A Reception for the Man in Black: Johnny Cash in Israel

The discovery of a handful of forgotten photos from a 1971 visit led us to take a retrospective look at Johnny Cash's long-term love affair with the Land of Israel, which included five trips to the country

Johnny Cash in conversation with a guest at the reception in his honor in Jerusalem, November, 1971. Photo by IPPA Staff, the Dan Hadani Archive, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel


From the top of Sinai
To the Sea of Galilee
Every hill and plain is home
Every place is dear to me

There the breezes tell the stories
Oh, what stories they do tell
Of the mighty things that happened
In the Land of Israel


From “Land of Israel”, by Johnny Cash


A lavish dining room, invitees wearing their finest, a fully-stocked bar and of course, a handful of busy news reporters crowding around the guest of honor – none other than the world’s foremost country music star, the Man in Black himself, Johnny Cash.

The reception for Johnny Cash in Jerusalem, November, 1971. Photos by IPPA Staff, the Dan Hadani Archive, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

These photos, documenting an event which took place in Jerusalem in November, 1971, caught us off-guard. They are part of our Dan Hadani Archive at the National Library of Israel, which includes nearly a million photographs. The pictures had escaped our notice until recently, when our social media manager, who was actually looking for a photo of Israeli pop star Svika Pick, found an image of the local singer showing up to a party being thrown for international superstar Johnny Cash in Jerusalem.

Israeli pop star Svika Pick arrives at the reception for Johnny Cash. Photos by IPPA Staff, the Dan Hadani Archive, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel


But what was Cash – an iconic American singer and musician in the midst of a triumphant professional comeback – doing in Israel in 1971?

It turns out this was actually his third visit. He first came in 1966, for a religious pilgrimage, visiting Christian sites across the country. Cash was so impressed that in 1968 he returned, accompanied by his new wife, June Carter Cash. This second trip inspired an entire album, “The Holy Land”, released the next year. The record featured songs with such titles as “Land of Israel, “The Ten Commandments” and “Come to the Wailing Wall”.

“The Holy Land” is a Christian-themed concept album. It includes interludes between the songs featuring audio recorded on-site at various locations across Israel: a market in Nazareth, a hotel in Tiberias on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, as well as the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, among other sites. In these spoken-word segments, Johnny and June describe what they see around them in real-time, with surrounding noises and Hebrew chatter clearly audible in the background, along with the occasional tour guide providing explanations of the religious scenery.

“Land of Israel” by Johnny Cash, from his 1969 album, “The Holy Land”:


These early visits clearly had an impact on the singer. Cash’s next album, “Johnny Cash at San Quentin”, a live 1969 recording in front of an audience of prisoners at a notorious California jail, was one of the best-selling of his career. The record includes a segment in which Cash speaks of his experiences in Israel a year earlier, before introducing the song “He Turned the Water into Wine”, which was written “on the way to Tiberias, in the car”.

Johnny Cash recalls his visit to Israel, during his famous concert at San Quentin State Prison:

It wouldn’t be long before Johnny and June returned, for the aforementioned 1971 visit. While the previous trips were more discreet, this time Cash was given the full PR treatment, with Israeli reporters lining up to interview the country music star, and a fancy reception arranged in Jerusalem.


The reception for Johnny Cash in Jerusalem, November, 1971. Photos by IPPA Staff, the Dan Hadani Archive, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

The real reason for the trip, however, was the filming of a movie, narrated by Cash, about the life of Jesus.

While taking a break from the set, Cash spoke briefly with reporter Yossi Hersonski of Maariv.

“I feel that the story of the life of Jesus and his words have been twisted many times by people, who sought to use them for their own selfish interests. The film is meant for everybody. Not just Christians necessarily,” Cash told Hersonski.

The singer’s struggles with alcohol and drugs during the 1960s have been well-documented, but by this point in his career he was experiencing a professional and spiritual resurgence.

“In the past I’ve known what it feels like to be a stray dog wandering the streets,” he told the Israeli journalist, “I was lonely, deteriorating mentally and physically. But I never became angry.”

The film, “Gospel Road: A Story of Jesus”, directed by Robert Elfstrom, would eventually be released in 1972. In it, Cash can be seen singing from atop Mt. Arbel in the Galilee, his country-tinged gospel music accompanying a swerving helicopter camera shot of the Jordan River. Though the film did not perform well at the box office, it would eventually become something of a cult hit with evangelical Christian audiences.


The trip also included “a historic meeting” between Johnny Cash (seated, center), his wife June (right), and folk singer Judy Collins (left), who was in Israel to perform a concert. These two major recording artists had never met before. Haaretz, November 19th, 1971.

Cash would return for two more trips to Israel, also involving film projects. During a 1977 visit he even met with Prime Minister Menachem Begin before setting out to film part of a Christmas special that would be broadcast on American television later that year. It seems he also managed to squeeze in an impromptu solo performance at Hadassah hospital in Jerusalem.

He returned again in 1990, to film yet another religiously-inspired movie, “Return to the Promised Land“, released two years later. Not long after, Cash would begin his successful long-term collaboration with producer Rick Rubin, resulting in 1994’s “American Recordings”. This album would spark another career resurgence for the singer, who was 63 at the time.

Still, for all of Cash’s many visits and creative projects, one of Yossi Hersonski’s questions during his short 1971 interview revealed a missed opportunity. The reporter asked Cash if he would agree to play a concert in one of Israel’s prisons…

“I’d be glad to,” the singer answered “but I’m on my own in Israel, and without the band I ain’t worth much…besides, I haven’t been asked…”



The Bedouin from the Galilee Who Tied His Fate to the Jewish State

Amos Yarkoni was a fierce warrior and a decorated officer. He made major contributions to Israel's security, was loved by his commanders and admired by his soldiers. The course of his life could have been completely different had he decided to fight the Jewish settlers instead of joining them.

Amos Yarkoni receiving the Alon Prize, 1985. Photo: Ilan Ossendriver, the Dan Hadani Collection at the National Library of Israel

The day before he was set to be executed, Amos Yarkoni and two of his comrades, all three bound and chained, managed to escape from the deep pit in which they had been thrown by the Arab gang that captured them. Yarkoni, who was then still known as Abd el-Majid Hidr, a member of the Bedouin al-Mazarib tribe, had been expelled from his community as a traitor, and ordered to sign a letter admitting he had assisted the Zionist enemy. When he failed to comply, he was sentenced to death. It was the late 1930s, the period of the British Mandate in the Land of Israel, and Abd el-Majid Hidr had begun to forge courageous friendships with people from Nahalal, a moshav – a cooperative Jewish farming community – located near his village, Na’ura.

He met his friends from Nahalal when he was a teenager. He was a shepherd, and they guarded Nahalal’s fields. The occasional quarrels and daily friction turned into friendships over time, and when Hidr realized that the hostilities of local Arab gangs were directed not only at his Jewish friends, but also at other Arab families, he decided to begin cooperating with the people of Nahalal.

In 1947, he was 26 years old and working as a messenger at the oil refineries outside the city of Haifa, when he witnessed a massacre perpetrated by Arab workers on their Jewish peers, in which 39 Jewish workers were killed and 51 were wounded. This had happened shortly after an Irgun grenade attack had killed 6 Arab workers. Realizing then how waves of incitement led to the unnecessary killing of innocent people, he made his decision: “I saw then that the Jews are a small people in need of help, and I have it in my blood—when I see people fighting, I always come to the aid of the weak,” he told Maariv.

Amos Yarkoni, Maariv, July 13, 1984

He contacted his friend Oded Yanai from Nahalal, who enlisted him in the IDF Minorities Unit, which was established in late 1948. A year later, after completing a military training course, he became the Israeli army’s first Bedouin squadron commander. By the age of 33 he had become an IDF officer, determined to take part in the defense of the State of Israel.

Shaken by yet another violent incident, Abd el-Majid Hidr decided to deepen his ties with the Jewish people: a series of murders and revenge killings among the Bedouin and Druze communities was what led him to change his name, and from that point he became “Amos Yarkoni.” He chose the name Yarkoni as it includes the Hebrew root Y-R-K (ירק), which is associated with the color green. The word hidr or khidr has a similar association in Arabic.

Yarkoni was a decorated officer, who made an invaluable contribution to the defense of Israel’s security. His tracking skills made him famous among his peers and commanders, who were happy to share stories and anecdotes about his abilities: “I accompanied Amos on one of the chases. I couldn’t figure out how he was able to spot the tracks of some infiltrators who escaped with a few cows. He saw I was curious and said to me: ‘Look at the nibbled grass. The cows they took ate some along the way.’  I thought I had learned something. An hour later I said to him: ‘Here, here is where the cow ate.’ Amos laughed, and said: ‘Don’t you know that a cow isn’t going to eat those bitter weeds?’” recalled Maj. Gen. Rechavam Zeevi in an article about Yarkoni. In addition to Zeevi, Yarkoni also counted Moshe Dayan among his close friends.

During his army service, Yarkoni was injured several times in confrontations with infiltrators. He suffered a severe injury to his leg and even lost his left hand. Yarkoni established special tracking units while serving alongside Israel’s elite special forces, and toward the end of his service commanded “Shaked,” an independent unit tasked with locating, stopping and capturing infiltrators, spies, intelligence personnel and Arab guerillas along the borders of Egypt and Jordan. Yarkoni was decorated with the Medal of Distinguished Service and received three citations for bravery. In 1969, he retired from the IDF with the rank of lieutenant colonel.

At his farewell to the unit, he said: “I led the best of Jewish youth.  I enjoyed watching them grow up at my side and I tried my best to be honest and decent toward them. I saw myself as a liaison between Arabs and Jews in my relationship with these young men. I told them: Guys, you have to learn Arabic. This border will not remain forever.”

Yarkoni with his son Adwan. Maariv, May 4, 1976

Yarkoni lived with his family in the southern desert city of Beer Sheva, with his children attending the local schools.  When his son wanted to volunteer for a naval commando unit and to enlist in the IDF officers’ training course, he encountered hesitation and reservations despite his father’s legacy. Eventually the youth overheard a phone call between his commanders, with one noting “his father was an IDF battalion commander, and it’s fine from a security standpoint”. Hurt and offended, Yarkoni’s son refused to join the officers’ course, even after Yarkoni demanded—and received—an apology for the incident. Another son was not called up for compulsory service until Yarkoni insisted.

Despite the difficulties and discrimination his family experienced after his retirement from military service, Yarkoni continue to strive for reconciliation and coexistence among all the country’s citizens. When he died in 1991, at the request of Rechavam Zeevi, Yarkoni was buried at the Kiryat Shaul military cemetery in Tel Aviv.

The Rise and Fall of Jerusalem’s Rex Cinema

Everyone frequented this Jerusalem movie theater: Jews, Arabs and British soldiers. So why was it destroyed, not once but twice?

Left: Rex Cinema in the early 1940s. Photo: Pikwiki. Right: Rex Cinema in flames, 1937. Photo: The Rudy Goldstein Collection, Bitmuna

Today, Shlomzion Hamalka Street in Jerusalem is the main thoroughfare leading to the Mamilla Avenue mall and its fancy shops. On weekends and holidays, you can find many Israelis strolling along, sitting in the cafes or simply window-shopping down the street. Eighty years ago, this road was one of the main streets of British Mandatory Jerusalem. Arabs and Jews alike, dressed in their best, would enjoy the restaurants and cafes that dotted the area, and afterward catch a movie playing at the Rex Cinema located at the bottom of the street.

‘”How was the movie?’ we often asked. ‘The movie wasn’t anything special, but the fight after it was really fun!'”

This was how Eliyahu Nawi, the well-known Jerusalem storyteller, described his outings to Rex Cinema on Princess Mary Street in Mandatory Jerusalem, as it was known back then.  Nawi recalled how at the end of a film starring the Arab singer Mohamed Abdel Wahab and the Jewish actress Leila Murad, a fight broke out among the Jewish and Arab moviegoers, instigated by the cinematic conflict between the characters in the film.

Poster for a movie playing at Rex Cinema. January 1941. The Poster Collection at the National Library of Israel

Rex Cinema was torn down a long time ago and Princess Mary Street became Shlomzion Hamalka Street (named after the Hasmonean Queen Salome Alexandra), but local historians still remember the daily screenings at the magnificent cinema in Mamilla, of which no trace remains. Although Nawi focused on the brawls after the screenings, the violence did not stop there, and after two attacks (some would call them acts of terrorism) by the Irgun, the magnificent 1,300-seat cinema, was destroyed and abandoned. Eventually a shopping center was built on its ruins by the Israel Brothers company.

Rex Cinema stood out among the movie theaters in Jerusalem during the British Mandate. While other cinemas operating at the time—Zion, Edison and Eden—were Jewish-owned, Rex Cinema was owned by Joseph Pascal Albina, an Arab-Christian businessman. Albina collaborated with many Jews on various projects, often defying the decisions of the Arab Higher Committee. He was also the owner of the film production compamny “Nile Films,” and founded Rex Cinema in order to screen his films there.  Albina hired contractor Yona Friedman, a Jew, to build the cinema, but when the project was completed, Albina found himself short on funds, and instead of paying Friedman, he made him a partner in the cinema. Rex Cinema opened on June 6, 1938, and screened mostly Arab films alongside westerns and popular European movies. The cinema catered mostly to Jerusalem’s Arabs as well as to British soldiers, clerks and officials of the various mandatory institutions, but Jews also numbered among its patrons.

Rex Cinema in the early 1940s. Photo: Pikwiki

The First Attack

In May 1939, less than a year after Rex Cinema opened, the British Mandate Government published its infamous “White Paper”, announcing restrictions on Jewish immigration to the Land of Israel. The move was seen as a direct attack on the Jewish community in the country, and the Irgun quickly responded with a counter-attack. Yaakov “Yashka” Eliav (nicknamed “the velvet-eyed terrorist” by the British), who was the Irgun’s commander of operations and later one of the founders of the Lehi organization, recalls in his memoir that Rex Cinema was chosen because it was “inside the British government zone . . . and because of its location and modern facility it attracted the government’s top brass, as well as the upper echelons of local Arab society. The attack on the cinema was intended to strike at the heads of the British military, civilian and police authorities, as well as members of the audience who were among the leaders of the Arab public and supporters of the violent gangs.”

2 Explosions at Rex Cinema in Jerusalem“, Haboker, May 30, 1939

On May 29, Irgun members slipped into the cinema before the screening of the movie “Tarzan”. They proceeded to booby-trap the theater with explosives concealed within an ordinary-looking coat as well as bombs hidden in boxes of candy. At 8:30 pm, the explosives went off just as the famous MGM lion roared to signal the beginning of the film. The frightened crowd fled the theater only to find that the Irgun had set another trap for them. Members of the Jewish underground waiting nearby in Mamilla’s Muslim cemetery opened fire at the people attempting to flee. Five Arabs were killed, and 18 others were wounded: six British, ten Arabs and two Jews. The cinema suffered heavy damages, and the incident became the talk of the town. Following the attack on the theater, the British military commander in Jerusalem issued an order closing all cinemas in Jerusalem, along with other cultural institutions. The Irgun continued its attacks on various targets in the city, and it seemed as if this was the end of Rex Cinema. However, the outbreak of World War II provided a somewhat surprising revival. With the arrival of more British military personnel in the city came a renewed need for an English-speaking cinema. Rex’s owners moved swiftly to repair the building and reopened the theater at full capacity.


The Euphoric Years and a Sudden End

Throughout the 1940s, Rex Cinema served as a meeting place for Arabs, Jews and British in Jerusalem. Contrary to the memoirs of Irgun members, according to which the Jewish population of Jerusalem did not frequent the cinema, it seems that many in fact did. Hebrew newspapers published ads for films playing at the Rex alongside greetings for Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.  In 1946, a rumor spread that the Jewish partners had quit the cinema but the management immediately came out with a special notice debunking the rumor.

Poster for a film playing at Rex Cinema. May 1940. The Poster Collection at the National Library of Israel

Princess Mary Street was one of Jerusalem’s most modern and cosmopolitan streets during the Mandate era, and the Rex was the only downtown cinema open on Saturdays. On the building’s top floor there was also a small boutique cinema named simply, “Studio.” In an article in Al Hamishmar, Gabriel Stern described the atmosphere in Jerusalem in the 1940s, writing that the war years, ironically, were years of rapprochement and relative peace between the two peoples in Jerusalem. The cinema’s location made it an obvious meeting place for the various populations. In the interim period between the 1939 White Paper and the outbreak of the War of Independence in 1947, Jews felt quite comfortable there, especially on Friday nights and holiday eves. Iconic Israeli singer Yossi Banai nostalgically recalled going to matinees at the cinema with his friends Simon and Moise in one of his most famous songs. The midday screenings were always cheaper than the evening films. The euphoria continued at Rex Cinema until the evening of November 29, 1947.

Yossi Banai: “Me and Simon and Little Moise”

Following the UN declaration and ensuing protest against the Partition Plan, the Arab Higher Committee called for a three-day strike of the Arab population in Mandatory Palestine. The tense atmosphere among Jerusalem’s Arab residents eventually exploded. On the morning of December 2, 1947, an Arab mob attacked the commercial center in Mamilla, and its mostly Jewish shop owners. The British forces that were supposed to protect them focused mainly on pursuing the handful of Haganah defenders, while the rioters, most of them equipped with axes and knives, set fire to the shopping street and attacked the merchants. In retaliation, the Irgun set fire to Rex Cinema. As opposed to their first carefully planned attack, this time, the violence was more spontaneous. The Hebrew newspaper Herut carried a story about the attack, as retold by its commander, Moshe Solomon (“Natan”): We didn’t receive any orders for it, we were a total of five Irgun members […]. We arrived at Rex, broke down the doors and began tearing things apart, just like what we saw was going on across the shopping center. We set fire to the projection booth and the rest of the building […]. After the operation, I informed my superiors in the Irgun and they approved our actions after the fact.”

Rex Cinema in flames. December 1947. The Rudy Goldstein Collection, Bitmuna

The highly flammable nitrite film reels ensured that the cinema would burn to the ground. The clouds of smoke billowing up into the sky were visible throughout the city, and were even caught on camera by some photographers. On that day, Rex Cinema, which had served Arabs, Jews and the British in Jerusalem, closed for good. The building stood in ruins until the 1960s, when the present-day shopping center was built on the site.

Gershom Scholem’s Mishna Comes Home

About a year after the renowned scholar's Talmud set finally found its way home, his Mishna has too...

A few years ago, after a number of unexpected wanderings, Gershom Scholem’s Talmud set finally came home to the National Library of Israel in Jerusalem. Now, following a somewhat less dramatic though still interesting saga, his set of the Mishna has come home, as well.

When Scholem came to the Land of Israel from Berlin in 1923, he typed up a list of all of the books that he brought with him (more than 1,700!). The list can be found in his archive at the National Library.

His Mishna set appears as numbers 10 and 11 in the category of “Hebraische Literatur” (“Hebrew Literature”). Numbers 2-6 indicate that the Babylonian Talmud he brought was not a complete set from a single publisher, and it seems that he did the same with his Mishna, bringing three volumes (though he didn’t indicate which) from an edition published in Amsterdam in 1685 and one volume, Seder Kedoshim, printed in Fürth in 1814.

He came with only four of the six total Orders of the Mishna.

From there the story becomes less clear.

Shortly after he passed away in 1982, most of his personal library came to the National Library, where it remains largely in the same order as it was in his apartment.

Yet, for years, his Mishna was not to be found in the Gershom Scholem Collection at the National Library. In its place stood another set from the Library’s collections.

It seems that after he passed away, his Mishna – along with other books – remained with his wife Fania in their home.

A few months ago, I was contacted by someone at Midreshet Beer, a women’s seminary in Yerucham, who asked an intriguing question.

She told me that the seminary had recently received a number of donated books and among them was a Mishna set with the ex libris of Gershom Scholem. She asked if we would we like to have it.

Of course I said, “Yes,” and inquired further.

Gershom Scholem’s ex libris

It turned out that the set had belonged to a couple who had lived on Kibbutz Saad in the Western Negev. After they passed away, their children decided to donate many of the books they found in their home to the seminary.

I spoke with the couple’s daughter who had no idea how her parents had gotten the set. She didn’t think that they had had any connection to the Scholems, though it certainly seems possible that perhaps they knew Fania and received the books from her.

Or maybe the volumes had other stops along the way…

In any case, the set, published in Fürth in 1814, is complete (six volumes) and in outstanding condition, though it is clear that not all of the volumes were used by the same people…

I believe that when Scholem got to Jerusalem he sold the three older, more valuable Amsterdam volumes that he had brought with him and purchased the volumes he needed to complete his Fürth set.

He probably even had some leftover change to buy a few more books about Kabbalah…

Many thanks to the staff at Midreshet Beer for contacting us and donating this set to the Gershom Scholem Collection at the National Library, as well as to Meirav Bigman at the National Library, who helped make the connection.

Gershom Scholem’s Mishna set, after returning hom

This article has been published as part of Gesher L’Europa, the National Library of Israel’s initiative to connect with people, institutions and communities across Europe and beyond, through storytelling, knowledge sharing and community engagement.