Chanan and Nahbi: A Window Into Avraham Mapu’s Mind

The man who wrote the first ever Hebrew novel, Avraham Mapu, had never even been to the Land of Israel. Despite this, almost all of his works extol the Holy Land with awe and reverence, except for a single cryptic children’s story. So, what exactly is this puzzling kid’s story really trying to tell us?

Avraham Mapu, the Avraham Schwadron Collection, the National Library of Israel

“There are two rich men who live in the town of Zafron. One is called Chanan, the other Nahbi. Chanan is a generous man, granting every wish to the people around him: old clothes to some, money and bread to others.

Nahbi is a miser, unwilling to give. When his parents ask him why he turned away from the beggar in the streets, he tells them: I did not see him. He does not see anyone, he even ignores his friends and relatives.

In his [Chanan’s] house, he expresses pity for the poor, and sympathy for those close to him. The hungry knock on Chanan’s door and leave satisfied. Chanan is successful in all his undertakings, for the Lord has mercy on him and the inhabitants of Zafron praise Chanan, for he is a cherished member of the community, a man with no envy or hatred in his heart. Nahbi hates him, yet he does not hate Nahbi. Nahbi chases the poor away; Chanan takes them in.

Zafron is a small town, but it contains many poor people. However, they are not worried about the Passover holiday, for they are certain of Chanan’s charity: he buys flour and his assistants bake matzot for the poor. Once the chametz are removed from the town, Chanan sends food to the poor: matzot, meat, wine, oil and sweets for the holiday, and those who receive assistance eat and drink merrily and bless the home of the righteous man.”

Chanan and Nahbi – the tale of the good and the evil, are the main characters of a children’s story written by Avraham Mapu, but this little tale does not actually describe men at all. Chanan and Nahbi are but a metaphor. However, to understand what Chanan and Nahbi really represent, we first need to take a look into the life of their esteemed author: Avraham Mapu.

Avraham Mapu, the Avraham Schwadron Collection, the National Library of Israel

Abraham was born on January 10, 1808, in a poor suburb of Kovno, Lithuania, called Salvodka. His family had very little money but they were happy, and content with a religious, small-town life. His father, Rabbi Yekutiel was a teacher and a wise Jewish man who studied Torah and prayed with fervor. A strong believer, he tried to pass this love of studying down to his son by sending him to cheder from a young age, and telling him wonderful stories about the Land of Israel, a marvelous dream land of liberation and Jewish freedom. Little Avraham took to Jewish studies well and was known for being especially bright, but having to find work at a young age to help his struggling family, he never had much of a formal education.

By the time he was 17, Mapu had found a way to make a living on his own by following in the footsteps of his father and becoming a teacher. He was wed before his 18th birthday, and suddenly found himself in a life which exactly mirrored that of his parents – a struggling teacher, trying to build a livelihood for himself and his small Jewish family. But Avraham dreamed of more. Like his father before him, he was also a fantasist, and he knew deep in his heart that life had more in store for him. He longed to visit the Land of Israel and see for himself whether it really was the paradise described to him, a land of Jewish intellectual curiosity, where milk and honey flowed through the valleys in great rivers.

Avraham Mapu’s Wife, the Avraham Schwadron Collection, the National Library of Israel

To his disappointment, he couldn’t save enough money to quench this curiosity and cross the continents, but in search of a brighter future closer to home, Mapu found himself travelling around the Russian Empire with his wife, who by this point had given birth to two children. But despite his searching, all his travels succeeded in doing was exhaust his poor wife! Well, that’s not entirely true. His travels, despite them not bringing him the prosperity or satisfaction he so wished for, did serve to broaden his mind. Along the way, he met groups of new and revolutionary Zionist maskilim. The maskilim were ‘enlightened’ Jews and saw themselves as the pioneers of intellectual Judaism and a modern concept of Jewish self-determination. Their focus was on how to bring Judaism into the modern age and integrate a high level of rationalism into the religion while rebuilding a Jewish homeland based on the French ideals of liberty, equality, and fraternity. Meeting the prominent Haskalah pioneer Shneur Sachs in Rossyieny, Lithuania, Mapu was encouraged to act on this new-found belief system, and the preeminent writer and scholar Sachs encouraged Mapu to follow in his footsteps and write some of his own Haskalah works. Avraham considered this idea, and with caution, he carefully tiptoed into the waters of Hebrew literature.

A letter from Abraham Mapu to his brother (1859), Waldemar Mordecai Wolff Haffkine archive, the National Library of Israel

Literature in the early 19th century, even enlightened Jewish literature, was usually written in the author’s mother-tongue. But seeking a more romantic and authentic style of writing, Mapu broke new territory and started to compose his first book in Hebrew. An ardent Zionist, Mapu knew that this was the only language for his art. Modern Hebrew as we know it did not yet exist, but Mapu had been taught how to read Gemara by his father years earlier and remembered his biblical Hebrew training. Most people think of Eliezer Ben‑Yehuda as the father of modern Hebrew, and this is certainly true to an extent. That being said, Ben Yehuda was born 50 years after Mapu, by which point Mapu had already published multiple books in a mixture of biblical and adapted Hebrew prose. Mapu should really be credited as one of the first pioneers of the modern Israeli language, adjusting the old Hebrew lexicon to suit his contemporary literary needs.

Avraham Mapu, the Avraham Schwadron Collection, the National Library of Israel

Avraham began composing a book in Hebrew named “Shulamit” which was set in the Land of Israel. It documented the great beauty of the land and contrasted this sharply with dire and dreary descriptions of life in Eastern Europe. But before long, Mapu grew discontent with the challenge of writing Hebrew prose, and as he worked long days and tried to take care of his growing family, he lost his motivation for writing. He had never even been to the Holy Land and seen it for himself, and his faith in his ability to write authentically dwindled until he simply stopped writing altogether. But he always kept hold of the incomplete “Shulamit” manuscript, which would one day become Ahavat Tzion (“The Love of Zion”), one of his most well-known and beloved Hebrew books.

Ahavat Tzion, his first published work, was completed while Mapu lived in Yurburg. In 1832, Mapu was hired by a wealthy local who was seeking a tutor for his children. Mapu accepted this offer, lured in by its substantial financial reward, but he found far more than just wealth in this new role. Finally having a welcoming and friendly home in which to live, a job in which he was treated with respect and reverence, and a beautiful town to raise his family in, Mapu thrived. Close to the German border, Yurburg was a wealthy western town brimming with intellectuals who accepted Avraham as one of their own. He was able to find a community of other maskilim, who would meet to read literature and discuss the possibilities of reviving a Jewish state. But most importantly, this new community of academics encouraged Mapu to write, and write he did, finishing Ahavat Tzion and even starting on his next novel, The Guilt of Samaria.

Avraham Mapu’s original manuscript of Ahavat Tzion, the Avraham Shchwadron Collection, the National Library of Israel

Ahavat Tzion is considered the first modern Hebrew book, and tells winding tales of life in the Land of Israel. Despite never having seen the place, Mapu describes a paradise complete with sprawling nature, groups of curious Jews eager to build and share their knowledge, and a land full of passion and love. He continuously contrasts this with a grey and bleak description of life in Europe: the crumbling buildings, lack of purpose, cold weather and unfriendly people. Perhaps these descriptions were slightly hyperbolic, but they did truly reflect Mapu’s desire to leave behind his birthplace and move to Israel. For him, this far-off dream was enough to keep him going, whether it was based in reality or not.

Avraham Mapu’s original manuscript, digitized as part of the “Ktiv” Project, the National Library of Israel

His neighbors were his kindest critics, reading his works approvingly and encouraging him to continue telling his stories. But Mapu did not have that same faith in himself: “I built and destroyed, built and destroyed” he wrote in a letter to a friend, expressing how he never felt entirely content with his own writing. But arguably the most interesting thing he wrote was not in fact for his adoring friends, but for his students.

The custom for tutors in 19th century Europe was to gift a book of literature to one’s students as a reward for learning how to read. However, Mapu couldn’t find a book that he was content to pass on, and decided to take matters into his own hands instead, by composing his own book! As opposed to the children’s stories usually gifted to students, Mapu wrote a short manuscript which he named “Pedagogic Training”, a book of general knowledge, as well as grammar, Hebrew language and even some moral philosophy.

It is in this copy that we find the story of Chanan and Nahbi. Seemingly out of place in his book of languid teachings, later critics took a deeper look at this story, trying to figure out what was going through Mapu’s mind when he decided to include this fanciful tale. Some have suggested that Nahbi represents Mapu’s own miserly village of Salvodka while Chanan is a representation of Yurburg. Others think that Nahbi embodies the old, traditional shtetl Jews, while Chanan is a personification of the Haskalah movement and its liberation of the modern Jew. All agree, however, that this story, told with such moving and emotive prose, represents far more than a fairytale told for its own sake.

Avraham Mapu’s original manuscript, The Russian State Library, Moscow, Russia, digitized as part of the “Ktiv” Project, the National Library of Israel

But perhaps the most convincing interpretation is that this story is teaching us an important message about Mapu’s Zionism. Avraham Mapu saw Europe as a place of poverty, where people avert their eyes to the suffering of others, abandon their own families, and live a life of hopelessness. We can easily see how this is symbolized by the character of Nahbi. The Land of Israel, on the other hand, was a place that Mapu believed to be full of companionship, celebrations of Jewish festivals, friends eagerly offering helping hands and allowing each other to explore their culture and religion. All of this was personified by Chanan, whose character provided hope for a sorely needed escape from the realities of the world that Mapu actually occupied.

As Mapu’s list of published works grew, he went on teaching, eventually working for a state school and raising his children to become intellectuals like himself. In 1860, still quite young, his health took a turn however, and he began to lose much of his strength. His wife passed away and Avraham became frail, needing help to walk and complete even basic tasks. Despite this, he continued publishing books right up until a few months before his eventual death in 1867.

Abraham Mapu’s grave, photographer: Jüdische Friedhof Königsberg, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

Avraham Mapu left behind a legacy of great Hebrew literature and novels. Many are familiar with his name because of the roads and streets in Israel named after him, and of course his status as author of the first modern Hebrew novel. Yet, Mapu’s story of Chanan and Nahbi remains both his least understood, and arguably most interesting work, to this very day.

Abraham Shalom Yahuda’s Extraordinary Tabernacle Model

Among the thousands of documents, letters, rare books and manuscripts in the Yahuda collection at the National Library of Israel, there is a unique and unusual object: a precise three-dimensional model of the Tabernacle and its vessels down to the last detail of its golden rings and scarlet threads. What was the impetus behind Prof. Abraham Shalom Yahuda’s extraordinary model?

Abraham Shalom Yahuda and the model of the Tabernacle. All the photographs in this article depict the Tabernacle model in the Abraham Shalom Yehuda Archive at the National Library of Israel

With his prodigious knowledge of Arab culture, and expertise in Oriental studies (now called Middle Eastern studies) as well as Jewish religion and history, Abraham Shalom Yahuda was a much sought-after speaker on the lecture circuit. However, one lecture in particular made it into the headlines of the 1939 Passover edition of the venerated British Jewish newspaper The Jewish Chronicle: “BUILDING OF THE TABERNACLE – Evidence of Biblical Authenticity – HEBREWS AT THE TIME OF EXODUS” (March 24, 1939).

The newspaper enthusiastically reported that Prof. Yahuda “delivered a lecture last week on ‘The Building and Craftsmanship of the Tabernacle,’ […] accompanied by the showing of a model, specially built for Professor Yahuda of the Tabernacle, and it aroused great interest. The model was complete down to the most minute detail […] in strict accordance with Dr. Yahuda’s views […] [Yahuda] revealed a perfect knowledge of absolute craftsmanship and of architecture.” (ibid.).

How did a boy from the Sephardic community of the Old Yishuv in Jerusalem wind up studying for a doctorate in Semitic languages in Germany? What drew him, in the midst of his academic career, to undertake the complex and Sisyphean task of crafting a model of the Tabernacle? And most curiously, what does the model, now in the Yahuda Collection at the National Library of Israel, look like? In order to answer these questions, we must go back in time to Jerusalem of the late 19th century, which was just beginning to expand beyond the Old City’s walls.


From Jerusalem to Germany

The year is 1877. Abraham Shalom is born to the Yahuda family living in the Even Yisrael neighborhood, the sixth to be built outside the walls. His mother was originally from Germany and his father was the scion of a distinguished and wealthy family originally from Iraq. In Jerusalem of those days, such mixed ethnic marriages were rare, but in his family, it was expected, as Abraham Shalom writes in his memoirs:

In those days, the Sephardic and Ashkenazic communities were estranged. [However] my grandfather’s father, Rabbi Shlomo Yehezkel Yahuda, who had come from Iraq to Jerusalem, because of his charity and generous support of many scholars, was beloved by all communities, Sephardim and Ashkenazim alike… and he tried with all his might to endear the communities to each other.

And the first thing he did was to give his daughter Sara’s hand in marriage to Rabbi Yehoshua Yellin of Łomża, and to betroth his eldest son Shaul to the daughter of Rabbi Yeshaya Bardaki, one of the great Ashkenazic rabbis and important community leaders, and his younger son Faraj Haim to the daughter of the Chabad follower Rabbi Israel Shapira from a distinguished family from Poland. My father, Rabbi Benjamin, also followed in his footsteps and sought to draw the Ashkenazim closer, and hired melamdim (religious tutors) from the community for my elder brother and myself.

(Abraham Shalom Yahuda, When I Studied Rashi [Hebrew])

From a young age, Abraham Shalom was taught Torah, Jewish law, Mishnah and Talmud and other religious texts according to Jewish tradition, by private tutors hired by his parents. Yahuda describes it thus:

My father, being well-to-do, would pay a well-known tutor double and triple the going rate on condition that he not take on more than two or three additional students besides me, and who must be more advanced in their studies, in order to stimulate my scholarly envy. He did the same with all of my tutors. Indeed, this was to my benefit, particularly, a few years later, when I was studying Talmud. (Ibid.)

In his teens, he began studying other subjects, also with private tutors, Arabic language in particular, which became his great passion. At age 17, he published an article on the Arabic language in the newspaper HaMelitz, and the book Kadmoniyot Ha’Aravim (“Antiquities of the Arabs”) about the history of Arab culture before Islam. Shortly after, he wrote another article titled Nedivei ve’Giborei Arav (“The Nobles and Heroes of Arabia”).

Yahuda, wanting to pursue higher education in the field of Oriental studies, traveled for that purpose, to the birthplace of this scientific field, which, as chance would have it, was also the birthplace of his mother. He studied at various universities in Germany and received his doctorate in 1904.


A Zionist of Arabia

Oriental studies, as developed in Germany, included both Jewish and Bible studies as well as Islamic and Middle Eastern studies, so that by the end of his academic training, Abraham Shalom Yehuda was an expert in several fields. Being in Europe also opened up new intellectual and social horizons for him and he forged personal connections with scholars and researchers as well as with international statesmen, leaders and members of the elite. He was invited to give lectures at universities throughout Europe and even at the court of the King of Spain, a connection he later leveraged in order to aid persecuted Jews.

In addition to his academic career, Yahuda also became a Zionist activist, befriending Shaul Tchernichovsky and Prof. Joseph Klausner, and even meeting with Theodor Herzl in London. Yahuda describes this meeting and Herzl’s great interest in the young Orientalist’s thoughts about current relations between Arabs and Jews in the Holy Land:

Dr. Herzl . . . asked me if I thought the Muslims in the Land of Israel would willingly accept the matter of a Jewish state, if the Sultan will hand over the Land of Israel to the Jews… I was a little embarrassed, because I knew . . . that he knew only a little about the real conditions in the Land of Israel and the situation of the Arab population. I told him that in my opinion we must gain the local Arabs’ sympathy for the plan, and that the Sultan will not take any serious step without the consent of the residents . . . Dr. Herzl sounded disappointed upon hearing my opinion.

(“Herzl’s Attitude to the Arab Problem“, Hed Hamizrah, October 7, 1949 [Hebrew])

Yahuda met Herzl again about a year later at the First Zionist Congress in Basel, where he reiterated his thoughts about initiating direct communication with the country’s Arabs, but to no avail:

Dr. Herzl was adamant that the residents of the Land of Israel have no opinion on this matter, that the Sultan has absolute say. I warned him again . . . emphasizing [the importance of] establishing a closer relationship with the Arabs of the Land of Israel and explaining the Zionist objectives to them as well as the great advantages they will achieve from honest cooperation with us.

I realized from everything he told me about the Arabs that he was completely misled by representatives who never had a clear understanding of the issues surrounding the Arab problem, yet these were the “experts” on whose opinion Dr. Herzl was relying. (Ibid.)

Prof. Yahuda belonged to a stream in the Zionist movement that believed in cooperation and dialogue with the Arabs of the Land of Israel, who knew them, their way of life, their leaders and social codes from childhood. They sought to establish relationships with them and not go above their heads and present them with a fait accompli that would inevitably lead to resistance and rebellion. Apparently, this thinking – and the desire to prove the existence of ancient connections between the Jews and their Arab surroundings – was one of the reasons he decided to invest so much of his time and resources in the Tabernacle model, discussed in more detail below.


“Make this tabernacle and all its furnishings exactly like the pattern I will show you” (Ex 25: 9)

The model of the Tabernacle built by Prof. Abraham Shalom Yahuda is based on the description in the Book of Exodus, chapters 25–35. These contain the commands for the building of the Tabernacle and describe in detail the preparation of the tools and other accessories used in the ceremonies performed in it. The text also includes instructions for the Tabernacle’s dismantling and reassembly in accordance with the practice of the ancient Israelites during their wanderings in the desert, on their way from Egypt to the land of Canaan. Besides relying on the descriptions in the Bible, Yahuda would consult the writings of the great biblical commentator Rashi for whom he had the greatest admiration, on any matter that seemed to him unclear:

I was always impressed with Rashi’s vast knowledge in every field, even in crafts, such as pottery, carpentry, silversmithing, sewing, weaving, and the like regarding the crafts and craftsmanship of the Tabernacle.”

(When I Studied Rashi)

Thus, equipped with the Bible’s instructions and Rashi’s commentary, Yahuda began his work. First, he built the Tabernacle’s frame: the sides made of wooden posts on silver bases and connected to each other by means of three bolts threaded through crossbars.

The crossbars were gold-plated, and accordingly Yahuda placed golden cylinders inside them, creating the impression that they were made of gold, according to the biblical command:

At the Tabernacle’s entrance there were columns on which was hung a veil (parokhet) made of woven fabric. Similar columns separated the Tabernacle’s two parts – an outer sanctuary, the “Holy Place” and an inner sanctuary, “the Holy of Holies.” Yehuda decided to decorate these with Corinthian capitals, a detail that does not appear in the Bible.  These too are covered with fabric.

According to the Bible, the veil fabric was specially woven on both sides so that each side displayed a different pattern. According to Rashi’s commentary, the pattern featured lions. Prof. Yahuda followed this interpretation and had a fabric woven which clearly shows the variety of the threads as detailed in the Bible “blue, purple and scarlet yarn, and of finely twisted linen” (Ex 39: 2), with images of lions on it.

The Tabernacle was covered with bolts of various fabrics and hides, which were connected with hooks. You can see in the model the precision and attention to detail in connecting the hooks to the fabrics.

The Tabernacle was surrounded by a courtyard, which also consisted of columns on which was written “And their tops were overlaid with silver.” Here too, Yahuda depended on Rashi’s commentary which interpreted this to mean that the columns were decorated with silver fillets – and so he also built the courtyard columns and decorated them with hoops of silver wire.

Finally, the walls of the Tabernacle’s courtyard were prepared with the greatest precision, and as Rashi explains, were made “like a kind of ship’s slats, with apertures, like basketry, and not like the weaver’s work.”


“Build an altar” (Ex 27: 1)

Besides the Tabernacle structure itself, Prof. Abraham Shalom Yehuda’s model also includes the Tabernacle vessels and other accessories that were used in it. For example, he built a model of the altar, square and with four corners, and like all the vessels of the Tabernacle it was attached by rings to long wooden poles for carrying it on journeys in the desert. The beautifully crafted model of the altar includes a “a grate of bronze mesh”, with “…a bronze ring at each of the four corners of the mesh”, which is placed “beneath the ledge of the altar, so that the mesh comes halfway up the altar.” (Ex 27: 4–5). See in the accompanying photo how the model follows closely the instructions in the biblical text.

Yahuda also included in the model the bronze laver used for washing the hands and feet of the priests before they entered the interior space of the Tabernacle to perform their work.

as well as the various musical instruments: trumpets, cymbals, and more, which accompanied the Tabernacle work and the Israelites’ journeys in the desert.

To these, he added small explanatory handwritten signs in beautiful script.

Small figurines were apparently placed in different locations around the model in order to demonstrate the various roles of the priests and the ceremonies and events that took place in the Tabernacle. Among the figurines are a man bringing an offering of first fruits, a priest washing his hands and feet, a guard, and a man bringing an animal for sacrifice.

Yahuda apparently made use of the model, and an accompanying drawing in his many lectures, in which he explained the construction of the Tabernacle and the daily activities that took place in it. Judging from the report in the Jewish Chronicle, it clearly aroused great interest among listeners and viewers.


An Orientalist Becomes an Artisan?

We are left with the question: what was Yahuda’s motivation in embarking on such a project that included an abundance of items, of which only some have been described here, that necessitated such precision and detail, required much deep research, and engaged professional artists in its construction?

Unfortunately, Yahuda did not leave any notes explaining his motive, work and goals. We can however find several explanations in the lectures he gave after its construction.

As mentioned, Yahuda was an Orientalist who strove to strengthen ties between Jews and Arabs, between their respective cultures and in particular between the peoples living in the Land of Israel. For him, the Tabernacle was a means of proving the deep ties that existed in ancient times between the Jews and the Egyptian people. According to Yahuda, it would have been impossible for the Israelites in the desert to obtain all the materials, means and talents to build such a magnificent Tabernacle without having learned the various crafts from the Egyptians and without having been able to take with them fabrics, metals, precious stones and other materials from the wealth of pharaonic Egypt. As he saw it, the years of hard labor described in the Bible were preceded by years of Jewish integration in Egypt, in its culture and in its physical and spiritual wealth. The Tabernacle is evidence of this.

The work of the Tabernacle, he believed, is proof of monotheism’s uniqueness over the idol worship practiced in Canaan, and in this, Jews and Muslims, for whom belief in one God is a pillar of both faiths, share common ground.

Another motive for building the model is related to an equally important issue that Yahuda grappled with in his professional life, which is the controversy over the degree of truth behind the real-world artifacts mentioned in the biblical stories. Yahuda, who as mentioned was also an expert on religious issues, had disagreements with his colleagues on these topics. Construction of the Tabernacle supported his claim for the Bible’s veracity in these matters.

And it might also be possible that between his scholarly pursuits, research, reading and writing, Yahuda perhaps also may have enjoyed working with his hands and giving free rein to his imagination, creativity and the artist in him.

In any event, after Abraham Shalom Yahuda’s death in 1951 in the United States, where he had been a professor at several universities, thousands of items from his personal archive were transferred to the National Library of Israel, including dozens of boxes containing the parts of the spectacular model he built. The Yahuda Collection at the National Library of Israel, which numbers documents and manuscripts as well as the elaborate model of the Tabernacle and its vessels, is a reflection of his multifaceted professional personality.


The photos of the Tabernacle model that are published here for the first time, are from the Abraham Shalom Yahuda Archive at the National Library of Israel. The archive is being cataloged and will be made accessible thanks to the kind donation of the Samis Foundation, Seattle, Washington, dedicated to the memory of Samuel Israel.











Crowdsourcing History: Moshe David Gaon’s Efforts to Document Sephardic Jewry

Moshe David Gaon realized that the contributions of Sephardic Jews had been overlooked by historians, well before it dawned on others. He dedicated his professional life to making things right. His personal archive, a collection of critical significance to Jewish history and culture, is preserved today at the National Library of Israel

Scholar Moshe David Gaon in 1907

When imagining a historian, people might think of a lone individual hunched over old documents, fragile archives, or ancient manuscripts. There is some truth to this generalization, but it does not do justice to the collaborative work that makes historical writing possible. Historians build on what has been written by experts before, and they maintain ongoing communication with peers in the field or laypeople with information. Moreover, historians participate in ongoing conversations, sometimes conversations that occur over generations. Today’s historian attempts to answer a question raised by one of her teachers by gathering information from a wide range of people and sources.

This is doubly true for scholars who work to create a new field of study. One such scholar is Moshe David Gaon (1889-1958), a pioneering but underappreciated researcher who revolutionized the study of Sephardic Jewry in the Land of Israel as well as the history of the Ladino language and its journalism. Born in Bosnia, he spent much of his life in the Land of Israel, as an educator, publicist, scholar, and communal leader.

Moshe David Gaon dedicated his professional life to documenting Sephardic Jewry. His archive is preserved at the National Library of Israel.

His contribution is more impressive given the context and history of academic Jewish studies, which began in the 19th-century in German-speaking lands. This tradition – known as Wissenschaft des Judentums – worked to present Judaism as on par with the greatest aspects of European culture, and it tended to emphasize the contributions of Judaism to the West and to Europe. Modern Sephardic Jewry was often ignored or looked down upon as unsophisticated. The Zionist historians, mostly from Eastern Europe, who began working in the first half of the twentieth century, emphasized the contributions of European Jews to the nascent Zionist movement, but tended to downplay the continuous history of Sephardic Jewish settlement in the Land, as well as Sephardic contributions to the modern renewal of Jewish life in Palestine.

Gaon, among others, insisted on a correction. But that correction was hard to implement. After a century of work, Wissenschaft had already created a basic infrastructure for the study of the past, including bibliography, networks of scholars, and journals. But Sephardic Jewish studies were way behind the curve.

Central, then, to Gaon’s project was gathering and creating new sources of knowledge, and this meant reaching out to sources of information far and wide. His extensive archive reflects the work he did in creating a bibliography, particularly of important Ladino newspapers. It documents his groundbreaking work on the influential Ladino Biblical commentary, Me’am Loez. Gaon published works of Sephardic Hebrew poetry, and he gathered biographies of influential Sephardic Rabbis. His most important work is Yehudei HaMizrah BeEretz Yisrael (1928), a compendium of information on Sephardic Jewry in the Land of Israel. It remains an important reference work today, and it has been reprinted several times. In that work, he emphasized the importance of Sephardic Jewry in the establishment of an economically productive but religiously observant Yishuv in the land of Israel.

He could not have done any of this alone, and part of what he set out to accomplish was creating a network of scholars, knowledgeable laypeople, and community members who would all contribute to an ongoing conversation that would give Sephardic Jewry the pride of place it deserved. His archive is full of his ongoing correspondence, some of which was haphazard, but some was a more systematically designed effort to gather information and share ideas.

A letter sent by Moshe David Gaon to “the distinguished author and journalist Mr. Joseph Anjil”, requesting him to provide the names of editors of various Ladino newspapers, 1953, the Moshe David Gaon Archive at the National Library of Israel


Abraham Recanati provides names of newspaper editors, after he was asked a series of questions similar to those seen in the above letter, 1953, the Moshe David Gaon Archive at the National Library of Israel

Some of Gaon’s efforts focused on making connections with those who shared his agenda, for example several written exchanges with an older contemporary, Shlomo Rosanes, who likewise believed that Sephardic Jewry had not been researched adequately. Gaon asked Rosanes for help with publishing and publicizing his own work, but more importantly used Rosanes as a source of information, particularly about Ladino newspapers and the lives of Sephardic Jews who had moved to the Land of Israel in the 19th century.

Gaon also wanted to document information held by the general public, and in the 1930s he systematically sent questionnaires to hundreds of public figures of Sephardic background, asking them about their own lives, the path that their families took to the Land of Israel, and the communities they came from. Some responded briefly and laconically, while others provided elaborate personal and family histories. These questionnaires provided important background for Yehudei HaMizrah Be’eretz Yisrael. In one exchange in late 1930, Rabbi Joseph Haim Illos of Tiberias provided a complete life history of his own illustrious father, the recently deceased Rabbi Eliyahu Illos (1860-1929), who had come to Tiberias from Morocco as a young man. Gaon was particularly interested in figures who moved to Palestine prior to the Ashkenazi Zionist movement.

A letter written by Rabbi Joseph Haim Illos to Moshe David Gaon in 1930 in which he provides a complete life history of his own illustrious father, the recently deceased Rabbi Eliyahu Illos, who had come to Tiberias from Morocco as a young man, the Moshe David Gaon Archive at the National Library of Israel

Gaon’s posthumous Bibliography of Ladino Periodicals (a basic reference work today) was itself a kind of crowdsourcing project. Letters from around the Ladino-speaking world, whether from communities in the Balkans or from dentists in Tel Aviv, provide names of editors, information on the number of issues of each paper, or documentation of dates on which publications began or ceased. As he insisted in his Introduction to the Bibliography: “I avoided relying on rumor, trusting instead only eyewitnesses. I wanted to base this work on facts and documents that could not be questioned.” After Gaon’s death, completing the work and bringing it to publication continued as a group effort, by staff at the Ben-Zvi Institute, the National Library of Israel, and by Gaon’s friend and colleague Moshe Kattan.

Gaon also kept his finger on the pulse of current events, asking colleagues for documentation of their own experiences in real time. When, in 1934, a man in the city of Basra in Iraq claimed to be the Messiah, Gaon immediate brought his letter-writing skills to bear on documenting the event.  Writing in the name of the Sephardic Community Council, Gaon insisted on getting as much information as possible about the man, his motivations and the community’s response to his messianic pretentions.

What is his name, his age, his birthplace, who are his parents, and what was his job? The man’s habits interest me greatly. It is important to clarify the factors that led him to reveal himself as Messiah, and how did he prophecy. Do some believe in him, and how did the Jews and the community leaders respond to him? Have government officials gotten involved?

He was not asking only out of curiosity. With a sense of urgency, he saw this correspondence as key to his role as historian. “I hope that you do not disappoint me and as soon as you receive this letter you respond so that we can fully document this event and determine the place of this man in the history of Israel, whether for praise or blame.” If the community responded, I did not find that response in the archive, leaving us less knowledgeable of this event and its aftermath.

Which only demonstrates the value of wide-ranging communication in documenting history. Scholars operating alone know what they know. People with knowledge sharing and communicating create a community of knowledge and change how people view the world. As the Mishnah states (Avot, 4:1): “Who is wise? One who learns from every person”.



The Moshe David Gaon Archive is being cataloged and will be made accessible thanks to the kind donation of the Samis Foundation, Seattle, Washington, dedicated to the memory of Samuel Israel.







Drawing a New Life in the New Jewish State

Refugee boats, transit camps and immigrant neighborhoods – Artist David Friedmann arrived in Israel in 1949 from Czechoslovakia after surviving harrowing experiences during the Holocaust. In celebration of Israel’s 75th Birthday, his daughter Miriam, who was born in the Jewish state a year later, shares his stories and artworks documenting those early months in Israel

"A Street in Hadar Yosef", by David Friedmann

My father David Friedman(n) 1893-1980, a prolific artist and Holocaust survivor, recorded his experiences in words, artwork and albums. He is renowned for his most important contribution — an art series depicting scenes he witnessed from deportation with his family from Prague to the Lodz Ghetto, further to Auschwitz-Birkenau, and the death march to liberation at Blechhammer in January 1945. His wife Mathilde and young daughter Mirjam-Helene did not survive. He returned to Prague to begin a new life, one without family. The strongest will of mankind, the will to live, gave him the power to start again from scratch.

He immersed himself in drawing and painting the scenes torn from his memory and held exhibitions to show his art to the world. Then a communist coup was carried out in February 1948, and shortly thereafter Czechoslovakia became a brutal communist dictatorship. The State of Israel was established on May 14, 1948. David Friedmann married fellow survivor Hildegard Taussig two weeks later at the Old-New Synagogue in Prague. Their marriage began at a refugee’s pace as they planned to flee.

Friends and family, mostly survivors of concentration camps, celebrate the Jewish wedding of David and Hildegard Friedmann on May 27, 1948. Karl Taussig, Hilde’s father stands left of the bride. Roman Chudy, who made the wedding rings, is right of the groom. Directly behind them is author František Kraus wearing a white hat, and his wife Alice.

I was born in Israel and named after my half-sister. My father made it his business to ensure his daughter would know her history. Several days after I was born in 1950, he wrote a diary for me, Tagebuch für Mirjam Friedmann (Diary for Miriam Friedmann). One senses his joy when compiling a photo album with handwritten and typed captions about his new life in a new country with Hilde and baby Miriam. The photo album also reflects a significant part of Israel’s founding history — the emigration of survivor immigrants starting over again with nothing but their strong will to survive and build a new life after the Holocaust. The immigrants were brought to an absorption center and crowded into tents without electricity and running water. The sanitary conditions were poor. They were exposed to rain and cold during the winter months and heat in the summer. Nevertheless, the survivors were free and eager to move forward.

Thus, the photo album was no ordinary creation. My father displayed artwork and typed stories of the first year in his new country. The drawings depicted three scenes after arriving in July 1949 in the tent city Shaar Ha’Aliyah by Haifa, and then Raanana. He enjoyed producing portraits and painting throughout Israel from 1950 to 1954, when our family left for America. David Friedmann captured the colorful landscape and experiences from the beginnings of the Jewish state. I hope to preserve my father’s artwork in an Israel museum for future generations to enjoy as much as me.


“After the Hasty Departure From Prague to Israel in July 1949”

(The following text was written by David Friedmann. It has been edited compiled and translated from German by his daughter Miriam Friedman Morris)

I was elated to read in the Prague Jewish newsletter that the State of Israel had been founded and that all Jews were called to immigrate as soon as possible, it was a land of freedom and many possibilities. Indeed, many of our friends and acquaintances immigrated. After experiencing more than our share of aggravation with the communists in every regard, Hilde and I decided to do the same.

The War Museum committee wanted to buy some of my paintings and they offered a good price. I was sitting down with high-ranking military men at the desk, and they told me how proud I could be that my works would be displayed in their museum. But my answer was no, I needed the works to be on exhibit in Israel and as they heard that, they jumped from their chairs so fast I became terrified. I said I am very sorry, but I cannot sell my paintings. A few minutes later they told me it would be all right for me to take my paintings home. However, by the look on their faces I could tell they were very angry.

I got into trouble over the artwork and the Czech government ordered an “export prohibition”. But I found an important official, himself an artist, and for 1000 Kc all the works were marked with a government stamp and this is how I was able to save my paintings for Israel. I arranged for a lift (a large wooden storage container) with a transport agency and the paintings along with furniture and belongings were shipped to Israel. Meanwhile we were registered for emigration.

Although we had prepared for a year, our hasty departure from Prague in July 1949 to Israel felt like fleeing. We had to leave an apartment with three rooms plus kitchen and hall, all with the most modern comfort. The Czech government permitted us to take only the equivalent of 2½ Israeli pounds, so you can imagine how difficult it was to start all over with nothing. However, our strong will to survive gave us enormous strength. After certain difficulties we reached the Czech border. The officers asked me where my paintings were and I told them they were in Prague. They searched all through our luggage, but finally believed me and let us go. We were joyful to have escaped the communists and had to sign that we renounced our Czech citizenship and never would return to this country. We changed to an Austrian train with Russian guards with extended bayonets. When the train passed the border, headed for Vienna, we fell to our knees, we were so happy to be free again, this time from the communists. On the Italian train soldiers bolted the doors. We were not allowed to leave the train for drinking water at the stops. The Italians behaved disgracefully towards us.

Therefore, not until Naples when we boarded the Israeli ship Eilath did we truly feel free.

On board the Eilath July 17, 1949, a drawing from the David Friedmann series, My Journey from Naples to Israel July 12, 1949 (with the ship Eilath) and my Journey from Israel to New York Oct. 22, 1954 with the SS Jerusalem


On the Eilath, on the way to Israel July 12, 1949, a drawing from the David Friedmann series, My Journey from Naples to Israel July 12, 1949 (with the ship Eilath) and my Journey from Israel to New York Oct. 22, 1954 with the SS Jerusalem

I earned my first Israeli pounds making some portrait drawings. The ship machines made a deafening noise. At night it was impossible to sleep a wink and our hammocks swung considerably. Most of the people slept on deck. The view of Haifa harbor was fantastic and I only wished I could paint it, regretfully this never came about. Then came the registration formalities. We were asked by an official if we belonged to a political party and we answered, “Zionist” and then he asked my age, and I replied 56 years, at which point he pronounced “not employable”. This astounded me and I said to Hilde in Czech, “How stupid this fellow is, he has no idea of my ability”.

Then we were loaded with our baggage on trucks and brought to the reception camp for newcomers “Shaar Ha’Aliyah” (The Gate of Immigration), a few kilometers from Haifa. Guards opened the gates and closed them behind us. Astonished, we saw we were surrounded by high barbed wire fences. Nobody was allowed to leave the camp without permission. We were strongly reminded of the Nazi concentration camps.

Two Inmates of the Lodz Ghetto Walking by the German Fence, charcoal, 1947. From the David Friedmann art series, Because They Were Jews! Copyright © 1989 Miriam Friedman Morris


Feeding Time in Auschwitz, charcoal 1964. From the David Friedmann art series, Because They Were Jews! Copyright © 1989 Miriam Friedman Morris

However, we were happy to no longer be exposed to communist antisemitism. As in the First World War and the Hitler years, I knew in advance I would survive. Each time I started over with nothing and now in Israel, I was sure I could succeed again with Hilde’s help. I still had ample reserves of energy at that time, as well as the necessary knowledge and ability in my profession as artist, painter and craftsman.

Shaar Ha’Aliyah by Haifa, charcoal, July 1949, drawing placed in a family album

In Shaar Ha’Aliyah we were registered again, then examined for lice, powdered with DDT. Furthermore, we had to go barefoot through a milky liquid, probably also this DDT substance. I was very angry about all of this, however, we had to hold out. In the camp we searched for a free tent and there were plenty. The camp was dirty, stinking, and the food was terrible. We got food out of giant pails, standing in long rows, like with the Nazis. But the State of Israel was hardly one year old, and we knew over the years all would become better. We persevered with the help of Hilde’s sister (Else Taussig Löwy) and after one week we were transferred to the Beth Olim camp near Ranaana, where we also obtained a free tent. We received two iron bedsteads and straw sacks, which had been urinated on, one linen sheet for each, as well as an old gray blanket. We brought our baggage into the tent – and so began our new life.

The second day after our arrival in Shaar Ha’Aliyah, I found an opening in the barbed wire fence. Cautiously, I crawled my way out to freedom, having arranged with Hilde that I would be back some days later. In Haifa it was imperative I look up an old friend I knew from Berlin. I climbed on the bus to Haifa and looking at the advertising signs there, found his name written underneath. I went into the shop and the owner gave me the home address. I found him and he was very surprised and I became his guest. He gave me work and paid for sketches and portrait drawings. Wiser and with more money, I returned to my beloved Hilde, who was quite worried about me.

Out of the Transit Camp, Shaar Ha’Aliyah by Haifa, drawing placed in a family album

Now, Hilde could not stand it any longer. After ten years she finally wanted to see her sister who was living in Tel Aviv. Hilde knew where Else worked and the next day she took the bus there and immediately found Café Katz, on Ben Yehuda Street, known across Tel Aviv. Hilde sat herself down by a table. As Else began to pass her by carrying a tray of cups full of coffee, she recognized Hilde and let the whole tray drop to the floor, making a mighty crash. As the sisters kissed and held each other, the guests all clapped.

The Beth Olim tent camp. The town of Raanana is concealed behind the hills in the background. August 1949, drawing placed in a family album

Beth Olim was a lively place full of screaming children. New immigrants from all over the world streamed into Israel, for example from Czechoslovakia alone there were 15,000. Everyone was crowded together because space was lacking and so a Belgian couple joined us in our tent, though they were pleasant people. Our new camp also had a fence because of the many children; however, it was without barbed wire and everyone could go in and out. For this reason, we often went to the city of Ranaana and met very nice people who ordered portraits or posters from me. We also went to the café where we could dance and have a wonderful time. After weeks of living in tight quarters a tzrif (wooden shack) became available. The tzrif was lightly constructed of crude planks. We were ordered by the administration to move in and we were very happy and finally, we also became Israeli citizens.

Hilde’s father Karl Taussig and second wife Elza, and child Judita immigrated to Israel before us — but only because of my urging did they register, otherwise they would still be in Prague today. Through an agency, his daughter Else found him a position in his vocation as chemist at the well-known company “Mekorot” where he worked as a water specialist until he retired. For all of us a very good beginning.

Karl Taussig, Hilde and Miriam Friedmann, Judita and Elza Taussig, Ramat Amidar, March 1952


Karl Taussig, Miriam and Hilde Friedmann and Judita Taussig, Ramat Amidar, March 1952

I can no longer recall all we experienced in Raanana, yet I would like to mention one occurrence that happened during a terrible rainstorm. The storm surprised us in the night, it poured in buckets, something like this we had never experienced. The rain washed under the barracks, the water flowed inside, and we all sprang up, because it reached the rim of the bed. However, this was not the end of it, as in charged a new heavy gale and the barracks tipped over on the side of another barracks. Now we ran out in our nightclothes and got soaking wet of course, before waiting out the rest of the storm with one of our neighbors. After a few hours we were able to return to our wet home. It was no longer possible to think of sleep, everything was drenched. In the early morning we carried our things to dry out in the sun.

For the long run, we did not want to live in a tent or shack. We looked at various possible apartments, but none pleased us. Then we were told in a short time a new village near Tel Aviv was planned and we could register if we had the 250 pounds down payment and the monthly rent of 6 pounds. However, we needed to hurry because a great number had already been sold. We were shown the building plans and the name of the place: Hadar Yosef, only 20 minutes from Tel Aviv.

At last, after a seven-month waiting period, we received news from the building administration we could claim our home. This was again a wonderful moment as we were loaded on the truck together with our luggage and we began the trip to Hadar Yosef.

Hadar Yosef. 1950 Pen-and-ink drawing. From 1950 to 1954, the Friedmann family lived in this residential neighborhood of Tel Aviv, in the northeastern part of the city. The artist produced drawings and painted landscapes in and around Hadar Yosef and the nearby Yarkon River


View from the Friedmann family one-room apartment at Amidar 1, Hadar Yosef. Oil.

I telephoned Haifa and authorized the movers to transport our lift from storage in Tel Aviv to Hadar Yosef. In the meantime, we had to sleep on the bare floor, but this did not bother us at all. In the container was furniture for a one-room apartment with kitchen appliances and dishes, my pictures painted after liberation in 1945, including a large amount of (artist’s) material and my violin. After unpacking, we moved forward to the next phase of our life in Israel.

A street in Hadar Yosef, survivors from Europe and those who spent the war years in Shanghai lived in Hadar Yosef. Oil.


A Street in Hadar Yosef. Oil.


Jaffa Beach. Oil. In the background is Tel Aviv, 1952.

I had spoken with Hilde about having a child even back in Prague. This wish was not fulfilled until a year later in Israel. This completed our happiness because a child was yet missing.

Our wish became reality, for our beloved Miriam was born!!! Then together with our Miriam, life truly began in our new home, giving a new meaning to our life cycle, and this experience seems to have no end! These baby and childhood years were the most beautiful of our lives!!!

Miriam with her father David Friedmann, Hadar Yosef, 1952


Miriam with her mother Hildegard Taussig Friedmann, Hadar Yosef, 1952


Recognize the girl portrayed by David Friedmann in 1954? This is among numerous portraits he painted and sketched in Israel


David Friedmann in a commercial art studio in Tel Aviv, 1951. He contributed to the founding of Israel’s advertising industry. Every spare moment he painted for himself producing a large collection of paintings, drawings and portraits in Israel.


The Nazi regime nearly eradicated every trace of David Friedmann, but they did not succeed. Searching for lost art is gratifying and a priceless view into his life. I carry-on with my father’s mission to show his Holocaust art to the world. My goal is to continue to publicize his work through exhibitions, books and film to preserve his legacy for future generations. A new Holocaust documentary by Emmy Award Winner John Rokosny is currently in production with the working title, The Art and Survival of David Friedmann.

Photographs and artwork: The Miriam Friedman Morris Collection, New York

For more about David Friedmann and to provide information you may have about existing works, please visit: or the “David Friedmann—Artist As Witness” Facebook page.