Monday, November 30, 2020

The Rarest Blue


The Rarest Blue / Baruch Sterman & Judy Taubes Sterman
Guildford, CT: Lyons Press, c2012
305 p.

This book is a mix of ancient history tracing the path of Murex dyes across the centuries, a scientific treatise of dye and colour perception, and specific tiny points of Jewish law and history. It works, to a point.

It looks at the search for tekhelet, a specific sky blue dye that is required in Jewish law to dye threads to attach to one's prayer shawl. Sterman goes into what the dye was, why it was important to Hasidic Jews, how it was made in ancient days (discovered by the Minoans, traded by Phoenicians, worn by Roman elites, used in Jewish religious tradition), and the effort by Hasidic rabbis over the last two centuries to recover the secrets of how this dye was made. 

The search for how Murex dyeing works was fascinating, even though it's also quite disturbing, being dependent on mutilating live sea snails and discarding them after the one precious gland is harvested. There was no real discussion about the ethics of this practice or any moves toward a more sustainable method of harvesting the important chemical, just a mention near the end of more sustainable options being desirable.

The history of blue and purple dyes is interesting and exciting; I recall Lydia, the seller of purple, in the bible and how that mention always intrigued me as a child. And of course the history of Minoan and Phoenician culture is always fascinating, at least to me. The details of how the dye is made is both compelling and disgusting -- who knew that the smell was so bad that a woman whose husband became a dyer after they were married was entitled to a divorce if she wanted one! I found these parts great reading and very informative. 

However, there didn't seem to be strong organization in this book, it talks about a lot of different things and sometimes themes and timelines get mixed up, at least for this reader. It also feels like it goes on a little too long; the chapter on the physics of colour perception could have easily been dropped without being missed. And some of the finer points of Talmudic interpretations of the use of tekhelet are lost on a more general audience.

If you are interested in dyes and their cultural relevance, this is a good read. Keep in mind that the authors are also head of the Ptil Tekhelet Association, an organization dedicated to selling this rediscovered tekhelet dye and the threads required by this obscure biblical directive, so they might not be as objective about its importance as another person would. But they do know what they're talking about when it comes to how this dye was recovered from the mists of history and put back into production. 

(this review first appeared at FollowingTheThread)

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