David Ben-Gurion, the Iconoclast

The story behind Ben-Gurion's refusal to wear a head covering at the funeral of S.Y. Agnon…

Ben-Gurion at Agnon's funeral, wearing no head covering. February 18th, 1970, the Dan Hadani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

On February 18th, 1970, Israel’s President, the Prime Minister, the Chief Rabbi and Supreme Court judges all came to pay their last respects to the esteemed writer, Shmuel Yosef Agnon.

David Ben-Gurion, by then a former prime minister, also attended the funeral. Unlike the rest of the attendees and contrary to what was customary at Jewish funerals, Ben-Gurion decided not to wear a head covering – a kippah (yarmulke) or any form of hat.

Ben-Gurion at Agnon’s funeral, wearing no head covering. February 18th, 1970, the Dan Hadani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

Rabbi Menachem Porush, who was at the funeral, noticed this. Porush, one of the leaders of the ultra-Orthodox political party, Agudat Yisrael, decided to act and approached Ben-Gurion; he figured the iconic Israeli statesman had simply forgotten to bring a head covering and offered him one. To his astonishment, Porush learned this was no mistake – Ben-Gurion had intentionally left his head bare. “I have a hat with me,” Ben-Gurion said, “but I will not wear it in light of the government’s decision to force religion with regard to the question of who is a Jew.”

Footage of S.Y. Agnon’s Funeral, 1970:

Ben-Gurion was referring to an amendment to Israel’s well known Law of Return, which carried in the first reading at the Knesset a few days earlier and stated for the first time in the history of law in the State of Israel an answer to the longstanding question: Who is a Jew? After countless debates, arguments, demonstrations and struggles, the Knesset approved the amendment, according to which “a Jew is someone with a Jewish mother or someone who has converted to Judaism and is not a member of another religion.” Ben-Gurion deeply objected to the mixture of religion and state embodied by the endorsement of a halakhic approach to such a sensitive issue.

But Rabbi Porush would not let up. “Don’t you think that the religious Agnon would expect his escorts to cover their heads?” Ben-Gurion had an answer to this, as well: “I visited Agnon not so long ago, and he said nothing when he saw that I was bareheaded”.

Agnon (center) at David Ben-Gurion’s (right) 80th birthday celebration. Zalman Shazar, Israel’s President at the time, is on the left. The S.Y. Agnon Archive at the National Library of Israel

Speaking of Ben-Gurion and Agnon, the latter was one of several intellectuals and religious leaders of whom in 1958 Ben-Gurion himself asked to answer the question: Who is a Jew? Agnon replied in a letter that the answer could be found in the “Shulchan Aruch,”, a 16th century book of Jewish law, but added that “religion and state at this time are like two neighbors who are not comfortable with each other. You, upon whom the well-being and the welfare of the state depend, would do well to stay away from discussing matters of religion, for good or for better, so that your attention will be free for matters of state.”

Agnon’s letter to Ben-Gurion

But there’s more; those looking through the historical photographs of Agnon’s funeral may have noticed that at a certain point, Ben-Gurion indeed donned on a hat. Had he changed his mind and decided to honor Rabbi Porush and the ceremony? Not in the least. The chilly winds on the Mount of Olives, where Israel’s first Nobel laureate was buried, were the only reason for the former prime minister’s dramatic change of wardrobe.

David Ben-Gurion finally wearing a hat at Agnon’s funeral. Photo credit: GPO


The Unsung Heroine-Artist Who Helped Save Israel’s Wildflowers

From a very young age, Bracha Avigad's roots connected her to the Land of Israel and its flora

"With me, things go very deep and I stay true to what I internalized as a child." (Source images: "Flowers of the Carmel" & The Bracha Avigad Collection, Nadav Mann / Bitmuna via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection)

In Israel’s early years there was a very real and present danger that the country’s beloved wildflowers would soon go extinct due to over-picking.

A law forbidding the act was passed in 1963, and a subsequent wildly successful public awareness campaign changed everything, as posters commanding the public to not pick, uproot, buy or sell wildflowers popped up all over the young country.

Simple wording and beautiful illustrations made the campaign one of the most successful of its kind in Israel’s history, ensuring that the wildflowers dotting the Biblical landscape continued to flourish, which they do until today.

“It’s forbidden to pick them! Don’t pick! Don’t uproot! Don’t buy! Don’t sell!” Society for the Protection of Nature poster featuring illustrations by Bracha Avigad, 1968 (Publisher: Levin Epstein). From the National Library of Israel archives

Bracha Avigad was responsible for those illustrations and though many never knew her name or story, generations have grown up knowing Bracha’s work from posters, books, postcards and even decorative plates bearing her iconic flowers.

Illustration by Bracha Avigad appearing in the book Flowers of the Carmel, 1958. From the National Library of Israel collection

Born Beatrix Guttman in Latvia in 1919, Bracha grew up in a relatively bourgeoisie urban environment in Darmstadt, Germany, yet some of her earliest memories – recounted in a  2014 interview conducted as part of the Toldot Yisrael initiative –  reveal visceral connections to three passions destined to remain with her throughout her long life: the Land of Israel, nature, and art.


Early images of nature

On her father’s side, Bracha descended from a family of French vintners; on her mother’s, caretakers of Latvian estates belonging to absentee German landowners.

The Germany of her childhood was characterized by exponential inflation and tremendous poverty, the result of the country’s defeat in the First World War and subsequent reparations imposed upon it by the war’s victors. Nonetheless, Bracha grew up in relative comfort.

She recalled feeling awkward wearing a fur coat as a child, knowing that impoverished city residents would forage in the surrounding countryside for strawberries and mushrooms. Some would use acorns to create a substitute for the coffee they could not afford.

Drawing by Bracha Avigad presented to Henrietta Szold, 1930s. From the Bracha Avigad Collection, Nadav Mann / Bitmuna; available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

Though she may not have needed to forage like others, Bracha was intimately familiar with the very same countryside, which she would visit with her neighbors, one of the few families that had a car. While the neighbors’ “nationalist” leanings and “cruel” disposition made young Bracha uncomfortable, the duel allure of the automobile and the German countryside proved irresistible.


Artistic seeds

Other neighbors in her building provided childcare for young Bracha while her parents were at work. The man in the family was a professional artist – the first Bracha every met – who received payment from the city of Darmstadt in exchange for submitting a work of art every three months. While his artist’s heart resented the arrangement, it paid the bills during those austere years.

Drawing by Bracha Avigad presented to Henrietta Szold, 1930s. From the Bracha Avigad Collection, Nadav Mann / Bitmuna; available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

Bracha’s warm memories of much time spent in their home undoubtedly planted an artistic seed in the mind of the impressionable young girl.

While she certainly expressed her artistic talents throughout childhood, Bracha didn’t know how gifted an artist she was until a sixth grade teacher, who belonged to the Nazi party, pinched her cheek and told her what a shame it was that she was born a Jew because otherwise he would have sent her to the prestigious Munich Academy of Fine Arts.

Drawing by Bracha Avigad presented to Henrietta Szold, 1930s. From the Bracha Avigad Collection, Nadav Mann / Bitmuna; available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

Bracha’s adventurous father had traveled the world before coming back to Germany to fight for the Fatherland during World War I. He earned a medal of valor for his service in the naval air force, an honor later stripped from him for being a Jew.

Not long after returning from the war, he was denied a job at the pharmaceutical giant Merck due to his “race”, yet remained a very proud German. In fact, most of his friends and many, if not all, of the people Bracha interacted with in her earliest years were not Jewish.

It wasn’t until she went to school that she encountered anti-Semitism for the first time.

After a classmate derogatorily called her a Jew, Bracha returned home and asked her mother what a “Jew” was.

“They’re just jealous of you,” her mother explained, “You see, I buy you cherries… They can’t buy it for themselves, so they hate…”

She dangled the cherries next to her daughter’s ears – an image that remained with Bracha for the rest of her life; a botanical image in the mind’s eye which certainly may have later made its way onto the canvas in one form or another.


Blossoming in the Land of Israel

Within just a few short years of her teacher “discovering” the young artist’s talents, Bracha was kicked out of school because she was Jewish. She soon moved to the Land of Israel where she enrolled as part of the second class of New Bezalel, the successor to Boris Schatz’s legendary Jerusalem art school which largely defined the artistic expression of Zionist culture.

She received a scholarship to attend Bezalel from no other than Henrietta Szold herself, after Bracha had presented a collection of some of her work to Szold.

Poppies like this one (kalaniyot in Hebrew), are one of the most prevalent and beloved signs that spring is on its way across Israel. Drawing by Bracha Avigad presented to Henrietta Szold, 1930s. From the Bracha Avigad Collection, Nadav Mann / Bitmuna; available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

While leaving Germany in 1935 was obviously very much a result of increasingly unbearable anti-Semitism, Bracha’s connection to the Land of Israel – and its flora – had very deep roots.

As she approached 100, Bracha could still sing a favorite song about orange trees and date palms in the Land of Israel, which her mother had sung to her as a small child.

Drawing by Bracha Avigad presented to Henrietta Szold, 1930s. From the Bracha Avigad Collection, Nadav Mann / Bitmuna; available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

Around the age of five, Bracha went with her family to visit her maternal grandparents in Latvia. Upon seeing a large cane in their home – which she identified as the type that might be used to punish naughty children in fairy tales – she asked her grandfather what it was for.

He answered, “My little one, when the Messiah arrives I will take the cane in my hand and all of us will walk to the Land of Israel.”

Her grandfather’s teachings, as well as his blue Jewish National Fund tzedaka box and her mother’s songs, imbued in Bracha a very deep-seeded sense of Zionism, as she dreamed of one day going to the Land of Israel, though not necessarily by foot.

Caper plants like this one grow out of the Western Wall in Jerusalem. Illustration by Bracha Avigad appearing in the book Flowers of the Carmel, 1958. From the National Library of Israel collection

Not long before Bracha was kicked out of school for being Jewish, she remembered being greatly impressed by an exhibit of water color flower paintings on display in a German gallery. Upon seeing it, she promised herself, “If I get to the Land of Israel, I’ll paint the flowers of the Land of Israel!”

For some seven decades, Bracha made good on her childhood promise, not only painting the flowers of the Land of Israel, but also playing a significant role in saving them from extinction.

Many thanks to the Toldot Yisrael team for their assistance preparing this article, much of which was based on their 2014 interview with Bracha Avigad, two years before she passed away. Toldot Yisrael is an initiative dedicated to documenting the testimonies of the State of Israel’s founding generation. The collection is now deposited at the National Library of Israel in Jerusalem.

To view the complete interview with Bracha Avigad (in Hebrew): Part I, Part II, Part III.
For original works from Bracha Avigad in the National Library of Israel Digital Collection, click here.

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.

How Has Israel’s National Library Responded to the COVID-19 Crisis?

Staying healthy and maximizing opportunities during a complicated and difficult period

The NLI approach has been guided by the goal of protecting the health and welfare of our staff and users, while also identifying strategic opportunities to better fulfill our mission now and well into the future.

The COVID-19 crisis has presented unprecedented challenges as well as opportunities for cultural and educational institutions across the globe, including the National Library of Israel. NLI’s renewal and dual mandate requiring it to engage both domestic and international audiences, as well as the current construction of its new home, have in many ways magnified the challenges posed by this difficult period, as well as – and perhaps even more so – the opportunities it presents.

Following a brief summary of the crisis in Israel, below are a few examples of the adaptations we have implemented and some of the ways in which we have aimed to maximize potential opportunities in fulfilling our mission during this time.

The COVID-19 crisis in Israel

The Israeli governmental response to the COVID-19 pandemic began with recommendations against non-essential travel to China from 26 January 2020. Over the next few weeks, flights from a number of countries with high infection rates were suspended, and on 26 February, the government urged cancellation of all travel abroad.

A Magen David Adom worker wearing protective gear, 2020 (Photo: Talmoryair; CC BY-SA 4.0)

From 9 March, all Israelis returning from abroad were required to home quarantine for 14 days upon arrival. On 12 March, all schools and universities were closed, with other restrictions in the public sphere put in place. A week later a national emergency was declared and on 25 March, citizens were prohibited from moving more than 100 m from their homes, with the exception of a few permitted reasons, such as medical care and procurement of foodstuffs. Citizens were shortly thereafter required to wear masks in public places. Cities and neighborhoods with high infection rates were in some cases fully quarantined, with the army providing citizens with basic services and support.

For the festival of Passover, beginning on 8 April, even stricter lockdown measures were in place, as they were in majority Muslim areas during the holy month of Ramadan, which began on 25 April.

Police officers during a national lockdown, 2020 (Photo: Israel Police; CC BY-SA 3.0)

Gradual easing of restrictions began in the last week of April. Schools, some commercial entities and public areas were allowed to begin opening in accordance with very strict regulations, starting from the beginning of May. While much of the public sphere and economy was open during the summer months, regulations remained in place with regard to mask-wearing and social distancing requirements. Various levels of lockdown restrictions have been in place since early autumn 2020. Overall, in terms of public health, Israel has fared relatively well, case fatality rates among the world’s lowest.

Ensuring staff welfare and flexibility

As the severity of the pandemic became increasingly clear, the management of the National Library chose to try and enable continuity of work processes and routine to the greatest extent possible, while ensuring the well-being of its staff and visitors. With the introduction of restrictions in the beginning of March, National Library employees capable of working remotely were largely encouraged to do so and as restrictions tightened and the Library was closed to the public, the vast majority of Library staff were either working remotely full time or taking partial or full paid leave, utilizing vacation days to do so.

Most National Library employees have worked from home for much of the pandemic period

A bank of vacation days was established so that employees with many accrued days could donate them to help colleagues take paid leave. Many employees who usually work in public services were given various cataloguing and other tasks that could be performed remotely, so that they would not have to take paid or unpaid leave. Throughout this difficult period, we have tried to prioritize the medical, mental and financial well-being of our employees, with only a few employees placed on unpaid leave.

Throughout the closure periods, a skeleton staff came into the Library daily, to ensure the security and well-being of the collections as well as continue to progress on digitization projects. All of these employees were given special permission in accordance with governmental regulations and have adhered to strict social distancing practices. As will be discussed below, the crew at the construction site of our new home was also permitted to continue working.

Serving the public differently

With the Library closed to the public for what was initially an unknown extended period of time, we wanted to ensure that researchers knew that our reference staff was continuing to work remotely and that they were available through a variety of channels. We posted this information prominently on our home page and on social media.

As we have many researchers who come on a daily basis to the National Library building, many of them were not familiar with the different ways to reach our reference team (i.e. via email, chat, WhatsApp and phone), nor were they necessarily overly familiar with our vast collections of digital resources. Thus, to continue serving the public under these complex circumstances, we felt it was critical to make this information more widely known to our user base.

In addition to highlighting this information clearly in places where our users would find it, we also produced a series of short instructional videos to help them adapt to the new reality and use online resources in an effective manner, as well as a new centralized portal to more easily access approximately one million digital items. As many scholars also usually come from abroad, these actions will continue to have additional value as long as international travel is severely limited.

As soon as the initial government regulations for reopening to the public became clear, the National Library staff began dedicating very significant human and financial resources to ensure that the building could reopen as soon as possible, while adhering to all of the strict government-mandated requirements, which entailed significant physical and procedural modifications. All visitors and staff must sign health declarations and have their temperatures taken prior to entering the building, as well as maintain social distancing while on the National Library premises.

The Judaica, Israel, Islam and Middle East Reading Room at the National Library of Israel after dividers were installed in order to adhere to public health guidelines

When permitted to come, readers are required to reserve study areas in advance and dividers have been installed throughout the reading rooms and at service desks, and in employee areas. Surfaces are disinfected frequently according to a strict schedule and all users and staff must use provided gloves and disinfectant when utilizing shared equipment such as computers, printers and refreshment areas. On the practical level, as well, we needed to purchase additional laptop computers, equipment and licenses so that staff could effectively work and meet remotely in adhering to social distancing guidelines.

Photo used to announce the initial reopening of the National Library in May 2020

All of these actions clearly required significant time, money and effort on the part of our staff. No reader reservation system existed and so one was developed in-house. We had to design and produce a significant amount of new signage to ensure that visitors knew the procedures and adhered to them. Cleaning and disinfectant supply costs are clearly higher than they were before, and we purchased and installed hundreds of dividers and reconfigured work areas and schedules to protect the welfare of staff and visitors.

Capitalizing on opportunities to improve education

As part of the National Library’s current renewal process, a broad range of educational and cultural initiatives have been developed over the past decade. Some of these were already digital in nature and so we had a strong foundation upon which to build during this complex period.

With schools closed, NLI proactively undertook a wide range of programming to help students, educators and communities transition to both new realities and teaching methods focused more on actively guided and independent learning. This programming has included trainings for teachers; the development of new content suitable for families to learn together; active online educational activities for youth; and the development of new materials and adaptation of existing materials specifically for distance learning.

The Library greatly expanded its online educational resources and activities in multiple languages

As part of ‘Pocket Library’, an initiative of our Israel National Center for Humanities Education undertaken in partnership with the Ministry of Education, we offered dozens of audio books through the iCast app, including many works by some of Israel’s most beloved authors for children and youth. We also developed, expanded and promoted a wide range of other educational materials, activities and resources based on National Library treasures in Hebrew, Arabic, English and French.

Moreover, normally hundreds of schoolchildren come to the National Library for programming every week in Hebrew and Arabic. Obviously, once schools and the Library were closed, these programs also could not take place, and so we developed a model to suit the new reality, in the form of a digital program that integrates Zoom gatherings with digital activities like virtual escape rooms, riddles and interactive activity pages, games, competitions for prizes and so on.

Unfortunately, we had to cancel our regular annual summer program for Arab youth, which usually has around 100 participants from the Jerusalem area. Nonetheless, as with many other areas, we are focusing on the positives and potential presented by this new reality and actually saw a number of advantages to a digital program. It enabled us to offer the program to a broader audience, in terms of both the number of participants and additional geographic locations.

A dance workshop was one of many in-person activities that took place as part of the summer program for Arab youth in previous years

Logistically, in the past, it only made sense to offer the program to around 100 Jerusalem children, but we opened this year’s program up to hundreds of participants from across the country. We were able to offer enriching and engaging educational content to the many youth who were stuck at home and did not have many other similar options or resources; and it also provided us with experience, insights, tools and new audiences to further improve and expand our online Arabic educational materials and programs, which will serve throughout the year and in the long term.

These new creative initiatives and avenues for engagement have allowed us to reach new audiences including many youth. With all of the difficulties, we have tried to see the crisis as presenting an exceptional opportunity to connect youth with the National Library’s cultural treasures in creative, innovative, interesting and diverse ways.

We hope that making the most of the opportunities presented during this complex time will allow us to continue engaging young audiences, while developing digital products and content that will continue to inspire long after we return to our new routines. This is truly an historic opportunity upon which we have aimed to capitalize in thoughtful and expedient ways.

Cultural programs under lockdown

To continue fulfilling its mandate and serve as a platform for culture, knowledge and inspiration even during this difficult time, NLI launched ‘The Reading Room’, a virtual space to enjoy live lectures, conversations and interviews via Zoom, as well as a range of previously recorded events in various languages, and in partnership with institutions and organizations across the globe. Overall, tens of thousands of people have participated in hundreds of online events since April. Our annual Docu.Text Documentary Film Festival was also presented in a virtual format this year. While we hope that restrictions will continue to be eased, we also look forward to continuing to develop our online culture program to reach and engage diverse audiences across the globe.

The Reading Room“, a new virtual venue for live and previously recorded events from the National Library of Israel

Usually every year we have events exploring Muslim culture timed around the month of Ramadan. With gatherings prohibited due to coronavirus restrictions this year, we led ‘Ramadan Nights from Jerusalem’, a broad collaborative effort to offer diverse opportunities to experience Ramadan, bringing together Jerusalem’s great cultural institutions, religious bodies, grassroots initiatives and community organizations. The initiative sought to provide a virtual platform for Muslims and non-Muslims in the city and around the globe to mark the holy month.

While its overarching goal was to expand awareness about Muslim culture in general and Ramadan in particular, this year, under the shadow of the coronavirus crisis, the platform also provided meaningful programs for those unable to participate in Ramadan’s traditional prayers, family gatherings and public events. Events were live streamed, recorded and are now available on demand via the trilingual (Arabic, Hebrew and English) website. Held in one of the three languages, the events included lectures, talks and virtual tours related to Islamic culture and history; traditional Muslim recitations and prayers; intimate conversations in Jerusalem homes; musical performances; culinary workshops; special programs for children; and more. Around 70% of the nearly 30,000 sessions on the platform were on the Arabic site.

Our annual program ‘Bustan – Writers’ Encounter: Residency Program for Jewish and Arab Writers’ offers an innovative opportunity to utilize the National Library’s extensive collections of Hebrew and Arabic literature to provide a foundation for engagement, creativity and conversation that fosters connections between writers from different communities and supports their production of new work. Six poets were selected for the fourth cohort of Bustan in 2020, representing a diverse group (in terms of religion, language, age, gender, ethnicity and professional background) of highly accomplished fellows who share a love of poetry.

This year’s program was adapted to the new realities, which are unfortunately defined by uncertainty and social distancing. It included an orientation, a retreat and an intensive month-long program of writing workshops, peer-to-peer learning, exposure to National Library experts and collections, and a special translation course. Almost all of the program was able to be held in person in accordance with social distancing guidelines.

The Global Jewish COVID-19 Archive

Image used in marketing materials to encourage individuals and communities around the world to contribute materials to the Global Jewish COVID-19 Archive

At the end of March, we announced the creation of the Global Jewish COVID-19 Archive, which documents the unprecedented impact the current coronavirus pandemic is having on Jewish culture, tradition, law and society globally. We are asking the public to contribute digital and physical materials reflecting this impact, including things such as synagogue emails about communal prayer on Zoom, public appeals to help lonely community members, announcements about innovative halachic (Jewish legal) rulings, promotional materials for creative Jewish distance learning initiatives, posters for emergency loans and so on. We are also leading a coalition of partner institutions and organizations across the world to try and help ensure that the collection will be as comprehensive as possible. The Global Jewish COVID-19 Archive will be included as part of our broader archive collection, which contains millions of items, including personal and communal archives, photographs, documents, letters and more from many of modern history’s most prominent cultural figures.

Construction on the new National Library campus

Simulated view from Ruppin Boulevard of the new National Library of Israel campus, now under construction next to the Knesset in Jerusalem and on schedule to open in 2022 © Herzog & de Meuron; Mann-Shinar Architects, Executive Architect

The new NLI will be a striking, multifunctional architectural icon, enabling NLI to most fully realize its ambitious mission and tremendous potential. Designed by Herzog & de Meuron, with Mann-Shinar serving as the Executive Architect, the building and its surrounding gardens and plazas will reflect the central value of opening access to the National Library’s treasures for broad and diverse audiences. Within its 45,000 square meters (480,000 sq. ft.) of space, it will provide venues for exhibitions, cultural and educational programming and more in a secure, sustainable and state-of-the-art environment. The lead partners in the building renewal project are the Government of Israel, the Rothschild Family through the auspices of Yad Hanadiv and the David S. and Ruth L. Gottesman Family of New York.

Simulated image of the Main Reading Hall in the new National Library of Israel © Herzog & de Meuron; Mann-Shinar Architects, Executive Architect

With the new NLI campus just over a year from completion when the pandemic began, it was critical to minimize the impact of the crisis on construction progress, to the greatest extent possible. Construction was designated as an essential industry by the government regulations related to COVID-19 and therefore work on the new campus has been permitted to continue as long as we can ensure that some 130 employees on site 6 days a week comply with all public health requirements. And so, for the aspects that have been in our control, we have done our utmost to ensure that the project stays on schedule, with the project team constantly monitoring the situation locally and globally to prepare for various potential scenarios. As a result, the crisis has only caused a project delay of a few months, due to difficulties importing some materials, though our team is now working to try and mitigate the impact of those delays, while preparing for any other potential impacts moving forward.

Looking back, looking ahead

Virtually every country, institution and individual in the world has been impacted in some way by the current COVID-19 crisis. Many of us certainly never planned for such an event and so as the situation has unfolded, we have had to largely react in an ad hoc manner. At the NLI, our approach has been guided by the goal of protecting the health and welfare of our staff and users, and as new circumstances developed we have sought to identify strategic opportunities to not only make the most of the difficulties presented by this complex new reality but also build programs and initiatives that will help us achieve both short-term and long-term strategic goals in striving to serve as the open, dynamic and meaningful institution of national memory for the State of Israel and all of its citizens, as well as the Jewish people worldwide.


An expanded version of this article was first published on 12 January 2021 in Alexandria: The Journal of National and International Library and Information Issues. 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.

In Memory: Ezra P. Gorodesky, Peerless Friend for Six Decades

"If God gave me the power to build a collection with little money, who am I to sell it?"

"It’s kind of a chutzpah not to donate something the Library doesn’t have." (Photo: Aviad Stollman)

Ezra Gorodesky, who passed away on January 10, 2021, was a peerless and devoted friend of the National Library for some six decades. In 2017, I was privileged to have the opportunity to interview Ezra and hear about his life’s journey and life’s work, in his words. The following article is based on that interview.

May his memory and his legacy be a blessing.

It was hard not to be charmed by Ezra Gorodesky, the understated star of multiple video clips and newspaper articles. Into his 90s, he remained spry with a sly sense of humor.

“I have a very rare disease” he would announce dramatically and pause – “it’s collecting. And I thought if I’d give my collection to the Library it would be a cure and I wouldn’t need to collect anymore. But interestingly, the next day I bought a book. So I guess there’s just no cure.”

Ezra during one of his regular visits to the National Library (Photo: Aviad Stollman)

Ezra began collecting as a 10-year-old boy in Philadelphia, starting with miniature books and then branching out to ABC and Alef-Bet primers, synagogue dedication booklets, and unusual prayers, including ones composed for Napoleon and Montefiore. In later years he developed sizeable collections of tea tins, books, and paraphernalia, and buttons. The latter collection is now housed at the Shenkar College of Engineering, Design, and Art.

Ezra was a Zionist from an even younger age. When he was two years old he fell in love with picture books of the Land of Israel. The first exhibits of his collections haggadot and miniature books were put on display at the Philadelphia Free Library in 1957.

In 1960, Ezra came to Israel for a first visit and stayed, settling in Jerusalem and renouncing his American citizenship. The National Library of Israel’s current home on the Givat Ram campus was completed later that year, and Ezra has been a dedicated friend of the Library through the many years since.

The Jewish National and University Library (now the National Library of Israel), ca. 1960. From the National Library of Israel archives

Until the closures caused by the pandemic, Ezra would come to the Library at least every couple of weeks “just to look at the Ardon Windows.” He personally knew all of the Library directors and often declared the need for the creation of an official national library, when today’s National Library of Israel was known as the “Jewish National and University Library”, and had a significantly less extensive mandate than it does today:

I’ve always said things; sometimes they come true, sometimes they don’t. This one came true. Every nation has a national collection and a national library. We lost many books because there was no national depository. Things were sold to bookstores. Researchers and collectors took books.

Ezra was especially known for a very unusual science he developed to perfection – the purchasing of old books and the taking apart of their bindings to reveal manuscript fragments within. In 16th-18th century Europe, paper and parchment from existing books (including countless Jewish books confiscated by the Church) were often used for the binding of new ones, creating a hidden trove or, some might say, a genizah of Hebrew-Jewish texts.

Through this method, Ezra discovered and brought to life over 200 fragments that otherwise would never have been known to the world, some extremely rare and extremely valuable.

The cover of “Revealed Treasures: From the Ezra P. Gorodesky Collection in the J.N.U.L.” featuring an image of Ezra inspecting a book binding

In the late 1980s Ezra decided that his collection of manuscript fragments, along with unique Jewish publications and ephemera, needed a permanent home where it would be accessible to the public. Nobody yet knew the treasures it contained:

When I decided to give my collection to the National Library I came in and spoke to the director. He said, ‘Maybe you just want to keep your collection.’ So I went to Rafi Veiser and Rivka Pleser in the Manuscripts and Archives Department. They said, ‘Bring in 30 pieces, and we’ll pick out what we want to keep.’ The next week I brought in 50 pieces, and they took them all. This went on week after week. Of well over 900 pieces I brought to the Library, they turned down two. Also, they told me in advance, ‘Just know, there will not be an exhibition or a catalogue.’

Some 30 years later, Ezra’s collection has been the focus of three NLI exhibitions and a catalogue, “Revealed Treasures from the Ezra P. Gorodesky Collection in the J.N.U.L.,” published in 1989. The 2012 International Jewish Curators Conference at the National Library featured a dinner honoring Ezra for his contributions.

Ezra at the International Jewish Curators Conference (Photo: Hanan Cohen)

Over the years, Ezra donated other treasures, including a collection of 1,300 family photographs and an antique original printing press from 1860s England, which has long been on permanent display in the National Library lobby. Years earlier, in 1966, he entrusted the personal archives of his dear friend, Rebecca Affachiner, to the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People (CAHJP), which is now part of the National Library of Israel.  One of Ezra’s prized possessions was the handmade Israeli flag Affachiner flew on May 14, 1948, which earned her the title of “Israel’s Betsy Ross”. The flag was donated to Ben-Gurion University of the Negev a few years ago.

Ezra on Mt. Scopus (Photo: Hanan Cohen)

Many of the pieces Ezra collected and donated to the Library were worth considerable sums of money, but he never asked for even a shekel for any of it. When people expressed amazement at his generosity to the Library he replied:

If God gave me the power to build a collection with little money, who am I to sell it?  It’s kind of a chutzpah not to donate something the Library doesn’t have. I’m not a hero, I’m a Gorodesky. I was raised to do the right thing… I think it’s an honor that the Library was big enough to take a little nobody’s collection and build it up.