Bialystok, November 20, 1932. Bringing pots of Cholent to the baker's oven on a Friday afternoon, YIVO Polish Jewish Archive
There is a level of unappreciated genius behind the Jewish culinary experience. With very few fresh ingredients at their disposal, the Jews created a plethora of cultural dishes that took full advantage of the limited options that were available.
There is a certain magic that comes with eating a bowl of carefully prepared, piping hot, aromatic Cholent on a cold Shabbat afternoon. The dish can only be described as a masterpiece of ingenuity and a work of art that has withstood the test of time to make it from the Middle Ages to modern day food establishments, cook offs and the typical Shabbat table.
The “anything goes” style dish can best be described as Jewish comfort food, came into being as a result of the Jewish law that forbids cooking on Shabbat, the Jewish day of rest. The dish is cooked on Friday afternoons and left on the heat for a long, slow overnight cook. The traditional, rich stew is comprised of whatever fixings are available on hand with ingredients and styles varying by country and continent, wherever Jews can be found. The typical Ashkenazic Cholent, stemming from Eastern Europe, is made from dried beans or barley, chicken or beef scraps, potatoes and assorted spices.
The name of the stew typically varies by location as well. The term Cholent is believed to stem from the French word, chald, meaning warm, referring to the low and slow method of cooking the meal in a pot. Others believe it stems from the Hebrew SheLen, meaning rested, referring to the overnight cooking method that would ensure a hot meal on Shabbat afternoon. In the Sephardic tradition, the dish is called Hamin, derived from the Hebrew word, Ham, meaning hot.
Heinrich Heine, the famous poet who converted from Judaism to Protestantism due to political pressures, was so enamored by the traditional dish that he wrote a poem professing his love and sharing his feeling that the recipe for Cholent must have been given to Moses by God Himself.
“Cholent is the food of Heaven, And the recipe was given By the Lord himself to Moses One fine day upon Mount Sinai
Cholent is God’s bread of rapture, It’s a kosher-type ambrosia.”
While this may seem like some serious love for a good pot of Cholent, a little parodic pamphlet written in the early 1800’s from the National Library’s Ephemera collection tells a tale of a lost love and the adversity and horror faced when a pot of Cholent gets tragically burned.
The pamphlet tells the story of an old man sitting at his Shabbat table surrounded by his family, eagerly awaiting the arrival of the traditional pot of Hamin. The dish arrives at the table and the old man opens the lid expecting the beautiful aroma of a perfect stew to wash over him but instead, to his horror- the contents of the pot have been completely burned. So deep is his sorrow at the sight of the smoky pot of food that he feels compelled to eulogize the poor stew.
“Hamin the son of Hamina, may his memory be a blessing, may the King in his mercy who rests between the stovetop and the oven and between the tongue and the lips, between the smile and the teeth, that was burned on the Shabbat through no fault of his own the death of his food is an absolution for all those who keep the Shabbat. May the King in his great mercy, have compassion on its consumers.”
The satirical eulogy concludes with a Mi Shebeirach (a public prayer or blessing recited aloud for an individual or a group), calling for God to bless the poor anonymous man who was served a pot of burned Cholent on the holy Shabbat.
This dedication and commitment to Cholent also found itself in the shtetls of Europe, where, on Friday afternoons, each family would walk their hot pot of freshly prepared Cholent down the road to the local bakery. There, the assorted pots, sealed with a paste of flour and water, would be placed in the baker’s oven to keep warm overnight. On Saturday afternoons, following the conclusion of prayer services, the reverse pilgrimage would take place when families would carefully fetch the hot pot from the oven in time for lunch.
Today, Cholent has its own cult of following. On Thursday evenings in Israel, there are many who flock to the eateries in the Ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods to treat themselves to a pre-Shabbat Cholent to ring in the weekend. For those who don’t live near a restaurant where Cholent is served, the dish is also readily available in easy to prepare packets and, in some countries, you can even buy it ready made in a can from your supermarket shelves- although we definitely recommend the homemade version.
The consumption of the heavy, aromatic stew tends to cast a spell on diners – one that can only be compared to the lethargy that comes following the perfect Thanksgiving turkey – lending to the perfect atmosphere for a good nap on the day of rest.
There is an old saying that claims you cannot consider yourself a good Jew unless you eat Cholent on Shabbat – but we believe a good pot of Cholent can be enjoyed any day! Perhaps it is time to break out the old cookbooks and give it a try?
This post was written as part of Gesher L’Europa, the NLI’s initiative to connect with Europe and make our collections available to diverse audiences in Europe and beyond.
The Maharal’s Robot: The High-Tech Golem of Rehovot
What do the Golem of Prague and one of Israel’s first computers have in common? Gershom Scholem explains.
In just 70 short years, Israel has become known worldwide as the Start-Up Nation. What began as the little country that could, has become a leading nation in the world of technological innovation.
While in today’s day and age we are lucky enough to have a computer in every home and an even smaller computer in the form of a cellphone in every pocket, it is hard to imagine that the world’s first computers once filled entire rooms and sometimes, entire buildings.
Israel’s first computer, a project that was spearheaded by Professor Chaim L. Pekeris at the behest of Chaim Weizmann, the WEIZAC, an acronym for Weizmann Automatic Computer, took up the space of a large auditorium. The project cost about $50,000, approximately 20% of the Weizmann Institute’s annual budget at that time. After a year of dedicated work and preparation, the project was completed in 1955 and the WEIZAC performed its first calculations.
In 1959, after about four years of work, the WEIZAC began to fail and a new computer was designed to takes its place. The new machine was completed in 1963 and the WEIZAC was shut down to make room for the next model. Upon hearing of completion of the next generation computer, Gershom Scholem reached out to Pekeris and suggested he name the machine, “Golem Aleph.”
Dr. Pekeris agreed to the suggestion but only on condition that Scholem would come to the dedication ceremony for the new computer and explain why it should be named so. Gershom Scholem was invited to attend and give the opening remarks at the dedication at the Weizmann Institute on June 17, 1965 for what he referred to as “The Golem of Rehovoth.”
In his remarks, Scholem provided what he felt was an obvious comparison between the classic tale of the Golem and the brand new computer.
Rabbi Yehuda Loew ben Bezalel, known in Jewish tradition as the Maharal of Prague, is credited by Jewish popular tradition with the creation of a Golem.
The Golem of Prague was built from clay and, once the body was complete, the rabbi put the ineffable name of God in the figures mouth and the Golem came to life. The Golem performed for his master, protecting the Jews from anti-Semitic attacks. With all of his powers, the Golem was not granted the power of speech.
One Friday, the rabbi forgot to put the Golem to rest for the Sabbath as he was accustomed to do. The Golem suddenly grew in size and in a fit of rage, went on a destructive rampage. When the news reached the synagogue where the rabbi was praying, he rushed out into the street to confront his own creature. Rabbi Loew stretched out his arm and tore the Holy Name out of the Golem’s mouth, returning him to his original form as a lump of clay.
Scholem gave several reasons for the name be bestowed on the new computer. He explained that at their foundation, the Golem- “Rabbi Loew’s robot,” and the Golem Aleph had the same most basic function. The Golem was brought to life by the combination of the 22 letters of the Hebrew Alphabet that took shape as the name of God. The Golem computer knows only two symbols, the zero and one that make up the binary system. Everything can be translated into just these two terms so the Golem Aleph can process it. “I daresay the old Kabbalists would have been glad to learn of this simplification of their own system. This is progress,” said Scholem.
Both the Golem and Golem Aleph function through energy, Scholem explained. The Golem, through the ineffable name of God and the computer, through the use of electric energy.
As for the shape, it is there that Scholem hit a tough spot for the computer cannot be compared to the shape of man. He did draw a physical comparison when he explained that unlike the Golem of Prague who was given the beautiful form of man, the Golem Aleph computer was not the most beautiful of creations but- for the computer, the beauty of the creation is what lies within. “External beauty has been denied to him,” said Scholem of the computer. “What kind of spiritual beauties lurk inside, we shall learn in due time, I hope.”
Lastly, Scholem compared the growth potential of the two creations. The Golem, after flying into a fit of rage, grew in size wherein the Golem computer was expected to only shrink as improvements are made in the future.
“Whether the Golem of Prague could correct his mistakes, I doubt,” said Scholem. “The New Golem seems to be able, in some ways, to learn and to improve himself. This makes the modern Kabbalists more successful than the ancient ones, and I may congratulate them on this score.”
Scholem closed his remarks with a simple request to the inventors of the Golem Aleph:
“All my days I have been complaining that the Weizmann Institute has not mobilized the funds to build up the Institute for Experimental Demonology and Magic which I have for so long proposed to establish there. They preferred what they call Applied Mathematics and its sinister possibilities to my more direct magical approach. Little did they know, when they preferred Chaim Pekeris to me, what they were letting themselves in for. So I resign myself and say to the Golem and its creator: develop peacefully and don’t destroy the world. Shalom.”
Computers may have morphed from auditorium sized machines to electronic devices that fit into the palm of your hand, but Gershom Scholem’s request is timeless- else the computer may have a violent end similar to the one brought on by the Golem of Prague.
This post was written as part of Gesher L’Europa, the NLI’s initiative to connect with Europe and make our collections available to diverse audiences in Europe and beyond.
The Labor Dispute that Nearly Halted the Eichmann Trial
The drama that had disappeared almost entirely from the official history of the Eichmann trial.
At the Eichmann trial: Yaacov Maimon speaks with a police officer in the courtroom. Also seen: Prosecutor Gideon Hausner and defense attorney Dr. Servatius
A few meters from the glass cell in which Adolph Eichmann sat in the courtroom at the People’s House in Tel Aviv, a team of shorthand stenographers labored to document what became known in the Israeli media as “the trial of the century.” The pressure imposed upon the members of the team, the many hearings and the scrambling for data that followed, took a heavy toll, almost sabotaging the course of the trial of one of the worst murderers of the Jewish people in history.
Preparations for the “Trial of the Century”
Five months before Adolph Eichmann, Head of the Jewish Department at the SS, went on trial, Police Superintendent Yitzchak Shapira invited Yaacov Maimon to his office and asked him a single question: How should the most important trial in the history of the State of Israel be documented? Maimon, inventor of the Hebrew shorthand and a veteran Aliyah activist, laid before Shapira the advantages and shortcomings of recording the trial on tape and instead recommended the deployment of a team of stenographers. During that initial conversation Maimon raised the difficulties the team of stenographers would face. First, the right stenographers would have to be found (among those whom the Knesset had yet to recruit). Second, they would have to contend with the amalgam of languages expected to be used at the trial.
At the second meeting between Shapira and Maimon, the latter was informed that his proposal had been accepted and he was asked to provide a detailed list of the equipment he would need. For the first time in his career as a stenographer, Maimon signed a multi-section contract detailing the obligations of the stenographers’ team, to be headed by Maimon himself.
During Maimon’s long career hitherto, he often had to contend with difficulties and complications stemming from the fact that his chosen field of occupation was in its infancy. In 1948, as a resident of Jerusalem under siege, he was tasked with creating a team of stenographers from scratch to document the work of the newly-formed Knesset. To meet the challenge, he started an expedited course in which he taught the tricks of the trade for 12-13 hours per day, five days a week. Fears that the course would fail due to the immense pressure proved false because, as he explained, “the work was too important.” But even that experience couldn’t prepare him for the hardships that the stenographers would face at the Eichmann trial.
Yaacov Maimon’s archive, which is kept at the National Library, provides a peek at the preparations for the start of the trial. Two documents dated February 1961 (both signed by Superintendent Shapira) approve Maimon’s request to borrow three books from the Israeli Police library: “The Final Solution,” “The Case Against Adolph Eichmann,” by Henry A. Zeiger, and “The Nuremberg Trials.” In the second document the Superintendent permits Maimon “to write notes and translations in the margins of the book’s pages.” These books (and probably others) were borrowed by Maimon for two purposes: to prepare a list of shorthand designations for approximately one hundred names and places, terms from Nazi Germany and the Holocaust era (such as various ranks in the SS and the German military) and other words in foreign languages which he anticipated being used during the trial. The second purpose was to help the stenographer team he was forming to study the dark period into which they were about to plunge – along with the millions who would follow the trial in Israel and around the world.
Early that month several candidates were summoned for “a day of tests for typists in the Hebrew language” – with the feminine form being used, betraying the gendered perception of the profession at the time. The four stenographers chosen were Gentila Bardo, Mina Eisenberg, Miriam Yardeni and Osnat Degani – all Knesset stenographers. Also joining the team was Benzion Maimon, son of Yaacov Maimon. Later the team was supplemented by Rafi Rubinstein, Malka Glassberg and Zvi Maimon – Yaacov’s brother – after some of the stenographers felt that the emotional toll of the trial was too heavy a burden, and asked to resume their more mundane duties at the Knesset alternately with the trial work.
The four stenographers, along with Maimon’s son, were summoned for training days in the month of March. During those four training days they practiced the strenuous working conditions expected in the hall where the trial would take place, memorized the shorthand notations which Maimon had prepared beforehand and coordinated their work procedures with the various interpreters. The training was held from nine in the morning to one in the afternoon, then resumed following a lengthy lunch break from three-thirty till six in the evening. The stenographers could expect to receive “full pay,” for each day of work, specifies the letter sent by Shapira to Maimon. Although he couldn’t know it at the this early stage of preparations, the many hearings of the Eichmann trial would come to equal and even surpass the long days of training.
About two weeks before the beginning of the trial, Maimon received a letter from Mr. M. F. Birnbaum, editor of “The Transcript,” the official publication of the Stenographers Association in New York City. Word of the upcoming trial had reached the distant shores of New York, (as they had almost everywhere else in the world) and aroused vast curiosity as to the technical aspects of the trial as well. Would Maimon – or anyone on his team – be interested in writing an article about the preparations for the trial?, Mr. Birnbaum inquired. Any information Maimon was willing to provide would be most welcome.
The option of presenting one of the lesser-discussed aspects of such an exceptionally resonant trial must have been significant to Maimon, and three days after the trial began he sent a minutely detailed reply (seven pages long) to the editor. In his archive we find the draft Maimon composed after it had been proofread by a woman who remains anonymous (“Correct it a little and tomorrow I will collect the documentation from you,” Maimon added in his own handwriting). This letter, along with another one sent later, formed the foundation of two articles which appeared in the stenographers’ journal in June and October of that year.
Fighting for Justice (for the stenographers crew)
Maimon’s sincere concern for the team of stenographers which he headed led him into repeated clashes with the court and the police department – the entities overseeing the work of the stenographers at the trial. In response to “errors in the minutes, announced at hearing no. 16”, Maimon sent a letter of clarification on April 28th to the lead judge on the panel, Supreme Court Justice Moshe Landau. At the start of the letter Maimon stressed that “each stenographer is but human, and may err.” Any stenographer would find it difficult to produce a perfect transcript, but as in this trial “we are making a special effort to achieve perfection.” Maimon and his colleagues expressed their thanks to the presiding judge for the “great help” he was giving them by “occasionally instructing people speaking at the trial to speak clearly.” After these words of praise Maimon turned to refute the claim regarding the stenographers’ error. The word is Michaelovich, which had supposedly entered the minutes by error, did not do so due to a stenographer’s mistake. “Proof of my assumption is to be found in the following facts: The French and German transcripts, which have no connection to the Hebrew transcript” also feature this word, and therefore “it is hard to assume that four people” (the fourth being the interpreter) “sitting apart from one another, all made the same mistake and heard a name that was not spoken.” Maimon ends his letter with an interesting comment regarding the confused and excited speech of more than a few of the witnesses and Holocaust survivors at the trial, writing that “the errors we ourselves make are enough, and we should not be tasked with the slips of tongue made by others. In any event, there is no basis to assume this was a stenographer’s slip.”
Further proof of Maimon’s devotion to his employees and his full commitment to defending their dignity and their rights is to be found in two separate letters sent on the same day (May 15th) to Major-General Yekutiel Keren. In both Maimon harks back to a hearing held ten days prior. In the first letter Maimon justifies in writing for a demand he had until then made only verbally: “to increase the pay of the stenographers to 40 Israeli Pounds for days on which two hearings are held.” The main reason Maimon gives for this irregular demand stems from the irregularity of the Eichmann trial itself: In other trials “it is customary to hold two hearings on the same day only very rarely.” “And yet here we are, five weeks into” the Eichmann trial, “and other than on Fridays, two hearings are held every single day.” In other trials, he continued, the stenographers are from time to time afforded “long breaks due to judges’ consultations,” whereas at the Eichmann trial “breaks for judges’ consultations are brief, and usually held before or after the hearing itself.” But it seems that what adversely affected the work of the stenographers the most, causing them to leave “each hearing exhausted not only that same day but into the next” was the fact that following each hearing they were forced “to scramble in search of foreign expressions and materials.”
““The issue of continuing of canceling the stenographic transcript in Hebrew,” was at the center of the second letter, in which Maimon states that “I can no longer continue keeping the minutes under these conditions.” At this point Maimon dwells at length on the supreme effort of the trial’s stenographers team in comprehending expressions in foreign languages and in searching for documents “which sometimes have no Hebrew translation and which the prosecutor,” meaning Attorney General Gideon Hausner, “sometimes garbles expressions and names of people and places and numbers while spontaneously translating.” Added to all these issues is the unfortunate fact “that the judges forget that officially they are not supposed to know German” and they use it freely at times in a manner detrimental to the work of the stenographers. Despite all this, Maimon opposed canceling the transcription and switching to tape-recording because “errors in the material will be less frequent in the work of the stenographers, for in addition to mechanical work there is also mind work at play, and sections copied by voice recording and compared to the work of the stenographers have proven this.” He ends this letter with a stern, yet respectful reprimand: “You may decide not to accede to my demands and to switch to another form of documentation, but you cannot leave the matter hanging and reply half-heartedly or not at all to the points I have raised.”
Four days after these letters were sent, victory was announced. “To the honorable Mr. Maimon,” wrote the Deputy Administrator of the trial, Commander Koppel, “in response to your aforementioned letter we are pleased to inform you that although a work contract exists for all stenographers, and in fact this contract is binding upon both parties; but on the other hand, we must accept the truth of your claims, that the workload as we have experienced during days of this trial was unanticipated when these contracts were signed.” Therefore, the daily wage of the stenographers was raised to thirty-five pounds per day – rather than the forty which Maimon demanded.
The fight for a pay raise wasn’t the only campaign waged by Maimon on behalf of his workers. In a letter dated April 5th he asked the security team to refrain from “the constant searches on the workers’ persons,” as most of them were “stenographers who document meetings for the government, the IDF Chief of Staff, the Security and Foreign Relations committee and such. Places where security is just as paramount as at the trial.”
Throughout the trial, Maimon let everyone know the difficulties he and his team had to face. The professional work of Maimon and his team, despite all hardships, did not go unnoticed by the judges at the Eichmann trial. In a letter dated December 22nd, the presiding judge expressed his sincere appreciation “to you and your assistants… for your excellent work in documenting the minutes of the trial and preparing them for print.” Landau went on to wax poetically about Maimon’s skills, stating that “if not for your superb professional abilities and indefatigable dedication, this trial could not have been held as it has. I trust that you feel, as I do, that your labor has not been in vain.”
We know that this was not just empty praise, for when Eichmann appealed, Maimon was invited once again to run the stenography effort – an invitation which he accepted. Keeping faith with the professional team of stenographers he had assembled, he asked to extend the contract of three of the original team members and relieve them temporarily of their work at the Knesset.
Added to the praise from the presiding judge and being chosen to keep the minutes at the appeal, was a letter from Superintendent Shapira sent on behalf of the entire Eichmann Trial Administration, in which Shapira expressed “our full appreciation – for your help in recruiting the team of stenographers and typists to keep the official transcript in Hebrew and training them; for your profession, dedicated and efficient work in the ongoing management of the team, and in carrying out the more difficult portions of the transcript.”
Despite the challenge and great interest Maimon found at the “trial of the century,” he was glad to end his part in it upon the rejection of Eichmann’s appeal. This was not so much because of the strenuous work, but because the Eichmann trial took away much of the time and energy he preferred to devote to what he saw as his life’s mission: volunteering in the absorption of new immigrants to Israel and teaching them the Hebrew language.
How the German-Jewish Refugees Flourished in the Kenyan Farmlands
These rare photos show the story of the Jewish refugees who settled in Kenya in the 1930s.
When the first Kenyan Jews settled in Nairobi in 1903, it didn’t take long before they became a proper community, but they remained a small community of just a few dozen people for several decades.
All that changed when the Nazis took power in Germany and an exodus of German Jews found themselves seeking refuge in places they never would have expected.
Granted, the influx of Jews to Kenya was small, but that didn’t stop them from having to go through the British Colonial Office that was in charge of immigration to Kenya. In order to gain immigration status in Kenya, one had to be registered as a farm manager- something that was hard to come by for the Jewish immigrants and which limited their ability to settle. The local Jewish community worked hard to encourage Jewish immigration, but found much resistance from white European settlers and from the Indian community in East Africa that had backing from the British Colonial Office. Obviously, the opinion of the indigenous black population was not considered.
While the Jews of Nairobi were working hard on the local immigration initiative, British Jewry in England started their own widespread settlement campaign for thousands of Jews to relocate from Europe to the Kenyan Farmlands. They would settle in the White Highlands, which had already been designated for colonial farms.
In August 1938 the British initiative was registered as a private company limited by shares under the title Plough Settlements Association LTD that had an initial capital of 25,000 pounds. One of the partners for the British company was the JCA – Jewish Colonization Association – or as it is commonly known by its Hebrew initials: יק”א.
The initiative was presented as a colonial and financial enterprise and the hidden idea of rescuing Jews from the European continent was kept under wraps. The immigration activists met with established farmers in Kenya, the British Colonial Office officials, and other officiants in order to study and ready the ground, and gain traction and support for the immigration initiative.
The Jewish immigrants were not able to purchase farms upon their arrival, nor could they find ways to work on the farmlands where they could train as farm hands in order to eventually become farm managers. Many of the requests, and their rejections, were kept in the initiative’s archives.
This article is based on the Jewish Colonization Association archive kept in the Central Archive of the Jewish People.
Photographs courtesy of David Lichtenstein, Sydney, son of Henry (Heinz) Lichtenstein, a farmer in Kipkarren, Usain Gishu province, Kenya.