From Russian Villagers to Galilean Farmers: The Story of the Dubrovins

Yoav Dubrovin, a farmer from Russia, immigrated to Ottoman Palestine with his family in the early 20th century | The Dubrovins were among a group of Russian converts to Judaism who settled in the Land of Israel, in hopes of leading a Jewish life | Eighty years later, the family farm is now a museum and visitor’s center commemorating the lives of the area’s early pioneers

One day, towards the end of the 19th century, in a small village near the Russian city of Saratov, the following strange scene unfolded: a band of Cossacks was making its way towards the village, looking to raid the local families of Russian “Judaizers,” when suddenly they stopped dead in their tracks. Before them, they saw something unexpected – a procession of villagers, locals who were known as “Subbotniks,” were walking towards them, reverently singing verses from Psalms and led by an older man carrying a large Torah scroll.  The Cossacks, the most fearsome of Russian soldiers, were dumbfounded. Finally, the commander called on his men to retreat, and the band turned around and galloped away, leaving the Jews unharmed.

The story of how a group of Russian converts to Judaism managed to evade a Cossack attack, thanks to the intervention of the God of Israel, was retold for many years after. The Dubrovins, the family that led that procession, would settle in the Land of Israel in 1909, in Yesud HaMa’ala in the Hula Valley. They were led there by the family patriarch, Yoav (formerly Andrey) Dubrovin. A solemn and serious brood, the Dubrovins arrived on the land they had purchased bringing with them agricultural equipment as well as knowledge and expertise. They also brought  the very Torah scroll Yoav had carried during his legendary stand-off with the Cossaks, and which can be found to this day in the synagogue at Yesud HaMa’ala. Whether the legend is true or not, it has become part of the folklore surrounding the arrival of those Russian Jewish families in the Holy Land.

Yoav and Rachel Dubrovin. Photo courtesy of the Orni family

The Dubrovin family was one of the most prominent examples of Russian gerei tzedek (lit. “righteous converts” to Judaism) who immigrated to the settlements of the Galilee in the northern Land of Israel. These converts were in fact part of a diverse group of Russian-Christian peasants, who were drawn to Judaism and who began to observe various Jewish customs. Popularly referred to as “Subbotniks,” the origin of the term is the Russian word subbota, meaning “Sabbath”. The nickname was given to groups of Christians who began observing various Jewish commandments, chief among them – the marking of the Sabbath. However, most of these families of converts who arrived in the Land of Israel underwent a “reverse” process: They began by keeping certain Jewish commandments and observing various customs, and only after a period of gradual adoption of a Jewish way of life, to one degree or another, did they undergo a full halakhic conversion.


Subbotniks? No, Righteous Converts

Yoav Orni, the great grandson of Yoav Dubrovin (who is also named after him), says that his family’s immigration to the Land of Israel had been for purely religious reasons, though it coincided with the parallel activities of the Zionist movement and its emissaries, who were busy promoting Jewish immigration to Ottoman Palestine at the time. Yoav Dubrovin underwent religious conversion even before he immigrated, and during their final years in Russia, he and his family had lived as Jews. The process of conversion to Judaism was a complicated matter for all parties involved: the decision of a Russian Orthodox Christian to convert to the religion of the persecuted Jews was a difficult and courageous one. Meanwhile, the local Jews feared the wrath of the authorities, which could easily suspect them of proselytizing and respond with violence and harsh restrictions. This was one of the reasons that Subbotniks of all kinds, including righteous converts like the Dubrovin family, began to observe Jewish commandments even before they converted.

“Yitzhak, Yoav Dubrovin’s second son, was drafted into the Tsarist army. There was a grave fear that Yitzhak would not be able to keep kosher in the army. This was the last straw for Yoav Dubrovin, who decided to immigrate to the Land of Israel with his whole family to live a Jewish life,” says great-grandson Yoav Orni. Orni recounts how Yoav Dubrovin arrived at the military barracks where his son was serving, bribed the commander, took his son with him and continued on to the Land of Israel. “On the way, the Dubrovins met some Jews who had immigrated there and returned, warning them about the harsh conditions. In response, Yoav said to his family, “Forget these Jews, we are going to the Land of Israel and that is where we will build our home.” They were experienced farmers, with substantial resources, who arrived in the Holy Land to continue living a Jewish life at all costs.

Yoav Dubrovin on a return trip to Russia after emigrating, 1910. Dubrovin is seen wearing an Ottoman “Fez,” the height of local fashion of the day. The Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

Tough Farmers on Their Way to the Land of Israel

The story of the Dubrovin family’s immigration was typical of their general attitude: they did not come seeking comfort or an easy life, they simply wished to build a safe home for themselves, and nothing was going to stand in the way of that goal. At that time, the days of the First Aliyah, Zionist immigrants and pioneers were finding it extremely difficult to cope with the harsh conditions in the country as well as the demands of an agricultural livelihood, not to mention the competition and occasional conflict with the local Arabs. “Most of them are incapable of being simple peasants, of hard physical labor and making do with little,” wrote Ahad Ha’am at the time about the people of the First Aliyah. Moshe Leib Lilienblum held similar views, pointing out that these immigrants did not possess sufficient knowledge of farming skills —plowing, sowing, tillage and so forth. The righteous converts who had arrived from Russia managed to fill this knowledge gap, and even if they had not come as part of the Zionist enterprise, their presence was a godsend for the early Zionist farmers. At first, the local Jews were suspicious and even acted condescendingly towards the former Christians, who sometimes prayed in Russian alongside Hebrew, and who had their own customs which initially set them apart in the Holy Land. Eventually, however, these differences blurred or gradually gained acceptance.

Dubrovin Farm. Photo: Tomer Hu

A few years after his arrival, Yoav Dubrovin went back to Russia for a visit, and returned with agricultural equipment that supplemented his already extensive farming knowledge. Unlike most of the people of the First Aliyah, Dubrovin was an experienced farmer, accustomed to hard work and scarcity. In 1909, after several years of farming in various settlements, Dubrovin purchased land near Yesud HaMa’ala (the land was offered to him free of charge at first, yet he refused to accept it as a gift) and established the Dubrovin farm, one of the best examples of local agriculture during this period. The estate is built in a European style, resembling a fortress; its buildings are built around an inner courtyard and connected to each other, creating a structural wall which provides protection from any outside invasion. Inside, the Dubrovins built one of the grandest and most prosperous farms in the Land of Israel at the time. On it, they raised bulls, cows, geese, horses and chickens while cultivating grain and wheat as well as other agricultural crops and fruit orchards. The extended family lived on the Dubrovin estate, alongside workers who joined the farm and lived in subsidized housing nearby.

Certificate of Honourable Mention awarded to the Dubrovin Family by the British Mandatory Government for chickpea cultivation. Courtesy of the Orni Family

Tragedy Strikes

Yoav Dubrovin, who was already 70 years old when he immigrated, was largely able to realize his dream. The estate he built was a model of local farming and was recognized by the local authorities for its achievements. Dubrovin himself lived to the ripe old age of 104, but many of his family succumbed to disease after immigrating. During this period, the last days of Ottoman rule in Palestine, most of the land’s inhabitants lived far from malaria-stricken areas, but the Zionist settlers and the gerei tzedek had no choice but to establish their settlements in less-desirable disease-ridden areas. Thus, in addition to their alienation from local Jewish-Hebrew society due to their religious roots, the righteous converts also had to struggle with health-related issues.

Malaria, transmitted by the Anopheles mosquitoes that multiplied in the Galilee swamps, devastated the Dubrovin family. Near their estate was a small swamp the malaria researchers in the area called “Dubrovin Swamp,” from where the mosquitos reached the family farm. The first to fall victim was Yoav’s son, Yaakov, followed by his eldest son Avraham. Three of Yoav Dubrovin’s grandchildren also fell ill and died at a young age. Dubrovin, who dealt courageously with this as well as with repeated attempts at theft and burglary on his farm, was finally forced to give up. Having no choice, he moved to nearby Rosh Pina, leaving his son Yitzhak to maintain the farm. Yoav Dubrovin and his wife were deeded a new plot of land and established another small farm. However, malaria struck again, killing Yoav’s youngest son Ephraim, his son’s wife and finally Yoav’s wife Rachel. Dubrovin finally died in 1935, at the age of 104.

Ezra Orni, great grandson of Yoav Dubrovin, next to Yoav Dubrovin’s grave in Rosh Pina. Levin Kipnis wrote the poem Rakefet (Cyclamen) about Ezra’s mother, Batsheva.


The Dubrovin family, like the other families of righteous converts who immigrated to the Land of Israel in the early 20th century, merged into the country’s Jewish society. Yitzhak Dubrovin, Yoav’s son who remained on the farm after his father left, continued living there well into the 1960s. He finally left as well in 1968 and bequeathed parts of the farm to the Jewish National Fund. Twenty years later, a special association dedicated to the farm’s restoration was established, along with a museum that recreated the Dubrovin family’s pioneer settlement living conditions and agricultural work. The buildings, orchard, furniture and agricultural equipment were restored and farm animals were brought in. The site has become the documentation and conservation center for the nearby Yesud HaMa’ala settlement. The visitor’s center, opened in1986, is considered one of the most developed and successful conservation sites in the country.

The Dubrovin Farm museum logo, showing the farm’s unique structure

A Celebrity’s Guide to Israel…

Some of the world's biggest celebrities have graced Israel’s shores over the years. Among them were some true “Israel lovers.” Here's a look at several typical stops on Israel's classic celebrity tourist trail…

Barbra Streisand arrives in Israel, 1972, the Dan Hadani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

We Israelis like to see ourselves as worldly, even trendy. Sometimes we think we’re the 51st state of the United States, or at least part of the OECD that just happens not to be located in Europe. The truth is, we occasionally feel a bit lonely and anytime someone comes to visit, we might go a little overboard. Otherwise, how can we explain our insatiable thirst for celebrities from abroad?

Some of these famous figures come here to give a concert or even film a movie project, but our favorites, the ones etched into our collective memory, are the ones who make a point of stating just how much they “love Israel.” In some cases we will state it for them. In any case, we sure do a good job of wearing these famous friends out while they’re here.

This guide was compiled as a trip down memory lane for those unfortunate celebrities who have found themselves practically smothered by our love and appreciation. For us locals, it serves as a short history of celebrity visits to Israel. For celebrities thinking about visiting – it may be helpful to know what to expect on your visit to our tiny country.

Sean Connery at a fundraising event for Variety, 1967. Photo: Boris Carmi, the Meitar Collection


Step One: Stepping Off the Plane

Every journey begins with one small step. So too begins the celebrity journey in Israel with careful, but symbolic, steps down the stairs from the plane. What can we say? It’s impressive and looks great in pictures. A variety of possible reception upgrades are available: bouquets, dignitaries, a crowd of adoring fans. Bear in mind dear celebrities – strike a memorable pose and we will remember it years later.  And never fear, we always have a moveable gangway on standby, ready to go, as if the visitor was no less than the Pope or the president of an enemy state, finally seeking to make peace.

Elizabeth Taylor lands in Israel, 1976. The Dan Hadani Archive, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel


Step Two: Making Small Talk with the Nation’s Finest

As we all know here, there’s nothing like the Israel Defense Forces. And to make sure that the whole world knows it too, the second stage of a celebrity’s introduction to our country is a face-to-face meeting with IDF soldiers (we are looking into swag bags, for those interested…)

Goldie Hawn visiting an IDF base, 1989. The Dan Hadani Archive, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

For those looking for a more in-depth experience, this attraction can also include a custom military demonstration – Frank Sinatra, as always, did it his way…

Frank Sinatra watching an IDF military parade, 1962. Photo: Boris Carmi, the Meitar Collection


Step Three: Be Deeply Impressed by the Country’s Advancements

You may be surprised to discover that once upon a time, the celeb’s journey to the Holy Land wasn’t complete without a display of the local innovations. Except, we weren’t the start-up nation back then, and our displays of progress didn’t always impress our glittering guests. What were we thinking? Just read the anecdote actor Kirk Douglas included in his autobiography about his visit to Jerusalem in 1994:

After the ceremonies my old friend Teddy Kollek, the former mayor of Jerusalem, along with the staff of the Jerusalem Foundation, gave me a tour of the city. They showed me the newly erected soccer field, the biggest supermarket in Jerusalem and the new zoo. I understand that secular Israelis yearn to re-create an American lifestyle for themselves, and that a supermarket was a step in that direction, but frankly if I wanted to see a spectacular supermarket, I could have stayed in Beverly Hills . . .

That’s not what I wanted to see in the Holy City. When people like me come to Jerusalem, they want to see and experience what only this ancient city has to offer. Something that no other city or country can duplicate. Something spiritual.

[Excerpt from Climbing the Mountain – My Search for Meaning by Kirk Douglas (Simon & Schuster, 1997)]

Naturally, Douglas was referring to the city’s ancient sites that make it sacred to the three monotheistic religions. Perhaps he thought that that Israelis were wary of too direct a connection with the country’s history, and therefore preferred images of “progress.”

Incidentally, this anecdote might explain why we found hardly any pictures from previous decades documenting celebrities at the Western Wall, a site that is a not-to-be-missed attraction today.

We could not find any documentation of the visit described above, so in place is a photo from an earlier one: Kirk Douglas and Yul Brynner on the set of Cast a Giant Shadow in Israel. Photo: Boris Carmi, the Meitar Collection

Of course, there’s nothing like the image of a small child looking up at you with their big eyes to pull at the heartstrings. It’s no surprise then that the archives are chock-full of photos of our celebrity guests with sweet-faced Israeli children. Like this adorable picture of Goldie Hawn visiting a kindergarten.

Goldie Hawn visiting an Israeli kindergarten, 1986. The Dan Hadani Archive, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel


Step Four: And Still, a Bit of Jewish History Never Hurts

With all due respect to adorable children and photogenic soldiers, throwing in some Jewish history never hurts. Although the story of the Jewish people is not all tragedy – disasters and catastrophes certainly do figure into it.

In case Yad Vashem is busy, you can always try another museum dedicated to Jewish history, and believe us, there’s no shortage of alternatives.

Barbra Streisand with a replica of the relief from the Arch of Titus in Rome, showing the spoils of the destroyed Second Temple at the Museum of the Jewish People, 1984. The Dan Hadani Archive, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

Israel’s universities also feature prominently in photos from celebrity visits. The prestigious Hebrew University of Jerusalem boasts two buildings on its campus with fairly familiar names. One is the Frank Sinatra Student Center.

Frank Sinatra at the inauguration of the Student Center, 1978. The Dan Hadani Archive, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

The second is the Emanuel Streisand Building for Jewish Studies, donated by Mr. Streisand’s famous daughter Barbara.

Streisand inaugurates the Jewish Studies building named for her father, 1984. The Dan Hadani Archive, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

On the Tel Aviv University campus, stars mainly visited the above-mentioned Museum of the Jewish People. The headliner this time around is Jane Fonda.

Jane Fonda at the Museum of the Jewish People on the Tel Aviv University campus, 1980. The Dan Hadani Archive, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel


Step Five: Photo-ops with Leaders of the Country

The most coveted stars may – if they aren’t careful – find themselves invited to the Prime Minister’s Office or the President’s residence (or both) for a much photographed tête-à-tête, and sometimes also a  meal. This is what happened to Barbra Streisand, who was invited to meet with Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir in 1984.

Streisand with Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, 1984. What’s he pointing at? The Dan Hadani Archive, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

Two years later, a lucky Goldie Hawn got to meet Prime Minister Shamir while she was in Israel for the inauguration of an auditorium at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque built with her donation.

Goldie Hawn with Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, 1986. The Dan Hadani Archive, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel


Cindy Crawford thanking Dani Angel of the Angel Bakery for her warm welcome, 1992. The Dan Hadani Archive, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

So dear celebrity, after you have visited every station on the trail, after showing your support for the State of Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people, after having kissed the country’s adorable children, and before you return to your own far-away lands, we beg you, please, please remember those of us left behind. And don’t forget to share with your dazzling friends the wonderful experiences you had here. Maybe even convince them to visit us themselves. We’re craving some stardust here!


An Extra Bonus Before We Go

In the spirit of full disclosure, there is also an alternative tour: in 1987, the actor Jack Lemmon stopped over for a visit in Israel. In the photos from that visit, Lemmon is seen walking around Jerusalem’s Old City, snapping pictures just like any other tourist. We were very impressed. But, on the other hand, what tourist accompanied by a team of photographers documenting him, actually documents what he is seeing? In a couple of pictures from that visit, we even spotted the very same Teddy Kollek mentioned in Kirk Douglas’s critical description (only this time, no supermarkets).

Jack Lemmon in the Old City of Jerusalem. The Dan Hadani Archive, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel


Jack Lemmon at the Tower of David. The Dan Hadani Archive, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel


(Right to left:) Teddy Kollek, Jack Lemmon and Lia van Leer. The Dan Hadani Archive, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel


Jack Lemmon and the Western Wall. The Dan Hadani Archive, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel


Kwisatz Haderach: Translating “Dune” into the Original

A new cinematic adaptation of Frank Herbert's science fiction classic was a great opportunity to speak with Emanuel Lottem, who translated Dune into Hebrew. The result was a fascinating conversation about fantasy literature in Israel and how Lottem came to translate the book while enlisting the help of his colleagues at the Foreign Ministry…

The name Emanuel Lottem is familiar to all Hebrew-reading fans of the fantasy and science fiction genre. Lottem, who began his career as a translator in the 1970s, has translated dozens of genre books—from the greatest classics in the field to the most recent titles. Along with being one of the most prolific Hebrew translators in the realms of popular science, science fiction and fantasy, Lottem is also a founding member of the Israeli Society for Science Fiction and Fantasy, serving as its chair from 1996 to 2001.

On the occasion of the release of the new Dune film, we spoke with the Hebrew translator of Frank Herbert’s classic, the Hebrew edition of which has remained in print for over 40 years, consistently connecting with new audiences over multiple generations.


How did you get started as a translator, and why science fiction?

I had just started working at Tel Aviv University and the salary wasn’t that great, so I was looking for some extra income on the side. Through a family friend at Am Oved Publishers, I started getting offers to translate books. When Am Oved began publishing its “White Series” of science fiction books [named for the white paperback covers – Ed.], I told the publishers that I wanted to translate books for this series. Their answer was: “You’re a serious person. What’s a serious person like you doing with this nonsense?” But, one day, the editorial secretary called me and told me that they were interested in translating a book called Dune. Naturally, I agreed at once. I was familiar with it since it was a book I really liked. That was in 1976.


How do you approach the work of translation?

When the opportunity arose to translate Dune, I was already working at the Center for Political Research and Planning at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. It was a civilian intelligence analysis body within the Foreign Ministry, set up following the Agranat report [commissioned by the Israeli government to assess failings during the Yom Kippur War – Ed.]. We worked from an off-site campus where there were lots of young and lively people. The atmosphere was one you would associate more with university student life than with the usual image of the Israeli Foreign Ministry. I discovered that many of my coworkers were science fiction fans. After I’d got the call from Am Oved, during the morning coffee break in the cafeteria, I told them about the book I was going to translate. They were very excited, immediately offering to help. So I delegated a few of the tasks involved in the translation.  The late Meron Gordon, who eventually became ambassador to Warsaw and Moscow, took it upon himself to find the verses from the Bible that appeared in the book, so that we wouldn’t end up translating the Bible into Hebrew. Erella Hadar, who later became ambassador to Prague, undertook to translate concepts from the feudal period that also appeared in the book. David Matnai, later ambassador to several countries in Southeast Asia and an expert in classical Arabic, agreed to correct some phrases in Arabic that were inaccurate in the original version.

I typed out the translation of the book by hand, and then the secretaries at the Center happily typed  a clean copy—on a typewriter; back then, there were no computers or word processors. The order of work went like this: I translated, my colleagues commented and corrected, and then a final copy was made, which I submitted to Am Oved. Not only do I thank them on the first page of the Hebrew version, but the sharp-eyed reader will notice that in one of the appendices at the end of the book, which describes the establishment of a certain religious council, I used for it the acronym of the organization we were working for at the time.

Dune (2021), directed by Denis Villeneuve

In an interview with Haaretz, you mentioned that this is one of your three favorite science fiction books. What is it about this book that you like so much?

The book’s psychological depth, the breadth of the plot, and the character development. Science fiction from the 1940s and 1950s is still my favorite, but the characters are usually two-dimensional and lacking in depth and development. In Dune, the reader follows the development of the characters, and as the book progresses, you discover more and more layers to them. This is some true artistry from Frank Herbert. I especially like the idea of ​​what foresight means. Let me explain: there is a character who can see the future, but what he sees it in a similar way to Borges’ The Garden of Forking Paths. He sees the paths and wants to choose one path or avoid the other—and without giving away too much, because I don’t like spoilers—his dilemma is about choosing the right path, when in the middle there is an abyss, and he can’t see where the paths split. It’s not a self-fulfilling prophecy; foresight is a much more complicated and deep phenomenon.

Can the person who “sees the futures” choose the right future? That’s the book’s big question.


What were the challenges you faced in translating? I understand you had a difficult task adapting the book into Hebrew.

In today’s computer age, I can correspond with authors and ask them questions. Back then, we never met. What were the challenges? To replicate the book’s depth. It’s easy to do a superficial, literal translation, but if you want to do it well and capture the book’s psychological depth, you need to put in more effort. On the other hand, the mysticism in the book translates well from one language to another. It’s often challenging to translate Hindu or even Christian mysticism, and you need to think about how to convey the spirit of the text without getting into Jewish mysticism, because that’s not the author’s intention. In this case, the mysticism is Muslim-Jewish. There’s a character who is described as the   “Kwisatz Haderach” [kfitzat haderekh is a Kabbalistic concept in Hebrew meaning a miraculous leap from one place to another – CM], so in this respect, I was on solid footing.


How is the original different from the Hebrew translation? Obviously, you didn’t touch the plot.

The Arabic in the original book was not very accurate, and as I mentioned before, David Matnai helped me a lot with this. For example, pretty much in the beginning of the book, the main character Paul arouses the admiration of another character who comes to investigate and discover who he is, and she utters a cry of wonder and admiration—kul wahad! Kul wahad is not an exclamation of admiration in Arabic. Matnai gave me a better word expressing admiration in Arabic—aj’aib—which means  “wonder of wonders!” There are a number of little examples like that throughout the book.


Can one translate a book one doesn’t necessarily like?

I try not to. The choice is a little more limited today. I used to be able to pass on something like that if it came up. In principle, one can translate a book one doesn’t like, because the work of translating is, at its core, technical. Art comes on top of the technique. With Frank Herbert, I went to great lengths to ensure that if there were mistakes, they would be corrected in the Hebrew. There were books where I didn’t do that.


What do you read in your spare time?

I read mostly science fiction, but also fantasy. I have a problem with the fantasy genre, though. For me, everything written after Tolkien—it’s just not the same. Here and there, you find a pearl.


To this day one hears things like “If it’s fantasy or science fiction, I’m not reading it.” Do you feel that even today the perception is that these are inferior genres, and that perhaps the boundaries of the fantasy  “ghetto” have not yet been breached?

The fantastic genres emerged from the literary ghetto largely thanks to Ursula K. Le Guin. The older generation in Israel, the generation that believed that books had a mission—Zionism first and foremost, of course—that generation saw science fiction as a waste of time. They didn’t consider, for example, that Altneuland [a utopian novel written by Theodor Herzl in 1902 – Ed.] is a science fiction story. And when asked what about 1984, and Brave New World—they would say that it was  “fine literature”, not science fiction.

This feeling has slowly been fading in recent years. If it could be said about Ursula K. Le Guin in the 1980s, then in Israel it could only be said in the 2000s, now that original and respected writers like Shimon Adaf are writing fantasy. Perhaps Adaf is our Le Guin.

Science fiction is no longer ridiculed in Israel. This, by the way, is why science fiction enthusiasts tend to organize and meet at conferences—to spend time with like-minded people a few days a year, who love what they love and who don’t look down on them. When I was still chair of the science fiction society, I would hear things like “ninety percent of science fiction is garbage.” It really made me angry, and I felt that because of my position I had to respond. Then I thought to myself, if it’s only ninety percent, then we’re in pretty good shape compared to general literature.


What translation are you most proud of?

No question at all, The Lord of the Rings and its various sequels—including most other J. R. R. Tolkien books that appeared in Hebrew. Some of these works were originally published in English only recently, not just the Hebrew translations. We have yet to see another writer of Tolkien’s stature. There hasn’t been another and I hope there will be, but I cannot see where they might come from. He was a singular, unique writer in his generation, in every sense. For me, he was everything.  It was an honor to translate his work into Hebrew.

The First Woman to Sign Israel’s Declaration of Independence

Rachel Cohen-Kagan was one of the most prominent activists for the advancement of women's rights in the young State of Israel. Her efforts led to her being among the signatories of the Declaration of Independence


Rachel Cohen-Kagan at the declaration of the new state. Photo: Benno Rothenberg, from the Meitar Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

In recent times, elections have been a frequent topic of discussion here in Israel, yet only occasionally does the important issue of women’s representation in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, make the headlines. On Election Day, broadcasters busily analyze election forecasts to determine, among many other things, what the number of women will be in the new Knesset, but the issue typically gets pushed to the side fairly quickly.

It turns out that the matter of female representation has been a key concern of Israel’s elected representatives—and especially of the elected women representatives—since the very first days of statehood. One person who stood out for her activities on the matter was Rachel Cohen-Kagan, one of the early champions of Israeli feminism. Throughout her years in the Knesset, she fought hard for women’s equality and rights.

Rachel Cohen-Kagan

Cohen-Kagan was born in the city of Odessa in 1888 to the Lubarski family. She studied mathematics at the University of Odessa, and then married Dr. Noah Cohen, a medical doctor from Tashkent. In 1919, they were among the new immigrant passengers on the Ruslan, a famous ship whose voyage marked the traditional beginning of the Third Aliyah, a major wave of Jewish immigration to the Land of Israel. She eventually joined WIZO and became active in the Zionist women’s organization until she was chosen as its chairperson following the death of Henrietta Szold.

Woman!…Apart from you yourself, no party will protect the special interests of the woman and child, the housewife, the new immigrant…” – A WIZO party election poster in Hebrew for the Constituent Assembly in 1949. The Ephemera Collection at the National Library of Israel

Cohen-Kagan was the WIZO representative on the National Committee (the executive branch of the pre-state Assembly of Representatives) where she was in charge of the Social Welfare department, and when the People’s Council was established, Cohen-Kagan was WIZO’s representative there as well. As a member of the People’s Council, she was one of the 37 signatories to the State of Israel’s Declaration of Independence, and one of only two women to sign it. In fact, she was the first woman to sign the Declaration, before her colleague Golda Meir (Meyerson), since the signing was in alphabetical order, and the Hebrew letter כ (kaf) comes before מ (mem). Cohen-Kagan described her feelings during the historic event: “When a person feels that a dream becomes a reality and their heart fills with joy, they can scale the rooftops. To this day, I find it difficult to put into words what I felt on that day. My language abilities, specifically, and human language in general, fall short. I think it can only be properly expressed through music and art.”

Rachel Cohen-Kagan signs Israel’s Declaration of Independence. David Ben-Gurion sits to her right behind a set of microphones, while Moshe Sharett is to her left. Photo: Benno Rothenberg, the Meitar Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

In the run-up to the First Knesset elections, or the “Constituent Assembly” as it was then called, WIZO merged with the Union of Hebrew Women for Equal Rights in Erez Israel in order to run as the first and only all-women party. Even prior to the elections, Cohen-Kagan raised the issue of women’s representation in parliament. She was interviewed by Haaretz in December 1948 (a few weeks before the January elections), but the interview was buried in the women’s section of the paper – “La’isha velabayit” (“For Women and the Home”).  In the interview, titled “Women Needed for our Constituent Council,” Cohen-Kagan said: “To be honest, being the only woman in parliament is not pleasant; it’s even hard! . . . The very fact implies difficulties. Just as it would be rough for a man if he were the only one in an all-women parliament.” Later she added, “…to this day the male public views the appearance of a woman at the parliamentary gates as a very special phenomenon. In this respect, a good degree of maturity is still lacking on the part of men. They simply have a hard time forgetting that I am a woman…”

A WIZO Party election poster for Constituent Assembly in 1949, the Ephemera Collection, the National Library of Israel

Cohen-Kagan, who believed that women bring a unique perspective, saw women’s representation in the Knesset as a necessary component for the running of the state: “It is important and imperative that the women’s point of view be given greater prominence. Just as a man and a woman’s viewpoints integrate in the private household and everything is conducted through the merging of the two approaches for the sake of harmony and good will, it should be the same in the running of the state. In this way, the woman’s viewpoint will be expressed and realized in all general matters, and especially in those in which a woman’s participation is essential, because she is the one who looks out for the needs of daily life.” Cohen-Kagan believed there were certain issues in which the women’s viewpoint was especially significant: “Most important here are questions of welfare, social security for children and the elderly and the problem of education in general. I have no doubt that with the influence of women’s participation in the life of the state, there would be greater concern for all the weak and disadvantaged in our country, a more humane approach to their problems, and without doubt, their situation would improve.”

Women Needed for our Constituent Council” – A segment of the Hebrew interview with Rachel Cohen-Kagan in the December 21st, 1948 issue of Haaretz. You can find the complete interview here.

WIZO won one seat, and Rachel Cohen-Kagan entered the first Knesset. During her tenure, she proposed the “Family and Equality of Women” law in 1951, sought to combat violence against women, supported women’s service in the IDF and dealt with other issues to promote the status of women in Israel. In 1951, the Knesset dissolved and the WIZO party never ran again as an independent party. Ten years later, Rachel Cohen-Kagan ran again for the Knesset and was elected as a member of the Liberal Party in 1961. She served as a Knesset member for another four years.


Many thanks to Dr. Sharon Geva who greatly assisted in the preparation of this article. You can find more information about Rachel Cohen-Kagan and the activities of other women in the early days of the State of Israel at the National Library of Israel.