Breaking Bard: Uncovering Shakespeare’s True Identity

For centuries, the true identity of William Shakespeare has been shrouded in mystery. What if the famous playwright we all know and love was not who we thought him to be? The controversial theory that ‘Shakespeare’ was a group of women writing under one pseudonym has been gaining traction, raising fascinating questions about gender, authorship, and the nature of creativity. It's high time we examine the evidence behind this theory and explore its implications for our understanding of Shakespeare's legacy.

If I asked you to name the most famous playwright in history, you would almost certainly say Shakespeare. In fact, if I were to ask you to name the most famous people in history, Shakespeare would probably make the list! Whether you genuinely enjoy his writing, or you were simply forced to memorize his plays in English class at school, most people can confidently name at least a few Shakespeare works and their basic plotlines.

Shakespeare, El Progresso-La Bos del Pueblo-La Epocaאיל פרוגריסו/לה בוז דיל פואיבלו/לה איפוקה די נו יורק, 23 June 1916, Artist: Phinsan, via the Historical Jewish Press Collection at the National Library of Israel

But the world of Shakespeare is not as innocuous as it may seem. Many prominent authors have actually posited the theory that Shakespeare was not just one man, but a group of multiple people acting under a common pseudonym.

Much evidence to support this invigorating theory has been uncovered over the last 50 years, and it’s easy to see why the idea has so much traction. For a start, the way Shakespeare describes both the life of royalty and the life of a serf in magnificent detail points to the fact that Shakespeare had access both to the upper floors and the lower basements of the noble British household – something absolutely unheard of in the 1500s. Maybe today we wouldn’t scoff at the concept of being able to truthfully describe the lives of both a sailor and a servant, a prince and a pauper, but if you consider the fact that during Shakespeare’s lifetime the majority of people never even left their own small hamlet, or met anyone more diverse than their own neighbors, it does seem odd that Shakespeare should have had such an intimate understanding of so many varied lifestyles. We’re talking about someone who didn’t have a car, a phone, the internet, or even access to very many books. We’re talking about someone who relied on excruciatingly slow snail mail to talk to anyone outside his immediate village. We’re talking about a time in which most people never set foot outside their own town, let alone their home country.

So how is Shakespeare able, in his plays, to describe all these diverse lives that he unquestionably should not have had access to? He depicts numerous countries in vast detail, despite the fact that during his lifetime he would have had neither the time nor resources to visit those places. Moreover, Shakespeare confidently describes the taste of an orange in Much Ado About Nothing, a fruit not found in his native England until decades after his death. It is unlikely that one person, even today, could have acquired such a wealth of experiences to write about, much less 500 years ago without access to the internet, or even, by modern standards, a well-stocked library!

How are we to believe that a middle-class man born in the provincial English town of Stratford gained the plethora of experiences needed to write the plays that we find in his anthology? Intimate knowledge of the Elizabethan court, the ability to write in multiple languages, understanding of law, astronomy, music, the military, other continents, and multiple cities across Europe? This is even more astounding when we realize that no proofs exist of him ever traveling outside England. Moreover, the language he used and vocabulary that he employed in his plays far exceeds what his abilities rightfully should have allowed, seeing as his only formal education ended at the age of 13.

Ephemera – Hamlet, author: Benjamin Pollock Limited, Shakespeare & Company, 1948-2006, the Roni Toren Archive, made accessible through the collaboration of the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage, the University of Haifa and the National Library of Israel
Ephemera – Hamlet, author: Benjamin Pollock Limited, Shakespeare & Company, 1948-2006, the Roni Toren Archive, made accessible through the collaboration of the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage, the University of Haifa and the National Library of Israel

If all that doesn’t convince you that something suspicious is happening here, maybe this fact will: After Shakespeare’s death, he left behind not one original writing or manuscript in his home, no proof that he had ever put a pen to paper, not one reference book, not one musical instrument (despite a seemingly innate familiarity of over 25 instruments cited throughout his works), and he also left nothing in his will to his daughter, despite the blatant feminism apparent in so many of his plays (a point worth bearing in mind for later!)

Most convincing in the quest to prove that Shakespeare was not actually a single entity, is the fact that the signature of Shakespeare appears throughout his manuscripts with seven completely different spellings, almost all of which were bizarrely found in unexpected locations or years after his passing with no way to trace them back to his hometown. Many forensic scientists have pored over the numerous differing signatures attached to his manuscripts and determined that they may not in fact all belong to the same person. Maybe Shakespeare simply forgot how to spell his own last name, or maybe something unexpected was happening…

Shakespeare’s signature on the cover of a first edition copy of the book – Of the Vanitie and Uncertaintie of Artes and Sciences, by Cornelius Agrippa, 1569, the National Library of Israel collections
Fragment from the first edition of The First Folio, a compilation of all Shakespeare’s plays, 1623, the National Library of Israel collections

The biggest question to ask upon receiving any new theory is always “why?” If you suddenly hear the sound of galloping, you can assume you’re hearing a zebra, but it is probably just a horse. There is, however, one obvious answer to the question of why multiple people may have wanted to write under a single presumed name.

Have you ever heard of the Bell brothers? Otherwise known as the Bronte sisters. What about George Eliot? Now known as Mary Ann Evans. Or A.M. Branard, who was actually Louisa May Alcott? I could go on and on, and by now you perhaps understand where we are going with all of this.

First edition of Shakespeare’s poems, 1640, the National Library of Israel

Women in the 1500s were scarcely permitted to speak their own truths, let alone write them down for public consumption! So, if there were hypothetically a group of female writers, seeking empowerment from their constrained existences, a collective name would be a great secret code to symbolize to those in the know that this work had actually been written by a woman. Shakespeare.

In case you’re still not convinced, let me explain. Perhaps today, a perceptive and well-educated man could write pretty decently from the perspective of a woman, as he is almost certainly surrounded by women who are willing to share their experiences and let him watch their feminine rituals. However, needless to say, this is a recent phenomenon entirely.

Hamlet, photographer: Isaiah Feinberg, courtesy of the Beit Lessin Theatre
Hamlet, photographer: Isaiah Feinberg, courtesy of the Beit Lessin Theatre
Hamlet, photographer: Isaiah Feinberg, courtesy of the Beit Lessin Theatre

Thus, how Lady Macbeth and her sisters describe their femininity so accurately in Macbeth, a play supposedly written by a man, is perhaps a tad suspicious. Beatrice, in Much Ado About Nothing, rages in a uniquely perceptive way at the limitations of being a woman; and Rosalind, in As You Like It, alters her demeanor to appear more masculine and thus progress further in life, an act that surely only aggrieved women usually identify with; Isabella, in Measure for Measure, understands, as women unfortunately often did, that her word was less trustworthy than a man’s and consequently fears that no one will hear her pleas; and Emilia, in Othello, argues passionately for women’s equality – I am sorry to say it, but these accounts which so acutely describe the inner-lives and struggles of women, do not seem to have been written by a man.

Hamlet, photographer: Isaiah Feinberg, courtesy of the Beit Lessin Theatre

“Why was Shakespeare able to see the woman’s position, write entirely as if he were a woman, in a way that none of the other playwrights of the age were able to?” asks Tina Packer, Founding Director of Shakespeare & Company, in her book Women of Will. There is one obvious reason that a group of playwrights would need to use a pseudonym in Elizabethan England: being female. “One would think that Shakespeare had been metamorphosed from a man to a woman,” wrote Philosopher and Playwright Margaret Cavendish.

Cover of Isaac Edward Salkinsohn’s Hebrew translation of “Romeo & Juliet,” 1878, the National Library of Israel collections

It may seem slightly outlandish to posit the theory that ‘Shakespeare’ was the encoded pseudonym for an underground society of female playwrights, but this theory is actually becoming more and more widely accepted. In fact, it was discussed in detail at the International Shakespeare Convention last year, by some of the most renowned Shakespeare scholars in the world.

The writer John Ruskin fascinatingly pointed out that “Shakespeare has no heroes—he has only heroines.” And many of these heroines are seemingly quite feminist: At least ten Shakespearean women defied their fathers, eight disguised themselves as men, six led armies – this was far from the norm in male playwriting until probably the second half of the 1900s!

If more evidence is needed, an incredibly interesting little nugget is found in the works of Gabriel Harvey, a famous Elizabethan literary critic. In 1593, he mysteriously mentioned an “excellent Gentlewoman” who had composed three sonnets and a comedy play. “I dare not particularize her description,” he wrote. In 1593, Shakespeare wrote three sonnets and a comedy play.

William Shakespeare Sq. Chandos Portrait, Wikimedia Commons, Author: Buaidh

At least one of the women often supposed to belong to this group, Emilia Bassano, was Jewish – yet another reason, amidst the raging antisemitism of the 16th century, to hide her real identity. Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, Henry James, Sigmund Freud, Helen Keller, and Charlie Chaplin are amongst the many who propose lists of different women who may have belonged to the Shakespeare collective. Much of their theorizing is based on the fact that although Shakespeare’s life is well documented by any standards as an actor and theatre-owner, we have no proof that he ever actually put pen to paper: No letters mentioning him writing, no documents recording payments for commissions or plays, no journal entries proving that he ever wrote so much as a word. For example, despite his wife’s extensive journaling, she not once mentions that her husband was a playwright.

So, was Shakespeare a group of women from around the globe, writing under this pseudonym and thus displaying their literary brilliance far before society would allow them to do so? We may never know, but you can decide for yourself.

The National Library of Israel is one of only a select few institutions around the world who hold “The First Folio,” a collection of Shakespeare plays published in 1623. This unique piece, as well as other rare Shakespeare manuscripts, were anonymously donated to the NLI in the autumn of 2022. To mark the First Folio’s 400th anniversary, The National Library of Israel is organizing a series of lectures on William Shakespeare and his legacy, with leading Israeli cultural and academic figures. The series will be broadcast between May and July 2023.


Episode 1: Israeli Contemporary Theater and Shakespeare, with Yair Sherman and Dori Parnes. May 7, 2023.

Episode 2: Contemporary Translations of Shakespeare into Hebrew, with Dori Parnes and Ronen Sonis. May 28, 2023.

Episode 3: General overview on NLI’s Shakespeare collection and the Folio structure, with Dr. Stefan Litt and Dr. Micha Lazarus. Date to be announced.

Episode 4: The early modern English objections to Shakespeare, with Dr. Reut Barzilai. Date to be announced.

To see more and register for the free events, visit:

Tracking a Child’s Footprint: The Rescue of France’s Jewish Children in the Holocaust

"Colonie Scolaire" was founded years before WWII with the aim of supporting the children of Paris’s poor immigrants. With the beginning of Jewish persecution in occupied France, the organization went underground in order to save as many Jewish children as possible. This is the story of one of those children, told through the organization's documents…

Colonie Scolaire children on a summer outing to Berck-Plage

On August 27, 1942, the director of a French orphanage, “La Pouponnière” – Nouvelle Etoile des Enfants de France (“The Nursery”) – sent a short letter to a colleague at the La Mère et L’Enfant (“Mother and Child”) clinic at 36 rue Amelot in Paris, along with the outline of a child’s footprint, cut from a newspaper.

The newspaper cutout of a child’s footprint and the attached letter from the director

In the letter, the orphanage director requests the clinic’s help in contacting the mother of the child Cecile Beras, so that she can buy her boots in the shoe size of the footprint attached to the letter.  At the end of the letter, she confirms receipt of the postal check for 475 francs for the settlement of Cecile’s room and board.

Why did the director of the orphanage where Cecile was staying, send a letter to her colleague at another institution in order to contact the little girl’s mother? And why did she not mention her colleague’s name in her letter?

In the first half of the 20th century, Paris was flooded with waves of Jewish immigrants, many of them from eastern Europe, who crowded into the city’s poorer quarters. Rather than integrating into the French Republic’s melting pot, the new immigrants continued speaking Yiddish and lived their lives largely apart from the rest of French society, much to the chagrin of the official leadership of the French Jewish community.

Headed by electrical engineer Boris Wolski, La Colonie Scolaire was established in 1926 to aid the children of eastern European immigrants. It ran social services and a medical clinic called La Mère et l’Enfant, but the highlight of its activities was its yearly summer camps for the children living in the poor quarters of Paris. The camps were held at Berck-Plage on the Atlantic coast, an area familiar to us mainly from the works of Impressionist painters. These summer camps offered the children a chance to escape the suffocation of the crowded city once a year and breathe some fresh air. The organization’s offices were located in the 11th arrondissement in Paris, at 36 rue Amelot, an address that became the organization’s code name during the Holocaust.

The underground organization “Rue Amelot” was founded on June 15, 1940, twenty-four hours after Paris fell to the Nazis. It was headed by David Rapaport. Like any good third sector organization, Colonie Scolaire learned to adapt itself to the changing reality. The organization took under its auspices existing orphanages and at the same time opened four soup kitchens that operated in secret, through which medical services, food, and additional assistance were provided to children and their families.

The orphanage at La Varenne

The biggest challenge facing the organization stemmed from the mass arrests of Jews, especially of foreign Jews without French citizenship (many from eastern Europe, the organization’s target group). A large portion were incarcerated in detention camps or deported to extermination camps. As a result, many children were left without one or both of their parents, and a framework had to be provided for them. The need intensified in July 1942 after thousands of Jews were arrested and later deported in what became known as the as the Vel d’Hiv roundup (Vel’ d’Hiv was short for Velodrome d’Hiver, meaning “winter stadium”, where the detainees were held).

One of the most significant steps the organization undertook to deal with this challenge was the hiding of Jewish children from Paris with Christian families in rural France, as well as in French monasteries and orphanages. “La Pouponnière” where little Cecile was hidden, was one of these orphanages. Contrary to the familiar stories about children from eastern Europe or Belgium who were sporadically sent by their families to the families of acquaintances, Rue Amelot ran a supervised network that monitored the placement of the children with “caretakers.” Thanks to this network, the director of the institution where Cecile was staying could contact the organization to find the girl’s mother. Because of the underground activity, no names were mentioned in the letter.

The organization did not only manage the hiding of children throughout France. Rue Amelot trained volunteer social workers who visited the children periodically, both to deliver the monthly payments to the “caretakers,” which was usually about 700 francs, and to monitor the children’s health and development. The visits to each child were recorded on a special card file and in personal files, which included references to the child’s rate of development, their relationship with the caretaker, their physical and mental health as expressed in tendencies towards nightmares and bedwetting, for example, as well as comments such as – “beautiful boy.” The activity was organized in such an exemplary manner that viewers of the files must continually remind themselves that all of this was conducted in secret, and at great personal and daily risk. The network’s own activists destroyed much of the Rue Amelot archive after the Gestapo raided a number of Jewish institutions in 1943. Despite all this, a considerable part of the archive has survived, and includes, among other things, about 1,500 personal files, many of them from the post-war period.

One of the files belongs to Isaac Beras, Cecile’s brother. Isaac was born on December 27, 1933 to Sarah (Monique) and Chaklis (Charles) Beras, an immigrant couple from Lithuania. His personal file also includes a document from 1947, in which the then 14-year-old Isaac describes his experiences during the Holocaust. The family had lived in Gagny, a suburb of Paris. In the testimony, Isaac describes how the family was deported from Gagny following the German occupation, and little Isaac was forced to give up his place in the car, and walk on foot to the destination. The walk was difficult for him and the child cried until his mother occasionally put him in the car. His parents were also very tired from the journey.

Eventually they reached a large garage and his mother ordered him to stay calm and quiet while she went out with his father. They were arrested and interrogated for several hours by the Germans. At the end of the interrogation, they were released and allowed to return to their home.

Isaac Beras’s testimony from 1947

Thus Isaac remained with his parents for two years until one morning he woke up to a knock on the door. When his mother saw the policemen standing on the doorstep she started shouting and crying. Isaac’s father was immediately arrested and two hours later, the police brought him back so that he could pick up his coat. Isaac’s mother wanted to give her husband strawberries and cheese but he refused and gave them to Isaac instead.

It was the last time the two saw each other.

Document preserved in the Memorial de la Shoah in Paris documenting the deportation of the father Chaklis (Charles) Beras to Auschwitz from Drancy on September 14, 1942

Isaac then underwent surgery and remained in hospital for a month. A nurse who visited their home in 1942, apparently on behalf of Colonie Scolaire, recommended that his mother send him to an orphanage. At the hospital, he was prepared for the transfer, and his mother visited him twice. His mother and one-and-a-half year-old sister Liliane were then deported to the camps.

Document from the Memorial de la Shoah: Liliane, born May 29, 1941, deported from Drancy on November 11, 1942. Sara Mednik, born in Poukovitch on December 27, 1912, was deported on the same day

Isaac remained in the countryside, first with one “caretaker” and then for an additional two years with a different “caretaker.” In a letter preserved in the archives, the caretaker tending to Isaac and his brother Jacob wrote to the organization asking for money for items such as stockings (socks) that she needed to buy for him, due to the costs involved in raising the child. After staying with two “caretakers,” Isaac was sent to an orphanage, where he remained even after the war. His sister Cecile, whose footprint was mentioned at the beginning of this article, had wanted to stay with him but was sent to Switzerland. She later returned to France and was adopted by a family from Alsace.

The caretaker’s letter

The card file with the visits of the Rue Amelot activists to the families with whom Isaac was hidden are preserved in the archive. The file mentions the items given to Isaac by the activists, including socks and other items of clothing, and also notes the condition of the shoes in his possession.

Visitation card

Isaac was unable to contact his sister Cecile after the war. He also searched for his brother Jacob who had survived the horrors of the Shoah. Jacob recently passed away in France. Isaac Beras remained at the orphanage until 1949 when he immigrated with the Youth Aliyah to Israel. He eventually started a family, and now lives with his wife in Zichron Yaacov. Cecile also survived and lives in Strasbourg.

Isaac Beras as a child. Photo courtesy of the family


Isaac Beras today. Photo courtesy of the family

The Colonie Scolaire Archive includes documentation of thousands of Jewish children in France during and after the Holocaust who were cared for by the organization. Each such child is an entire world with a complex background that remains mostly hidden away in the archive files. Like the tale of Cinderella, we set out in search of a small footprint left behind, and discovered the story of the Beras family’s children.


The Colonie Scolaire Archive is now preserved at the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People at the National Library of Israel.

We are grateful to Dr. Miriam Caloianu, who devoted herself to cataloging the Colonie Scolaire Archive with all its children, and drew our attention to this story; Tami Siesel for the background research; Nachman Fahrner for the translations from French; Germain Choukroun for the introduction to Isaac Beras and his thorough research on the Beras family; and especially Isaac Beras, who has allowed us to tell his story. Due to privacy restrictions, the Colonie Scolaire files at the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People are closed to the public. If you have interest in the files, please contact: [email protected]

Chaim Topol’s Unbelievable Journey to “Fiddler on the Roof”

The lead role? In English? In London? Dan Almagor, the translator of "Fiddler on the Roof" into Hebrew, almost laughed in Chaim Topol’s face when the actor told him he was auditioning for the role of Tevye the Milkman in the prestigious British production. Although he had seen Topol’s failure only a year before live on American television, he could not have been happier to admit his mistake…

Chaim Topol on the set of the film "Fiddler on the Roof", the Dan Hadani Archive, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

In 1966, 31-year-old Chaim Topol, a well-known and beloved actor in Israel, had cast his sights on the great big world. A year before, he won the Golden Globe for “best new actor” for his role as Salah Shabbati, and played a supporting role alongside Kirk Douglas and Frank Sinatra in his first Hollywood film, Cast a Giant Shadow. Born and raised in Tel Aviv’s Florentine neighborhood, Topol struggled with English. He claimed his entire vocabulary at this point amounted to around fifty words.

Topol never imagined that a year later he would be performing on London’s West End stage speaking perfect English. Dan Almagor, who translated Fiddler on the Roof into Hebrew, also doubted Topol’s ability to take on a major role in the English language. He had good reason for thinking so, having seen with his own eyes Topol’s failed attempt at singing a song from Fiddler on the Roof in English.

In a column Almagor published in Maariv on April 30, 1967, he recounted Topol’s obstacle-laden “romance” with Tevye the Milkman that ended in a successful and long-lasting marriage, thanks not only to Topol’s personal talent and charm, but also to his grit and determination. With a mixture of wonder and satisfaction, Almagor told of how Topol, who just a year earlier couldn’t sing a single verse from the musical in English, won over London’s theater crowd. Almagor, who was in Los Angeles at the time pursuing his doctoral studies, had met Topol a few times on the latter’s visits to the US and witnessed first-hand the events that led to Topol playing Tevye. He even played a supporting role in Topol’s getting the part.

So, how did Topol get the coveted role on the London stage?

It’s a story that has everything—public failure, brilliant success and also the drama of a potential terrorist incident—all told in the effortlessly smooth language of the songwriter, translator and storyteller par excellence, Dan Almagor.

So, how did Topol get the coveted role on the London stage?

It’s a story that has everything—public failure, brilliant success and also the drama of a potential terrorist incident—all told in the effortlessly smooth language of the songwriter, translator and storyteller par excellence, Dan Almagor.

Photo from the film Cast a Giant Shadow, starring Kirk Douglas and Chaim Topol (with beard and keffiyeh), Kibbutz Hulda, 1965. This item is part of Archive Network Israel, made accessible through the collaboration of the Ben Zvi Institute, the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage and the National Library of Israel.]

Almagor wrote in his article:

“The first time I spoke with Chaim Topol about his role as Tevye in the musical Fiddler on the Roof was about two years ago, on his first visit to Los Angeles to accept the Golden Globe award for his performance in Salah Shabbati. That same week, I had by chance just finished translating the musical into Hebrew, and Chaim and his wife Galia were the first Israelis to hear the Hebrew version of the play, when we were all sitting on the balcony of their room at the luxurious Beverly Hills Hotel. And since Chaim’s name was mentioned as one of the possible leads for the role in the Israeli production, alongside “Bomba” Tzur, I immediately sent a telegram to the Israeli producer in Hebrew (in English transliteration), using these exact words: “Please notify me who will play Tevye in Israel Stop Topol or Bomba Stop If Topol is chosen we can work on the role here in Los Angeles.”

Minutes after Almagor sent the telegram to Israel, he received a polite phone call from a Western Union representative. After a several minutes-long conversation during which Almagor was trying to understand why Western Union was refusing to send the telegram, the representative asked him, “But what is ‘Bomba’?” Almagor, of course, had been referring to the Israeli actor Yosef “Bomba” Tzur, who was finally chosen to play Tevye the Milkman in the first Israeli production of the musical. The Western Union representative was concerned that this was some kind of hidden message being sent about a terrorist bomb plot. After Almagor explained the misunderstanding to the representative’s satisfaction, the telegram was finally sent out.

Chaim Topol with his family, 1970, the Dan Hadani Archive, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

Topol didn’t get the part in Giora Godik’s Israeli production of Fiddler. After Bomba Tzur eventually retired from the role, Topol split it with Shmuel Rodensky, playing it on alternate nights for a total of 40 performances on the Israeli stage. Almagor even hinted in his article that Topol appeared in the Hebrew production for only about a month and a half because Godik wasn’t satisfied with his acting.

A year later, Almagor and Topol met again, this time behind the scenes of Danny Kaye’s successful TV show. Topol was a guest on the show to promote the movie Cast a Giant Shadow, and Kaye, who knew that Topol had played Tevye in the Israeli production of Fiddler on the Roof, suggested that they sing a song together from the musical, in English. They chose the song “L’Chaim.”

But then they ran into a problem. Almagor recalled:

“After two attempts at singing the song in English, Danny Kaye turned to his young Israeli colleague, and said with a smile: ‘You know, Chaim, instead of you breaking your teeth to sing the song in English, I will sing it in the Hebrew translation!’ It was an amusing idea, and Chaim was quick to introduce me to Danny Kaye and the crew as the play’s translator. ‘Great,’ said Danny. ‘Write down the Hebrew words to the song using English letters.’”

Here Almagor and Topol encountered a new problem—neither of them could remember Almagor’s translation. Almagor had to recreate the translation he had written for the song on the spot while Danny Kaye and his team waited. You can see the result in this video, in which Danny Kaye reveals the reason why they are singing the Hebrew version of the song. You can see how Topol struggles with English, and how uncomfortable he is conversing in a language that is not his mother tongue:

After that experience, it’s no wonder that Almagor was taken by surprise by Topol’s request the next time they met.

Almagor was finishing up a 10-week visit to Israel, and on the last night of his stay he went to see Topol on the set of the movie Ervinka. Between takes, Topol called him over and asked him for a small favor. “But promise not to tell anyone. So they won’t make fun,” Topol said. Almagor promised, and Topol asked: “As soon as you get back to the States, send me the English version of Fiddler on the Roof right away.” “Why,” Almagor asked: “He looked around carefully, to make sure no one was listening. ‘There’s a chance that I will be invited to London soon, for an audition in connection with Fiddler,’ he told me.  ‘And I want to surprise them, and learn a bit of the English text before the trip.’ ‘For what part?’ I asked innocently. ‘I know you won’t believe it,’ he stammered, ‘it’s for the role of Tevye’.”

Although he had promised Topol, Almagor found it hard to stop himself from laughing.

“The leading role? In English? In London? I remembered how Danny Kaye preferred to sing ‘L’Chaim!’ in Hebrew instead of waiting for Topol to learn the English. I thought of the London theater. Sir Laurence Olivier, Peter Brook. I remembered the promises to the other stars of the Israeli Fiddler on the Roof production – tempting promises of performances abroad that ended in bitter disappointment. It seemed that Topol read my thoughts. ‘What do you care?’’ he whispered. ‘Send the text. Promise?’… I confess that I didn’t believe for a minute that he would get the part. I didn’t even think he would go to London for the audition.”

“A Great Success for Topol in London” – Lamerhav, February 29, 1967

Despite his skepticism, Almagor kept his word and when he returned to the US he sent Topol the English text. He was angry with himself for spending more than two dollars on mailing it to Israel. For several months, Almagor heard nothing from Topol. He assumed he had failed the audition, and thought no more of it.

Then came the reviews from London. Everyone was praising the amazing Israeli actor playing the role of Tevye on the West End stage. Almagor hurried to send Topol a telegram, this time in English:

“I was happy to hear that London’s Rothschild will soon be singing ‘If I Were Topol’. Stop. Just remember, you still owe me two dollars and ten cents.” [The famous line “If I were a rich man…” was translated into Hebrew as “If I were a Rothschild…”]

Chaim Topol and the actors of Fiddler on the Roof. From the play at Her Majesty’s Theatre, London. A selection of archival footage from the Chaim Topol Archive is available digitally. Courtesy of the family and with the collaboration of the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage, the National Library of Israel and University of Haifa

Our circuitous story is not over yet. Two months later, according to Almagor, he flew from New York to Tel Aviv. He decided to stop over for one night in London to watch Chaim Topol playing Tevye the Milkman in English with his own eyes, and see if there was any truth to the rage reviews gushing over his acting performance. He got his answer already during the taxi ride from the airport:

“The red-nosed taxi driver asked me in a typical cockney accent how long I was in town for.  And when he heard that I would only be in London for one night, he immediately said: ‘Well, there’s only one thing you mustn’t miss, especially if you’re in London for one night… there’s a new musical in town, not to be missed,’ he said to me, ‘… that is, if you manage to get a ticket. Fiddler on the Roof. Have you heard of the play? It features a young, outstanding actor. Topol, from Israel. You know, Israel…’ I swear to you this is word for word what he said. And this without me giving him the slightest hint that I’m Israeli.” The driver surprised Almagor with his knowledge of the musical and its star. He told Almagor the content of the reviews praising Topol and even gossiped about his salary, which was higher than that of any other actor on the London stage at the time.

“Then the driver commented sadly: ‘You know, I’m afraid you won’t see him there again, in Israel,’ and after a second thought he added with the same melancholy attitude, ‘Actually, we too will surely lose him soon.’ He suddenly spoke of Topol as if he had been a British national treasure for generations,” wrote Almagor in his article.

Maariv, August 6, 1971

When Almagor met Topol backstage before the show, he found the actor in a thoughtful mood: “‘Remember how we used to peek in the newspaper… to see what plays were currently being performed in London and who the new actors were that had been discovered on its stages?’ mused Topol while putting on his makeup. ‘To tell you the truth, I didn’t realize the wealth of possibilities for an actor in this play until I saw Rodensky. Even Zero Mostel [the first actor to play Tevye the Milkman in the Broadway production – L.H.] didn’t make that much of an impression on me. It’s a pity that I didn’t have any director or assistant in Israel who could work with me on the part the way we should have.  But here—we spent four whole months working. There are no shortcuts here’.”

Almagor returned to his seat in the audience and excitedly awaited Topol’s entry on the stage.

“I had seen five different performances of Fiddler on the Roof and was a bit worried about Topol’s appearance on the English stage,” Almagor wrote. “But from the first moment he stepped on stage, I knew there was no more reason to fear. Our ‘Salah’ controls the audience and the stage like a ‘star’ and his English is nothing like what it was the year before on Danny Kaye’s show… here and there, one can still sense some stiffness, due to the foreign language, but this too will surely pass with time… and when the show ended, and the London audience rose to its feet, enthusiastically applauding to loud chants of ‘Bravo! Bravo!’, I had to pinch myself…”

A poster ad promoting the film version of Fiddler on the Roof, the National Library of Israel Ephemera Collection

A few years after successfully playing Tevye in the West End, Chaim Topol got the role of Tevye the Milkman in the Hollywood production of the musical. He won the part over veteran actors, even Zero Mostel, who had originated the role on Broadway. Generations of actors had embraced Mostel’s iconic performance of Tevye on stages around the world, but when it came time to make the movie based on the musical, Norman Jewison, the film’s director, felt that Mostel would overshadow the film with his larger-than-life performance. “I didn’t feel he was a Russian Milkman,” he said in a documentary about Fiddler on the Roof. Then Sheldon Harnick, the lyricist for Fiddler on the Roof, approached him and said: “‘You know, there is this Israeli guy, Topol, playing the role of Tevye in London.” “I flew to London. I saw Topol and I saw the play and suddenly it felt true, it felt credible. I felt like I wasn’t watching an American production with someone from Brooklyn. I felt he was proud to be Jewish,” Jewison recalled.

Fiddler on the Roof was also an international success as a film and won three Oscars and two Golden Globes in 1971, one of them for Topol for his performance in the film. Chaim Topol would return to the role of Tevye the Milkman over the years, including in a Broadway production in the late 1980s. In 1997 he again sang “If I were a Rothschild”, in Hebrew, in the Avraham “Deshe” Pashanel production here in Israel.

The Family Trading Company That Became a Relief Network for the Jews of Yemen

In late 19th-century Yemen, Suleiman Habshush built a prosperous trading empire and harnessed its success to help needy members of the local Jewish community. Later, when his grandson inherited the firm, the family helped to bring the community to Israel

Yechiel Habshush and Yemenite Jewish orphans in the Land of Israel

Suleiman Habshush was born to a Jewish family in Sana’a, Yemen, in 1856, the youngest of five sons. When he was eight years old, his father passed away. Suleiman worked as a coppersmith in his youth, like his brothers and father before him. Yet he struggled to make a living in this field and soon switched to commerce. Suleiman left Sana’a and began building the great mercantile network that would one day become a household name in Yemen.

Suleiman, who knew poverty and deprivation in his early years, decided it would not be right for his family alone to enjoy the fruits of his success. In his travels throughout the country, he was exposed to the difficulties suffered by Jews across Yemen – neglect, persecution by the Muslim authorities and unemployment. “Upon realizing that there was a need to represent the community, he secretly took it upon himself,” wrote Suleiman’s grandson, Yechiel Habshush.

Suleiman gradually expanded his trading network, which alongside its business activity, also served as a relief network for Yemen’s Jews. During the horrific siege of Sana’a in 1905, Suleiman came to the community’s assistance.  He described this terrible period in his book Eshkolot Merurot, noting that “about two-thirds of the residents perished in this siege.”

The bustling atmosphere and the generosity practiced in Suleiman’s home in Sana’a were well known and became instilled in his grandson Yechiel, who was born a few years after the siege. In the preface to the book that Yechiel wrote in his adulthood, he described the family home during his childhood as filled with visitors at all hours of the day and night.

There was hardly any private life in any sense of the word. The doors to our home were open almost all day until late into the night, with the houses functioning as residences where the family ate and slept, as well as a center for trade in Yemen and abroad, on-site warehouses for the goods, and business offices. From the early morning hours, the street of the Habshush family, which was closed on one side, was filled with visitors. The street was lined with horses, mules and donkeys belonging to the visitors, telegram messengers and mail carriers, government officials, brokers, traders, buyers and sellers from Sana’a and across Yemen, troublemakers, businessmen, people asking for aid, people waiting for the distribution of bread at noon, and guests from Yemen and abroad. A council house for sages and businessmen, weddings and Brit Milah ceremonies, and also, unfortunately, mourning rituals and the like. The whole house was busy constantly.”

Suleiman died in 1922 and the trading network he founded passed to his sons and grandsons, who re-named it “Suleiman Habshush & Sons” and expanded it to other countries. As history would have it, the trading company came to prominence during the period that some called “the Second Return to Zion”—the era of the great waves of Jewish immigration to the Land of Israel and the establishment of the State of Israel.

Yechiel Habshush in 1992. Photo: Courtesy of the family

Over the course of his own life, Yechiel Habshush maintained the family legacy of generosity and philanthropy. Yechiel was a businessman and public activist as well as a writer, poet and researcher of Yemenite Jewry. He eventually donated the family’s vast archive to the National Library of Israel which has enabled us to trace the Habshush family’s broad humanitarian activities. It was here that we learned that Yechiel immigrated to Mandatory Palestine from the port of Aden in 1930. He had arrived in Aden three years earlier from Sana’a, and worked to develop contacts with the Jewish Agency office in the city, helping many Jewish families immigrate to the Land of Israel.

Upon his arrival in Palestine, he immediately joined the local branch of the family’s trading company in Tel Aviv opened by his uncle David Tov. At the Tel Aviv branch, the Yemenite Jews living in the Land of Israel could send money back to their families in Aden or Sana’a. With no banks in Yemen at the time, the fastest, and perhaps only way to transfer money was through trading companies. How did it work? A person would deposit a sum of money at the Tel Aviv branch, and the branch manager in Sana’a or Aden would then transfer the deposit to their relatives in Yemen.

The Habshush family company kept detailed records of these donations, and in the archive, there are hundreds of hand-written receipts for the funds received in Yemen. On the margins of these receipts, Yechiel added notes to his brothers in Yemen to “give so-and-so the liras that his relative donated to him.”

Hand-written receipts of donations transferred to Yemen

And what of those who were not so fortunate? What of the refugees and the needy who did not have family abroad who could send such funds? In order to help, Yechiel and his cousin Meir Levi joined the Ezrat Ahim organization in Tel Aviv dedicated to the affairs of the Yemenite immigrant community in the Land of Israel. As for the work in Yemen itself, Yechiel mobilized a group of young men he knew from his days in Aden. These connections would play a crucial role in bringing Jews who still remained in Yemen to Israel.

An entire file in the Habshush family archive offers evidence of a critical part of Ezrat Ahim’s activity, which was dedicated to the care of Jewish orphans in Yemen. According to local Islamic law, children orphaned of both parents were obliged to be placed in the custody of a Muslim family that would raise them according to the religion of Muhammad. To preempt such an eventuality, a smuggling network was organized to rescue the orphans—first by transferring them to other Jewish communities, and then onwards to the Land of Israel, as quickly as possible.

Thanks to Ezrat Ahim’s activity and the help of the Youth Aliyah movement under the leadership of Henrietta Szold, hundreds of orphans were brought from Yemen to Mandatory Palestine before the establishment of the State of Israel.

List of names of orphans brought to the Land of Israel by the Ezrat Ahim organization in 1945


Yemenite orphans in the Land of Israel. From the book The Habshush Family


The Habshush Family’s Efforts to Promote Zionism in Yemen

Apart from providing real aid to refugees and the needy within the Yemenite communities, Yechiel and his family members urgently believed in their cause because they no longer saw Yemen as a place suitable for Jews. Before and after the establishment of the State of Israel, Yechiel worked to convince rabbis and Jewish leaders in Yemen to support the Zionist movement. In the archive we found a vivid example of this in a letter written by Yechiel to Rabbi Yosef Shemen, one of the last leaders of the Sana’a Jewish community, in which he explained to the rabbi about the Jewish national movement that was calling on Jews to immigrate to the Land of Israel.

The letter Yechiel Habshush sent to Rabbi Yosef Shemen in Sana’a

The Habshush family attached great importance to education of the community’s children. In the 1940s, a Hebrew school for boys was established in Sana’a alongside a school for girls. This was an extraordinary development, as the education of girls in the Yemenite Jewish community had largely been overlooked beforehand. The students studied both religious and general studies, as well as Hebrew—perhaps in preparation for their immigration. The schools for boys and girls were managed by the leaders and rabbis of Sana’a, with donations by the Habshush family funding its establishment and operations.

Soon rumors spread throughout all the Yemeni Jewish communities about the possibility of travelling to Mandatory Palestine through the British-controlled port city of Aden. Crowds flocked to the city. The approval certificates were slow to arrive and the infrastructure could not support the influx of so many people. Many died of hunger and disease. Once again, Ezrat Ahim mobilized to help in these tragic circumstances.

Aside from the activity in Yemen itself, Yechiel saw importance in outreach to the rest of the Hebrew settlement, and with his sharp business sense he initiated a number of welcome initiatives. Among other things, he suggested to the mayor of Tel Aviv to organize a day devoted entirely to collecting donations for Aden’s refugees.

An urgent request presented to the mayor of Tel Aviv: “A Collection Drive to Help ‘Our Miserable Brethren'”

The materials in the Habshush family archive reflect the enormous scope of Ezrat Ahim’s activities. It seems that on every occasion one of the community’s members needed assistance, the organization rushed to help, to the best of its ability. The assistance included – requests from the Broadcasting Authority to resume performances by “the beloved announcer and singer Mr. Yechiel Adaki,” help with housing and rent for immigrant families, an appeal to the Mandate authorities on behalf of Jewish prisoners, and much more. Ezrat Ahim did not hesitate to involve itself in the life of the community in Yemen: it informed the members about the organization’s activities, and even called upon them to cease any bickering within the local community and unite behind the common cause to rescue the community.

In 1985–1986 Yechiel published a two-volume book about the Habshush family and included many documents from the archive to tell the story of his family. Yechiel remained active right up until the last remaining Jews in Yemen were brought to Israel in the 1990s. He passed away in 2002, at the age of ninety-one.

The book The Habshush Family by Yechiel Habshush [Hebrew], an independent publication

Thanks to Amitai Aricha and Dr. Menashe Anzi from the Department of Jewish History at Ben-Gurion University.

The Yechiel Habshush Archive has been made accessible with the courtesy of his descendants. It is dedicated to the memory of David Tov, son of Hanina and Amy Habshush. The archive was initially cataloged as part of the research project of Dr. Menashe Anzi, supported by the Israel Science Foundation, and later thanks to the kind donation of the Samis Foundation, Seattle, Washington, dedicated to the memory of Samuel Israel.

Dr. Anzi is currently conducting extensive research on the Habshush family trading company.