Tu B’Shvat

Of King David’s Women: Tamar, Symbol of Survival

The date palm speaks of justice and survival in the biblical world of #MeToo

On this upcoming Tu B’Shvat, the New Year of Trees, my thoughts go to King David’s daughter Tamar, whose name means date palm. Tamar was raped, then scorned and cast out by her half-brother (2 Sam. 13). Ironically, the tree for which Tamar was named is a biblical symbol of survival, of life itself, thriving as it does in oases, surrounded by desolation, seen from a distance by parched and desperate travelers. In its bounty it is compared to the rewards of righteousness (Psalm 92:13) and to justice (Judges 4:5).

“The Rape of Tamar,” Alexander Cabanel, 19th century. Wikimedia Commons.

Its scientific name is Phoenix dactifera. In this name, we can find a symbol of hope as well. Some say the legendary phoenix – the bird who ended its life in a blaze and whose successor rose from the ashes – might have gotten its name from a characteristic the bird shares with the date palm: After a fire, it is reborn from shoots that spring from its innermost surviving parts.

The date palm as a “giving tree” became a symbol in early Christianity and in Islam as well. An infancy narrative attributed to St. Jerome depicts Jesus, Mary and Joseph in the desert. When Mary says she is hungry and thirsty, the baby Jesus commands a date palm to bend down, give his mother its fruit and reveal a spring of pure water. The Quran also tells this story.

Among the magnificent mosaics discovered in 1992 at the Kathisma, The Church of Mary’s Seat, on the Jerusalem–Bethlehem road, is this date palm that immortalizes the legend of  Mary’s “giving tree.” Courtesy of  Dr. Rina Avner.

The courtroom of the biblical heroine Deborah was under a date palm, and so the tamar became a symbol of justice. But for David’s daughter, there would be no true justice in the biblical telling. Her brother Absalom meticulously planned and executed his revenge on her attacker, but even this he did not share with his sister. His advice to her sounds all too familiar: Just put it behind you. Don’t tell anyone. As for David, when he heard what happened, he “became angry.” No more. Neither man gave Tamar what we now know victims need most after such a trauma – recognition, validation, comfort.

Tamar as a Flower

Tamar has entered the botanical world not only in the name of a tree, but, oddly, together with her attacker, as a flower: the pansy. In Hebrew it’s known as Amnon v’Tamar, by way of a Russian legend about a brother and sister, Ivan and Maria (which is the name for pansy in Russian), separated in childhood, who are reunited as adults and fall in love. God takes pity on them and turns them into a two-tone blossom, each symbolizing a different color, so they can stay together forever. These star-crossed Russian lovers were transformed into a prince and princess of Israel, abuser and victim, by none other than the Russian-born Hebrew poet Shaul Tchernichovsky, who translated the legend into Hebrew and sought a biblical name and theme for his protagonists.

Pansy. The gold is Tchernichovksy’s Tamar (Maria in the Russian legend); the purple, Amnon (Ivan). Wikimedia Commons.

Absalom killed Amnon, and fled from his father. And David mourned. Not because one son had killed another, but because David longed for Absalom. Did David also long to have acted differently? Did he regret not having spoken up for his daughter and punished Amnon with his own hand (Ecclesiastes Rabbah 7:3)?

Where is David’s mourning for Tamar? Where, indeed, is she? Must her only trace after the crime against her be in her name – given by Absalom to his daughter, perhaps out of guilt over abandoning his sister?

Hope in the Future

This is where I want to go in my next historical novel. According to an ancient legend I’ll be weaving into it, Tamar was once again threatened, and once again, it happened in the place where she should have felt safest, among her own family (this time, on her mother’s side). But this story ends in hope. This Tamar, who once placed ashes on her head in mourning, like the women in my first historical novel, The Scroll, will rise from the ashes.

Big Tamar with little Tamar and her mother Maya, cutting cookies, shaping the future, 2015.

As did Tamar, my mother-in-law and who passed away just three months ago at age 87. Tamar was her adopted name. When she was about 16, after the liberation of the Budapest ghetto where she survived the Holocaust, Vera, as she was known then, cared for orphaned Jewish children getting ready to go to Palestine. The group’s leaders gave everyone a Hebrew name, to prepare for the future they hoped for in the land of their ancestors. “You’ll be Tamar,” they told her, because you’re tall and lovely like a tamar“– a date palm (Song of Songs 7:7–8).

Like Tamar, the daughter of David, my mother-in-law was left unprotected in a world of unimaginable cruelty, and she rose from the ashes to reestablish her family – our family. Let’s work so that her great-granddaughter, also named Tamar, the descendent of strong, heroic women on both sides, will know a better world.

  Leafy-Vine-Stitched-8-Inch

Further reading

Pseudo-Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 20. http://gnosis.org/library/psudomat.htm.

Philologos. “Named for a Rapist.” The Forward, Feb. 24, 2010. https://forward.com/culture/126322/named-for-a-rapist/

Feinberg-Vamosh, M. Food at the Time of the Bible. Herzliya, Israel, n.d. P. 40.

Lowin, S.L. Arabic and Hebrew Love Poems in Al-Andalus. New York, 2013.

 

 

My Granddaughters’ Great-Great-Great Grandmother

The “new year of the trees” is the perfect opportunity to look at the family tree of the intrepid clan into which I have the privilege of being grafted – through my grandchildren.

Tu B’Shvat, which falls this this year on Monday, January 25, celebrates the budding trees, and is marked by planting in our ancient land and ceremonies praising the tillers and the builders that came before us. Over the centuries, Tu B’Shvat itself blossomed with multiple meanings, as it moved from this land to the wider Jewish world and eventually back here as “the new year of the trees.”  It seems only fitting tell about one  tiller and builder, a member of the venerable Chizik clan – my granddaughters’ great-great-great grandmother Hannah Chizik.

I knew the name Chizik long before our granddaughters’ mother (our daughter Maya) married into the family; in fact, long before she was even born. In the memorial room at Tel Hai the Upper Galilee, I would tell visitors the little I knew of Sarah Chizik’s life, under her intense and somehow knowing gaze –  how at age 22, she, together with seven comrades (including their leader Joseph Trumpeldor) fought to the death in 1920 to defend Tel Hai farm.

The Chiziks: First row, seated, left to right: Sarah, Brayna, Shmuel, daughter-in-law Sarah, Baruch. Standing: Aharon, Hannah, Yitzhak. Photo from an article in Ma’ariv, April 30, 1987, by Orit Harel.

The Chiziks: First row, seated, left to right: Sarah, Brayna, Shmuel, daughter-in-law Sarah, Baruch. Standing: Aharon, Hannah, Yitzhak. Photo from an article in Ma’ariv, April 30, 1987, by Orit Harel.

After Maya married Yonatan, Sarah’s great-great-grand-nephew, I learned more of the Chizik clan’s lore. Lives simply lived, with more than their fair share of everything from youthful shenanigans to scientific research, art, deeds of daring-do and  leadership in gender and Zionist Movement politics in Palestine.

I began to learn more about Sarah’s short life than one sad portrait on a memorial wall could convey. They say she was a talented bookkeeper and by age 16 was watching over the family’s farm expenses. (I shared this family tidbit with Yonatan’s sister Yael, who is a graduate in accounting from Tel Aviv University.) I learned that Sarah was one of eight siblings, the children of Shmuel and Brayna Chizik, who arrived in this country in 1907 from Ukraine, following their eldest son, Baruch, who became a plant expert.

The youngest, Yitzhak, was born in at the pioneering Sejera farm in Galilee and eventually became the “first Hebrew pilot.” After earning a master’s degree at the London School of Economics, he was also Israel’s consul in Chicago. I learned that another brother, Ephraim, left the family’s Galilee farm to become a Hagannah commander and was killed defending the Hulda farm in the Judean Foothills during the riots of 1929. Ephraim, Yonatan’s grandfather, was named after him.

Sculpture at Hulda in memory of Ephraim Chizik and comrades.

Sculpture at Hulda in memory of Ephraim Chizik and comrades.

After following her brother Baruch to Palestine, Hannah studied painting and weaving at Bezalel in Jerusalem, and eventually joined the women’s farm at Kinneret (founded by women determined to farm as equals alongside the menfolk, which, it turns out, even among young socialist firebrands was not a foregone conclusion! You can read more about them in my suggested reading below).

 

Farmers at Kinneret; back row, fourth from right, Hannah Chizik.

Farmers at Kinneret; back row, fourth from right, Hannah Chizik.

In 1921 Hannah went to Vienna to study agronomy and five years later, she founded a women’s farm in Tel Aviv, on land leased from the city. Under her leadership, for some 20 years the 12 women at the farm cultivated a vegetable garden, raised chickens and flowers, and sold their produce to the residents of the budding new city on the Mediterranean.

"Kinneret Courtyard" today a heritage site near the Sea of Galilee.

“Kinneret Courtyard” today a heritage site near the Sea of Galilee.

In 1936 a new building in the Bauhaus style was built on the site. It housed a center for at-risk youth, also run by Hannah and in 1943 the “Tehran children” lived there for six weeks. The house was struck on July 9, 1948 during an Egyptian bombing raid on Tel Aviv. In 1951 Hannah died of a heart attack. Finally, in the 1990s building was restored. It now houses various courses hosted by the Tel Aviv municipality. In a March 21, 1997 terror attack, three young women were killed at the coffee shop in the building.

Hannah married Meir Dubinsky, who left Russia in 1913 for the United States and settled in Milwaukee. Yonatan’s father, Roni Dubinsky told me that his grandfather’s real name was actually Dubovic. But in a classic Ellis Island story, he came in with a group of Poles and everybody else had “sky” at the end of their name, so the clerk dubbed him “Dubinsky.”  A Chizik cousin and keeper of the family annals, Ido Barel, told me Meir was considered the black sheep of the family because he insisted on moving to Eretz Yisrael!

Pioneers in training. Top row, middle, my granddaughter’s great-great uncle Meir Dubinsky, Hannah’s husband. Bottom right, seated, Golda Meir.

Pioneers in training. Top row, middle, my granddaughter’s great-great-great uncle Meir Dubinsky, Hannah’s husband. Bottom right, seated, Golda Meir.

Baruch Chizik published a book of botany and plant lore in 1930, called Agadot Tzimhiel.  His niece, Naomi Chizik, told the Jerusalem Post in an interview that one of the legends in the book depicts Moses standing on Mount Nebo on the day he died and feeling a dry plant brush against his leg. He asked God if this was a sign that he, too, would wither away forgotten. God replied: “take some water and pour it onto the plant.” When Moses did so, the plant came to life and bloomed as a rose. “Do not fear, Moses. Your memory will be a blessing forever,” God said.

There is so much more to tell, but even more to hope for: My little granddaughters, Tamar and Elia Dubinsky, the newest flourishing branches on this family tree, may you grow to help make this land everything your amazing ancestors dreamed it could be.

The youngest Dubinsky (to date...) flanked by her grandpas, Arik Vamosh, left, and Roni Dubinsky, right

The youngest Dubinsky (to date…), Elia, flanked by her grandpas, Arik Vamosh, left, and Roni Dubinsky, right

A partial family tree, showing granddaughters Tamar and Elia's direct connection to Hannah Chizik and her forbears.

A partial family tree, showing granddaughters Tamar and Elia’s direct connection to Hannah Chizik and her forbears.

vine design

Further reading

The Chizik Clan

http://www.jpost.com/Magazine/Embroidering-the-past

Article by Orit Harel Ma’ariv, April 30, 1987 (Hebrew).

 

 

The Women’s Farms in Palestine

S.Reinharz,Timeline of Women and Women’s Issues in the Yishuv and Israel

http://www.brandeis.edu/hbi/publications/workingpapers/docs/reinharz4.pdf

Pioneers and Homemakers: Jewish Women in Pre-State Palestine, ed. D.S. Bernstein. Albany, 1992.

The “Tehran children”:

http://www.yadvashem.org/yv/en/exhibitions/this_month/february/11.asp