Gandhi’s 1939 Rosh Hashanah Greeting to the Jewish People

Sent 80 years ago, on the day World War II broke out, the greeting recently surfaced

Gandhi with two Jewish confidants in South Africa - Sonja Schlesin and Hermann Kallenbach, 1913

On September 1, 1939, the Nazis invaded Poland, beginning World War II and setting the stage for the incomparable atrocities of the Holocaust.

On the very same day, Mahatma Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, one of the most influential figures of the 20th century and the father of modern India, wrote a short but powerful Rosh Hashanah greeting to A.E. Shohet, the head of the Bombay Zionist Association. The timing of the greeting reflects the extent to which Nazi persecution of Jews was of concern to global citizenry at the time. In hindsight, it also presents a chilling portent of the horrors to come:

Dear Shohet,

You have my good wishes for your new year. How I wish the new year may mean an era of peace for your afflicted people.


Yours sincerely,

MK Gandhi

Gandhi’s 1939 letter to A.E. Shohet. From the Abraham Schwadron Collection at the National Library of Israel  (Schwad 03 07 04)

The greeting came to light as part of a major National Library of Israel initiative, with support from the Leir Foundation, to review and describe millions of items in its archival collections, which include personal papers, photographs, documents and more from many of the 20th century’s most prominent cultural figures. It appears online here for the first time.

A.E. Shohet was an Indian Jew from the Baghdadi community in Bombay. He headed the Bombay Zionist Association (BZA), the city’s Keren Hayesod office, and served as editor of “The Jewish Advocate”, the organ of the Jewish National Fund and the BZA. He believed deeply in the Zionist cause and saw it as a singular path to unifying the diverse Jewish population of Bombay, which included the long-established wealthy Baghdadi Jewish community, the Bene Israel Indian Jewish community, and the local European Jewish community.

The envelope in which Gandhi’s ‘Shanah Tova’ card was sent. From the Abraham Schwadron Collection at the National Library of Israel

Gandhi had been reluctant to declare his views on the Arab-Jewish question in Palestine and the persecution of German Jews. Finally, on November 26, 1938, he published an article entitled “The Jews” in the Harijan, offering “satyagraha” or non-violent resistance as his solution to both problems. Gandhi suggested that the Jews in Mandatory Palestine ought to “offer satyagraha in front of the Arabs and offer themselves to be shot or thrown into the Dead Sea without raising a little finger against them.”

Regarding German Jewry, he implored resisting Nazism solely through non-confrontational means. “My sympathies are all with the Jews… If there ever could be a justifiable war, in the name of and for humanity, war against Germany to prevent the wanton persecution of a whole race would be completely justified. But I do not believe in any war…”

The article was harshly criticized by leading intellectuals of the period including Martin Buber and Judah Magnes, who viewed Gandhi’s statements as unfavorable to Zionism and not satisfactory vis-a-vis the situation of German Jewry. Shohet replied in “The Jewish Advocate”, emphasizing one fundamental difference between the Jews in Europe and the Harijans in India – the former had no home. Moreover, he argued that Jews had practiced non-violence for two millennia, yet their persecution persisted. Other statements by Gandhi and the dangers of the Indian National Congress’ neutral attitude regarding the Nazi persecutions disturbed the Jews of India and pushed Shohet to continue his attempts to influence the Mahatma.

To that end, he enlisted the assistance of Hermann Kallenbach, a wealthy Jewish Zionist architect and carpenter who Gandhi referred to as his “soulmate”. Kallenbach had bankrolled the 1910 establishment of “Tolstoy’s Farm” – the South African prototype for the Gandhian ashram – where he and Gandhi had lived together, sharing a kitchen and seemingly endless conversations about the proper path and meaning of life. Gandhi once wrote to Kallenbach, “Your portrait (the only one) stands on the mantelpiece in my room… even if I wanted to dismiss you from my thoughts, I could not do it.”

Tolstoy Farm in South Africa, 1910 - Gandhi and Kallenbach center row, center
Tolstoy Farm in South Africa, 1910. Gandhi and Kallenbach are seated in the center of the center row

In March 1939, Kallenbach arranged for Shohet to interview the Mahatma, which he did over the course of four days at Gandhi’s ashram in Wardha.

According to a letter Shohet wrote to Eliahu Epstein (who later became known as Eliahu Elath and would serve as Israel’s first ambassador to the United States), the interview was discouraging because although Gandhi to a certain extent understood the idealism of the Jews’ wish to return to Palestine, he still saw the Palestine question from the Muslim point of view.

Kallenbach and Shohet never convinced Gandhi to become an active defender of European Jewry nor a Zionist, and he remained steadfast in his belief that non-violence and passivity could solve all problems.

In 1939 and 1940, Gandhi wrote a series of letters to Adolf Hitler, which controversially included elements of both respect and admonishment, “We have no doubt about your bravery or devotion to your fatherland, nor do we believe that you are the monster described by your opponents. But your own writings and pronouncements and those of your friends and admirers leave no room for doubt that many of your acts are monstrous and unbecoming of human dignity…”

Not long before he was assassinated, Gandhi called the Holocaust “the greatest crime of our time,” yet maintained that, “… the Jews should have offered themselves to the butcher’s knife. They should have thrown themselves into the sea from cliffs… It would have aroused the world and the people of Germany… As it is they succumbed anyway in their millions.”



Many thanks to National Library of Israel expert archivist Rachel Misrati for her invaluable assistance preparing this article.


Additional Reading

The Jewish communities of India: Identity in a Colonial Era by Joan G. Roland

The Life of Mahatma Gandhi by Louis Fischer

Soulmates: The Story of Mahatma Gandhi and Hermann Kallenbach by Shimon Lev

Hermann Kallenbach: Mahatma Gandhi’s friend in South Africa, A Biography by Isa Sarid and Christian Bartolf


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The Simple Grain That Saved the State of Israel from Starvation

During the period of austerity which accompanied the early years of the State of Israel, the Hadassah organization fought to allow for the import of Bulgur to Israel from the United States.

In 1948, while the fledgling state of Israel was facing a period of austerity and found itself carefully distributing rations, the United States of America was experiencing a surplus of agricultural goods. Among these copious amounts of excess food was a large quantity of the simple cereal grain known as Bulgur.

While Bulgur has only become globally popular in recent years, the grain finds its origins in Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cuisine. Bulgur was long considered a poor man’s food among Middle Eastern Jews as it was often served to impoverished Jewish communities in Yemen and Kurdistan, paired with other ingredients to round out the meal.

In an attempt to resolve the agricultural surplus problem without letting the food go to waste, the US government passed a law that would allow for excess food products to be made available to those in need across the globe through registered volunteer agencies. Crates of food would be made available for the needy – all the agencies had to do was cover the cost of shipping.

Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America founded by Henrietta Szold, recognized that this new legislation presented a unique opportunity to help the fledgling State of Israel in its time of need. Hadassah was originally founded in order to raise funds for medical care in Israel. In order to make the move over to shipping surplus food, they needed to become a registered voluntary agency and receive approval from the United States State Department – a process that proved to be rather difficult.

Henrietta Szold, founder of Hadassah. From the Schwadron Portrait Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel.

In his memoir, “Life’s Voyage: Dedicated to Making a Difference”, Maurice D. Atkin who served as Executive Officer and Agriculture Advisor of the Israeli Mission (later, the Israeli Embassy) to the United States, reflects on the action taken by Hadassah to become a Registered Voluntary Agency so they could ensure that parts of the food surplus would be sent to Israel.

“The office of American Voluntary Foreign Aid within the State’s Economic Cooperation Administration set up every obstacle it could think of to hinder if not block the process…After several months and many meetings, Hadassah was approved as a Registered Voluntary Agency entitled to receive surplus commodities for relief distribution abroad.”

After receiving their approval, between 1951 and 1953, Hadassah worked to ship over $20 million worth of surplus food to Israel with similar numbers arriving in subsequent years. With the help of the Jewish Agency who agreed to cover the shipping costs, Hadassah distributed food to absorption centers, welfare agencies, schools and hospitals both Jewish and Arab throughout the country.

US Senator Hubert Humphrey, recalls Atkin, was helpful in ensuring the inclusion of Bulgur in the surplus food program. Humphrey, who would later serve as Vice President, made a statement regarding the par-boiled cracked wheat on the floor of the Senate and, interestingly enough, when the statement was entered into the congressional record, the word was written in Hebrew making it the first instance that the Hebrew language was included in the written congressional record.

The cover of the cookbook “Yemenite and Oriental Food” by Naomi and Shimon Tzabar. From the National Library of Israel collection.

Bulgur has remained a popular food item in Israel and with the rise of healthy eating movements across the western world, the grain has been incorporated into diets in many different countries and cultures. The grain has proven to be very versatile, taking center stage in dishes from simple salads to savory dishes that are cooked for many hours.

One of the first cookbooks published on Jewish food traditions stemming from Middle Eastern traditions, “Yemenite and Mizrahi Foods,” a copy of which is now kept in the National Library of Israel, includes an entire section dedicated to the wonder that is bulgur – or as it is called in the book, Rifot. Feel free to try it and let us know how it turns out!

Recipe for Haris from the cookbook “Yemenite and Oriental Food” by Naomi and Shimon Tzabar. From the National Library of Israel collection.


2 cups of Rifot (Bulgur)

500 grams of beef bones

Whole Onion

Whole Tomato

Hawaij (spice mix)


Clean and rinse the bulgur. Boil half a pot of water. After the water boils, add the bones, the onion, the hawaij and the salt. Stir and add the tomato and the bulger. Cover the pot and move it to a small flame to cook overnight. Serve hot.

Bonus recipe! 

Meat and Beans:

400 gram of meat (lamb or beef) sliced

200 gram dry white beans

3 tablespoons margarine

2 tablespoons tomato paste

Chopped onions


Black Pepper

Cook the beans in salt water for 30 minutes. Stop cooking them and pour out the water. Sauté the meat in the margarine until lightly browned. Add the onion and sauté for 5minutes until everything is well browned. Add the beans, tomato paste, salt, pepper and water. Cover the pot and cook on a medium flame until the meat and the beans are completely softened.


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The Strange Connection Between a Medieval Shopping List and a Divorce Contract


The Strange Connection Between a Medieval Shopping List and a Divorce Contract

 A shopping list found among the treasures of the Cairo Genizah was scrawled on the back of a rather important document.

It happens to us all about once a week – the refrigerator and cabinets are suddenly bare and we need to go to the grocery store to restock. Most of us don’t have a special place to write a shopping list – a pad or a notebook dedicated to such mundane things. Typically, we will improvise, grabbing the closest piece of scrap paper to use for scribbling down a basic list of groceries to get us through the week.

It’s easy to forget that people have struggled with the same mundane parts of life as we do for thousands of years – things like grocery shopping and list-making – and like us, they improvised, finding creative solutions to everyday annoyances. In fact, the Cairo Genizah held one extreme example where a random, unremarkable shopping list was actually scrawled on the back of a torn-up divorce agreement from the Middle Ages.

The Ben Ezra Synagogue, originally built over a thousand years ago in Fustat, the heart of ancient Cairo had a special room which held a Genizah. The Genizah was a place where, per Jewish tradition, documents containing holy Jewish texts were deposited instead of simply throwing them in the trash. Over time, people began depositing any document written in Hebrew lettering, including items like marriage contracts, divorce papers, court documents, and private letters. Materials were deposited in this room from the time the synagogue opened through the 19th century. When it was rediscovered, the incredible collection of papers written in a variety of languages including Hebrew, Arabic, and Aramaic served as documentation of a thousand-year history of Jewish culture and society in the Middle East.

Among the treasures found inside the Genizah is what appeared at first glance to be a simple shopping list scrawled on a scrap of paper that is now held by the Cambridge University Library and is digitally preserved in the National Library of Israel collection. The list seemed perfectly ordinary, filled with everyday purchases that would be made in the local market. It was relatively detailed as each entry in the list included specific weights of each good to be purchased, using the dirham as the unit of measure. The dirham, equivalent to approximately 3.125 grams, is frequently mentioned in Jewish law as it was used to measure such things as the weight of a quantity of silver promised in a marriage contract.

A shopping list from the Cairo Genizah, Cambridge University Library.

This particular list included ordinary ingredients like sumac and tahini, as well as olive and sesame oil. When researchers turned the list over however, it became far less commonplace when they realized the list was written on the back of a fragment from a torn-up Get (Jewish divorce contract).

Talk about grabbing a piece of scrap paper.

As it turns out, this was not as unusual as it sounds. In accordance with Jewish law, when a marriage ends in divorce, the Get (divorce agreement), is torn to pieces so it cannot be used again. Historically, these agreements were written on the front side of large pieces of paper and the backs were left blank. Once the contract had served its purpose and was no longer necessary, the torn pieces were simply used for scrap paper – recycling ahead of its time. This might lend explanation as to why something so trivial as a shopping list would be scrawled on the back of a divorce contract.

The back of the shopping list from the Cairo Genizah with the text from a divorce contract, Cambridge University Library.

The shopping lists found in the Cairo Genizah tend to be written in order of what was required for a specific recipe. This means that sometimes lists include the same product more than once but with different weights for each entry, as the product was needed for more than one recipe. For example, on this list, sesame oil is included twice as the shopper expected to purchase the amounts needed for two different dishes. The list read as follows:

Sumac 3/8 (dirham)

Tahini ¼

Olive and Sesame Oil ¾

Salt ¼

Sesame Oil 1 5/8

Wood for Fuel 1/4

Serving suggestion: For anyone wishing to recreate a recipe based on this list, it seems the best option would be to prepare a fresh batch of tahini. We recommend mixing raw tahini paste with some sumac and water. Add some sesame oil and salt to taste.


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The Nuremberg Laws: The Ban Against Jewish Blood

At an assembly of the Nazi Party in September 1935, the Reichstag passed laws that stripped German Jews of their citizenship

From the moment of their appearance on the stage of history, the National-Socialist Movement, its leader, Adolph Hitler, and his immediate associates left no room for doubt regarding their racist views, mainly concerning Jews. The anti-Semitic assassinations carried out by the Nazis already in the days of the Weimar Republic was certainly not exceptions to the rule, and Hitler himself often referred to Jews in both his speeches and his writings. The Nazi leader and his supporters believed that the Jews were responsible for a long succession of ailments in German society in particular, and in human society overall.

These crude and unsophisticated ideas were fed by old anti-Semitic prejudices that had existed in various European societies from as early as the Middle Ages. Beginning in the last years of the 19th century, various racial theories gradually gained acceptance among Western anthropologists, and many believed that the health of the human race depended upon the preservation of “racial purity.” When this thinking even became a field of academic research, Nazi hatred of “the non-German races” found very fertile ground in which it could take root.

With the Nazi rise to power on January 30, 1933, aggressive anti-Semitism became a guiding principle for the official policy of the German authorities towards Jews. Already in April 1933, a law was passed enabling the termination of employment of all state employees of Jewish origin. The new rulers of Germany and the inhumane steps they took caused many German Jews to immigrate to other countries including the Land of Israel.

Beginning in 1927, members of the National-Socialist Party started convening in Nuremberg for their annual assemblies. Over time, Nuremberg became the permanent site of the party’s assemblies, which were held there consecutively from 1933-1938. For the seventh assembly of the Nazi Party, in September 1935, thousands of supporters of the regime gathered as usual, and at the last moment, all members of the Reichstag – the German parliament, or, more precisely, the grotesque political body that remained after the Nazis took care to fill the entire chamber from their own ranks – were also invited. In a supposedly democratic move, the heads of the Nazi party introduced three laws for a vote in the Reichstag: the law concerning the German flag, the Reich Citizenship Law, and the Law for the Protection of German Blood and German Honor.

The three laws were brought up for vote with full Nazi regalia serving as the decorative backdrop, at a mass, showcase event. The members of the Reichstag, needless to say, approved the three laws unanimously. All three pieces of legislation received the status of “Basic Laws”, laws with a fundamental and special significance in terms of the constitutional structure of the country. For those living at the time in Germany – Jewish and non-Jewish citizens alike – the significance of the new legislation was not sufficiently clear. It quickly transpired, however, that the laws passed at Nuremberg, which later were named after the city, in effect brought an end to the process of the emancipation of German Jewry, while stripping them of their citizenship.

One of the first editions of the Nuremberg Laws, including legal interpretation. From the National Library collections.

The practical significance was that the laws derogated the basic rights of Jews, such as the right to vote in political elections, and prohibited marital and extra-marital relations between Jewish and non-Jewish Germans. Persons caught in such relations with a Jew were subject to punishment, and new marriages between Jews and German became impossible. Any new couple of this type was considered guilty of “blood defilement” (Blutschande). Later, terminology was devised for various gradations of “Jewish blood” based on one’s family tree, and categories were established such as “full Jew” (Volljude), “half-Jew” (Halbjude) and “quarter Jew” (Vierteljude), in order to define to whom exactly the Nuremberg Laws applied. During the years of the Nazi regime, these categories determined who would live and who would die, and tremendous numbers of people were influenced by them since they were dependent on the legal status accorded to them by the laws.

Understandably, within Nazi Germany, no voice of protest against the Nuremberg Laws was sounded, but outside of Germany, the laws and their ramifications still aroused no outcry or noteworthy public response. Less than one year after the Nuremberg Laws went into effect, most of the world did not see cause to refrain from participating in the Berlin Olympic Games, and today, it is known that many of the delegations adhered to the racist German policy: not only did Germany prevent Jewish athletes from participating in the competitions, but even the American delegation hesitated to allow for Jews to appear in the games.

The Nuremberg Laws remained in effect until the end of the Third Reich and were also implemented in Austria after it joined Germany in 1938, as well as in all of the territories occupied by Germany during WWII. In September 1945, these laws were annulled by the Allied Powers while they were administering occupied Germany. Both the Nazi assemblies in Nuremberg and the demonstrative act of legislating the Nuremberg Laws in the same city, served as criteria for the selection of Nuremberg as a symbolic site for the foundational event at the end of the war: the trials against the heads of the Nazi regime and its chief criminals, which began in November 1945, were held in the same city whose name signified the race laws. Now, the city would be forever branded by the expression “The Nuremberg Trials.”

Wilhelm Stuckart and Hans Globke’s interpretation of the race laws, 1936. This copy was part of the chief prosecutor’s library in Vienna, even before Austria was annexed by Germany in 1938, as can be seen by the seal.

In this context, it is fitting to tell the story of one Dr. Hans Globke, a legal expert who was among those quick to praise the Nuremberg Laws in 1935, yet when they were canceled with the defeat of Germany, his legal career did not end.

As a senior official in the Prussian Ministry of the Interior, Globke was one of the first lawyers to publish a scholarly interpretation of the Nuremberg Laws. In 1936, together with Wilhelm Stukart, he published a detailed commentary with a long introduction, a text that exuded Nazi ideology. However, with the end of WWII, his great legal knowledge opened new horizons for him in the “new Germany.” After 1949, he became a close associate of Chancellor Adenauer and ultimately, and was ultimately even appointed Chief of Staff of the Chancellory of West Germany in 1953. Globke served in this key role until Adenauer’s resignation in 1963.

The burgeoning career of a person who had been an ardent supporter of the Nazi race laws aroused grave doubts among many in Germany and the world as to the reliability and validity of the “new Germany” that emerged after WWII and the Third Reich.


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