The Jewish Book That Revealed the Secrets of the Heavens

In 1600, three scholars from completely different worlds met in the “New Venice” castle outside Prague. The meeting lasted three weeks and resulted in a Hebrew astronomy book, as well as in a lesson about the unifying power of love for the sciences and the quest for knowledge

Our story begins in 1599, when Tycho Brahe, the Danish astronomer and nobleman, arrived in the city of Prague in Bohemia (now the Czech Republic), at the invitation of Emperor Rudolf II, after he was forced to flee his own country. Rudolf II, emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, was known for his interest in art, the sciences and alchemy. After moving his court from Vienna to Prague, the city became a magnet for artists and scientists. At the time, Prague was an oasis of tolerance in an empire divided by religious tensions. The city’s splintered religious communities managed to live together in relative harmony.

The same calm prevailed in the Jewish Quarter. Its Hebrew printing house, which was one of the first of its kind in Central and Eastern Europe, had transformed Prague into a center of Hebrew learning. At the same time, the Prague Beit Midrash (a Jewish “house of learning”), headed by the famous Rabbi Judah Loew Ben Bezalel, also known as the Maharal of Prague, attracted scholars from across the Jewish world. One of the Maharal’s students was David Gans, who despite his rabbinical education, was drawn to Renaissance culture and began writing studies on history and the sciences in Hebrew.

The crowded living conditions and various plagues that swept through the Jewish Quarter led the curious scholar to leave Prague, but he diligently continued his studies. At some point, he heard that the most famous astronomer of the day, Tycho Brahe, had relocated his great observatory and astronomy research center to the “New Venice” castle north of Prague, not far from the village where Gans was then living. With a dose of good old-fashioned Jewish chutzpah, the industrious self-taught Gans, who had no formal scientific education, decided to pay a visit to the castle and see how he might gain access and perhaps learn some of the secrets of the universe.

The “New Venice” castle today in Benátky nad Jizerou, Czech Republic

Surprisingly, Gans received a warm welcome, and he remained at the castle for three weeks (likely excluding Fridays and Saturdays), learning from the best minds of the time. He described impressive and complex measuring tools beyond his imagination, as Brahe was known to have made his many discoveries without the aid of the telescope, which was still in its infancy as a scientific tool. While at the observatory, Gans also met and studied with Brahe’s assistant, Johannes Kepler, who was himself destined for greatness in the field of science. Gans also made his own humble contribution by translating Hebrew astronomical texts that were otherwise unavailable to Brahe and Kepler.

Illustration from the Jessnitz print edition of Gans’ book, Neḥmad VeNa’im

Gans wrote the Hebrew book Neḥmad VeNa’im (“Nice and Pleasant”) in which he recounts his meeting with the two great scientists and what he saw and learned while he was in their company. He describes in detail the impressive observatory, and how Brahe would “seclude himself there with his wise men . . . and . . . sit with twelve men, all wise and astute in science . . . and the great analytical tools never before seen and the thirteen rooms all in a row which the emperor had built him, and a special tool in each room.” Gans also explains how the tools were used to calculate astronomical and geographical measurements, thus separating the Ptolemaic cosmological knowledge he was familiar with, from the innovative Copernican astronomy he encountered.

In that time, the distinctions dividing science and mysticism, as well as astronomy and astrology, were fairly blurry. In fact, many scientists and scholars, Brahe and Kepler included, dabbled in occultism. Gans devoted some of his sketches to an explanation of the zodiac, but these were clearly separate from the main content of his book. Apparently, this distinction was intended to alert readers to the value of scientific observation over mystical divination. Furthermore, Gans makes a number of statements in the book that deny the use of astronomy as a means of foreknowledge and argues that this form of knowledge is misguided, and that even the slightest use of the zodiac [as a scientific tool] was wrong in his view. It seems that Neḥmad VeNa’im’s purist, Copernican viewpoint led to a later printing in 1743, 130 years after Gans’ death.

Brahe died about a year after his encounter with Gans and was buried in splendor in the Church of Our Lady before Týn, in the Old Town of Prague. Kepler moved to Prague for a few years where he served as a scientist in service to the court. He resided just a few minutes’ walk from the Jewish Quarter, where Gans had returned to live. We know that Kepler and Gans maintained a correspondence, apparently communicating in German peppered with Hebrew, which Kepler remembered from his studies at the University of Tübingen. According to Neḥmad VeNa’im, Kepler even claimed that the solar system moved elliptically, similar to the Hebrew letter khaf (כ). In 1613, the same year that David Gans died, Kepler left Prague in order to further his research and thus ended the story of these three scholars – a Danish nobleman, a German burgher and a rabbinical Renaissance man – brought together through their curiosity and love of knowledge and science.

One no longer need infiltrate a remote castle to discover what Gans was so eager to learn. His book can now be read on the National Library of Israel website in the original Hebrew. A number of manuscript copies of Neḥmad VeNa’im are also available.

Illustration included in a manuscript copy of Neḥmad VeNa’im


Further Reading:

Jewish Thought and the Scientific Revolution of the Sixteenth Century: David Gans (1541-1613) and His Times, André Neher, translated from the French by David Maisel, Oxford University Press, 1986


The Ad Campaign That Told the Other Story of Soviet Jewry in 1999

In the late 1990s, advertising executive Gary Wexler visited Jewish communities in the former Soviet Union that had suddenly rediscovered their own religious and national identity in the wake of the collapse of communism. These ads captured some of the powerful moments and images of that period in Jewish history...

An image and slogan appearing in one of the ads created by Gary Wexler following his trip to the former Soviet Union, the Gary Wexler Collection at the National Library of Israel

It was the story that many Jewish organizations in the U.S., as well as the Jewish Agency for Israel didn’t want people to hear. It was the counter narrative of Jews who had no intention of leaving after the fall of the Soviet Union. They were the thousands committed to building a Jewish life, in the place where Jews had been murdered and oppressed, and Judaism had been wiped out for nearly eighty years.

Jews in the U.S. didn’t know this story. And many would dismiss the legitimacy of these Jews of the FSU (Former Soviet Union), when they did finally hear it. It wasn’t the story they had been cultivated to believe or accept.

“This is my home,” people in Moscow, St. Petersburg, Kiev and in many small towns told me. “This is my community. This is where my livelihood is. Do you know what we say? ‘The more that leave, the more that stay.’”

“What does that mean?,” I asked them.

“It means that yes, many are leaving. And our numbers should shrink. Yet, the community either continues to maintain its numbers or even grow. Because every day more people come out of the woodwork and introduce themselves to us as Jews who had been in hiding. They want to stay and build Jewish life along with us.”

I had been brought to the FSU (Former Soviet Union) by Rabbi Rachel Cowan (z”l) Director of the Jewish Life program of the Nathan Cummings Foundation and Martin Horowitz (z”l), founder of Jewish Renewal in Russia, Ukraine and Belarus. My job was to meet the Jewish organizations they were funding in the FSU and create an ad campaign in the Jewish press across the US, to convince people to help support their efforts.

Former advertising executive Gary Wexler has donated his ad portfolios dealing with the Jewish world to the National Library of Israel

Once there, I heard about the tensions arising from organizations of the worldwide Jewish community each trying to stake their claim upon the Jews of the FSU. There was the Jewish Agency encouraging people to make Aliyah.  Chabad had moved in with the speed of lightening, establishing communities from the Black Sea to Siberia. The Reform Movement hit the path to make sure that this revival went beyond Orthodoxy. The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) was ever-present, providing much needed social services and aid to help these emerging Jewish communities flourish. And then there were the people who brought me, who had identified their own Jewish leaders and communities and were helping them fund Jewish schools, universities, libraries and culture.  In just a few short years, Jewish life in this vast reclaimed territory had quickly become like Jewish life everywhere, where people were crawling all over one another, staking their claims and criticizing everyone else’s efforts. I felt right at home, with my People.

I had one very emotional experience which turned out to be quite personal. I was taken out to central Ukraine to a little village called Korsun Shevchenkovsky. As we neared the village, women in babushkas were plowing fields with oxen, there were tiny little houses, unpaved roads and men with donkey carts. It was like a scene from Fiddler on the Roof. The village was poor, shabby and depressing.  I could see that every little ramshackle home had an outhouse. But the story I heard from a little man who spoke some Yiddish was emotionally overwhelming.

Before the fall of the Soviet Union there had been an anti-nuclear march through Poland and Ukraine, organized by a Jewish woman from Chicago, Sally Gratch. Sally and a few of the other Jewish American women organizers all wore Magen David necklaces, in case they encountered any Jews along the way. In Poland, no one. When they arrived in Ukraine, no one, until they reached Korsun Shevchenkovsky. A little man speaking Yiddish approached and asked if they were Jewish. They answered, “yes” and asked how many other Jews were in the town. The man said he wasn’t sure because no one would dare to identify as Jewish, but he knew a few. Sally told him that they would meet for Shabbat  that evening up on that hill, at 6pm, pointing to the location. She told the man to tell whatever Jews he knew and for them to tell whatever Jews they knew. At 6 pm, five-hundred people appeared. The day I arrived there, several years later, between the town and oblast (the surrounding area) there were approximately 5000 Jews now involved in the community.

In the community’s building, I had to introduce myself. When I said my name was Wexler, pronouncing it “Vexler,” there was a murmur in the crowd of several hundred people. I then went on to tell them my grandfather was from a shtetl in Ukraine that disappeared during World War II. They asked what it was called. I answered, “No one I’ve asked since being here has ever heard of it. Zhivitov.” They all started screaming. “It was up the road here in this oblast. You’re one of us!”

I looked around at the poverty and misery, the people with missing and gold teeth, their worn out clothing and thought, “Thank you. Thank you to my grandfather for getting the hell out of here.”  As much as I could appreciate the Jewish revival, in Korsun Shevchenkovsky, I wanted to tell these people, “Leave as soon as you can. There’s a better life outside.”

As a Communication professional, I knew that the story of Korsun Shevchenkovsky was compelling. But the photos would not be the right ones for communicating the bigger story. It was when we arrived in Moscow that I directed the Russian photographer I hired to begin shooting.

The photo we captured for the first ad in this series told the whole story. There almost didn’t need to be other ads. I was about to pass through a doorway of a Jewish school in Moscow, where an aleph-bet poster was pinned when I looked up and saw a leftover Soviet hammer and sickle that had never been removed, directly above it. A perfect image for everything I wanted to say.

The Soviet red star hanging over the Hebrew alphabet, in a Moscow classroom in 1999, the Gary Wexler Collection, at the National Library of Israel

That evening was Simchat Torah and we went to the Archipova Synagogue, the main Moscow shul which existed during the Soviet era, even if it was barely used and had KGB crawling all over it. As I arrived several blocks away, the streets were teaming with people squeezing in, taking every seat and hundreds gathering outside. The Russian photographer, not Jewish, said to me, “I feel like I’m in a foreign country. What do I do?”

“Snap pictures. Don’t stop,” I told him. That became the second ad.

A crowded Moscow synagogue in 1999, the Gary Wexler Collection, at the National Library of Israel

As we left the synagogue I felt the first chill of being a Jew in Russia. A man came up to me who I had seen in the synagogue. He said, “Move as quickly as you can. Get away from the crowds. Don’t talk about being Jewish.  Throw away your yarmulke if it is still in your pocket. It’s not safe.” Within minutes, the streets were empty. Then three teenage guys came up to me. They spoke a bit of English. “We saw you in the synagogue taking pictures. It’s not safe for you. People know you are walking from the synagogue. We will walk with you until you reach where you are going.” I didn’t know to trust them. I asked, “Does anyone speak Hebrew?” One of them recited the Shma. One of them actually spoke some Hebrew.  We moved fast through side streets and alleys until we reached my destination.

In St. Petersburg, we visited the Jewish University, where the rector traced my family history in Lithuania, Poland and Ukraine, telling me stories of the shtetls my grandparents came from. I remembered my wife’s grandmother telling me about the “fortichka,’ the little window within a window that was opened for air in the winter. I glanced over from the rector’s desk and saw a little window within a big window. I pointed.  “A fortichka,?”

“See, you are one of us,” he answered. He looked like a cross between a chasid, pictures of my great grandparents, and Rasputin. I turned to the photographer, “Take his picture.” That was the third ad.

“a cross between a chasid, pictures of my great grandparents, and Rasputin…”, the Gary Wexler Collection, at the National Library of Israel

The Jews of St. Petersburg were different from the Jews in the rest of the FSU. They spoke incessantly about the poet, Anna Akhmatova, literature, theater, art and music. The Jewish revival there was based in culture, more than anywhere else. They were ahead of others in the Jewish world using culture as an engagement tool. It took several years for Jewish communities around the globe to catch up to them, using and funding culture as the way to bring young Jews closer to their Jewish identity.

It was in St. Petersburg that everywhere I went, the Jews said to me, “But wait until you meet Larisa Pecherskaya.” Her name came up constantly. I was taken to see a Jewish school and there was a young woman with flowing hair, teaching third graders the Rebbe Nachman song, “Kol Haolam kulo, gesher tzar m’od.” She was dancing it out, like theater. Then she taught a Yiddish song, in the same way. She was mesmerizing. I asked, “Who is she?”

“Ah, that is Larisa Pecherskaya,” they said proudly. Three months later, I had Larisa Pecherskaya on the bimah in my Los Angeles synagogue, having raised the money for her to come to L.A., to tell the story of the revival of Jewish life in the FSU. But three years later, Larisa was living and teaching in New York. Her son recently graduated from Harvard.

Over the years, I have bumped into many of the young people I originally met on my trip on the streets of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Quite a few of them, I see on Facebook, are now in the U.S., and many have stayed in Russia and Ukraine.

The photographer in St. Petersburg and I became fast friends. He brought me to his apartment in an old building which he explained had been a grand apartment split between many families during the Soviet era. He brought me to meet friends, other artists, photographers and even journalists. We talked to each other for hours, explaining our lives.  After a few days together, I thought I knew him well.  On our last day, I wanted to go out and have him photograph the Jewish cemetery. He reluctantly took me. Once there, he said, “Come with me. I want to show you something.” He took me to a grave. “This is my grandmother.”

“You’re Jewish,” I asked incredulously.

“My mother’s mother was Jewish. Being with you this week at all these Jewish places and events has woken me up to my Jewish connection.” The last time I ever heard from him, was several years later. A postcard from Tel Aviv.

This ad campaign captured a moment in Jewish life, a revival, a controversy, a reality. We Jews are filled with triumphs and conflicts. We are builders of Jewish life, no matter what the circumstances. With all our faults, we are an amazing people.


Memories from my Sephardic Grandparents, by James Russell

Greek songs and stories, a book from Morocco, and one ruby-eyed snake ring...

Ladino speakers from opposite edges of the Mediterranean, Russell's maternal grandparents passed down a rich and curiosity-sparking cultural inheritance

My maternal grandmother, Marguerite Sananes, née Saltiel, of blessed memory (1900-1997), was a native of the northern Greek city of Salonica (Tk. Selanik, Gk. Thessaloniki).

At the time of her birth it was one of the great ports of the Ottoman Empire. Her forebears on that side of our family had fled to safety in Muslim Turkey from Toledo in 1492 following the infamous edict of expulsion by Ferdinand and Isabella. Like other Sephardim (except for those from the other kingdom of the Iberian peninsula, Portugal, of course) we preserved the Judeo-Spanish language, Ladino or Judezmo, which my mother Charlotte, her three sisters Esther, Clarice, and Gloria (may their memory be for a blessing), Grandma, and my Great-grandmother Rachel of blessed memory all spoke as their native tongue.

Sephardim wrote Ladino in the notoriously difficult Hebrew cursive called Solitreo; they printed it in “Rashi” and standard square-character Hebrew letters. Great-grandma Rachel (whom we called Manache) knew Ladino, Italian, and, I am told, some Greek and Turkish, and that was enough— by the time I knew her she had reverted to Spanish alone.

Excerpt from a letter in Solitreo script. From the National Library of Israel collection

Manache had learned English well enough to pass the test on the US Constitution for her citizenship examination, and to converse fluently with my father, an American-born Ashkenazi Jew innocent of Ladino, not to mention Turkish or Bulgarian. Manache passed away in 1964 at the age of 96.

In the year of Grandma Marguerite’s birth, Salonica was the only great city on earth with a majority Jewish population. Most of the Jews belonged to the working classes, and they spearheaded the nascent labor movement in the Ottoman Empire. Many were stevedores, and on Shabbat, the port came to a standstill.

A Jewish porter in Salonica, early 20th century. From the Joseph and Margit Hoffman Judaica Postcard Collection, the Folklore Research Center at the Mandel Institute of Jewish Studies, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem; available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

Grandma Marguerite told me when I was very young how she used to distribute socialist newspapers in Ladino to workers at the waterfront— she reminisced about the famous White Tower (Gk. Leukos pyrgos) by the sea. Our family attended the synagogue called Los figos locos, “The Wild Figs”, which, she explained, was named after a place remembered from the Toledo of the fifteenth century.

These memories were still vivid after nearly half a millennium: many Jews still kept the keys to the houses in Spain that they had been forced to abandon.

In the Balkan Wars, when Grandma was twelve, the city reverted to the Kingdom of Greece and returned to its original name, Thessaloniki. Grandma had attended the school of the Alliance Israelite Universelle, where she learned fluent French, and had been set to attend college in Auteuil. But the World War broke out in 1914 and those plans never materialized; she became a journalist for a local newspaper.

Her knowledge of French enabled her to find a job with the French military authorities and to feed our family during the famine in the aftermath of the conflagration that devastated the city, particularly the poorer, Jewish neighborhoods, in 1917.

View of Salonica from the Jewish cemetery around the time of World War I. From the Joseph and Margit Hoffman Judaica Postcard Collection, the Folklore Research Center at the Mandel Institute of Jewish Studies, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem; available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

Manache broke her hip during the Great Fire. It was never set; and when I was little she used to get about the house with a great cane. She was a tall, gaunt woman, bedridden in her last years, and used to call me to her saying “Camina, pasha!” –  “Walk, little prince!”

Grandma, her parents, and many other members of the Saltiel and Ben Ruby families immigrated to the United States in 1920, sailing from Piraeus— the port of the Greek capital, Athens— on the Meghali Ellas, (“Greater Greece”, after the grandiose plan of Venizelos to liberate Ionia and the Hellenic communities of Pontus and the Anatolian interior from Turkish rule).

Greek immigrants board a small boat that will take them to a ship bound for America, ca. 1910

It ferried thousands of Greek, Jewish, and Armenian immigrants from Athens to the New World. Grandma used to describe the good ship to me when I was a boy as rather less grand than its name might suggest: “half a walnut shell”.

Over the month-long passage the only food was bread and onions that were, she used to add, not very fresh. But the Meghali Ellas bore its passengers safely to New York.

Great-grandmother Rachel was a clairvoyant and practiced magic: I remember being told that she would go and sacrifice a black cock at midnight over the grave of the spirit she discerned had caused an illness in the family. Manache wore a gold ring of entwined snakes, one with a single ruby eye; the other, with a single diamond eye: I inherited it upon her death.

Great-grandmother Rachel’s mysterious snake ring (Photo: James Russell)

It may have significance as an apotropaic amulet, cf. the brazen serpent Nechushtan of Moses. I am named after her husband Ya‘aqov, whom people called “el bueno“, “the good”, for his kindness and his honesty in business.

In Ottoman Salonica he had been a grain merchant: he was a polyglot and used to strike a verbal deal with the farmers up north in the partly Slavic-speaking province of Macedonia and in Bulgaria, and seal the contract for the price for the year’s crop with a handshake. He always paid the agreed sum, even if it turned out to be a bad harvest. So he was good, if not rich.

The family settled on upper Park Avenue in Manhattan— then as now a poor neighborhood. They advertised for a suitable match for Grandma in the Ladino newspaper, and when each swain came to call, the women would leave a book on the table and hide in the kitchen to see what the prospective spouse did with it.

Most men showed no interest in the book. (That is fair enough, in retrospect: they had not come to visit a library.) One fellow did, but as he was holding it upside-down it was plain he was not literate and therefore a bad match.

Finally, a somewhat older gentleman immersed himself in the volume, not looking up right away when the ladies emerged. So Grandmother married him.

Joseph Sananes, my maternal grandfather, was also a Sephardic Jew and Ladino speaker, but from the other Mediterranean edge of the Iberian dispersion: Tetuan, on the northern coast of Morocco.

The Jewish Commerce Street of Tetuan, ca. 1900. From the Joseph and Margit Hoffman Judaica Postcard Collection, the Folklore Research Center at the Mandel Institute of Jewish Studies, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem; available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

The newlyweds settled in a large, comfortable house in the Bensonhurst neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York. Grandpa was a successful businessman in the 1920s.

Those were the days of the Prohibition of liquor in the United States, so he grew grapes in the backyard and made Shabbat wine for our family, as well as the strong anisette liquor raki. Grandma baked honeyed kadayif pastry and cooked the Moroccan tejine for him, along with the traditional Shabbat adafina stew and the delicious dishes of the Jews of Greece.

Ethnic memory in America is often culinary, partly because such innocuous things spice quaintly the melting pot of the shared, diverse culture, but partly too because tastes and smells of early childhood have a visceral power in the memory.

The stock market crash of 1929 that ushered in the Great Depression wiped out the family finances, but Grandpa worked very hard and managed to support his wife, four daughters, and a large extended family. He would enjoy a small glass of raki when he came home from work, and my mother told me he regularly studied the works of the eleventh-century philosopher and Torah sage, the Rambam (Maimonides).

On Shabbat and other holidays, visitors would come to call and Grandma served them raki, coffee, and homemade candied orange peel. The other Moroccan Jews – some of whom were unlettered, rough men – considered my gentle, learned Grandpa a “hakham“, and turned to him as a sage and adjudicator of disputes.

My Grandfather Joseph Sananes, passed away in 1956, when I was three; but I am told he and I were great friends: once one evening after supper he gave me a thimbleful of Turkish coffee in my parents’ apartment on the southwest corner of 164th Street and Broadway in Manhattan and I giggled all night long.

Joseph Sananes shortly before he passed away (Courtesy: James Russell)

I still treasure his silver tiger-eye ring and have the painted wooden stool embossed with metal studs that he made for me.

Joseph Sananes’s ring (Photo: James Russell)

But the most precious inheritance is a Psalter given him when he left Morocco for the new world, around 1900 (see Plates 5, 6, and 7). This Sefer Tehillim was printed at Livorno, in the year encoded on the title page as “Ve-zot ha-berakha“, “And this is the blessing” [= 5626, 1865 CE] with the owner’s name embossed on the tooled red leather cover:

“With peace upon Israel! Shelomo son of David/ N[ahon?], May the right hand of God preserve us, in the city of Tetuan, may God protect her.”

There follows a dedication on the verso of the title page:

“This book is a gift given as a memorial of love and affection to one close to me who is from amongst those who know God’s law, the friend of my soul and spirit: in honor of Rav Joseph Sananes, may his Rock watch over him. ‘And thou shalt discourse upon it by day and by night.’ (Joshua 1.8) The Psalms of King David, peace be upon him: may he by his merit defend us and all Israel, Amen.”

Shelomo ben David’s signature in the cursive Solitreo script used for Ladino follows.

This much, then, for the circumstances of the written evidence.

“Write it down!” the historian Simon Dubnow commanded the Jews of the ghetto of Riga before the Nazis murdered him in 1941. So, one writes, in love and vengeance.

But of the life itself there is much more that cannot be set down in any book, but that moves and speaks in color and sound and scent in the tableaux vivants of the chambers of the mind where the past lives— the lazy warm light of a Sunday afternoon, the taste of fish cakes and rice with tomato sauce and fried peppers in a little Brooklyn kitchen, the crackle of fijuela pastries, the hard sweet rolls called roscas.

Coffee brewing. The voices.

Marguerite Sananes, née Saltiel, shortly after her arrival in New York, ca. 1920 (Courtesy: James Russell)

Stories about Djuha, the holy fool, and the way Grandma told them as cousin Michelle and I hung on every word in enraptured delight: The time he taunted the cat who snatched his fish by saying, “You’ve got the fish, but I have the recipe!” or the time he asked the wind to help him carry the heavy bag of flour he needed to bring home…

The melody of the Greek lullaby Grandma sang “Samiotissa” (“The girl from Samos”) and of the Ladino song “La vida dó por el raki” (“I would give my life for raki!”)

Picnics and laughter.

And still, beyond, remoter memories: a white tower, the flowering Aegean sea, men in fezzes, the hushed Sabbath of Salonica.

And before that, in the backward and abysm of time, wild fig trees in a dry Castilian landscape, and the arabesques adorning the walls of a holy house in Toledo.

It is said that the Holy One, Blessed be He, will accomplish the resurrection of the dead through His perfect memory of all they were and all there was.

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.

The Tulsa Race Massacre and Oklahoma’s Jews

How local Jews - some with fresh memories of European pogroms - did their small part to help victims of one of the worst acts of racial violence in US history

"All That Was Left of His Home after the Tulsa Race Riot, 6-1-21" (Public Domain via DeGolyer Library, Southern Methodist University)

The Tulsa Race Massacre – also known as the Black Wall Street Massacre and the Tulsa Race Riot – was one of the most horrendous incidents of racial violence in United States history. On May 31 – June 1, 1921, hundreds of people were injured and killed, and thirty-five blocks of the city were destroyed, along with over 1,200 homes.

“Ruins of the Tulsa Race Riot, 6-1-21” (Public Domain via DeGolyer Library, Southern Methodist University)

While relatively few whites exhibited empathy and compassion to the persecuted African American community of Tulsa – largely due to the influence of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) and others – many Jewish families made efforts to help African American families by taking them into their homes or businesses, feeding and clothing them, as well as hiding them during and after the atrocity.

During the time of the Race Massacre, a number of the Jewish families went into North Tulsa to secure their black employees, friends, and their families, in order to protect them at least until Martial Law was over on June 3rd… some even longer.

Many of the Jews in the city were recent immigrants from Eastern Europe who remembered firsthand suffering through violent pogroms and anti-Semitic policies in the Russian Empire and elsewhere.

Scenes like this undoubtedly brought back memories for many Tulsa Jews who had survived pogroms in Europe (Public Domain via DeGolyer Library, Southern Methodist University)

Here are a few family stories from that terrible time that have been passed down within the Oklahoma Jewish community.


Pickle vats and underskirts 

Jewish Latvian immigrant Sam Zarrow (1894-1975) and his wife Rose (1893-1982) owned a grocery store and hid some black friends in their large pickle vats at the store, while Rose concealed some of the little kids under her skirt! In addition, they hid others in the basement of their home. Sam and Rose’s sons, Henry (1916-2014) and Jack Zarrow (1925-2012) became two of the most well-known and philanthropic men in Tulsa’s history, supporting a range of causes across the city.


Waiting with a shotgun

Tulsan Abraham (Abe) Solomon Viner (1885-1959) and his wife Anna (1887-1976) owned the Peoples Building and Loan Association. On the day of the Massacre, Abe went to all of the homes on his block, collected all of the maids from their quarters and assembled them in his living room. He then sat by the front door with a shotgun in case anyone broke into the house.

Smoke billowing over Tulsa during the Race Massacre (Photo: Alvin C. Krupnick Co. / Public Domain via Library of Congress)

Threatening the Klan

The Race Massacre had a far-reaching effect even outside of Tulsa. At the time, Mike Froug (1889-1959), his wife Esther (1889-1967) and daughter Rosetta Froug Mulmed (1914-2003) were living in Ponca City, Oklahoma running a clothing store called the Pickens Department Store. Immediately after the Massacre, several Ku Klux Klan members came to his house at night and set a cross on fire on his front lawn.

Ponca City, Oklahoma, 1920s (Photo: Virgil T. Brown / Public Domain via Library of Congress)

Knowing who the perpetrators were (frequent shoppers in his store), Froug went to the head of the Klan with his gun and told him that if they ever did that again, he would shoot them. This act had such a profound effect on Froug that when he and his cousin Ohren Smulian (1903-1984) opened the first Froug’s Department Store in Tulsa in 1929, they became the first store in the city after the Massacre to allow whites and blacks to not only shop together but to try on clothes at the same time. In fact, Frougs was also the first white-owned store in Tulsa to have black salespeople.


“Get your Jew crew out of Tulsa”

Successful oilman N.C. Livingston was an active leader in the Tulsa Jewish community, heading the establishment of the burial society and Orthodox synagogue, where he also served as president and taught a Talmud class. From B’nai Emunah, 1916-1966, part of the National Library of Israel collections

Jewish Lithuanian immigrant and oilman Nathan C. Livingston (1861-1944) and his wife Anna Livingston (1871-1934) had a newly married black couple named Gene and Willie Byrd working for them in 1921. Gene was the family driver while Willie was their housekeeper. During the Race Massacre, the couple and eight others of their family stayed in the Livingston’s basement and in their garage apartment for several days until they felt safe to go home. The following year, N.C. Livingston’s son Julius received a letter from the KKK telling him and his brothers Jay K. and Herman to “get your Jew crew out of Tulsa.”

1922 Letter to Julius Livingston telling him to get his “Jew Crew out of Tulsa” (SMMJA Livingston Archives)

Staying home

During the Massacre, Jewish Lithuanian immigrant and oil producer Jacob Hyman Bloch (1888-1955) and his wife Esther Goodman Bloch (1895-1927) told their two young daughters, Jean and Sura, to stay away from the windows and no to go to school or outside to play, while hiding their housekeeper in their home.

Jacob Hyman Bloch was also an active member in the local community, succeeding N.C. Livingstone as synagogue president in 1924. From B’nai Emunah, 1916-1966, part of the National Library of Israel collections

Driving to safety

Jewish Latvian immigrant Jacob Fell (1885-1959) and his wife Esther Fell (1886-1980) owned The Mis-Fit Clothing Store in Tulsa. During the race riots, Jacob gathered up several black friends, hid them in his large storage car trunk, and drove them to a safe area.

The Mis-Fit Clothing Store in Tulsa

“But not you Mr. Katz”

In Stillwater, Oklahoma the Ku Klux Klan also had a robust chapter. German immigrant Jacob Katz (1873-1968) started his department store in Stillwater in 1894, becoming the first Jew in the town. Katz was a highly respected merchant and town promoter and was on the Stillwater Board of Commissioners. During the heyday of the KKK, right after the Tulsa Massacre, members marched through Stillwater with anti-Jewish signs (there were only 12 Jews in Stillwater at the time!), along with one that read at the end of the line: “But not you Mr. Katz.”


A version of this article was originally published in the May 2021 edition of the Tulsa Jewish Review. It appears here as part of Gesher L’Europa, the National Library of Israel’s initiative to share stories and connect with people, institutions and communities in Europe and beyond.