Crowdsourcing History: Moshe David Gaon’s Efforts to Document Sephardic Jewry

Moshe David Gaon realized that the contributions of Sephardic Jews had been overlooked by historians, well before it dawned on others. He dedicated his professional life to making things right. His personal archive, a collection of critical significance to Jewish history and culture, is preserved today at the National Library of Israel

Scholar Moshe David Gaon in 1907

When imagining a historian, people might think of a lone individual hunched over old documents, fragile archives, or ancient manuscripts. There is some truth to this generalization, but it does not do justice to the collaborative work that makes historical writing possible. Historians build on what has been written by experts before, and they maintain ongoing communication with peers in the field or laypeople with information. Moreover, historians participate in ongoing conversations, sometimes conversations that occur over generations. Today’s historian attempts to answer a question raised by one of her teachers by gathering information from a wide range of people and sources.

This is doubly true for scholars who work to create a new field of study. One such scholar is Moshe David Gaon (1889-1958), a pioneering but underappreciated researcher who revolutionized the study of Sephardic Jewry in the Land of Israel as well as the history of the Ladino language and its journalism. Born in Bosnia, he spent much of his life in the Land of Israel, as an educator, publicist, scholar, and communal leader.

Moshe David Gaon dedicated his professional life to documenting Sephardic Jewry. His archive is preserved at the National Library of Israel.

His contribution is more impressive given the context and history of academic Jewish studies, which began in the 19th-century in German-speaking lands. This tradition – known as Wissenschaft des Judentums – worked to present Judaism as on par with the greatest aspects of European culture, and it tended to emphasize the contributions of Judaism to the West and to Europe. Modern Sephardic Jewry was often ignored or looked down upon as unsophisticated. The Zionist historians, mostly from Eastern Europe, who began working in the first half of the twentieth century, emphasized the contributions of European Jews to the nascent Zionist movement, but tended to downplay the continuous history of Sephardic Jewish settlement in the Land, as well as Sephardic contributions to the modern renewal of Jewish life in Palestine.

Gaon, among others, insisted on a correction. But that correction was hard to implement. After a century of work, Wissenschaft had already created a basic infrastructure for the study of the past, including bibliography, networks of scholars, and journals. But Sephardic Jewish studies were way behind the curve.

Central, then, to Gaon’s project was gathering and creating new sources of knowledge, and this meant reaching out to sources of information far and wide. His extensive archive reflects the work he did in creating a bibliography, particularly of important Ladino newspapers. It documents his groundbreaking work on the influential Ladino Biblical commentary, Me’am Loez. Gaon published works of Sephardic Hebrew poetry, and he gathered biographies of influential Sephardic Rabbis. His most important work is Yehudei HaMizrah BeEretz Yisrael (1928), a compendium of information on Sephardic Jewry in the Land of Israel. It remains an important reference work today, and it has been reprinted several times. In that work, he emphasized the importance of Sephardic Jewry in the establishment of an economically productive but religiously observant Yishuv in the land of Israel.

He could not have done any of this alone, and part of what he set out to accomplish was creating a network of scholars, knowledgeable laypeople, and community members who would all contribute to an ongoing conversation that would give Sephardic Jewry the pride of place it deserved. His archive is full of his ongoing correspondence, some of which was haphazard, but some was a more systematically designed effort to gather information and share ideas.

A letter sent by Moshe David Gaon to “the distinguished author and journalist Mr. Joseph Anjil”, requesting him to provide the names of editors of various Ladino newspapers, 1953, the Moshe David Gaon Archive at the National Library of Israel


Abraham Recanati provides names of newspaper editors, after he was asked a series of questions similar to those seen in the above letter, 1953, the Moshe David Gaon Archive at the National Library of Israel

Some of Gaon’s efforts focused on making connections with those who shared his agenda, for example several written exchanges with an older contemporary, Shlomo Rosanes, who likewise believed that Sephardic Jewry had not been researched adequately. Gaon asked Rosanes for help with publishing and publicizing his own work, but more importantly used Rosanes as a source of information, particularly about Ladino newspapers and the lives of Sephardic Jews who had moved to the Land of Israel in the 19th century.

Gaon also wanted to document information held by the general public, and in the 1930s he systematically sent questionnaires to hundreds of public figures of Sephardic background, asking them about their own lives, the path that their families took to the Land of Israel, and the communities they came from. Some responded briefly and laconically, while others provided elaborate personal and family histories. These questionnaires provided important background for Yehudei HaMizrah Be’eretz Yisrael. In one exchange in late 1930, Rabbi Joseph Haim Illos of Tiberias provided a complete life history of his own illustrious father, the recently deceased Rabbi Eliyahu Illos (1860-1929), who had come to Tiberias from Morocco as a young man. Gaon was particularly interested in figures who moved to Palestine prior to the Ashkenazi Zionist movement.

A letter written by Rabbi Joseph Haim Illos to Moshe David Gaon in 1930 in which he provides a complete life history of his own illustrious father, the recently deceased Rabbi Eliyahu Illos, who had come to Tiberias from Morocco as a young man, the Moshe David Gaon Archive at the National Library of Israel

Gaon’s posthumous Bibliography of Ladino Periodicals (a basic reference work today) was itself a kind of crowdsourcing project. Letters from around the Ladino-speaking world, whether from communities in the Balkans or from dentists in Tel Aviv, provide names of editors, information on the number of issues of each paper, or documentation of dates on which publications began or ceased. As he insisted in his Introduction to the Bibliography: “I avoided relying on rumor, trusting instead only eyewitnesses. I wanted to base this work on facts and documents that could not be questioned.” After Gaon’s death, completing the work and bringing it to publication continued as a group effort, by staff at the Ben-Zvi Institute, the National Library of Israel, and by Gaon’s friend and colleague Moshe Kattan.

Gaon also kept his finger on the pulse of current events, asking colleagues for documentation of their own experiences in real time. When, in 1934, a man in the city of Basra in Iraq claimed to be the Messiah, Gaon immediate brought his letter-writing skills to bear on documenting the event.  Writing in the name of the Sephardic Community Council, Gaon insisted on getting as much information as possible about the man, his motivations and the community’s response to his messianic pretentions.

What is his name, his age, his birthplace, who are his parents, and what was his job? The man’s habits interest me greatly. It is important to clarify the factors that led him to reveal himself as Messiah, and how did he prophecy. Do some believe in him, and how did the Jews and the community leaders respond to him? Have government officials gotten involved?

He was not asking only out of curiosity. With a sense of urgency, he saw this correspondence as key to his role as historian. “I hope that you do not disappoint me and as soon as you receive this letter you respond so that we can fully document this event and determine the place of this man in the history of Israel, whether for praise or blame.” If the community responded, I did not find that response in the archive, leaving us less knowledgeable of this event and its aftermath.

Which only demonstrates the value of wide-ranging communication in documenting history. Scholars operating alone know what they know. People with knowledge sharing and communicating create a community of knowledge and change how people view the world. As the Mishnah states (Avot, 4:1): “Who is wise? One who learns from every person”.



The Moshe David Gaon Archive is being cataloged and will be made accessible thanks to the kind donation of the Samis Foundation, Seattle, Washington, dedicated to the memory of Samuel Israel.







Moments in Time: A Journey to the First Days of the State of Israel

As Israel’s 75th Independence Day approaches, we take a look at the achievements and challenges of the young country, portrayed through a variety of moments: first steps on Israel’s soil; water pipes breaking through the heart of a desert; meetings between languages and cultures. Moments of joy and creation, difficulty and coping, but mostly seeing how so many individuals joined together to create something beautiful: Israel

Ulpan Lesson with Efraim Kena'an, Photographer: Yosef Drenger, Nadav Mann, BITMUNA, from the collection of Joseph Dranger, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

When the Visitor’s Centre at the National Library of Israel decided to put together a photographic exhibition in honor of Yom Ha’Atzmaut, everyone was excited and eager to share their ideas. Each member of the team, a native Israeli or someone who has chosen to live in this country, had different aspects of society that they wanted to show off in the photographs. The big question was how to make something that represented each person’s love and reverence of Israel while also creating something collective and whole.

This desire to preserve the needs of the individual while also creating something coherent, is a necessity that doesn’t only exist in the meeting rooms of the National Library of Israel. In fact, this dichotomy is actually the key theme hidden throughout the pictures of the photographic exhibition.

After lots of back and forth, negotiations and additions, the team knew that if they wanted to make something that truly represented how far Israel had come, they had to take it back to the basics – the building blocks of what makes Israel, Israel. So they went back to the beginning, the conception of Israel and its first two decades as a state.

As the curators started looking for photos in the National Library Collections and Archives, they encountered some recurring themes. The building of society was of course one of these – the brave pioneers who planted, toiled, grew, bricked, plastered and planned intricate cityscapes and communities. It was important to include the building of each society within this exhibition but during the photo selection process, some groups seemed to be conspicuously missing. Not wanting to exclude these communities from the final picture, the National Library curators started thinking about the minority groups arriving in Israel just as the Sabras were building their own state.

Immigration. The second group of images simply had to represent the many people arriving in Israel at the end of the 2nd World War and the Holocaust, as European refugees lost their entire villages and sought out their indigenous homeland, and Arab countries expelled Jews from their territory, seeing them arrive at Israel’s borders. As many such groups arrived at Israel’s doorsteps – from Iraq, Romania, Morocco and more – each with their own culture, clothing, language and customs, the aforementioned challenge presented itself once again: how to combine all of these different peoples into a collective nation?

The images on display certainly document this struggle. As much as the exhibition was erected to celebrate Israel and the immense and impressive strides that the country made in its first 20 years, the challenges of society are evident in the images selected, which tell a story of overcoming barriers that is worth listening to.

“Look at this picture” one of the Visitor Centre staff tells me. She says that it is one of her favorites. It depicts a family arriving from Iraq in 1951 – just moments before their new life in Israel was about to begin. Tens of thousands of Jews were rescued from deep persecution in Iraq, and brought to Israel to start a new chapter. In this image, they are dressed in typical Iraqi clothing, long sidelocks and hats, formal dress and coats for the women. To their left is an Israeli man sent to welcome them from the Jewish Agency, in typical Israeli light casual clothing, cotton trousers and loose shirt, comfortable and smiling. The difference in posture, clothing and demeanor is so clear – how was Israel to ever glue these groups together so that they may live as one?

In the rapid process of building a state, thoughts were not always spared to preserve heritage. This would be the job of parents and grandparents, should they wish to pass on their old country customs to the next generation. The job of the sapling state was to create a melting pot, mixed enough to have a society full of people who not only got along but would be able to fight, pray, live and work side by side.

So, they set about trying to ingrain this mentality in their citizens: Israeliness. Language could therefore be the only possible third category in the photographic exhibition. A number of posters serve to elucidate this point, boldly illustrating the narrative of Israel in the 1950s. The posters encouraged new immigrants to discard their native mother tongue, and adopt Hebrew as the common language instead. Some posters offered a straight and narrow path only open to those willing to learn the Modern Hebrew language, others promised to lift off the burden of the hardships of Europe if only the new immigrants could learn to speak Ivrit. They depict strong Israelis lifting the load of other languages off the backs of olim (newly arrived immigrants)– the new idea of brave and heroic Sabras ‘saving’ the unfortunate Europeans from their past. One image shows new refugees from Morocco gathered around a textbook in an Ulpan in the Northern Negev desert where they had been placed in a temporary settlement until they could be more permanently housed. Here, they learnt Hebrew by lantern light as resources were scarce, while trying to master a language to unite this new Babel that they found themselves in.

The mid-1900s was a time of immense change across the world and in Israel this was confounded by the need to build a new state, as well as keeping up with modern advances in technology, infrastructure and medicine. This exhibition is thus not only a time capsule from the first two decades of Israeli history, but also of a post-war world rebuilding itself into something new and exciting. The visitor’s center explains that the photos were meant to represent what people loved about this new and exciting age, what resonated with individuals and stuck in their minds.

As these photos were affectionately chosen, a new theme seemed to appear pretty much on its own. This segment wasn’t engineered but was so evident as a theme in the images that the exhibition team had no choice but to add a section in its honor: water. Water is and always had been one of Israel’s biggest projects. One of the goals of this exhibition was to encourage the public to truly understand the miracle of Israel’s conception. To see not only its challenges, but also its successes, and feel a sense of pride at how far we’ve come. There is nothing that better encapsulates the accomplishments and victories of young Israel than the fact that a society built on a desert managed to grow crops, generate clean drinking water and thrive.

The idea behind this exhibition was to keep the nostalgia of those first few years of Israel’s new statehood without delving too far into topics that would have been too difficult to summarize in an exhibition with just 52 items.

But there is some controversy to be found in the images that were chosen. It would be disingenuous not to show and reflect the complexity and challenges of Israel’s first decades. Of course, there was always going to be a struggle, as Israel fought to absorb so many new citizens. In less than 4 years the population of Israel had more than doubled. In Israel’s first 3 years alone, the population rose from 650,000 to 1 million people! In a sense, this exhibition relegates these struggles to the past, as looking back today we have the benefit of hindsight to tell us how this should have been dealt with differently; but even now, some of the challenges of those years pervade. Immigrants are still often expected to leave behind their old mannerisms and languages and adapt to life in Israel as if their past wasn’t a relevant factor in their life story. But at least now it is a conversation that is open to being spoken about with integrity, and we strive, as a society, to work together and create a welcoming and inclusive culture.

This is not the final iteration of the exhibition. Soon, a book of 21 additional photos will be available to the public, chosen by a plethora of people who work at the National Library, from the newest interns to the most senior of bosses. In addition to curating a look back on the first 20 years of the State of Israel, this will be a tribute to the elements of this country that are loved by the spectrum of people here at the National Library of Israel. Each employee who picked an image to contribute also explained exactly why they chose it – why it means so much to them. Because ultimately Israel is so many things for so many people, and despite the challenges portrayed in the exhibition, there is a lot here to love.

But for now, in these 52 items, an Israel of the past comes alive. Though no story of Israel can truly be told without mentioning the hardships which inevitably arose when more than half a million new immigrants showed up on Israel’s doorstep just months after the state was established, this exhibition is a testimony to Israel’s success: a small desert which managed to rebuild itself from the ground, and create a space that millions today call home. This is no small achievement, and this exhibition is witness to how far Israel has come on its 75th birthday.

The National Library invites you to visit “Moments in Time – A Journey to the First Days of the State of Israel” – an exhibition in honor of the 75th Independence Day of the State of Israel. Experience the wonder of these moments of joy and creation, difficulty and coping, but mostly – hope and a look to the future.

The exhibition is displayed in the Library building at the entrance to the reading rooms next to the  work of art -“The Ardon Windows”.

You are welcome to come independently during the Library’s operating hours or sign up for a free guided tour, which takes place on Thursdays at 11:00.

For further inquiries: [email protected]

Happy Independence Day!

Yom HaZikaron: A Light in the Darkness

Memorial candles are woven into all aspects of Yom HaZikaron: lit during public ceremonies, by bereaved families at gravesides on Har Hertzl, and of course in homes up and down the country. But why do we use a candle to commemorate the fallen heroes of Israel? What inspires us to shed light in a day full of darkness?

These memorial candles are some of the hundreds lit at the site on which 22 Israeli citizens were murdered on the Number 5 bus on Dizengoff Street, 1994, Photographer: Gideon Markowiz, the Dan Hadani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

As evening closes in on the night of April 24, we walk soberly to the ceremony. We bow our heads and take our places. The Israeli flag is lowered to half mast, the Memorial Prayer is said, and the candle is lit.

Memorial ceremony at Mt. Herzl military cemetery, 1971, photographer: IPPA Staff, the Dan Hadani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

Maybe one candle is lit. Maybe 19 candles are lit to represent the 19 Israeli victims of terror since the start of 2023. Maybe 8 candles are lit to represent the 8 wars Israel has fought in. But you can be sure that at least one flame will cast light across the downturned faces of those at the podium.

A Yom HaZikaron ceremony at the Knesset, 1988. Photographer: IPPA Staff, the Dan Hadani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

We go home and light a candle. Maybe it’s for someone we knew and lost, maybe we have signed up to one of the many schemes to honor forgotten Israeli soldiers, or maybe we light a symbolic candle and keep it aflame for 24 hours to commemorate the collective tragedy of the Israeli people.

Memorial Yorzait candle cover, 1964. Photographer: Avi Biran. Center for Jewish Art Collection. CJA Sacred and Ritual Objects. Center for Jewish Art at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, National Library of Israel

The next morning we walk to Har Herzl, and amidst the tears and the families desperately holding each other for strength, we see candles. Some are on top of graves, some sit in little boxes for protection against the wind. Some are held by friends and loved ones as they recite the Mourner’s Kaddish Prayer.

The symbolism of these candles, woven into all aspects of Yom HaZikaron, may seem clear – a light in the darkness. But this doesn’t fit with Israel or Judaism’s cultural use of candles in other areas of popular custom. Candles are lit to celebrate incoming sabbaths and festivals. Candles are held while walking a bride down the aisle to her groom. Candles are lit on Hannukah to celebrate ancient miracles.

So why do we also use a candle to commemorate the fallen heroes of Israel?

Thousands of Tel Aviv residents come to pay their respects to the 22 citizens murdered on the Number 5 bus on Dizengoff Street. These memorial candles are some of the hundreds lit at the site of the tragedy, 1994. Photographer: Gideon Markowiz, the Dan Hadani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

Despite the many differences that persist between different world cultures, one seeming constant is the mourner’s candle. In Catholicism, lighting a candle is a way to strengthen the bereaved. Lighting a candle to remember the dead is a Catholic custom that dates back centuries, allegedly to Jesus himself, who used candle light to guide his followers, hence the belief that lighting a candle guides the dead closer to Christ. For Buddhists, candles are used in meditation services after death. It is said to focus the meditations on the memories of loved ones and reflect inner thoughts and feelings towards them as the bereaved reminisce and mourn. Dating back even further, Pagans would place white candles on memorial altars to harness their natural energy and send it to the dead, and to aid with channeling the memory of past spirits and family members.

Star of David electric memorial (Yortzeit) lamp, the Josef and Margit Hoffman Judaica Postcard Collection, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the Folklore Research Center, via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

Interestingly, in both China and the Philippines, mourners mark death with candles too, and similar to the practice in Israel, once a year a candle is lit to remember the loved ones that they have lost. But their candles actually mark a visual representation, with different colors indicating different relatives. For Filipinos, pink candles are lit for girls, blue candles for boys, and red candles for those whom one loved most. Meanwhile, in Chinese tradition, there are generally three colors used for memorial candles: white is used during the first year, yellow is used for the first anniversary of the death, and red is used every subsequent year after that on the anniversary of the death.

President Yitzhak Ben-Zvi and his wife, Rahel Yanait, with a memorial candle for their son Eli, who fell in the war of 1948. 1958, Photographer: Ilani REI-YBZ. This item is part of the Israel Archive Network project (IAN) and has been made accessible thanks to the collaborative efforts of the Yad Ben Zvi Archive, the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage and the National Library of Israel

In Judaism there is also a strong historic precedent to light candles for the deceased.

There is evidence of Jews lighting candles to honor the deceased as far back as the Mishnaic period, approximately 2,000 years ago: the Mishnah states that one cannot use the “fire of the dead” for the Havdalah blessing on Saturday night because candles symbolize the dead not the living. Additionally, we find that Rabbi Judah the Prince, who was the compiler of the Mishnah, requested that his family “leave a lamp lit in its place” after he passed away. In the 1870s, the Chaffetz Haim adjudicated that all Jews should light a candle on the anniversary of a death as lighting a candle “constitutes atonement for the departed soul.”

The Yahrzeit, 1898, Moritz Oppenheim, Germany, the Josef and Margit Hofmann Judaica Postcard Collection, the Mendel Institute of Jewish Studies, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the Folklore Research Center, via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

During the Middle Ages, another aspect was added to this bereavement ceremony – the Mourner’s Prayer. Each year on Yom HaZikaron the Mourner’s Prayer is recited across the country. The President and Prime Minister recite it at state ceremonies, individual families recite it at gravesides, and usually a family member of a fallen soldier or terror victim will also publicly recite this prayer to a large and televised audience. In 2015 Racheli Frenkel made history by being the first woman to publicly recite this prayer in the state service, after her son was amongst the three boys kidnapped at the start of Operation Protective Edge. The country watched on as her emotional prayer pierced every heart up and down the country. Everyone, including the most religious of rabbis at the ceremony, responded “Amen.”

The origin of the Mourner’s Kaddish Prayer was compiled by rabbis as a means to memorialize the dead. Its recitation is neither a biblical nor a rabbinic commandment, but a long-held tradition which, like the candle, brings comfort and peace to mourners.

Use of the memorial candle, which is usually lit just before the Mourner’s Prayer, is often dated back to the Book of Proverbs. In Chapter 20, Verse 27 it is said that “the human soul is the candle of God” – lighting candles is a powerful and evocative ritual, as the candle is believed in the Bible to be a tangible symbol of the soul.

President Herzog lighting the Flame of Remembrance, 1992. Photographer: Yolene Haik, the Dan Hadani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel
Tel Aviv Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yedidia Frenkel in front of the Yom HaZikaron memorial torches, 1970. Photographer: IPPA Staff, the Dan Hadani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

Lighting a candle on Yom HaZikaron in Israel is both political and personal. Political figures from Shimon Perez to President Herzog have been invited to light memorial candles as the world watched on. And for individuals who either light candles for their own loved ones, or volunteer to light a candle for those who have no family to mourn them, it is a deeply meaningful part of the Yom HaZikaron proceedings:

Nehemia Sharabi, a kibbutznik and zoologist, was shot while guarding his post during his service as an army reservist, leaving behind a wife and three children. His commander called him “an exemplary soldier, a friend to everyone, a modest person who knows his own way.”

Eliezer Kolberg, devoted only child to his Holocaust survivor parents, worked as a laborer to support his family. During the War of Independence, he was a member of the brigade who first attempted to break through into besieged Jerusalem, where he fell in battle.

Yigal Ezra, Tel Avivian from birth, served on the southern front during the Yom Kippur War. After he fell in battle, his family set up a scholarship fund in his name and wrote of him: “That smile … modest. You want to know what he thinks? Just look into his wise eyes. You want to know what Yigal thinks? Just turn to him and ask him. He will not erupt. Yigal will not scream. Great nobility was inherent in him. I loved to look at his black, laughing, intelligent eyes, his face – the face of a child.”

Memorial for the fallen soldiers who fought for the reunification of Jerusalem during the Six-Day War, 1987. Photographer: IPPA Staff, the Dan Hadani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

Maybe this year we can keep these courageous young men, and the so many others whose stories are not known, in our thoughts as we light the Yom HaZikaron memorial candles. When a soul departs from the world, it leaves behind a dark void, which the memorial candle serves to replenish. Rabbi Bechayei ben Asher explained, over 800 years ago, that a departed soul will also derive joy from the candle’s light because the Bible states that “the light of the righteous will rejoice.”

Bereaved mother Lea Epstein lights a memorial torch at Ammunition Hill, 1980. Her 26-year-old son Shlomo, a paratrooper, fell in the Six-Day War. On her left is Uri Navon of the Defense Ministry. Photographer: IPPA Staff, the Dan Hadani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

Those who are partial to the symbolism of Kabbalah hold by the idea that a candle is a physical representation of a human, the wick and flame representing the body and soul. When a candle is lit, both the wick and flame burn upwards, representing the fact that the body is subsumed by the soul and is at its essence energy whose goal is to return to the world around it.

“Memorial Day in Israel”, designers: Gabriel and Maxim Shamir, Shamir Brothers Studio, Shamir Brothers Collection, the National Library of Israel

A flame has three components: The inner blue flame, which surrounds the wick and burns the fuel, the bright body of the flame, which provides the light, and lastly, the glow that surrounds the flame. In Kabbalah it is believed that these three parts correspond to the three components of the soul that are most closely associated with the physical body: nefesh – the burning spirit, ruach – the energy which illuminates a person’s spirit, and neshamah – the aura of a soul. The revered Kabbalist, Rabbi Bahya, wrote that “it is known that the soul enjoys the lighting of the candles and it walks with grace and happiness, spreads and expands due to the enjoyment of the light.” The Kabbalists say that fire is the most refined matter in our material reality, thus approaching the spiritual, and by lighting a candle they believed themselves to be bringing delight and benefit to the souls of the departed.

Memorial candle, 1997, Tunisia. Photographer: Zev Radovan. Center for Jewish Art Collection, CJA Sacred and Ritual Objects. Center for Jewish Art at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

The National Library of Israel collections include images of Jewish memorial candles from all over the world: Tunisia, England, Germany, but most of all Israel. From mourning the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, to the victims of the most recent operation in Gaza, candles are lit for each Israeli who has died at the hands of terror and war.

The day following Rabin’s assassination, 1995. Photographer: Gideon Markowiz. the Dan Hadani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel
Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, watched by Chief Rabbi Israel Lau, lighting the central memorial torch for Yom HaZikaron, 1993. Photographer: Zeev Ackerman. The Dan Hadani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

This year, Yom HaZikaron falls in the midst of turmoil. Just earlier this month a new bout of terrorism spiked after clashes on Temple Mount, and rockets from Lebanon and Gaza placed the lives of Israeli citizens in danger, as the country prepared to add yet more names to the ever-growing list of victims.

For each of these names a candle is added too. Candles are unique because they do the opposite of hate. Terrorism and war put out the lights, extinguish happiness and indiscriminately snuff out hope, serving as an ending. A light, however, can give and give without loosing any of its own power. One candle can light up a whole room, and can be used to light many more candles without any expense to its own brightness.

Collection of Yahrzeit Plaques, 1894-1910. Israel/Germany, owned by: William L.Gross, House of Gross, via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

On April 7, Molotov cocktails were thrown into Israeli homes, terrifying and harming innocent families. On April 8, rockets were launched at Israel with burning bright orange paths trailing behind them. On April 9, fires were started in fields in Northern Israel, destroying crops and even killing a few poor chickens resting in their coop. Fire can be used to hate and kill. But less than a month later, one by one, candles will be lit in homes, schools, and cemeteries across Israel, bringing together families and friends to unite in their collective pain and channel their loss into a meaningful ritual.

Yom HaZikaron is about so much more than the struggles of Israel’s past, and the struggles it still contends with. It’s about hope for a brighter future, that peace can and will finally arrive. That there is always a light at the end of the darkness. And that is why we light a candle.

Hannah Senesh Bids Farewell to Her Brother Giora

Hannah Senesh did not believe she would meet her brother Giora before leaving on a mission from which she thought she might not return. When her brother arrived in Mandatory Palestine a few days before she was to depart for Egypt, Senesh gave him a letter. He could not have understood its full meaning at the time…

Hannah Senesh. Yad Vashem Photo Archive 3213/2

My dear Giora,

Some letters are written without the intention of sending them. Letters that must be written, without asking whether they fulfill their purpose or not.

The day after tomorrow I start something new. Perhaps foolish, perhaps imaginary, perhaps dangerous; perhaps one in a hundred, perhaps one in a thousand will pay with their life; perhaps with less than life, perhaps more. Do not ask what; a time will come when you will know what it is all about.

My dear Giora, I must explain something to you, to justify myself. I have to prepare for that moment when you stand here, within the borders of the country, looking forward to the moment when we are to meet after six years and when you will ask: Where is she? – They will answer you in short: She is not here. She is gone!

With these poignant words, Hannah Senesh (Szenes) began a letter to her older brother Giora (George), from whom she had parted years earlier when she immigrated to the Land of Israel. Giora was expected to arrive in the country imminently and Senesh wanted the letter to be delivered to him when he came. Not knowing exactly when he would arrive, she was surprised to discover that she could deliver the letter to him in person, about a month before she was scheduled to leave for a parachuting course in Egypt before setting out on the mission from which she believed she would never return.


Hannah’s Mission

First, a brief reminder of Hannah’s life story. Hannah Senesh was born in Budapest to a middle-class Jewish family. Her father Bela, who was a well-known journalist, writer and playwright, died when Hannah was six years old, leaving her mother Kathrine to raise Hannah and her older brother Giora alone. She studied at a public high school (gymnasium), where she encountered antisemitism, which turned her into an ardent Zionist.

At the age of 18, she immigrated on her own to Mandatory Palestine and began attending the Nahalal Agricultural School. After completing her studies there, she moved to Kibbutz Sdot-Yam near Caesarea, where she composed her best-known poem, “A Walk to Caesarea.” When she was 13, Hannah Senesh began keeping a diary documenting the life of a Jewish girl in Hungary. Up until the point she immigrated to the Land of Israel, she wrote exclusively in Hungarian. Hannah began learning Hebrew upon her arrival in Palestine. The outbreak of World War II and the early reports regarding the fate of the Jews who remained in Europe convinced Senesh to switch to writing exclusively in Hebrew.

This private and minor step—the transition from her native language to the revivified Hebrew language, the language of the Jewish people—signified a greater change, which would later make Senesh a recognized Israeli symbol. In late 1943, she joined the Yishuv’s paratrooper training course, and in mid-March 1944 she parachuted (along with several other members of the group) into Yugoslavia. For about three months, she roamed the forests of Croatia waiting for an opportunity to cross the border to Hungary, which was her destination. In Croatia, she wrote the poem Blessed Is the Match, and gave the note on which she wrote it to her comrade, the paratrooper Reuven Dafni.

The poem “Blessed Is the Match,” in Hannah Senesh’s handwriting (preserved in the Ghetto Fighters’ House Museum)


Blessed is the match consumed in kindling flame.

Blessed is the flame that burns in the secret fastness of the heart.

Blessed is the heart with strength to stop its beating for honor’s sake.

Blessed is the match consumed in kindling flame.


On June 7, 1944, she managed to cross the border into Hungary only to be captured by the Hungarians that same day. She was transferred to a prison in Budapest, where she remained for about five months, until her execution on November 7, 1944. Her mother, Katherine, was the one who brought her writings, letters and diaries to Israel, where they are now preserved at the National Library.

Some may ask why Hannah Senesh is the most well-known member of the group of Hebrew paratroopers who risked their lives trying to save the Jews of Europe. In fact, for many, hers is the only recognizable name among these 37 heroic soldiers. An answer can be found in the introduction to the printed edition of Hannah Senesh’s collected writings. Thanks to her diaries, poems and letters, we have a clear, true and definitive testimony about her life. All the details of her life, her mission and her death add up to a singular figure, “adorned with the splendor of supreme Hebrew heroism”. Her natural gift for writing certainly helped to solidify her place in the pantheon of Jewish national heroes.

Giora, who was a year older than Hannah, had not seen her since she left Hungary. They reunited for a very short time, on the eve of Hannah’s departure for Egypt, when she let him read the farewell letter she had written for him. In her diary, Senesh added what she could not say to her brother Giora in the letter itself, nor in their meeting. This is because the mission she embarked on was secret. She wrote:

I wrote this letter before the parachuting course. When I let you read it, you could not understand what it was about.

Forgive me, Giori, that I was forced to lie to you even in the happy moments of our meeting. You were so new in our lives that I couldn’t tell you the truth. I’m sure that now you’ll understand me.”

Senesh wrote this final entry in her diary less than a month after her letter to Giora and their reunion: “This week I will go to Egypt. I am an enlisted-soldier. As for the terms of my enlistment, my feelings about it, the most recent news—and what lies ahead for me – I do not wish to write about all that. I want to believe that what I have done and will do is right. Only time will tell. 

The final entry in Hannah Senesh’s diary, the Senesh Family Archive, courtesy of Ori and Mirit Eisen


You can read Hannah Senesh’s original diaries on the National Library of Israel website. Click here for her fourth and last diary, which she wrote from 1941 until she left for the mission in early 1944.

The Senesh Family Archive at the National Library of Israel has been made accessible courtesy of Ori and Mirit Eisen.


Below is the complete text of the letter Hannah Senesh wrote to her brother:

Haifa, December 25, 1943:

My dear Giora,

Some letters are written without the intention of sending them. Letters that must be written, without asking whether they fulfill their purpose or not.

The day after tomorrow I start something new. Perhaps foolish, perhaps imaginary, perhaps dangerous; perhaps one in a hundred, perhaps one in a thousand will pay with their life; perhaps with less than life, perhaps more. Do not ask what; there will come a time when you will know what it was all about.

My dear Giora, I must explain something to you, to justify myself. I have to prepare for that moment when you stand here, within the borders of the country, looking forward to the moment when we will meet again after six years and when you will ask: Where is she? – They will answer you in short: She is not here. She is gone!

Will you understand? Will you believe that more than the desire for adventure, more than childish romance has brought me this far? Will you understand, feel, that I could not do otherwise, that I had to do this?

There are events, in the light of which human life loses its meaning; man becomes a worthless toy, or the demand is raised: something must be done, even at the cost of life.

I fear that the feelings burning inside me become empty sentences when they are cloaked in words. I don’t know if you will sense behind them the struggles, the doubts and after every crisis—the renewed decision.

It’s difficult for me because I’m lonely. If only I had someone I could talk to openly and simply, if only the whole burden wasn’t on me alone, if only I could talk to you… If there is someone who is able to understand me—it’s you. Although, who knows… six years—such a long time. But enough about myself—maybe too much. I want to tell you some things about the new homeland, about the new life—as I see it. I have no intention of influencing you. You will see what the land is with your own eyes. I want to describe how I see it.

From the first—I love it. I love it. I love its many landscapes, the diverse climate, the many colors of its life; I love the new and the old in it, love it, because it is ours! No, not ours yet. But for ourselves and in the depths of our being we are determined that it is ours.

Second—I cherish it. Not all of it. But I respect and cherish the people who believe in something, who are willing to fight in this day-to-day reality in the name of what is dear to them; I respect those who live their lives not only for one moment, for one lira. And here there are more of them than anywhere else.

And finally, I believe that this is the only solution for us, therefore I do not doubt for a moment its future, despite the awaiting difficulties and obstacles in our path.

And as for the kibbutz—I don’t think it is perfect. Surely, there will still be many stages of development; but there is no doubt that in the current conditions, this is the most appropriate form for the fulfillment of our ambitions, the most suitable for our ideas.

There is a need for courageous people, free of preconceived notions. People who can and want to think for themselves—who are not mechanical slaves to thoughts set in stone. And this is the most difficult part, it is easy to carve out a law for a person: live according to this. It is more difficult to live according to these carved molds. But the most difficult [is] to cut a path of life for ourselves, while being constantly self-critical. It seems to me that this is the only moral way to establish a law for a person. And only in this way is it possible to build a new life, a complete life.

Sometimes I ask myself: What will the future of the kibbutz be like when the magic of building is over, when the deliberations and struggles over creating a new life are finished, when life is peaceful, organized, planned? What will motivate the person and what content will fill their life? I have no answer. But this vision is still so far away—and we should think of things which are more current.

Don’t think I see everything as rosy.  My faith stems from internal conditions, and is not the result of an existing reality. I am well aware of both internal and external difficulties. But I also see the positive sides —and as I said: this is the way and there is no other.

I didn’t write to you about what most occupies my thoughts: Mother! I can’t write about her.

Enough of this letter. I hope that it will not reach you; and if it does, then only after we meet.

And if it be otherwise—with boundless love,

Your sister


Are you in possession of a diary from 1948? We have begun collecting personal diaries written by the men and women of Israel’s founding generation, in order to preserve these accounts in the collective memory of the Jewish people. Find more information here!