By: Erika Schon
Baltimore Hebrew Institute and Towson University
I wrinkled my nose at the briny smell as I moved closer to photograph the clear plastic cup full of greenish liquid. Resting on the bottom of the cup were the dried glands of several chilazon, the Hebrew word most closely identified as the present day mollusk, murex trunculus. As 25 curious students looked on, the guest presenter, Dr. Ari Zivotofsky from Bar Ilan University proceeded to dip a swath of pure white wool into the murky solvent. Lo and behold, the soaked greenish-yellow wool slowly changed to a rich blue color, known in the Hebrew sources as tekhelet, the unique blue dye used to color the tsitsit (ritual fringes) and priestly garments of ancient Israel.
What a privilege it was to learn alongside these young adults who were enrolled in The Object is the Object, Dr. Barry Freundel’s freshman seminar at Towson University. On Thursday, November 10, Dr. Zivotofsky expertly took the students on a journey from biblical to modern times, exploring the early textual references to ptil tekhelet, which are repeated daily in the Sh’ma blessing: “And it [ptil tekhelet] shall be for you as a fringe, that you may look upon it and remember all the commandments of G-d, and do them…” (Numbers 15:38-39).
The symbolism of ptil tekhelet is multifold; the rich blue colors recall the ocean and the infinite sky, reminding us of G-d’s presence in the world and of the bond between the wearer and G-d.
Yet, over time, the wearing of tekhelet became relegated only to royalty, placed under restrictions during Roman times, and ultimately banned after the Arab conquest. Thus, the source of this special dye was lost to modern knowledge, only to be rediscovered following research and exploration in the late 20th century. Citing sources in the Talmud that referred to the special properties of tekhelet, researchers embarked on numerous diving expeditions off the coast of northern Israel that led to the identification of the most likely match for the chilazon. As it turns out, the dye is derived from a relatively rare snail found in the Mediterranean. This murex trunculus shellfish found off the coast of what was once ancient Phoenicia contains a special gland that produces the indigo-colored permanent dye. Today, the ancient dying process used to make tekhelet has been revived and wearers of the blue threads can be seen throughout the Jewish world.
At the end of last week’s class, students were intrigued by another challenging question posed by Dr. Freundel. Why is Dr. Zivotofsky making history this week through his visit to the US? Clearly, the answer was not in the tekhelet lesson just learned. They will no doubt Google Dr. Zivotofsky and learn that he has sued the US State Department on behalf of his son, born in 2002 in Jerusalem at Shaare Zedek hospital. His suit, now being heard by the Supreme Court, requests that the plaintiff’s passport records Jerusalem, Israel as the place of birth. Although this may seem obvious to some, the ruling on this seemingly benign passport case will have far-reaching implications on US foreign policy. Learn more about this>>
What interesting times we live in! Students at Towson, from a variety of faith traditions, are learning to appreciate the “hows, whys and whens” of Jewish ritual and religious practice throughout history. Courses such as Dr. Freundel’s tie ancient texts to modern traditions, while also demonstrating the inextricable historic link of the Jewish people to the modern land of Israel. Yet, at the same time, students on college campuses throughout the world are barraged with messages that seek to undermine or at least call into question Israel’s very right to exist as a Jewish state. As revisionist “historians” gain traction with naïve and impressionable audiences, Israel advocacy is more important than ever.
Which brings me to Israel Advocacy Day.
On Sunday, November 13, threads of blue were boldly displayed on the graphic design for the Israel Advocacy Conference. Baltimore Hebrew Institute of Towson University was proud to be one of 18 communal organizations who sponsored this important event. Attendees reflected the broadest spectrum of Israel advocates, from the far left to the far right, underscoring the importance of unconditional dialogue and engagement in the complex issues that affect Israel today. Shoshana Cardin honored her parents’ memory as she introduced the day’s Sraiah and Chana Shoubin Memorial Lecturer, William Daroff, with recollections of her father. Sraiah Shoubin had wisely taught her that it was ok to sometimes disagree with Israel and its policies, while also underscoring the critical and enduring importance of Israel to the Jewish people. Daroff expertly presented a succinct review of Israel’s history vis-a-vis the Palestinian conflict, emphasizing the key facts that we need to remember in order to confidently advocate for Israel in a variety of settings.
At the Israel Advocacy event, I was energized by being in the room with community members who shared my passion, commitment and concern for Israel’s well-being. However, the most encouraging aspect of the day was the presence of young adults, in high school, college and grad school, who were, like me, fine tuning the important messages and arguments that they will use in their own Israel conversations. Their job will be harder than mine, for Israel is increasingly being delegitimized amongst the younger generation. And so with a renewed sense of purpose, I will return to my job supporting the BHI-affiliated Judaic studies courses at Towson, which reaffirms our important mission of Jewish education. Next week’s presentation in Dr. Freundel’s class will deal with the Jewish ritual objects the etrog (representing the heart) and the shofar (a call to action). I cannot imagine two more fitting symbols to capture the emotion and necessity of the times.
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