Nathan Yellin-Mor: The Underground Fighter Who Became a Peacenik

The incredible life story of the former leader of the Lehi underground movement, whose personal archive is preserved in the National Library

At the Bernadotte murder trial with Mati Schmulevitz, 1949. Photo: Yellin-Mor Family Album

A week after the outbreak of the Second World War, two couples left Warsaw—Aliza and Menachem Begin and their friends, the newlyweds Frieda and Nathan Friedman-Yellin. Following an arduous, month-long journey by train, horse-drawn cart and mainly on foot, they reached Vilna, the capital of Lithuania, which was still a free country. There, they parted ways. Begin, the head of the Beitar movement in Poland, was soon arrested by the Soviets when they took control of Lithuania, while the cautious and wary Friedman-Yellin managed to make his way to Mandatory Palestine. Here they eventually met again.

Begin arrived in British-controlled Palestine as a soldier in the Polish force known as Anders’ Army following his release by the Soviets. He was soon appointed commander of the Irgun underground movement. Twenty-six-year-old Nathan Friedman-Yellin, who would later become Yellin-Mor, joined up with Avraham (“Yair”) Stern’s Lehi organization, otherwise known as “The Stern Gang”. After Yair’s murder, Yellin-Mor would form part of a triumvirate command along with future Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and Israel Eldad.

Another young leader of Polish Jewry who also reached Vilna around the same time, on his way to Palestine, Dr. Moshe Kleinboim-Sneh, was appointed shortly after his arrival to be head of the national military headquarters of the Haganah – the de-facto Defense Minister of the country in the making. Once World War II had come to a close, all three met again (Begin, Yellin, and Sneh), and founded the Jewish Resistance Movement, an umbrella group for the three underground movements, with the goal of expelling the British from the Land of Israel.


A “Wanted” Poster for Yaakov Eliav, Yitzhak Shamir and  and Nathan Friedman-Yellin

“How often does one meet someone and upon parting, feel and know that he is no longer the same person? That from now on his life will take another course, different from the one taken so far? That all that has transpired is only preparation for that which is to come?” writes Yellin-Mor in the introduction to his memoir Shnot be-Terem [“The Years Before”], about his meeting with Avraham “Yair” Stern.

Yellin-Mor’s life changed after meeting Yair in the summer of 1937. Then a member of the Irgun’s leadership, Stern was in Poland organizing recruits for the underground. Yellin-Mor, despairing of the gap between the declarations and actions of the Revisionist movement, enthusiastically adopted Yair’s new prospect: a war of independence against British rule and establishment of a Jewish state in the Land of Israel. Yair’s vision was to build a forty-thousand strong army of trained young men who would invade the country by ship and join forces with the members of the Irgun who would declare a revolt against the British.

That same evening, Yellin-Mor joined the war for the liberation of the country. As Yair’s emissary, he traveled the length and breadth of Poland by train, recruiting Beitar members to the Irgun. Some succeeded in immigrating and joining the struggle, but the gates of the country remained shut to most of the members of the vibrant mass youth movement, and they were murdered in the Holocaust. In 1938, Yellin-Mor, along with his lifelong friend Shmuel Merlin, was appointed editor of the newspaper Die Tat, which reported the position of the Irgun on the news from Palestine to the Jews of Poland, while calling on them to flee the country before it was too late. As noted, with the outbreak of the war, he reached Vilna and a year later, in January 1941, he and his wife Frieda arrived in Tel Aviv and immediately joined the Lehi.

Yellin-Mor, whose underground name was “Gera,” became the close aide of Yair, who six months earlier split the Irgun on the grounds of his opposition to ending the war against the British and established what would come to be known as Lehi (Fighters for the Freedom of Israel). The British saw them as a “fifth column” that sabotaged the war effort against the Nazis, while Yair searched for a way to reach an alliance with the Germans, using the mindset – “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” He believed that an agreement could be reached that would save Jewish lives and achieve Jewish independence with German support.

Yair sent Yellin-Mor to meet with the leaders of the Balkan countries in an attempt to attain permission for Jews to leave. Under the guise of an engineer, Yellin Mor left for Aleppo, where he was arrested by the British after they searched his home in Tel Aviv and discovered his address in Syria. His wife Frieda was arrested and imprisoned in the women’s prison camp in Bethlehem for five years. She was released only at the end of 1947. In the Yellin-Mor archive in the National Library is a small notebook in which he wrote down his daily schedule as an engineer tasked with building a British army camp until his arrest.

“February 9, 1942, Monday… I was brought to Prison in Aleppo” Pages from Yellin-Mor’s daily diary with reports of his work and his arrest in Syria

It was then he also learned of Yair’s murder. Although the underground had been all but wiped out, its members and commanders retired, arrested or in despair, Yellin-Mor decided to keep up the struggle. There were now three at the head of the underground: Yitzhak Shamir, known as “Michael,” was responsible for operations, Israel “Eldad” Scheib, in charge of propaganda, and Yellin-Mor, the political brains of the underground movement and the man responsible for its external relations. Throughout the remaining history of the organization, at least one of the three was in jail and contact between them was maintained through notes or letters written in secret code.

He published the article “Breaking the Prisons,” in the renewed Lehi newspaper, calling on members of the underground to do everything in their power to return to the fight. He would later order members to carry a pistol and fight to the last bullet in order to avoid arrest. Shamir escaped from prison and began to rebuild the underground. On November 1, 1943, the guards at the Latrun detention camp awoke to a scene that was straight out of the movie The Great Escape. That night, twenty Lehi members, handpicked and headed by Yellin-Mor, escaped from the camp though a 75 meter tunnel they had dug underneath one of the shacks, disposing of the earth by moving it to the garden they tended at the shack’s entrance.

Yellin-Mor was a partner in Lehi’s major decisions, including the use of terror tactics against individuals, including the attempted assassination of High Commissioner Sir Harold McMichael, and the murder of British Colonial Minister Lord Moyne on November 6, 1944 in Cairo by underground members Eliyahu Hakim and Eliyahu Bet-Zuri. The two turned their trial into a propaganda platform through which they promoted Lehi‘s objectives, winning sympathy and even demonstrations of support from Egyptian youths.

In Israel the organization began to gain sympathy among youth from the Labor movement, in including members of the elite Palmach force.

It is possible that this was the reason Yellin-Mor remained unharmed during what was known as “The Saison” or “The Hunting Season” (November 1944 to February 1945), when members of the Irgun were hunted down and arrested by a special unit of the Palmach before being handed over to the British. Yellin-Mor himself offered a different explanation.

While Begin ordered his people not to resist, Yellin-Mor arrived with a pistol in his belt to his meeting with the commander of the Haganah, Eliyahu Golomb. Placing his pistol on the table, he announced that any attack on a Lehi member would be met with a response. “For us the British are foreign rulers. It is our duty to fight them, not to ask for their help… There will be no more one-sided civil war. Since we do not benefit from the same conditions as you do, we have only one response available to us: to execute those responsible for harming our people” This was the threat he issued to Golomb, as described in his book Lohamei Heirut Yisrael (“Fighters for the Freedom of Israel”). Later on, he also was in contact with members of the Irgun and Haganah regarding the establishment of the Jewish Resistance Movement. The three underground groups cooperated for approximately nine months, until the bombing of the King David Hotel by the Irgun.

When Shamir was arrested in 1946 and exiled to Africa, he entrusted Yellin-Mor with Lehi‘s operations.  By then, it was already a mixed organization of the left and the right, religious and secular, former Beitar and Irgun members alongside socialists who had served in Hashomer Hatzair. What they all had in common was the belief that independence was achievable only through war with the British. He outlined a new path for Lehi – that of an armed political organization which aspired to “naturalize the Middle East,” while sending his men to establish cells and ties abroad.

With the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 it was decided that Lehi would be dismantled. Yellin-Mor surveyed a final honor guard of his men at Sheikh Munis. They were now emerging from the underground to enlist in the newborn Israel Defense Forces. The group was still active however, in Jerusalem, and it was there that the UN diplomat Count Folke Bernadotte was assassinated by Lehi gunmen.

Yellin-Mor was tried in a military court together with Matityahu Schmulevitz, later director general of the Prime Minister’s Office. After spending a year in prison, he was released in a general amnesty and was elected to the first Knesset as the head of the Fighters’ List (Reshimat Lohamim), founded by Lehi veterans. At the first national assembly of the young party it became clear that the majority identified with Yellin-Mor and Yitzhak Shamir who tended toward a socialist platform. The right-wing minority headed by Israel Eldad withdrew and the party quickly faded into obscurity.


The cover of the final edition of Etgar, featuring IDF Chief of Staff Yitzhak Rabin, on the eve of the Six Day War, 1967

“If you had asked someone at the beginning of 1949, which of the three key members of Lehi has the best chance of being prime minister of Israel, they would have answered without hesitation: Nathan Yellin-Mor,” wrote Uri Avneri. But Yellin-Mor did not fit in with the existing parties, and like many of the veterans of the underground who had a hard time finding work in the young state, he turned to private business.

Due to his opposition to Israel’s alliance with Great Britain and France in the Sinai campaign of 1956, Yellin-Mor, along with Uri Avneri and his friends from Lehi Boaz Evron, Shlomo Ben Shlomo, Yaakov Yardor and others, founded the political group “Semitic Action” (HaPeulah Hashemit), and worked diligently to publish a platform under the title “The Hebrew Manifesto(Haminshar Haivri ), which for the first time presented the option of establishing a Palestinian state alongside the State of Israel. The group published Etgar, a bi-weekly political-literary magazine which ran until 1967. Yellin-Mor, as editor, recruited young writers such as Meir Wieseltier, Dalia Ravikovitch, Mazim Gilan, Dan Almagor, Ehud Ben Ezer among others. Avneri said that Yellin-Mor, with his enviable mastery of Hebrew, was the best editor he has ever met. He also noted his remarkable talent for raising money from donors, which kept the paper afloat.

In 1960, at the height of the honeymoon period between Israel and France, Yellin-Mor and his friends from Semitic Action established the “Committee for a Free Algeria,” and contacted underground fighters who were fighting against French colonial rule in the North African country. Lehi, the infamous “Stern Gang,” had garnered respect among members of the world’s underground movements and the Algerians were interested in knowing if they could receive help and guidance from its veterans.


A letter from David Ben Gurion, who agreed to meet with Yellin-Mor personally, but not with the editorial staff of Etgar.


With Ben Gurion at Sde Boker, at a family event for Yehoshua Cohen, a former Lehi member who served as the prime minister’s personal bodyguard, early 1960s. Cohen was also the man who fired the shots that killed UN diplomat Count Folke Bernadotte. Photo: Yellin-Mor Family Album


 After the Six Day War, Yellin-Mor became one of the leaders of the Israeli peace camp, calling for the return of the captured territories and the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel. He was not afraid to act with the reviled members of the Israeli Communist Party (Rakah) and sign petitions against IDF actions in the territories, which raised strong opposition among the public.


Visit to the Soviet Union, Yellin is in the bottom row on the right. Next to the monument to Pushkin in Odessa

In September 1971, he traveled to the Soviet Union, which had forbidden Israelis to visit, in a special six-member delegation sponsored by Rakah.

During this period, Yellin-Mor made his living by editing a daily financial newspaper published by his friend from the underground, the advertiser Eliezer Zurabin. He wrote political columns and personal memoirs in Haaretz and was a popular writer in a Yiddish newspaper in New York that was close to the Chabad movement, Der Algemeiner Journal.

Those same years the estrangement between Yellin-Mor and his friends from Lehi grew into a hatred on their part for their former commander. He was vilified, ostracized and persecuted, while a minority remained true to him throughout. With Eldad and his followers it was a rift that never healed. He and Shamir maintained a strong friendship for years. When Shamir was elected Speaker of the Knesset, Yellin-Mor came to his office and the two shared a long embrace. When he died on February 18, 1980, Shamir eulogized him at the grave: “The heart weeps for the great talent that did not find the right channel.”

Yellin-Mor was a man with a healthy sense of humor who could hold his liquor, and who enjoyed good food and good conversation. Nevertheless, throughout his life, he was a tough and loyal warrior to his cause, who did not bend or give in but also avoided holding grudges. When it was decided to recognize the service of Lehi members in the underground for the purposes of pension funds, it was Yellin-Mor who had to issue each one of them, even those who had attacked and slandered him, a certificate of membership, a task he completed without hesitation.


“Holding the Territories – Bad for Israel” – A poster for a political gathering in Tel Aviv against the continued control of the territories, 1969

Yellin-Mor did not understand those who were unable to comprehend his shift from revisionism to communism, from the extreme right to the extreme left, from his support for a Greater Israel controlling both banks of the Jordan River to his adoption of the principle of “two states for two peoples”. In a letter from September 9, 1974 to the journalist Yossi Ahimeir which was published in the journal Ha-umma, Yellin-Mor wrote:

“In my opinion, every person must always fight for the cause he sees as central to the life of his society. More than thirty years ago I believed with all my heart that the achievement of freedom, independence and political sovereignty was the determining factor for our future. I was sure that if we failed in this mission, there would be no revival of our people, not in Israel or the Diaspora … I therefore would have given my life to achieve this greater goal. We succeeded. We have in our hands the tool to do much for our future. On the condition that this achievement is not a brief episode. I therefore believe, once again, with all my heart, that in our time, the greatest and most sacred goal is to register the existence of the State of Israel as a fact, acceptable to the world, an indisputable fact. This we can achieve only through peace with our neighbors, through a historic reconciliation with them. For the achievement of this goal, – on which I believe, the life of my people and country depends – I am willing to sacrifice a great deal, as I was then …Therefore it is not I who must answer the question, why do I follow the path I follow. Others, must answer: Why have their brains become overgrown with rust? What has polluted their minds?  Why has their understanding frozen in time?”


Nathan Yellin-Mor’s personal archives are preserved at the National Library of Israel


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Vanished Streets – Unseen Photographs of Lost Jewish London

Shloimy Alman's collection of photographs of Jewish London from the 1970s survive as a unique record of a disappeared world.

Robotkin Butcher Shop on Hessel Street. Photograph by Shloimy Alman

In May of 2019, during an extreme heatwave that hit Israel, a forest fire near the town of Modi’in forced Manchester-born Shloimy Alman and his wife Linda to evacuate their home in Moshav Kfar Daniel where they have lived since making Aliyah in 1978. Fleeing for safety, Shloimy grabbed just three items: passports, family photo albums and 7 boxes of color slides of London’s old Jewish East End that he’d taken in the mid-1970s.

The slides had sat inside Alman’s cupboard for more than 40 years but, during that week, I had visited from London to interview Shloimy and scan these previously unseen images. The images have since been printed and were displayed in an exhibition titled ‘Vanished Streets’, at London’s oldest Ashkenazi synagogue Sandys Row, on Sunday, the 6th of October, 2019 as part of the European Day of Jewish Culture.

I work at Sandys Row as the resident archivist and historian. The president there, Harvey Rifkind, is a great friend of Shloimy’s and told me about this unique collection of images from the 1970s of a world that has now largely disappeared.

Shloimy started taking these pictures in 1977. He was in his early twenties back then, living in Manchester and attending a Jewish Youth Workers’ conference in London. He arranged to meet the Yiddish poet Avraham Stencl who he had heard a great deal about growing up – his father, Moishe, had previously contributed many articles to Stencl’s monthly Yiddish magazine, Loshn un Lebn.

Avraham Stencl, 1977. Photograph by Shloimy Alman.

On their first walk, Stencl led Shloimy to Bevis Marks Synagogue, the oldest synagogue in London that was established by Sephardi Jews in the seventeenth century. “He walked very quickly for an old man, I had trouble keeping up with him. As we walked and talked, in Yiddish of course, he pointed out places on the way, where the Jews’ Free School had been, the site of the Jewish Soup Kitchen, Bloom’s restaurant on Whitechapel High St and the many small synagogues, which were still operating.”

Shloimy was amazed by the amount of Jewish institutions, shops, and people still evident. “People kept telling me the Jewish East End was dead but for me, coming from Manchester, it was buzzing with life and activity.”

They passed run-down tenement blocks and stopped briefly at Whitechapel Library, known as ‘the university of the ghetto.’ After their walk, Shloimy went with Stencl to a “Friends of Yiddish” meeting. There were about twenty people there who were all very welcoming. After this first visit Shloimy began attending these meetings regularly whilst visiting his parents-in-law in London. “I wanted to be in that atmosphere that my parents so loved, to hear Yiddish literature being spoken and talked about again. It was most important.”

After his initial walk around Whitechapel with Stencl, Shloimy started exploring by himself, often drifting around the streets coming across things by accident. “Knowing that places like Commercial Road were important, I’d wander along and see a Jewish shop name and photograph it.”

He spent days recording Jewish life, from shuls to delis, shops, market stalls, and traders. He recorded the textile-trimming merchants. He recorded kosher poulterers on Hessel Street. “Shop after shop, stalls with chickens plucked and hanging from a barrow, they were all surviving, all doing business, it was still a rich Jewish landscape.”

Kosher chickens. Photograph by Shloimy Alman.

He took photographs of kosher wine merchants, the Grand Palais Yiddish Theatre and the Kosher Luncheon Club. He took slides of the Jewish bakeries – Free Co., Cohen’s, Kossoff’s, Grodzinski’s and bagel shops in East London. “They were all friendly, loved me coming in and chatting in Yiddish and taking a picture.”

Bakery shop windows. Photograph by Shloimy Alman.

He went into the Soup Kitchen on Brune Street, which was sending out pre-packed food to elderly Jews living in the area. On Brick Lane, he photographed Jewish booksellers, newsagents, textile merchants. “All these places existed, everything the community needed – it told me how large the community still was.”

Textile traders. Photograph by Shloimy Alman.

On Cheshire Street he saw the work of Jewish cabinet makers outside their workshops and during one visit he managed to get inside the Cheshire Street Synagogue, “which was the most remarkable find, it was a Shabbat and the door was slightly open so I went inside and saw all this beautifully lathed woodwork done by the cabinet makers of the street.”

A stall on Petticoat Lane. Photograph by Shloimy Alman.

He photographed the entrance to Black Lion Yard, once known as ‘the Hatton Garden of the East End’ because of all the jewelry shops there, although most of the street and shops had been demolished by then. He took pictures of the Whitechapel Waste, of the market stalls and street life, of Stencl selling his magazine to an alter bubby (old grandmother), the London Hospital, the nearby Brady Street dwellings. He explored the back streets, visited little shops, tobacconists, market stalls and Jewish delis. “Roggs was my favorite, he’d always be in that old vest, sticking his great hairy arms into a barrel of cucumbers he pickled himself.”

Roggs on Canon Street. Photograph by Shloimy Alman

He photographed the window of the room on Tyne Street where “Sholem Aleichem stayed on his way to America from Odessa.” Most of the time Shloimy walked alone but sometimes Stencl would join him.

A butcher on Hessel Street. Photograph by Shloimy Alman.

Shloimy fell in love with the area and documented what he saw. He said, “I am not a photographer, I make no claim. The reason that I started this is I wanted to be able to show my children about Jewish life in England before I immigrated to Israel. It was obvious to me that what I was looking at was soon to vanish. It might be because I was an outsider that I saw this so acutely or because I had already witnessed this disappearance of Jewish life in Manchester. For an intense period of time, I photographed what I considered important landmarks and eating places of Jewish London.”

His photographs capture the era absolutely and survive as a unique record of a disappeared world.

A catalog of the exhibition photos can be ordered direct from Sandys Row Synagogue here.

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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Gandhi’s 1939 Rosh Hashanah Greeting to the Jewish People

Sent 80 years ago, on the day World War II broke out, the greeting recently surfaced

Gandhi with two Jewish confidants in South Africa - Sonja Schlesin and Hermann Kallenbach, 1913

On September 1, 1939, the Nazis invaded Poland, beginning World War II and setting the stage for the incomparable atrocities of the Holocaust.

On the very same day, Mahatma Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, one of the most influential figures of the 20th century and the father of modern India, wrote a short but powerful Rosh Hashanah greeting to A.E. Shohet, the head of the Bombay Zionist Association. The timing of the greeting reflects the extent to which Nazi persecution of Jews was of concern to global citizenry at the time. In hindsight, it also presents a chilling portent of the horrors to come:

Dear Shohet,

You have my good wishes for your new year. How I wish the new year may mean an era of peace for your afflicted people.


Yours sincerely,

MK Gandhi

Gandhi’s 1939 letter to A.E. Shohet. From the Abraham Schwadron Collection at the National Library of Israel  (Schwad 03 07 04)

The greeting came to light as part of a major National Library of Israel initiative, with support from the Leir Foundation, to review and describe millions of items in its archival collections, which include personal papers, photographs, documents and more from many of the 20th century’s most prominent cultural figures. It appears online here for the first time.

A.E. Shohet was an Indian Jew from the Baghdadi community in Bombay. He headed the Bombay Zionist Association (BZA), the city’s Keren Hayesod office, and served as editor of “The Jewish Advocate”, the organ of the Jewish National Fund and the BZA. He believed deeply in the Zionist cause and saw it as a singular path to unifying the diverse Jewish population of Bombay, which included the long-established wealthy Baghdadi Jewish community, the Bene Israel Indian Jewish community, and the local European Jewish community.

The envelope in which Gandhi’s ‘Shanah Tova’ card was sent. From the Abraham Schwadron Collection at the National Library of Israel

Gandhi had been reluctant to declare his views on the Arab-Jewish question in Palestine and the persecution of German Jews. Finally, on November 26, 1938, he published an article entitled “The Jews” in the Harijan, offering “satyagraha” or non-violent resistance as his solution to both problems. Gandhi suggested that the Jews in Mandatory Palestine ought to “offer satyagraha in front of the Arabs and offer themselves to be shot or thrown into the Dead Sea without raising a little finger against them.”

Regarding German Jewry, he implored resisting Nazism solely through non-confrontational means. “My sympathies are all with the Jews… If there ever could be a justifiable war, in the name of and for humanity, war against Germany to prevent the wanton persecution of a whole race would be completely justified. But I do not believe in any war…”

The article was harshly criticized by leading intellectuals of the period including Martin Buber and Judah Magnes, who viewed Gandhi’s statements as unfavorable to Zionism and not satisfactory vis-a-vis the situation of German Jewry. Shohet replied in “The Jewish Advocate”, emphasizing one fundamental difference between the Jews in Europe and the Harijans in India – the former had no home. Moreover, he argued that Jews had practiced non-violence for two millennia, yet their persecution persisted. Other statements by Gandhi and the dangers of the Indian National Congress’ neutral attitude regarding the Nazi persecutions disturbed the Jews of India and pushed Shohet to continue his attempts to influence the Mahatma.

To that end, he enlisted the assistance of Hermann Kallenbach, a wealthy Jewish Zionist architect and carpenter who Gandhi referred to as his “soulmate”. Kallenbach had bankrolled the 1910 establishment of “Tolstoy’s Farm” – the South African prototype for the Gandhian ashram – where he and Gandhi had lived together, sharing a kitchen and seemingly endless conversations about the proper path and meaning of life. Gandhi once wrote to Kallenbach, “Your portrait (the only one) stands on the mantelpiece in my room… even if I wanted to dismiss you from my thoughts, I could not do it.”

Tolstoy Farm in South Africa, 1910 - Gandhi and Kallenbach center row, center
Tolstoy Farm in South Africa, 1910. Gandhi and Kallenbach are seated in the center of the center row

In March 1939, Kallenbach arranged for Shohet to interview the Mahatma, which he did over the course of four days at Gandhi’s ashram in Wardha.

According to a letter Shohet wrote to Eliahu Epstein (who later became known as Eliahu Elath and would serve as Israel’s first ambassador to the United States), the interview was discouraging because although Gandhi to a certain extent understood the idealism of the Jews’ wish to return to Palestine, he still saw the Palestine question from the Muslim point of view.

Kallenbach and Shohet never convinced Gandhi to become an active defender of European Jewry nor a Zionist, and he remained steadfast in his belief that non-violence and passivity could solve all problems.

In 1939 and 1940, Gandhi wrote a series of letters to Adolf Hitler, which controversially included elements of both respect and admonishment, “We have no doubt about your bravery or devotion to your fatherland, nor do we believe that you are the monster described by your opponents. But your own writings and pronouncements and those of your friends and admirers leave no room for doubt that many of your acts are monstrous and unbecoming of human dignity…”

Not long before he was assassinated, Gandhi called the Holocaust “the greatest crime of our time,” yet maintained that, “… the Jews should have offered themselves to the butcher’s knife. They should have thrown themselves into the sea from cliffs… It would have aroused the world and the people of Germany… As it is they succumbed anyway in their millions.”



Many thanks to National Library of Israel expert archivist Rachel Misrati for her invaluable assistance preparing this article.


Additional Reading

The Jewish communities of India: Identity in a Colonial Era by Joan G. Roland

The Life of Mahatma Gandhi by Louis Fischer

Soulmates: The Story of Mahatma Gandhi and Hermann Kallenbach by Shimon Lev

Hermann Kallenbach: Mahatma Gandhi’s friend in South Africa, A Biography by Isa Sarid and Christian Bartolf


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Exploring the Mysteries of Jewish Cuisine

The Jewish people have wandered the face of the globe, picking up various culinary traditions, rendering “Jewish food” into a wide and somewhat undefinable genre of cooking.

Throughout history and under different circumstances, the Jewish people have journeyed across the world, bringing with them their rich cultural heritage and traditions to their new destinations. When arriving and settling in a new place, Jews, influenced by the world around them, would adopt local customs, something that is strongly reflected in the different food cultures that developed in both the Ashkenazic and Sephardic traditions.

The breadth of Jewish cooking spans as wide and as far as Jews have traveled. The culture of food in different Jewish communities often reflected the social and economic status of the Jews in that particular part of the world at a specific point in time. Many classic Jewish foods also reflect Kashrut, the laws that pertain to dietary restrictions, and other Jewish laws that apply to issues of food and cooking in general. The global reach of the Jewish people means that Jewish food has no perfect definition, but rather a wide range of influences that left their mark and guided the Jewish kitchen to become what it is today.

Modern Jewish cuisine has evolved and grown over time but those classic dishes, the ones that smell and taste of home, draw people back to their roots no matter where those roots were planted. From the shtetls of Poland and Hungary to bustling metropolises in Egypt and Morocco, Jewish food has evolved and diversified all the while holding strong to Jewish tradition, creating a historical connection between the journeys of Jewish people and the food that they eat.

Interestingly enough, while Mizrahi and Yemenite foods are extremely popular in mainstream Jewish cooking today, especially in Israel, research on the subject yielded few written recipes or cookbooks from Jewish communities in the Middle East and the Orient. Instead, the National Library of Israel collections yielded such fascinating items such as a small cookbook from Poland that is filled with recipes for Middle Eastern cooking written in Yiddish.

“Dei Yiddishe Kuch,” a small and inconspicuous cookbook with a green and brown spotted cover written by B. Shafran was recently rediscovered in the collections of the National Library of Israel and serves as an interesting example of the global reach of Jewish food. Printed in Warsaw in 1930, the cover page promises recipes from a wide range of countries including but not limited to Poland, Russia, Romania, Germany, Alsace, Morocco, Tunisia, and the USA – and it delivers.

“Dei Yiddishe Kuch,” published in Warsaw, 1930. From the National Library of Israel collection.

A quick flip through the yellowing pages reveals Eastern European recipes for gefilte fish and kugel printed alongside North African dishes like couscous and shakshuka. While for some this may seem like a stretch, this unassuming book serves as a fascinating reflection on just how connected the Jewish communities were across the world through the language of food. A Jew living in a small village in Poland could create an inherently Mizrahi dinner from a cookbook written in his or her native Yiddish all before the age of digital technology and communication. The universal language of food spread across borders and oceans allowing for the creation of that seamlessly blended flavor that is a trademark of the Jewish kitchen.

A page from “Dei Yiddishe Kuch” featuring a recipe for Shakshuka written in Yiddish. From the National Library of Israel collection.

While Jewish cooking is hard to define, there is beauty in the hodgepodge of cuisines that makes up Jewish culinary tradition. It reflects the history and tribulations experienced by the Jewish people and its constant state of transformation are what keeps Jewish food so endlessly fascinating.

In honor of the Jewish New Year, a time spent dedicated to tradition, renewal, and family, the National Library of Israel seeks to bring some of the oldest and most interesting recipes from the Library collections out of the archives and back to your dinner table. Home to the intellectual and cultural treasures of Israel and the Jewish people, the National Library of Israel works to preserve and make these treasures available to diverse audiences in Israel and across the globe. A variety of items now preserved in the National Library collections mirror the journeys taken by Jewish people and the rich and diverse food culture that was developed and maintained over the centuries.

Shakshuka (Cracked eggs) Recipe from Dei Yiddishe Kuch:

Fry a clove of garlic in a bit of oil. Add a half-pound tomatoes chopped into small pieces. Leave it cooking for a 1/4 hour. Crack four eggs whole and ‘mix’ with the tomatoes for so long until it’s done.


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The Simple Grain That Saved the State of Israel from Starvation