The Enigmatic Researcher of the Magic of Music

Robert Lachmann – Between Orientalism and the East

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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


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

Vöglein im hohen Baum (Bird in the Treetop)

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


Click here to read the complete text in German


Recording no. 1, Vöglein im hohen Baum


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

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

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


Robert Lachmann in a recording session

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

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

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

Tin records recorded by Robert Lachmann


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


Recording no. 3 – Musical piece performed with the oud


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


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


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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


For further reading:

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


And for further listening:

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

Ruth Katz

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


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Hermitage Exhibit to Display NLI Afghan Geniza Treasures for First Time

The exhibition "Life in Medieval Khorasan. A Geniza from the National Library of Israel" is on display at the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia

Documents from the historic Afghan Geniza. Photo by Polina Aizenberg, the National Library of Israel

Some two dozen extremely rare treasures from the National Library of Israel’s Afghan Geniza collection are being displayed to the public for the first time as part of “Life in Medieval Khorasan. A Geniza from the National Library of Israel” at the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg. The exhibition also features rare artifacts from the Hermitage’s collections that will give a fuller sense of life in Medieval Khorasan.

The exhibit featuring the National Library’s Afghan Geniza documents at the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia

The Afghan Geniza presents virtually the only original documentation about this once-thriving Jewish community on the Silk Road, as well as the region’s Islamic and Persian cultures prior to the devastating Mongol invasion. The 11th-13th century documents provide an unprecedented glimpse into the day-to-day life, society, and economy along the Silk Road, the ancient highway which once linked Europe and China.

A page from an account book containing information about the economic activity of its owner, “Yehuda son of Daniel”, from the early 11th century. The many names of individuals and localities recorded in the book attest to strong ties between this Jewish trader and the Muslim rural and urban populations of Bāmiyān. The National Library of Israel

The National Library of Israel’s Afghan Geniza holdings comprise nearly 300 pages, some 250 of which were acquired in 2016 with the generous support of the William Davidson Foundation and the Haim and Hanna Salomon Fund. It is considered perhaps the most important find of Hebrew manuscripts since the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in the mid-20th century.


Much of the collection comes from an archive of the eleventh-century Abu Netzer family of Jewish traders living in and around the city of Bāmiyān, a once-bustling commercial center located on the Silk Road.  One fragment represents the earliest evidence of a rabbinic text found in Persian-speaking lands to the East of the rabbinic centers of Babylon. The collection, written in Persian, Arabic, Aramaic, and Judeo-Persian, also includes legal documents, liturgy, poetry, texts of Jewish law, a historical chronicle, and biblical passages.

This fragment of Tractate Avoda Zara from the Mishnah represents the earliest evidence of a rabbinic text found in Persian-speaking lands to the East of the traditional rabbinic center in Babylonia. The National Library of Israel

“This is a particularly impressive find related to the lives and culture of Jews from this part of the world from the beginning of the second millennium,” explained Prof. Haggai Ben Shammai, a world-renowned expert on Jews of the Islamic world. According to Ben Shammai, the collection is of exceptional importance due to the previous dearth of first-hand accounts and evidence of Jewish life under local dynastic rule. Literary source materials had also been severely lacking until this discovery.

Another portion of the collection contains documents dating from the early 13th century, chronicling the broader Islamic culture on the eve of the devastating Mongol conquests of 1221. As a result of the destruction wrought by Genghis Khan and his army, almost no documentation of the Persian and Arabic culture and language of the region exists besides these documents.

The first few lines of a letter sent by a woman named Nāzuk, daughter of Yosef, to Yehuda, son of Daniel. Nāzuk was either a member of Yehuda’s family or a close friend. For example, she mentions Bā (=Abū) ʿImrān Moshe, probably Yehuda’s son, who came to visit her. This is the only known letter from the family archive thus far to be sent by a woman, though it is not clear if she wrote it herself (early 11th century). The National Library of Israel

Many items in the collection had been part of a local administrator’s archive, and contain administrative documents and fragments of religious and literary works, mainly in Persian. This material provides an unparalleled view into the workings of government administration, politics, and law in the region.

Though later Muslim scholars have written histories of the Islamic dynasties who reigned over the region, this singular collection of primary sources has shed light on uncharted areas of research including economics and geography, as well as  social and political history.

A tax receipt concerning the delivery of 240 mann of wheat to the “royal granary” (anbār-i khāṣṣā) by Aḥmad b. Abū Bakr, an inhabitant of Funduqistān (in the Ghūrband valley). The collection contains around thirty receipts issued in the years 564–566/1169–1171 and 579–581/1183–1185, which provide valuable information regarding the tax collection system of Ghurid Bāmiyān. The National Library of Israel

NLI has digitized the materials and made them available to the international community of scholars and the general public. They will be preserved and displayed in the National Library of Israel’s new landmark campus, now under construction adjacent to the Knesset (Israeli Parliament) in Jerusalem.

David Blumberg, Chairman of the National Library of Israel Board of Directors, said, “We are grateful to our partners at the Hermitage for this historic collaboration. The exhibit highlights the National Library of Israel’s role as a dynamic international cultural center dedicated to promoting discourse and opening access to knowledge. It reflects the timeless Jewish values of treasuring the power of texts to unify, educate, and inspire.”

David Blumberg, chairman of the National Library of Israel board of directors, and Mikhail Piotrovsky, director of the State Hermitage Museum, officially open the exhibit

The exhibition curator is Anton Pritula, leading researcher in the State Hermitage Museum’s Oriental Department, PhD in Philology. You can read more about the exhibition here.

The exhibition has been made possible with the generous support of Barbro and Bernard Osher and The David Berg Foundation.


Information on the Afghan Geniza documents included in the captions above is based on research conducted by Ofir Haim.


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What Did Freud Really Think of Zionism?

Spoiler alert: The father of psychoanalysis was not the biggest fan of establishing a Jewish state in Mandatory Palestine.

So, as it turns out, Sigmund Freud was not a fan of the Zionist dream.

The good doctor was, in fact, vehemently against the foundation of a Jewish state in the Land of Israel and had no qualms about expressing his disapproval – something he did in a rather eloquent and sharp manner in a letter he sent to the head of the Keren HaYesod branch in Vienna in 1930.

Sigmund Freud, the Abraham Schwadron Portrait Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel.

Let’s take a step back for a moment.

The hostilities began on a hot day in the middle of August 1929. The longtime struggle between the Arabs and Jews in the Land of Israel over ownership and access to the Western Wall had officially come to a boiling point. On Friday, August 16, 1929, an Arab mob that had been riled up by the Supreme Muslim Council, descended upon the Western Wall, expelled the Jewish worshippers from the site and proceeded to burn holy books and Torah scrolls. This event unleashed a wave of violence in the Land of Israel and, in just one week, the Palestine Riots of 1929 saw more than 130 Jews killed and hundreds more injured in Hebron, Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Haifa, Tzfat, Hulda and Be’er Tuvia.

In 1930, just a few months after the violence had come to a stop, Keren HaYesod, a fundraising organization established by the Zionist Congress to help Jews to immigrate to the Land of Israel, launched a public relations campaign for the Yishuv, the Jewish settlement in the Land of Israel. The organization sent out letters to the world’s prominent Jews asking if they might be willing to issue a statement of support on behalf of the Jews living in the Land of Israel. One such letter, sent by Chaim Koffler, the head of the Keren HaYesod in Vienna, made it to the hands of one Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis who also happened to be Jewish.

The envelope that held the letter from Freud to Dr. Koffler, from the National Library of Israel archives.

Freud, it appears, took some time to consider this request. His response sent on February 26th, 1930, came in a carefully crafted, subtly scathing but perfectly polite letter sent back to Dr. Koffler where he made his feelings on the subject of Zionism and Jewish settlement in the Land of Israel very clear.

Not only did Freud decline the request to issue a public statement of support, but he also made it very clear that he was, let’s call it – unsympathetic – to the plight of the Jews living in the Yishuv.

“I cannot do as you wish,” wrote Freud. “Whoever wants to influence the masses must give them something rousing and inflammatory and my sober judgment of Zionism does not permit this.”

The response from Sigmund Freud to Chaim Koffler, from the National Library of Israel archives.

Freud explained that, while he identified with the goals of Zionism in creating a home for Jews and found a measure of pride in the university that had been established in Jerusalem, he had no understanding of the Zionist movement. He believed that there would never be a state for Jews in the Land of Israel – an opinion he conceded as likely to be unpopular.

“I do not think that Palestine could ever become a Jewish state, nor that the Christian and Islamic worlds would ever be prepared to have their holy places under Jewish care. It would have seemed more sensible to me to establish a Jewish homeland on a less historically-burdened land. But I know that such a rational viewpoint would never have gained the enthusiasm of the masses and the financial support of the wealthy.”

Sigmund Freud, the Abraham Schwadron Portrait Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel.

As for expressing sympathy for the Hebrew pioneers who had suffered through the riots, Freud felt that “the baseless fanaticism of our people is in part to be blamed for the awakening of Arab distrust. I can raise no sympathy at all for the misdirected piety which transforms a piece of a Herodian wall into a national relic, thereby offending the feelings of the natives.”

Freud closed the letter with about as much sympathy as he started it.

“Now judge for yourself whether I, with such a critical point of view, am the right person to come forward as the solace of a people deluded by unjustified hope.”

Upon reading Freud’s reply, Dr. Koffler, surprised by its contents, wrote in pencil in the top corner of the letter, “Do not show this to foreigners.” In fact, the letter remained unpublished for 60 years.

“Do not show this to foreigners,” added in the corner of Freud’s letter by Chaim Koffler. From the National Library of Israel archives.

Upon hearing of the letter, Abraham Schwadron whose vast collection is now kept in the National Library of Israel, asked Dr. Koffler if he might send him the correspondence so that it could be added to the Library’s archives. Dr. Koffler agreed to send him the letter for his perusal but asked for Schwadron to please do him the courtesy of returning it – for if the letter were to be kept in the National Library, its contents would certainly find its way into the public sphere.

Letter from Chaim Koffler to Abraham Schwadron, from the National Library of Israel archives.

“Freud’s letter may be heartfelt and warm, but it does not serve our purposes,” wrote Dr. Koffler in April of 1930 in response to Schwadron. “Even if at this time I was unable to help Keren HaYesod, I still see myself as bound not to harm it.”

They say that hindsight is 20/20 and in all fairness, views such as Freud’s were not unheard of among Western European Jews in the early 1930s. Of course, Freud could never have predicted the horrors that would soon befall the Jews of Europe with the rise of the Nazi party and the beginning of the Holocaust. He would never learn the important role those pioneers played in successfully founding the State of Israel. While his opinions may have been “unpopular,” he certainly had his finger on the pulse of issues that still impact Israeli society today.

For further reading on this subject, check out “Freud in Zion: Psychoanalysis and the Making of Modern Jewish Identity,” by Eran J. Rolnik, Karnac Books, 2012. 

This post was written as part of Gesher L’Europa, the NLI’s initiative to connect with Europe and make our collections available to diverse audiences in Europe and beyond.


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The Jewish Connection of a Jamaican Almanac

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


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

Jewish holidays and festivals, Jamaica, 1798

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

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

Jamaica Survey, 18th century

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

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

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

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

The almanac’s title page

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

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

February, 1799

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