Translating “The Hobbit” in Captivity

In 1970 ten Israeli prisoners of war in Egypt, captured in the War of Attrition, used their abundant free time for an unusual project: translating J.R.R. Tolkien's first book into Hebrew

The Israeli POWs were allowed to celebrate Passover while being held in Egyptian captivity

“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.”

(The opening words of ‘The Hobbit‘)

Anyone who knows anything about the work of J.R.R. Tolkien – the vast, fictitious history and captivating action his books are famous for – will almost certainly have started with the first novel the English linguist and author wrote, “The Hobbit: Or There and Back Again“. The book is certainly not lacking in heroic battle scenes and tales of high adventure, but in contrast with the later Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Hobbit is also a sweet and enjoyable children’s book.

It is a book that can bring pleasure and hold the attention of its readers (and its translators) during even their darkest hours.

This is not the story of how the book was written, but the story of one of its translations into Hebrew. It is the story of the special edition “translated by air force pilots and their comrades in Egyptian captivity in Abbasiya Prison, Cairo (1970-1973)”, who were captured during the War of Attrition.


The story of a strange and adorable creature

Conditions were not pleasant, to say the least, in the cramped cell where ten Israeli were being held in the prison on the outskirts of the Egyptian capital. Yet after undergoing many interrogations and tortures (and while many still lay before them), there was now something of a bright side – a small flickering light at the end of the tunnel. Firstly, after several months in separate cells far away from each other, the prisoners were now allowed to stay in the same cell and be comforted by other Israelis in the same state. Secondly, the fact that not all the prisoners spoke sufficiently fluent English proved to be significant to the rest of their stay in captivity.

Not all the cell’s inhabitants could enjoy the gift which Yitzchak Fir, one of the four pilots in captivity, received from his brother in America. This was “a paperback containing the story of a strange and adorable peace-loving creature who enjoys the pleasures and comforts of life and who finds himself thrown into hair-raising adventures in the war for a more peaceful and greener world” (a description taken from the foreword to the pilots’ translation).

The four pilots in the cell – Avinoam Kaldes, Rami Harpaz, Menachem Eini and Yitzchak Fir decided “to translate The Hobbit for those who would find it hard to understand”. The pilots initially translated specific words and expressions. It did not take them long to discover that the work distracted them from their life in captivity, and soon they found themselves working day after day, for many long hours, on translating the entire book.

The work was done in pairs – one reading the text in English and translating it into Hebrew on the spot. The second’s job was to be an editor, to improve the Hebrew translation and adjust it to the high level of Tolkien’s original work. The many poems in the book presented a complex challenge, and the four turned to their cellmates for help. They later related that “we failed slightly with the poems in the book”. Under the circumstances the unprofessional translators found themselves in, this labor of love would suffice. The entire project took four months and it is unlikely they thought the translation they worked so hard on while in captivity would ever be read outside the walls of their crowded cell.

‘Hobbit’, the translation of the pilots and their fellow captives. It is interesting that the word ‘The’ has been deleted from the book’s title, as well as the subtitle “Or There and Back Again”. You can find this edition at the National Library of Israel.

The POWs were only released from captivity after the Yom Kippur War, bearing a well-used copy of The Hobbit, along with seven full notebooks. In 1977, the Hebrew translation completed by the pilots and their cellmates was published by Zmora Bitan Publishers, with funding from the Israeli Air Force.

“Here, I’ve arrived” – Rami Harpaz said when meeting his twin girls for the first time. The first words of the Israeli POWs upon their return to Israel. From an article in Ma’ariv, November 18th, 1973 (Hebrew).

There are currently three Hebrew translations of The Hobbit. A year before the translation of the pilots and their fellow captives was published, Zmora Bitan Modan published Moshe Hanami’s translation. Another translation, by Yael Achmon, was also published by Zmora Bitan Publishers in preparation for the release of the first part of The Hobbit film trilogy directed by Peter Jackson. The translation of the pilots and their comrades is considered the lowest quality translation of the three, but it’s the translation I grew up on, and as such will always have a warm place in my heart and my years as a hormonal bespectacled, fantasy-loving adolescent.

Professor Amiah Leiblich documented the story of the ten Israeli captives in Egypt in the book ‘Chutz Mitziporim’ [Other than Birds] which was published by Schocken Books in 1989.


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What Did Barbra Streisand Write to Assi Dayan?

The archive of Assaf (Assi) Dayan, famed actor, poet, and son of General Moshe Dayan, was recently given to the National Library of Israel for safekeeping.

Assi Dayan

Following the death of Assaf (Assi) Dayan, just over three years ago, the iconic actor’s archive has been entrusted to the NLI for safekeeping and preservation and will soon be made accessible to the public.  From family photos to Hollywood rejection letters, Assi Dayan’s archive documents the life of an important member of the legendary Dayan family.

Moshe Dayan with his sons, Assi and Udi. Circa mid-1950s.

In a career that spanned over forty years, Dayan acted in over 50 movies and television series episodes, many of them considered to be among Israel’s most important cultural achievements.  His career included a part in John Huston’s “A Walk with Love and Death” (1969), in which he acted alongside Anjelica Huston, establishing himself as an international icon of the 1960s and 1970s.  Dayan also directed 16 films.

While the public is most familiar with the actor’s professional triumphs, Dayan also chose to preserve some of his failures.  After he auditioned for the role of Avigdor in Barbra Streisand’s “Yentl”, and Mandy Patinkin went on to get the part, Assi kept Barbra’s rejection letter for over thirty years.

“Casting a film is always a difficult task”, Barbra Streisand’s letter to Assi Dayan

Dear Assaf


Casting a film is always a difficult task, and “Yentl” was certainly no exception. The difficulty was not in finding talented actors that were right for the role – that was easy – but rather in having to decide among the several fine actors we talked to.


It was a long process, and I especially want to thank you for your time and interest. It was most valuable to me, and I hope we have the opportunity to work together at some future time.


With best wishes,



Barbra Streisand

Assi Dayan’s personal archive has been entrusted to the National Library of Israel for safekeeping and preservation and will soon be made accessible to the public. Beyond the photos and scripts he kept, his own artistic and creative processes shine through in his notes and poetry, as does the decline in his health in the last decade of his life

The responsibility for deciding about where to house the archive fell to the actor’s son, Lior Dayan.  After considering requests from many of Israel’s leading cultural institutions, including various Cinemateques, Mr. Dayan ultimately decided to entrust this important collection to the National Library of Israel, as the preserver of Israeli and Jewish culture. Lior Dayan also felt his father would have loved to have his archives dwelling alongside those of his idol, Franz Kafka.

National Library of Israel CEO Oren Weinberg said, “The quality and quantity of the material and items in the Assi Dayan Archive will enable scholars, students, and the general public to study and know his work – from his early days in cinema to his last days on earth, and so be exposed to the vast assembly of his creative endeavors, as well as to the writings and drafts that he wrote over the years, which were never published.”

Once the Assi Dayan Archive is catalogued, parts of it will be made accessible to the general public through the Library’s website.

From the Political Wilderness to the Asian Jungle: Moshe Dayan in Vietnam

Not long before his appointment as Minister of Defense ahead of the Six-Day War, Moshe Dayan visited the Vietnamese war zone. Israel would end up applying much of what he learned there...

Moshe Dayan accompanies a military patrol in Vietnam, photograph from the Dan Hadani Collection

Lightheaded from the fatigue and the experiences of the long day he had had, Moshe Dayan described the obstacles preventing sleep in the base in the heart of the Vietnamese jungle: “At night I spread a double layer of mosquito repellent on myself. The sleep predicament is two-faceted: mosquitoes and artillery. The artillery guns inside the camp’s perimeter shake the ground and walls with their every shot (especially the 175mm. artillery). Apart from that, you need to pay attention to the distinction between ‘exiting’ shells – artillery guns shooting outward – and ‘incoming’ Vietnamese shells, which explode inside the camp” (August 22, 1966, “Vietnam Diary” by Moshe Dayan).


Moshe Dayan takes a nap on the ground, a photograph from the Dan Hadani Collection


The Minister of Agriculture Seeks an Eastern Adventure

After five years as the Minister of Agriculture, the political career of the most renowned Chief of Staff in Israeli history was going through a bit of a slump. In 1965, he joined the Rafi party founded by his long-time patron, David Ben-Gurion. This short-lived experiment ended in failure; the party, which presented itself as a replacement for the ruling Labor Alignment movement, received only ten mandates in the general elections. Dayan went from being Minister of Agriculture to a junior member of the opposition. He was in desperate need of a new experience, one which would help him realize the zenith of his ambitions: the Ministry of Defense.

A year later, he received an offer he couldn’t refuse: an offer from the Israeli newspaper Ma’ariv to fly to South Vietnam and join US forces in the field as a reporter. Dayan’s decision to travel to the war-torn country was criticized from every possible side: his fellow party members saw it as a misguided move, and MK Shmuel Mikonis of Maki (the Israeli Communist Party) challenged his forthcoming journey and claimed that the presence of such a well-known Israeli figure in the middle of a contentious war would damage Israeli neutrality. The Foreign Minister, Abba Eban, dismissed this claim, but he did express puzzlement at what appeared to be a hasty step; he questioned why Dayan did not consult with the government at all before leaving. A heated debate about his trip to Vietnam was held in the Knesset, but Dayan was not deterred by the reactions.

Before boarding the airplane, he explained to a journalist from the newspaper Davar that “This trip to Vietnam does not express solidarity or opposition with America’s actions there. I am travelling to Vietnam to see the political and military aspects of what is being done there, and I believe that there is much that can be learned from my visit.” The series of articles and the diary published over ten years after his trip proved just how right he was.



“M. Dayan Left for Vietnam through Paris, London and Washington…” An article published on July 4, 1966 in the “Davar” newspaper

Dayan travelled from Israel to Paris, to hear from another superpower that had intervened in Vietnam why it failed to retain control of the country. He met, among others, with Generals Luasion and Niko, who served in the region before the French defeat. They expressed opposing opinions on almost every topic. General Luasion chastised Dayan and cautioned that the rebel forces in the north are tired: “And that I am likely to arrive too late: by the time I reach Saigon there will already be a ceasefire between the Vietcong and the Americans.” Luasion attributed the Americans’ difficulty in finishing the war to public opinion, both worldwide and internally in America, which refuses to support the tough steps which must be taken. If it were not for this subversive public opinion “everything could have been concluded satisfactorily – or more precisely: militarily”. General Niko, on the other hand, saw the situation differently. He told Dayan that the air raids must be stopped, and that the efforts should be directed towards obtaining intelligence. The Americans are looking for “a radical action to end the battle ‘once and for all'”, but they will discover that only a prolonged battle will defeat the Vietcong (July 4, 1966, “Vietnam Diary”).

From Paris, Dayan flew to London to talk with the hero of the Second World War, Field-Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery. Montgomery had clear views on the topic of Vietnam. He saw China as the rising power and Communism as a governmental system well suited to Asia. “The Americans are mistaken by wanting to impose their ‘lifestyle’ on others.” Dayan summarized the meeting in his dairy, “We left after two hours, and he parted from me saying: ‘When you return from Vietnam come and tell me what you think and tell the Americans they’re crazy.'” (July 10, 1966, “Vietnam Diary”).

Dayan flew from London to Washington. Here Dayan could ask the representatives of the U.S. military some piercing questions. He found it hard to believe the claim of the colonel who reported that the Vietcong’s winter attack was defeated by General Westmoreland’s troops. If the ratio of the U.S. army and the North Vietnam forces was really three to one (a claim he heard repeatedly), and the North Vietnam underground were not in possession of “tanks, artillery and above all, have no air force, in contrast to the Americans who have all the above – I find it hard to understand why the Americans did not want to achieve a definitive victory.” (July 14, 1966, “Vietnam Diary”).

This was the first but definitely not the last time during his two month trip that he was given a pre-prepared answer devoid of logic.


Americanization of the War

Dayan landed in Saigon, the capital city of South Vietnam on July 25th. After dozens of conversations and briefings in various capitals, a festive dinner and off-the-record meetings, Dayan tired of words and demanded to go out to the field. He spent the following day in what he referred to as “a paper zone”. He was issued three different journalist certificates: American, South Vietnamese and Israeli; equipped himself with appropriate army clothing and underwent a singularly unimpressive military briefing from a sergeant who did not hesitate to stress, whenever he was asked a question he did not know how to answer, “that he is only a public relations officer”. At the end of this long day, Dayan received what he desired: he set out to see the war itself.


Crossing a river with the troops, a photograph from the Dan Hadani Collection

From the very first (daytime) patrol Dayan participated in, he was unable to keep his professional opinion to himself: he told the soldiers and commanders he met that the heightened American patrols in the Delta rivers would not prevent the enemy forces from smuggling weapons and ammunition without stopping every boat, boarding it and conducting a thorough search, thereby paralyzing the trade in the region. The impression the locals were receiving was that the Vietcong was so strong that only reinforcements armed with state of the art weapons would have any chance of subduing it. He suggested a significant reduction of American forces as an alternative “and to position air and sea reinforcements in specific places which can be mobilized by two-way radio” (July 27, 1966 “Vietnam Diary”).

After the maritime tour which included sleeping on an aircraft carrier, Dayan was initially assigned to the 7th squadron of the second brigade of the First Marine Division and later to the “Green Berets”- the U.S. Army’s Special Forces.


The former Israeli Minister of Agriculture in the Vietnamese jungle, a photograph from the Dan Hadani Collection

Despite his advanced age (he was 51 at the time), his American escorts quickly understood that this one-eyed journalist had seen a battle or two in his lifetime, and could hold his own. He did not hesitate when it came to approaching the frequently-shifting front lines, laying in ambushes, crossing rivers or immersing himself in pools of mud or sweat. “He moves like a worm through hot soil”, one American commander described it. Still, the Vietnamese mud left a deep imprint upon Dayan: “I have seen mud before in my life, we sunk up to our knees in the early years of Nahalal, but I have never seen mud like this before. Mainly ‘thanks’ to the tanks which grind up the ground which is wet from the incessant monsoons” (August 13, 1966, “Vietnam Diary”).

American might and arrogance were all around him: the aircraft carriers fighting wooden boats, tanks attacking wooden huts and helicopters relentlessly pursuing two barely armed guerilla warriors. Dayan’s conversations with the soldiers and officers he met left him with a positive impression of their characters: “Liberal, experienced, pleasant and laidback. As individuals – they are ‘gold’. All up to one point: as long as U.S. power is not ‘disparaged’. On this topic, even in a conversation, they are completely inflexible” (July 29, 1966, “Vietnam Diary”).



Flying to the battlefield, a photograph from the Dan Hadani Collection


What he saw convinced him that the war in Vietnam was a war of appearances, in which the North Vietnamese were paying a heavy price for their attempt to defy the superpower: “My impression is that they are not currently fighting against illegal immigration to the South, nor guerilla war and not even a war against Ho Chi Minh [the commander of the North Vietnamese troops], but an American war against the entire world. To demonstrate their power and the steadfastness of their decisions to everyone (including England, France, the USSR), to make it known: when the Americans enter the fray – they are undefeatable (July 29, 1966, “Vietnam Diary”).


Shaving in the jungle, a photograph from the Dan Hadani Collection


Dayan did not just observe and document the military experience and the battles: he also insisted on trying to understand what the divided country would look like after the military battle ended – assuming it would be concluded to the satisfaction of the Americans. He interviewed soldiers who worked in regional development: assisting in agriculture, helping build infrastructure for schools and the health system. It was from these soldiers that he heard the prevalent prognosis of the American military: it would take decades until the locals would manage to establish a “regional administration which would take the reins into its hands” (August 3, 1966, “Vietnam Diary”).


Dayan eating corn with a local family, a photograph from the Dan Hadani Collection


Dayan did not spare the senior commanders from his criticism: he refused to accept General Westmoreland’s claim that the army’s goal was helping the Vietnamese people. At this stage of the war, America’s objective was the extermination of the Vietcong. “Nothing to do with helping the Vietnamese: simply, an American war against the Vietcong. It does not matter how they reached this point – out of a desire to help the Vietnamese, to uphold the Geneva Agreement, or for any other reason. They will not stop the war at this point, even if the good of the Vietnamese (who decides?) should require it”.

This was not a pessimistic slip of the tongue, Dayan supported the right of a mighty military superpower such as the United States of America to shoot “an artillery barrage at any enemy sniper”. Nonetheless, he deeply opposed what he referred to as “the Americanization of peace. The doctors, teachers, administration, the desire (which stems from good intentions) to teach the children here ‘baseball’, to be ‘scouts’ – is all pointless. Vietnam – like any country – can receive external aid, but not patronage; its progress needs to be organic and independent – through advice and assistance but not dictation and taming” (August 4, 1966, “Vietnam Dairy”).


Dayan’s conclusions were not only published in Israel: his articles were published in the British ‘Sunday Telegraph’, the French ‘Le Figaro’, and the American ‘Washington Post’. The news about Dayan’s arrival in Vietnam was extensively reported in the various Arab countries that feared Israeli intervention in the war. An article published on October 16, 1966

Conclusions to Take Home

Toward the end of Dayan’s stay in Vietnam, he became convinced that the war – which would definitely last much longer – was a lost cause. He estimated that the US Army had the strength to destroy the Vietcong, but would never be able to uproot the support and affection most of the country’s residents had for the North’s battle for independence.

Dayan’s Vietnamese adventure gave new life to one of the most worn out clichés quoted ad nauseum by Israel’s founding fathers – how imperative it is that the State of Israel face its challenges itself. “By the way – in Israel, when we talk about “American involvement” we must know what ‘American military aid’ means: it is not placing the Seventh Fleet under the IDF’s command, but quite the opposite, transfer of Israeli sovereignty to the American troops. In order to maintain an ally’s independence – they first take it from them for safekeeping” (July 29, 1966 “Vietnam Diary”).



“Ho Chi Minh’s path cannot be blocked with bombs” Moshe Dayan’s penultimate article on behalf of Ma’ariv. The article was published on October 28, 1966

The Greatest Fundraising Campaign in Jewish History

Eight hundred affluent men were invited to a lavish banquet. However, something was missing at that dinner that made them open their wallets.

Click here for the item in the Library

The archivist tasked with deciphering an unlabeled photograph faces a difficult challenge. It takes ingenuity to figure out an event captured in a photograph, where and when it was taken, when there is no written information to go on. This photograph, which I came across in the collections of the National Library, is one such case: a large silver print photograph documenting some important event that apparently took place in the United States.

What is this strange gathering where so many men are seated around empty tables decorated only with slender lit candles? Who are these gents in suits and ties staring somewhat dourly into the camera? The only information at my disposal was the name of the photographer and the city, “Kaufman & Fabry Co., Chicago,” visible in the photograph’s lower right corner, and underneath it, a six digit number separated by a hyphen: 21-6591. Since I am familiar with the numbering system photographers once used to write on their negatives, I had the idea that the first two numbers may stand for the year – 1921 – and the other four digits, the running number of the negatives for that year. I set off on my quest armed with the basic information of the name of the photographer, the year (which was still only a guess), the name of the city, and also the name of the person who had donated the photograph to the library.

The puzzle was solved after consulting Irving Cutler’s fascinating book The Jews of Chicago: From Shtetl to Suburb, in which the complete story was laid out, and gave the photograph even greater significance. According to Cutler, relief committees in Chicago to help the Jews in Russia had been fundraising for the better part of a decade. Starting from the middle of the First World War, they had succeeding in raising millions of dollars for Jewish communities in Eastern Europe who were suffering from persecution, pogroms and wars. Chicago’s wealthy Jews were deeply affected by slogans like “Save our dying brothers!” and contributed generously. However, for Jacob Loeb, one of the Chicago community’s Jewish leaders, this was not enough. He wanted to hold an extraordinary fund-raiser that would collect a sizeable sum all at once. Loeb decided to actually implement one of those slogans that had so moved Chicago’s wealthy: “Suppose you were starving!”

Loeb organized a gala dinner to which the crème de la crème of Illinois Jewish society, including Chicago’s greatest industrialists and businessmen, were invited. On the evening of December 7, 1921, eight hundred men dressed in their Sunday best, gathered at the luxurious Drake Hotel in Chicago for what they were certain would be an exclusive social event at the center of which would be a lavish banquet. However, the guests were in for a surprise. As the last of them entered the hotel ballroom, the doors were locked. Jacob Loeb stepped up to the podium and began speaking: “For so many to dine in this place would mean an expenditure of thirty-five hundred dollars, which would be unwarrantable extravagance and in the face of starving Europe, a wasteful crime.  Thirty-five hundred dollars will help to feed the hungry, clothe the naked and heal the sick. What right have we to spend on ourselves funds which have been collected for them? So that this money might be saved for them, you are brought here to this foodless banquet.”

In the midst of Loeb’s admonishment, the astonished guests noticed that the tables, with the exception of the long slender candles that illuminated the strange event in which they now found themselves, were indeed bare. Their bewilderment was captured by the flash of Kaufman and Fabry’s camera, and recorded in the photograph commemorating this unique event.

The evening Loeb organized turned out to be a great success. Checkbooks were opened and fat were sums recorded for the Relief of Jewish War Sufferers Fund. That night the wealthy businessman Julius Rosenwald exceeded all others with a donation of one million dollars. This was an unprecedented sum, even for a philanthropist like Rosenwald, who later went on to establish the renowned Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago.

Word of the huge donation reached US President Woodrow Wilson. Well aware of the attempts of American Jewry to help its brethren in Eastern Europe, the president immediately sent a telegram to Rosenwald thanking him for his generosity and for serving the American values of democracy and humanism.

The liberality of Illinois’s Jews would help numerous humanitarian and Zionist causes over the decades. However, it would appear that the success of the fundraising at the foodless banquet at the Drake Hotel, was never duplicated.