Where Did Ben-Gurion’s Piano Disappear To?

When David and Paula Ben-Gurion moved to the Hapoalim (workers) neighborhood on the outskirts of the young city of Tel Aviv, it was clear that there would be a piano in the living room of their new home, even though they didn’t have the money to buy one. Documents in archives show how the family obtained the expensive piano, who played it, where it went after the house was donated to the state, and the story of how it was returned after many years. A story befitting a mystery novel…

David Ben-Gurion (Nadav Man, Bitmuna Collection. From the Degani Collection. The Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel) and the piano (courtesy of the Ben-Gurion House and Ben-Gurion Archive)

“I am very sorry for the three unpaid bills. At the moment we are not being paid a salary and the money has not reached me. According to the contract, you have absolute permission to come at any time and get the piano back without any hindrance. With great respect, D. Ben-Gurion”

“…you have absolute permission to come at any time and get the piano back ” Ben-Gurion apologizes for the returned checks (courtesy of the Ben-Gurion House and Ben-Gurion Archive)

It is December 1931 in Mandatory Palestine – the Land of Israel. The young Ben-Gurion family, father David, mother Paula, and the children: thirteen-year-old Geula, eleven-year-old Amos, and six-year-old Renana, have recently moved to their new home in the Hapoalim neighborhood, not far from the “Education House – The School for the Children of Workers” in the developing western section of the new Hebrew city of Tel Aviv.

The chairman of Mapai (“The Workers Party of the Land of Israel”) which had just gained a great many seats in the Zionist Congress, the most important political institution of the Jewish People at the time, made sure to carefully add up his expenses in his journal. These included the expenses for the construction of his home, number 17 on KKL Boulevard, which later became Ben-Gurion Boulevard. The house is now a museum which recreates the home and daily routine of the first Israeli Prime Minister’s family.

Ben-Gurion summarized the expenses: payment for the architect 11.9 Israeli lira, purchase of cabinets for 20 lira, and a buffet for 5 lira. Transporting and transferring the objects 8 lira, table 1.5 lira, 4 bar stools and 6 low chairs 2.80 lira, and also a piano bench – only 1 lira.

“Piano bench, one Israeli lira.” Ben-Gurion totals the expenses of building his house in Tel Aviv (courtesy of the Ben-Gurion House and Ben-Gurion Archive)

So Paula and David bought the piano bench themselves, but they rented the piano itself, an expensive musical instrument, from Mr. Hofenko of Tel Aviv, for a monthly usage fee. They gave him future promissory notes (checks), which, due to some difficulty, were regretfully not honored.

“Ben-Gurion had no special affection or sensitivity for music,” says Michael Bar-Zohar, author of the comprehensive biography on Ben-Gurion. “He wasn’t interested in or appreciative of works and he didn’t have a musical ear. Once, after the Six Day-War, they played ‘Jerusalem of Gold’ for him. Ben-Gurion was moved by the words and tried to join in with his voice but it didn’t work out so well…” laughs Bar-Zohar. He explains that Ben-Gurion’s documented visits to concerts were intended for political purposes. “He hosted famous musicians and conductors because it was good for publicity. When the opera in Tel Aviv had its premiere, it was very important for Ben-Gurion to attend and sit in the seats reserved for dignitaries between the American ambassador James McDonald and the Soviet ambassador [Pavel] Yershov. It wasn’t the opera that intrigued him but rather his public appearance alongside the two ambassadors of the bickering superpowers – a gesture of recognition of the young State of Israel by the two important countries. That was more urgent and interesting for Ben-Gurion than all the scenes and singing on stage.”

Ray Charles plays “Hava Nagila” during his visit to Israel. David Ben-Gurion joins in the applause

Despite this, and even though they fell short of paying the monthly rental fees in the early 1930s, the family finally eventually got a piano and it was placed in their house. The eldest child Geula received a score of “excellent” on her certificate of completion for compulsory piano lessons in the second grade, but it seems she didn’t continue to play afterwards.

Geula Ben-Gurion, the eldest daughter, completes her compulsory piano lessons with excellent grades (courtesy of the Ben-Gurion House and Ben-Gurion Archive)

On the other hand, Renana, the youngest, at the age of 9, wrote to her father abroad: “I will play in a concert soon, in a few days, and for an exam that will take place soon.” As a side note, the little one promised not to desecrate the upcoming workers’ holiday: “My [piano] lesson was supposed to be on May 1st, so I changed it to May 3rd…”

”My lesson was supposed to be on May 1st, so I changed it to May 3rd.” Renana reports to her father (courtesy of the Ben-Gurion House and Ben-Gurion Archive)

Renana persevered in practicing and studying her music lessons. By the time she was twelve years old, her father, visiting Zurich at the time, bought her a book of Beethoven’s sheet music, a book on the History of Music, and a dress. In his journal, he noted the prices and totaled up the expenses: “Renana, DBG money, gifts.”

“Beethoven, the History of Music, a dress for Renana”. Father Ben-Gurion concludes shopping in Zurich (courtesy: Ben-Gurion House and Ben-Gurion Archive)

A year passed. In September 1938, her parents were once again abroad for a long trip, and thirteen-year-old Renana sent them a letter: “Hello Mom and Dad… I visited the house. The gardener cut the grass and uprooted all the weeds in honor of Rosh Hashanah… On Wednesday, I’ll start studying at the gymnasium. Since I had to get sheet music, I went to Sara’s and took the house key. The closets are closed, so I ask that you write and tell me where the keys are because I need a raincoat and dresses. It rained in Tel Aviv! And in Haifa, the first rains have already come down.”

Renana went by the house to collect sheet music and reported to her father and mother: “The gardener cut the grass in honor of Rosh Hashanah.” (Courtesy of the Ben-Gurion House and Ben-Gurion Archive)

How does a piano disappear?

The Ben-Gurion Museum in Tel Aviv recreates how the house looked back when the Prime Minister lived there with his family. The museum staff was enlisted about three years ago to take care of the photo and album collections. While arranging and organizing, an undated envelope was found, and inside it were several photos documenting the interior of the house. One of the pictures showed the living room: the armchairs, the carpet, the coffee table, the pictures on the walls, sculptures, and decorations – all the furnishings and objects that can be found there today. But much to everyone’s surprise, the old photo also showed a grand piano standing in all its glory in the corner of the living room.

The piano was discovered in an old photo (courtesy of the Ben-Gurion House and Ben-Gurion Archive)

And here a mystery plot unfolded: on the one hand, the photograph indicated that there was a piano, and based on the other objects in the photo, it appears to have been taken in later years.  On the other hand, the piano was nowhere to be found. How can a piano disappear?

All the documents were rummaged through. In the will that Ben-Gurion wrote about six months before his death, he specifically stated: “I bequeath to the State of Israel my house in Tel Aviv, [the] library and the property inside it with the exception of personal objects and tools, so that they can serve as an institution for reading, study, and research.”

צוואה פולה
“”I bequeath and leave to my daughter Renana Ben-Gurion my grand piano as well as my mink cape.” Paula’s will (Courtesy of the Ben-Gurion House and the Ben-Gurion Archive)

If there had been a piano in the house, it was supposed to still be there. Another review of the papers led to Paula’s will. It turns out that Mrs. Ben-Gurion had other plans for the family’s assets: “I bequeath and leave to my daughter Renana Ben-Gurion my grand piano as well as my mink cape,” she instructed in a will written in the spring of 1956. Paula died five years before David, when the couple lived in two homes simultaneously: a house in Tel Aviv and a cabin in Kibbutz Sde Boker.

By the time the museum staff discovered the piano in the photograph, Renana had been dead for over a decade. Her only son, Uri, who never started a family of his own, was living by himself in Tel Aviv and was also no longer a young man. The director of the Ben-Gurion Museum, Nelly Markman, called Uri and asked to visit him. She held out hope that the lost instrument could still be found. After all, Uri lived in the apartment where his mother Renana lived before him, so maybe the piano would be found there. Indeed, her hope was realized, and she recognized the piano in Uri’s living room as the very same one from the photo.

Uri didn’t play piano. He had never played any musical instrument. Aware that when his time would come, the piano could end up in any number of strange places, he agreed and even expressed his desire to return the piano to his grandparents’ house, as a souvenir and a legacy for future generations. Moreover, the grand piano was taking up a lot of room and if it was returned, it would free up some space in the small living room.

That’s when a new problem arose, one that no one could have foreseen: when Renana took the piano as her mother had wished, it was impossible to get it through the stairwell of the shared apartment building, so it was brought into her apartment via the balcony. At some point, the balcony was closed in by a built wall and thus the exit for the piano was now blocked. So what did they do? They knocked on the next-door neighbor’s door and carefully asked: Would you agree to let us move a piano and get it out of the building using your balcony? A little taken aback by the strange request, the neighbors heard the story of this unique piano and its illustrious history and agreed to do their part.

אז אחרי כמעט 50 שנים, הפסנתר של רננה, בתו של דוד בן-גוריון, חזר להאיר את סלון הבית. מוזמנים לראות את תהליך ההרכבה המקוצר, ולקפוץ לבקר כמובן 🙂

פורסם על ידי ‏בית בן-גוריון בתל אביב‏ ב- יום רביעי, 21 ביולי 2021

And so, more or less towards the end of the COVID-19 pandemic, in an operation that required a Tel Aviv street to be closed down, the cooperation of neighbors in two separate apartments, and one large crane, Renana Ben-Gurion’s piano was brought back to her parents’ house, placed there once again for the complete restoration of the living room of Israel’s first Prime Minister.

סיוון פייבל
The piano is back where it belongs in the restored Ben-Gurion House (photo credit: Sivan Faivel)

The First Night of Captivity: Memories From the Fall of the Jewish Quarter

A text found at the National Library unearthed the story of Aharon Liron, a young soldier captured by the Arab Legion during the battle for Jerusalem's Old City in 1948. Liron was able to document his experiences as he witnessed the fall of the Jewish Quarter.


Aharon Liron is seen in the center of the photograph, on the truck that brought the soldiers from captivity

By Udi Edery

Jerusalem has many names, and even more books have been written about this famous city. When you type the word “Jerusalem” into the search bar on the National Library of Israel website, over a million results come up. Somewhere among them, we came across a Hebrew pamphlet titled “Jerusalem Sinned a Sin” (חטא חטאה ירושלים), containing a manuscript that describes in rare, moving detail the battles for the Old City of Jerusalem during Israel’s War of Independence. It also describes Haganah soldier Aharon Liron’s first night in captivity, following his capture by the Arab Legion when it seized the Jewish Quarter.

The late Aharon Liron was captured by Abdullah al-Tall (sometimes spelled el-Tell), the commander of the Arab Legion in Jerusalem, after the defenders of the Jewish Quarter surrendered on May 28, 1948. An Arab Legion platoon entered the Quarter at about five in the afternoon, to accept the surrender of the Jewish defenders. Aharon was wounded in the fighting. After the uninjured soldiers were transferred from the quarter to “The Kishle” (the old Ottoman police station, built on the ruins of King Herod’s palace), and the residents of the quarter were moved to the area of the Zion Gate, where they were to be handed over to the Palmach, Aharon remained with the rest of the wounded soldiers at “Batei Mahse”, a 19th century apartment complex in the Jewish Quarter. Liron found himself “in a long structure, parallel to the wall [of the Old City]. The building’s rooms and entranceway served as a hospital.”

The Jewish Quarter’s houses on fire

With his memories still fresh, Aharon sat and wrote down everything he remembered from his first night of captivity in the Old City, in extremely vivid detail: “The last rays of the sun have faded on the red-tiled roofs. The walls, gray with age, are shrouded in darkness. The pillars supporting the stone arches cast their shadows on the long entranceway of ‘Batei Mahse’ in Old Jerusalem, and in the shadows of its arches, descending and merging with the walls, we lay on abandoned mattresses, right and left, dozens of wounded soldiers.”

When he opened his eyes and looked outside, he remembered that the first thing he saw was the looting that was taking place in the Jewish houses along the street, and how the soldiers demanded that their captors do something about it. It was at that moment that he realized the Old City had fallen: “First, we protested before our captors and demanded that they disperse the mob. When we saw their indifference, we realized that we had to accept the fact that the houses were no longer in our possession, and what the looters were doing was no longer any of our business.”

The first page of the manuscript “Jerusalem Sinned a Sin” (חטא חטאה ירושלים), written and edited by Aharon Liron

After that, a silence fell on the room, allowing the sounds of gunshots and exploding shells to creep in from the fighting that was still ongoing in the distance. Aside from the wounded soldiers, the others appeared indifferent. Aharon recalled that one of the guards leaned his rifle against the door and seemed to be dozing off. Nurses, in their pristine white uniforms, entered and left the rooms freely as they tended to the wounded. “One of them walked slowly among the injured soldiers and hung an oil lamp on a nail in the wall.”

They began to accept the situation, and even started dozing off, but then they began hearing different sounds coming from outside. Not shelling, but cries of revelry, which seemed to be getting closer. In the beginning, the captives were alarmed: “We thought we were hallucinating, hearing voices, but then they became clearer and louder. Then we heard the clear, monotonous sounds of cheering. The villagers of the surrounding area surged toward the Old City when they heard that the Jewish Quarter had been seized.” The Arab Legion officer shot twice in the air and dispersed the crowd. Then, when Aharon thought they were safe from danger, he noticed a reddish glow outside, which was getting brighter.

“Fighters of the Old City, 1948” – a pin awarded to Aharon Liron

A burning house! Another house was set on fire and then another one! They were setting fire to the quarter. We looked at the light flickering on the walls and were silent. I thought to myself: ‘My mother and father must be standing on the balcony of our apartment on Jaffa Street in new Jerusalem, watching the flames and fearing for my life. Who knows what they’re thinking?'”

As he watched the flames flicker on the wall and thought about his family, several doctors and soldiers suddenly entered the room, bringing with them Rabbi Mordechai Weingarten and his two daughters. They updated the soldiers about the efforts to evacuate the Jews from the quarter, the attacks and the shooting, and told them that the fire was raging throughout the entire Jewish Quarter. By the end of the night, they would also have to evacuate the captives from the area.

Yehudit, the Rabbi’s daughter, then issued a plea: “Anyone who has a hand or a leg to help, let them come and help!” Their mission was clear. During the fighting, the big iron gate of Batei Mahse was blocked up with stone, and if the obstacle wasn’t cleared in time, they wouldn’t be able to leave the quarter in one piece. Aharon documented how they performed the task:

Aharon and the prisoners in the detention camp in Jordan, waiting for their release

By the light of an oil lamp, we carried away the stones, one after another, but we weren’t very strong. And then, the Arab Legionnaires joined the effort. We worked together. But all of a sudden, we heard pounding on the iron gate, curses, and threats of gunfire.” An angry mob outside demanded the Legionnaires hand over the Jews, but the Legion officer in place chased them off through a side alley, firing at them until he succeeded, once again, in scaring them away. “We watched them anxiously. The Legion soldiers alone dealt with the removal of the stones.”

Aharon would never forget the sight of destruction that met his eyes when the captives were led in threes from Batei Mahse. “The Jewish Quarter was illuminated by the flames that destroyed its buildings… The scene looked as though it was taken from ‘The Scroll of Fire’ by Bialik. ‘All night the seas of flame raged and tongues of fire leapt scorching over the Temple Mount.’ We looked at everything, tormented by the destruction we saw, trying to burn in our memories the sight of every house and every corner.”

“The First Night of Captivity in Ancient Jerusalem”, Aharon Liron’s text

Aharon, who was wounded, was taken from the Jewish Quarter to the Armenian school. On Sunday morning, he and the rest of the captives were taken out of the city through the Lions’ Gate, and placed on a convoy of trucks that took them to Amman, and then to a detention camp in Jordan. He described, with profound sadness, the last time he saw Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives, on his way to Jordan: “It was three days since our surrender, and from the Mount of Olives, we saw the Jewish Quarter’s synagogues, full of floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, rising in flames. I sang in my heart the song of Avigdor HaMeiri, ‘From the top of Mount Scopus, I will bow to you, from the top of Mount Scopus, Shalom Jerusalem.'”

Aharon Liron was a prisoner of war in Jordan for a period of nine months and one week. He was released on March 3, 1949. After being freed, he worked in education and studied the history of Christianity in the Land of Israel. He wrote books about this subject and about the battles for Jerusalem in 1948. Aharon Liron passed away in 2010. After contacting his widow Sarah and daughter Yardena, Sarah sent us his memoirs, while Yardena helped us find the photo of the pin he was awarded and the images of her father as a POW.

“The Night of the Ducks”: An IDF Drill Gone Wrong

What had all the makings of an April Fools’ prank in 1959 was no joke.

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Photo of IDF soldiers by Nadav Mann, Bitmuna. From the Yitzhak Sadeh collection. Collection source: Yoram Sadeh. The Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel. Photo of radio: Rawpixel, photo of ducks: ZeroOne

This is the story of how the Israel Defense Forces attempted to mobilize its reservists in a drill in 1959 to test the call-up system on national radio, while needing to be sure that citizens didn’t misunderstand the exercise to mean that a war loomed, but neglecting to make that clear in the broadcast, but then having enemies react by mobilizing because they figured Israel really was planning to attack (so did IDF soldiers and Israel’s population), but then red-faced political leaders and IDF brass admitting that this might’ve been a colossal screw-up and then having to prevent escalation into a real war…

Well, the incident came to be lampooned as “Night of the Ducks,” a play on one of the code words the military had selected for the faux mobilization.

Night of the Ducks? It might as well have been Israel’s hybrid sequel to the Marx Brothers’ 1930s comedies A Night at the Opera and Duck Soup, no doubt produced by Chelm Studios.

Wait, wait — there’s more. The episode even involved a Belgian royal, Queen Elisabeth the Queen Mother.

And here’s the kicker: This scenario occurred on April 1.

Rest assured that you, dear reader, are not being pranked this April Fools’ Day, when people like to play practical jokes. The crisis in Israel truly occurred on April 1, 1959.

That Wednesday night, Israel Radio informed listeners that soldiers in three units — codenamed “Water Ducks,” “Expression of Importance” and “Band of Artists” — should report the next day to reserve duty. It was meant to test the military’s responsiveness. Problem was that the IDF didn’t clue anyone in that the call-up was merely a drill.

IDF artillery forces in the 1950s, photo by Nadav Mann, Bitmuna. From the Yitzhak Sadeh collection. Collection source: Yoram Sadeh. The Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

Hearing the announcement, Israelis sensibly figured that a security crisis brewed, perhaps even that war was imminent. So did Arab countries monitoring the radio. In response, for example, Syrian reserve units were called up and Jordan raised its alert level.

Israel’s leaders were left in the dark and fell for it, too. Knesset deliberations on the budget were interrupted as parliamentarians headed for radios to learn what was happening. Rumors spread. One minister announced that Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, who also served as Defense Minister, was incommunicado.

The mistake was corrected on the radio later that night, and calm was restored. The Foreign Ministry alerted other governments to the blunder and reassured them that Israel wasn’t on war footing. Even Belgium’s former queen and the mother of its then-king, Elisabeth Wittelsbach, during a week-long visit in Israel, had to be persuaded that the country remained safe enough to stay in. (In 1965, two months before her death at age 89, Elisabeth was awarded Yad Vashem’s Righteous Among the Nations designation for intervening with Nazi officials to release several hundred Belgian Jews during the Shoah.)

Former IDF Chief of Staff, Lt. Gen Haim Laskov, seen here smoking a pipe. Photo by by Boris Karmi, the Meitar Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

In fact, in the chaotic moments following the radio announcement, Ben-Gurion sought to reach IDF Chief of Staff Haim Laskov. He telephoned the concert hall where Laskov was attending an event honoring the Queen Mother. An employee there, figuring himself to be the butt of an April Fools’ prank, hung up when the caller identified himself as the Prime Minister. Ben-Gurion called back, and again was hung up on. And yet again. Finally, Ben-Gurion prevailed upon the man to summon Laskov — pronto.

Detroit Jewish News
IDF chief Haim Laskov was forced to explain the mix-up to Belgium’s Queen Mother, from the April 10, 1959 issue of The Detroit Jewish News, the Historical Jewish Press Collection at the National Library of Israel

It wasn’t Israel’s finest hour. Ben-Gurion set up a commission of inquiry. “The failure was not in the call-up but in the broadcasting,” he said. The flub came about, he explained, because, while the call-up drill was planned, its timing hadn’t been decided — and the broadcast occurred without the Defense Minister (himself) or Laskov having approved it.

Laskov (left) and Ben-Gurion (right), pictured about a decade before the incident, when Laskov was still a colonel. Photo by Benno Rothenberg, the Meitar Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

The fall-out was severe. Two top IDF major-generals, Chief of Reserves Meir Zorea and Chief of Military Intelligence Yehoshafat Harkabi, lost their jobs. A no-confidence motion was brought in the Knesset; the government easily defeated it and remained in power.

With the passage of 65 years, the episode can be shrugged off as an amusing anecdote, even a footnote.

Indeed, Yoav Gelber, a retired professor of Israeli military history who at the time was a 16-year-old student at a military boarding school in Haifa, chuckled about the incident during a telephone conversation this week.

But the backstory he related was no laughing matter. It was a story he learned of years later directly from Laskov, who Gelber said was “a good friend” of his.

In short: There was never meant to be a call-up. The duck hunting was all a decoy.

In those days, Gelber explained, Egypt flew surveillance planes into Israel at night, certain that doing so carried little risk: By the time the Israeli Air Force responded, the Egyptians would have photographed the areas they desired and departed. So the IAF’s commander in chief, Ezer Weizmann (later to become Israel’s president), set up an ambush. Announcing the IDF’s mobilization would draw Egypt’s surveillance planes. IAF planes by then would be aloft, ready to shoot down the Egyptian planes.

For some reason, Egypt didn’t bite and its planes stayed away.

Maj. Gen. Ezer Weizmann, head of the Israeli Air Force and future Israeli President, pictured speaking at an IDF ceremony in 1959. Photo by Boris Karmi, the Meitar Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, he National Library of Israel

That night, Gelber recalled, military commanders at his school ordered students to report to the armory to take weapons. Gelber went to sleep alongside a Czech rifle. When he woke up, things had returned to normal.

Gelber said that at the time, he was cognizant of the date, so he first suspected that the call-up order was a gag. He then decided it was real because, he reasoned, “it was at night, and April Fools’ jokes you generally do in the morning.”

The incident “wasn’t funny at all. It was very serious,” said Gelber.

Not that he resisted temptation decades later.

Gelber related a story from his days as a battalion commander in the reserves. This was in 1982, soon before the Lebanon War broke out. Gelber told his soldiers that because of the security situation, he was cancelling all vacations and leaves.

His men groaned.

“Everyone swallowed it. No one suspected,” Gelber said, giggling like a comedian struggling to restrain himself from revealing the punch line.

“Then I told them to look at the calendar. It was April 1.”

Writer-editor Hillel Kuttler can be reached at [email protected].

How Did Queen Esther Become a Christian Saint?

They fled from Spain to neighboring Portugal but were soon forced to cross the Atlantic on their way to the New World. They were baptized as Christians against their will and were forced to remove any signs that hinted at their Jewish heritage. But they were willing to risk their lives to hold on to something. This is the story of the conversos who invented a Christian saint who was in fact a Jewish queen, to remind themselves of who they truly were.


Queen Esther. Wall painting in Villa Carducci

Little Boy kneels at the foot of the bed,

Droops on the little hands little gold head.

Hush! Hush! Whisper who dares!

Christopher Robin is saying his prayers.

(From “When We Were Very Young”, A.A. Milne)

For centuries, the bedtime prayers of innocent young children, kneeling at the bedside with their chubby little fingers intertwined as they did their best to recite the words, represented the ideal image of family life in the context of Christian culture. Home. Children who have not tasted sin or violence, and an honest, innocent prayer for protection and peace.

But for hundreds of thousands of families, this image of sweet innocence was in fact something terrible – a source of pain which caused them more agony than the actual flames that threatened to engulf their bodies. It was a terrifying symbol of what had happened to them: the knowledge that their little children would grow up without knowing the faith of their ancestors and without knowing who they really were.

In the late Middle Ages, just before the discovery of the New World and the expansion of the great colonial empires, the Jews of Spain were presented with an unequivocal choice: leave or convert to Christianity.

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A postcard depicting a group of Spanish Inquisition soldiers breaking into the home of Jewish conversos who had been conducting a Passover Seder in secret. From the National Library of Israel’s postcard collection

This event was not a sudden turnabout – it was preceded by hundreds of years of Jewish persecution, the marking of Jews as inferior citizens (physical signs such as a ban on shaving their beards or a requirement that they wear certain conspicuous articles of clothing), and large-scale efforts to convert them to Christianity. It is no wonder that in Spain at the time of the expulsion, there was already a very large community of “New Christians” – Jews who had converted to Christianity, under threat or out of a desire to maintain their status and economic well-being,

But the Spaniards were neither sympathetic nor accepting of the New Christians (whom they referred to as marranos – “pigs”), who somehow managed to maintain their uniqueness and wealth after converting. Influenced by the masses and swept up in this general atmosphere, the Catholic monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella issued a royal decree demanding that all Jews leave Spain within three months, using the claim that the Jews who remained openly faithful to their religion were “ruining” the New Christians and “a bad influence”.

It was a horrible choice to make. The Jews weren’t being offered a wonderful opportunity to relocate to a new country. Those who chose to leave had to give up all their possessions and set out destitute on a dangerous journey that claimed the lives of many even when done under the best conditions. Many ships carrying Jews away from Spain were sunk, and those who didn’t drown were tortured and slaughtered.

And yet – according to the lower estimates, over 100,000 Jews left Spain in what is probably the most famous expulsion in history.

Alhambra Decree
The royal decree ordering the expulsion of the Jews of Spain, signed by the Spanish monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella, 1492

But their troubles had only just begun. Half of the exiles moved to the neighboring kingdom of Portugal. King João (John) II agreed to grant them asylum, on the condition that he receive payment for each Jew he accepted.

This is how Portugal became the main competitor for Jewish trade relations with the Ottoman Empire. Sultan Bayezid II welcomed the Jews into the Ottoman territories, telling his courtiers: “You venture to call Ferdinand a wise ruler, he who has impoverished his own country and enriched mine!”

Initially, it was agreed that the exiles would live in Portugal for only eight months, but as the months passed, the Jews assimilated into the country’s economy and helped the Portuguese in opening the gates of distant trading cities where other Jews lived, and the authorities chose to turn a blind eye and allow them to stay.

Ferdinand and Isabella were furious. The fact that these deportees were living comfortably and securely only a few kilometers from the Spanish border threatened the grip that the Spanish Inquisition had on the New Christians within its domain.

Francisco Rizi Auto De Fe
Auto-da-fé ceremony in the Plaza Mayor in Madrid, painting by Francisco Rizi, 1683

Only four years after the expulsion, they served their revenge: The Spanish monarchs proposed a deal, offering the new King of Portugal, Manuel I, their pious daughter – named after her mother, Isabella, in exchange for the complete expulsion of Portuguese Jews. King Manuel signed the contract, but he wasn’t interested in losing his country’s Jews who had a fundamental impact on the kingdom’s economy, which by then was the second largest on the Iberian Peninsula.

Since it was the late Middle Ages, the era of absolute monarchies, he could do whatever he wanted, and the solution was very simple. The Jews of Lisbon who chose not to convert to Christianity were required to gather in the city square. There they were promised they would soon be put on board ships to the countries of their choice. As history has taught us, such promises generally end in cruelty for the Jews. It was true then, and was still true hundreds of years later.

Above the heads of the packed crowd, Christian priests went out to the balcony overlooking the square, sprinkled the crowd with “holy water”, and the Jews’ fate was decided. At that moment they were baptized into Christianity. By that point, if they chose to return to Judaism or declare their Jewish faith, they could expect to be burned at the stake on charges of heresy and treason.

Similar ceremonies were performed in the other cities of Portugal, which was quickly and officially rid of all Jews.

These Jews, who had even less choice in their conversion to Christianity than the first Spanish conversos, sought a secret way to preserve their heritage under the watchful eyes of the Inquisition. They knew that no matter how much they remembered and believed in their religion in their hearts; for the future generations – their children and grandchildren – there was no chance that their faith would persevere.

In an attempt to preserve it despite it all, they took advantage of one of the practices of the Catholic faith, whereby believers often “sanctify” various figures and make them into saints who can be revered, even if they haven’t yet received official status from the Church itself.

And so “Santa Ester” (Saint Esther) came to be.

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An icon of “Santa Ester” that hung in the homes of Jewish conversos in South America. Photo: Ronit Treatman, SCJS Kanter Lecture: Conversos & Santa Ester

It isn’t hard to understand why the conversos felt connected to Queen Esther. The story of the beautiful and innocent girl, who was taken from her home and community against her will to the king’s palace – where the megillah tells us that “Esther did not reveal her people or her kindred” (Esther 2:10) – reflected their own sad situation as well as their hope. Would they or their children have the privilege of openly declaring once again, before the king, the ministers, and the whole nation, that they belonged to the Jewish People?

The figure of Santa Ester became an integral part of the homes of many conversos. Icons bearing her image were hung on their walls. The women lit candles in her honor. And the little children – to whom the big family secret could not be revealed – knelt near their beds every evening, clasping their little fingers together, praying to Santa Ester that she should watch over them, protect them, and show them the right path.

It was dangerous. Any sign indicating that a family was still holding on to its Judaism resulted in showcase trials by the Inquisition. The best-case scenario was a trial resulting in a humiliating display of “repentance” and “atonement”, which involved torture and severe punishment. More often, the accused and their families were burned at the stake in a public ceremony called an auto-da-fé. According to various estimates, tens of thousands of Jews met their ends with this method of execution.

Execution Of Mariana De Carabajal At Mexico 1601. Source From Palacioel Libro Rojo Reprinted In The Jewish Encyclopedia Copy
Auto-da-fé ceremony in Mexico, 1601. From the Encyclopedia Judaica

Over time, some of the conversos migrated to the New World, to the territories controlled by Spain and Portugal in South America, where they hoped (in vain) that the long arm of the Inquisition wouldn’t catch up with them. They brought Santa Ester there with them and made sure to celebrate her holiday – which was essentially the same as the Jewish holiday of Purim.

The women were the ones who were responsible for the Santa Ester festival, or “Santa Esterica” as they called it in some places.

The holiday would begin with three days of fasting, to commemorate the fast that Esther established before she appealed to King Ahasuerus.

“And Esther sent back this answer to Mordecai: Go, assemble all the Jews who live in Shushan, and fast on my behalf; do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. I and my maidens will observe the same fast. Then I shall go to the king, though it is contrary to the law; and if I am to perish, I shall perish” (Esther, 4:15-16).

They would divide the fast among themselves, with each woman fasting for one day, and when the fast was over they held a feast.

Instead of public celebrations that were customary in Spain before the expulsion, the families celebrated by having a small, discreet and yet dangerous festive meal at home. The mothers cooked traditional recipes with their daughters that had been passed down through the generations and used the time they spent cooking and baking to whisper to their eldest daughters about other traditions related to kosher food.

As stated above, this was an extremely dangerous practice.

In 1643, a descendant of conversos named Gabriel de Granada was caught in Mexico. During his interrogation, he confessed to the family’s “crimes” and described the holiday and the fast. He and his family members were burned at the stake for the crime of “converting to Judaism.”

The Church continued persecuting the families of conversos, who needed to find increasingly creative ways to hide their traditions. But they continued to maintain those traditions and families whose Jewish memory was fading continued to celebrate the festival of “Santa Ester” every year.

And they held onto the image of Esther with good reason.

In their eyes, Esther, the daughter of Avichayil, was also a converso – a woman who was forced to conceal her lineage and her faith in order to save her life, until she stood up bravely, even though she was all alone in the palace of King Ahasuerus, and declared her national and religious affiliation before the king and his people. In doing so, she saved not only herself but also her people. And not only in her generation. How many descendants of conversos managed to maintain their identity thanks to her? How many of them openly returned to their Judaism when they arrived in countries that allowed this or when the Inquisition’s power declined? We will never know the exact number, but Queen Esther’s strength of spirit and steadfastness persevered in another world and another time.