The Man Whose Moves Made Mediocre Melodies Into Modern Marvels
Baruch Agadati was almost certainly the most controversial Jewish dancer of his time, building up large followings both of people who loved him, and loved to hate him. He simultaneously fought against antisemitism, angered most of the Jewish community, challenged gender roles, and built long-lasting cultural traditions. Oh, and he was also the person who created Israeli Folk Dance.
ברוך אגדתי אמן הרקוד העברי, Tel Aviv 1925, Asher Barash, Yitzhak Katz, & Menashe Rabinowitz, via the National Library of Israel Collections
Many claim to be the ‘father of Israeli dance’ and the truth is that Israeli folk dancing has had so many important contributors that it would be impossible to crown any of them with this title, but if we were to try, Baruch Agadati would certainly make the shortlist.
Baruch Agadati’s Israeli dances weren’t just a light-hearted hop, skip, and jump, like they may seem to the uninformed eye – in fact, Agadati revolutionized the art of movement in Israel, from pivoting away from the former heteronormativity of Jewish dance, to taking antisemitic rhetoric and turning it into a powerful tool of Zionist storytelling. Baruch Agadati may have choreographed some sweet holding-hands-in-a-circle dances, but deep down they actually represented an entire ideological schema, reflecting the nonconformitive philosophy of this enigmatic man.
Baruch Agadati was born ‘Baruch Kaushansky’ in Bessarabia, where he lived with his parents and his brother Yitzchak. Considering the fact that it was Eastern Europe in the 1800s, the standard of life for Jews in Bessarabia was actually acceptable, but like with most places in the region, by the end of the century things weren’t looking so great for you if your names were Baruch and Yitzchak, so the two brothers started to make some swift plans to leave Ukraine.
In 1910, Agadati left home to study at the Bezalel Art School in Jerusalem, and he thoroughly enjoyed the dance and film scene in pre-state Israel (Ottoman Palestine at the time). The local culture suited him well, but with the outbreak of World War I, Baruch returned to Eastern Europe to fight in the Russian Army and do what he could to help with the war effort. However, after the war ended, Agadati maneuvered back into the world of dance, trading rifles for rond-de-jambes, and he enjoyed a successful career dancing with the Odessa Ballet. Classically trained and very talented on his toes, Agadati’s booming artistic career gave him enough confidence to start a new life back in the Land of Israel. So, during the period of the Third Aliyah, Baruch and his brother set sail on the SS Ruslan from Odessa and arrived safely, if a little sea sick, at the port of Jaffa.
Following his nose to the source of the emerging art scene in pre-state Israel, Agadati moved to Tel Aviv’s Neve Tzedek neighborhood and earned his living by performing solo dance recitals, which he called his “concerts,” and choreographing routines for local dance troops. His name was already becoming well known at this point, and in 1922 Baruch Agadati embarked on a world tour with his dances.
One might think that a career in dance is fairly innocuous, but this was decidedly not the case for Baruch Agadati. In the 1920s, the predominant style of dance in Mandatory Palestine consisted of Jewish folk dances, in which spritely youths would hold hands and blithely move around in circle formation, smiles on their faces and light on their feet. Agadati was bored of this. He took the traditional Jewish folk dance and decided to flip it on its head (not literally, although with Agadati one never knows!) He would go on to rewrite this choreography in his signature expressionist style, and add intricacies to the folk dances which no one had ever seen before.
It was in this way that the “Hora Agadati” was born. The Hora Agadati is one of the earliest “Israeli Dances.” Choreographed by Baruch Agadati in 1929, in his series of revitalized traditional Jewish folk dances, this is the choreography that most people still remember Agadati by today. A nonobservant but deeply traditional and culturally-connected Jew, Agadati took the outmoded Jewish dances and reframed them using a new, secular yet acutely Israeli, perspective. This refreshing style of circle dance, with its Debka-Jumps and Twisting Hips, helped shape what most people now call Israeli Folk Dancing. The Hora Agadati is still a popular dance today, and one need only visit the promenade in Tel Aviv on a Saturday night to see people of all ages and denominations dancing to Baruch Agadati’s signature Israeli folk style.
If our story ended here, we could be led to believe that Baruch Agadati was an inoffensive, perhaps even somewhat dull cultural figure in the artistic scene of pre-state Israel. But that wouldn’t be any fun, so luckily our story takes a turn for the weird.
From early on in his dance career, Baruch Agadati was making waves. During his first stint in Jerusalem in 1913, he performed a recital of the well-known Mephisto Waltz. But, breaking with tradition in a fairly explicit way, Agadati “donned a black coat as his only attire and, during the performance, right in front of the audience, in a beautiful turn of the waltz, in the moment when one side of his coat had been very indecently raised, he appeared naked, completely naked as on the bright day on which his holy and good mother brought him forth into the world” (Isaac Katz, 1927). This naked dancing fiasco was actually the scandal that led Baruch to change his original last name and adopt the name Adagati instead, after the embarrassment that his series of nude performances caused his poor mother.
Agadati continued to overturn the standard motifs in dance with the way he dressed, the way he played with gender norms on stage, and his use of unconventional and pointedly imperfect moves. He embraced new concepts of movement by using his body in jerky and sometimes awkward ways which undermined the ideas of grace and elegance to which most people were accustomed to seeing in dance. In the words of Clair Croft (2017) he “refused monolithic signification and instead forged a politics from the productive frictions among identities.”
If those concepts sound a bit dense and impenetrable, don’t worry, we will explore some examples to elucidate the point. We’ve already mentioned the Hora Agadati, so let’s start there. A little-known fact is that this dance was originally set to a traditional Moldavian antisemitic propaganda tune, picked on purpose for its hatefulness by Baruch himself. Baruch wanted to reclaim this work inspired by antisemitic sentiment, in an act of rebellion exemplifying that even the vilest racist hatred would not be permitted to destroy or humiliate Jewish culture. As time went on, this subtle meaning was lost to the masses, and it was decided that the tune should be exchanged for a new melody composed by Alexander Uriya Boskovitz, after many Jews took offence at the notion of dancing to the tune of an antisemitic song.
But this rebellion against antisemitic tropes was a theme that kept reappearing in Agadati’s work. He set out to reclaim racist stereotypes associated with Jews by taking what was considered to be a typical Jewish style of movement, but instead of allowing himself to be mocked for the very moves and gestures that inspired such antisemitism, he turned them into a delicate artform instead (Marlene Gallner, 2017.) “He took the lowly, often crude, exaggerated gestures of the antisemitic cartoon and ‘ennobled’ it, lifting it, so to speak, from the rubbish-heap onto the stage” (Giora Manor, 1986.) In reframing these antisemitic caricatures, Agadati constructed a style of Hebrew dance which proudly reclaimed the idea of the masculine Jew that antisemitic narratives had tried to destroy (Alexander H. Schwan, 2022.)
This may all sound quite positive from a Jewish perspective, but Agadati’s takes on Judaism varied, and some of his dances were not so positively received. In his dance “Melave Malkva,” Agadati personifies four different hassidim on stage. In Jewish ritual, Melave Malka is the period on Saturday night after the end of Shabbat during which Jews often eat, drink and sing away the Sabbath, as they prepare to leave behind the holiness of Shabbat and enter the mundane week ahead. Agadati used this concept as a basis to dress up as four different pious men with varied takes towards the end of Shabbat: Reb Meir, Reb Netta, Reb Joel, and Reb Shachna. Reb Meir is the wise man, for whom the end of Shabbat is a sad and deeply religious time, which he related to via the divine; Reb Netta is a poor and humble Jew who is far more down-to-earth. Reb Joel embodies the ghost of the late grandfather of Reb Meir, who is just visiting from heaven, as you do, and Reb Shachna, exemplifies a normal hassid who would be a familiar face if seen walking down the street. The twist, though, is that Baruch Agadati performed each of these four hassidic personas in drag – something which would surprise many religious Jews today, let alone 100 years ago!
In fact, Agadati’s performances often saw him taking on the personas of various characters who had impacted him during his conservative upbringing in the Eastern European shtetl, but he often embodied these roles in controversial ways. For example, in his early 1920s performance, “Galut Cycle,” Agadati portrayed a young Torah scholar, studying in a Yeshiva, completing the daily custom of laying tefillin, a practice in which religious Jewish men wrap black leather cords around their arm and forehead. Except, in Agadati’s interpretation, the Yeshiva student is wearing nothing but the tefillin! He posed nearly nude with the holy tefillin straps, leaving most of the room speechless.
It is sometimes surprising what Agadati deemed appropriate. He usually self-published the advertisements for his “concerts” and would invite adults and children alike to his shows, despite his frequent nudity and overt sexual euphemisms. In perhaps the most shocking of his performances, Baruch Agadati donned an elaborate costume and performed his show dressed as an Arab living in Jaffa. His stereotypical cultural appropriation would have made the news as it was, but that offense was far overshadowed when he opened his trousers and urinated live on stage against the wall, as part of his dance routine (Raz Yosef, 2004) (Achim Rohde, Christina von Braun, Stefanie Schüler-Springorum, 2017).
After this scandalous escapade, and the press reviews that went along with it, Agadati took a break from dance and moved into other areas of art instead. He worked with his brother Yitzchak on films, paintings, and controversial cultural events such as his divisive Jewish beauty pageants. Agadati never stopped being a pioneer in the world of dance, but his sights were now set on other pursuits – making movies rather than moves.
Baruch Agadati undoubtably helped shape Israeli dance, breaking through mainstream ideals of religion, nationalism, and identity, and in a way both opening and closing the question of how Jewishness could be expressed via the medium of dance. Artist and historian Liora Bing-Heidecker describes Agadati as a pioneering gay man, and Agadati is certainly thought of today as a gay icon and activist. But what is surprising to learn is that although he certainly unlocked the stage for LGBT+ activism through his art, Agadati lived and died not actually mentioning his own personal persuasion in this area, despite public opinion.
As it goes, we can speculate all we want (and people often do) about the meaning of his art, the hidden messages behind his religious, explicit, and controversial pieces, the real story of his spiritual ties, sense of identity, and culture. The only thing we can know for certain is that Israeli Dance is the way it is today because of Baruch Agadati. Love him or hate him, we all dance to his tune.
This article has been published as part of Gesher L’Europa, the National Library of Israel’s initiative to connect with people, institutions and communities across Europe and beyond, through storytelling, knowledge sharing and community engagement.
The Queen Who Loved the Destroyer of the Second Temple
Who was Queen Berenice? Was she a cold, calculating seductress or simply a woman captivated by a young, charismatic general? Here we give you the story of the Second Temple-period Jewish queen forced to survive in a tumultuous world, whose love affair with Titus - the future Roman emperor and notorious suppressor of a Jewish rebellion—remains a bone of contention
Queen Berenice, Charles Landelle, Musée des beaux-arts de Reims
By Amit Naor
It is customary to think of the Jews in antiquity as a small, insular people that dwelled alone, a people forced to interact from time to time with the great powers around them. Once it might be Babylon and Assyria, on another occasion the Greeks or the Romans. But during the early years of the great Roman Empire, not all Jews were zealots hiding out in the desert, waiting for an opportunity to ambush Roman soldiers. Jews were sometimes willing and committed stakeholders in the Empire, holding positions of power and influence. In this article, we will tell of a Jewish woman, a queen, who lived during this time, and whose dramatic life story might resemble something out of Game of Thrones or House of the Dragon.
Queen Berenice was not just another queen. She was a princess by birth, daughter of a union between two of the most important families in the Roman province of Judea at that time. At one point, she was even considered a threat to the stability of the Empire. Here we can attempt only to summarize the complicated life story of this daughter of Jewish royalty and how she came to meet such historical figures as Emperor Vespasian and the Christian apostle Paul; how she found herself present at decisive moments in the revolt against the Romans; and above all, how she became the mistress of one of the most reviled figures in Jewish collective memory, a man who would later become Emperor of Rome—”Titus the Evil”. But, as with any multi-character saga, we begin at the beginning, with the birth of Berenice.
Berenice was probably born in the year 28 CE to King Agrippa I and his wife Cypros. On her father’s side, she descended from the Herodian dynasty; her roots on her mother’s side traced back to the Hasmoneans. These were the two most significant Jewish families of the Second Temple-period. When she was about 10 years old, her father, a friend of Emperor Caligula, was made King of Judea, thereby officially making Berenice a princess.
Like other powerful women from antiquity, her historical portrait was drawn for posterity by the men around her. Many historians and writers of the past accused her of scheming, licentiousness, and even incest. In a recent biography of Berenice, historian Professor Tal Ilan takes a fresh look at the Second Temple-period queen, putting aside judgmental perspectives of the past that were rooted in anachronistic, ultra-conservative values. “…she is often described by ancient sources in negative terms”, Prof. Ilan writes, “[…] this is because the historians and authors who mention her conform in their writing to genres of poetry and prose prevalent in their days, that viewed women as the cause of all intrigue and scheming in the world. The sources on Berenice will be judged according to the actions they describe and not in line with their own judgement of these. The values of the ancient Jews and of the ancient Romans […] are not our values. Their conventional expectations of women are not our expectations”, says Prof. Ilan in the introduction to her book.
We hope to do the same.
Berenice Appears on the Historical Stage
When she was still a young girl—a child—Berenice was betrothed to Marcus Julius Alexander, son of the leader of the distinguished Jewish community in Alexandria, and nephew of the important Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria. The marriage was consummated when Berenice was 14 years old, apparently. It was short-lived however, as her much older husband soon died, leaving Berenice a widow.
In the same year Berenice was widowed, her father, Agrippa I, also died unexpectedly while attending a festival honoring the Emperor. According to the historian Josephus, on the second day of the festival, “a severe pain also arose in his belly; and began in a most violent manner.” Before his death, Agrippa managed to arrange a second marriage for his by now 16-year-old daughter—this time to his widowed brother Herod, King of Chalcis. Chalcis was a small kingdom in the mountains of Lebanon, and it was there that Berenice first received the title of Queen. That same year, she became pregnant and gave birth to her first son, Berenicianus, who was named for her. Prof. Ilan believes Berenice herself thought up the name, which became popular in the Chalcis region of the time. She named her second child Hyrcanus, an undeniably Hasmonean name. Was it she or her husband Herod who wanted to remind the kingdom’s subjects of their monarch’s illustrious roots?
After Agrippa I’s death, the Emperor Claudius decided to appoint a procurator for Judea rather than transfer the kingdom to Berenice’s brother. The new procurator was none other than Berenice’s former brother-in-law from her first marriage, Tiberius Julius Alexander. After enlisting in the Roman army, Tiberius had an impressive career, not only as procurator of Judea but also as the brutal suppressor of a Jewish uprising in Alexandria that broke out at the same time as the revolt in Judea.
After four years of marriage, the 20 year-old Berenice once again found herself a widow. With the death of Herod of Chalcis, who also oversaw the Temple in Jerusalem, Emperor Claudius contemplated what to do with the province. He eventually chose to name Berenice’s brother as King, who was by then older and more skilled. He took the name Agrippa II.
“The first twenty years of Berenice’s life witnessed some of the most dramatic events of Jewish and even world history”, Prof. Ilan writes in her book, “Jesus was crucified in Jerusalem […] a mad emperor attempted (yet again) to induce the Jews to abandon their religion and worship him.” According to Ilan, Berenice was only a bystander during this period—her father married her off as soon as he could, and she did not take an active part in these dramatic events. “The next 20 stormy years of Berenice’s life thrust her to the fore of the historical stage”, she says.
So what happened next?
Agrippa II arrived in great splendor to his new kingdom that included both Judea and Chalcis, now reuniting with his sister as well. Berenice, twice widowed in just four years, and with two young children in tow, was not the best candidate for a new match. Ilan mentions the Talmudic dictate, Isha Katlanit (“lethal woman”), in this respect. According to this religious rule, a woman who is widowed twice is not permitted to marry for a third time.
In terms of our story, it seems that over the next few years Berenice became her brother’s companion, living with him in his various palaces in Chalcis, Jerusalem and in the city of Caesarea-Philippi, or Banias, located today in northern Israel. Berenice is also mentioned in several places in the historical record alongside her brother, the King. Josephus says that she stood next to Agrippa when he gave a conciliatory speech to the people of Jerusalem shortly before the outbreak of the Great Revolt. The New Testament mentions Berenice as being present with her brother at the trial of the Apostle Paul and that she was among those who thought he did not deserve punishment. The close relationship between the siblings also led to the spread of malicious rumors, with various sources claiming that Agrippa and Berenice had incestuous relations. Perhaps in order to stave off the gossip, Berenice quickly found herself another royal match and once again became a queen.
This time she married Polomon, King of Cilicia, a small kingdom in the south of Asia Minor. In order to facilitate the marriage, she convinced him to undergo circumcision and accept the commandments of Judaism. However, this marriage did not last long either. For one reason or another, Berenice left husband number three and returned to her palace in Banias. And so it happened that Berenice arrived in time for what was perhaps the most important event in Jewish history of the first century CE—the Great Revolt against the Romans.
By then, it seems that Berenice was more than a passive figure swept along by the currents of her life. There is evidence that, after the death of her second husband, Berenice herself managed the affairs in Chalcis, at least until her brother was crowned King. Various historians described her as a Cleopatra-like queen who used her charms to influence the men around her. But it seems that when the reins of power fell into her hands, Berenice proved herself adept and used them wisely.
A Last Attempt to Save Jerusalem
Up until the outbreak of the Great Revolt (66–73 CE), Berenice apparently tried to use all her powers to prevent rebellion and save Jerusalem. She happened to be in the city during one of the most famous incidents leading up to the rebellion. The procurator of Judea at the time, Florus, coveted a portion of the Temple’s treasures for himself. When the Jews protested against this, he sent his soldiers to quell the unrest by carrying out a pogrom in Jerusalem. Berenice was alone in the city at the time, recovering from an illness for which she had taken a vow of ascetism. At the end of this period of abstinence, she shaved her head and probably came to Jerusalem in order to offer a thanksgiving sacrifice following her recovery.
While Florus’s soldiers were raiding the city, Berenice sent her officers to the procurator to try to stop the massacre and looting. After her plea was ignored, she risked her own life and went herself, shaven-headed and barefoot, to Florus’s palace to beg him to spare the lives of the city’s residents. She eventually made her way back to her palace where she anxiously spent the night, surrounded by her guards. The next day, the Jerusalemites drove Florus and his soldiers out of the city. With Judea now on the brink of rebellion, Berenice and Agrippa addressed the people in the center of Jerusalem, but their attempt at appeasement failed and the Great Revolt erupted.
During this period, a young man by the name of Titus entered Berenice’s life. A popular general, he also happened to be the son of Vespasian, the man sent by Rome to suppress the rebellion in Judea. Berenice spent the war years in Agrippa II’s palace in Banias, Caesarea-Philippi. It was there she most likely met Vespasian’s son for the first time. “Titus the Evil”, as he is often referred to in the Jewish sources, would later become Emperor of Rome. Berenice was then about 40 years old. Titus was in his late twenties, but the age gap was no match for their passionate love.
We will do our best to trace their love story, though after the dramatic scene describing her and her brother’s appeal to the rebellious crowds, Berenice all but disappears from Josephus’s account of the rebellion in The Jewish War. Some contend that Josephus refrained from writing about her at the express request of Titus. In his later work, The Life of Flavius Josephus, written after the death of Titus, Josephus allows himself a bit more leeway regarding her story. There, for example, he describes how Berenice intervened in favor of the historian Justus of Tiberias whom Vespasian had sentenced to death. Agrippa spared his life at his sister’s request, another example of Berenice’s influence on political affairs.
Titus probably first met Berenice in the year 67, during the Roman campaign against the Jewish rebels in Galilee. Agrippa apparently invited Vespasian and his son Titus to rest for a while in his palace in Caesarea Philippi—where Berenice was also staying. The affair between the two seemed to finally resolve the question of the Herodian dynasty’s support for the Roman forces suppressing the rebellion. This alliance likely saved the city of Tiberias, which Vespasian ordered not be looted nor its walls destroyed after it was conquered, as a gesture to King Agrippa.
The alliance may have also helped Vespasian himself. By the end of the “Year of the Four Emperors” (69 CE), Vespasian was intent on declaring himself Emperor and was in urgent need of allies. One of his supporters was none other than Tiberius Julius Alexander, Berenice’s former brother-in-law. Could she have been the one who convinced Tiberius to support her lover’s father? The Roman historian Tacitus seemed to think so.
Whatever happened, it worked. Vespasian became Emperor and Titus became commander of the military operation to suppress the rebellion in Judea. As fate would have it, Berenice was now the mistress of the very person who would go down in history as the destroyer and looter of the Temple in Jerusalem. What was her role in these events? We’ll probably never know. In the film Legend of Destruction which describes the destruction of Jerusalem, the claim is made that Berenice intended to seduce Titus in order to save the city. In her biography of Berenice, Prof. Ilan believes that the truth is more straightforward—the two were simply in love, and Titus looked for any excuse to remain close to her. In The Jewish War, Josephus describes Titus as merciful, as having tried to avoid killing Jews who surrendered and waiting until the last possible moment before destroying Jerusalem and burning down the Temple. Some have claimed that Josephus wrote the account this way out of friendship with Titus who was also his patron. Ilan, on the other hand, believes Josephus’s account to be an unflattering description of Titus in the eyes of the Romans who were the book’s target audience. Instead, she contends, it was Titus’s idea to portray himself in this way for the benefit of none other than Berenice—as a kind of mea culpa for the actions he had been forced to commit in Judea.
A Second Cleopatra
After the suppression of the rebellion, Agrippa II continued to rule over Judea until his death, probably in the nineties of the first century CE. Titus, now the decorated conqueror of Jerusalem and heir to the imperial throne, embarked on a triumphal journey to cities in the eastern provinces of the Empire. It is possible that Berenice accompanied him. Eventually, Titus had to return to Rome, and Berenice apparently returned to Caesarea-Philippi. Throughout the period between the arrival of Vespasian’s forces in Judea and the destruction of the Temple, Titus and Berenice cohabited, but there were now reasons that prevented them from marrying. The age difference, for one. It was clear to them that the young Titus must find a suitable, young wife who would be able to provide him with heirs for the new dynasty ascending the imperial throne. And there was the matter of Berenice’s Jewishness, which prevented her from marrying a non-Jew without renouncing her religion.
But this was not the end of that extraordinary romance. What began as a love affair between a queen, a daughter of a royal family, and a dashing young general—one of many—in the Roman army, ended with roles and power-relations reversed: a client queen and a future emperor. In the year 75, Berenice arrived in Rome, four years after she separated from Titus. She came with her brother, and according to the sources, she stayed there for close to four years. She apparently lived with Titus in his palace and they were effectively a couple. Four Roman sources claimed Berenice to be his greatest weakness, raising the concern that she would cause him to become another Nero, bringing about Rome’s destruction. Titus proved he was made of different stuff. After seeing the Roman people’s displeasure with the match—either out of antisemitic feelings towards the people who had rebelled, or fear of a “second Cleopatra”—he sent Berenice home.
Berenice tried to return to Rome again a few months later, when Titus finally became Emperor, but he refused to see her. This was the end of their relationship and Queen Berenice disappears from the annals of history at this point. We have no information about what happened to her after she was sent away from Rome for the second time. Some believe that she remained in Italy and died there, but it is likely that she returned to Judea and lived in Banias until her death. We do not know what year she died. Her extraordinary story has inspired writers, poets, playwrights and screenwriters. Given the incredible events we have described here, we can only hope for a historical drama series…
An Ode to the National Library of Israel, the Love of My Youth
“I fear any attempt to harm the love of my youth. The imposition of any sort of political oversight or involvement regarding the life of the Library, may indelibly tarnish it, causing it and those who enter its doors irreparable damage.” Professor Aviad Hacohen pleads: Do not harm the love of my youth—the National Library of Israel
Opening day of the new building of the Jewish National and University Library, November 1, 1960 – the Circulation Desk, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel
“I was an unhappy boy during the nights, wandering alone, never letting anyone know, you were the love of my youth.”
-From Ahavat Neurai (“The Love of My Youth”) by Shalom Hanoch
The first time I saw you, I was on my way to the Gymnasia high school. Back then, I would sometimes skip the boring classes and run to you instead, if only to inhale your scent. You are not a great beauty, I know, but you always welcomed me with love and a warm embrace.
At sixteen, a first love can seem like that, all roses and sunshine. But forty-five years on, that first love is still going strong. It cannot and must not be stopped.
You stood there, your pale, white facade hidden among the trees and grassy lawns of Givat Ram, your body upright, confident in yourself, radiating an aura of dignity.
On the ground floor one would see the heavy wooden card cabinets, their old hinges worn with use, the drawers filled to bursting with thousands of cards covered in dense handwriting.
Every day, for years, at 9:00 a.m. sharp, the regulars would show up at your door to be let in and then move quickly to their regular corners. (There was a running joke back then that these scholars were so much a part of the Library, that if movers were ever called in for a relocation, they would move them right along with the rest of the “furniture”.)
Among these regulars were some of the world’s greatest scholars of Jewish studies: Jacob Katz, Gershom Scholem, Menachem Brinker, Shmuel Safrai, Shmuel Werses, Hava Lazarus-Yaffe, David Weiss Halivni and Meir Benayahu, to name but a few.
After a few hours, the prophet of rage would arrive. Somewhat grim-faced, he would stride briskly through the Library’s doors to the “press room”. There, seventy-five-year-old Yeshayahu Leibowitz would begin to go one by one through the journals—hundreds of scientific periodicals that were arranged like soldiers on shelves along the walls. He would start with the journals that dealt with the Bible and Talmud, then move to the medical journals, followed by the chemistry and microbiology section, and finish up with the daily newspapers stored between two giant wooden boards and that smelled intoxicatingly of the past
His younger sister, the great biblical scholar and teacher Nechama Leibowitz, also well on in years, would sometimes stroll into the adjacent hall, the Judaica Reading Room, her signature beret pushed down low on her head, her students hurrying to offer her help in locating a book.
Inside the Institute of Microfilmed Hebrew Manuscripts, located on floor -1, scholars and yeshiva students would sit side by side, each one hunched over a creaking microfilm machine, working tirelessly in order to rescue centuries-old Hebrew manuscripts from oblivion. Next to them would be a literary researcher asking to look at the notes and early drafts of the great Hebrew author, literary genius and Nobel laureate S.Y. Agnon, in order to try to grasp the hidden meanings contained his works. Peering out above them would be the bright bald head of the gifted writer Yossel Birstein, who worked in the Hebrew Manuscripts department alongside cultural figures such as Rafi Weiser and Shlomo Zucker, from whom no secrets were hidden.
On the second floor, among the dusty piles of old audio tapes, Ephraim Yaakov would be trying once again to convince a one hundred-year-old newly arrived immigrant from Georgia to sing her community’s lullabies and lamentations, so that they would be preserved for generations in the Library’s Sound Archive.
Only in the rarest cases were we permitted to enter the “underworld”: floor -2. That was where the real treasures were kept. The manuscripts of Maimonides and Albert Einstein, genizah fragments and ancient Qurans.
Full disclosure: Over the years, I have had the pleasure of her favor, but I have also had the privilege of giving something in return to my great love. During its renewal, I had the privilege of participating as a representative of the Library’s readers, the “users,” in meetings of its board of directors and even to represent the Library in court in order to protect its rights.
I also drafted the “National Library Charter”, which was signed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the then-President of the State of Israel, Shimon Peres, as well as by the Mayor of Jerusalem, Nir Barkat, and the President of the National Academy of Sciences, Rut Arnon, alongside dozens of other renowned public figures from Israel and around the world.
The charter reflects the unique spirit of the Library, whose doors are open to all, regardless of religion, race, gender, political outlook or orientation:
“The physical and virtual doors of the Library will be open to people of all nations and religions, to draw an increasing number of users from among the general public and from among the research community in Israel and the world, and to serve them in the best way possible.”
The charter emphasizes the National Library of Israel’s status as a “national and Zionist cultural and educational center”, meant to serve as an “inspirational space, which will be both an optimal learning environment and a meeting place drawing researchers, intellectuals, artists and seekers of knowledge from Israel and around the world, as well as a site of vibrant cultural creation that is based on its treasures and collections.”
Days and years have gone by and the love of my youth has matured and long since passed one hundred and twenty. The guards who used to zealously rummage through our briefcases and backpacks by hand are now aided by technological devices. The old-fashioned, awkward hand-written paper slips once used for ordering books were replaced by a simple computerized system, accessible from anywhere in the world, even by mobile phone. The old creaking elevators were replaced with new ones; even the official name was changed from the “Jewish National and University Library” to the “The National Library of Israel.” The Library began hosting an array of inspiring cultural events, wonderful concerts ranging from classical music to Israeli song, and the entrance hall was filled with groups of Jewish and Arab elementary school students coming to see and experience this great hall of culture for the first time, maybe even falling in love with it, as I did so many years before.
The National Library of Israel was and remains a unique nature reserve in the Israeli landscape. A fascinating human and cultural microcosm unlike any other. Perhaps the last place, apart from the hospitals, where a university professor conducting research for a new book or article might sit beside a regular Joe who took a four-hour bus ride to come explore his family’s roots; a place where a young Torah scholar from Mea Shearim might sit surfing the internet and its “forbidden fruit” next to a young bare-shouldered university student leafing through rare books for a seminar paper she is writing.
Indeed, like many others, I fear any attempt to harm the love of my youth. The imposition of any sort of political involvement in the life of the Library may indelibly tarnish it, and cause irreparable damage to the Library and those who enter its doors. And we haven’t even talked about donors—whether of money or of rare and irreplaceable archival materials— who might be discouraged from supporting a body that is guided by politics, and not professionalism. Many of them may avoid donating to the Library or perhaps even choose to rescind donations of funds or collections they have already made.
If this plan to impose political involvement in the Library goes forward, the National Library of Israel will become one more political estate among many. A pointless institution, devoted only to the powers that be.
As the saying goes, “If it ain’t broke—don’t fix it.” The National Library of Israel is not broken and is not in need of a fix, certainly not of a political nature.
A True Jerusalem Story: The Failed Raid of the Lost Ark
More than a century ago, a group of English treasure-hunters showed up in Jerusalem with the most ambitious of goals: They were determined to find the treasures of the ancient biblical kings, no less. This grand quest and its strange results made sensational headlines in newspapers around the globe, not to mention the riots that erupted across the city…
The Temple Mount, Captain Montagu Brownlow Parker and a model of the Ark of the Covenant, credit: Avraham Gracier, The National Trust, Mary Harrsch
The rumor spread like wildfire across the city.
The crimes were unthinkable. Perhaps too fantastical to believe. And yet many did.
In mid-April of 1911, a team of English treasure hunters was busy at work in Jerusalem. They were digging under the Dome of the Rock, under the Temple Mount – the Noble Sanctuary, one of the world’s most sacred and sensitive religious landmarks. They were actually given permission, of a sort, to do so, but this did not make the act any less scandalous.
It was on the night of April 12 that the excavation came to an abrupt end: the wrong person found out about the dig, and it quickly became clear that remaining in Jerusalem was dangerous. The team packed up its equipment and findings and left town in a hurry. They were long gone when word began to spread that British adventurers had made off with the treasures of the ancient Jewish kings.
The press did not feel the need to downplay the event. Respectable newspapers declared that the stolen artifacts included King Solomon’s crown, his sword and his ring, as well as an ancient manuscript of the Bible (long before the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls). The New York Times ran with the headline: “Gone With Treasure That Was Solomon’s”. Some dispatches even mentioned the discovery of the Ark of the Covenant itself.
The incident soon led to chaos. Riots were sparked in Jerusalem, with local citizens going on strike and venting their fury at the Ottoman government for allowing such an outrage to occur. It was clear to all that the authorities had been in the know. Only the eventual resignation of the district governor was enough to calm the masses.
But what was the nature of this strange incident? Who were these treasure hunters? What were they looking for and what did they truly find?
The Genesis of the Parker Expedition
It began a few years earlier with a man named Walter Henrich Juvelius.
This strange Finnish poet was a man of eccentric interests, a doctor of philosophy who was fascinated with numerology, the Kabbalah and Jewish chronology. At some point in the early 1900s, Juvelius claimed to have made a startling discovery: he believed he had found a mysterious cipher while conducting research on Jewish history (one report mentioned he found it in the library of St. Sophia in Constantinople).
The cipher supposedly enabled one to unlock secrets hidden in the Bible and other ancient Jewish texts. Among these: the location of the treasures of the First Temple, including the Ark of the Covenant. As if this wasn’t odd enough, there was also talk of strange ancient documents unearthed in Ireland that also hinted at treasure buried in Jerusalem.
Armed with these “revelations”, Juvelius eventually turned up in London, where he met Captain Montagu Brownlow Parker. A decorated British soldier who had fought in the Second Boer War, Parker was also a well-connected aristocrat – his brother was the 4th Earl of Morley. Parker bought into Juvelius’ scheme to locate the ancient treasures in Jerusalem, and set about raising money and recruiting personnel. The 30-year-old English officer was quite successful in this: he managed to raise some £25,000 from a number of wealthy British and American patrons (equivalent to more than £3.8 million in 2023), and convinced several of his army buddies to join him and Juvelius on the expedition to the Holy Land.
Why were these affluent socialites and bored army veterans so eager to support such an overly ambitious excavation based on such flimsy evidence, you ask? It likely had something to do with Juvelius’ estimate that the treasure they were certain to find, including copious amounts of gold and silver, would be equal to a value of around $200 million dollars (over $6.4 billion today). This was also a time when the Spiritualist movement was still quite popular in the upper classes of British and American society. Hidden bible codes, mystical long-lost artifacts and ancient buried treasure? What’s not to like?
In 1908, before beginning the dig, Parker made a stop in Constantinople. His team may have been unorthodox (it included a former cricket player, a Swiss psychic and precisely zero archaeologists) and his motives were perhaps questionable, but the army captain was still intent on getting the proper legal permits from the Ottoman administration. After a quick negotiation, officials from the new Young Turks government supplied the permit in late November in exchange for £500 and half of any treasure to be found.
By this point Parker and Juvelius had already made a brief scouting trip to Jerusalem to identify the exact locations for the dig. Juvelius believed that the treasure lay underground, somewhere in the vicinity of the Temple Mount – the massive stone platform thought to be the site of both Jewish temples, where the Dome of the Rock now stood alongside the Al Aqsa Mosque.
Let the Digging Begin
Since digging under the platform itself was (initially) out of the question because of the religious sensitivities involved, Juvelius planned to reach the area by using already-existing ancient underground passages, accessible from what was known as the Hill of Ophel, the area south of the Temple Mount and the mosques. These would hopefully lead to a secret treasure chamber, that Juvelius was convinced existed under the Temple Mount itself.
The British team actually purchased land in the area of the dig site with some help from Ottoman officials. The Turks were able to overcome local resistance to the sale by announcing that the land was to be used for a hospital (this did not pan out). Finally, with the bureaucratic wrangling out of the way, work could begin.
In August of 1909, the team set up in a lone villa south of the Old City walls, the dig site was fenced off, and preparations for the excavation began. The European visitors stood out like a sore thumb in early 20th century Jerusalem, and their secretive behavior aroused plenty of attention and curiosity. Inevitably, despite the efforts to pretend otherwise, rumor got out that these were treasure hunters. Soon enough, the team was under pressure from suspicious locals and community leaders, who were eager to have someone on the inside that they could trust – a serious professional whose mere presence would reassure them. Parker finally gave in.
Enter Louis-Hugues Vincent.
Vincent was a Dominican monk, but also a respected archaeologist who worked at Jerusalem’s École biblique et archéologique française. Parker agreed to allow Vincent full access to the dig, three days a week, on the condition that no information would be shared with the public until Parker saw fit. This had the double effect of silencing local criticism, as well as providing the team with its only certified and relevant expert.
It is primarily thanks to Vincent that we have a detailed record of most of the Parker expedition’s underground work in Jerusalem. In fact, mere months after the scandalous incident on the Temple Mount, Vincent published an entire book, in both French and English, about the Parker expedition, detailing its work methods and findings and featuring intricate maps, drawings and photographs. A rare copy of Underground Jerusalem: Discoveries on the Hill of Ophel (1909-11) can be found in the Eran Laor Cartographic Collection at the National Library of Israel.
As work got underway, some three hundred men were employed from the nearby village of Silwan (Siloam) to do the digging. The team began the excavations in the area of the Gihon Spring, Warren’s Shaft and the Siloam Tunnel (also known as Hezekiah’s tunnel). Both the tunnel and the shaft were previously explored in the 19th century, to much fanfare, and were thought to have formed parts of ancient Jerusalem’s underground water system. The general plan was to search for as-yet undiscovered passages, branching off from the known tunnels, that would hopefully lead the team to the secret treasure under the Temple Mount.
The work was arduous and dangerous, continuing at all times of the day, in 4-hour shifts. The workers carried torches and chanted songs as they picked away. Vincent wrote that they “found it necessary to take some such means to counteract the monotony of the dark, mysterious tunnels which seemed to stretch endlessly into the very entrails of the rock”.
The 1909 dig lasted into the autumn, but bad weather soon made further progress impossible. The team dispersed for the season, with Parker and company returning to Britain. They were back in Jerusalem by early August of 1910, with better equipment and aided by experts who had worked on the London Underground subway system. In this second dig season, the team continued to clear out the existing tunnels and even discovered previously unknown passages and chambers. Yet none of these came near the area of the Temple Mount, where the treasure was believed to be hidden. Parker even decided to begin carving out new tunnels, to bore an underground path that would lead them to their goal, but this was a slow and laborious process.
Vincent’s book contains a number of detailed maps charting out the network of ancient tunnels excavated by the team, as well as tunnels that they themselves dug underground.
Conditions were difficult, even for those with experience. Vincent wrote: “Thirty metres from the fountain the candles would not burn any longer, and we had to fall back on portable electric lanterns. In spite of a ventilator and oxygen capsules, the gangs had to be relieved every hour. At certain times I was not able to be more than a quarter of an hour in the gallery.”
While work was underway, water had to be diverted from the ancient Siloam Tunnel in which the famous Siloam Inscription was found in 1880. One of the benefits of this entire enterprise was that the clearing out of the underground waterways meant that water could now flow more easily through the channels. As the dig season drew to a close, the water was diverted back on October 11, 1910. Vincent wrote that its volume was now double what it had been previously, to the delight of the villagers of Silwan: “The flow of water gradually passed through to the Pool of Siloam; the shouts of acclamation and the noise of the feast to celebrate this occasion will long sound in my ears”.
This act of benevolence made Parker and his associates momentarily more popular with the locals, but for the team itself, the year 1910 was full of frustration and disappointment. Two seasons of hard manual labor in the summer heat had taken their toll, and the treasure hunters had little treasure to show for their efforts. Juvelius, the original visionary behind the quest, contracted malaria, packed his things and left for home. The winter rains once again put a stop to the digging and the Ottoman overseers also seemed to lose faith at this point. Parker’s dig permit was set to expire in late 1911, and chances of a renewal appeared slim, but the Englishman, who had investors to answer to, was not quite ready to give up.
With the excavations south of the Temple Mount not yielding any treasures belonging to biblical kings, a desperate Parker decided it was finally time for a different, more direct approach.
Things Fall Apart
Parker proceeded to discreetly bribe Sheikh Khalil al-Zanaf, the caretaker of the “Noble Sanctuary” (the Haram al-Sharif, the Arabic name for the Temple Mount). This payment allowed Parker and his team access to the massive ancient platform, now a site of daily Muslim worship. It was April of 1911, and that year Easter and Passover coincided with the celebration of Nebi Musa. This festival honoring the figure of Moses was marked by local Muslims with a pilgrimage to a religious site near Jericho. Sheikh Khalil made sure the guards usually stationed on the platform were given well-paid leave to attend the festival.
With prying eyes removed from the premises, at night and with a police guard present, Parker and his associates commenced digging on the Temple Mount. Louis-Hugues Vincent, the French archaeologist-monk, did not participate in this part of the venture. He may have disapproved, he may have been kept in the dark, but there is no mention of the dig on the mount in his book. What we know of these events comes from other contemporary accounts and press reports.
Parker’s men began digging in the south-eastern corner of the platform – the area that the crusaders erroneously called Solomon’s Stables. Gustaf Dalman wrote later that year that the team “apparently hoped to be able to get underground from thence to the site of the Temple, but they were stopped by cisterns, and gave up the attempt as impossible.”
At this point, Parker finally stopped beating around the bush. He and his men entered the Dome of the Rock, and began digging beneath the Foundation Stone, the place that many believe to have once been the location of the Holy of Holies, the sacred innermost chamber of the ancient Jewish temple. Dalman, the director of the German Protestant Institute of Archaeology in Jerusalem at the time, wrote that the team: “opened the rock tunnel, which leads from the north to the Sacred Rock under the Dome of the Rock, and which perhaps carried away the blood from the Altar of the Temple. This tunnel was followed for about seven metres in a northerly direction, but nothing particular was found except a slight enlargement of it.”
Some accounts claimed the men also dug into the floor of the cave beneath the Foundation Stone, known as the Well of Souls, in search of a chamber rumored to exist there, though Dalman was not convinced this occurred. In any case, after nine nights of digging on the Temple Mount, the excavations were stopped when the secretive work was discovered. Dalman wrote that one of the Haram guards, who was “insufficiently bribed”, was responsible. According to another version of events, a guard happened to show up at the Haram at night, intending to sleep there as his own home was full of relatives attending the pilgrimage festival, when he came across the sacrilegious work being done.
The word soon spread, and chaos broke out.
Fueled by rumors of ancient treasures being stolen by foreigners, angry mobs formed in the streets. Some two thousand Muslim demonstrators vented their fury in front of the Ottoman government headquarters, the Saraya, not far from the Temple Mount. A general strike was announced, marches were held and calls were made to kill the foreign intruders and Azmi Bey, the Ottoman governor, along with them. The tension lasted for days, occasionally erupting into public demonstrations and violent riots. Sheikh Khalil, the caretaker of the Haram al-Sharif, was another target of the protestors’ ire. The demonstrators were even supported by some of the local Hebrew press. One article stated that “The Ashkenazi newspapers accuse the English and American tourists of not treating the Muslim holy places with the proper respect”.
Scholar Louis Fishman described these events in detail in his 2005 article, The 1911 Haram al-Sharif Incident. Writing of the episode on the Temple Mount and particularly the protests that followed, Fishman noted that there was something remarkable about these demonstrations and the motivation behind them:
“we can also detect the beginnings of a Palestinian identity as distinct from the local population’s overlapping Ottoman and Arab identities. This is important because it gives us a rare look at the beginnings of a local nationalism expressed through opposition to Ottoman policies concerning not Zionism but the city of Jerusalem.”
As for Parker, he and his men quickly left for Jaffa, on the Mediterranean coast, once their secret was out. The Ottoman authorities, who of course had approved the whole enterprise to begin with, made a show of searching their ship, declaring that no treasures were found onboard. The Englishmen were then quietly allowed to leave for home, likely thanks to Parker’s political connections. Sheikh Khalil, however, was soon arrested, as was a local Armenian named Hagop Makasder, who had served as the team’s translator and was found to be a convenient scapegoat.
In the aftermath, both Azmi Bey, the district governor, and Sheikh Khalil lost their jobs. This was decided during a parliamentary inquiry into the episode, held in Constantinople. The incident made international headlines, especially across the Islamic world and as far as India. The masses wanted accountability. Representatives of the Ottoman government again declared that no ancient treasures of significance were stolen, while also justifying their original support for the expedition, arguing that it could conceivably have turned out to be a profitable venture. In any case, the higher-ups in the Ottoman establishment were cleared of any wrongdoing.
So it seems that no crowns belonging to ancient kings, no scepters, no rings, no swords and of course no curious-looking boxes topped with winged angels were uncovered during the work of the Parker expedition. But after two years of digging under ancient Jerusalem, using state of the art equipment and hundreds of workmen laboring day and night, it would, after all, be ludicrous to suggest that absolutely nothing at all was found… So what did Parker have to show for his efforts?
What Did They Find?
The excavations under the Hill of Ophel, south of the Temple Mount, were able to reveal a number of ancient subterranean tombs. One of these was, according to Vincent, “a most remarkable Egyptian-looking tomb, containing wonderfully well-preserved pottery, with specimens as fine as any yet found in Palestine”. Vincent identified the pottery as Jebusite, dating it to around 2,400 BCE at the latest, meaning these finds were significantly older than the Jewish treasures the expedition was looking for. Despite the Egyptian artistic features, the Frenchman concluded that the tomb belonged to a wealthy Jebusite “who either introduced or fostered” Egyptian fashions in the area.
The expedition excavated a number of other tombs and burial chambers that Vincent believed were “almost exactly contemporaneous with the palmy days of the Israelitish kings”. Vincent made impressive efforts to document the large amounts of pottery found in the many chambers and passages dug up by the workers. The pottery finds included “thousands of Israelitish jars”. A handful bore stamps that indicated their purpose or owner. Vincent wrote that only one of these was legible, and that in his opinion, this particular stamp’s letters formed the word “MoReSHeT”. The Frenchman believed that the jar was a tribute from the small town of Moreshet on the southwestern border of ancient Judea, sent to the royal treasury in Jerusalem. This he saw as evidence that the Judean king’s palace could not be far away from the dig site.
The team also found the remains of an ancient gateway, held up by two monolithic stones, each around 5 feet 10 inches high and less than 3 feet apart. The small size of this strange portal led Vincent to conclude that it was a postern gate, leading to a secret passage towards the nearby Gihon Spring, a critical source of water for ancient Jerusalem.
Another interesting find was “a magnificent chair of ‘royal’ stone”. The workers at first thought this must indeed have been Solomon’s throne, but Vincent was not convinced, writing cryptically – “I fear its actual destination was at once more private and more naturally necessary”. A recent study has confirmed this particular item as the remains of an Iron Age toilet seat.
Other finds included “a few big balls of metal”, some indecipherable Roman coins, a small statue, probably Herodian, a handful of Canaanite idols and carvings of animal figures, as well as:
“certain blocks of stone we discovered which probably formed the bases of columns or candelabras; the lower portion of a porphyry table; various mouldings cut in rare marbles; the remains of a splendid bronze flower-pot. All were found at about the same place, and all confirmed the impression that we were among the remains of a magnificent and luxurious household”
One discovery was somewhat puzzling. Vincent described “a mark like an arrow-head cut in the rock of the natural escarpment…” Similar marks had been found at Tell es-Safi and on the Mount of Olives. Vincent thought they were possibly made by the master mason “to indicate the limit or the plan of various constructions”, but the matter is open to debate.
When Israeli archaeologists Ronni Reich and Eli Shukron re-excavated this area in 2009, their discovery of several more of these mysterious V-shaped markings in an underground chamber nearby made headlines. They hypothesized that the incisions may have been used to hold some sort of apparatus in place, perhaps a type of loom or other device in the field of industry or agriculture.
Reich and Shukron have argued that Vincent’s work in the area south of the Temple Mount (facilitated by Captain Parker, of course) was critically important in the context of the archaeological study of Jerusalem. They make the case that it was Parker and Vincent who proved this site to be the true site of ancient Jerusalem. Reich and Shukrun believe, as did Vincent, that the City of David was built on this spot, as it was here and only here that remains from the early and mid-Bronze Age were found – meaning that this was Canaanite Jerusalem, the city that would later, during the Iron Age, become the Jerusalem described in the Bible.
Not everyone agrees, however. Another leading Israeli archaeologist, Israel Finkelstein, has argued extensively that the center of ancient Jerusalem was on the Temple Mount itself, and not on the Hill of Ophel, which lies slightly to the south.
Of course it is difficult to know for sure, without digging below the surface, but that, as we have seen, can get complicated.
Louis-Hugues Vincent, Underground Jerusalem: Discoveries on the Hill of Ophel, London: H. Cox, 1911
Gustaf Dalman, “The Search for the Temple Treasure at Jerusalem”, Palestine Exploration Quarterly, Vol. 44, No. 1, 1912
Nirit Shalev Khalifa, “In Search of the Temple Treasures,” Qadmoniot, Vol. 31, issue 116, 1999 (Hebrew)
Louis Fishman, “The 1911 Haram al-Sharif Incident: Palestinian Notables Versus the Ottoman Administration”, Journal of Palestine Studies, Vol. 34, No. 3, Spring 2005
Ronni Reich and Eli Shukron, “One Hundred Years Since the Parker–Vincent Excavations in the City of David”, City of David Studies of Ancient Jerusalem 7 (Hebrew)