Haim Gouri’s Box of Old Stories

Hamutal Gouri, daughter of Haim Gouri, writes of how her father taught her the near-magical power of stories - tales that can be pulled out of a box to help us make sense of the world.

Haim Gouri, 1952

I come from a storytelling people. Don’t we all?

I keep a box of old stories in my small study in Jerusalem. I open it often – whenever I need the kind of strong medicine that only stories can offer- from moral advice to the solace found in the warm embrace of the stories of my grandmother, Luba z”l. I open the box of old stories when I need their help in chasing away the evil arch-villians that occasionally burst into my life, uninvited: the Queen of Chilling Silence, Paralyzing Fear or Sleepy Indifference.

I open the box of old stories in search of the comfort found in sense-making; when the painful yearning for those I have loved and lost engulfs me and strips me of words and images. I open the box of old stories to summon the wisdom of my storytelling people when I need the courage to venture into uncharted waters.

This morning I opened the box to look for the story whose words would give shape and meaning to that which is yet unspoken. At the bottom of the box I found the story of Danny and his Little Red Car. My father told us this story about a little boy who wished more than anything to participate in the annual car race in his hometown. So, Danny built a little red car from scratch and on the day of the race, he stood proudly at the starting line with his little red car. The crowd burst out laughing, pointing fingers of dismissal at Danny and his little vehicle, but Danny did not care and would not let any of it cast doubt in his heart. Danny and his little red car raced all the way to the finish line, coming in first place and winning the race, with the whole town folks cheering: “The little car will win the race! The red car is number one!”

Haim Gouri, age 2 with a pencil in hand, 1925, from the NLI archives

Although I have heard this story dozens of times, I would sit and listen, tingling with excitement and anticipation as my father retold the story. He would make it more dramatic each time; Danny became younger and poorer, the competition fiercer and thus the triumph even sweeter. I still recall the first time he told the story to my son, Daniel, who sat on his lap, eyes, ears and heart wide open, taking in every single word so that one day, he could tell this story to a little boy or a little girl in need of the strong medicine of magic, love and inspiration encapsulated in this one simple story.

Haim Gouri,1986. From the National Library of Israel, Dan Hadani Archive, IPPA Staff Photo by Rachamim Shaul

I lost my father, Haim Gouri, on January 31st, 2018, on Tu Bishvat, the Jewish Festival of the Trees. The day marks a joyous spring in the midst of gloomy winter. My father was a poet, writer, journalist and documentary filmmaker and at his core, he was a storyteller in every one of his endeavors. He left behind a rich legacy of poetry and works of fiction, thousands of investigative journalism pieces, and a documentary trilogy about the Holocaust and the Jewish Resistance. He also left behind a family heritage of stories that comfort, inspire and call upon the human spirit to show up at its best, time after time.

We all come from storytelling people and our stories are both intimately personal and powerfully collective and universal. My childhood story of Danny and his Little Red Car is a story of the triumph of mind over matter. It is a story that celebrates the human spirit and its capacity to envision and hold steadfast in the face of great challenges and doubts. It is also, if you like, the nursery room version of the story of David and Goliath.

We all have stories to share and we all come from storytelling people. I invite you to open your own box of old stories and share one that has enriched your life. It can be a childhood bedtime story, a piece of family history or a recipe for a traditional specialty that has a great story by its side.

Stories are a magical resource. The more we use them, the more we have. Stories yield the best interest on our investments: We tell one story and get at least two in return.

This article was written for the NLI Gesher L’Europa European Day of Jewish Culture partnership which this year celebrate the Jewish culture of storytelling.  

When the Future King of England Celebrated Passover With the Chief Rabbi

In 1882, the young Prince George, later King George V, joined his brother on a tour around the world, recording his impressions of the locations he visited - including the Holy Land.

Jaffa Gate and the Citadel. Jerusalem from the west as Prince George probably saw in 1882. Oil painting by Vasily Polanov from 1882.

“… Its children [of the Land of Israel] will come here from all over the world, and a new Jewish Nation will be resurrected in the Holy Land …” – Prince George, the future King George V, supposedly wrote  in his diary, during his visit to Jerusalem in the spring of 1882.

This quote attributed to the future ruler of the United Kingdom was published as part of Yakir Warszawski’s article in the Yiddish newspaper “Di Presse” on April 23rd, 1948, in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Although the author passed away in 1942, his article was published as an allusion to an event that was to take place in three weeks: the declaration of the State of Israel on May 14th, 1948.

“When the King of England Celebrated the Passover Seder in Jerusalem” – Yakir Warszawski’s article in the Yiddish newspaper “Di Presse”, April 23rd, 1948

Thirty-one years before his coronation, young Prince George joined his elder brother, Prince Albert Victor (Eddy), who was serving as junior officer aboard HMS Bacchante.” Together, they toured much of the globe. In March 1882 the royal siblings reached Egypt and from there they made their way to what was then Ottoman Palestine. During the voyage, Prince George also  became a junior naval officer. He began keeping a private diary in 1878, recording his time on the tour.

Prince George in 1882 as a junior officer

The unofficial visit of Prince George and his brother to Jerusalem, including their participation at the Passover Seder held at the home of the the Sephardi Chief Rabbi Raphael Meir Panigel, is also documented in the Hebrew booklet “The Visit of the Princes of England in Jerusalem” (Hebrew) written by the famous writer and scholer Pinchas Graiewski (1873-1941) together with Baruch Priver.

“… Mr. Nissim Bekhar, the principal of the Alliance Israélite Universelle school, translated the Haggadah for them all and explained the rituals. The guests were moved by the ceremony, listening to every word and every whisper, paying attention to every custom with great interest until the reciting of ‘Ga’al Yisrael’… On their return to London, their father sent a letter of thanks to the Rabbi, accompanied by a souvenir picture of himself. “

Graiewski’s and Friver’s booklet from 1935. The two dedicated the booklet to the occasion of the jubilee celebration of the coronation of King George V. (The text regarding the king’s participation in the Passover Seder was written in 1925 and was published again by Graiewski in 1929)

Prince George documented this emotional event in his personal diary as well. His diaries received special attention in the book “King George the Fifth – his Life and Reign”, a biography written by Harold Nicholson published in 1953. However, other than the visit to the Land of Israel, Nicholson’s book contains no reference to the Passover Night spent at the home of the Chief Rabbi. In fact Nicholson notes in his work:

“They went up the Nile as far as Luxor and the month of April was spent on a tour of the Holy Land. Prince George was not impressed by the stories related to him by the local guides: ‘All the places’, he wrote on April 20, 1882, ‘are only said to be the places”.

All of King George V’s diaries, written between 1879 and 1936, were officially published by his granddaughter, Queen Elizabeth II, in 2005. The Queen approved the reading of the diary over several days on the British radio station, Channel 4. Craig Brown of The Telegraph wrote on 31 June 2004: “…The advance publicity proudly trumpeted it as a major exclusive; up to now, King George V’s diaries had not seen the light of day.”

Sections of the diaries of Prince George and his brother Prince Albert had in fact been published already in 1886 in the book “The Cruise of Her Majesty’s Ship ‘Bacchante’ – 1887-1882”. Warszawski, who apparently relied on the above book, quoted Prince George’s diary as follows: “Around 6:30 in the evening we went to Passover Seder at the house of Sephardic Rabbi Rafael Meir Panigel, an old man with a white bonnet and a long coat that he wore over other clothes. There we also met a second old man, Rabbi Nissim Baruch [Apparently referring to Nissim Bekhar, the director of the Alliance Israélite Universelle school mentioned by Graiewski and Friver in their booklet]. (The Yiddish text of Warszawski’s quotations is not an exact translation of the respective English text in the book published in 1886).

“The Cruise of Her Majesty’s Ship ‘Bacchante’ – 1879-1882”, published in London, 1886

Warszawski notes that the future King repeatedly mentioned his visit to the Holy Land in his diary. This is the text of his quote:

“… I moved from the Temple to the Western Wall, where the Jews pray to God. I saw the presence of the Divinity, which seemed to me like a seagull spinning in a storm in the form of lightning.
At the Seder table I heard verses from the Passover Haggadah which is the story of the Exodus from Egypt, a story about a people who came through the hot desert to the Land they remember until this day; It’s children will come here from all over the world and a new Jewish nation will rise in the Holy Land. “

(These quotations in Warszawski’s article do not appear in the compiled diaries and letters published in London, 1886).

King George V in 1923

It is no wonder that Yakir Warszavski’s writing, despite that fact that he died in 1942, was published on the eve of Passover in 1948, about four months after the UN General Assembly’s historic vote approving the Partition Plan, and about three weeks before the declaration of independence of the State of Israel. Apparently, the editor of the Yiddish newspaper “Di Presse” sought to link two historical events: the Exodus from Egypt and the Eve of Passover prior to the establishment of the State of Israel, with a Passover stopover in the Land of Israel in 1882, taking it as a sign of British support for the gathering of the Jewish Diaspora, at a very early stage of  the modern Jewish settlement enterprise in the Land of Israel.


Yakir Warszawski’s article is part of the Zvi and Lea Schwarz Archive at the National Library of Israel. The Schwarz’s were the publishers of the Yiddish monthly “Shriftn” in Buenos Aires.

The Israeli Declaration of Independence as You’ve Never Seen It Before

Arthur Szyk's magnificent artwork on the Declaration of Independence highlights the deep, meaningful connection between the new Jewish state and the ancient Jewish past.

On May 22, 1948, Jewish-Polish artist Arthur Szyk finally received his long awaited American citizenship. He loved and cherished his adoptive country. America had spared Szyk the horrors of the Second World War. It was where he established himself as a well-known artist with a passion to combat the fascist, Nazi ideologies that destroyed Europe. Yet for Szyk, the experience of becoming an American was entirely dwarfed by the realization of his ultimate dream that occurred just eight days prior to his receiving his citizenship: The establishment of the State of Israel.

His wife, Julia Szyk, would tell the story of her husband, the famed artist, who burst into tears as he listened to the founding of the Jewish state on the radio.

The Artist Who Refused to Shirk the Burden of History

Arthur Szyk in his home, 1945. Photographer unknown

For as long as he could remember, Arthur Szyk found himself torn between the two opposing forces of history and modernity. From an early age, growing up in a secular Jewish family, Szyk found himself drawn to the stories of the Hebrew Bible. As a teenager, Arthur was sent to Paris by his family who encouraged him to cultivate his craft and to experience the modern art movement in the capital of European culture. It was there that Szyk developed his artistic style that combined his love of comic caricatures and the decorative illustrations of Medieval manuscripts.

At age 20, Szyk returned from Paris to his hometown in Lodz, Poland, and was quickly swept up in the activities of the local Zionist movement. In 1914 Arthur had the opportunity to join a delegation to the Land of Israel and got to see the developing Jewish Yishuv with his own eyes. He was especially taken by the first Hebrew city, the fledgling five-year-old Tel Aviv. When the First World War broke out, Szyk returned to Poland. Szyk lived in Paris and London between the two World Wars and by the time the Second World War was in full force in 1940, he left Europe for good and made his way to the United States.

“The Dangerous Enemies of the Third Reich are to be Shot!” by Arthur Szyk, 1943, New York

When Adolf Hitler initially came to power, Szyk recognized the danger that the dictator posed to the entire world. With the outbreak of World War II in 1939, Szyk abandoned his personal projects and committed himself to fight with the Allies against the Axis of Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and Nationalist-Imperial Japan. His caricatures earned him a reputation as a single minded artist, relentless in his pursuit of justice and in following the tumultuous politics of his day. His critics however, labelled him as nothing but a propagandist – an opinion that is still commonly held today.

“We Declare…”

The Declaration of Independence designed by Arthur Szyk

Upon hearing of the establishment of the State of Israel, Arthur Szyk turned to the new Israeli government and requested permission to illustrate the Israeli Declaration of Independence and the  declaration that immigration to Israel was now free and open for the Jewish Diaspora.

A Weeping Farmer Seeds a Field: Image from the Israeli Declaration of Independence Illustrated by Arthur Szyk

As befitting a Jewish Modern artist with a passion for Zionism, Szyk created a series of magnificent images for the declaration scroll. These images included multiple Stars of David, prayers to the Almighty, famous biblical figures including Moses and Aaron, as well as the depictions of more modern characters, including a Jewish farmer planting a field and an IDF soldier bearing a flag in one hand, and rifle in the other.

Defending the Newborn State – “If not me, then who?” – Image from the Israeli Declaration of Independence Illustrated by Arthur Szyk

It is possible that in this project, Arthur Szyk worked to artistically settle the conflict between the traditional position of trusting in God to protect the Jewish people from their enemies and the Zionist declaration that the Jews must stand strong and independent, protecting themselves from their enemies. As the phrase from Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of our Fathers, states, “If not me, then who?”

If you liked this article, try these:

Naming the Soldiers: A Special Joint Project by the National Library and Facebook

The Initial Proposals That Fell Short: How the Israeli National Emblem Was Chosen

What was Hidden Behind the Curtains at the Declaration of Independence?

Celebrate Israeli Independence in NYC, 1969!

In 1969 photographer Yael Rozen happened to be in New York City just in time for the Israeli Independence Day parade. View the photos from the joyous event in the Big Apple.

The ladies of "Hadassah" marching on Fifth Avenue

Two years after the Six-Day War, when Israel was still euphoric, Fifth Avenue was the place to celebrate the independence of the young Jewish state.

Yael Rozen was in the United States taking a photography course and she captured magical moments of the parade.

Celebrating the liberated Jerusalem
The National Council of Young Israel toiling the land
Young “Revolutionaries” flying the flags of Israel and the United States, both free of the British Empire
Beitar and a Hora circle marching together
The ladies of “Hadassah” marching on Fifth Avenue
Proud to wave the flag

All rights reserved to Yael Rozen.