The Ballad of Golda Meir and David Ben-Gurion

She was “just a girl from Milwaukee” when he was already the famous “Ben-Gurion.” He was a few steps ahead of her throughout their public and political careers. Still, Golda Meir and David Ben-Gurion formed a delicate and meaningful friendship, which ended suddenly due to an ugly political scandal. After years of detachment, towards the end of his life, Ben-Gurion tried to reconcile with her. Did it work?

Golda and Ben-Gurion, by Boris Carmi, the Meitar Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

The lunch hall in Kibbutz Revivim was filled with Golda Meir’s relatives and friends. The organizers of this event, which Golda refused to allow to be too big or showy, invited “a number of people, each of which went some way with you”, to show thanks to the Prime Minister who made their kibbutz her second home, as well as to mark 50 years since her immigration to the Land of Israel.

Among the participants was someone who made the long trip from Tel Aviv, despite his advanced age and weakening health. They were once very close friends, but a black cat seemed to have crossed their path in the last decade, and they’d hardly spoken since then. The “Old Man” stood out among those gathered with the smallness of his stature and the strands of white hair adorning his head. It was David Ben-Gurion.

The leader of the Jewish community in the Land of Israel during the British Mandate, the State of Israel’s first Prime Minister, the man who declared the state and who didn’t hesitate to make fateful decisions – was at the end of his life a widower, sick and a little lonely. He came to show respects to his old friend and reconcile with her.

Ben-Gurion at the celebration of Golda Meir’s 50th anniversary of immigrating to the Land of Israel, Kibbutz Revivim. Courtesy of the Golda Meir Institute

Golda Meir and David Ben-Gurion first met in 1917 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. She was a socialist and Zionist, full of youth and passion, and he was an exile from the Land of Israel who had come to the States after the Turks expelled anyone prominently tied to the Zionist movement. His visit to Milwaukee lasted just one day, but it was a very significant day for the local Jewish residents, to whom the Zionist youths from Palestine must have seemed like messengers from another world.

The first meeting between them was one-sided – Ben-Gurion didn’t really “meet” Golda that day, as she was part of the broader audience that came to hear him, but she was deeply impressed by the man who seemed to have an aura of endless confidence about him.

Their second meeting was in Tel Aviv. Golda arrived in the country in July 1921, along with her new husband and sister, at the end of a trip full of travails that seemed like it came out of a popular adventure book.

Ben-Gurion returned to the Land of Israel in August of that year, after years of exile and without Paula and the kids, who remained behind in London. He lived in a rented room on Lilienblum Street, where a group of young Zionist leaders would gather from time to time to hear what he had to say. On one of these occasions, Golda was also invited, having spent a number of years as a Po’alei Zion (“Workers of Zion”) activist in America. She was now starting to make her political and professional way in this new land, and didn’t even have a command of Hebrew, yet.

“I understood very little of what he said,” Golda later said of their first encounter in the Land of Israel, “but I was very impressed by this persona, and how people listened to him.”

Golda Meir and David Ben-Gurion at the congress of the socialist International, 1928. Courtesy of the Golda Meir Institute

From here on out, their political careers would develop separately, but they crossed paths again at many points and often met professionally.

In 1920, Ben-Gurion was among the founders of the general workers’ union known as the Histadrut and was appointed its general secretary in 1921. Even at this early point, he already stood out as the most prominent leader among the Jewish pioneers of the Second Aliyah (the immigration wave of 1904-1914).

In those years, Golda was a member of the Ahdut Ha’Avoda (“Labor Unity”) party – later to become part of Mapai (a Hebrew acronym standing for “Workers’ Party of the Land of Israel”). She began to stand out among Zionist women’s organizations, first as a member of the “female workers’ council” and then as secretary of the council. She later took many trips to engage in fundraising and diplomacy in Britain, serving as a delegate at the global conference of the Zionist women’s organization WIZO as well as the 16th World Zionist Conference.

In 1930, Mapai was founded as a merger of smaller parties, becoming the political home for both Golda and Ben-Gurion from this point forward. Ben-Gurion was head of the movement, while Golda placed 20th in the third election to the Assembly of Representatives, the local Jewish internal parliament, which sufficed for her to become a member of the assembly.

Over time, Golda turned from an admirer observing the movement’s undisputed leader from a distance to an inseparable part of the Zionist leadership’s inner circle. Beyond her official work, she also developed close ties with Ben-Gurion and his political partners (including long, complex romantic affairs with David Remez and Zalman Shazar).

Sitting in the same row. Golda Meir and David Ben-Gurion at the maiden trip of Israel Railways. From the Ben-Gurion House Archive, BTBG-AL-011

Only towards the end of her life, when she was already a former Prime Minister and Ben-Gurion had passed away, did Golda Meir tell of the deep emotional connection she formed with him already in those early years. Before this, they had been regarded as having a professional relationship of two people sharing the same political causes.

When she spoke of young Ben-Gurion in an interview she gave journalist Yaron London in 1974, her voice took on an uncharacteristic softness.

She tells of a Ben-Gurion who was a little different than his popular persona, as only those closest to him experienced the contrasts in the personality of the “Old Man.” He was in fact a charismatic speaker who suffered from social anxiety: on stage, at public speeches, he always seemed fearless and inspiringly confident in his path, but among his close circle or when he had to speak with someone privately – things were entirely different. He was surprisingly shy; in one-on-one meetings, his words would get tangled up when he needed to have them flow freely.

For instance, he was very close to Rachel Yanait and Yitzhak Ben Zvi, but he personally told Golda that shortly after he arrived in the country, he went on a long walk with Rachel Yanait during which he made not a sound. As he later admitted – “I didn’t know how to speak then, or what one is supposed to talk about.”

When he was offered to become Chairman of the Jewish Agency, he thought he might have to go to the British High Commissioner and speak with him, and he shared his dilemmas with Golda: “How do I talk to him? What do I say to him”?

Golda did not consider this a mark against his leadership – perhaps even the opposite.

“It’s character. He needed to overcome it, and he did. There was no-one who spoke with him and left feeling, ‘Nu, so I’ve met another random person…’”

Golda told of how Ben-Gurion wasn’t one for idle chit-chat:

“Ben-Gurion was generally a man who didn’t need people around him. Every one of us could sit with friends and talk about all sorts of things – even without a purpose, just to chat. Ben-Gurion was never a part of that. Everyone knew – with Ben-Gurion you don’t chat, you talk to the point. About things that must be spoken of.”

She heeded this unwritten rule: In the many decades of her acquaintance with Ben-Gurion, it never occurred to her to go to his house for a casual sit-down. If she had – it would have come off as odd, and he would immediately ask what happened.

Except once. One Saturday afternoon in Autumn, 1947, Golda received a strange phone call. Ben-Gurion was on the line, asking her to come to him – without a specific purpose. When she arrived, she found him on the second floor, which she had never been invited to before. It was a huge room with the walls covered in books, and Ben-Gurion was pacing back and forth, restless. He told her things which would have shaken many at that point in time, before the State of Israel had even been born: “Golda, I’m not sleeping at night, I don’t know what will be with us. There will be a war, that is clear, I know what we have, but I don’t know what will be, how we’ll handle it.”

“I don’t have contempt for those who are afraid,” he continued, “Here, [Zionist leader Yosef] Sprinzak is afraid, but he has the courage to say he’s afraid. Sometimes there’s a lot of courage in saying you’re afraid. And even Sprinzak doesn’t yet know how much we need to be afraid.”

It was the first time she had the feeling that he could not cope with the crucial dilemmas all by himself, and that he needed someone to whom he could pour out his heart and present his concerns. She was that person for him.

At this rare opportunity, he let her enter a place almost no-one got a glimpse of

This soft side of Ben-Gurion was something Golda Meir also witnessed after the state was established. During the War of Independence, she would enter the room and see him sign letters to bereaved parents. This was not the Ben-Gurion people knew – the decider, the man who was always strongly opinionated, the one who didn’t give a damn. Here, he gave a damn. A lot. And he let her see that.

These anecdotes tell us not only of Ben-Gurion’s private, inner world, but also the place Golda had in that world. Despite this, and although they marched together towards common causes for many years, Golda couldn’t see herself as his equal. “Who was I? I was a girl from Milwaukee, and he? He was Ben-Gurion.”

At Ben-Gurion House in Tel Aviv, which served as the permanent residence of David and Paula Ben-Gurion from the 1930s until they moved to Sde Boker in the Negev Desert, collections of photographs and albums can be found alongside the voluminous books. These tell the story of Ben-Gurion, the leader and the man, and of his widespread contacts around the world. Among these are also unofficial, rare images of him with Golda, where we can see something of their gentle relationship.

The photo albums have been digitized thanks to the collaborative efforts of the Ben-Gurion House Archive, the Ministry of Heritage and Jerusalem, and the National Library of Israel, and can be viewed here.

A close friendship. Golda Meir and David Ben-Gurion in conversation. From the Ben-Gurion House Archive, IL-BTBG-PH-161

On May 14, 1948, they both signed the Declaration of Independence. He stood and declared the Jewish state, and she was one of just two Jewish women whose signatures can be found on that important historical document. After the declaration, of all the signatories and those present in the room, Ben-Gurion decided to walk with her to Dizengoff Square to meet the cheering crowd. He spoke to them with restraint, a leader who understood the weight and enormity of the event and who feared what they were about to face. It was Golda, now fluent in Hebrew, who spoke with enthusiasm and passion, doing so with a heavy American accent.

Golda Meir’s signature on the Declaration of Independence

Immediately afterwards, that same day, she left to raise funds in the United States at Ben-Gurion’s request, even though the last thing she wanted was to be away from the country during that eventful period.

She believed in him and his decisions wholeheartedly, and sat as a minister in his (many) governments. Even if they disagreed here and there, she often said that “regarding the major goals, on the path we had to take, he was always right.”

Working together. Ben-Gurion’s government during the Third Knesset. From: President Yitzhak Ben Zvi Collection, IL-INL-YBZ-0125-456

When she traveled abroad, they corresponded; Ben-Gurion found it easier to express his feelings in writing.

“You’re missed here, these days, by all of us, but especially me. Yet it seems to me that the historical struggle being waged in New York and Washington requires your stay in the US”

The unique relationship between the two held until the 1960s, when politics tore them apart in a way Golda could not imagine. “The Lavon Affair” was a complex political crisis which began with the colossal failure of certain intelligence operations in Egypt, and went on to split and divide the Mapai political leadership, eventually leading to the end of Ben-Gurion’s political career.

Golda called it “the miserable, tragic dispute that didn’t have to happen,” but these words do not suffice to describe her great pain over the rift, which she considered to be a personal disaster.

In the Israeli foreign service. Golda Meir and David Ben-Gurion with representatives of foreign nations at the Acadia Hotel. From: Ben-Gurion House Archive, BTBG-PH-077

In a soul-baring interview to Yaron London conducted after Ben-Gurion’s death, she was hardly willing to talk about that period, which was terrible for her. “I always understood Ben-Gurion’s motives, but here I didn’t understand anything, beginning to end.”

After decades of close acquaintance and friendship, in which he deeply influenced her political thought and activism, to break away from him and even see him as being in the “enemy camp” was unbearable.

“Ben-Gurion was no ‘vegetarian’ in the partisan war, or in the war for what he thought was the right thing, and neither was I,” she told London with a pained half-smile.

When Ben-Gurion celebrated his 80th birthday, she didn’t come to the event and he was deeply hurt.

But she never stopped appreciating him. At election events in those days, she spoke often of his enormous contributions, even calling him “the greatest Jew of our generation.” Still, reconciliation was difficult and it only happened years later.

In 1970, when she was already Prime Minister, Golda asked Ben-Gurion to represent the Israeli government in Paris along with Zalman Shazar at the public funeral of Charles de Gaulle. But the real gesture of reconciliation came from Ben-Gurion, a year later.

In September 1971, he came to the 50th anniversary celebration of Golda Meir’s arrival in the Land of Israel. Golda was deeply impressed by his very presence, but she also received a gift: a copy he kept of a telegraph she sent him from America for his 75th birthday.

“No dispute that was or yet will be between us,” Golda wrote in that telegraph, “will erase my recognition that I was exceptionally merited to work with a man who was more responsible than anyone else for what we have here.”

Golda Meir at the 50th anniversary of her immigration to the Land of Israel, Kibbutz Revivim

Later at the party, Ben-Gurion got on stage, but had some trouble finding the simple words to express what he felt. So he instead read letters aloud, letters he’d written in the past, either to her or about her.

The first contained words he wrote to [Israeli diplomat] Abba Eban:

“Golda is more important to Israel that a few million dollars, so you should do your best that she not work … and rest a bit during her stay in England.”

The second was a letter he sent her himself, while she was in the US:

“Dear, beloved Golda, I learned your secret. This year you’ve reached the age of 60, although I know you don’t want to celebrate your birthday, since you do not like publicity and personal celebrations. But after all, you cannot prevent me from congratulating you and telling you that which I feel, that your birthday is but a convenient opportunity to reveal some of my appreciation and friendship and love … an exemplary figure, a good friend, both strict and forgiving … I see you, and I am not alone, at your full creative powers, and my most faithful hopes for you that your strength will last many more years, and the trust and appreciation which most of the people in Israel as well as American Jewry feel for you will keep you steady during the difficulties you encounter as does every one of us.


David Ben-Gurion.”

That was all. He finished, and got off stage.

Golda Meir and David Ben-Gurion in conversation. From the Ben-Gurion House Archive, IL-BTBG-PH-161

“You wouldn’t say that Ben-Gurion could be sentimental,” she told London a few years later, “but he could be very sentimental.”

Ten days after Ben-Gurion’s death, Golda spoke before the Knesset in his memory. She was Prime Minister at the time, and the lion’s share of the speech dealt with his public image. But at the end, her tone became more personal, and she spoke of the close friend she’d lost, regained, and lost again, this time for good:

“Honorable [Knesset] Chairman, with your permission and that of the Members of Knesset, I would like to say a few personal words for a minute. It fell in my lot to know Ben-Gurion in 1917, when he and his friend, his good and dear friend Yitzhak Ben Zvi, may his memory be a blessing, came to the United States … and it was my fate during all my years of life in the country, very many of those years, the decisive majority of those years, to work with him … There was much friendship, there was a brief period of bitterness, and I thank God that in recent years, there was an absolute, complete reconciliation. And among all the things etched in my heart in Ben-Gurion’s favor, perhaps among the most significant, was that after the bitter rivalry, we both gained a renewed and wonderful friendship.”

The photos appearing in the article are kept at the Ben-Gurion House Archive, and are made available thanks to the collaborative efforts of the archive, the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage and the National Library of Israel.

Rabbi Chaim Abraham Gagin: The Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem and the Ottoman Empire

Helping merchants in the markets of Jerusalem, saving the Samaritans of Nablus, and corresponding with Jewish communities around the world - the archive of Rabbi Chaim Abraham Gagin tells the story of one of the 19th century's most fascinating Jewish figures…

Illustration purportedly of Rabbi Gagin and his signature

One of the most moving treasures in the National Library of Israel is not a book, an ancient document or manuscript. Rather, it’s a stick.

More precisely, we are referring to a wooden staff consisting of two parts connected with a screw, measuring slightly over four feet and three inches long, with an ivory knob fastened at one end. It was sent to Rabbi Chaim Abraham Gagin by the Ottoman Sultan in 1842, when he was appointed to the position of “Rishon LeZion” – chief rabbi of the Jews of the Land of Israel. The Sultan would present such a staff to those in official positions as a mark of his patronage, with the item intended for use at public events and ceremonies.

Staff of the Rishon LeZion, Rabbi Chaim Abraham Gagin

For hundreds of years, under the rule of the Ottoman Empire, the “Hakham Bashi” was the title given to the chief rabbi of the Jews of the entire empire. The Hakham Bashi served as the Jewish community’s official representative before the government. The title of Rishon LeZion was given to the leader of the Jews of the Land Israel. Rabbi Gagin was the first to hold both positions at the same time.

Official appointment of Rabbi Gagin as Rishon LeZion. The tughra, the official seal of the Sultan, appears at the top.

Rabbi Chaim Abraham Gagin was born in Istanbul, or as it was then called by Jews – Kushta, almost 240 years ago, in 1787. Immigrating to Jerusalem as a child, he was drawn to the revered Beit El yeshiva in the Old City that had been founded 50 years before his birth and where a select few were allowed to devote themselves to the study of Jewish mysticism and Kabbalah. In addition to promoting Torah study, the Beit El yeshiva also fostered communal support. Students had to sign a contract pledging to love and to help one another in times of sorrow and of joy, and to refrain from bearing grudges. At that time, Beit El was the only institution in Jerusalem permitted to independently send emissaries abroad to raise funds among Jewish communities in the diaspora.

Fundraising letter of the Beit El Yeshiva

Rabbi Gagin grew up in the Beit El yeshiva. He became a rabbi, ruled on matters of Jewish law, was proficient in Kabbalah, and eventually assumed the role of head of the yeshiva. At the age of 55, married and the father of a son, he was given the titles of Hakham Bashi and Rishon LeZion. In the collections of the National Library of Israel are hundreds of items, documents and correspondence from his 8-year tenure. From his seat in the Old City of Jerusalem, Rabbi Gagin conducted extensive correspondence with dozens of communities in the Land of Israel and beyond. Tiberias, Haifa, Ramla, Safed, Acre, Beirut, Aleppo, Syria, Egypt, Yugoslavia, Morocco, Algeria, Libya, Bulgaria, Vienna and London are just some of the Jewish communities Rabbi Gagin was in contact with and assisted in countless matters. Gagin sent halakhic responses to questions that required his ruling, signed court documents such as wills, endowments and inheritances, and even rent contracts. He was in contact with very wealthy families and with communal leaders and religious court judges in many different locations, but he also personally raised funds for young bridegrooms, resolved inheritance disputes, helped establish an orphanage and even testified on behalf of a man who had come to Jerusalem from Damascus and was accused of various libels.

Transfer of a debt from Damascus to Jerusalem


Fundraising for a bridegroom


Inheritance dispute


Testimony on behalf of a resident of Damascus who had come to Jerusalem

While engaged in these activities, Rabbi Gagin continued to write essays on Torah, sermons and books which are also kept at the Library. Two of the books relate to his term in office: Sefer HaTakanot VehaHaskamot (“The Book of Regulations and Agreements”), which included the customs of Jerusalem, and is believed to be one of the first books printed in the city; and Chaim M’Yerushalayim, a book which includes a selection of sermons delivered by Rabbi Gagin while serving in his esteemed roles. Both books, which deal with communal matters, shed light on contemporary historical issues and life in Jerusalem 200 years ago, including for example the debate among Jerusalem’s rabbis about the distribution of the charity funds (haluka) collected abroad on behalf of the Holy Land’s Jewish residents.

An interesting case which illustrates the multifaceted nature of Rabbi Gagin’s work is the approbation he gave to the Samaritan community. According to Islamic practice, only “people of the book” (the ahl al-kitab), generally understood to include Jews and Christians, have the right to protection under Islamic law. Islamic religious scholars ruled that Samaritans were not of the Jewish religion and were therefore unprotected. The Samaritan community of Nablus appealed to Rabbi Gagin to help them escape the dire fate of their coreligionists living in Damascus who had nearly been wiped out due to Muslim persecution. Rabbi Gagin sent a letter in which he wrote: “The Samaritan people are an offshoot of the Children of Israel who acknowledge the truth of the Torah”. The Islamic authorities, recognizing Rabbi Gagin’s personal signature and status, accepted the document and the Samaritans duly received the government’s protection.

Signature of Rabbi Gagin

Rabbi Gagin died on 20 Iyar תר”ח, 1848, at the age of 61, and was buried in Jerusalem, on the Mount of Olives. His son Shalom Moshe Chai Gagin also served as head of the Beit El yeshiva, and was also an emissary and travelled abroad on its behalf. He named his own son Chaim Abraham after his father.

Sixty years after Rabbi Gagin’s death, the rabbis of Jerusalem signed a declaration which they presented to the Ottoman authorities. The statement reads: “We, the undersigned sages and rabbis of the Sephardi community in Jerusalem, do hereby inform and testify… that the role of Rishon LeZion has no affiliation to the role of Hakham Bashi and there is no connection between the two, as these are two distinct and separate positions. And therefore the Hakham Bashi will not be referred to by the title Rishon LeZion and the Rishon LeZion will not be referred to by the title Hakham Bashi. And to this we have signed our names… Jerusalem, Sivan התרס”ט (1909).”

The statement signed by the rabbis of Jerusalem, including Rabbi Gagin’s grandson, also named Chaim Abraham

Among the names of the 26 rabbis who signed the declaration is that of Rabbi Chaim Abraham Gagin, the grandson of Rabbi Gagin. He surely knew that his grandfather, for whom he was named, had served at the same time as both Hakham Bashi and Rishon LeZion. It seems that the years when these two roles could be held by the same person were not long lasting. Few had managed to follow in Rabbi Gagin’s footsteps and hold the staff at both ends.



The archive of Rabbi Chaim Abraham Gagin is in the process of being cataloged and will be made accessible thanks to the kind donation of the Samis Foundation, Seattle, Washington, dedicated to the memory of Samuel Israel.

Chanan and Nahbi: A Window Into Avraham Mapu’s Mind

The man who wrote the first ever Hebrew novel, Avraham Mapu, had never even been to the Land of Israel. Despite this, almost all of his works extol the Holy Land with awe and reverence, except for a single cryptic children’s story. So, what exactly is this puzzling kid’s story really trying to tell us?

Avraham Mapu, the Avraham Schwadron Collection, the National Library of Israel

“There are two rich men who live in the town of Zafron. One is called Chanan, the other Nahbi. Chanan is a generous man, granting every wish to the people around him: old clothes to some, money and bread to others.

Nahbi is a miser, unwilling to give. When his parents ask him why he turned away from the beggar in the streets, he tells them: I did not see him. He does not see anyone, he even ignores his friends and relatives.

In his [Chanan’s] house, he expresses pity for the poor, and sympathy for those close to him. The hungry knock on Chanan’s door and leave satisfied. Chanan is successful in all his undertakings, for the Lord has mercy on him and the inhabitants of Zafron praise Chanan, for he is a cherished member of the community, a man with no envy or hatred in his heart. Nahbi hates him, yet he does not hate Nahbi. Nahbi chases the poor away; Chanan takes them in.

Zafron is a small town, but it contains many poor people. However, they are not worried about the Passover holiday, for they are certain of Chanan’s charity: he buys flour and his assistants bake matzot for the poor. Once the chametz are removed from the town, Chanan sends food to the poor: matzot, meat, wine, oil and sweets for the holiday, and those who receive assistance eat and drink merrily and bless the home of the righteous man.”

Chanan and Nahbi – the tale of the good and the evil, are the main characters of a children’s story written by Avraham Mapu, but this little tale does not actually describe men at all. Chanan and Nahbi are but a metaphor. However, to understand what Chanan and Nahbi really represent, we first need to take a look into the life of their esteemed author: Avraham Mapu.

Avraham Mapu, the Avraham Schwadron Collection, the National Library of Israel

Abraham was born on January 10, 1808, in a poor suburb of Kovno, Lithuania, called Salvodka. His family had very little money but they were happy, and content with a religious, small-town life. His father, Rabbi Yekutiel was a teacher and a wise Jewish man who studied Torah and prayed with fervor. A strong believer, he tried to pass this love of studying down to his son by sending him to cheder from a young age, and telling him wonderful stories about the Land of Israel, a marvelous dream land of liberation and Jewish freedom. Little Avraham took to Jewish studies well and was known for being especially bright, but having to find work at a young age to help his struggling family, he never had much of a formal education.

By the time he was 17, Mapu had found a way to make a living on his own by following in the footsteps of his father and becoming a teacher. He was wed before his 18th birthday, and suddenly found himself in a life which exactly mirrored that of his parents – a struggling teacher, trying to build a livelihood for himself and his small Jewish family. But Avraham dreamed of more. Like his father before him, he was also a fantasist, and he knew deep in his heart that life had more in store for him. He longed to visit the Land of Israel and see for himself whether it really was the paradise described to him, a land of Jewish intellectual curiosity, where milk and honey flowed through the valleys in great rivers.

Avraham Mapu’s Wife, the Avraham Schwadron Collection, the National Library of Israel

To his disappointment, he couldn’t save enough money to quench this curiosity and cross the continents, but in search of a brighter future closer to home, Mapu found himself travelling around the Russian Empire with his wife, who by this point had given birth to two children. But despite his searching, all his travels succeeded in doing was exhaust his poor wife! Well, that’s not entirely true. His travels, despite them not bringing him the prosperity or satisfaction he so wished for, did serve to broaden his mind. Along the way, he met groups of new and revolutionary Zionist maskilim. The maskilim were ‘enlightened’ Jews and saw themselves as the pioneers of intellectual Judaism and a modern concept of Jewish self-determination. Their focus was on how to bring Judaism into the modern age and integrate a high level of rationalism into the religion while rebuilding a Jewish homeland based on the French ideals of liberty, equality, and fraternity. Meeting the prominent Haskalah pioneer Shneur Sachs in Rossyieny, Lithuania, Mapu was encouraged to act on this new-found belief system, and the preeminent writer and scholar Sachs encouraged Mapu to follow in his footsteps and write some of his own Haskalah works. Avraham considered this idea, and with caution, he carefully tiptoed into the waters of Hebrew literature.

A letter from Abraham Mapu to his brother (1859), Waldemar Mordecai Wolff Haffkine archive, the National Library of Israel

Literature in the early 19th century, even enlightened Jewish literature, was usually written in the author’s mother-tongue. But seeking a more romantic and authentic style of writing, Mapu broke new territory and started to compose his first book in Hebrew. An ardent Zionist, Mapu knew that this was the only language for his art. Modern Hebrew as we know it did not yet exist, but Mapu had been taught how to read Gemara by his father years earlier and remembered his biblical Hebrew training. Most people think of Eliezer Ben‑Yehuda as the father of modern Hebrew, and this is certainly true to an extent. That being said, Ben Yehuda was born 50 years after Mapu, by which point Mapu had already published multiple books in a mixture of biblical and adapted Hebrew prose. Mapu should really be credited as one of the first pioneers of the modern Israeli language, adjusting the old Hebrew lexicon to suit his contemporary literary needs.

Avraham Mapu, the Avraham Schwadron Collection, the National Library of Israel

Avraham began composing a book in Hebrew named “Shulamit” which was set in the Land of Israel. It documented the great beauty of the land and contrasted this sharply with dire and dreary descriptions of life in Eastern Europe. But before long, Mapu grew discontent with the challenge of writing Hebrew prose, and as he worked long days and tried to take care of his growing family, he lost his motivation for writing. He had never even been to the Holy Land and seen it for himself, and his faith in his ability to write authentically dwindled until he simply stopped writing altogether. But he always kept hold of the incomplete “Shulamit” manuscript, which would one day become Ahavat Tzion (“The Love of Zion”), one of his most well-known and beloved Hebrew books.

Ahavat Tzion, his first published work, was completed while Mapu lived in Yurburg. In 1832, Mapu was hired by a wealthy local who was seeking a tutor for his children. Mapu accepted this offer, lured in by its substantial financial reward, but he found far more than just wealth in this new role. Finally having a welcoming and friendly home in which to live, a job in which he was treated with respect and reverence, and a beautiful town to raise his family in, Mapu thrived. Close to the German border, Yurburg was a wealthy western town brimming with intellectuals who accepted Avraham as one of their own. He was able to find a community of other maskilim, who would meet to read literature and discuss the possibilities of reviving a Jewish state. But most importantly, this new community of academics encouraged Mapu to write, and write he did, finishing Ahavat Tzion and even starting on his next novel, The Guilt of Samaria.

Avraham Mapu’s original manuscript of Ahavat Tzion, the Avraham Shchwadron Collection, the National Library of Israel

Ahavat Tzion is considered the first modern Hebrew book, and tells winding tales of life in the Land of Israel. Despite never having seen the place, Mapu describes a paradise complete with sprawling nature, groups of curious Jews eager to build and share their knowledge, and a land full of passion and love. He continuously contrasts this with a grey and bleak description of life in Europe: the crumbling buildings, lack of purpose, cold weather and unfriendly people. Perhaps these descriptions were slightly hyperbolic, but they did truly reflect Mapu’s desire to leave behind his birthplace and move to Israel. For him, this far-off dream was enough to keep him going, whether it was based in reality or not.

Avraham Mapu’s original manuscript, digitized as part of the “Ktiv” Project, the National Library of Israel

His neighbors were his kindest critics, reading his works approvingly and encouraging him to continue telling his stories. But Mapu did not have that same faith in himself: “I built and destroyed, built and destroyed” he wrote in a letter to a friend, expressing how he never felt entirely content with his own writing. But arguably the most interesting thing he wrote was not in fact for his adoring friends, but for his students.

The custom for tutors in 19th century Europe was to gift a book of literature to one’s students as a reward for learning how to read. However, Mapu couldn’t find a book that he was content to pass on, and decided to take matters into his own hands instead, by composing his own book! As opposed to the children’s stories usually gifted to students, Mapu wrote a short manuscript which he named “Pedagogic Training”, a book of general knowledge, as well as grammar, Hebrew language and even some moral philosophy.

It is in this copy that we find the story of Chanan and Nahbi. Seemingly out of place in his book of languid teachings, later critics took a deeper look at this story, trying to figure out what was going through Mapu’s mind when he decided to include this fanciful tale. Some have suggested that Nahbi represents Mapu’s own miserly village of Salvodka while Chanan is a representation of Yurburg. Others think that Nahbi embodies the old, traditional shtetl Jews, while Chanan is a personification of the Haskalah movement and its liberation of the modern Jew. All agree, however, that this story, told with such moving and emotive prose, represents far more than a fairytale told for its own sake.

Avraham Mapu’s original manuscript, The Russian State Library, Moscow, Russia, digitized as part of the “Ktiv” Project, the National Library of Israel

But perhaps the most convincing interpretation is that this story is teaching us an important message about Mapu’s Zionism. Avraham Mapu saw Europe as a place of poverty, where people avert their eyes to the suffering of others, abandon their own families, and live a life of hopelessness. We can easily see how this is symbolized by the character of Nahbi. The Land of Israel, on the other hand, was a place that Mapu believed to be full of companionship, celebrations of Jewish festivals, friends eagerly offering helping hands and allowing each other to explore their culture and religion. All of this was personified by Chanan, whose character provided hope for a sorely needed escape from the realities of the world that Mapu actually occupied.

As Mapu’s list of published works grew, he went on teaching, eventually working for a state school and raising his children to become intellectuals like himself. In 1860, still quite young, his health took a turn however, and he began to lose much of his strength. His wife passed away and Avraham became frail, needing help to walk and complete even basic tasks. Despite this, he continued publishing books right up until a few months before his eventual death in 1867.

Abraham Mapu’s grave, photographer: Jüdische Friedhof Königsberg, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

Avraham Mapu left behind a legacy of great Hebrew literature and novels. Many are familiar with his name because of the roads and streets in Israel named after him, and of course his status as author of the first modern Hebrew novel. Yet, Mapu’s story of Chanan and Nahbi remains both his least understood, and arguably most interesting work, to this very day.

Who Was the Soldier Who Pleaded for His Life in David Grossman’s Classic Book?

A signed copy of David Grossman's book, "To the End of the Land", reveals the link between the author's pain over the death of his son and a tragic event that happened fifty years ago. This is the story of how Grossman made use of rare recordings from the Yom Kippur War in an attempt to ease the burden of a harsh reality

David Grossman (photo by Kobi Kalmanovich) and a soldier praying during the Yom Kippur War (photo by Avi Simchoni) courtesy of David Grossman and the IDF Archives

David Grossman’s note to Yossi Rivlin, in the book Isha Borakhat Me-Bsora (To the End of the Land)

To Yossi –

With fond memories from the radio –

And in great friendship

David Grossman

May 4, 2008


At first glance, this handwritten note scribbled by David Grossman in a copy of his novel, To the End of the Land, appears unremarkable. A few words from an esteemed author to a former colleague at the Kol Yisrael radio station. But behind this seemingly ordinary dedication hides an extraordinary story. Its beginning goes back to the first terrible hours of the Yom Kippur War in 1973 and it ends with Grossman’s epilogue in his masterpiece To the End of the Land, published thirty-five years later, after the death of his son Uri in the Second Lebanon War.

While sitting at home and reading Grossman’s book shortly after its release, Yossi Rivlin was struck by a passage that sounded very familiar to him, but he couldn’t remember from where:

“Hello, hello? Anyone left? […] Why doesn’t anyone answer?…What is this, are you playing with me? Over, over, over,” Avram mumbled hopelessly.


“And I need clean water and bandages,” Avram mumbled, exhausted. “This thing stinks. It’s a rag…Hello? Hello? Can’t hear. Why would you hear, you assholes. Well, if you don’t hear, you’ll soon smell, with this wound. Gangrene for sure, fuckit.”


“Plant, this is Peach.” A new voice rose dimly over a rattling engine sound. “We’ve been hit on Lexicon 42. We have casualties, requesting evacuation.”

“Peach, um, this is Plant. Copy. Sending evacuation momentarily, over.”

“Plant, this is Peach. Thanks, waiting, just hurry ’cause it’s kind of a mess here.”

Peach, this is Plant. We are handling, we are handling, out.”


“Hello, hello, answer me, you sons of bitches, you quislings. You left me here to die? How could you leave me to die?”


In the background, Avram sang vigorously, “My sukkah is a delight – with greenery and lights!” and the radio operator hummed along with him, bobbing his head to the rhythm. “Listen to him. Thinks he’s on Sesame Street or something.”

The song broke into a groan of pain.

(David Grossman, To the End of the Land, trans. Jessica Cohen, New York: Vintage International, 2010, p. 549-552)

David Grossman, To the End of the Land, trans. Jessica Cohen, New York: Vintage International, 2010

For hours Yossi racked his brain until he finally recalled the event that took place two decades earlier.

It was back in the 1980s, when Yossi was working as a reporter for Kol Yisrael radio. He was tasked with doing the research and then handing over the material to more senior journalists who would turn what he had found into a news item. Always on the lookout for a good story, one day a co-worker mentioned man named Avi Yaffe. Avi was a recording technician who lived in Jerusalem and had some rare and interesting recordings in his possession. In late September of 1973, Avi was called up for army reserve duty and he brought along a large Nagra tape recorder thinking that he would be able to listen to music and maybe also document the unique atmosphere that prevailed in the military outposts Israel had erected along the Suez Canal.

But Avi had no idea that within a few days war would break out and that he would find himself at the frontlines of the fighting, stationed at the “Purkan” outpost on the banks of the canal. The Egyptian attack began with an intense artillery barrage directed at these Israeli military positions, as Egyptian soldiers began to cross into Sinai. Instead of listening to music, Avi used the machine to record the communications during the war’s first few hours between the headquarters in the rear and the heavily bombarded frontline outposts, including his own.

Avi Yaffe with his Nagra tape recorder, from a personal photo album

Yossi went to see Avi. In a long and painful interview, he listened to Avi’s chilling stories about the early days of the Yom Kippur War on the southern front, and how he had managed to save himself and the four tapes he had recorded.

From among Avi Yaffe’s stories about that frightening time, Yossi could not shake off one story in particular – about Sergeant Max Maman, a reservist trapped in one of the outposts that was being battered by Egyptian artillery and his pleas over the radio for backup. Those at the headquarters tried to calm him knowing that there was nothing they could do. The helplessness in his voice, his pleas that went unanswered – it was unbearably hard to listen to. So much so that Avi eventually turned off the tape recorder because he simply couldn’t continue listening to the voice of the soldier begging to be rescued, knowing that his fate was already sealed.

Sgt. Max Maman

Here is a transcript of that recording from the “Hizion” outpost. Sergeant Max Maman, codename “Troublemaker”, is in communication with the contact post, codename 22:

“22, Troublemaker here, urgent, over.”

“22 here, over.”

“Troublemaker here. They’re firing at the outpost with artillery, we have to destroy them, over.”

“Endless tanks, endless, need immediate assistance, urgent, aerial, artillery cover, help us, over.”

“Everything will be OK, hang in there, things are a bit difficult but it’s not too bad, over.”

“Troublemaker here, over. I hope you are right, I also hope you get here fast with the air support, because there is no possibility to even lift up our heads here, over.”

“Attention, they’re coming at me through the gate, I’m asking, uh… artillery through the gate…”

“Voices from the Inferno” – part one of a special program produced by Israel’s public broadcaster, Kan, based on recordings from the Yom Kippur War (Hebrew)

It’s a gut-wrenching experience to hear Sergeant Maman’s trembling voice over the radio transmitter asking over and over again for help, and the evasive response from the headquarters.

In another recording, from Avi Yaffe’s outpost, one can hear singing. One of the soldiers starts off with “Hava nagila, hava nagila, hava nagila venis’mecha” – let us rejoice and be glad – and the others join in. The singing sounds almost macabre against the background of gunfire, explosions and calls for help coming from the outposts around them. But, when you think about the impossible reality they found themselves in, this song must have provided some kind of relief from the tension and sense of helplessness.

What does all this have to do with David Grossman? Yossi and Grossman worked together in the 1980s at Kol Yisrael radio’s Reshet Bet station, where Grossman was a broadcaster. Grossman used Yossi’s research and Avi’s recordings for a special report about the Yom Kippur War and the difficult decisions those few soldiers were forced to make while under heavy fire in the outposts along the canal. The program, broadcast on the eve of Yom Kippur 1987, was very well received.

Yossi eventually left his radio job, became a writer and published a number of works of fiction. David Grossman went on to become one of Israel’s most celebrated authors.

Years later, David Grossman’s son, Uri, was killed together with his entire tank crew in the last few hours of the Second Lebanon War, in August of 2006.

Grossman wrote To the End of the Land years before his son’s death.  But in the epilogue, he writes about the book’s close connection to Uri and his death:

Uri was very familiar with the plot and the characters. Every time we talked on the phone, and when he came home on leave, he would ask what was new in the book and in the characters’ lives. (“What did you do to them this week?” was his regular question) […] At the time I had the feeling – or rather, a wish – that the book I was writing would protect him. […] After we finished sitting shiva, I went back to the book. Most of it was already written. What changed, above all, was the echo of the reality in which the final draft was written.

David Grossman’s epilogue in To the End of the Land

While reading To the End of the Land, Yossi remembered that broadcast about the lone soldier stuck in the outpost, begging for help during the Yom Kippur War. He decided that he had to ask Grossman about it.

But Grossman rarely discussed his new book in public, and even if he was able to attend an event with the writer, Yossi wasn’t sure Grossman would even remember him.

When Yossi heard that Grossman was scheduled to appear at the Tmol Shilshom café in Jerusalem, he decided to try his luck and meet with him. At the end of the event, Yossi sheepishly raised his hand and asked Grossman whether it was possible that a certain section in the book was based on the broadcast they had both worked on many years before. Shading his eyes from the glare of the lights, Grossman looked out into the audience, then stood up and walked over to Yossi, a giant smile on his face:

“’Yossi?’ he asks me. ‘Yes,’ I answer… and he says: ‘Yes! Of course! It’s from your broadcast!’”

Both of them were overcome with emotion, and at the end of the evening, David Grossman inscribed the copy of the book that Yossi had brought with him, a memento from a uniquely tragic yet oh-so Israeli story.

To the End of the Land tells about the reality of life in Israel. A reality that cannot be avoided, a reality in which war, bereavement and PTSD are an inseparable part of life. Grossman’s story had proved prescient in a most personal way.

In the story about a woman trying to escape bitter news, a scenario which haunts everyone who lives in this country that has known its fair share of wars, Grossman included his and Yossi Rivlin’s broadcast about those rare recordings from the early days of the Yom Kippur War. At the end of the book, the reader is left not knowing whether she succeeded or not. What we do know is that Grossman could not escape his own tragic news, the death of his son Uri, killed on the last day of the Second Lebanon War.

Uri Grossman, son of author David Grossman, killed on the last day of the Second Lebanon War together with his tank crew (family photo album)

But perhaps Grossman was able to do for Ora, the book’s heroine, what he was not able to do for himself and for his own son. He did the very thing that all the soldiers who listened to Max Maman’s pleas from the outpost on that day and those who listened with dread to the tapes years later could not do. In the book, he chose to save the character Avram, the soldier stuck in the outpost. Yet while Avram survived, he was not spared the post-trauma that many of those who made it through the war suffer from.

On the last page of the book, Grossman does one more thing – perhaps the only thing one can do for those who are gone. He offers the possibility of the existence of hope:

“(…) I thought that if we both talked about him, if we kept talking about him, we’d protect him, together, right?”

“Yes, yes that’s true, Ora, you’ll see –”

“But maybe it’s the exact opposite?”

“What? What’s the opposite?” he whispers.

[…] She grips his arm: “I want you to promise me.”

“Yes, whatever you want.”

“That you’ll remember everything.”

Yes, you know I will.”

(David Grossman, To the End of the Land, trans. Jessica Cohen, New York: Vintage International, 2010, p. 650)


Grossman’s decision not to shelve the book after his son’s death, may also have been a decision to choose hope.

For more on the rare recordings from the Yom Kippur War, and what transpired in the outposts in its first few days, watch the series produced by Kan 11 (Hebrew): part one, part two and part three. Information about those recordings is also available on Avi Yaffe’s website, and in his recently published book (Hebrew) documenting the complete story: Shovakh Yonim (“dovecote”, the codename for the outbreak of the war).

The two volumes of Shovakh Yonim, Avi Yaffeh’s book on fighting in the Suez Canal outposts during the Yom Kippur War