By Three Things a Person Is Known

Chava Levine shares a bit of what she learned from working on the personal archive of Professor Dov Noy, who was described as "the world's foremost Jewish folklorist". The archive is now deposited at the National Library of Israel.

Dov Noy as a young man, the Dov Noy Archive at the National Library of Israel

I never met the person whose entire life I archived.

I did see him once, though. An old man, stooped over, indistinguishable from the myriad of old men who haunt the halls of universities the world over. He used to shuffle through the corridors of the Hebrew University, slowly, as if he had done that walk a thousand times before.

“You see that man? That’s Dov Noy.”

Dov Noy (center) with members of his family, the Dov Noy Archive at the National Library of Israel

He had been a legend in his time. A giant of a researcher, a good-looking, charismatic professor whose reputation follows him even now, eight years after his death. As I tell people about my work in the archives of the National Library of Israel, the response is invariably, ‘Ah yes! I met him/studied with him/went to his Open House events. He introduced me to my spouse/helped me get this job/changed the course of my career. He was such a wonderful man.’

Getting to know someone through their archive is not like getting to know someone in real life. I don’t know his favorite color. I don’t know what he liked to eat. I don’t know what the sound of his voice was or even how tall he was.

What I do know is this: I know his handwriting, almost better than I know my own. I know he had a phenomenal memory, and kept in touch with thousands of people around the world. I know that he survived the Holocaust almost by chance, leaving his warm and loving home in Kolomyia (then Poland, now Ukraine) at the young age of 18 to study at the Hebrew University. I know that he met his brother, the only surviving member of his immediate family, in the refugee camps in Cyprus. However, I don’t know how it affected him. I don’t know how he felt. I don’t know if he ever dreamed he was back home and awoke thinking he smelled his grandmother’s chicken soup.

A Hanukkah menorah made in Cyprus in 1948, featuring a dedication to Dov and Ziporah Noy from local school teachers, the Dov Noy Archive at the National Library of Israel

I know that he dedicated his life’s work to collecting folk tales and stories, and his brother Meir devoted his to collecting songs. I know that his memory was truly astounding, and that his own teacher, Stith Thompson, wrote of his intellect that “I think my other students will not object when I say that Dov was one of the most brilliant disciples I have ever had.”[1] I know he had a predilection for collecting (or perhaps a dislike of recycling bins) and his archive includes such curios as Welsh museum pamphlets, wedding invitations from the 1950s, and Dr. Rabbi Max Grunwald’s 1930 Austrian passport.

Thanks to working on this archive, I now know that people used to own carbon-copy notebooks. I learned that a service used to exist which would cut out newspaper clippings for you. I learned of the importance of letters, postcards, and the postal service, and that back in the old days, people really knew how to write.

Dov Noy and friends, the Dov Noy Archive at the National Library of Israel

As we near the end of this project, I am left to ponder at the chasm between knowing someone through their papers, and knowing them as a person – the space between the written word and experienced life. Much has been written on the relationships between objects and people, and I’m sure more is yet to be written. This archive contains Dov Noy’s writings, his research, and his letters. After all this, I ask, can we know a person by their archive? I leave it to you to find out.



[1] Stith Thompson, 1996. A Folklorist’s Progress, quoted in Ben-Amos, D. (2014). Obituary: Dov Noy (1920-2013). The Journal of American Folklore, 127 (506), 467-469.

The Rise and Fall of Jerusalem’s Rex Cinema

Everyone frequented this Jerusalem movie theater: Jews, Arabs and British soldiers. So why was it destroyed, not once but twice?

Left: Rex Cinema in the early 1940s. Photo: Pikwiki. Right: Rex Cinema in flames, 1937. Photo: The Rudy Goldstein Collection, Bitmuna

Today, Shlomzion Hamalka Street in Jerusalem is the main thoroughfare leading to the Mamilla Avenue mall and its fancy shops. On weekends and holidays, you can find many Israelis strolling along, sitting in the cafes or simply window-shopping down the street. Eighty years ago, this road was one of the main streets of British Mandatory Jerusalem. Arabs and Jews alike, dressed in their best, would enjoy the restaurants and cafes that dotted the area, and afterward catch a movie playing at the Rex Cinema located at the bottom of the street.

‘”How was the movie?’ we often asked. ‘The movie wasn’t anything special, but the fight after it was really fun!'”

This was how Eliyahu Nawi, the well-known Jerusalem storyteller, described his outings to Rex Cinema on Princess Mary Street in Mandatory Jerusalem, as it was known back then.  Nawi recalled how at the end of a film starring the Arab singer Mohamed Abdel Wahab and the Jewish actress Leila Murad, a fight broke out among the Jewish and Arab moviegoers, instigated by the cinematic conflict between the characters in the film.

Poster for a movie playing at Rex Cinema. January 1941. The Poster Collection at the National Library of Israel

Rex Cinema was torn down a long time ago and Princess Mary Street became Shlomzion Hamalka Street (named after the Hasmonean Queen Salome Alexandra), but local historians still remember the daily screenings at the magnificent cinema in Mamilla, of which no trace remains. Although Nawi focused on the brawls after the screenings, the violence did not stop there, and after two attacks (some would call them acts of terrorism) by the Irgun, the magnificent 1,300-seat cinema, was destroyed and abandoned. Eventually a shopping center was built on its ruins by the Israel Brothers company.

Rex Cinema stood out among the movie theaters in Jerusalem during the British Mandate. While other cinemas operating at the time—Zion, Edison and Eden—were Jewish-owned, Rex Cinema was owned by Joseph Pascal Albina, an Arab-Christian businessman. Albina collaborated with many Jews on various projects, often defying the decisions of the Arab Higher Committee. He was also the owner of the film production compamny “Nile Films,” and founded Rex Cinema in order to screen his films there.  Albina hired contractor Yona Friedman, a Jew, to build the cinema, but when the project was completed, Albina found himself short on funds, and instead of paying Friedman, he made him a partner in the cinema. Rex Cinema opened on June 6, 1938, and screened mostly Arab films alongside westerns and popular European movies. The cinema catered mostly to Jerusalem’s Arabs as well as to British soldiers, clerks and officials of the various mandatory institutions, but Jews also numbered among its patrons.

Rex Cinema in the early 1940s. Photo: Pikwiki

The First Attack

In May 1939, less than a year after Rex Cinema opened, the British Mandate Government published its infamous “White Paper”, announcing restrictions on Jewish immigration to the Land of Israel. The move was seen as a direct attack on the Jewish community in the country, and the Irgun quickly responded with a counter-attack. Yaakov “Yashka” Eliav (nicknamed “the velvet-eyed terrorist” by the British), who was the Irgun’s commander of operations and later one of the founders of the Lehi organization, recalls in his memoir that Rex Cinema was chosen because it was “inside the British government zone . . . and because of its location and modern facility it attracted the government’s top brass, as well as the upper echelons of local Arab society. The attack on the cinema was intended to strike at the heads of the British military, civilian and police authorities, as well as members of the audience who were among the leaders of the Arab public and supporters of the violent gangs.”

2 Explosions at Rex Cinema in Jerusalem“, Haboker, May 30, 1939

On May 29, Irgun members slipped into the cinema before the screening of the movie “Tarzan”. They proceeded to booby-trap the theater with explosives concealed within an ordinary-looking coat as well as bombs hidden in boxes of candy. At 8:30 pm, the explosives went off just as the famous MGM lion roared to signal the beginning of the film. The frightened crowd fled the theater only to find that the Irgun had set another trap for them. Members of the Jewish underground waiting nearby in Mamilla’s Muslim cemetery opened fire at the people attempting to flee. Five Arabs were killed, and 18 others were wounded: six British, ten Arabs and two Jews. The cinema suffered heavy damages, and the incident became the talk of the town. Following the attack on the theater, the British military commander in Jerusalem issued an order closing all cinemas in Jerusalem, along with other cultural institutions. The Irgun continued its attacks on various targets in the city, and it seemed as if this was the end of Rex Cinema. However, the outbreak of World War II provided a somewhat surprising revival. With the arrival of more British military personnel in the city came a renewed need for an English-speaking cinema. Rex’s owners moved swiftly to repair the building and reopened the theater at full capacity.


The Euphoric Years and a Sudden End

Throughout the 1940s, Rex Cinema served as a meeting place for Arabs, Jews and British in Jerusalem. Contrary to the memoirs of Irgun members, according to which the Jewish population of Jerusalem did not frequent the cinema, it seems that many in fact did. Hebrew newspapers published ads for films playing at the Rex alongside greetings for Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.  In 1946, a rumor spread that the Jewish partners had quit the cinema but the management immediately came out with a special notice debunking the rumor.

Poster for a film playing at Rex Cinema. May 1940. The Poster Collection at the National Library of Israel

Princess Mary Street was one of Jerusalem’s most modern and cosmopolitan streets during the Mandate era, and the Rex was the only downtown cinema open on Saturdays. On the building’s top floor there was also a small boutique cinema named simply, “Studio.” In an article in Al Hamishmar, Gabriel Stern described the atmosphere in Jerusalem in the 1940s, writing that the war years, ironically, were years of rapprochement and relative peace between the two peoples in Jerusalem. The cinema’s location made it an obvious meeting place for the various populations. In the interim period between the 1939 White Paper and the outbreak of the War of Independence in 1947, Jews felt quite comfortable there, especially on Friday nights and holiday eves. Iconic Israeli singer Yossi Banai nostalgically recalled going to matinees at the cinema with his friends Simon and Moise in one of his most famous songs. The midday screenings were always cheaper than the evening films. The euphoria continued at Rex Cinema until the evening of November 29, 1947.

Yossi Banai: “Me and Simon and Little Moise”

Following the UN declaration and ensuing protest against the Partition Plan, the Arab Higher Committee called for a three-day strike of the Arab population in Mandatory Palestine. The tense atmosphere among Jerusalem’s Arab residents eventually exploded. On the morning of December 2, 1947, an Arab mob attacked the commercial center in Mamilla, and its mostly Jewish shop owners. The British forces that were supposed to protect them focused mainly on pursuing the handful of Haganah defenders, while the rioters, most of them equipped with axes and knives, set fire to the shopping street and attacked the merchants. In retaliation, the Irgun set fire to Rex Cinema. As opposed to their first carefully planned attack, this time, the violence was more spontaneous. The Hebrew newspaper Herut carried a story about the attack, as retold by its commander, Moshe Solomon (“Natan”): We didn’t receive any orders for it, we were a total of five Irgun members […]. We arrived at Rex, broke down the doors and began tearing things apart, just like what we saw was going on across the shopping center. We set fire to the projection booth and the rest of the building […]. After the operation, I informed my superiors in the Irgun and they approved our actions after the fact.”

Rex Cinema in flames. December 1947. The Rudy Goldstein Collection, Bitmuna

The highly flammable nitrite film reels ensured that the cinema would burn to the ground. The clouds of smoke billowing up into the sky were visible throughout the city, and were even caught on camera by some photographers. On that day, Rex Cinema, which had served Arabs, Jews and the British in Jerusalem, closed for good. The building stood in ruins until the 1960s, when the present-day shopping center was built on the site.

Gershom Scholem’s Mishna Comes Home

About a year after the renowned scholar's Talmud set finally found its way home, his Mishna has too...

A few years ago, after a number of unexpected wanderings, Gershom Scholem’s Talmud set finally came home to the National Library of Israel in Jerusalem. Now, following a somewhat less dramatic though still interesting saga, his set of the Mishna has come home, as well.

When Scholem came to the Land of Israel from Berlin in 1923, he typed up a list of all of the books that he brought with him (more than 1,700!). The list can be found in his archive at the National Library.

His Mishna set appears as numbers 10 and 11 in the category of “Hebraische Literatur” (“Hebrew Literature”). Numbers 2-6 indicate that the Babylonian Talmud he brought was not a complete set from a single publisher, and it seems that he did the same with his Mishna, bringing three volumes (though he didn’t indicate which) from an edition published in Amsterdam in 1685 and one volume, Seder Kedoshim, printed in Fürth in 1814.

He came with only four of the six total Orders of the Mishna.

From there the story becomes less clear.

Shortly after he passed away in 1982, most of his personal library came to the National Library, where it remains largely in the same order as it was in his apartment.

Yet, for years, his Mishna was not to be found in the Gershom Scholem Collection at the National Library. In its place stood another set from the Library’s collections.

It seems that after he passed away, his Mishna – along with other books – remained with his wife Fania in their home.

A few months ago, I was contacted by someone at Midreshet Beer, a women’s seminary in Yerucham, who asked an intriguing question.

She told me that the seminary had recently received a number of donated books and among them was a Mishna set with the ex libris of Gershom Scholem. She asked if we would we like to have it.

Of course I said, “Yes,” and inquired further.

Gershom Scholem’s ex libris

It turned out that the set had belonged to a couple who had lived on Kibbutz Saad in the Western Negev. After they passed away, their children decided to donate many of the books they found in their home to the seminary.

I spoke with the couple’s daughter who had no idea how her parents had gotten the set. She didn’t think that they had had any connection to the Scholems, though it certainly seems possible that perhaps they knew Fania and received the books from her.

Or maybe the volumes had other stops along the way…

In any case, the set, published in Fürth in 1814, is complete (six volumes) and in outstanding condition, though it is clear that not all of the volumes were used by the same people…

I believe that when Scholem got to Jerusalem he sold the three older, more valuable Amsterdam volumes that he had brought with him and purchased the volumes he needed to complete his Fürth set.

He probably even had some leftover change to buy a few more books about Kabbalah…

Many thanks to the staff at Midreshet Beer for contacting us and donating this set to the Gershom Scholem Collection at the National Library, as well as to Meirav Bigman at the National Library, who helped make the connection.

Gershom Scholem’s Mishna set, after returning hom

This article has been published as part of Gesher L’Europa, the National Library of Israel’s initiative to connect with people, institutions and communities across Europe and beyond, through storytelling, knowledge sharing and community engagement.

Djemal Pasha’s Revenge on the People of Jerusalem

In the midst of WWI, residents of Jerusalem witnessed a horrific spectacle: the hanging of five local citizens by the Ottoman authorities. A photograph of the scene has since become a Jerusalem legend linking Christians, Jews and Muslims.

This photo was likely taken by photographer Khalil Raad, who arrived at the scene before the bodies were taken down. Some say he later sold the picture at his store, while others claim it was passed to a relative of one of the deceased by a former Ottoman official, the Ben Zvi Institute

In June 1916, Ahmad Djemal Pasha, commander of the Ottoman Fourth Army and ruler of Damascus province, found himself facing a difficult problem: many soldiers had deserted from the ranks, and he was suffering a severe manpower shortage. Following the unsuccessful Ottoman attack on the Suez Canal, the defeated, exhausted and hungry soldiers returned to the Land of Israel. Jerusalem, like many other cities in the Ottoman Empire, filled with deserters, who hoped to escape the attention of the authorities.

Ahmad Djemal Pasah, the Turkish Military Governor in Syria and the Land of Israel. Photo: the Ben Zvi Institute

The military police roamed the city in search of the absentee soldiers, who were called “Farar” (Arabic: فرار). Djemal Pasha, who urgently needed men, sentenced any deserter who would not turn himself in to death, but to no avail. In his cruel rage, he decided to teach the public a lesson. He ordered his men to seize five deserters and execute them in a central location in the city. The unlucky five—two Jews, two Christians and one Muslim—were caught and hanged in an expedited procedure. This is their story.

The Sick Man on the Bosphorus

The Ottoman entry into the First World War led to a severe economic crisis throughout the empire, in the Middle East in particular. Jerusalem was especially hard hit. Local tourism had collapsed and many sources of funding had dried up. A drought severely affected farmers’ crops, and if all of that wasn’t enough, in 1914–1915, the Middle East suffered a devastating locust plague that reached the Holy City as well. Moreover, the forced conscription imposed by the Ottoman regime left many families without a breadwinner, and poverty and hunger were rife. Many of the local men, instead of being sent to combat units, were sent to the “Amaliya,” hard labor battalions in the service of the Ottoman army.

Ottoman soldiers in formation, in the courtyard in front of the Kishla (the police prison) near David’s Citadel, Jerusalem. Photo: the Ben Zvi Institute

The combination of World War I and the economic crisis led to low morale and very high desertion rates among Ottoman soldiers in the Middle East. At the same time, local national movements began to revolt against Ottoman rule and side with the Allied Powers. Cases like the establishment of the Zion Mule Corps that took part in the Battle of Gallipoli and the revolt of Sharif Hussein of Mecca led Djemal Pasha to behave violently toward anything he interpreted as disloyalty or disobedience. Throughout 1915–1916, Ahmad Djemal Pasha committed a series of war crimes and acts, the Armenian Genocide foremost among these, which cemented his status as one of the cruelest figures of the First World War.

The Hanging at the Jaffa Gate

In the middle of 1916, after the hanging and exiling of deserters and “traitors” across the Middle East, Ahmad Djemal Pasha arrived in Jerusalem to deal with the local deserter problem. He announced that he would sentence to death any deserter who did not surrender by the end of June 1916. His promise to pardon all the fugitives if they returned to their units, did not help. In his rage, Djemal Pasha ordered five runaways caught at random to be hung, as an example. The deserters were chosen on the basis of ethnicity—two Jews, two Christian Arabs and one Muslim Arab.

Djemal Pasha sets out for the battle to conquer the Suez Canal, Jaffa Gate, Jerusalem, 1915. Photo: the Ben Zvi Institute

Within a day, five defectors meeting his requirement were captured and hung in Jerusalem’s main square, which at the time was located by the Jaffa Gate. The five were Ibrahim Andelft and Musa Sous, Christian Arabs; Ahmad Alozu, a Muslim; and Moshe Melal and Yosef Amozig, who were Jews. The convicts were granted a final meeting with a cleric, after which they were hanged. Around their necks hung signs stating their alleged crime, and their bodies were left hanging on the gallows until the evening hours, giving Djemal Pasha’s violent message time to sink in.

The news of the hanging of Jews by the Ottomans spread in the city, and the next day it was also reported in the Ha-Herut Hebrew newspaper, including the last requests of those sentenced to death. Amozig, according to the report, sufficed with drinking a little water before being executed; Melal, on the other hand, asked that the money owed him be collected and paid  to his mother and also demanded that the blindfold that had been placed on him be removed, so that he might walk toward his death with his eyes open. The reporter added that unfortunately the blindfold request was refused as it was contrary to Ottoman law.

The Ha-Herut newspaper reports the hanging in Hebrew and names the deceased, June 30, 1916

The execution of Yosef Amozig was particularly tragic, as he was not a deserter at all. Amozig was born in Morocco and immigrated to Jerusalem with his sister and mother, Hanina. Like his father, Amozig became a tailor and set up a workshop together with a local Muslim in the Old City of Jerusalem. Among his clients were wealthy families such as the Nashashibis, and some say he even made clothes for Djemal Pasha and his entourage. Amozig closed his workshop with the start of the Great War before he was drafted into the army and sent to work as a tailor at a base in Beersheba, the only Ottoman-established city in the Land of Israel.

One day, Amozig’s commander sent him back to Jerusalem to sew some uniforms for him. He had just reopened his workshop and started on the commission when he was spotted by Ottoman army informants who mistook him for a deserter. He was apprehended by the military police and imprisoned. Amozig was beset by difficulties to explain his presence in the city: he was unable to contact his commander in order to clarify his mission, and his military transit permit had disappeared. Amozig’s mother tried desperately to find the permit, but could not. After his arrest, Amozig was placed in “The Kishla”, the local prison near the Tower of David. The permit was not found, and he was forced to meet his end at the gallows.

The Legacy

Esther Harrush, Amozig’s niece, who later married Akiva Azulay, a deputy mayor of Jerusalem, was one of the few who remembered the story, which was known in a few, slightly different versions. Over the years, the Sephardic Jews of Jerusalem retold the story of the hanging of Amozig and Melal until it became a well-known Jerusalem urban legend. One of the details that emerged years after the execution was that the executioner was a Jew named Mordechai Sassoon, who carried out the Ottoman orders with a heavy heart and accompanied the Jewish victims to the last.

Djemal Pasha’s decision to hang five people by religious affiliation was unusual, even compared to the rest of his brutal actions during the war. The randomness of the choice, the expedited sentencing of the victims and the impact on the various communities in the city made the incident a landmark in the history of Jerusalem. Amozig and Melal, martyrs hanged because of their Jewish faith, take their place alongside Naaman Belkind and Yosef Lishansky, members of the Nili organization, who were executed on account of espionage in the same period. To some extent, this story is yet another symbol of Jerusalem’s sacred status to the three monotheistic religions, a place where their believers meet, live and die together.


Further Reading:

Year of the Locust : A Soldier’s Diary and the Erasure of Palestine’s Ottoman Past / Salim Tamari