Explorers find the “true” source of the Nile river (& Jesus “did walk on water”)

April 05, 2006

* “Kosher” cell phones set to hit the Arab market

* This is the second of two lighter, less political, dispatches this week. Yesterday’s contained articles on media, music and art. This one has items on exploration, the bible, and new technology.

 

CONTENTS

1. Explorers find “true source” of the Nile river
2. Environmental scientist seeks to prove Exodus
3. Global cooling? “Jesus walked on frozen water”
4. The last synagogue in Tajikistan is demolished
5. Microsoft’s new Vista operating system to be unveiled in Israel
6. What do you get when you cross an ultra-Orthodox rabbi with a cell phone?
7. “Team says it finds new source of Nile” (Reuters, April 1, 2006)
8. “Environmental scientist probes Exodus story” (AP, April 2, 2006)
9. “Did Jesus walk on water? Or ice?” (MSNBC, April 4, 2006)
10. “As a synagogue comes down, a culture disappears too” (NY Times, March 28, 2006)
11. “MS Vista to make official debut in Israel” (Globes, April 3, 2006)
12. “‘Kosher’ phone merges technology, faith” (AP, March 31, 2006)


EXPLORERS FIND “TRUE SOURCE” OF THE NILE RIVER

[Note by Tom Gross]

A group of explorers from Britain and New Zealand have completed an 80-day voyage and claim to have found the “true source” of the Nile in Rwanda’s lush Nyungwe rainforest.

The explorers used a Global Positioning System and believe the Nile is at least 107 km (66 miles) longer than previously thought. The British explorer, Neil McGrigor, told Reuters that “History has been rewritten.”

On the way, the group survived a rebel attack in Uganda that killed one of their team and braved crocodile-infested waters. The Nile is the world’s longest river. (For more, see the first article below.)

ENVIRONMENTAL SCIENTIST SEEKS TO PROVE EXODUS

Daniel Hillel, a professor of environmental science at the University of Massachusetts, has joined the perennial debate over the Exodus story from the second book of the Bible.

In his new book, “The Natural History of the Bible: An Environmental Exploration of the Hebrew Scriptures,” Hillel says there is no “solid” proof to support the Bible’s claims of Jewish national slavery in Egypt and “miraculous” journey through Red Sea, but admits that story is based on facts of ancient Egypt.

He says that if the accounts “were entirely contrived, they could hardly have had such lasting power” and “there appears to be a believable core of authenticity.”

With regards to the story of the Exodus, he argues that “whoever wrote the story of the Israelites in Egypt must have known the country very well, either must have lived there or must have received the information from others who had. The background is believable, the names seem authentic and the entire atmosphere and sense of place appear genuine.”

The article below details how items of the Exodus story, from brick-making to the proliferation of frogs, might be true, as well as the parting of the Red Sea better translated the “reed sea,” which Hillel assumes was a marsh.

American ABC-TV is marking the Jewish Passover on April 10 and 11 with a lavish new two-part miniseries, The Ten Commandments, which dramatizes Moses’ story from birth through Mount Sinai.

For other non-political Passover articles, see the dispatch Viagra ruled Kosher for Passover; and Gorillas keeping Kosher too (April 21, 2005).

GLOBAL COOLING? “JESUS WALKED ON FROZEN WATER”

Meanwhile, Florida State University science professor Doron Nof says the New Testament’s account of Jesus walking on water in the Sea of Galilee is “entirely possible” because the water was frozen at the time. Using records of the Mediterranean Sea’s surface temperatures and statistical models to examine the dynamics of the Sea of Galilee, Nof says that a period of cooler temperatures in the region between 1,500 and 2,600 years ago could have led to the formation of ice thick enough to support the weight of a man walking on the surface. He proposes Jesus could have walked on an isolated patch of floating ice on what is now known as Lake Kinneret in northern Israel.

THE LAST SYNAGOGUE IN TAJIKISTAN

The New York Times reports (article attached below) that the last synagogue in Tajikistan has been taken down to make way for a grand presidential palace. The removal of the synagogue, situated in the capital Dushanbe, is indicative of the declining influence of Judaism in the region. It also served as a community center, providing food, medicine and clothing. Thousands of Jews have left the city in recent years.

The New York Times quotes the U.S. ambassador, Richard E. Hoagland, who is certain that the redevelopment of the synagogue is “not a question of religious freedom, and anti-Semitism is not involved.” Nevertheless, as the article states “the Jewish heritage here risks being lost, along with the synagogue.”

MICROSOFT’S NEW VISTA OPERATING SYSTEM TO BE UNVEILED IN ISRAEL

Globes, the Israeli business daily, reports that “the first official presentation of Vista, the latest version of Microsoft’s Windows operating system will take place in Israel.”

The system will be unveiled at the Microsoft Tech-Ed Israel conference to be held next month in Eilat. This is the first major update since Windows XP was introduced five years ago.

For more on Microsoft and its chairman Bill Gates, see the dispatch Bill Gates to visit Israel (& Moshe Dayan’s eye patch for sale on eBay (August 8, 2005).

WHAT DO YOU GET WHEN YOU CROSS AN ULTRA-ORTHODOX RABBI WITH A CELL PHONE?

In further technology news, the developers of the “kosher phone” are looking beyond Israel to introduce the phone to other Jewish communities as well as to some Arab countries.

The phone has deliberately limited use to make sure the strictly observant don’t stray from their beliefs. The phone can only make and receive calls and allows no text messaging, Internet access, video options or camera. Numbers for phone sex are also outlawed on this phone. 20,000 “kosher phones” were sold within their first three months of release on the market last year.

The chief executive officer at Mirs Communications Ltd., an Israeli subsidiary of Motorola Inc, told the Associated Press that “This was a unique product for a unique brand of customer, but we see some potential beyond this niche market.”

I attach six articles below.

-- Tom Gross



FULL ARTICLES

“HISTORY HAS BEEN REWRITTEN”

Team says it finds new source of Nile
By Arthur Asiimwe
Reuters
April 1, 2006

Surviving a rebel attack and braving crocodile-infested waters, a group of explorers has completed an 80-day voyage down the world’s longest river reaching what they say is the source of the Nile.

The three explorers from Britain and New Zealand claim to be the first to have traveled the river from its mouth to its “true source” deep in Rwanda’s lush Nyungwe rainforest.

“History has been rewritten,” British explorer Neil McGrigor told reporters on Friday. “This is the end of an 80 day amazing and exhausting journey.”

The expedition, dubbed “Ascend the Nile,” traveled over 6,700 km (4,163 miles) in three boats, tracing the Nile from the Mediterranean through five countries to what they say is its origin.

McGrigor and New Zealanders Cam McLeay and Garth MacIntyre suffered a rebel attack in northern Uganda, which killed one of their team, and overcame a cocktail of testing climates, massive rapids and crocodile charges before reaching their final destination.

The last leg of their journey saw them abandon their tiny boats and trek some 70 km (43 miles) for seven days through thick forest, sometimes being forced to wade in the fast-running Nile waters.

“We have followed the Akagera river system to its longest point up in the Nyungwe forest and it’s this point that we now finally know as being the longest source of the river Nile,” McGrigor told Reuters.

The team, which used a Global Positioning System (GPS), believes the Nile is at least 107 km (66 miles) longer than previously thought.

Debate over the real source of the Nile has raged since the late 1850s, when British explorers like John Hanning Speke began staking their reputations, fortunes and health on finding it.

It was not until the 1864 expedition by American journalist Henry Stanley when he found missing British David Livingstone in 1871 and circumnavigated Lake Victoria and Lake Tanganyika for the first time that much of the area was mapped and many questions answered.

 

“THERE APPEARS TO BE A BELIEVABLE CORE OF AUTHENTICITY”

Environmental scientist probes Exodus story
University of Massachusetts professor says no ‘solid’ proof to support Torah’s claims of national slavery in Egypt and ‘miraculous’ journey through Red Sea, but admits that story is based on facts of ancient Egypt
The Associated Press
April 2, 2006

American ABC-TV anticipates the Jewish Passover on April 10 and 11 with a lavish new two-part miniseries, The Ten Commandments, which dramatizes Moses’ story from birth through Mount Sinai.

For thousands of years, Jews have commemorated the liberation from Egypt led by Moses, fulfilling the Bible’s command: “You shall observe this as an institution for all time, for you and for your descendants.”

ABC’s version closely follows the Bible’s Book of Exodus, regarding which there’s perennial debate.

The latest example is a chapter in The Natural History of the Bible: An Environmental Exploration of the Hebrew Scriptures (Columbia University Press) by Daniel Hillel, professor emeritus of environmental science at the University of Massachusetts.

The Bible is the earliest effort to “describe a people’s history as a continuous progression of events,” Hillel writes, and the Exodus is pivotal for that story.

No proof

The scientist is a middle-of-the-roader, neither accepting everything as literally true nor dismissing Exodus as a fable. Historical proof or disproof “is not easy, and perhaps not possible, to resolve entirely,” he says, since archaeological finds are chancy, much has been wiped away and the lack of remains doesn’t confirm anything.

Outside the Bible, there’s no hard proof of Israel’s sojourn in Egypt and escape. But Hillel figures if the accounts “were entirely contrived, they could hardly have had such lasting power” and “there appears to be a believable core of authenticity.”

He considers it unlikely that “a nation would ascribe to itself so humble and humiliating a national beginning as slavery, unless it had some basis in truth.” There are no surviving Egyptian accounts; perhaps the event seemed unimportant, or too embarrassing.

Inside information

Hillel thinks “whoever wrote the story of the Israelites in Egypt must have known the country very well, either must have lived there or must have received the information from others who had. The background is believable, the names seem authentic and the entire atmosphere and sense of place appear genuine.”

For instance: Nomadic farmers indeed entered Egypt’s eastern Nile delta during severe droughts in their traditional grazing grounds. Egyptian records back to the 18th century B.C. tell of numerous “Asiatic” slaves. One inscription specifies that a group named Israel lived in Canaan around the time of the Exodus.

Credible biblical themes include: centralized authority under the pharaoh, drought contingency planning, grain storage, emergency food distribution, sharecropping, taxation, independent priesthood, visiting nomads with high birthrates and resulting resentment, slavery and grand public works projects.

Building materials

Then there’s brick-making. To this day, he says, Egyptians make bricks by kneading clay with straw, pressing it into molds and baking it in the sun or ovens (Exodus 5:10-19).

Turning directly to his specialty of ecology, Hillel says the biblical author obviously knew about Egypt’s “mostly regular but occasionally anomalous water supply.”

The Nile was both a source of drinking water and a waste disposal, raising constant danger of pollution and especially during times of low flow. That could produce massive fish kills, proliferation of frogs that thrive in stagnant water and scourges of insects just like the Exodus “plagues.”

Then, too, the freak hailstorms and eerie darkness (an eclipse of the sun? a dust storm?) were natural phenomena in Egypt that would have left a lasting impression, he thinks.

Parting the reeds

Even the parting of the Red Sea better translated the “reed sea,” which he assumes was a marsh might have referred to a natural occurrence. Those who escaped could hide in the delta’s reeds while heavily laden troops with chariots got bogged down in the mud and mire. And the pillar of cloud could have been one of the familiar dust devils that reach considerable heights in the region’s deserts.

Also of seasonal note: The Jewish Publication Society has reissued “Haggadah and History” by Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi, a handsome art book with photos and comments on Passover liturgies printed as far back as the 15th century.

 

DID JESUS WALK ON WATER? OR ICE?

Did Jesus walk on water? Or ice?
Scientist says Sea of Galilee could have had frozen patches in Jesus’ day
By Sara Goudarzi
LiveScience
MSNBC
April 4, 2006

msnbc.msn.com/id/12152740/

Rare conditions could have conspired to create hard-to-see ice on the Sea of Galilee that a person could have walked on back when Jesus is said to have walked on water, a scientist reported Today.

The study, which examines a combination of favorable water and environmental conditions, proposes that Jesus could have walked on an isolated patch of floating ice on what is now known as Lake Kinneret in northern Israel.

Looking at temperature records of the Mediterranean Sea surface and using analytical ice and statistical models, scientists considered a small section of the cold freshwater surface of the lake. The area studied, about 10,000 square feet (930 square meters), was near salty springs that empty into it.

The results suggest temperatures dropped to 25 degrees Fahrenheit (-4 degrees Celsius) during one of the two cold periods 2,500 to 1,500 years ago for up to two days, the same decades during which Jesus lived.

With such conditions, a floating patch of ice could develop above the plumes, resulting from the salty springs along the lake’s western shore in Tabgha. Tabgha is the town where many archeological findings related to Jesus have been found.

“We simply explain that unique freezing processes probably happened in that region only a handful of times during the last 12,000 years,” said Doron Nof, a Florida State University professor of oceanography. “We leave to others the question of whether or not our research explains the biblical account.”

Nof figures that in the last 120 centuries, the odds of such conditions on the low-latitude Lake Kinneret are most likely 1-in-1,000. But during the time period when Jesus lived, such “springs ice” may have formed once every 30 to 60 years.

Such floating ice in the unfrozen waters of the lake would be hard to spot, especially if rain had smoothed its surface.

“In today’s climate, the chance of springs ice forming in northern Israel is effectively zero, or about once in more than 10,000 years,” Nof said.

The findings are detailed in April’s issue of the Journal of Paleolimnology. Nof has posted a PDF file of the research to his Web site.

 

THE LAST SYNAGOGUE IN TAJIKISTAN

As a Synagogue comes down, a culture disappears, too
By Ethan Wilensky-Lanford
The New York Times
March 28, 2006

Even during Sabbath services on a Saturday in early March, as Rabbi Mikhail Abdurakhimov read Hebrew prayers and the faithful followed along using Russian transliterations, the rumble of construction was distracting.

This is a synagogue in its last moments of existence. While the congregants prayed, a bright orange bulldozer growled outside, continuing its work at the synagogue’s edge.

“They could do this anytime,” whispered David Kiselkov, 56. “But of course they choose to do it now.”

The synagogue is the last in Tajikistan, and will soon fall victim to redevelopment and the declining Jewish population in this remote post-Soviet state.

In late February, workers demolished part of the synagogue, including a ritual bath, or mikvah. Only a modest brick building remains, a Star of David on the aluminum door.

The house of worship is making way for a grand presidential palace currently under construction. A columned behemoth topped with a cupola, the garish building will stand on a 130-acre plot of parks and palisades.

Dushanbe, a quiet, verdant capital with a single central boulevard, is slowly changing, struggling to emerge from isolation, state Socialism and civil war.

Lenin’s statue was recently replaced by a towering golden monument to Ismail Samani, a 9th-century Persian shah reborn as a Tajik hero. A sparkling green bank stands next to an imposing Stalinist government building, freshly painted peach.

Judaism’s declining influence in this region can be seen as this synagogue lives out its final days.

About 12,000 Jews left Dushanbe after the Soviet Union’s collapse, encouraged, perhaps, by Islamic nationalism during a bloody civil war, from 1992 to 1997. “If they could fight among themselves like that, as if against a different nation or religion, what might they do to us?” Mr. Abdurakhimov said.

Most of the several hundred remaining Jews are elderly, and nearly all have relatives in Israel, Germany or the United States.

Julian Chilmodina, born in Volgograd, Russia, in 1931, was among many thousands of Ashkenazi Jews who moved to Central Asia during World War II, joining Persian-speaking Bukharian Jews who had settled in the region much earlier.

Now he wants to move to Israel, where his younger brother lives. In a bizarre twist reminiscent of Soviet times, he cannot get a visa, he says, because his official ethnicity is Russian, rather than Jewish.

Mr. Chilmodina says his parents disguised his ethnicity before the start of World War II. “I went to the police station, so that I could register as a Jew, but again my passport came back with me as a Russian,” he said, laughing at the bureaucracy.

While he waits to try to resolve the issue, Mr. Chilmodina attends services every Saturday. In early March, the prayer room was chilly and dimly lighted because the city had shut off most of the electricity the month before.

The city offered an empty plot a few miles away for a new synagogue, but the rabbi said the congregation was too poor to rebuild. Jews have worshiped at this site for generations, and the current structure was built in 1947, according to documents the rabbi has.

Shamsuddin Nuriddinov, head of Dushanbe’s municipal department of religious affairs, said that the Jews did not own the synagogue site and that that he hoped they would build a beautiful new one.

Many congregants, while they support the president’s new development, feel cast aside. “It will be beautiful, like the White House in America,” said Yuri Lukyanov, 30, of the planned palace. “I just wish they would compensate us for what is ours.”

During services, Mr. Lukyanov sat next to the rabbi, and left several times to report to him in hushed tones about the work going on outside.

Mr. Lukyanov’s mother and sister live near Tel Aviv. He plans to emigrate, too, when his younger brother finishes his mandatory military service.

He wants to marry a Jewish woman, but needs to meet one first. “I do not know any observant Jews here my age,” he said.

The synagogue also serves as a community center, where food, medicine and clothing are distributed. Religious holidays were once celebrated in the quiet courtyard, now filled with construction debris.

The United States ambassador, Richard E. Hoagland, said he was certain the land dispute was “not a question of religious freedom, and anti-Semitism is not involved.” A Russian military base was also destroyed for the construction project, along with hospitals, schools and countless residences.

But the Jewish heritage here risks being lost, along with the synagogue.

Anna Ferdman, 101, emigrated from Ukraine to Dushanbe, then known as Stalinobad, in 1945, after her husband, Ivan, died in the war. She regularly went to the synagogue until a recent fall left her bedridden. She has watched the Jewish population dwindle.

“Nobody here speaks Yiddish anymore,” Ms. Ferdman lamented in her home, after proudly singing for guests in Yiddish, the traditional Ashkenazi language. “Gone are the days when you could say ‘Hey! Are you Jewish? Let’s talk!’”

The congregation is visibly faltering. The rabbi has not been officially ordained. Rituals are clumsily observed, if at all. During Sabbath services, a red-haired man stood at the wrong time, only to be berated.

“What are you doing?” shouted Mr. Kiselkov. “How many years have you been coming here, and still you do not know when to stand up”

 

MICROSOFT TO UNVEIL LATEST VERSION OF WINDOWS IN ISRAEL

MS Vista to make official debut in Israel
Microsoft Windows team development head Steven Sinofsky will unveil Vista at Tech-Ed Israel 2006.
By Shmulik Shelah
Globes
April 3, 2006

www.globes.co.il/serveen/globes/docview.asp?did=1000079873&fid=942

The first official presentation of Vista, the latest version of Microsoft’s Windows operating system will take place in Israel. Microsoft senior VP and Windows development team head Steven Sinofsky will unveil the system at the company’s annual Tech-Ed Israel conference which will be held next month in Eilat.

Microsoft’s annual spring Tech-Ed conference focuses on training and technology presentations. This year’s conference will showcase the new Vista operating system.

Microsoft announced ten days ago that it was postponing the launch of Vista until January 2007. The company appointed Steve Sinofksy head of the Windows development team to speed up the pace of development of the system in place of Microsoft platforms and services division co-president James (Jim) Allchin who will retire at the end of 2006. Sinoksky, who heads the Microsoft Office development unit as well, will also unveil the 2007 version of Office at next month’s conference in Eilat.

 

THE “KOSHER PHONE”

‘Kosher’ phone merges technology, faith
By Brian Murphy
The Associated Press
March 31, 2006

It sounds like the setup for a punch line: What do you get when you cross an ultra-Orthodox rabbi with a mobile phone? But the “kosher phone” is real and its developers are serious about looking beyond the religious enclaves of Israel. Some Arab companies even have inquired about the phone’s main feature: keeping out sex lines and other worldly temptations.

“There’s interest out there in a conservative phone,” said Abrasha Burstyn, the chief executive officer at Mirs Communications Ltd., an Israeli subsidiary of Motorola Inc. and pioneer of the kosher mobile that debuted last year.

The phones carrying the seal of approval from Israel’s rabbinical authorities have been one of the most successful mergers of technology and centuries-old tradition in the ultra-Orthodox community, which is most widely recognized by the men’s black garb based on the dress of 19th century European Jews.

The kosher phone is stripped down to its original function: making and receiving calls. There’s no text messaging, no Internet access, no video options, no camera. More than 10,000 numbers for phone sex, dating services and other offerings are blocked. A team of rabbinical overseers makes sure the list is up to date.

These are the same rabbis who have told followers to scorn television and radio. But mobile phones are considered just too essential in one of the world’s most tech-friendly nations. The ultra-Orthodox account for about 7 percent of Israel’s 7 million people.

Now MIRS is thinking bigger. Talks are under way to introduce a kosher phone to Jewish communities in the United States and other nations possibly later this year. Israeli Arabs about 20 percent of the population have also taken notice of the phones as a possible option for those trying to protect conservative Islamic sensibilities.

Some Arab cell phone providers see the same attraction. They have sought information from MIRS via envoys from Jordan, which has a peace treaty with Israel, said Burstyn, who declined to give further details of the contacts.

“This was a unique product for a unique brand of customer,” he said. “But we see some potential beyond this niche market.”

The kosher phone is an example of demand leading the way for supply.

In late 2004, a special rabbinical panel was formed to study how to bridge the need for cellular phones and ultra-Orthodox codes. The community was torn.

Some saw the phones as a non-threatening convenience. Others believed the sophisticated “third generation” phones offered an unhealthy freedom: the ability to download pornography or allow young people to make furtive contact with the opposite sex which is highly restricted in ultra-Orthodox society. The conservative magazine Family called the multitasking new phones “a candy store for the evil impulse.”

The rabbis’ solution find a cell phone that’s only a phone.

“They saw the future and were frightened,” said one of Israel’s most prominent attorneys, Jacob Weinroth, who was asked by the rabbis to approach Israel’s four main cellular companies with the idea of the pared-down phone. “In 10 years, we may have commercials coming over the phone. Maybe gambling, dating. The community wanted to keep the cell phones, but not allow this commercial world to enter their communities through them.”

Mirs Israel’s smallest cell phone in terms of market share was the first to take the challenge. But instead of simply blocking the non-call services, the new phones were specially engineered with hardware to prevent upgrades or sharing chips with other handsets.

The kosher phone was ready last March, backed by an unusual sales force: 80 men and 10 women from Israel’s ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods who went through a crash course in cell phones and door-to-door pitches. The classes were arranged to accommodate synagogue prayer schedules and Torah studies.

“These people were figures in their community. They weren’t nobodies. They started spreading the word in synagogues and wedding halls,” said Matanel Shalom, chief of marketing at Sales & Direct Marketing Ltd., a Tel Aviv-based company hired to market the kosher phone.

By summer, more than 20,000 kosher phones were sold. But it was just a foothold in an estimated market of at least 180,000 cell phone users among Israel’s 500,000 ultra-Orthodox. Two of Israel’s other three cell phone players have developed their own kosher phones. The options now come in a range of styles and colors from staid black to enamel red.

“If you think about it, the (ultra-Orthodox) religious community is not going to movies and other things. These days, the kind of phone you carry is part of who you are,” said Shalom. “Some rabbis didn’t like it, but that’s the reality.”


All notes and summaries copyright © Tom Gross. All rights reserved.