The Composer Who Angered the President of Israel

Andre Hajdu, one of the greatest and most groundbreaking composers in Israeli history, a recipient of the Israel Prize, was not popular with everyone…


Andre Hajdu in his home in Jerusalem. Photo: Dana Shimoni

Silence filled the hall as the piece known as Ludus Paschalis, written by the composer and future recipient of the Israel Prize, Andre Hajdu, reached its climax. Suddenly, a single, brave voice uttered the words, “Mr. President, forgive us”. They were meant for Mr. Zalman Shazar, the President of the State of Israel, who had sponsored the special concert held at the Hebrew University in January, 1971. It was merely the second time the piece had been performed in front of an audience, following the concert premiere which was held in Tel Aviv the previous evening.


The festive concert was part of the Jerusalem Testimonium Festival, a special event being held for the second time, for which a number of pieces, dedicated to Jewish and biblical themses, had been specially composed. That year, the participating composers were asked by the concert’s organizer, Recha Freier, to create pieces relating to the Middle Ages. Who could be better-suited for such a task than Andre Hajdu? Though Hajdu, one of the most highly-regarded ethnomusicologists in Israeli history, was not a fan of mixing biographical and musical elements – we will use this opportunity to take a closer look at the extraordinary life of this fascinating figure.

Andre Hajdu was born in 1932 to a Jewish family in Budapest. He survived the Holocaust and later studied music under the greatest Hungarian musicians of his day, including Béla Bartók and Zoltán Kodály, who were composers as well as ethnomusicologists. Following in their footsteps, Hajdu began studying ethnomusicology and folklore. He spent much time with the local Romani people (previously known as Gypsies), learning their language and studying their musical culture.

Hajdu later moved to Paris following the 1956 Hungarian Uprising, yet he did not find his place there and struggled to make a living. He later spent time in Tunisia, where he “rediscovered” his own Judaism amidst the unique Jewish community of Djerba. Upon his return to France, he began studying Gemara and observing mitzvot. What followed was only natural: With the encouragement of Dr. Israel Adler, founder of the National Sound Archives and the Jewish Music Research Centre, Hajdu made Aliyah and turned his attention to the study of another type of folk music – Hassidic music and the traditional melodies sung in the Beit Midrash.

Considering all this, when Hajdu was asked to compose a piece for the Testimonium, it was only natural that he created a piece of musical theatre dealing with the relationship between Jews and Christians, with the scourge of antisemitism and its place in the world – this was was the infamous Ludus Paschalis. The piece depicts a group of Christian children murdering their friend who poses as a Jew as part of a game.

The Hebrew words – “Mr. President, forgive us”, can be heard at the beginning of this recording from the performance:


In an interview he gave a few years later, Hajdu said the piece was “intentionally provocative”: “It was a sort of psychoanalysis of Christianity… (antisemitism) will be gone from the world only when the world itself is gone.” The entire piece, as recorded on that fateful night, can be heard here.


A segment of Ludus Paschalis in Hajdu’s handwriting. Courtesy of the Hajdu archive, the National Library of Israel


Yamim VeLeylot supplement, Maariv, January 29th, 1971

President Shazar was upset; the Jewish characters in the musical did not react to the murder which took place on the steps of the Beit Midrash, and this passivity was not to his liking. He left the event and did not attend the celebratory reception held in his honor after the performance ended. Sometime later, a meeting was arranged in an attempt to settle matters between the composer and the President. The meeting was not very successful, but over time, raw emotions were calmed. During the 1990s, the controversial composition was even played on Israeli public radio. Hajdu himself continued developing his career as a researcher, lecturer and composer, writing music to accompany various Mishnayot (verses of Jewish biblical commentary), composing sections of the Book of Ecclesiastes and more.

“The President Left the Premiere of “Testimonium” in Anger, Removing His Patronage”, Davar, January 6th, 1971

Hajdu’s unique personality and teaching methods encouraged improvisation and attracted the attention of students who wished to study with him. Well-known Israeli composers and artists admired the composer who passed away in 2016, including Gil Shohat, Yoni Rechter, Yonatan and Aharon Razel, among many others.



Andre Hajdu’s archives are kept at the National Library of Israel.


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The Return of the Lost Siddur of the Jews of Catalonia

Following years of work, we take a look at a reconstructed medieval prayer book used by the Jewish communities of Catalonia, Valencia and Majorca

“May the Creator who conceived the entire world in His glory be sanctified and exalted. This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it. A day when a new window has opened in the heavens and the streams of our prayers return to their stead. I give thanks before you, King living and eternal, to have been privileged to publish the prayer book of the holy community of Catalonia in an edition adapted to our times and to restore the original splendor and administer the customs of the holy communities that lived and thrived in the Middle Ages in the lands of Catalonia, Valencia and Majorca.”

With these words Dr. Idan Perez begins the Siddur Catalunya—the first complete reconstruction of the lost prayer book once used by the great pre-expulsion sages Nachmanides, Rabenu Yonah Gerondi, and Rabbi Hasdai Crescas, as well the Jewish communities of Catalonia, Valencia and Majorca, then independent kingdoms before their unification under the crown of Aragon and later Spain.

Dr. Perez, now head of the Rare Books Department at the National Library of Israel, worked on the restoration project for three years. The prayer book, which was never printed in its entirety (except as a Mahzor for the High Holy Days), was recreated based on six separate manuscripts. The earliest (a manuscript preserved in the Ginzburg collection in Moscow) dates to around 1352, more than one hundred years before the expulsion. The last of the manuscripts, preserved in Rome in the Biblioteca Casanatense, was copied in the year 1507, less than twenty years after the expulsion. “I didn’t add a single word of my own, everything came from the manuscripts,” he explains.

The primary (and earliest) manuscript on which Dr. Idan Perez relied, Moscow, Ginzburg 821

The first major obstacle facing the restorer was the inaccurate information that appeared in the catalog of the Institute of Microfilmed Hebrew Manuscripts. “Sometimes other rites of prayer were (wrongly) mentioned in the manuscripts as being the Catalan rite (nusach), and the manuscripts that were written in the Catalan rite were marked as other versions. The errors in the catalog stem from the fact that in the past, the information was copied from printed catalogs and not checked, and also because the Catalan prayer rite had not been thoroughly researched until now.”

Dr. Perez consulted with experts of the relevant prayer rites and with their help, prepared a list of manuscripts that contained without doubt the Catalan rite. “I then prepared a list of characteristics of the rite and the various customs that I found in the manuscripts (this list appears in the introduction to the prayer book).

I used Manuscript A (Ginzburg) as the basis. As a first step, I prepared tables of contents for all the manuscripts. I compared all the parts of the prayer book as they appeared in all six manuscripts and recorded the differences. In the prayer book, I used the earliest version as the basis, noting differences in versions or spelling in the footnotes and sometimes in square brackets in the text. The parts of the prayer book that are not found in Manuscript A were copied from the other manuscripts and this was noted in the footnotes.”

A request put forth by Nachmanides, published for the first time ever in the Siddur Catalunya, from the latest manuscript on which Dr. Idan Perez relied, Biblioteca Casanatense, Rome, 2741

Whoever speaks with Dr. Idan Perez cannot help but notice his Spanish (more precisely, his Catalonian) accent. I asked him how he came to reconstruct the lost prayer book, “I am a native of Barcelona and I was always intrigued to know what the ‘Catalan nusach’ which the sages referred to actually was. As we know, this ancient prayer style did not survive because the communities of the Catalan Jews did not survive the riots, persecutions and the Holocaust. Today, there is no community that prays according to this nusach. I began my historical research about the Jews who fled Catalonia after the riots of 1391 and the expulsion in 1492 and reached important findings in the communities of the expelled Catalans in Italy, the Ottoman Empire and Algiers.” Thus, he learned about the lost prayer book and his ultimate goal became clear: “To restore the full text and be as faithful as possible to its earliest version.”

To support the project, click here.


Frontispiece of the Siddur Catalunya, according to the rite of the Holy Community of Catalonia


Morning prayer rite from Siddur Catalunya


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Asking Forgiveness from Baruch Spinoza

One of the greatest Jewish philosophers of all time? Or a heretic? The story of Baruch Spinoza


A postcard featuring the painting "Spinoza" by the Jewish painter Samuel Hirszenberg, 1907. Spinoza is pictured walking away dejectedly after the expulsion from the Jewish community was imposed on him

On July 27th, 1656, an unusual entry appeared in the community ledger of Amsterdam’s Portuguese Jews – a decree announcing the excommunication of a 24 year-old Jew by the name of Baruch Spinoza. The writ of expulsion read:

The Senhores of the Mahamad make it known that they have long since been cognizant of the wrong opinions and behavior of Baruch d’Espinoza, and tried various means and promises to dissuade him from his evil ways. But as they effected no improvement, obtaining on the contrary more information every day of the horrible heresies which he practised and taught, and of the monstrous actions which he performed… they decided… that the same Espinoza should be excommunicated…

After the judgment of the Angels, and with that of the Saints, we excommunicate, expel and curse and damn Baruch de Espinoza with the consent of God, Blessed be He, and with the consent of all the Holy Congregation, in front of the holy Scrolls with the six-hundred-and-thirteen precepts which are written therein, with the excommunication with which Joshua banned Jericho, with the curse with which Elisha cursed the boys, and with all the curses which are written in the Law. Cursed be he by day and cursed be he by night; cursed be he when he lies down, and cursed be he when he rises up; cursed be he when he goes out, and cursed be he when he comes in. The Lord will not pardon him; the anger and wrath of the Lord will rage against this man, and bring upon him all the curses which are written in the Book of the Law, and the Lord will destroy his name from under the Heavens, and the Lord will separate him to his injury from all the tribes of Israel with all the curses of the firmament, which are written in the Book of the Law. But you who cleave unto the Lord God are all alive this day. We order that nobody should communicate with him orally or in writing, or show him any favor, or stay with him under the same roof, or within four ells of him, or read anything composed or written by him.

But you who cleave unto the Lord God are all alive this day. We order that nobody should communicate with him orally or in writing, or show him any favor, or stay with him under the same roof, or within four ells of him, or read anything composed or written by him.

(Translation: Berkley Center for Religion, Peace & World Affairs, Georgetown University)


Baruch Spinoza – The Quintessential Heretic

It is not clear when exactly the young Baruch Spinoza decided to begin questioning the religion of his forefathers, but it likely happened at an early age. While regularly attending synagogue and keeping the mitzvoth, Spinoza developed his philosophical and theological ideas through an intense study of the Torah. The more he read, the more aware he became of the many contradictions contained within the holy text. As described in his Theologico-Political Treatise, Spinoza concluded that the Torah’s laws were valid, but only in the political framework established by the ancient Hebrews in the Land of Israel. He claimed that these laws often contradicted the laws of nature as they were understood in Spinoza’s time.

Baruch ‘Benedict’ Spinoza, 1632-1677

Spinoza did not abandon faith in the Eternal, but rather placed the Eternal (that which is divine) within the realm of this world. Spinoza’s God (in contrast to the Judeo-Christian view of God) is not an independent entity, separate from the universe. Spinoza’s God is the universe. In this philosophy, Spinoza developed the foundations of a discipline that would later come to be called “Biblical Criticism.” He created (perhaps for the first time in history) a critical and historical interpretation of the Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible. His interpretation abandons many traditional understandings in favor of using logical and scientific methods to understand the text.

Even in the relatively liberal and enlightened atmosphere of Amsterdam, Spinoza (a descendant of the Portuguese conversos) was disowned by his community. These victims of the Inquisition, descendants of forced converts to Christianity, were now working to bring those of Jewish descent back to their original faith. They saw the words and actions of Spinoza as a threat the delicate fabric of life they had worked so hard to cultivate for themselves. Baruch Spinoza was forced to find a new place in society as a faith-less citizen and philosopher. Historians would later come to refer to him as “the first secular Jew.”

ציור ביתו של שפינוזה
A drawing of Spinoza’s house, from the Avraham Schwadron collection

Throughout the generations, the Jewish people have had a complex relationship with the figure and writings of Baruch Spinoza. In his lifetime, he was forced to communicate his teachings to his few students in abbreviated, discreet form. He published his public writings anonymously, but his most far-reaching book, Ethics, was discovered in a drawer in his home following his death.

For hundreds of years, Jews continued to reject Spinoza and his ideas. Even after he died and his offenses against the Portuguese Jewish community were long forgotten, his ideas were regarded as heresy and an intentional harassment of the basic tenets of Judaism. For more than a century Spinoza’s name was shunned, not to be mentioned in public circles. It was the great thinkers of the Enlightenment who first began to turn the tide in favor of some of the ideas of the “heretic”.


The First Signs of Support for Spinoza

With the rise of European Enlightenment, Judaism came under assault from an unexpected direction. In addition to the traditional Christian condemnation, which denounced the Jews for rejecting their Messiah and continuing to adhere to an outdated set of religious edicts, the Enlightenment philosophers also began to condemn the Jews for refusing to abandon their religion and integrate into the modern, rational world that the Enlightenment sought to establish.

Spinoza was rebranded by these thinkers as a martyr of the Enlightenment, a victim who had bravely defied the rabbinical establishment of his time in an attempt to bring about change from within. Most chose to ignore his overall undermining of the fundamentals of religion: the abandonment of the idea of revelation, the belief in the statute of limitations of religious law and his identification of the universe itself with God. But as stark opponents of the Hasidic movement, they strongly embraced Spinoza’s rejection of the mystical dimension of Judaism.

The well-known Hebrew writer and intellectual, Mordecai Zeev Feuerberg, treated the rejected Jewish philosopher with great respect and harshly denounced his own people for Spinoza’s poor treatment at their hands. He even went on to draw parallels between Spinoza and Immanuel Kant.


מרדכי זאב פיאברג
Mordecai Zeev Feuerberg, the Avraham Schwadron Collection, the National Library of Israel


Spinoza’s Place in the New Jewish Narrative

The image of a rogue rebel who stands for what he believes is right, even in the face of immense pressure, was precisely the example that the Zionist movement sought out for its leaders and messengers. Spinoza fit this narrative well.

In a lecture marking the 250th anniversary of his death in 1924, the historian and scholar of Hebrew literature, Joseph Klausner, rescinded the excommunication of Spinoza. “To Spinoza the Jew we call out . . . from atop Mount Scopus, out of our new sanctuary—the Hebrew University of Jerusalem—the ban is rescinded! Judaism’s wrongdoing against you is hereby lifted, and whatever was your sin against her shall be forgiven. Our brother are you, our brother are you, our brother are you!”

It seems this was the declaration many had been waiting for in the Land of Israel. Spinoza began to appear as a subject of research and debate in dozens of articles and books. In 1932, Yehoshua Yehuda Cohen wrote in the pages of Doar Ha-Yom that “it is impossible to say that we do not now relate to Spinoza with all due respect.” Cohen tried to make clear that even though Spinoza had come to be regarded with far greater acceptance than was afforded to him by the Converso community in Amsterdam, his writings should still be read in a critical and careful fashion – just as Spinoza himself had read the Jewish scriptures.

In 1951, a handwritten, original copy of Spinoza’s Theologico-Political Treatise was brought to Israel. It was Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion who took the importance of Spinoza’s contribution to new heights when he wrote an article in Davar in 1953, stating that it was the duty of Israeli citizens to return “to our Hebrew language and culture the original writings of the most profound philosopher to have risen up among the Hebrew people in the last two-thousand years.”

“We Will Fix the Mistake,” an article by David Ben-Gurion, published in Davar on December 25th, 1953

Today, no work that aims to survey the history of Jewish thought can be considered complete without a mention of “The Philosopher’s Philosopher” – Baruch Spinoza.


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The Jewish Connection of a Jamaican Almanac

An almanac published in Jamaica in 1798 containing a special page dedicated to Jewish holidays is preserved in the National Library collections – a glimpse of a forgotten Jewish island community


Towards the end of the 18th century, an almanac intended for traders was published on the island of Jamaica. It contains a special page dedicated to the holidays and festivals of the Jewish calendar. The Hebrew years 5558 and 5559 are cited near the top of the page, with the line “Every Shabbat throughout the year” appearing just below and alluding to the fact that every Shabbat is a holy day observed by those of the Jewish faith. Further down the page, the Jewish months, holidays, and festivals are noted: Purim, Pesach, Shavuot, Tisha B’Av, Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, and Chanukah. Fasting holidays are also included: the Fast of Esther, the Fast of Tamuz, the Fast of “Guedalya”, and the Fast of “Tebeth”.

Jewish holidays and festivals, Jamaica, 1798

The British had captured the Caribbean island from the Spanish crown some 140 years before the publication of the rare almanac. The island’s Jews played an important role in the early stages of local British rule.

A small Portuguese minority lived on the island whose members were hated by the Spaniards, largely due to the fact that many of them were in fact Conversos (Sephardic Jews forced to convert to Christianity) who had immigrated to the New World in an attempt to escape the grip of the Spanish Inquisition. Thus, the Converso Portuguese were only too happy to help the British capture the island by feeding them valuable intelligence.

Jamaica Survey, 18th century

As fate would have it, in the same year that the British captured Jamaica (1655), Oliver Cromwell granted the Jews permission to resettle in England. This important development meant that Jews could now immigrate freely and openly to the English colony of Jamaica while the local Coversos could return to the free practice of Judaism without fear of persecution by the authorities.

Prior to the English seizure of the island, Jamaica was already an economic success story. The island produced copious amounts of sugar and its derivatives (relying, of course, on African slave labor, forcibly imported to the island). Over the years, as British rule took hold, Jamaica became an important commercial center for gold, silver, and precious gems. It was also a hotbed for piracy against Spanish ships crossing the Caribbean Sea on their way to Spain.

But let’s get back to the rare almanac acquired by the National Library:

Almanacs of the day were usually thick journals or small books that contained useful information for the calendar year. This almanac is entitled The New Jamaica Almanack and Register, and its content indicates that its target audience consisted of merchants who were involved in the maritime trade in Jamaica at the time. To this end, many of the almanac’s pages contain information about celestial bodies that were essential for navigation at the end of the 18th century.

The almanac’s title page

It is quite evident that the printer who composed the almanac was not overly familiar with Hebrew. There are several glaring errors, presumably originating from the laying of individual letters one by one. Some of the letters appear out of order and some are altogether incorrect. For example, the nonsensical phrase “רח פכת” appears in place of “רח טבת” (meaning “The first of the month of Tevet”). In the case of the festival of the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah (ראש השנה), the printer completely confused the order of the letters, resulting in the non-existent word “אשנההשר-” (“Ashanahhashar-“). The printer also apparently lacked the letter “י” (“yud”) in his collection, and opted to use an apostrophe in its stead – similar perhaps, but noticeable.

The Jamaican almanac’s curiosities extend beyond the page dedicated to Jewish holidays and festivals. This almanac was designed as an ever-evolving composition, a collection of information gathered over decades. We can track the life of the leather bound book by flipping through its pages: the dedication written by a man who gifted the book to his brother, documentation of its receipt in 1799, as well as various drawings and notes scrawled on the blank pages that were intentionally left at the end of each month. Different hands recorded events that occurred in the years following the printing of the almanac: the death of a beloved servant, repairs on ships in the harbor, and the strange remark – “I heard the cuckoo” – recorded twice in the same handwriting, in the month of April, in different years. May’s page is empty, perhaps because it is a month typified by rough seas and fierce storms in the Caribbean. Toward the end of the almanac, more pages were initially left blank but were later filled with fragments of Christian literature and hymns by the various owners of the almanac. One of the pages features a quote from Voltaire in French. The handwritten additions were all recorded in a beautiful cursive script, still easily readable today.

February, 1799

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