Tevye the Milkman and the Fight Against Assimilation in Eastern Europe

What is the connection between Ronetti Roman's theatre play "Manasse," Sholem Aleichem's novel "Tevye the Milkman," and Mordechai Spector's short story "The Prince?"

שלושת היוצרים והעיבודים ל"מנשה" ו"טוביה החולב"

The four-act theater play “Manasse,” written by Ronetti Roman (Aaron Blumenfeld) was published in 1900 and deals with Jewish integration into society under the cover of the love story between Lelia, the granddaughter of the Jewish traditionalist Manasse Cohen, and a Romanian Christian lawyer. In certain ways, despite the differences between the plots, Ronetti’s play reminds us of the novel “Tevye the Milkman,” by the famous Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem, whose first chapter was published about six years before the play’s debut performance. Sholem Aleichem’s novel tells the story of Hava, Tevye’s daughter who marries a Russian Christian man.

The play “Manasse” was adapted for the big screen in a film directed by Jean Michail in 1925.

Sholem Aleichem advocated for both socialist and Zionist ideals and strongly opposed assimilation. He portrayed the character of Tevye as a peace-loving man who saw supreme value in preserving tradition. Although Hava’s marriage to her non-Jewish husband serves as an entrance ticket into gentile society, this choice is perceived by her father as entirely inexcusable. In fact, once her marriage to the young Christian man has been revealed, Tevye refuses to acknowledge Hava as his daughter.


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In his theater play “Manasse,” Ronetti Roman aroused more ambivalent feelings among the Jewish audience. In contrast to Tevye who is torn over his daughter’s marriage, Manasse Cohen, the observant and traditionalist Jew, dies of sorrow as a result of his granddaughter’s wedding with the Christian lawyer. Unlike Tevye, Manasse did not survive to continue on the path of his forefathers. Many audience members saw his death as legitimization for Jewish assimilation but Ronetti Roman, conservative in his views, grew up in a Hasidic household and had no intention of supporting assimilation in his play. He rather intended to use the death of Manasse Cohen as a tragic warning against assimilation rather than as a way to legitimatize it.

In addition to the Jewish opponents of assimilation, Romanian right-wing activists also rose up against Ronetti and for many years they succeeded in preventing him from presenting his play at the Romanian National Theater claiming that it was a Jewish work that could not represent Romanian culture. Despite these objections, in May of 1904, as a result of the great success of the play, “Manasse” finally found its way to the stage of the National Theater in Bucharest. Sitting in the audience on opening night was the Romanian Royal Family.

The first and the last page of Ronetti Roman’s letter to casting director Gheorghe Cârjă, regarding the planning of the play in the cities of Ploiești and Bucharest. Ronetti asks Mr. Cârjă to pay attention to the language of the actors, because mistakes in the grammar of the Romanian language, such as “an cow” or “an girl” may cause dissatisfaction with both the Romanian audience and the Jewish audience. Roman sent the letter on April 18th, 1904, a month before the great success in Bucharest. Click image to enlarge.

In 1915, the playwright Adrian Verea (Adolph Wechsler) published a sequel to Ronetti’s play entitled, “After the Death of Manasse.” In contrast to Ronetti who emphasized the religious-ethnic ambivalence in his play, Verea exposed the true face of extreme anti-Semitism and perhaps even rectified the ambivalence of Ronetti’s work by expressing that a solution to the political-familial conflict would be achieved only after the separation of the Christian lawyer from his Jewish wife. With this scene, Verea openly opposed assimilation.

The play “Manasse” by Ronetti and its sequel “After the Death of Manasse” by Adrian Verea in the archives of the National Library.

Looking After the Prince: Another Polish-Jewish Response to Assimilation

One of the rare items found in the archives of the National Library of Israel is a short story by Mordecai Spector called “The Prince.” This story was probably never published. Spector, who came from a religious background, also opposed assimilation but saw value in Jewish integration into the greater society. In the story “The Prince,” Spector tells the story of Rachel, a simple dressmaker with dreamy eyes who likes to read pulp fiction in the style of the writings of Nahum Meïr Schaikewitz (“Shomer”)

Although many boys circled around her, Rachel continued to dream about the “rich prince” who would fall in love with her, ask for her hand in marriage and save her from her present status by wisking her off to his palaces in a distant country. In the end, despite all of her dreams, Rachel marries Leizer, a low-class Jew, who goes on to leave her and their two children behind to try his luck abroad. During this period Rachel is unrecognizable. Her eyes shed bitter tears and her face ages decades beyond her true age. This portrait of a broken and anxious woman changes when we meet her once again at the side of a rich gentile man in a suit, wrapped in a scarf, wearing white gloves and holding a walking stick in his hand. This gentile is revealed to the reader as Leizer, Rachel’s Jewish husband, who apparently came back to her in wealth. All’s well that ends well – Rachel, who suffered both in her youth and at the beginning of her marriage, now flourishes alongside her Jewish “prince.”

A rare and interesting item preserved in the National Library, “The Prince.”

While Sholem Aleichem railed against unfortunate and undesirable assimilation and in favor of adherence to tradition, Ronetti Roman left the decision to the audience, and Mordechai Spektor hinted to the reader that ethnic assimilation can be prevented through social assimilation. According to Spektor, while it is permissible for Jewish women to dream about a gentile “prince,” once rich Jews are at their disposal, marrying them is the solution to improving their social status.


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When Life Gives You Lemons: Sukkot Preparations in the Town of Halberstadt

Living in a cold climate in Central Europe sometimes meant going to great lengths to get the citrus fruit required to celebrate the holiday of Sukkot.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, the town of Halberstadt (then in Prussia, now in Germany), had one of the largest Jewish communities in Central Europe. The community Pinkas (registry), now housed in the Manuscript Department of the National Library, details the activities of the town’s Jewish residents from 1773-1808. This community register was written in chronological order and in several languages including Yiddish, Hebrew, and German. The Pinkas served as a centralized record of rules and regulations, criteria for acceptance into the community, diplomatic initiatives, and interactions with other communities.

In European countries with colder climates like Prussia, it was historically difficult to find fresh citrus fruit. While this may not seem like a critical issue for most, for the Jewish people citrus fruit play a fundamental role in the celebration of one of the central Jewish holidays – Sukkot.

An elderly man holding an Etrog used to celebrate the holiday of Sukkot, illustration by Alphonse Levy from the Folklore Research Center at the Hebrew University

During the weeklong holiday, Jews celebrate by living and eating in huts constructed especially for the occasion in accordance with precise traditional instructions.

The citrus fruit known as the etrog, or citron in English,  plays a key part in the in the prayer services performed on Sukkot, which marks the end of the harvest season in the Hebrew month of Tishrei.

The Jewish communities in Central Europe were typically dependent on imported etrogim, a reality that served as a source of great apprehension for many given the dangers of sea travel.  As the high holidays approached, if the shipment of etrogim had yet to arrive, concern would grow within the community and the local Jews would find themselves feeling a bit frantic. In fact, there are recorded incidents where local merchants successfully tricked the despairing Jewish community into purchasing lemons in place of etrogim for want of a better option.

The concern over the timely arrival of etrogim was a familiar feeling for the community of Halberstadt. The community Pinkas includes an entry that tells of the great lengths the community leaders went through to ensure the town would be able to celebrate the holiday of Sukkot in its entirety.

Pages 101- 102 of the Halberstadt Community Pinkas, from the Manuscript Department of the National Library of Israel. Click to enlarge the image.

Written in Yiddish on the 28th day of the Jewish month of Elul, just a few days before the start of the High Holy Days of 1796, an entry describes how the Jewish leaders of the town were working their personal connections in other Jewish communities to try and procure enough etrogim for the town to use in the upcoming holiday services.

“Reb Moshe said in the name of Reb Gissel, who wrote to the community leaders of Frankfurt to inquire about etrogim a while ago but until now we have yet received an answer,” reads page 201 of the Pinkas.

The entry even recorded suggestions by community leaders that another letter be written in the hopes of increasing pressure on potential suppliers of etrogim. They also included a contingency plan, in case the additional pressures were insufficient.

Etrog trees, photograph from the Dan Hadani Archive at the National Library of Israel

The entry reads, “Reb Gissel will continue to wait for an answer and in the case that his contact will not bring forth etrogim, we will instead buy a few etrogim at the fair in Leipzig before Rosh Chodesh Tishre (the beginning of the Jewish month of Tishre), as many as are needed for the community.”

This entry and the decision of the community council gives the impression that there were other locations with accessible etrogim but perhaps they were pricier or of a lesser quality, and therefore it was preferred to have them brought in from Frankfurt.

While the Pinkas does not mention the outcome of the community’s conundrum, this entry gives us an interesting insight into life for the religious Jewish community in the 19th century and provides a closer look at the difficulties faced when trying to uphold the laws of the holiday of Sukkot.


This article has been published as part of Gesher L’Europa, the National Library of Israel’s initiative to share stories and connect with people, institutions and communities in Europe and beyond.

The 13th Century Manuscript That Was Saved From the Nazis

The Worms Mahzor, written in the late 13th century, was spared the destruction of the Holocaust after it was smuggled away from the Gestapo and hidden in one of the city’s cathedral towers.

November 10, 1938, the morning after Kristallnacht.

Shattered glass glittered in the streets and the smoking remains of Jewish businesses and synagogues stood as witness to the violence and rampant destruction instigated by the Nazi mobs the previous evening. An eerie quiet fell on the streets of Germany that morning following the arrest and deportation of 30,000 Jews from their homes to the concentration camps where they would await their fate. Fear gripped the hearts of the Jewish community as its members surveyed the damage and questioned their safety and what the future held in store.

Dr. Freidrich M. Illert, the director of the local cultural institutions and the archivist of the city of Worms, immediately recognized that the extent of the damage was far beyond what most could perceive. It wasn’t just the physical businesses and places of worship that had been lost in the fires; the historical documents and archives of the Jewish community may very well have been included among the victims. The Great Synagogue of Worms had gone up in flames and he feared that, along with the building, the community’s archive which contained irreplaceable historical documents and books may have also been lost.

A page from the Worms Mahzor, from the NLI Collections. Click image to enlarge.

Included in the archive was the Worms Mahzor, a set of manuscripts consisting of two volumes, one that was written in 1272 and a second that was written in 1280. The two-volume set was used by the cantors of the community to lead the congregation of the Great Synagogue of Worms in the traditional holiday prayer services for centuries.

The two volumes were written by different scribes and it is not absolutely clear where they were written. The first volume was written by the scribe Simcha ben Yehuda and in the prayers for the seventh day of Passover, a marginal note reads: “This is said aloud on that day, such is the rite of Würzburg.” Based on this notation as well as the illustrations included in the manuscript which bare resemblance to other documents originating from that region, it is believed the volume originated from the area of Würzburg.


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Written on parchment in decorative Ashkenazic calligraphy, the Mahzor features illustrations and embellishments drawn in colorful inks. Over the years, different cantors as late as the 14th century had added their own notations to the first volume showing that the Mahzor had been used in prayer services for centuries.

A page from the Worms Mahzor, from the NLI Collections. Click image to enlarge.

The 13th-century manuscript also contains the oldest known sample of written Yiddish. The scribe of the Mahzor wrote a blessing for the man who carried the weighty book to the synagogue for prayer services. Hidden in the letters of the prayer for dew traditionally recited on Passover, the blessing reads, “Let a good day shine for him, who will carry this Mahzor to the synagogue.”

The blessing for the carrier of the Mahzor hidden inside the letters, “B’daato.” From the NLI Collections. Click image to enlarge.

During his desperate search for information, Dr. Illert discovered that the community archive had been spared the inferno that destroyed the Great Synagogue but the whereabouts of the archive and how it had survived remained a mystery. He sought the help of the Worms municipality and the Hesse State government in tracking down the archive but, despite his greatest efforts, his search proved futile.

Years later, in the summer of 1943, Dr. Illert was invited to the palace in Darmstadt by the local Gestapo officials to help decipher foreign manuscripts. He was led down the stairs of the palace to the basement to view the books. After just a cursory glance at what lay in front of him, Dr. Illert realized he was looking at the archives of the Jewish community of Worms. After a quick search, he discovered that buried deep in the pile of books and documents lay the two volumes of the precious Worms Mahzor.

A page from the Worms Mahzor, from the NLI Collections. Click image to enlarge.

Dr. Illert was determined to rescue the archives and the historical documents from likely destruction at the hands of the Nazis. At great personal risk, he began slowly and methodically removing items from the basement, transferring the archive to the towers of one of the city’s cathedrals for safekeeping, a decision that also spared the documents from destruction when the allied forces bombed the city.

A page from the Worms Mahzor, from the NLI Collections. Click image to enlarge.

The archive, along with the Mahzor, survived the horrors of the war and in 1956, legal negotiations began in the hopes of transferring the Worms archive to Israel. In June of 1957, the two-volume Mahzor was brought to the National Library of Israel for preservation and safekeeping and the rest of the archive of the Jewish community of Worms was transferred to the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish people.

This post was written as part of Gesher L’Europa, the NLI’s initiative to connect with Europe and make our collections available to diverse audiences in Europe and beyond.

The Hero from Třebíč Who Saved 900 Children During the Holocaust

The annual Shamayim festival held in Třebíč honors Antonín Kalina who was posthumously awarded the title of Righteous Among the Nations.

Buchenwald Concentration Camp

It is the only Jewish site included on the UNESCO world heritage list that is not in Israel. It was almost demolished during the time of the communist regime and was saved in part thanks to another minority that lived there after the Jews left or perished.

Třebíč or Trebitsch is a town in the Czech Republic with a unique, well preserved former Jewish quarter. Unfortunately, this rich Jewish community was destroyed during World War II and the later regimes did not really support any religion – especially not after the war. However, locals still call that part of the town “Židy,” a word that means Jews, or “v Židech,” meaning in the Jewish area, despite the fact that the area boasts a different official name.

Postcard of a Street in the Jewish Quarter of Třebíč, The Folklore Research Center, Hebrew University of Jerusalem

This hidden gem was rediscovered in the late 1980s and reconstruction and repairs have since begun. One of the uncovered synagogues was used at one point as a warehouse to store leathers. Later on, it would house fruits and vegetables. As a result, the restorers had no shortage of work to do.

Nowadays the quarter draws all kinds of tourists, not just those looking for traces of Jewish history. Many cultural festivals and events are held in the area, the most famous of these is the festival of Jewish culture known as “Samajim,” pronounced “Shamayim” (Heavens, in English), which is held every year at the end of July and beginning of August. The former Jewish quarter becomes full of life again during this week-long festival. There are lectures about Jewish traditions, history, and literature, as well as concerts by a variety of bands from Central and Eastern Europe. You can also taste a range of traditional Jewish delicacies. Some of the faces become familiar as people return year after year.

The Jewish Cemetery of Třebíč, Photo by Dominika Sedlakova

The festival is dedicated to a man named Antonín Kalina. Antonín was awarded the title of Righteous Among the Nations after his death in 2012 for his heroic work during the Holocaust.

Kalina, who was born in Třebíč in 1902 became a member of the communist party in 1923. Due to his political activism, he was arrested in 1939 by the Nazis and was sent to the Dachau concentration camp. A month later he was transferred to Buchenwald.

Antonín Kalina

With the help of the underground movement in the camp, Kalina risked his own life to help the children of Buchenwald. He worked to relocate the children from their barracks on the other side of the camp to his. The Nazis avoided this area for fear of catching disease after Kalina put up a sign reading, “Danger: Typhoid.” He managed to bring food and clothing to the children he had smuggled away and protected them from the harsh conditions of the camp as much as possible until the end of the war.

Kalina is credited with saving 900 children in the Buchenwald concentration camp. Following the war and his release from the camp, Kalina returned to his hometown of Třebíč where he lived until his death in 1990.

Program for the 2018 Samajim (Shamayim) Festival, Courtesy of Domina Sedlakova

Naftali Furst is one of the many children who owes his life to Antonín Kalina and he attended this year’s Samajim festival to honor his memory. Naftali was born in Slovakia but he left to move to Israel after the Second World War. Speaking in Slovak tinged with a slight Hebrew accent, he spoke in memory of Antonín Kalina. He told of how the children would “cook” in the barracks in Buchenwald. This activity did not consist of any actual food. Rather, the children would simply share memories of their favorite dishes and deserts, with one boy preferring poppy seed cake and another recalling cakes topped with apples or nuts. They all hoped to taste them again after the war.

Třebíč, Photo by Dominika Sedlakova

The week-long festival came to a close with a concert in tribute to the 100th anniversary of Czechoslovakia, being celebrated this year. The concert featured a chorus of thirty-five people from all over Slovakia and some parts of the Czech Republic, with people joining together to dance in the restored synagogue.  After the concert, the audience was invited to continue the festivities outside in the Romanesque-gothic basilica from the 13th century near the Jewish quarter.

This was the 15th iteration of the festival and we look forward to next years’ experience. We hope you can join us to learn more about the rich Jewish heritage here – as they say, Shana Haba’ah B’Třebíč – Next year in Třebíč!

This post was written as part of Gesher L’Europa, the NLI’s initiative to connect with Europe and make our collections available to diverse audiences in Europe and beyond in cooperation with Paideia – The European Institute for Jewish Studies.