“The Book of Imprisonment and Exile” by Irgun and Lehi Exiles in Africa

Three years into their imprisonment in Africa, the exiles published a book documenting the detention from which they repeatedly tried to escape


The exiles’ printing press in Kenya

As the Allied hold tightened on the Third Reich, the leaders of the underground Irgun movement in the Land of Israel began to shake off the policy of reconciliation that had been imposed on them since the outbreak of World War II. They renewed arms and efforts against that old enemy of Jewish independence in Palestine – the British Mandate authorities. From the outset, members of Lehi {also known as the Stern Gang) refused to participate in the truce. But, they found themselves reinvigorated by the Irgun’s return to the fight.

In response to the Jewish “terror” that threatened to ignite the situation, the Chief Secretary and Acting High Commissioner of the British Mandate, Sir John Valentine Wistar Shaw put together several proposals as to how to deal with the rogue Jews (the High Commissioner himself, Sir Harold Alfred MacMichael, was recovering at the time from an assassination attempt by Lehi on August 8th, 1944). The recommendations focused on two initiatives: Shaw suggested initiating a series of articles in the British and American press denouncing what the British saw as Jewish terrorism in Palestine, while simultaneously publishing a joint declaration against it by the army and the Civil Administration.

Alongside these two initiatives came a practical recommendation from the Chief Secretary: the forced deportation of hundreds of Irgun and Lehi members held in detention camps at Latrun and Acre. Of the three options proposed by Shaw – Cyprus, Cyrenaica and Eritrea – Eritrea was chosen as the destination of the captive fighters. While the political future of the Land of Israel was unclear, putting a great deal of distance between the problematic prisoners and Palestine greatly appealed to the Mandate authorities. They felt that the chance of escape from Eritrea was slim.

In the early hours of October 19th, 1944, 251 detainees from the Latrun and Acre prisons were loaded onto British Air Force planes. No women from the underground movement were sent to Africa. The few female prisoners who had been held were released in advance. At noon on October 20th, the deportees landed at the airport in Asmara and were taken away by armored vehicles to Sembel Camp, the first African detention camp to hold the underground exiles.


The exiles at Sembel Camp in Eritrea, the first camp at which they were detained

“Returning to Israel was the main concern of the detainees from the day they set foot on African soil,” writes Shulamit Eliash in the second chapter of her book Etzel and Lehi Exiles
British Detention Camps in Africa (1944-1948)
(Hebrew). Although this seems to be an accurate statement – the obsession to return is corroborated by entries in the detainees’ diaries – the detainees placed their focus on another objective which helped to ease the suffering of their forced exile: They poured their efforts into meticulously documenting the details of camp life and the various activities they engaged in during the years of captivity.

The Jewish prisoners began documenting their experiences within the first days of their residence at the Sembel Detention Camp. At the Gilgil Camp in Kenya, the third and last camp to which the detainees were transferred towards the end of their time in Africa, the appointed literary board asked residents to contribute “any text that had anything to do with their stay in the camp,” for a special booklet. All 439 camp residents turned over articles, stories, notes, drawings, memoirs, and diary entries for the cause.


The Book of Imprisonment and Exile, the original edition


“They Will Not Break Us,” a poem from The Book of Imprisonment and Exile

The camp’s literary board, which was named Badad (“Alone” in Hebrew), published several compilations of prisoner works throughout the detention in Africa. The call put forth at Gilgil was in preparation for the fourth such volume. In contrast to the three mini-booklets that preceded it, “There shall be no limit on the number of pages in this special issue, therefore any material worthy of being published will be included.”

What did the daring, young fighters from the underground movements write about? The first text in the booklet deals with the detainees’ unexpected departure from the Land of Israel into exile. “We are in the air,” writes Aryeh Mehulal (penning the entry under his underground name, Avi), “flying. No one knows where. But clearly, beyond the borders of our own country.” As the work progressed, with more and more texts being added as the submissions flooded in from the detainees, it swelled in size until it grew to a thick, typewritten book called The Book of Imprisonment and Exile (Hebrew).

Zvi Hadas documented his first impressions of exile and titled it First Steps. He noted that when the first detainees arrived at Sembel, they sent a delegation to approach the camp authorities: “The detainees will not accept the expulsion and will do their utmost to return to Israel,” the delegation announced. The camp authorities were not impressed by the gesture, “More and more the recognition that our exile is not some brief affair has taken root. As long as our problem is not resolved in Israel, we will be used as a constant whip to threaten the rebellious and the intractable.”

The Sembel Camp synagogue. Illustration by Leopold Pinhasovich

The unusual situation soon became a dull routine. The inaction of the detainees led to the need to implement various cultural and recreational initiatives in the camp, primarily sports and fitness- a central theme in the life of the camp, on which the historian Baruch Forman composed a fascinating article. Boredom was expressed in writing as well. David Sivan summed up the first three months of detention, “A bugle woke us up in the morning. A bugle sent us to bed in the evening. And in between, day after day, we gazed out at the landscape – rich and fertile – and inward toward our souls –barren and desolate. Empty days, terrible days, days of chaos. Thoughts wander through an inventory of memories – yet only the inventory remains. Beyond the fence there is no caller, there is no messenger from the Land. The walls of our cage are transparent and sealed. Days of detached worry, days of dull boredom, and of ignorance.”

On their 56th day in the Sembel Camp, the imprisoned resistance fighters conducted their first hunger strike which lasted for several days. It was at this point that the exhausted detainees received their first letters from home. “Immediately a bell was heard calling the camp residents to the mess hall. It was both funny and painful to see the boys running to the mess hall to receive that which was now dearest to us all.”

Irgun and Lehi exiles in Eritrea

Perhaps it is best not to take every word the underground fighters wrote about the extent of their pain and suffering at face value. While their writing tells of the inherent helplessness of their situation and complaints of the tedious boredom and homesickness, the introduction to the reissue of The Book of Imprisonment and Exile (published by the Ministry of Defense, 1980) revealed that the camp was rife with the kind of activity which had led to the exile of the detainees in the first place.

From Sembel to Gilgil, the 1980 reissue

Not only were the contributors to the book not particularly careful to avoid offending the representatives of the British Empire, but sometimes they seem to have been deliberately intent on provocation. Almost all attempts to escape from the three camps in which the detainees were held in Africa (a total of nine) are documented in alarming detail.


Gilgil Camp in Kenya – Star of David flowerbeds with a menorah-shaped cactus at its center. Unbeknownst to the camp authorities, the sand in the center of the garden was taken from a tunnel dug by the detainees

Think about it this way: When the book was published in the camp in November 1947, modern Hebrew had already been widely spoken in the streets of the Land of Israel for more than two decades. Would it have been so difficult for the more-than-proficient British army to obtain an interpreter who would easily expose the subversion that is well documented within The Book of Imprisonment and Exile? Did the detainees not see this as akin to disturbing a sleeping dragon?

I found a slight echo of some concern in the forward to the 1980 reissued edition of the book, which was written by two members of the original literary board. “The shortcomings of The Book of Imprisonment and Exile stemmed from the conditions of the camp. There was an inherent need to keep the details of escape and the names of escapees secret. The most significant information gap regards events that took place in the camp between September 1947 and the final announcement of our return to Zion (July 1948). These events were only noted by where they fell on the timeline of our imprisonment in the camps in the appendix at the end of the book.”


A diagram of the “camp census,” conducted from October 1944-October 1947

The large wooden press that was used for the printing of the book was also secretly used for creating “the seals of the countries in fake Honduran and El Salvadoran passports prepared in the camp. These would be used in the next escape attempt,” the two editors added in a footnote.


Fake passports made in the camp – Honduras and El Salvador

The last detainees were released 56 days after the establishment of the State of Israel. They arrived at the port of Tel Aviv in July, 1948. The former detainees were in awe of the changes that had taken place in the young Hebrew state during their four years of exile. With the establishment of the State of Israel, the deportees’ stay in Africa became a violation of international law and, thus, the long-awaited road for their return to Israel was paved.

The struggle to establish a Jewish State in Palestine had already entered its second phase when Arab armies invaded the newly minted state on the day Israel declared her independence. “Who is on the side of the Lord?” was the commander’s call to action before the onset of an Irgun operation, “We have all pledged to this cause for life. The only release from this vow is death” they sang in the Lehi. A dramatic finale to a story of imprisonment and exile. But the real story did not end on the day Israel declared independence or even when they returned to their homeland. The returning exiles would go on to flourish in the new state whose establishment they had heard of from so far away, while crowded around a single radio as prisoners.


The exiles bring back a Torah scroll as they return to Israel, July 1948


The exiles arriving at the port of Tel Aviv, July 1948

Bonus: Two original copies of The Book of Imprisonment and Exile are kept at the National Library of Israel, both of which contain a different, moving dedication. The first is dedicated to the President of the Hebrew University, Dr. Yehuda Leib Magnes. The second, dedicated to the National Library itself (which at that time served as the library of the Hebrew University), reads: “To the Jewish National and University Library, a gift from the camp of exiles in Kenya.”


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When Golda Beat Ben-Gurion and Formed a 102 MK Coalition Without Him

Israel's founding father won only four seats in his last Knesset run

Golda Meir votes in the 1969 Israeli elections. Photo by Gershon Elinson, the Dan Hadani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

The year 1969 marked one of Israel’s most peculiar and pivotal political contests, when David Ben-Gurion, Golda Meir, and Menachem Begin each led a faction into the country’s first polls after the Six Day War.

The elections for the Seventh Knesset were held in October of 1969. Just over two years after the miraculous victory of 1967, the country was coming down from its euphoria and the War of Attrition was taking its toll. The country’s “forgotten war” would claim the lives of some 1,000 Israeli soldiers in just three years, lost in numerous skirmishes and missions along its newly expanded borders with ever-belligerent neighbors.

Israeli artillery in action near the Suez Canal during the War of Attrition, 1969. Photo by Yossi Rot, the Dan Hadani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

While security and conflict with those neighbors were always hot election topics, 1969 marked the first time the political and geo-political ramifications of those expanded borders became campaign issues, which they remain to this day.

The 1969 elections came following the death of Levi Eshkol, the first Israeli prime minister to die in office. Golda Meir, who came out of retirement to replace Eshkol, led the country for more than six months despite not being chosen in a general election. She and her HaMa’arakh (The Alignment) faction would go on to win big in the ’69 elections, nearly securing a Knesset majority on its own with 56 seats – a feat unimaginable in today’s political realities. Even more inconceivable is the fact that the faction she led prior to the election held even more seats. Golda would remain prime minister for another five years, winning reelection just after the Yom Kippur War, only to ultimately resign a few months later once it became clear that she had lost the trust and support of much of the Israeli public and her own ruling party.

Golda Meir addresses the members of “The Alignment” ahead of the 1969 elections. Photo by Shalom Bar Tal, the Dan Hadani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel


Golda Meir votes in the 1969 Israeli elections. Photo by Gershon Elinson, the Dan Hadani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

The Seventh Knesset elections would also be the last for founding father David Ben-Gurion, who was known to call Golda “the best man in government”. After serving as the young country’s prime minister for much of its first two decades, “The Old Man” had refused to join The Alignment as part of the Rafi party he had founded four years prior. Instead, he started yet another new party, HaReshima Hamamlakhtit (The National List), with former Mossad head Isser Harel. They secured a paltry four Knesset seats in the 1969 race and Ben-Gurion retired from public life the following year. Strangely enough, what remained of their National List would go on to become a founding faction of Menachem Begin’s Likud Party.

David Ben-Gurion and Isser Harel, 1969. Photo by Uzi Keren, the Dan Hadani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel


David Ben-Gurion gives a speech ahead of the 1969 elections. Photo by Jacob Elbaz, the Dan Hadani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

Following the October 1969 elections, Golda Meir set out to form a government. Though Ben-Gurion’s National List sat in the opposition, Golda and Begin joined forces for the common good, and a 102-member strong left-right-center, secular-religious-traditional, Jewish-Arab coalition was formed.

Menachem Begin after hearing the results of the 1969 elections. Photo by Dan Hadani, the Dan Hadani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel


The counting of the votes begins. Photo by Uzi Keren, the Dan Hadani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel


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Robert Lachmann – Between Orientalism and the East

Robert Lachmann with his secretary (Jerusalem, ca. 1936)

The weather-beaten stone marker atop grave number 15, row 3, sub-section 8 of the Jerusalem community plot of the Mount of Olives cemetery appears neglected, as if it has not been visited for many years. The gravestone contains just three words: “Dr. Robert Lachmann.” The records of Chevra Kadisha list the name of the deceased as “Robert Lachmann”, date of birth: unknown; parents’ names: unknown; date of death: 20th of Iyar, 5699, May 9th, 1939.

Who was Dr. Robert Lachmann, who passed away in 1939?

Born in Berlin in 1892, Robert Lachmann was the second of three sons born to Dr. Georg Lachmann, a Jewish scholar who taught at the Humanistic Gymnasium in Berlin, and Jenny Hendler-Lachmann, who was born and raised in London and graduated from Queen’s College.

Lachmann studied violin and languages, English and French at the universities in Berlin and London and took lessons in Arabic with Prof. Mittwoch.  During the First World War he served as a translator for prisoners of war from North Africa and India at Wunsdorf, where he was first introduced to and became fascinated by Arabic and other non-European music. This work made him decide to do more research of Arabic music and culture. Following the completion of his master’s degree in musicology, at the University of Berlin (Humboldt University) he decided to focus on the music of Tunisia, and thus he became one of the pioneers of the study of Arabic and Eastern music.


Robert Lachmann with his secretary (Jerusalem, ca. 1936)

Lachmann was one of the founders of the field of comparative musicology that later evolved in the United States into what was called “ethnomusicology.” But even this term does not fully convey the scope of the field or the materials studied in it. Indeed, non-European music was initially at the forefront of comparative music research, which began in post-WWI Germany and the Weimar period. The idea was to find that which was common among different forms of music, as well as what was different – the ancient roots of each form of music. This kind of research was best conducted when it was possible to record and play back the music from recordings, and to isolate and analyze elements from the various musical languages. Lachmann and his colleagues were of course also aware of music’s social, psychological and magical contexts.

As mentioned, Lachmann was born in Berlin and lived there until 1935. He completed his doctoral dissertation in 1922 and published articles on the music of Haydn and Schubert. However, his most significant work as a comparative musicologist was presented in his book Musik des Orients and an expansive article on the music of non-European civilizations, which he published in 1929. That same year, Lachmann decided to leave the Jewish community as he considered himself a Universalist and felt that his relationship with the community was nothing more than a troublesome nuisance. It was around this time that he began writing his memoirs about his military service as an interpreter in a prisoner of war camp during WWI, which are today preserved in the Sound Archive in Berlin.

With the rise of the Nazis to power, and despite being an assimilated, educated Jew, who lacked any strong connection with Jewish culture, he was fired from his post as a librarian of the Berlin State Library  in 1933 and was left with no source of income. His options were to immigrate either to the United States, as many musicologists did or to Palestine. He chose Palestine—not because of any Zionist or Jewish sentiment—but because he was a scholar of Eastern music who saw the many possibilities to continue his research in the Land of Israel/ Palestine, with its many cultures, especially in Jerusalem, as well as its proximity to Egypt and other Arab countries.

Ruth Katz, who studied the life and activities of Robert Lachmann, claims that Lachmann was “uprooted,” and believed only in research, choosing Jerusalem for that reason.

Postcard to Robert Lachmann. The delivery address on the postcard has been corrected to “Beit Turgeman”]


Lachmann spent over three years packing up his library and archive in anticipation of his move to Mandatory Palestine. Even after immigrating, he traveled to Berlin several times, copying recordings on wax cylinders, including recordings by Abraham Zevi Idelsohn, copies of which had reached Berlin from Vienna.


Wax cylinders alongside a machine that records and plays them – the Edison phonograph in the National Library’s Sound Archive


Among Lachmann’s recordings which he made in Jerusalem on tin records, which mainly consist of Eastern music, was one song, a German children’s song, which Lachmann himself sang and whistled:

Vöglein im hohen Baum (Bird in the Treetop)

Vöglein im hohen Baum
Klein ist´s, ihr seht es kaum
tausend zugleich
Wenn ihr vorüber geht
wenn ihr die Farben seht
freuet ihr euch


Click here to read the complete text in German


Recording no. 1, Vöglein im hohen Baum


Before immigrating to Palestine and prior to the Nazi’s rise to power, Lachmann presented his research on Arabic music at the World Conference for Arabic music in Cairo in 1932. He met many Jewish musicians there, including Jewish Iraqi musician and composer Ezra Aharon, who represented the music of his country on behalf of the king of Iraq. Ezra Aharon immigrated to Palestine in 1934 and became one of Lachmann’s principal subjects of research and a major figure in Eastern music circles in Jerusalem and the rest of the country. Palestine Radio began its broadcasts in 1936 with a musical segment featuring Ezra Aharon playing the oud. He established the Arab Music Orchestra and composed many songs and compositions. Ezra Aharon, like Lachmann, did not think that his immigration to Palestine would prevent him from ever returning to Iraq, but political and military developments would soon reshape the region.

Before leaving Berlin  Lachmann sought to establish a research center for Oriental-Eastern music and contacted representatives of the Hebrew University. He received a reply from the president of the university, Dr. Yehuda Leib Magnes, who invited him in 1935 to establish an archive for Eastern music. The intention was to establish a sound archive that would record and analyze recordings, with a studio, recording equipment and a sound technician.

And so, in 1936, Lachmann arrived in Palestine with a British government certificate, bringing with him copies of recordings made in Tunisia which had been stored in the Berlin sound archive. These were recordings made by Abraham Zevi Idelsohn, “the father of Jewish musicology” who had resided in Jerusalem from 1907 to 1921. He also brought copies of other recordings he had made, and records of Oriental music from both the Near and Far East that he had acquired for the archive. In addition he obtained funding to employ a sound technician who would work alongside him. This man went by the name of Walter Schor.


Robert Lachmann in a recording session

Lachmann’s work continued for about three years. The university had difficulty dealing with his personality as well as his research and goals. The budget he was allocated was renewed annually, until the end of 1938, when he was informed that funding would be cut off.

The Hebrew University, founded in 1925, did not understand the importance of Lachmann’s research and although when he arrived in the country he began to study Jewish music as well, the university’s administration did not see any point in the continuation of his research at the time

Once in the Land of Israel, Lachmann made some 800 recordings of Eastern music on tin records. The subjects of the recordings as he described them in his notes were: “Samaritan Music”–233 records; “Jewish Music: Kurds”–12 records, “Yemenites”–75 records, “Western”–51 records, “Other Communities”– 25 records, “Contemporary (Popular) Music”–34 records, “Arabic Music”: “Bedouins”–23 records, “Rural”–119 records, “Religious Music”–39 “Women and Children”–9 “Eastern Urban Music”–92 records, “Christians”–42 records, “Gypsies”–6 records, “Others”–9 records, Total: 769 records.

Tin records recorded by Robert Lachmann


Recording no. 2 – The song “Yefe Nof” performed by Ezra Aharon (vocals and oud)


Recording no. 3 – Musical piece performed with the oud


In 1936 and 1937, Lachmann was invited to present a series of lectures on the radio in English. The musical demonstrations were taken from the tin recordings, and he hoped that in this way, he would help spread Eastern music along with his teachings, as well as obtain additional funding for his work.


Recording no. 4 – Lachmann at the end of his series speaks about his financial crisis


For years, all of Lachmann’s recordings were preserved by his student Dr. Edith (Esther) Gerson-Kiwi. She continued his work and maintained the Eastern music collection until the establishment of the National Sound Archive by Prof. Israel Adler as part of the National Library in 1965. For years, Gerson-Kiwi refused to hand over Lachmann’s material, until finally in the 1980s she transferred Lachmann’s recordings and her own to the Sound Archive. The archive containing Lachmann’s writings, notes and letters is in the Music Department and is accessible to researchers and visitors under the catalog number MUS26.

One could say that Lachmann was the spiritual founder of the National Sound Archive of the National Library. Generations of ethnomusicologists have continued on his path, with many continuing to study the musical field Lachmann devoted himself to—the music of the East.

Lachmann studied Hebrew and was interested in the tradition of Jewish musical performance—the pronunciations, liturgical hymns (piyutim) and women’s songs. He was especially interested in the songs of the Samaritans which had an ancient and magical sound.

Among his writings are handwritten pages in vowelized Hebrew, of lectures he transcribed into Hebrew for himself about the foundations of Jewish music, which, it can be assumed, he read aloud. Interestingly, he never recorded himself speaking in Hebrew.

He writes in “Lecture no. 1: the Foundations of Jewish Music – Reading the Bible A (Mus 26 C 19)”:


Handwritten page by Lachmann of his vowelized Hebrew lectures with notes in German


My lectures will deal with the music of Eastern Jews. Although it is not my intention to bore my listeners with details about the traditions of the various communities, I think it would be more useful to address the main elements of this music. Perhaps my listeners are hoping for a short, definitive answer to a favorite question: what is Jewish music? However, one of the aims of my lectures is to try to prove to them that there is no short, conclusive answer to this query.

I will not give them a definitive answer because the subject has not yet been thoroughly investigated. Jewish music consists of parts that have not yet been clarified, such as the cantillations and songs of Kurdish Jews, and perhaps the most interesting, the cantillations   of the Karaites, and more. Before researching these, it is impossible to come to an absolute conclusion. There are certainly people for whom it is sufficient in this regard to rely on their beliefs and feelings and not on facts for the sake of drawing conclusions. But as we have decided, we must rely more on facts than on beliefs and feelings.

And secondly, I cannot give a concise answer to the question of the essence of Jewish music. Jewish music has undergone many changes and influences. Apart from that, each of its forms has its own social circumstances and musical principles and all will need to be addressed.

If we want to talk about Jewish music we must first of all think of the Bible.  Indeed, the cantillation of the Bible is unique and there are doubts about whether it can be called music at all … there was and still is a tendency among the Eastern nations to see music as a force which can have a negative influence on the human spirit…


Lachmann goes on to discuss Samaritan music, which he views as ancient and having a magical power which he apparently did not find in Jewish music. He continues:

According to the magical approach, one can influence the natural spirits with certain special actions. Among these, the most important is the uttering of magical incantations. These chants are spoken by healer-shamans who are responsible for the health of the society and its success in the hunt as well as all important social issues in general. But in their belief, he [the shaman] is not the active force in all of these situations. He is just the vessel being used by the spirits to achieve the necessary magic. It is understandable then that the conjurer cannot utter the magical sayings in his natural voice.

This disguising of the voice is found also among the Samaritans and the wonderful impression left on the listeners from their style is achieved by the disguised voice. In other words, there are remnants of the magical approach in the Samaritan cantillation. Moreover, Samaritan cantillation is the only cantillation among the Near Eastern churches that preserves these clear remnants.

The next lectures will be devoted to the following topics: Foundations of Jewish Music 2 [Cantillating the Bible]; Foundations of Jewish Music 3 [Traditional Secular Music of Eastern Jews]; Foundations of Jewish Music 4 [Contemporary Jewish Music, the Definition of Jewish Music].

We learn from a newspaper article that Lachmann lectured on Eastern music in various circles, and these audiences also found it difficult to understand the broad contexts connecting Japanese, Chinese, Arabic and Eastern Jewish music.

Lachmann died of an illness on May 9th, 1939. A telegram was sent to his brother in London from the university’s president Dr. Yehuda Leib Magnes. Walter Schor disappeared without a trace and conspiracy theories still abound about his actions in Palestine among those who knew him. Some say that he was accused of espionage. Lachmann was 46 years old at the time of his death. His research and recordings tell the story of Jerusalem and its voices. The establishment of the Archive of Eastern Music was ahead of its time but left its mark and has influenced the research and collection of Jewish and Israeli music in the Land of Israel and the State of Israel to this day. Robert Lachmann, an intellectual Jew, rooted in German culture, a lover of Eastern culture, a believer in science, died poor and alone and was buried on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem. From there he looks on and listens to the old and new voices of the East and of the Sound Archive of the National Library.


For further reading:

Ruth Katz, The Lachmann Problem”: An Unsung Chapter in Comparative Musicology, Magnes Press, Jerusalem, 2003.


And for further listening:

Robert Lachmann, The “Oriental Music” Broadcasts 1936-1937: A Musical Ethnography of Mandatory Palestine Edited by Ruth Davis, A-R Editions, Inc. Middleton, Wisconsin, 2013.

Ruth Katz

For restorations of Lachmann’s tin record recordings click here.


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Four Ketubot and a Wedding

Okay, two weddings, but this is still the strangest story you will have heard in a while...

By Chen Malul

A ketubah is a traditional Jewish wedding contract. As such, it is not a particularly romantic item, and not just for the obvious reasons. Consider, for example, the four ketubot that were recently unearthed by the staff of the National Library’s Manuscripts Department on an old microfilm reel. These four documents appear to attest to a strange sequence of events, and they unfortunately represent the only evidence available…

The first ketubah from Trieste

The story begins in Italy. The year was 1842, and in the port city of Trieste (which served as a free-trade zone of the Austro-Hungarian Empire) the dear bride-groom Jehoiakim ben Shimon Schulhaff was being wed to the honorable virgin Leah bat Yaakov Gabriel. The groom’s signature and that of the two witnesses at the bottom of the ketubah sealed its validity. But, apparently, the groom did not hold up his end of the bargain, failing to financially support his bride, and soon enough she was married to another suitor.

A year and a half after the lavish seaside wedding at Trieste, a second ketubah was inscribed, but not signed, in another Italian port city, Ancona. On the thirteenth day of the month of Iyar, in the year 5604 (1844), the same young lady – Leah bat Yaakov Gabriel – was to be married once again. This time, the groom answered to the name Joseph ben Yehuda Schwarzenberg.

The second ketubah from Ancona

Neither the groom’s signature, nor the two required witness signatures appear in this second ketubah. This made it a matter of no consequence whatsoever for our honorable bride to be married yet another time, this time to (according to our best estimation) the former groom’s brother – Gershon ben Yehuda Schwarzenberg. Did this unusual arrangement for a wedding offer any benefit to the Schwarzenberg family? Perhaps they got a better deal on the catering? Whatever the reason – the ketubah indicates that this festive event took place on the sixteenth day of Iyar, only three days after the date on the previous ketubah. This time, the wedding was supposedly held on the Mediterranean island of Corfu, raising the possibility that the whole episode was a ruse meant to disguise the smuggling of the couple out of Italy. The third ketubah is also unsigned, meaning the union was never given the kosher seal of approval, the document remaining null and void.

The third ketubah from Corfu

This fact, however, served to enable the existence of the aforementioned fourth ketubah! This wedding would be held even further away from Italy, on the shores of the same sea but on a different continent. The event was to be set in Alcara (near Fustat), part of modern-day Cairo in Egypt.

Ketubah number four was composed and signed on the 29th of the same month and year as the previous two. The newlyweds were the same couple appearing on the Corfu ketubah – Gershon ben Yehuda Schwarzenberg and Leah bat Yaakov Gabriel. This time, the document was signed. Incidentally, in the ketubah we see here, the groom’s last name was written incorrectly (“Schwarsenbilgi”), indicating that the scribe was not familiar with Ashkenazi surnames.

The fourth ketubah from Alcara

The National Library’s Manuscripts Department is at a loss as to the meaning and significance of this strange affair. They even declined to comment for this article. At any rate, mazal tov to the newlywed couple!


The National Library of Israel is in possession of the largest collection of ketubot in the world. You can browse through them here.


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