You’ll never look at the color of the sky the same way after reading “The Rarest Blue,” a new history written by Passaic native Baruch Sterman with his wife, Teaneck-raised Judy Taubes Sterman, who live in the Israeli town of Efrat.
Recently awarded the Jewish Journal Book Prize, “The Rarest Blue,” which its authors call a miocrohistory, tells the story oftechelet, the biblical blue shellfish dye whose recipe was lost for 1,300 years and rediscovered in modern times through detective work and the help of experts in archeology, chemistry, marine biology, zoology, Jewish texts, and art history.
In the ancient Mediterranean world, shellfish-dyed fabrics fetched up to 20 times their weight in gold and were used for royal robes in Persia, Babylon, Egypt, Greece, and Rome. Huge fortunes were made and lost to dye-making. Battles were fought over control of the industry.
|Judy and Baruch Sterman|
But with the fall of the Roman Empire, the complex technique was forgotten.
For Jews, the colors weren’t just for show. The elusive sky-blue techelet is mentioned 50 times in Hebrew scriptures. The “flagship” passage, repeated twice daily by the faithful, is Bemidbar (Numbers) 15:37-39:
“God spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the Children of Israel and say to them that they shall make themselves tzitzit (tassels) on the corners of their garments throughout their generations. And they shall place upon the tzitzit of each corner a p’til [thread] of techelet … And you shall see it and remember all of the commandments of God and you shall do them.”
Physicist Baruch Sterman, 51, and two Jersey-born friends also living in Israel, Ari Greenspan and Joel Guberman, have played a major role over the past 20 years in reviving the fulfillment of this biblical injunction. Sterman has been researching the topic – from religious, historical, and scientific perspectives – for more than 20 years, giving him more than enough material to write a book.
“I love reading about a subject where you see how the entire world changed because of this one subject – like salt, the mosquito, or the screwdriver,” Sterman said. “Judy and I would read these microhistories, and find that they started out interesting but along the way they lost our interest. We felt our story would be fascinating from beginning to end.”
The beginning is shrouded in mystery. The Torah provides no instructions on how to manufacture the dyes needed for tzitzit, priestly garments, and the decorative textiles in the Tabernacle. Passages in the Talmud that shed some light on the process are hard to decipher, Sterman writes.
One of the “aha” moments the Stermans tell of in their book was when a mid-19th century marine biologist saw a fisherman smearing his shirt with snail guts. He watched in fascination as the rays of the sun turned the yellow stains sky blue – the telltale color of techelet.
Fast forward to the late 20th century, when Ptil Tekhelet, the Israeli nonprofit co-founded by Sterman to produce and promote the dye, started manufacturing the dye anew. Ptil Tekhelet offers marine tours of its snail-gathering operation on the Mediterranean and factory tours at its string-dyeing facility in the Judean desert. They sell about 1,000 sets of blue tassels every month.
Sterman’s involvement began with a phone call from Guberman about Eliyahu Tavger, a young rabbinical student who’d painstakingly identified and harvested a few of the murex snails needed for the procedure and had made a pair of strings for his own tzitzit in 1988.
A few years later, when Guberman met him in a Jerusalem library, Tavger was looking for someone skilled in scuba diving to help him collect more of the sea creatures, and Guberman suggested Greenspan and Sterman for their underwater expertise. These four men later founded Ptil Tekhelet.
“We weren’t content to just take a few shells and make a few strings, and now over 200,000 people are wearing techelet today,” Sterman said. “We had to change the world, and we became obsessed with it.”
The four founders all have careers separate from this venture. Sterman is in high tech, Tavger now is teaching in Russia, Guberman is a physical therapist, and Greenspan is a practicing dentist, mohel, shochet, and scribe.
“On a typical day, I spend half my time working in computers and databases, and the other half in some way, somehow, working on techelet-whether answering emails or working on different articles or going to the factory where we are constantly trying to improve our production methods,” Sterman said.
The book was geared to a wide audience because the science and history of color is of broad interest. It was written with input from a rabbi, an electrical engineer, a detective novel enthusiast, and Judy Sterman’s father, former Yeshiva University English literature professor Leo Taubes, who moved to Jerusalem from Teaneck about 10 years ago.
“Many times the three of us sat at the dining room table and banged around the sentences together,” said Judy Sterman, who works in the Ptil Tekhelet office and recalls the days when the dye was manufactured on her porch. “It was not always smooth sailing, but it was a tremendous bonding experience among the three of us.”
She noted that they jumped into the project with no knowledge of the publishing industry. “But like the techelet project itself, writing the book was incredibly rewarding,” she said, adding that “The Rarest Blue” is sold at Teaneck’s Judaica House and on Amazon.
The Stermans’ North Jersey relatives include Judy’s brothers, Rabbi Michael Taubes of Teaneck and Danny Taubes of Paramus; Baruch’s brother, Howie Sterman of Teaneck; and his sisters, Fern Roth and Shari Schwartz of Passaic. His mother, Barbara, now lives in Florida.
“I have three loves in life,” Baruch Sterman said. “My wife and family, my religion, and science. To be able to take all of them and mix them together was really a dream come true.”