Jewish Quarter is one of the most important and
exciting projects I’ve taken part in. Rebuilding the synagogue is, in fact,
raising the Israeli flag in the Jewish Quarter. It’s truly a work where they’re
restoring the crown to its former glory and restoring glory to the Jewish
The rebuilt Tiferet Yisrael, together with the
Hurva, will engage Jerusalem’s skyline not as authentic landmarks but, as
Rosenfeld noted, “postmodern simulacrum.”
The other Tiferes Yisroel
In 1953, Rabbi Mordechai Shlomo Friedman, the
Boyaner Rebbe of New York, laid foundations for a new Ruzhiner Torah centre in
west Jerusalem to replace the destroyed Tiferet Yisrael. Located on the western
end of Malkhei Yisrael Street between the current Central Bus Station and
Geula, the downtown of the Charedi city, the Ruzhiner yeshivah, Mesivta Tiferes
Yisroel, was inaugurated in 1957 with the support of all of the Chassidic
rebbes descended from Friedman, who was the first and only Ruzhiner Rebbe.
However, his six sons and grandsons founded their own dynasties, collectively
known as the “House of Ruzhin.” These dynasties, which follow many of the
traditions of the Ruzhiner Rebbe, are Bohush, Boyan, Chortkov, Husiatyn,
Sadigura and Shtefanest. The founders of the Vizhnitz, Skver and Vasloi
Chassidic dynasties were related to the Ruzhiner Rebbe through his daughters.
A grand synagogue built adjacent to the new
Ruzhiner yeshivah also bears the name Tiferes Yisroel. The current Boyaner
Rebbe, Nachum Dov Brayer, leads his disciples from there. The design of the
synagogue includes a large white dome, reminiscent of the original Tiferet
Yisrael destroyed in 1948 and now being rebuilt.
Ever since the YMCA opened on King David Street in Jerusalem in 1933, the building, designed by Arthur Lewis Harman (of New York’s Empire State Building fame), has been a famous landmark; in particular, its iconic tower has been part of the city’s landscape. The tower contained a carillon of 35 bells made by the British bell foundry Gillett & Johnston in the early 1930s. It is the only carillon in the Middle East, but there was one note – in other words, a bell – missing from it. A recent anonymous donation made it possible for the YMCA to order the missing bell from the Royal Eijsbouts foundry in the Netherlands and, in a precisely managed operation earlier this week, a large crane raised and placed the new, 36th, bell into its place in the tower.
A tallit’s tzitzit with threads dyed in tekhelet blue produced from Murex trunculus snails. (photo from Ptil Tekhelet/Eugene Weisberg)
There’s only one thing missing from the comprehensive temporary exhibit Out of the Blue, which opened June 1 at the Bible Lands Museum Jerusalem (BLMJ) – the reek of the workshops along the Mediterranean coast of Phoenicia and Israel that produced the prized dyes known in antiquity as tekhelet and argaman.
Researchers at the Jerusalem-based foundation Ptil Tekhelet (Blue Thread) maintain that some 8,000 Murex trunculus mollusks were needed to produce a single gram of the luxury pigment. A demonstration of the malodorous dyeing process was carried out – in the garden of the museum – with one of the marine gastropods. A person can only imagine the stink of many thousands of the rotting sea creatures.
The Out of the Blue exhibit documents the significance of tekhelet, together with the Tyrian purple called argaman in the Torah, from antiquity to the present. Not coincidently, the exhibit opened in honour of Israel’s 70th anniversary. It traces the heavenly blue from the time it was a colour revered by the ancient Israelites and other early peoples of the Near East to its use for Israel’s national flag.
“This special exhibition looks at the magnificence as well as the significance of the colour blue in the ancient world, and ties the blue dyed threads mentioned in the Bible and extra-biblical texts to the very design of the flag of the state of Israel today. BLMJ is proud to be the one museum in the world that highlights the relevance and continuity of the roots of civilization in this region and their impact on our world today in a universal and non-sectarian way,” said museum director Amanda Weiss.
Out of the Blue spotlights ancient Near East cultures’ fascination with the colour as a symbol of divinity. In the Egypt of the pharaohs, Mesopotamia and Canaan, lapis lazuli imported at great cost from Afghanistan was used for cultic purposes.
The BLMJ exhibit continues with the lucrative imperial purple dye industry of the ancient Phoenicians, whose name means the “Purple People.”
But, for this reviewer, the core of the exhibit deals with the dyeing of sky blue tzitziyot (ritual fringes affixed to Jews’ tallitot, prayer shawls). In the eighth century, following the Arab takeover of the Levant, that technology was lost. As a result, Jews were compelled to wear white rather than blue ritual fringes on their prayer garments. Research to rediscover the lost dyeing process of the biblical commandment became synonymous with Zionism, the Jewish people’s return to their biblical homeland.
For more than 25 years, Ptil Tekhelet has dyed hundreds of thousands of sky blue tzitziyot coloured with murex snails’ distinctive tint. The azure tzitziyot remind worshippers of the sea, the sky and God’s sapphire-hewn throne, according to Tannaite sage Rabbi Meir, who was a disciple of Rabbi Akiba.
The exhibit includes a collection of the snail (hilazon) shells excavated at Tel Shikmona near Haifa, and dating back to the 10th through seventh centuries BCE, according to Yehuda Kaplan, one of exhibit’s three curators.
“You can see that, for some of them, there is a breach in the shell,” he said during a press tour of the exhibit. It was from those holes that a gland from the snail was extracted, with each yielding only a “minuscule” amount of the rare and highly coveted dye’s raw material.
“These snails, the Murex trunculus, probably about 4,000 years ago it was discovered that they could produce magnificent dyes with the most beautiful colours, dyes that were fast on wool, never faded. And that was something in the ancient world that was simply unheard of, it was priceless,” said Dr. Baruch Sterman of Ptil Tekhelet, co-author of the book The Rarest Blue: The Remarkable Story of an Ancient Colour Lost to History and Rediscovered.
At some point, added Sterman, those dyed fabrics were “worth up to 20 times their weight in gold.”
Other artifacts on display include garment fragments discovered at Masada during archeological excavations in the early 1960s. More than 30 years later, tests using high-performance liquid chromatography (HPLC) proved the cloth had been dyed with a murex solution.
Out of the Blue concludes with the flag flown outside the United Nations in New York in May 1949, when Israel was accepted as a member state of the international body. A second Israeli flag on display was carried into orbit aboard the American Apollo spacecraft, which docked with the Soviet Soyuz rocket on July 17, 1975, in the first international manned space flight.
Sterman’s nonprofit amuta (foundation) is based on the research, in the 1980s, of Otto Elsner, a chemist at Ramat Gan’s Shenkar College of Engineering and Design, who discovered that, if a solution of the purple dye made from the hypobranchial gland of the Murex trunculus was exposed to the sun’s ultraviolet rays, it would turn a deep shade of blue.
Popularizing that knowledge has been a slow process. According to the Talmud, tekhelet is a specific azure dye produced from a sea creature known as a hilazon. Rabbinic sages ruled that vegetable indigo dyes were unacceptable.
Over the past 150 years, several marine creatures were proposed for reviving the biblical process of dyeing the tassels, among them one favoured by Israel’s first chief rabbi, Isaac Herzog, father of Israel’s sixth president, Chaim Herzog. Rabbi Herzog, who completed his PhD at the Sorbonne in Paris in 1914, believed that the violet pelagic snail, Janthina janthina, was the source of the ritual tekhelet.
Another theory was proposed half a century earlier by Rabbi Gershon Hanokh Leiner, known as the Radzyner Rebbe, who produced blue dye from the black ink of the Sepia officinalis (the common cuttlefish). But chemical analysis identified his dye as Prussian blue, an inorganic synthetic colour derived from iron filings and not from the squid itself.
That dispute continues to reverberate: most of the blue-coloured tzitziyot worn in Israel today are dyed from the inexpensive cuttlefish, acknowledged Ptil Tekhelet. (The tekhelet factory in Radzyn near Lublin in Poland was destroyed during the Holocaust, and the technology was lost but was revived in Israel after 1948 thanks to the prewar research of Chaim Herzog.)
The rediscovery of tekhelet has almost messianic implications – one rabbinic source notes, “The revelation of the hilazon is a sign that the redemption is shining near.”
According to the museum, “The tekhelet blue, which reminded every Jew of their connection to God, remained in the memory of the [Jewish] people and became an integral part of the national symbol of the state of Israel.”
A section of Jerusalem’s Old City, near the Jaffa Gate, is illuminated with a greeting to welcome the establishment of the new Paraguayan embassy. On May 22, the municipality welcomed the establishment of the third embassy in the capital – the United States and Guatemala moved their embassies to Jerusalem earlier in the month. The next country to make the move to the capital is thought to be Honduras.
In Jerusalem on Sunday, May 13, which was Jerusalem Day, there was a strong feeling of anticipation, as Israelis waited for Monday’s opening in the city of the new American embassy. Other countries are expected to follow the United States’ lead, starting with Guatemala, which opened its embassy in Jerusalem two days later, and Paraguay.