The Bravery of the Women of the Damascus Affair

A letter sent by the wives of Jewish men imprisoned during the Damascus Affair of 1840 gives voice to the suffering of these women, some of whom were beaten and even forced to provide sexual favors as a result of the blood libel

A Jewish prisoner during the Damascus Affair, painting by Moritz Daniel Oppenheim

On February 5th, 1840 the Capuchin friar Father Thomas and his servant vanished in Damascus. The local Christians, with the backing of the French consul, accused the Jews of Damascus of having kidnapped the pair for the purpose of ritual murder.

A painting of Father Thomas and his servant

The accusations led to the arrest, imprisonment and torture of a number of the community’s leaders—not all of whom survived—and to their eventual conviction for murder. The affair made waves in the European press, and there were many who believed this blood libel against the Jews to be true or at least plausible, despite its clear resemblance to medieval examples of medieval examples of anti-Jewish defamation.


A drawing depicting the alleged murder in Damascus, from a contemporary book. The title on the book in the drawing reads “The Talmud.”

The acceptance of the libel in enlightened 19th-century Europe, stunned Jewish public opinion in Western Europe. The development sparked a surprising collaboration between English and French Jews, who organized a two-headed delegation to the East led by Sir Moses Montefiore of England and the French jurist and future politician, Adolphe Crémieux.

Arriving in Alexandria, the delegation tried to persuade the Egyptian pasha Muhammad Ali to retry the case based upon the standards of truth and justice. Ali, who had rebelled against the Ottoman sultan and conquered “greater Syria” from him, was himself under political and military attack by most of the European powers who wanted to bring about the end of his reign in the Levant. Political pressure, coupled with the relentless efforts of Cremieux and Montefiore, forced Ali to pardon—but not acquit—the convicted men.

Montefiore and Cremieux returned to Europe to triumphal processions among Jewish communities across the capitals of Europe, where their heads were adorned with crowns of laurel. The Damascus blood libel, well documented by contemporaries, gained tremendous resonance in Jewish historiography. Here we will mention only the late Prof. Jonathan Frankel’s masterwork, The Damascus Affair, “Ritual Murder,” Politics and the Jews in 1840. Some even consider the Damascus affair as marking the beginning of the era of modern Jewish history.

Montefiore meeting the Turkish Sultan on the matter of the Damascus Affair

In the face of the comprehensive documentation of the affair, mainly in European languages, the silence of Damascus’ Jews themselves is striking – their voices largely went unheard. This is even more true of the community’s women. Translations of the protocols of the investigation and the letters of the consuls preserve the testimony and statements of the accused and their families, but there is almost nothing of the authentic voices of those involved in the affair that was not mediated by translators and interrogators, aided by their devices of torture.

A letter discovered at the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People offers us a glimpse of what was experienced by the prisoners’ wives and shines a spotlight on the role they played in the affair.


Letter from the women of the Damascus community

The sources dealing with the affair describe in graphic detail the torments inflicted on the prisoners, but the wives were also interrogated and played an active role in the affair.  Oro (or Ora, as she is called in the interrogation protocols), wife of Moshe Abulafia—the scion of an illustrious rabbinical family who, as a result of the torture, admitted to the crimes he was accused of, converted to Islam and became a witness for the prosecution—was herself beaten during her husband’s interrogation and forced to watch the awful tortures he was subjected to. The widow of Yosef Laniado, who died as a result of the torture, testified to demands for sexual bribery made by the French consul, a claim also reported by the daughter of David Harari, another of the men accused in the affair.

They and other women who were forced to appear before various interrogation committees showed tremendous fortitude during their testimonies.

With the conclusion of the affair, the women wished to thank their saviors. The letter before us, written in Judeo-Arabic, was composed by the wives of those prisoners who remained alive after the granting of the pardon. The letter is addressed to Lady Judith Montefiore, who accompanied her husband on his mission. After the customary praises spread over many lines, the women note that they will always remember “the light of our eyes, our crown, the great lords and ministers, His Excellency Senor De Roschel (Rothschild] and His Excellency Senor De Montefiore.”

“Today, this blessed Sunday, which falls on the eighth of Elul, the light has shone, from the honorable cause of our lord and crown, your cousin, His Excellency, the glorious Sir Moses Montefiore … the great news of their release from prison to their homes.”


Portrait of Lady Judith Montefiore

The order of the signatures reflects the tensions within the Jewish community of Damascus, which also surfaced in various mutual accusations cast about during the trial. At the top of the list are the signatures of the women of the Farhi family, the richest Jewish family in Damascus, and at the other end are the women of the rival merchant family, the Hararis. In the middle are the signatures of the wives of various rabbis and members of the middle class, among them “Oro, Madame Moshe Abu Al-Afia,” the convert. The final signatory is Mazal Tov, wife of the community rabbi, Yaakov Antebi.

The date noted in the letter as the day that “the light shone” matches the descriptions in the reports of the foreign consuls. This was the day the imprisoned husbands were freed and those who were tried in absentia left their hiding places.

Even more interesting is the date of the writing of the letter, the 15th of Elul, the month of mercy, about a week after the release. A letter from the French consul to his superior at the main consulate in Beirut makes acerbic remarks about the joyous celebrations of the Jews, including a party around that date that took place in the Austrian consul’s garden, attended by the newly liberated men and their wives, among others. It was perhaps in this forum that the decision was made to send a letter of thanks from the wives of the newly liberated men to the wife of their redeemer, from one sister to another.


This article was originally published in “Segula” Magazine


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Passing the Torch: The Maccabees of Berlin

More than 80 years after Jewish sports associations were outlawed by the Nazis, hundreds of German athletes still proudly wear the Star of David on their jerseys

The Bar Kochba Berlin athletics team, 1925. Source: Bar Kochba-Hakoah News pamphlet

Not a day goes by that Israeli sports fans don’t read or hear the word ‘Maccabi.’ It is a name attached to dozens of Israeli teams in most sports played in the Jewish State. Much less familiar is the fact that there are still active teams in other parts of the world that proudly bear this name. Here we will tell the story of one of these – a little-known football (soccer) team from Berlin.

Indeed, in the year 2020, the Makkabi Berlin football team plays in the Berlin-Liga, a sixth-tier division which consists solely of clubs based in the German capital. True, this semi-professional organization doesn’t exactly pose a threat to the giants of German soccer, but it has a rich history which stretches back more than 120 years.

The team’s story begins with an event, or rather an idea, that sparked the creation of a long list of Jewish sports and athletic associations and clubs. In late August of 1898, Max Nordau stood at the podium of the Zionist Congress and called for the promotion of ‘Muscular Judaism’ (Muskeljudentum), an idea which envisioned the creation of a ‘new Jew’, typified by physical strength, which was, in his opinion, necessary in order to achieve the national revival of the Jewish people. Sometime later, at the end of October of that year, 48 young Zionists gathered in Berlin and founded an athletics club in the city, a true realization of Nordau’s ideas. They named the club ‘Bar Kochba’, after the legendary Jewish hero who led a revolt against Roman rule. During those years, Jewish clubs of the sort began to spring up like mushrooms after the rain. Most of them chose powerful Hebrew names like HaKoah (“The Force” or “The Strength”) and HaGibor (“The Hero”), or names of heroic figures from scripture such as Gideon and, of course, Maccabi (“Makkabi” in German).

Bar Kochba Berlin was originally established as a general athletics club, as was common in those days in Germany. It was the first of its kind – that is, the first Jewish athletics club in Germany. It was likely a reaction to, or perhaps a reflection of, the general development of athletic culture in Germany during those years. This was also the context for Nordau’s ideas; the Zionist leader didn’t necessarily picture 22 people chasing a ball when he spoke at the Congress in 1898. Only later did the club expand by opening individual departments dedicated to boxing, swimming, tennis, gymnastics – and football.

From the Hamburg Archive at the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People (CAHJP)

Most of the Bar Kochba Association’s successes were in gymnastics, while the football team generally took a backseat to the various other departments. The impressive achievements in gymnastics and boxing reinforced a Jewish sense of pride by showing that Jews were not inferior to their German neighbors. Jewish sports fans especially enjoyed watching the athletes proudly wear the light blue Star of David on their uniforms.

The Bar Kochba association soon became much more than a sports club. Its Zionistic activity grew, and the association published a periodical as well as a Zionist songbook. Young members of the association even formed the core of a Jewish defense force that helped protect the Jewish quarter in Berlin where Jews were harassed during and after WWI.

Sometime after the establishment of Bar Kochba, a HaKoah club was founded in Berlin, which shared its name with clubs in Vienna and other European cities. HaKoah Berlin focused mainly on football. Interestingly, a number of German refugees who had immigrated to Mandatory Palestine following the Nazi rise to power played under the Hakoah Berlin name as well.

A poster for a football match between Hakoah Berlin and Hapoel Tel Aviv on July 1st, 1933

In 1929, Bar Kochba and Hakoah merged to form a single Jewish Berlin club which was known from that point on primarily as Bar Kochba-HaKoah. The football team competed mainly in Berlin’s local leagues, up until 1933. In that year, the new Nazi regime moved quickly to cripple Jewish participation in sports. Jewish players were banned from all-German teams, and, having no other choice, joined the Jewish teams, Bar Kochba among them. Jewish football teams were forbidden from competing in national competitions resulting in the formation of separate Makkabi football leagues, which consisted of Jewish teams from all over Germany. Bar Kochba-HaKoah was notably successful under the new arrangement, winning a championship in its first year of competition. This feat was repeated three more times in later years.

In 1937, with the isolation of Jewish teams in Germany at its peak, the Bar Kochba-HaKoah football team went on tour to Israel. The visit was barely covered by the local Hebrew press and the Jewish press in Germany paid only scant attention. Nevertheless, the team’s players were to play approximately four matches in six days, and, in between games, attend numerous receptions and ceremonies held in their honor. The results were hardly impressive: Bar Kochba-Hakoah managed only two wins, two more games ended in draws while three matches resulted in defeat. Being cut off from proper competition in Germany had taken its toll.

About a year and a half later, following the organized violence of Kristallnacht, all Jewish sports clubs in Germany, including Bar Kochba-Hakoah, were officially shut down.

Bar Kochba-HaKoah Berlin players during the team’s visit to Mandatory Palestine, 1937

And yet, this was not the end of the road for Germany’s first Jewish sports association. German immigrants and survivors reestablished the Bar Kochba-HaKoah community here in Israel, celebrating its anniversaries and issuing a newspaper sponsored by the association. Meanwhile, Jews who returned to Germany sought to reestablish their beloved clubs, resulting in the formation of Makkabi Berlin in 1970, generally regarded as the successor organization to both Bar Kochba and Hakoah.


The new club was in fact formed as a merger of a number of sports departments bearing historic Jewish names: Bar Kochba Berlin in athletics, HaKoah Berlin in football and Makkabi Berlin in boxing. One of the organization’s former coaches was none other than Emmanuel Scheffer, manager of Israel’s legendary national football team that played in the World Cup. And so, even now, we find teams of men, women and children out on the grassy fields of Berlin, wearing blue uniforms and Stars of David on their chests. These days, the Makkabi Berlin men’s team is sitting comfortably in the top half of the city’s local Berlin-Liga. Makkabi Berlin also fields teams in basketball, volleyball, artistic gymnastics, swimming and even chess. The association can proudly boast around 500 active members, more than 120 years after a group of young Jews founded the first Jewish athletics association in Germany.


This article was written with the help of Yuval Rubovitch, Professor Moshe Zimmermann and Ronen Dorfan.


Further reading:

Bar Kochba Berlin, One Hundred Years – A Personal Story“, by Adin Talber, an article appearing in the book Between Two Homelands: The “Yekkes”, edited by Moshe Zimmermann and Yotam Hotam, Jerusalem: Merkaz Shazar; 2005 (Hebrew)

Muscular Religion. Sport, Nationalism, Judaism., edited by Moshe Zimmermann, Jerusalem: Carmel; 2017 (Hebrew)


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The Prophet of Abstraction and the Master of Light in Darkness: George Steiner and Gershom Scholem

On the unique relationship between two giants of the Jewish literary world

George Steiner in 2013, image courtesy of the Nexus Institute

The philosopher and literary critic George Steiner, who passed away this week, was, like many Jewish intellectuals of the 20th century, enamored of Gershom Scholem and his scholarship. Moshe Idel, in a chapter on Steiner in his 2010 book Old Worlds, New Mirrors: On Jewish Mysticism and Twentieth-Century Jewish Thought referred to him as “A Prophet of Abstraction” and addressed the influence of Scholem’s scholarship on his somewhat pessimistic worldview. Idel connects this worldview with Steiner’s fierce criticism of the Zionist project and of the State of Israel.

Gershom Scholem

Steiner himself, in a Jan. 22, 1990 review of the volume of correspondence between Scholem and Walter Benjamin in the New Yorker Magazine had much to say about both Scholem’s scholarship (“Scholem revolutionized the study of Judaism by his philological-editorial investigations of extreme esoterica”) – and his Zionism – (“For Scholem, the messianic…was inseparable from a material, historically grounded homecoming to Israel”).

Addressing his relationship with Scholem, Steiner had this to say:

“Paradoxically, Scholem’s immersion in religious mysticism originated in a deeply ironical, skeptical world view. I had the testing privilege of knowing Scholem in his later years, of seeing him in Jerusalem, Zurich, and New York. I cannot even begin to venture an informed guess as to whether this inspired expositor of the Cabalistic meditation on the self-divisions of the Divine Oneness…believed or did not believe in God [Actually Scholem wrote more than once that he had always believed in God and therefore could not be considered as “secular”]. The quizzicalities in Scholem’s smile and the hints of deep-lying Voltairean merriment were legion”.

In Scholem’s library, there are several of Steiner’s books, two of which contain dedications from the author.

“For Gershom Scholem, with deep respect, George Steiner” This dedication appears in a copy of Steiner’s book, Bluebeard’s Castle: Some Notes Towards the Re-definition of Culture

In one of them, After Babel: Aspects of Language and Translation, Steiner addresses Scholem as the “Master of Light in Darkness”.

“For Gershom Scholem, Master of Light in Darkness, George Steiner (Zurich, 25-5-75)” (German)

In Idel’s words. “Drawing on Kafka, Freud and Scholem, Steiner tries…to offer, as Harold Bloom has pointed out, a new Torah”. Kafka also looms large in Steiner’s review of the Scholem-Benjamin correspondence (as well as in Idel’s analysis of Scholem in Old Worlds, New Mirrors). Can pessimism, abstractions darkness and light create a “new Torah”? We will leave that for the reader to decide.


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The Vilna Gaon Makes a Surprise Appearance

Archivists at the Lithuanian State Historical Archives were surprised to discover a famous figure while examining historic 250 year old records from Vilnius

Rabbi Elijah, son of Solomon Zalman, the Vilna Gaon

In 1764, Stanislaw Poniatowsky, King of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania, enacted a number of far-reaching political reforms with the aim of reinforcing his control over the country. Unfortunately, Poland had a much bigger headache to contend with during this period… Eight years later, the combined armies of Prussia, Austria and Russia invaded and carved great chunks out of the country, in what proved to be just the first of three divisions of Poland. By the end of the process, history had accorded Stanislaw a title he’d much rather have done without – that of last King of Poland and last Duke of Lithuania.

Stanislaw’s reforms brought an end to the central autonomous Jewish government known as the Council of Four Lands, (Lithuania was effectively the fifth land governed by the body). The Council had acted as the highest supra-communal authority of Polish Jewry since the beginning of the sixteenth century, at a time when Poland represented the world’s largest center of Jews. The council’s main purpose was to divvy up the government levy on the country’s Jewish minority among the various communities, ensure the taxes were collected and hand them over to the authorities. (Until the modern era, taxes weren’t levied on individuals, but on the segment of the population to which each individual belonged, whether a guild, a church or, in the case of the Jews, the community or Kahal.) The administration of this communal tax was in many ways the most significant expression of Jewish autonomy in Poland.

A panorama of Vilnius (Vilna) and drawings of various sites in the city, including the Jewish quarter, painted in 1901 by Nathan Ben-Zion Chavkin, the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People. Click to enlarge

The Polish government generally mistrusted the statistics provided by the Jewish supra-communal authorities, assuming they underestimated the true number of Jews in order to minimize taxation and suspecting that some of the money collected was kept back for Jewish communal purposes. Once the 1764 reform had been enacted, the council was dissolved and the authorities began collecting taxes directly, on the basis of the size of the Jewish population. The number of Jews was estimated on the basis of a general census taken between 1764 and 1766. At the time, the Jews were not thrilled by to the whole idea of the census, but today it’s regarded as crucial resource for the history of Polish and Lithuanian Jewry in the last third of the eighteenth century. Census documents are scattered over the archives of all the various states whose territory was then part of the Kingdom of Poland, and copies of many of them can be found in the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People.

Vilnius today


The Lithuanian State Historical Archives in Vilnius houses numerous censuses, including examples from the early 1760s, as well as later censuses, and a wonderful collection of BMD (birth, marriage and death) records from the important Jewish communities that populated the region.

The census provides researchers with plenty of useful sociological information, including the average size of families, the number of widows in the community, as well as its members’ occupations. As family names were still not compulsory in Poland when it was taken, it’s not easy to trace individual families in the records, but for genealogists able to puzzle their way back this far, it provides a wealth of detail.

In certain instances, a careful search will award the researcher with great findings that will warm the heart of anyone interested in Jewish heritage, especially those of Litvak origin.

The census page from 1765 mentioning Eliasz Zelmanowiz and his family, courtesy of the Lithuanian State Historical Archives. Click to enlarge


We will focus here on the census taken in Vilnius (then: Wilno) in 1765. The census was arranged according to streets. A few pages are dedicated to one of the main streets of old Vilnius – Niemieckiey (meaning ‘German’ in Polish) Street, now known as Vokiečių Street, an area highly populated by Jews at the time. On one of the pages dedicated to the right side of the street, we find one Eliasz Zelmanowiz, his wife (ZONA) Chana, his son (SYN) Zelman, his daughter (CÓRKA) Basia (=Batia), as well as the servant Nechama. The name of the paternal head of the family, combined with the names of the other family members, reveals that we are dealing with Rabbi Elijah, son of Solomon Zalman, better known as the Vilna Gaon!

Rabbi Elijah, son of Solomon Zalman, the Vilna Gaon


The Gaon was 45 years old at the time. He lived in Wilno and dedicated his life to the study of Torah, but did not serve in any official position in the community. Of his eight known children, only two are mentioned here. Some of them passed away as infants, others were not born yet, and two of the older girls may have been married at the time.

The census sums up that this household consists of four members, as well as one servant. It is interesting to note the fact that the servant also bears a Jewish name – Nechama.


Source: LVIA, Fond Nr. 11, Inventory Nr. 1, File Nr. 1014, page Nr. 7 v. [a microfilm copy can be found at the CAHJP: HM3-204.02]

This census can be accessed through the LVIA website.


The @ the Source training program is bringing together in Jerusalem a group of heritage professionals from the Baltic states. The National Library of Israel and the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People used this opportunity to invite genealogists and other interested parties to an event titled  “Litvak Roots” which presented the rich palette of historical and genealogical sources stored in the National Archives of Lithuania and Latvia, as well as insight into communal and personal histories brought by expert scholars: Professor Shaul Stampfer and Ilya Lensky, director of the Jews in Latvia Museum. The event included a question and answer session with the panel of presenters.

This document was presented at the event, as well as many other important sources for the history of the Jews in Eastern Europe in the 18th-20th Centuries.


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