Thursday, 30 July 2020

The Ancient Synagogue of Ein Gedi

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

After our delightful hike through Nahal Arugot, I asked Mister Handmade in Israel if he wouldn't mind stopping at the ancient synagogue of Ein Gedi before we returned home. The synagogue, which was built in the 2nd century CE and then renovated between the 3rd-4th centuries CE, can be spotted from the road that leads to Nahal Arugot, under a large white tent and surrounded by date palm trees. The tent protects the precious synagogue mosaics from the sun and also serves to protect the visitors from the heat. Unfortunately it also means that my photos are all a little 'orange' in colour since I was taking them under the cover of the tent, but the perfectly preserved mosaic floor of the synagogue is so beautiful that I am going to share my photos here anyway.
The ancient synagogue of Ein Gedi was discovered by chance in the 1960s when members of kibbutz Ein Gedi were placing a water pipe in its vicinity. Excavations in the 1970s uncovered a well preserved mosaic floor and several important inscriptions. We can learn a great deal about the town of Ein Gedi from the mosaic floor of its most important building. It was clearly extremely prosperous! For a small remote settlement of no more than a few hundred people to bring the best artisans in the country to create such a masterpiece would have cost a huge amount of money.
Respecting the Jewish tradition of refraining from figurative depiction, the mosaic floor is made up of geometric designs weaved together to create a central 8-pointed star. A central square depicts exotic birds, perhaps geese and peacocks. At the northern end of the synagogue, facing Jerusalem, is a bimah (an elevated platform used for Torah reading during services) and a semicircular niche for storing the Torah scroll.
Similar contemporary synagogues, such as the ancient synagogue of Beit Alpha, which we visited back in January, feature a central circular zodiac with the 12 star signs, each representing a Hebrew lunar month and a personification of the four seasons. In the Ein Gedi synagogue there is a written list of the horoscope signs and of the Hebrew months set in the floor of one aisle. Another inscription mentions the descendants from Adam to the children of Noah, and one more thanks the local rabbis and the synagogue donors, "Yose, Ezron, and Hazikin, sons of Halfi", who contributed to the building. The most exciting inscription, however, is the 'spell' - a warning for all the members of the community never to give away the 'secret' of the village.
This 'secret', it is assumed, has to do with the industry of the precious Balsam resin, called "Afarsimon" in Hebrew (the same name given to today's Persimmon Tree). For centuries the locals made a precious perfume from the Persimmon that was worth its weight in gold. The method and precise ingredients for the production of the perfume remain a riddle to this day. Keeping the process a secret was an economic imperative of such magnitude that every citizen who entered and exited the synagogue needed to be reminded. And what better way to be reminded than in the building whose elegant artistry is a testimony to the importance of the spice trade that sustained the village?

The availability of water at Ein Gedi allowed for the development of agriculture in the settlement. As well as the Persimmon, Ein Gedi's unique local vegetation also supplied the fibres of the Calotropis Procera (the Apple of Sodom) from which the locals made threads which they wove into luxurious fabrics and made wicks for their candles. Indigofera articulata was grown in order to produce indigo dye - the amazing blue colour which was in high demand and expensive. Lawsonia inermis, or Henna tree, which was mentioned in the Song of Songs together with the name Ein Gedi, is thought to be a highly favoured fragrance tree. In addition the locals knew how to produce henna colour from this tree.
Another obvious source of income for the village people of Ein Gedi was salt mining in the Dead Sea. Besides its use in seasoning food, salt also constituted an important means of food preservation and was used for medical purposes too.
The earliest evidence of human settlement at Ein Gedi actually dates back to the Chalcolithic period, 6,000 years ago. A small rectangular room with 50cm high walls was found in the area. It is assumed to be a temple where animals were sacrificed, since many animal bones and ash were found there.
Excavated housing structures and terraces northeast of the synagogue, at the foot of a hill known as Tel Goren, date from the 3rd-6th centuries CE, the Late Roman and Byzantine periods. They may have belonged to synagogue officials or served as study halls. The houses were built close together, each consisting of two rooms and a courtyard. Large clay vats for the storage of drinking water or liquids made from special plants growing in the area were found in them. Royal seal impressions and others bearing personal names, as well as a hoard of silver pieces were also discovered in the ruins of the village, once again indicating wealth and economic importance.
Stone terraces were constructed on the hillsides and a sophisticated water system, including storage pools and a network of irrigation channels, was developed. These measures made the productions of the perfume more efficient.  To protect the cultivated areas and to control the trade route, a fortress and watch towers were built.
The synagogue and village at Ein Gedi stood for 400 years and was destroyed by fire, probably during the reign of the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I in the second half of the 6th century, a period of Jewish persecution. Among the many archaeological finds discovered in the debris was a scroll from the Book of Leviticus and a bronze 30 cm seven-branched menorah.
On our way home I asked Mister Handmade in Israel to stop once more at one of the lookout points overlooking the Dead Sea. The Dead Sea, known in Hebrew as Yam Ha-Melakh (the Sea of Salt) is the lowest point on earth and the saline water of the lake gives lead to the name because no plants or animals can survive in the salty waters. The other result of the salty water is its renowned health and healing properties and the unique feature that one can float naturally in it.
The Dead Sea is part of the long border between Israel and Jordan, whose towering mountains can be seen from the Israeli side. Just a one hour drive from Jerusalem, the lake is a place popular for Israelis wanting a few days relaxation or to take advantage of the medical properties of the water. People famously cover themselves in the mineral rich mud from the Dead Sea.
The Dead Sea has in fact attracted visitors for thousands of years. It was one of the world's first health resorts, used by Herod the Great, and it has been the supplier of a wide variety of products, from asphalt for Egyptian mummification to potash for fertilisers. On this occasion I simply had a great view of it from a vantage point along the road. It was breathtakingly beautiful and a wonderful way to end a fabulous day.

Monday, 27 July 2020

Emuna's Album

I have had very few orders for albums lately for obvious reasons. Covid-19 has meant small or no Bar or Bat Mitzvah parties, though my albums are still great for collecting photos and other mementos of the occasion together. Emuna managed to celebrate her Bat Mitzvah back in June and her mum put an order in for her album long before all this madness began.
Emuna's hobbies include playing the keyboard and playing volleyball. She likes pandas and pizza, pasta and Coke. Her favourite colour is pink and she wanted to be shown wearing a pink top. She actually had a very clear idea how she wanted to appear on the cover of her album. I was to show her playing the keyboard, with a panda sitting next to her. She also wanted some music notes dotted around and specifically requested them in two corners of the album as well.
No problem!
The gold lettering on the album says Emuna Bat Mitzvah and the Hebrew date of her celebration.
When you read a Hebrew book you open the rightmost page and flip pages until you get to the leftmost page (just the opposite of an English book). This album opens the Hebrew way. I decorated 5 pages inside it. The first page showed Emuna's keyboard once again, followed by a little waving panda, then music notes and a treble clef. I made a page showing her favourite pizza, pasta and Coke and finally, the last page shows Emuna's turquoise volleyball, which mum sent me a photo of. Each page has a pink quaver on it as well.
Mum wrote to tell me that Emuna was very happy with her album, as her sisters had been before her. I made an album for Avital back in 2016 and Tehilla in 2018. They have another sister and I look forward to making an album for her as well, to complete the set!
In the meantime, I would love to make some more albums. Please take a look at the listing for them in my shop and be in touch if you would like one as a keepsake of your special occasion.
* This post has been shared on The Good. The Random. The Fun. and Creatively Crafty.

Wednesday, 22 July 2020

Bringing Love to the World

My customer's husband was turning 60. He writes, composes music and plays the piano and guitar, she told me. He has written albums, including one for the "Loving Classroom" school program. Loving Classroom is an organisation that trains teachers to cultivate respect, compassion, listening, kindness, gratitude, love, friendship and care in the classroom. Lastly, she wrote, he loves the Almighty and is connected to his Oneness.
Loving Classroom is definitely his main thing, my customer told me, so I showed her husband wearing the program's T-shirt. He is holding a book about the program and there is a piano in the background and music notes dotted about. A big number 60 marks his age.
I added the Loving Classroom logo, bottom left, which illustrates the 4-H methodology: H umanity, H ead, H eart and H and. My customer felt it was important to include it. The blue logo on the right says עולם אוהב - Loving World. Her husband has a great belief in building a loving world for both personal and global well-being. Finally, the word אחד, below the 60, literally means one but in the context of this card it refers to G-d or Hashem.
My customer was delighted with the card. "It is absolutely BRILLIANT, Lisa. You are a genius craftswoman." she wrote to me. "I love it. Thank you!"

Monday, 20 July 2020


Mister Handmade in Israel recently turned 56. There's not much point in me trying to hide his age because it's there in big white numbers on his card! I am always trying to come up with something different for the cards I make for him. He is a fan of my papercuts (this is what I made him for his 50th birthday) so his birthday is a good time to come up with something new that could perhaps be adapted for other ages and names. This design definitely works in that way!
My hand drawn and hand cut birthday card with bunting and balloon details has Mister Handmade in Israel's age and name on it. It is lined with a blue paper inlay. If any of you would like to order a similar card, I can happily change the number and name to whatever you require.
Of course with birthdays comes cake. Mister Handmade in Israel likes Evelyn Rose's Lemon Drizzle Cake, so that's what I made him. It may not look so fancy but believe me, it's good! We ate it after our hike at Nahal Arugot. We'd earned it!