Girls’ Day: Celebrating Girl Power During Hanukkah!

This is the story of a holiday that originated in the Jewish communities of North Africa and the Middle East and its revival here in Israel

For more than a decade, Eid al-Banat—Girls’ Day, also known as Rosh Hodesh L’Banot—has been observed across Israel, in a variety of settings and usually in large gatherings. The holiday is celebrated on the seventh night of Hanukkah, which falls on the eve of the first of the Hebrew month of Tevet. For this reason, the festival is customarily linked to the crowning of Queen Esther which, according to tradition, took place on the first of Tevet. But Girls’ Day is actually associated with not one, but several different Jewish heroines, including Esther, Judith and Hannah, who each saved their people from danger. (Queen Esther, who saved the Jews of Persia; Judith, who slew Holofernes, Nebuchadnezzar’s general; and Hannah, daughter of Mattathias, who encouraged her brothers to rebel against the Greeks, sparking the Maccabean Revolt.)

Celebrating Girls’ Day in Israel. Photos courtesy of Esther Dagan Kaniel

Although the holiday’s origins are commonly (and perhaps retroactively) attributed to the Bible and the Jewish Apocrypha, the modern observance of Girls’ Day was preserved in the communities of North Africa and the Middle East: Tunisia and Libya, Djerba and Morocco, Algeria and Turkey and Salonika (Thessaloniki). The number of communities that celebrate the festival attests to the rich and varied traditions that surround its observance. At first, the holiday’s traditions were something of a secret, shared only by women of the observant communities, but soon enough the celebrations caught on and women and their families began marking the occasion openly and publicly.

Writer and storyteller Esther Dagan Kaniel shared with us her childhood memories of Girls’ Day celebrations in Tunisia, which she remembers by its French name la fête des filles:

According to lore, the exiled priests from the First and Second Temples came to the island of Djerba, bringing their ancient traditions with them, among them the celebration of Eid al-Banat. This is what is beautiful about Tunisian Jewry’s traditions; traditions like the Girls’ Day rituals didn’t develop in the Diaspora, but date back to the time of the Temple.

On Girls’ Day, mother would recount the heroism of Judith, who saved the people of Israel, and Yael and Queen Esther, who was crowned queen on this day. It was no different from other holidays, for mother associated each holiday with a different character. For example, she said that the person who fasted on the Fast of Esther was able to “taste” some of what Esther experienced.

When I long for Tunisia, I long for the Land of Israel. For me, it is the longing for our synagogue, for our community. When I came to Israel, I wanted to be a sabra. At some point, I realized that I had an advantage—the two worlds live within me in perfect harmony.

In an article by scholar Yael Levine, we learn of how each North African Jewish community celebrated female empowerment: in Tunisia, Jewish girls would exchange gifts and food and refrain from work on this day. In Libya, the young girls would visit each other and throw a joyous party. On the island of Djerba in Tunisia, unmarried women also celebrated the holiday, which was thought to bring good luck for a successful match. In addition, a special celebration was held for couples engaged to be married: In the afternoon, the bride-to-be’s family would bring the groom’s family a tray of sweets, and in the evening, the groom would reciprocate by bringing gifts such as perfume and jewelry to his bride’s home. Later, his relatives would join and the two families would conclude the evening with a shared festive meal. It was also customary in Tunisia to celebrate joint bat mitzvah parties on Girls’ Day. Some would even feast on meals of milk and dairy products, presumably to commemorate the heroism of the biblical heroine Yael, who slew the Canaanite general Sisra after sedating him with milk.

Storyteller Shoshana Krebsy told us about the holiday’s significance in Morocco. According to her, Girls’ Day celebrations on the first of Tevet were less common in Moroccan communities for the simple reason that a similar celebration was held on the first day of each and every month of the Hebrew calendar. According to Shoshana: “In patriarchal societies and families, women needed to be able to express their feelings, and female circles formed as support groups for women, and especially for young brides. Thinking about this ceremony, it’s really a kind of contract among women—a sisterhood.”

On the first of the new month, the women would to meet in the hamam (bath-house). There, they would ask forgiveness in unconventional ways:

Either the midwife or the healer would lead a ceremony in which two friends who have quarreled must recreate the argument right there in the hamam. Then the arbitrator, the same midwife or healer, decides who of the two needs to apologize. The reason for the ceremony is that the beginning of a new month is considered a kind of “little Yom Kippur”, on which Moroccan women celebrate their own holiday and create support groups. Women would plan the monthly agenda and assign tasks—who is responsible each day for helping the new mothers who have given birth, who brings refreshments, and who visits the families in mourning, among other things.  The forgiveness ceremony is meant to resolve tensions so that the community of women can help each other.

The holiday is bigger than you think: on the first of every month, the ladies would meet at the home of the wise woman where they would learn the secret of a special dish, such as couscous made from medicinal plants and beef bone marrow. Part of the ceremony was the initiation of young brides. The ceremony included songs of desire—bawdy, salacious compositions dedicated to love and sexuality. Whoever didn’t share her troubles wasn’t invited to the next gathering…

The descriptions above indicate that Girls’ Day is a celebration of mutual support and peacemaking. The historical record corroborates this: songs documented in the Thessaloniki community preserved to this day also share the theme of celebrating peace and reconciliation. The girls would sing in Ladino: “Peace, peace, on the life of [= I swear on] the Father’s locks [the Christian-Orthodox priest who refrains from cutting his hair], may we not quarrel until [next]Hanukkah!”


Thanks to Yael Baruch, Heli Tabibi Barkat, Yael Levine, Esther Kaniel Dagan and Shoshana Krebsi for their help in preparing  this article.

Kirk Douglas: Star of David and Hollywood

He starred in the first Hollywood feature filmed in Israel, but the legendary actor's connection to the Jewish state and people certainly didn't start or stop there...

Kirk Douglas in Jerusalem, 1999 (Stylized photo based on one published in the ⁨⁨February 1, 2002 edition of The Australian Jewish News⁩⁩; part of the National Library of Israel Digital Collection)

Like many Jews of his generation, Kirk Douglas had changed his name to avoid revealing that he was born Issur Danielovitch, the son of poor Jewish immigrants who lived in Amsterdam, New York.  Even before that, he adopted the Americanized surname of his uncle Avram Demsky and preferred Isadore over Issur.

A photo of Kirk Douglas as a young man with his mother, appearing in his autobiography, The Ragman’s Son.

Douglas always was acutely aware that he was Jewish. His childhood temple offered to subsidize his education at a Yeshiva so he could become a rabbi, but he had fallen in love with acting and declined the offer.  Though he had a bar mitzvah and celebrated Jewish holidays in his home, he did not share the piety of his parents.  The anti-Semitism he encountered in his hometown, however, never let him forget his Jewish origins.  As he recalled in his autobiography, The Ragman’s Son:

“After school each day, I’d have to walk about twelve blocks to Hebrew school.  I had to run the gauntlet, because every other street had a gang, and they would always be waiting to catch the Jew boy.”

He could not escape this prejudice when he attended St. Lawrence University, a Liberal Arts college located in an isolated rural area of northern New York. Though athletic and handsome, he was not rushed by the fraternities whose national charters banned pledging Jews. Instead, Douglas left his imprint on the campus as an actor, champion wrestler, and the first non-fraternity member and Jew to be elected student president in 1938.  The alumni protested over a “Jew boy president of the student body” and threatened to stop donating to the school.

A photo of Douglas on the wrestling team at St. Lawrence University, appearing in The Ragman’s Son.
A photo of Kirk Douglas, “Jew boy president of the student body” at St. Lawrence University, appearing in The Ragman’s Son.

Douglas served in the navy during World War Two.  He married his first of two gentile wives in 1943 (the second converted when they renewed their vows in 2004) in a ceremony conducted by a navy chaplain.  A rabbi agreed to officiate at a subsequent wedding in return for the couple promising to raise their children as Jews.

Douglas subsequently admitted that he never intended to honor this pledge.

He landed his first leading role opposite Barbara Stanwyck in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers in 1946, though he would not be cast as a Jewish character for another seven years. Privately during this period, his attachment to Judaism expressed itself by fasting on Yom Kippur out of a sense of solidarity towards the Jews of the past and the present.

This connection was reinforced when Douglas played Holocaust survivor Hans Mueller in Edward Dmytryk’s The Juggler, the first Hollywood motion picture to be filmed in Israel.

Douglas receiving a gift to present to Moshe Sharett, prior to filming “The Juggler” in Israel. From ⁨⁨the October 3, 1952 edition of The B’nai B’rith Messenger⁩⁩; part of the National Library of Israel Digital Collection
This double-spread feature on the filming of “The Juggler” was published in the newspaper Davar on October 31, 1952; a part of the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

At the registration center for new immigrants, Hans, a former juggler and clown, hallucinates that his deceased wife and children are peering at him from a window.  Chafing from confinement, he escapes from the facility and beats up an Israeli police officer whose check of his identification papers stirs up memories of Nazi interrogations. Roaming the countryside, Hans is befriended by a boy and woman who belong to a kibbutz and invite him to stay there.

When the police track him down, Hans barricades himself in a room, though he eventually surrenders and acknowledges he is sick and needs help.  Throughout the film Hans repeatedly remarks that “home is a place you lose,” but slowly discerns that Israel is a homeland for Jews fleeing oppression.  In real life, Douglas admired Israel for fighting for Jewish statehood in the shadow of the systematic slaughter of European Jewry.

Kirk Douglas in Tel Aviv, 1952. Photo by Rudi Weissenstein, all rights reserved to Pri-Or PhotoHouse; part of the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

His next Jewish character, Mickey Marcus, in Melville Shavelson’s Cast a Giant Shadow (1966) was based on an American Jewish soldier recruited by the Haganah as a military advisor to Israeli troops during the War of Independence.

David “Mickey” Marcus. From the Abraham Schwadron Portrait Collection at the National Library of Israel

Until he tours Dachau after its liberation, Marcus feels little sympathy for Zionism.  Later, catapulted into the fray in Israel, he trains soldiers and organizes the clandestine route to smuggle arms, food, and medical supplies into besieged Jerusalem. Marcus is eventually killed in a “friendly-fire” incident – an Israeli sentry who does not understand English shoots the American, who does not speak Hebrew and cannot respond to orders to prove he is not an enemy combatant.

“Mickey” Marcus during Israel’s War of Independence, 1948 (Government Press Office / Public domain)

Douglas identified with Marcus who “in helping the Israelis, discovered his Jewishness, came to grips with it, and acknowledged that he was a Jew.”

Kirk Douglas and Yul Brynner on the set of “Cast a Giant Shadow” (Photo: Boris Carmi). From the Meitar Collection at the National Library of Israel
Kirk Douglas and Yul Brynner on the set of “Cast a Giant Shadow” (Photo: Boris Carmi). From the Meitar Collection at the National Library of Israel

The actor returned to the topics of the Holocaust and Israel in films like Victory at Entebbe (1976) and Remembrance of Love (1982).  As Holocaust survivor Joe Rabin in the latter, he travels to a gathering of survivors in Israel searching for his long-lost lover and the baby she was carrying before the two were deported to concentration camps.  Douglas’ indignation over the Shoah and pride in Israel as a Jewish state are evident in many of the books he authored, as well.

In 1991, Douglas nearly died in a collision between his helicopter and a stunt plane. Confined to a hospital bed with spinal injuries, he reevaluated his relationship to Judaism:

“I came to believe that I was spared because I had never come to grips with what it means to be Jewish.”

This quest spurred him to study Torah and have his second bar mitzvah at the age of 83. He valued the morality promoted by religions in general, “I studied Judaism a lot. I studied religion in general, and I have never imposed my Judaism on my kids.”

Kirk’s son, the actor Michael Douglas, also began to further explore his Jewish roots after the helicopter incident. In subsequent years he became very active in Jewish causes and visited Israel numerous times, including in 2015 to receive the second annual Genesis Prize, known as the “Jewish Nobel”, which “recognizes and celebrates Jewish talent and achievement, honoring individuals for their accomplishments and commitment to Jewish values.”

Kirk Douglas, wearing his original Bar Mitzvah tallis, speaks at his second Bar Mitzvah to his son, Michael Douglas, and soon-to-be daughter-in-law, Catherine Zeta-Jones. From the ⁨⁨January 7, 2000 edition of The Australian Jewish News⁩⁩; part of the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

In 1996, the elder Douglas suffered a severe stroke.  Intensive speech therapy enabled him to regain his ability to talk.  Rather than letting his halting speech deter him from acting, he appeared in three more feature films and one television movie.  In It Runs in the Family (2003), he plays the patriarch of a Jewish family coping with the aftermath of his stroke. In the film, Douglas quips:

“So what if my stroke left me with a speech impediment? Moses had one, and he did all right.”

Over the years, the actor donated over $100 million to American and Israeli charities, funding hundreds of playgrounds in poor sections of Los Angeles and Jerusalem, an Alzheimer’s hospital unit, and a theater near the Western Wall.

Eighty-five year-old Kirk Douglas tries out a slide at a playground he donated. Published in the ⁨⁨February 1, 2002 edition of The Australian Jewish News⁩⁩; part of the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

Over the course of his career, Kirk Douglas evolved from an actor who originally minimized his Jewish roots into a proud Jew who recovered his ethnic and religious identity by dramatizing it and immersing himself in Judaism and Jewish history.

A version of this article was originally published by the San Diego Jewish World.

Not Traveling? Visit Stunning Jewish Sites Across Poland from Home

Visitors of all ages can now virtually explore 3D Jewish heritage sites - from the extravagant to the mundane...

Screenshot from the virtual tour of the Lancut Synagogue, part of the new "Virtual Connections to Material Jewish Heritage in Poland" initiative (Courtesy: The Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage in Poland)

“I went outside!”

“How?” I asked my daughter, once again in government-mandated quarantine after a girl in her class tested positive for COVID.

It took me a minute to realize that she hadn’t meant leaving our Jerusalem apartment, but rather leaving a synagogue in some Polish town with one too many consecutive vowels for our tongues to handle…

In just a few minutes, she had “wirtually” toured a number of them… in 3D.

The stunningly-colored engravings of the synagogue in Łańcut (Lancut) enraptured her eight year-old mind.

The main sanctuary in the Lancut Synagogue, 1994. From the Center for Jewish Art at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection. Click here for the virtual tour

As did the overgrown yard of the synagogue in Leczna, and the reconstructed ruins of the house of prayer in Przysucha.

Leczna, 1995 (Photo: Boris Khaimovich). From the Center for Jewish Art at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection.  Click here for the virtual tour
Przysucha, 2004 (Photo: Vladimir Levin). From the Center for Jewish Art at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection. Click here for the virtual tour

From seemingly sprawling campuses to simple shtetl structures, all of the places she visited are part of  “Virtual Connections to Material Jewish Heritage in Poland,” a new initiative of the Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage in Poland, which aims to open broader access to some of the countless Jewish heritage sites across Poland and facilitate discourse around them. The project was financed by Poland’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, within the context of a grant competition entitled “Public Diplomacy 2021”.

The peeling frescos revealing crumbling red bricks inside the Krasnik Synagogue spooked her.

Krasnick, 1991 (Photo: Nomi Kaplan). From the Center for Jewish Art at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection. Click here for the virtual tour

There was one thing, though, which interested her as much as the reconstructed relics of Jewish heritage, and perhaps more. The Polish woman doing something on a balcony across the street – unknowingly captured on film – fascinated her almost to no end.

She felt a need to investigate the woman further. Said something about telling her friends. Couldn’t quite zoom in enough to satisfy her interests.

The balcony woman of Krasnick, person of interest

In that, too, there’s something meaningful, ironic and lovely.

Then she moved on to other destinations, continuing her tour of rural Poland from my laptop.

The synagogue in Zamosc now glimmers like a palace – shiny pristine marble floors, ornate wall details, flashy chandeliers, an impressive Hanukkiyah.

The Great Synagogue of Zamosc. From the Center for Jewish Art at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection. Click here for the virtual tour

Special icons embedded into the tours enable visitors to learn more about some of the structures’ features, as well as the communities they once served.

The Zamosc synagogue cum museum, for example, boasts of the numerous prominent figures who called the town home over the course of some five centuries of Jewish life. The list includes legendary Yiddish literary figure I.L. Peretz; radical activist Rosa Luxemburg; Aleksander Cederbaum, publisher of the first Yiddish-language newspaper in Russia; and Izrael Ben Moshe Halevi, a renowned philosopher, Talmudist and mathematician who taught Moses Mendelssohn.

As opposed to Zamosc, the town of Olsztyn had a relatively young and small Jewish community, which topped out at less than 500 Jews in the 1930s. Its most famous Jewish son, notable architect Erich Mendelssohn, designed the structure that now bears his name and can be visited virtually online through the project: the town’s “Beit Tahara” – the building used to prepare Jewish bodies for burial.

Mendelssohn would go on to design notable buildings throughout Germany and beyond.

Erich Mendelssohn. From the Abraham Schwadron Portrait Collection at the National Library of Israel
Hadassah Hospital on Mount Scopus shortly before its completion, ca. 1937. It was one of many projects designed by Erich Mendelssohn in the Land of Israel. From the Yad Izhak Ben-Zvi Archive, part of the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

After fleeing the Nazis, he left his architectural imprint around the globe, including many landmarks in Jerusalem, not far from the home of a curious schoolchild, who – for at least one horizon-expanding afternoon – was able to embark on a tour of otherwise unknown historical sites, if only “wirtually”.


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 Abraham Schwadron Portrait Collection has been reviewed and described thanks to the generous support of The Leir Foundation.

Elie Wiesel’s Haunting, Mysterious and Brilliant Master

"Mr. Shushani" reportedly knew the entire Hebrew Bible, Talmud and countless other texts by heart. His Nobel-laureate student never knew his real name.

"A wandering Jew, he felt at home in every culture." (Collage: 'Mr. Shushani' and Elie Wiesel [Credit: Gideon Markowitz, Dan Hadani Archive, Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at NLI] / Shushani's notebooks at NLI)

“His birthplace was, now Marrakech, now Vilna, then Kishinev, Safed, Calcutta, or Florence.”

Very little is known or agreed upon regarding “Mr. Shushani” (also known as “Monsieur Chouchani”), a mysterious and almost mythically brilliant man who served as the personal, influential teacher to Elie Wiesel, Emmanuel Levinas and other leading 20th century Jewish intellectual figures.

And perhaps – at least according to Wiesel, who penned the quotation above regarding Shushani’s place of birth – that was exactly how the enigmatic figure wanted it.

By all accounts, Shushani had an extraordinary photographic memory, reportedly able to recall and cite the entire Hebrew Bible, Talmud and many other Jewish texts by heart, while also mastering various fields of mathematics, physics, modern philosophy and different languages.

Pages from the notebooks of “Mr. Shushani”. From the National Library of Israel collection. Click image to enlarge

According to National Library of Israel archivist David Lang, who has catalogued dozens of Shushani’s recently received notebooks at the Library, the astonishing depth and breath of knowledge is self-evident in those notes, where diverse textual sources are cited without missing a beat despite the fact that he certainly did not have physical access to the sources while he wrote.

These connections also came through in person. In All Rivers Run to the Sea, Wiesel recalled one of many encounters with Shushani:

“[H]e asked us to question him about anything we wanted, the Bible or politics, history or the Midrash, detective stories or the Zohar. He listened to our questions, eyelids drooping, waiting for everyone to finish. And then, like a magician, he gathered it all together to create a mosaic of stunning richness and rigor, harmoniously weaving our questions and his answers together.”

The disheveled, brilliant figure left such an impression on Wiesel that the Nobel laureate dedicated an entire chapter to his teacher in another book, Legends of Our Time, entitled “The Wandering Jew”.

In some ways, Weisel’s descriptions of Shushani makes it all the more surprising that he revered the man:

“Always dirty, hairy, he looked like a hobo turned clown, or a clown playing a hobo… Anyone encountering him in the street without knowing him would step out of his way with distaste. To his own great satisfaction, moreover.”

And yet, over three years in post-War Paris, Wiesel was Shushani’s disciple:

“At his side I learned a great deal about the dangers of language and reason, about the ecstasies of sage and madman, about the mysterious progress of a thought down through the centuries and of a hesitation through a multitude of thoughts. But nothing about the secret which consumed or protected him against a diseased humanity.”

Shushani zealously guarded his identity and few details about his personal life are known today, more than fifty years after his death. Even his name remains a contended mystery. Wiesel concluded it was “Mordecai Rosenbaum,” while most leading scholars today, including philosopher Shalom Rosenberg, also a disciple of Shushani’s, believe that it was “Hillel Perlman”.

Hillel Perlman
Hillel Perlman

Both decidedly less exotic than his self-designated appellation.

Whether he was Mordecai, Hillel or something else, Shushani’s control of language also boggled the minds of those who knew him.

Wiesel poetically recalled:

“He had mastered some thirty ancient and modern languages, including Hindi and Hungarian. His French was pure, his English perfect, and his Yiddish harmonized with the accent of whatever person he was speaking with. The Vedas and the Zohar he could recite by heart. A wandering Jew, he felt at home in every culture.”

A wandering Jew indeed, Shushani traveled across the globe throughout his life, apparently penniless, and – according to Wiesel – without a passport.

“At the end of 1948,” Wiesel recalled, “he left me without saying goodbye… His last lesson was like all the others…”

His departing words:

“Think over my lesson and try to destroy it.”

Then Mr. Shushani disappeared. For years, Wiesel would by chance meet others who had known him, or heard about him and his whereabouts.

Shushani’s travels brought him throughout Europe, the United States, allegedly to North Africa and elsewhere, including Mandatory Palestine and the young State of Israel where for a few months in the late 1950s, he wandered among religious kibbutzim sharing his knowledge and perhaps gaining some too.

Ultimately, Shushani landed in Uruguay. Wiesel heard from others that he was there.

In Legends of Our Times, published the same year that Shushani passed away, Wiesel hauntingly mused:

“Often I am seized by the desire to take the first plane leaving for Uruguay, to see him one last time to confront him with the image I have kept of him. Then too I need him to rouse me again, to suspend me between heaven and earth and so permit me to see what brings them together and what separates them…

That is what makes me tremble each time I think of him in Montevideo, where he awaits me, where he calls to me: I am afraid to plunge once more into his legend which condemns us both, me to doubt, and him to immortality.”

Prof. Shalom Rosenberg was Mr. Shushani’s student at the time of this death, and recently donated 50 of his teacher’s notebooks to the National Library of Israel, where they will be available to the general and scholarly publics for the first time.


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.