Hannah Senesh: The Girl Who Never Stopped Writing

A glimpse of Hannah Senesh’s childhood writings

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Hannah Senesh and her brother Giora as children, from the Senesh Family Archive, with thanks to Ori and Mirit Eisen

Hannah Senesh was born into a home where writing was an integral part of family life. Her father, Béla, was a well-known journalist, playwright and children’s author in Hungary. His books sold well and his plays were very popular in Budapest—but his short career ended abruptly with his sudden death from a heart attack at the age of thirty-three. Hannah (nicknamed Anikó) was then only six years old.

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Hannah Senesh with her brother Giora, from the Senesh Family Archive, with thanks to Ori and Mirit Eisen

It soon became apparent that little Anikó had also been bitten by the writing bug. In November 2020, the Senesh (often spelled Szenes) family decided to deposit the entire Hannah Senesh Collection with the National Library. It includes dozens of items gathered throughout Senesh’s all too brief life. A number of these rare items document the very beginning of this creative girl’s journey.

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Hannah Senesh with her brother Giora, from the Senesh Family Archive, with thanks to Ori and Mirit Eisen

Senesh was “writing” even before she actually knew how. She dictated to her brother Giora (Györi) a greeting for her grandmother and mother. When she started composing poems in her head—at the age of six!—Grandma Fini made sure to write them all down by hand in a notebook she kept just for that purpose.

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A note Hannah dictated before she knew how to write. It reads, “Dear Mother and Grandma Fini, Because today is my birthday I received writing paper, chocolate, flowers, and a beautiful drawing from Györi. . . . In the afternoon, we went out in the carriage. I kiss your hands, Aniko.” From the Senesh Family Archive, with thanks to Ori and Mirit Eisen

 

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A drawing and greeting for Grandma Fini, from the Senesh Family Archive, with thanks to Ori and Mirit Eisen

 

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The notebook of poems by Hannah Senesh, collected by her grandmother, from the Senesh Family Archive, with thanks to Ori and Mirit Eisen

Shortly after, Hannah, still a child of 7 or 8 years old, tried her hand at a career similar to her father’s. She felt that the Senesh family needed its own newspaper, and she would be the editor-in-chief! Thus came into being the family newspaper she called Kis Szenesek Lapja (“The Little Seneshes’ Newspaper”).

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Illustrated cover of “The Little Seneshes’ Newspaper”, from the Senesh Family Archive, with thanks to Ori and Mirit Eisen

For several months in 1929, Anikó edited her own little newspaper. At the top of each issue was the date, just like in any proper paper. Hannah typed everything on the home typewriter. She wrote the articles, chose the poems and stories and drew the illustrations for the enjoyment of the whole family. She even attempted to write an entire play. This newspaper will also soon be available for viewing at the National Library of Israel.

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Hannah Senesh and her brother Giora, from the Senesh Family Archive, with thanks to Ori and Mirit Eisen

The complete Hanna Senesh Collection reveals the creative roots of the person who would come to be remembered in Israeli and Jewish collective memory mainly as a brave paratrooper. She began creating even before she could write. Her early work is in Hungarian, but soon after arriving in Mandatory Palestine, she very quickly gained command of the Hebrew language and continued writing in Hebrew as well. Hannah Senesh remained a writer throughout her life, from her early childhood to her very last days in a Hungarian prison.

 

The materials above are part of the Senesh Family Archive, with thanks to Ori and Mirit Eisen

Kosher Pork Chops and Crypto-Jewish Identity

In Genie Milgrom's family, hidden Jewish identity was preserved for generations in the food they ate

For centuries, food connected Crypto-Jews in Europe and the New World to their hidden heritage (Map: "Regnorum Hispaniae et Portugalliae", ca. 1769; from the Eran Laor Cartographic Collection, National Library of Israel)

One of the saddest chapters in Jewish history is also one of the more interesting on a gastronomic level. Following the forced conversions in 15th-century Spain, the Inquisition and subsequent Expulsion, many so-called New Christians secretly maintained Jewish beliefs. Practicing in secret to avoid arrest and torturous execution, they are now known as Crypto-Jews.

Foods that were considered “Jewish” could mean a death sentence when Crypto-Jews ate certain telltale dishes. Inquisition court documents repeatedly make this connection clear.

Inquisition document regarding the confiscation of “New Christian” property,  Cordoba, Spain, May 1487. The Jewish Theological Seminary of America, Ms. NH 63; available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

Many Crypto-Jews conspicuously ate pork to “prove” their Christian faith, while others devised tricks to avoid such transgressions while not giving away their secret.

Nonetheless, clearly not everything Crypto-Jews ate was necessarily related to their true or assumed identity – most foods were probably neutral in this regard.

So what did Crypto-Jews eat? And how have those foods developed over the past 500 years?

The recent book Recipes of My 15 Grandmothers by Genie Milgrom offers a fascinating personal window into the lives and foodways of the descendants of Crypto-Jews across the centuries.

Twenty-Two Generations

Milgrom’s story is a big part of what makes the book as interesting as it is. Born Catholic in Havana, Cuba, she felt Jewish from a young age. Finally, in her 30s, she converted to Orthodox Judaism. It was tough for a single mother of two, largely disconnected from her old life and still struggling to integrate into a new community.

A Cuban ketubbah (Jewish marriage contract), ca. 1900. From the National Library of Israel collections

In time, she began to conduct intensive genealogical research, eventually uncovering “an unbroken maternal lineage going back twenty-two generations to 1405 pre-Inquisition Spain and Portugal.” It turned out that she had actually been Jewish all along!

Still, while names and cold biographical facts drawn from archival records may be significant, what Milgrom really yearned to discover were the more personal details. Turning to her mother, she asked for anything that might have been handed down from previous generations.

Her mom denied having anything. And then fate stepped in.

“Finally, the sad day came when my mom could no longer live in her home, and it was at that moment that I found many old books full of pages of handwritten recipes and scraps of paper with small writing and tiny notes written in light pencil. All of these pages were done in different handwritings, some with more flourishes than others, but always written by the women. With this, I found the recipes of the grandmothers.”

 

Culinary Connections

Depiction of Jews fleeing Spain, from a 19th century book on the Inquisition. From the National Library of Israel collections

While Milgrom had already written and spoken a lot about her genealogy and her research, this discovery led her to edit and compile the recipes into the cookbook.

Though an experienced home cook, Milgrom was neither a professional chef nor cookbook writer.

She recruited a cadre of friends and colleagues to help her test-cook the recipes, and throughout the book she repeatedly mentions that she had not even tasted all of its recipes herself.

While on the culinary level this might not hold up alongside other contemporary cookbook favorites, there are certainly unique and delicious recipes to be found within. But beyond that, the book is a great exploration of a certain blank spot in Jewish culinary history.

I know of one other book that looks at the subject. Husband and wife professors David M. Gitlitz and Linda Kay Davidson published the fascinating (and award-winning) A Drizzle of Honey: The Lives and Recipes of Spain’s Secret Jews, culling food facts from Inquisition archives and reconstructing the original dishes.

But their recipes, enlightening as they may be, were largely their own approximations and guesses. Milgrom’s book works as a perfect companion — personal recipes to pair with the broader archival research.

Kosher Pork Chops

Milgrom writes that she was surprised to find no recipes in the entire collection that mixed milk and meat. When I asked her about pork (a major ingredient in Spanish cuisine) she told me, “As a matter of fact, my family recipes only started having pork in Cuba in the 1930s and 1940s.”

Thus, one of the most surprising recipes she uncovered among the collection of hand-bound books and paper scraps was one for chuletas — pork chops.

She could barely bring herself to read the recipe, but when she finally did, she was greatly amused. Though they are called “pork chops”, the recipe is actually a sort of French toast that is disguised to resemble pork chops! Perhaps a more suitable name would be “imitación de chuletas”.

Milgrom’s kosher pork chops (Courtesy: Genie Milgrom)

Milgrom claims that they are “the best look-alike to a pork chop that I have ever seen,” and speculates this dish was designed to throw off suspicious neighbors.

I have not made these, nor do I know what pork chops should really look like, but I must admit that I find it hard to believe anyone could be truly convinced for more than just a passing glance. Smell and consistency would be dead giveaways. Still, whether or not this was actually their origin, there is undoubtedly an intriguing history cooked into this imitación.

 

Preserving Hidden Identity

Perhaps the most oft-repeated aspect of Crypto-Jewish life is the persistence of Jewish practices that generations performed, without even necessarily knowing why. Famous examples include lighting candles in a hidden place on Friday night, circumcision and sweeping towards the center of the room (rather than out the door, so suspicious neighbors wouldn’t know they are preparing for Shabbat).

Throughout the book, Milgrom mentions a number of food-related customs that her grandmother passed on to her, all of them quite clearly having Jewish origins. Examples include checking eggs for blood spots, strictly washing and checking lettuce leaves to avoid all insects, burning a small wrapped piece of dough in the back of the oven (“taking challah”) or even just describing a pareve cake as something that “could be eaten after any meal” with no further explanation.

Most of these were described to Milgrom simply as “family traditions” or things that would bring good luck.

From great grandmother to granddaughter (Courtesy: Genie Milgrom)

She explains that her grandmother only taught these recipes and techniques to her, though there were four other grandchildren. This makes one wonder how much her grandmother knew about her Crypto-Jewish background. Reading through the grandmothers’ recipes we must ask whether she too pieced together the truth of their Jewish background, or whether something more subconscious was at play.

Unfortunately, we will never know.

 

For the Holidays and Beyond

On a broader level, there are many other crossovers between the recipes in this book and Jewish food in general. As Milgrom has pointed out, it is worth noting that her family’s recipes are distinct from Sephardic cuisine, as that community blended its Spanish roots with the influences of the areas in which they lived — Turkey, Italy, the Balkans and the Levant, largely. Primarily, her grandmothers’ food is typically Spanish, with adjustments and developments over time.

Hornazo, a festive pastry with assorted meats inside (Courtesy: Genie Milgrom)

Many dishes were things that Milgrom sees as more or less connected with Jewish holidays.

Cocido madrileño is a clear stand-in for a Shabbat hamin or chulent – the traditional lunch dish left on the fire throughout the night to avoid the prohibited cooking on the Sabbath. Other recipes appear perfect for various holidays as well, such as the dark fruit cake for Rosh Hashanah and orejuelas y pestiños (“ears and pastries”) for Purim. Sweets shaped like ears and other body parts are prepared for the holiday in many Jewish cultures, with the Hebrew term for hamantaschen being “oznei Haman” or “Haman’s ears”.  Pestiños are a common Spanish pastry often associated with the period preceding Easter, roughly the same season as Purim.

Dulces en almibar are like donut holes covered in a special kind of flavored syrup. Whether intentional or not, they certainly seem Hanukkah-appropriate.

Dulces en Almiba (Courtesy: Genie Milgrom)

Milgrom also points out how many dishes there are that surprisingly contain no wheat flour, making them appropriate for Passover.

Finally, though distinct from Sephardic cooking, as mentioned above, there are a number of dishes represented that are indeed Sephardic classics. She highlights her grandmothers’ “Decorated Rice” (saffron rice with raisins, almonds and cinnamon) and the pareve flan-like Tocino del Ciello as Sephardic classics. Bollas and rosquillas are other common Sephardic pastries that appear in these pages, too.

While the descendants of Crypto-Jews may now be free to cook whatever they like, their recipes offer a window into generations of kitchens and lives, providing a tangible and tasty link to the past.

A version of this article first appeared on “The Taste of Jewish Culture“. It has been published 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.

Mythical Dwarfs and Garden Gnomes – the Jewish Connection

Is there a connection between the pointed hat worn by mythical dwarfs and gnomes and the hats once worn by the Jews of Europe?

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Once upon a time, there were dwarfs. Their popular image crystallized in the middle of the 13th century in European, and particularly German folklore. They were described as small creatures that were known to be greedy tricksters and treasure hunters. One of their prominent features was their ability to distort or impair vision: they could vanish and appear as they wished and could temporarily or permanently blind anyone who saw them.

Some legends added various details which described dwarfs as a people originating from Asia or some unknown distant land. In some of the stories, they sang songs in an unfamiliar language to the hero who chanced upon them. In the folktales, dwarfs traded in costly fabrics, gold and precious stones, which they brought with them from the East. They often had a mystical connection to these valuable treasures, from which they drew magical powers — a fact that also made them vulnerable. In some legends, the dwarfs told of how they were expelled from their land by humans, or how their treasures were looted or lost.

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Illustration for the Hebrew children’s song Utsu Rutsu Gamadim (“Run, Dwarfs, Run” by Miriam Yalan-Shteklis. Illustrator: Tsila Binder. From Shir Hagdi – Shirim Usippurim (“Song of the Goat – Songs and Stories”), Vol. 1, Dvir, 1957

In the 13th and 14th centuries, artists began to depict dwarfs wearing a pointed cap. The pointed hat originated in the East, but over time, it became more closely associated with dwarfs and was believed to be the most dangerous weapon in their possession. They used it to trick the viewer, to disappear from sight or impair the vision of whoever happened to see them.

Although there were stories that described the dwarfs as creatures who had been maltreated and as close allies of folk legend heroes, the character of the dwarf was often pictured as unreliable, unfaithful, vengeful and deceitful.

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From Tristan and Isolde – Melot the dwarf is a scheming figure at the king’s court who attempts to thwart the love affair between Tristan and Isolde; fresco, 1410, Runkelstein Castle, South Tyrol, Italy

Those familiar with European Jewish history can perhaps draw some similarities between the tales of the dwarfs and the everyday lives of Jews in medieval Germany. The Jews of Ashkenaz were a people with origins in the Levant who had been dispossessed of their land, and they too often appeared as merchants laden with all kind of expensive goods, reputedly brought from distant lands such as the deserts of Arabia or the Caucasus. Due to the occupational restrictions imposed on them in many places, they were forced to earn a living by moneylending at interest and soon their neighbors accused them of “hoarding treasures,” greed and deception. Some attribute these beliefs to the French King Philip IV, and his decision to expel the Jews from his land in 1306, in the hope that he could seize their abandoned treasures. Indeed, “Philip the Fair” greatly enriched his coffers with property left behind by the Jews.

In the middle of the 13th century (around the same time the image of the mythical dwarf became prominent in European culture), the first decrees came into force that required Jews to wear a special hat that would distinguish them from the Christian populace. Coincidentally, it was usually a pointed hat—a style of hat identified with the ancient East. In Chen Malul’s article, here, we examined the incarnations of the hat and how it ended up atop the heads of Europe’s Jews. What was the purpose of the decrees? Why was it important to differentiate Jews from their Christian neighbors?

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The Jew Efraim wearing the infamous Jewish hat, at the foot of the bed of the ailing Saint Basil, from a 15th-century German text

Like the dwarfs, the Jews were accused of distorting reality because they did not see the truth that was before them. In Gothic cathedrals one can often find the blindfolded figure of Synagoga, which represented the Jewish faith. The image represented a Christian claim that Jews were only able to see the physical reality around them, and that they were unable to “see” the spiritual world beyond the temporal. This supposedly distorted vision of the Jews threatened to mislead innocent Christian believers, and therefore, to prevent their assimilation into society, Jews were required to wear special clothing, including the infamous hat.

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A poster promoting the play “Gulliver in the Land of Lilliput” (translated into Hebrew as Eretz HaGamadim – “the Land of the Dwarfs”) by the Children’s Theater, from the Ephemera Collection at the National Library of Israel

It is possible, of course, that the theoretical connection between the pointed hats and their real and imaginary wearers is just a fluke. It is difficult to trace the exact transmutations of such cultural representations, and pointed hats did not characterize only Jews: as early as the 12th-century, the pointed hat appeared in works of art as an identifying mark of non-Christians and those opposing Christianity. During the 14th-century, the pointed hat was also a required article of clothing for non-Jewish moneylenders in some places, or Christian women accused of having relations with Jews. From there the cultural connection between the pointed hat and more general dubious figures spread to include infidels, criminals, sorcerers, and other people accused of “non-Christian” activities. Thus, the pointed hat came to depict witches and wizards such as the legendary sorcerer Merlin from the stories of King Arthur. Herein too is woven the notion of the deceptive and misleading abilities of the wearers of the pointed hat.

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The figure of Merlin in a pointed hat. Illustrator: Hartmann Schedel, Nuremberg Chronicles, 1493

Over the years, legends and folk tales became a means of entertainment for children, and the image of the dwarf was significantly refined. The blatant greed and rudeness disappeared, and in many works they became cute and kind-hearted creatures that helped human beings, or at least maintained friendly relations with them. An example of this can be seen in the little bearded gnomes who adorn many a garden. On the other hand, the pointed hat on their heads – its Jewish connection all but forgotten—remains the identifying feature of dwarfs and gnomes in collective Western consciousness to this day.

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Cover of the Hebrew book Tov Tov Hagamad, (a translation of “David the Gnome”): Shafrira Zakai, Modan, 1988

This article is based on  Naomi Lubrich’s paper:

Naomi Lubrich, The Wandering Hat: Iterations of the Medieval Jewish Pointed Cap, Jewish History, Vol. 29, No 3/4 (December 2015), pp. 203-244

Bloodsucking Pelicans, a Dutch Jewish Symbol?

Amsterdam's Portuguese Jewish community adopted a seemingly strange image from Medieval Christian art

Illustration from a mid-15th century manuscript depicting a Pelican piercing its own breast so that its young may drink from its blood (Courtesy: Museum Meermanno, The Haag, MMW, 10 B 25, Folio 32r)

A bleeding pelican who wounds its breast and feeds its three young birds with its own blood is an unusual type of decoration in a synagogue.

In church art, on the contrary, this very image appears not infrequently. The source of the iconography is in all probability the Physiologus, a collection of moralized beast tales from Late Antiquity.

Originally written in Greek (though none of the original versions have survived) and translated into Latin, it was later introduced into most European languages, and is also known as Bestiary.

Pelican feeding her own blood to her young, as depicted in a late 13th century French manuscript. From the Getty Center (Public Domain)

Despite its name, it was not a book of natural history, but rather one which intended to illustrate the metaphorical meanings – and more specifically the Christian allegorical meanings – which the writers believed to have been embedded in nature.

The book became extremely popular in various editions during the Middle Ages and was often illustrated. The pelican does not appear in all versions of the book, but it appears that the basic concept of the ‘behavior’ of the pelican was already established in the early Middle Ages.

In the 7th century, Isidor of Seville wrote in Etymologies (Book 12, 7:26):

“The pelican is an Egyptian bird that lives in the solitude of the river Nile. It is said […] that she kills her offspring and grieves for them for three days, then wounds herself and sheds her blood to revive her sons.”

Of all possible images, the Jewish Portuguese community in Amsterdam chose none other than the bleeding Pelican as its symbol.

What is the reason for this peculiar choice?

In Christian art the pelican is symbolic and metaphoric, with a specific reference both to the self-sacrifice of Jesus and to the idea of resurrection.

A medieval depiction of this scene appears in a 12th century capital decoration in the so-called ‘Room of the Last Supper’ on Mount Zion in Jerusalem. The capital dates to the time of the crusades and shows elements characteristic of the Romanesque style. The choice to use a symbol of self-sacrifice to decorate the room which the crusaders believed to be the site of the last supper is not surprising.

Decorative capital in “David’s Tomb” on Mt. Zion in Jerusalem (Photo: Diklah Zohar)

It is sometimes difficult to identify the bird as a pelican, yet most of the pelican depictions in medieval Christian art do not actually resemble the bird at all.

It seems as though the artists were not aware of the actual appearance of the pelican or that the natural appearance of the bird did not matter, as long as it expressed the theological message.

In some manuscripts, the pelican appears as a bird of prey. In other examples, such as the pelican decorating the dress of Queen Victoria I in a 1575 portrait now at the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, however, it much more resembles a swan:

Nicholas Hilliard’s “Pelican Portrait” of Queen Elizabeth I, ca. 1575. Click image to enlarge

The clear Christian message of the image makes it quite surprising to find the image in Jewish art. The history of the Portuguese Jewish community in Amsterdam may clarify the reason for this choice.

The Sephardic-Portuguese community arrived in the Netherlands after the signing of the Union of Utrecht (1579), a declaration of religious tolerance which created an inviting set of circumstances for Jews to settle in the Netherlands and particularly in Amsterdam.

The earliest Sephardic community in Amsterdam was ‘Beth Jacob’ (named after Jacob Tirado, also known as Guimes Lopez da Costa, whose house the community used as a synagogue). The second was ‘Neve Shalom’, founded in 1608. Ten years later, ‘Beth Jacob’ was split, and a third community, ‘Beth Israel’, was founded. In 1639, these three communities merged together under the name ‘Kahal Kodesh Talmud Torah’.

Painting of the interior of the Portuguese Synagogue in Amsterdam by Emanuel de Witte, ca. 1680. From the Folklore Research Center at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem; available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

Before the unification, the symbol of the Neve Shalom community was the phoenix, which continued to be used afterwards as well, appearing on ketubbot (Jewish marriage contracts) in Amsterdam throughout the 18th and 19th centuries.

Phoenix appearing on a ketubbah from Amsterdam, 1808. From the Rosenthaliana Collections – Special Collections of the University of Amsterdam; available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

This legendary bird, which appears in Greek mythology and in the Talmud, also found its way into the medieval beast books and Christian iconography. According to the myth, the phoenix has an extremely long life, but dies into flames from which it is reborn.

Both the phoenix and the self-sacrificing pelican appear in the frontispiece of this 1749 edition of Musaeum Hermeticum, a compendium of alchemical texts. From the National Library of Israel collections, click image to enlarge

The idea of regeneration from the flames probably appealed to the Sephardic-Portuguese Jews, who recognized the parallels in their own history, as their ancestors suffered greatly at the hands of the Inquisition, including the ‘auto da fe’ – execution by burning alive. The symbol of rebirth from the ashes – which can be seen as an allegory for building a new Jewish life in Amsterdam free of the fears that tormented Jews in Spain and Portugal – undoubtedly had its historic appeal.

Phoenix appearing as a decorative element at the bottom of an 18th century portrait. From the Sidney Edelstein Collection, National Library of Israel
Phoenix appearing on the frontispiece of an 18th century Italian edition of the works of Galileo. From the National Library of Israel collection

Moreover, the symbol was probably not seen as foreign or alien, as the phoenix appears in ancient Jewish sources, as well.

A 16th century Italian printed edition of the Kabbalistic work The Zohar, which includes mention of the phoenix. From the National Library of Israel

This cannot be said about the pelican, however, which does not appear as a mythological bird in Jewish sources. Though it has clearly been used as a symbol of the Portuguese Jewish community in Amsterdam for a few centuries – as evidenced by its appearance on letters, books and documents – it is not known with certainty when, exactly, the community adopted the bleeding pelican as its symbol.

It has been suggested that this occurred after the three communities merged into one. If so, it becomes a visual allegory for the unification of the three communities, with the focus on the three young birds rather than on the adult pelican and its sacrifice: each of the young birds representing one of the Sephardic communities now unified and drinking from one source of tradition.

Woodcarving of a self-sacrificing pelican and its young at the Portuguese synagogue in Amsterdam, ca. 18th or 19th century. From the Center for Jewish Art Collection, via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection (Photo: Vladimir Levin)

This seems to present a logical explanation as to why this image, which is very unusual in Jewish art, became the symbol for the newly-forged community.

 

This article has been published 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.