Even Borscht Tastes Like Home

New on the shelf: When we leave home, even when we make that decision willingly and voluntarily, there is still a connection to the place we left behind. And there’s nothing like food to reawaken those memories and that unique sense of longing.

By Noa Reichmann

“All Ukrainians are supposed to love borsch(t)—but what if you hate the red stuff? A young girl despises Eastern Europe’s most beloved soup, and not even the grandmothers of Kiev can persuade her to change her mind…”

         From the cover of I Hate Borsch!

Yevgenia Nayberg, an award-winning theater designer, author and illustrator, grew up in Ukraine and immigrated to the United States.

As a Ukrainian girl, she was expected to love sour beet soup, otherwise known as borsch or borscht – but what to do, she really can’t stand the “red, thick, disgusting soup!” With many a humorous illustration, she describes her excitement at all the elements of Ukrainian agriculture being enlisted in the service of making this national dish. Her sense of persecution is also translated into amusing, brightly colored illustrations.

While preparing to leave for the United States, Yevgenia receives many recipes for making borscht, and every grandma she knows swears her own recipe is the one true original. Arriving at the Promised Land of America teaches her new things about the hated dish: it’s called borscht there rather than the Ukrainian “borsch”, it comes in bottles and has no taste at all…

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Moving to the US exposed Yevgenia to new foods and tastes. But as time passed and after eating “tons” of American food, she felt something was missing. Maybe she missed the sight of the red liquid in the white ceramic bowl, the heavy crooked spoon on the wooden table, or the “amber tea in the cloudy glass”. After opening up her old suitcase and taking out her old children’s clothes, she took the borsch recipes, laid them on the table, read them one by one, and then went to the kitchen to prepare the dish.

The book ends, naturally, with the author’s own recipe for borsch.

Unfortunately, many Israeli citizens have also had to recently leave their homes, and not out of choice. Some of them don’t even have any souvenirs of their former lives, which were turned upside down in a day.

The National Library of Israel collections include recipe books produced in various communities around the country, many of them in kibbutzim.

Because of the character of life on the kibbutz in the past, most of the recipes in the older books refer to baked goods: cakes, cookies, and salted pastries. There are also recipes for salads and other dishes appropriate for hosting guests, but usually not recipes for whole meals.

This was the case with a publication released by the “Baking Mothers Organization” of Kibbutz Nahal Oz in 1985. An absolute majority of its recipes cover cookies and cakes.

The online cookbook put out by Kibbutz Be’eri in 2022 is representative of kibbutz life in the 21st century. It includes recipes for all parts of the meal: starters, soups, main dishes, and desserts. It contains traditional foods from different Jewish communities, alongside foods from around the world: sushi salad with seaweed alongside Hungarian goulash with nokedli or couscous soup.

The very mention of some dish we knew in the past always has an emotional connection – of rejection, or of longing.

May the dishes, morsels and recipes we encounter only conjure up pleasant memories!

Translated from Hebrew by Avi Woolf

What Happened to Libyan Jews in the Holocaust?

The horrors of the Holocaust did not pass over the Jews of North Africa, but theirs is a story that is rarely told. This is the story of those who were called “schwarze Juden” (“black Jews”) by the Nazis. Some were sent to concentration camps erected in the desert, and others shipped off to Europe as prisoners of war…

زوجان يهوديان من ليبيا، ناجيان من معسكر بيرغن بيلسن، يضعان الشارة الصفراء، من كتاب "صور من الذاكرة"، "أور شالوم"

A Jewish couple from Libya, survivors of Bergen Belsen, wearing yellow stars. From the book "Temunot Zikaron" (Pictures of Memory, Hebrew), the Or Shalom Center for Libyan Jewish Heritage

Today there is a growing understanding that it was not only the Jews of Europe who experienced the horrors of the Holocaust, yet most people are still unaware of what happened to North African Jewry during the great catastrophe that befell the Jewish people during the Second World War

North African Jewry is not a monolith. Just as Algerian Jewry is different from Moroccan Jewry, the Jews of Libya are not the same as the Jews of Tunisia. The same is true of how each of these communities experienced the Holocaust.

There is no doubt that the North African Jewish community which most directly experienced the horrors of the Holocaust, and in the most brutal fashion, was the Libyan Jewish community. The Nazis, with the help of their allies the Italians, who controlled Libya from 1911 to 1943, conquered Libya from the British and established three concentration camps there. The largest and most well-known of these was Giado, and the others were Gharyan and Sidi Azaz. The Germans herded as many Jews as they could get their hands on into these camps, including women and children.

Giado concentration camp. Over 2600 Jews were imprisoned here, and about 600 died of hunger, exhaustion and disease. Courtesy of the Or Shalom Center for Libyan Jewish Heritage

The Jews of the region of Cyrenaica, with its Mediterranean capital of Benghazi, made up the majority of Libyan Jews who were sent to the camps at this stage. Yet many Jews from the city of Tripoli, the capital of the Tripolitania region and of Libya itself, were also placed in the concentration camps established in the heart of the Sahara Desert.

This, however, was not enough for the Nazis.

They also took a large group of upper-class Libyan Jews and sent them to concentration camps in Europe, to ensure that they would eventually be murdered alongside their Ashkenazi brethren. These Jews were forced to take part in a grueling, lengthy trek that took them from the searing heat of the African continent to the freezing European cold – to camps such as Bergen-Belsen and Mauthausen.

Clearing bodies in Bergen-Belsen near booth 210, where Libyan prisoners were held. Courtesy of the Or Shalom Center for Libyan Jewish Heritage

Unfortunately, my family members were among the Jews placed in these camps, and some of them ultimately perished in the Holocaust. When I wrote the book Benghazi Bergen-Belsen (cover below), I traced the history of my family and their community in the Holocaust. For the three years I wrote the book, I actually lived in the terrible places they passed through in Africa and Europe. I clung to the mind of Silvana Haggiag, who despite her young age, was able to lead my family and the entire Libyan-Jewish community, despite unimaginable degrees of suffering.

The character of Silvana is, if you wish, the image of my grandmother, who survived Bergen-Belsen. She and many members of the Libyan Jewish community who managed to survive the camps in Europe, provided me with firsthand accounts of their experiences. Through them and others, I became aware of the murderous machine that took North African Jews from the heart of the Sahara Desert into Europe, not sufficing with simply murdering them in Libya. They did this since these Jews had British passports, which they took to Europe as prisoners of war. But the Nazis did not treat them as such, and they were taken in cargo ships to Italy, where they endured an unsettling and arduous journey to the concentration camps in Europe.

When I wrote the book, I did it not only for my own family or community but for the sake of humanity. I wanted to bring back into public discourse, that which has been erased, perhaps unknowingly, by Israeli history. To my joy, the novel I wrote about my family and what they experienced in the camps has helped the Holocaust of Libyan Jewry to enter into the Israeli collective consciousness.

Left – Rachel Messika, murdered at Giado concentration camp at the age of 50. From the Yad Vashem Photo and Film Archives

But now I understand that along with the primary goal of writing this book, there was another purpose: my personal desire to reach a state where it would be easier for me to forget. I wanted to forget the Holocaust which my family and my people experienced, for a time. I didn’t want to allow the Holocaust to intervene in my day-to-day life, to influence my stance towards life – or my belief in the human race.

I wanted a break from the Holocaust, and I thought that if I wrote about it, I could meet the condition that might allow me to enjoy such a break. But it turned out this condition was necessary yet not sufficient. In order to take a break from the Holocaust, I had to avoid Israeli society, which is saturated with it.

The Holocaust is present everywhere in Israeli society, in every nook and cranny. The Holocaust is regularly used by everyone around us – leaders, politicians, media figures, and even ordinary citizens use it unnecessarily, bending it to their own needs, to the point that one day it will be flattened beyond recognition.

Libyan Jews, survivors of Bergen-Belsen, return to Libya. The train car says “To Tripoli” with a Union Jack drawn below

In our society, the Holocaust isn’t just above the surface. It can very often be found behind the scenes as well, guiding the behaviors of groups, communities, and individuals in a covert manner, to the point that it’s hard to even see its effects. There’s no break from it.

But what will become of us, those who don’t wish to live anywhere else, for whom Israel is the only place to be, and for whom Israeli life, with all its flaws, is the center of their world? Are we doomed to walk forever under the shadow of the Holocaust? Will we have to feel the ramifications of one of the most terrible events in the history of civilization so long as we live? Not necessarily.

This need not be. We must speak of the Holocaust sparingly, gently, with awe, turning our backs on those who make crude use of it for their own purposes. The moment that happens, the treatment of the Holocaust itself will change. Then will I also be able to put it aside, and take leave of my bloody family history. But until that day, I am doomed to live under the constant bombardment of those who speak in the name of the Holocaust, and I myself will continue to bleed.

Benghazi Bergen-Belsen, by Yossi Sucary, translated by Yardenne Greenspan, 2016

 

The Search for Meaning Continues: When Viktor Frankl Returns to the Bestseller Lists

In late-1945, Viktor Frankl faced the broken shell that remained of his life: Though he had survived the Nazi concentration camps, he had lost the love of his life, the baby she carried in her womb, his professional status, and the manuscript of his book. He needed to start over. But was that even possible? His answer was an unequivocal - yes

Viktor Frankl with his second wife Eleonore

How does a foreign book – featuring an old-fashioned cover design, written almost eighty years ago in Austria – end up on the bestseller lists in Israel in 2023?

Viktor Frankl, who wrote the book in question (and many others after) would perhaps answer that people are always looking for meaning, no matter what century they are born in or the horrors they are required to face.

Viktor Emil Frankl was born in fashionable and enlightened Vienna in the early 20th century. Already at the age of three or four, he told his father that he wanted to be a doctor and treat people. Within a few years, he had decided that being a physician wasn’t enough for him. Viktor wanted to focus on mental health – psychiatry.

Elsa and Gabriel, Viktor Frankl’s parents. Picture courtesy of the Viktor Frankl Institut.

His surroundings couldn’t have been more perfect for such a choice: Vienna was the Mecca of psychiatry and psychotherapy at the time. The Viennese educational and research institutions were among the world’s most advanced, and the city was full of well-known practitioners, academics and scientists. Frankl studied with students of Sigmund Freud, and even shared correspondence with Freud himself, to such an extent that when they finally met in person, the father of psychoanalysis shook his hand and asked: “Viktor Frankl, Vienna, 6 Chernin Street, door 25, correct?”

But the city was only the setting; Frankl himself was talented, hardworking, and full of great ideas and an even greater faith in the human soul. He was also a gracious speaker, and at the age of 15 he delivered his first speech, entitled – pretentious as it was for a boy of his age – “On the Meaning of Life”.

Frankl was a resounding and speedy success. He wasn’t yet 20 years old when he published his first paper (with the encouragement of Freud, who later came out against his ideas), and he was barely 25 when he received his first doctorate. It was around this time that he started formulating his own therapeutical approach – Logotherapy, or meaning-based psychotherapy (the name is derived from the Greek word “logos,” defined as “meaning”).

Logotherapy was later called “the third Viennese school of psychotherapy”, preceded by Freud’s psychoanalysis and Alfred Adler’s individual psychology.

Adler himself, who was initially an ardent supporter of this up-and-coming talent, was unimpressed with Frank’s new independent ideas and literally threw him out of the “Society for Individual Psychology,” which he headed.

But that didn’t hurt Frankl. In fact, he became famous in Europe and throughout the world in his own right and was invited to give lectures at leading academic institutions – lectures that filled halls with enthusiastic students and researchers.

Frankl would correspond with famous figures from the fields of philosophy and medicine. A letter to Martin Buber, which he signed: “With a special greeting and sincere appreciation”. The Martin Buber Archive at the National Library of Israel

This description might bring to mind a terrifyingly serious boy and later, young man, who spent all of his time poring over thick tomes and cut off from the world, but that image is a far cry from the vivacious and loving character that was the young Viktor Frankl.

His lectures were so sought after, not only because of his ideas and innovative research, but also because he knew how to explain his theories in a clear, simple manner and was able to pepper the dry information with subtle humor.

Frankl’s personal charm also helped him with the opposite sex. He recounts in his memoirs how he used his position as a young lecturer to attract the women he liked: He’d tell them about “this Frankl fellow” who gave lectures, and then offer to accompany them to the popular scholar’s next lecture. It’s easy to imagine the women’s admiration at seeing the man who had escorted them suddenly walk on stage, to the sound of rapturous applause.

In the meantime, the Nazis had annexed Austria. Frankl, who was an ardent supporter of the Austrian Zionist movement, needed to keep a low profile. He could no longer use the title “Doctor”, which was denied to Jews, and he was forced to close down the private clinic he had opened less than a year earlier.

In 1940, when he was 35 years old, Frankl was appointed director of the neurological department at Rothschild Hospital in Vienna, a Jewish institution. Although he risked his life in doing so, he gave patients false psychiatric diagnoses in order to prevent the Nazis from executing or imprisoning the mentally ill.

Despite his promising academic and social status, it was clear that as a Jew, Frankl’s future wasn’t bright. The Americans opened their gates to him, even as they remained closed to many others, but he chose to stay in Vienna with his elderly parents who weren’t granted the desired visa.

Just then, when the future seemed like a looming black cloud, he met a nurse in the hospital named Tilly Grosser and fell deeply in love. They got married that year, and were the last Jewish couple allowed to officially wed in Nazi-controlled Vienna. But when Tilly became pregnant, the young couple had to give up their dreams of a family; pregnant Jews were immediately sent east, and Tilly had to have an abortion to save her life.

Years later, one of his books would be dedicated “to Harry, or to Marion. Children who were never born”.

Viktor and Tilly on their wedding day. Photo courtesy of the Viktor Frankl Institut

In September 1942, he was taken, along with Tilly, his parents, and the rest of their family, to the Theresienstadt Ghetto. There, using his skills as a doctor and psychiatrist, he developed psychological programs to alleviate the initial shock of the new prisoners and to prevent cases of suicide.

When his father was dying in his arms from lung disease, he chose compassion over survival, injecting him with the only dose of morphine he had managed to smuggle into the ghetto so that he could die in relative peace.

Two years after arriving at Theresienstadt, the Frankl family was boarded onto one of the transports heading east, to a camp people didn’t return from – Auschwitz.

During the last few moments before he was forced to part ways with his wife, he held her hands and told her in the sternest voice he could muster: “Tilly, stay alive at any cost. Do you hear me? At any cost!” It didn’t work. He never saw her again, but was sure until the end of his days that she was among the 17,000 prisoners who died in Bergen-Belsen (the camp where she apparently was held at the end of the war) just after liberation.

The Nazis took more than just his family. In the pocket of Frankl’s coat, which he had to give up upon arrival in the camp, was the almost complete manuscript of his first book on the fundamentals of Logotherapy – The Doctor and the Soul. He later said that on the same day that the manuscript was taken from him, he was given a different coat, the pocket of which contained a page torn out of a prayer book with the words of the prayer “Shema Yisrael” written on it. He took it as a sign that now was the time not only to formulate lofty ideas but also, and perhaps above all, to live by them.

The cover of the first edition of Man’s Search for Meaning, published in Vienna, 1946. It still appears in lists of must-read books to this day. The original title in German was Ein Psychologe erlebt das Konzentrationslager (“A Psychologist Experiences the Concentration Camp”)

There was little he could do for his wife Tilly, he could only think and dream about her. But when it came to his book, there was something practical Frankl could do. He continued to write throughout this period – mainly in his head, but also on small scraps of paper that he was able to obtain.

“I am convinced,” he later wrote, “that I owe my survival, among other things, to my decision to recreate this lost manuscript. I began working on it when I was sick with typhus and tried to stay awake, even at night, to prevent a collapse of my vascular system. On my 40th birthday, a prisoner gave me the end of a pencil that he stole almost miraculously, and also some papers from SS documents. On the back of these documents, I wrote down the titles of the chapters, which helped me recreate my book.”

From those chapter titles, and his experiences from that terrible time, he was able to compose a new book. Man’s Search for Meaning was written in Vienna right after the war, when for nine consecutive days, Frankl stood and spoke before several typists who were able to put the flow of his words into text.

The notes on which Frankl wrote the chapter titles for his book while in the concentration camp. Photo courtesy of the Viktor Frankl Institut

Frankl had developed his theory of Logotherapy before the war, but this book, published after years of wandering between concentration camps, was not the book he had originally planned. Now, in addition to his “dry” scientific theory, the book contained the story of his own survival in the concentration camps, an autobiographical story that served as a kind of case study for Logotherapy.

In the midst of the impossible routine inside the camps, Frankl tested his psychotherapeutic theory on himself and those around him. He found that the three main foundations upon which he had based the method of Logotherapy – the will to find meaning, the meaning of life, and freedom of will – were put to the most brutal test imaginable and withstood it.

“We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

― Viktor E. Frankl

Frankl argued that the people who survived weren’t the strongest or the most cheerful but rather those who had managed to find some meaning worth living for. “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how” may have been a saying of Nietzsche’s, but Frankl leant it some very practical meaning.

The result was a short book, barely 200 pages long, that sold more than 12 million copies and is considered by many to be one of the most influential books ever written.

With the end of the war and the gradual liberation of the concentration camps, Frankl returned to his hometown of Vienna, to the horrible discovery that his entire family, aside from his sister, had been murdered. Acting as a spectacular personal example – he rolled up his sleeves and set out to rebuild his life. In doing this, he kept in mind the greatest meaning his life could offer – “to help others find their meaning” – as he himself put it.

He got married again, to a nurse named Eleanore, and they had a daughter named Gabriel. This was a loving marriage between a practicing Jew and an equally practicing Christian. She went with him to synagogue, and he accompanied her to church.

Viktor Frankl with students in the U.S. Photo courtesy of The Viktor Frankl Institut

Ever since, Viktor Frankl’s ideas have spread throughout the world. He published around 40 books that have been translated into over 50 languages. He himself continued to live in Vienna until the end of his life but spent many years traveling long distances for lectures and meetings at every important academic institution across the globe.

The fact that Man’s Search for Meaning has again become a bestseller in Israel, precisely when we are in the midst of one of the most difficult and challenging times in the history of the state, shows more than anything how eternally relevant his ideas are.

Since he himself is not with us today to provide words of comfort and meaning, we have no choice but to find some solace in words he spoke in the past, in reference to other terrible events:

“What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for some goal worthy of him.”

The cover of the newest Hebrew edition of the book Man’s Search for Meaning – the edition that entered the bestsellers list in Israel in late 2023

Yavnieli and the Yemenite Aliyah

With the birth of the State of Israel, over 850,000 Jews were forced to leave the Arab and Islamic world. In Yemen, however, this was not the first time a mass immigration to Israel had taken place. More than three decades earlier, with the help of a young man named Shmuel Yavnieli, over 1,500 Yemenite Jews started their own journey to the Land of Israel, and embarked on a voyage largely untold…

Shmuel Yavnieli, the Israel Archive Network project, made accessible thanks to the Kvutzat Kinneret Archive, the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage and the National Library of Israel

On November 30, we remember the mass departure and expulsion of Jews from numerous Arab and Islamic countries – the migration, in many cases forced, of literally hundreds of Jewish communities as they were harshly persecuted and left to flee in the mid-1900s. It is no secret that as antisemitism and discrimination towards Jews spread like wildfire across the Arab world, governments all the way from Morocco to Iraq adopted anti-Jewish measures, sometimes actively expelling Jewish citizens, most of whom eventually sought refuge in Israel.

One such country that contributed to the displacement of some of these Jewish Arabs was Yemen. Yemen actually had one of the oldest Jewish communities in the whole Arab world, with roots dating back thousands of years. On top of this, historically, the Jews of Yemen were successful as business-owners and respected members of the community, contributing to both economic and religious growth in the area. However, as the Arab persecution of Jews rose in the mid-20th century, anti-Jewish sentiment intensified in Yemen too, and Jewish life became increasingly precarious as their communities faced discriminatory measures, violence, and economic restrictions, peaking in the 1940s.

Shmuel Yavnieli (right) with a friend, 1910s, the Israel Archive Network, accessible thanks to the efforts of the Yad Ben Zvi Archive, the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage and the National Library of Israel

The unbearable situation for the Jews of Yemen eventually led to Operation Magic Carpet in 1949: a clandestine operation to airlift Yemenite Jews out of danger and bring them to Israel. This covert mission was widely seen as a success, and by its completion, over 50,000 Yemenite Jews were resettled in the new Jewish state.

But what many people do not know is that this was not the first time a mass emigration from Yemen to the Land of Israel took place, despite it being the most significant. The wave of Yemenite Aliyah that took place just a few decades earlier is in fact a largely untold story…

Shmuel Yavnieli, the Israel Archive Network project, made accessible thanks to the Kvutzat Kinneret Archive, the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage and the National Library of Israel

When the Zionist Organization was founded in 1897, they set out almost immediately to increase the rate of global immigration to the Land of Israel, then still part of the Ottoman Empire. However, despite their best efforts, there was a group of Jews who seemed untouchable: the rich and powerful Yemenites. Yemenite Jews, often jewelers, dealers of precious metals, and coffee merchants by trade, were overwhelmingly well-to-do. While of course not every Yemenite Jew was rich, it certainly seemed that the community had the economic resources to thrive in the Middle Eastern landscape. The Yemenite Jews tended to be religious and often highly mystical, prizing their kabbalistic knowledge, messianic beliefs, modest dress codes, and pious nature. It was also known that much of the community’s accumulated wealth was spent in Judaic pursuit. For example, in the city of Sana’a, where roughly 7,000 Jews resided, no less than 28 synagogues were built by the city’s Jews.

But as new waves of Aliyah were taking place from around the world, the Zionist Organization firmly believed that these Yemenite Jews with their wealth and talents should not be left behind. Their solution to this matter came in the form of one Shmuel Varshovsky (more commonly known as Shmuel Yavnieli). Yavnieli was a young Zionist living in Ottoman Palestine. In the early 20th-century, when the Zionist Organization unveiled plans to send an undercover agent into the depths of Yemenite society and promote a mass emigration, 29-year-old Yavnieli seemed like a good choice for the job: he spoke many languages, could vaguely pass as a Yemenite, and was an ardent Zionist willing to prove his worth.

Shmuel Yavnieli’s summary of his life and missions found amongst his personal belongings, 1958, the National Library of Israel

Yavnieli’s first job was to grow out his sidelocks, as he would be immediately uncovered as an outsider if his haircut didn’t fit in with the common hairstyle of Yemenite Jewry. As a matter of fact, fitting in with Yemenite society was crucial to his plan, as he needed to integrate deep into their community before he could earn their trust and gain some influence. Of course, the sidelocks were not enough. He also purchased some traditional Yemenite items of clothing, including their unique style of tallit, which they wrapped around their shoulders and wore all day like a scarf. He also started practicing Yemenite greetings and local phrases and gestures, slowly improving his skillful imitation.

Shmuel Yavnieli dressed as a Yemenite Jew, with Rabbi Ishack and another respected member of the Aden community, 1911, Shmuel Yavne’ely, The Foreseer, Shimon Kushnir, 1972

His final step was to collect some money from the Zionist Organization so that he would fit in with the lavish lifestyle enjoyed by the elite Yemenite Jews. But Yavnieli wasn’t done yet – he also decided to change his name.

Yemenite Judaism, as mentioned, was highly kabbalistic and messianic, and the Yemenite Jews held an integral belief that the Messiah would be ushered in by a messenger by the name of ‘Ben Yosef’ (Son of Joseph). This idea of a pre-messianic messenger is not found in most Ashkenazi or Sephardi teachings, but for the Yemenite Jews, the presence of Ben Yosef was a canonical event which would certainly occur before the Messiah could arrive. Thus, Yavnieli decided to change his last name to ‘Ben Yosef’ to give himself legitimacy when encouraging the Yemenite Jews to help usher in a new age and begin the messianic global return of Jews to the Land of Israel. His first name Shmuel had to be changed too, as it sounded far too Ashkenazi, and would have revealed him as an outsider within seconds. So, Yavnieli left Israel in November 1910 as ‘Eliezer Ben Yosef’, a man who looked and acted so Yemenite that truly no one would doubt his pedigree.

Signed photograph of Yavnieli, Shmuel Yavne’ely, The Foreseer, Shimon Kushnir, 1972

Yavnieli knew that he had to be subtle if he was to earn any influence in this new land, so the plan was for him to pose as a messenger of the great Rabbis of Israel, who had ostensibly sent him out to learn about Yemenite culture. To give this ruse legitimacy, he carried with him two letters of recommendation which could not be refuted: a letter from Rav Abraham Isaac Kook, a renowned Jewish religious leader who would later become the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Mandatory Palestine; and Jerusalemite Rabbi Ben-Zion Meir Hai Uziel who would become the first Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Israel. This was a serious misunderstanding of Yemenite Jewry, which Yavnieli assumed would subscribe to one of the two mainstream branches of Judaism, and thus be impressed by at least one of these sponsors.

With the help of Rav Kook, Yavnieli had also composed a list of 26 questions which he would ask the local Yemenite Jews as part of his ‘research’ – questions such as “do you forbid marrying more than one wife?” or “do you practice Jewish custom in accordance with the Shulchan Aruch or the Rambam?” Such questions gave Yavnieli legitimacy as an agent of the two esteemed Rabbis, and also served as a tool to validate the authenticity of the Yemenites’ Judaism in the eyes of their co-religionists.

Newspaper article from 1912 describing how Yavnieli encouraged a wave of Aliyah from Yemen to pre-state Israel, Emigration of Yemenite Jews, The Young Worker, June 21 1912, the National Library of Israel

As Yavnieli arrived and settled into life in Yemen, he met two great influences, who would seriously help boost his social and political standing within this foreign community. The first was the heavily Zionist, and incredibly wealthy, Banin family. This aristocratic family already had close contact with the Jews in the Land of Israel, as they were major philanthropists of Zionist pursuits and had even donated enough money to build at least one large synagogue in Tel Aviv. With their support, Yavnieli’s life in Yemen was made considerably easier. His other vital contact was Rabbi Ishack Ben-Ishack Cohen – the leading Rabbi of the Aden Jewish community. “This man deserves to be written in the book of gold” he wrote of the great Rabbi, who immediately boosted Yavnieli’s esteem, and as we shall see, went on to help Yavnieli significantly with his mission.

Once Yavnieli, with the help of these valuable contacts, had earned both the trust and respect of the Yemenite Jews, he was finally able to start working on his real goal, which was of course initiating a new wave of Aliyah – Jewish immigration to the Land of Israel.

Notes from Shmuel Yavnieli’s personal notebook, the Habshush Family Archive, the National Library of Israel. The archive was cataloged with the generous support of the Samis Foundation, Seattle, Washington, dedicated to the memory of Samuel Israel

This process began with a pamphlet, which he wrote and published during his stay in Aden. The pamphlet opened with a description of pre-state Israel, then still known as Ottoman Palestine, promising that it was a progressive and successful country with wonderful doctors, an above-average schooling system, where there were lots of games, sports and leisure activities to participate in. He continued to promote this idealistic vision of a land in which everyone spoke the language of the biblical forefathers, and no other nations would interfere in Jewish matters. Instead of a sultan, the Jews were described as the leaders of their own society!

Sections from Yavnieli’s pamphlet describing the jobs and lives available in pre-state Israel for the Yemenite Jews, Writings, Shmuel Yavnieli, 1951

Yavnieli’s pamphlet explained that there were many Jewish landowners and farmers who needed help managing their businesses. The idea was not for the Yemenite Jews to become laborers, but instead to help with the financial and business initiatives of the existing farmers and factory owners. The pamphlet proclaimed that any Jew who truly loves Zion, is of workable age and ability, and has the funds to do so, should immigrate to the Land of Israel. Yavnieli’s pamphlet promised that if they were to do so, their needs would be entirely taken care of once they arrived, and they would also be assured of life-long employment. To appeal to their religious instincts, Yavnieli concluded with quotes from the Bible to persuade the Yemenite Jews that the time had come for an ingathering of the exiles and a messianic rebirth of a Jewish sovereign nation. He strongly encouraged the Yemenite Jews to be part of this redemption story.

Biblical quote in Yavnieli’s pamphlet, Writings, Shmuel Yavnieli, 1951

The pamphlet had its desired effect.

Soon, Yavnieli had rebranded himself as an ‘immigration officer’ and started to manage the emigration of Jews from Yemen to Israel. Yavnieli began traveling from city to city, stopping wherever he found a Jewish community, now preceded by his well-known reputation. He would come with a glowing recommendation from Rabbi Ishack Ben-Ishack Cohen and, using his recently affirmed high status, he would seek out an influential person in each community to help deliver his pamphlet and recruit potential Aliyah pioneers. The Yemenite Jews were a receptive crowd. Yavnieli described them as having a collective “awakening” to the call of Israel, and soon he had queues of Jews waiting to sign up and board boats headed for the promised land.

Yavnieli’s route through Yemen, 1911, Shmuel Yavne’ely, The Foreseer, Shimon Kushnir, 1972

Rabbi Ishack helped immensely with this newfound demand, and the two men got to work compiling lists of potential immigrants. Once they had gathered enough people to fill a boat, they would send a letter containing the identities of the Yemenite Jews to Dr Arthur Ruppin, the director of the Palestine Office of the Zionist Organization, to arrange their papers. These lists can actually still be found in the Zionist Archives, and to this day they are helping Yemenite Jews discover their heritage.

Letter written by Shmuel Yavnieli, Samuel Hugo Bergmann Archive, Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft, the Centre for the Study of Manuscript Cultures at Universität Hamburg

But this wave of Aliyah was not turning out to be what Yavnieli and the Zionist Organization had expected. While their initial goal was to bring the able, working-age men to the Land of Israel, Yemenite culture places a strong importance on family values, and none of the Yemenite husbands would leave their wives, children, or parents behind. Instead of the desired wealthy young men, the boats were quickly filling up with grandparents, children, aunties and uncles! So many families arrived at Yavnieli’s make-shift emigration centers that he had to persuade most of the families to wait until the next Jewish holiday before they made their move! Hence it came to pass that during the Sukkot festival of 1911, roughly 1,500 Yemenite Jews set sail for Ottoman Palestine.

Preparations at the port in Aden to bring Yemenite immigrants to Israel, Benno Rothenberg, the Meitar Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

There was lots of enthusiasm for this mass-departure. In fact, Yavnieli documents a story of a family who were so eager to move that they tried to sell their house to raise the funds to travel. When they couldn’t sell their home in time, they dismantled the house instead, and sold the individual planks of wood, in order to get the quick cash that they needed to board the next Aliyah ship.

Yavnieli with his wife Chaniah and children Ariella and Menachem, 1936, Shmuel Yavne’ely, The Foreseer, Shimon Kushnir, 1972

But wealth remained a dividing factor in this process, despite the fact that the excluded poorer Yemenite families were keen to join in the exodus, too. Yavnieli did not want to leave even a single willing Jew behind. Instead, he sent long letters of appeal to Dr. Ruppin, and Rabbi Binyamin Feldman, the Secretary of the Palestine Office of the Zionist Organization. He encouraged them to find funding to bring over the disadvantaged families, stating that they could do farm work and manual labor upon their arrival, which was sorely needed during those years. With funding secured, extra boats were chartered from the Ostrich Shipping Company in order to bring even more Yemenite Jews to the Land of Israel. Rabbi Ishack helped verify which families would need reduced ticket fares and sent lists to Dr. Ruppin of families who would be taking the subsidized chartered shipping boats to Israel.

Yavnieli stayed in Yemen, helping hundreds of Jewish families make the move, until the outbreak of World War II. When he finally left to return home, he departed as a true hero.

Yavnieli posing with some of the Yemenite Jews he helped bring to Israel, 1917 (left) 1932 (right), Shmuel Yavne’ely, The Foreseer, Shimon Kushnir, 1972

Just a few years later, the tide turned in Yemen, and the remaining Jews found themselves fighting against a discriminatory and corrupt government armed with antisemitic rhetoric and bigoted rulings. As the country began to rally in earnest against the Jews, and almost all of the Arab world followed suit, most of the remaining Yemenite Jews were forced to await rescue in the form of Operation Magic Carpet, 35 years after the end of Yavnieli’s efforts.

Yavnieli with David Ben-Gurion, 1956, Shmuel Yavne’ely, The Foreseer, Shimon Kushnir, 1972

But as Yavnieli watched the tragedy of the expulsion of Jews from Yemen and the surrounding Arab lands, which we commemorate annually on November 30, he could at least clear his conscience, knowing that he single-handedly brought about an entire wave of Yemenite Aliyah.