When Nazi Swastikas Were Paraded in Downtown Tel Aviv

Tel Aviv's Purim parades between 1933 and 1935 evolved from joyous celebrations into full-on protests against Nazi Germany

A mock-up of a canon, adorned with a swastika, and an effigy of a Nazi stormtrooper trampling a Jew, Tel Aviv, 1935. This photograph is part of the Israel Archive Network project (IAN) and is accessible thanks to the collaborative efforts of the Ben Zvi Institute, the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage and the National Library of Israel.

Adolf Hitler became Chancellor of Germany on January 30th, 1933. The clear and present danger to world Jewry was obvious to many, including here in what was then still Mandatory Palestine.

A month and a half later, on March 13th, Tel Aviv held its annual Purim parade, the “Adloyada”. Among the costumes, colorful displays and general revelry, one cry of protest stood out in the crowd.

This was an exhibit designed by a group of Jewish immigrants from the Caucasus region. It displayed Hitler on horseback, pursuing two Jews as they ran terrified before him. They appeared beaten and bruised. The exhibit was titled, “Hitler in Pursuit and the Land of Israel Remains Locked Shut”. A sign was hung on Hitler’s neck, reading “Death to All Jews”. We were unfortunately unable to find a photograph of this particular exhibit in the archives.

The German Consulate heard of the stunt and sent a sharp letter of rebuke to Tel Aviv Mayor Meir Dizengoff, written in English. The Consul was most perturbed:

“Besides being of opinion that the person of a leading statesman on such an occasion should never be made the object of presentation whatever the intention might have been, I find myself in the necessity to protest most urgently against the tendencious [sic] manner in which Herr Hitler was publicly represented in this special case…I sincerely hope that they will think it right to apologize.”

The letter sent to Mayor Dizengoff, the Tel Aviv Municipality Archives

Dizengoff refused to apologize, responding:

“It is clear that this display is nothing but a spontaneous reaction reflecting a public view that is unwilling to accept the fate of the Jews of Germany. In fact, one wonders why the protest was not even sharper…”

The truth is, there was room to doubt the “spontaneous” nature of the exhibit, as it had been pre-approved by the municipality, which even rewarded the designers with a cash prize.

The Hitler exhibit won sixth place and a cash prize of two Palestine Pounds, according to a Hebrew report in Davar, March 17th, 1933

By 1934, fear of the Nazis was even more grounded in reality. Hitler was consolidating his power, and anti-Jewish measures were on the rise. That year’s Purim parade in Tel Aviv was marked by full-on protests against the Nazis, featuring clear demands to boycott German goods and stand up to the National-Socialist party.

This time around, the main attraction was a massive three-headed, swastika-emblazoned dragon, with an effigy of Hitler mounted on its back.

The “Antisemitism Dragon” featured in the 1934 Purim Parade. The creators drew swastikas all over the creature’s body. Photo: Library of Congress

At the end of the march, the “Antisemitism Dragon” was brought to Dizengoff Square and set on fire. A municipality newspaper, Yedioth Iriyat Tel Aviv, reported that “This was one of the most wonderful sights of the Purim celebrations, and the joyous bonfire-light dancing[…] lasted for many hours”.

By 1935, the gloves were off. The parade had now become a blatant anti-Nazi march through downtown Tel Aviv, purposefully aiming for maximum-shock effect.

A mock canon featuring a Nazi swastika and parade participants in Nazi costumes. This record is part of the Israel Archive Network project (IAN) and is accessible thanks to the collaborative efforts of the Ben Zvi Institute, the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage and the National Library of Israel.

One of the parade’s most shocking and prophetic displays was this one:

An effigy of a Nazi stormtrooper trampling a Jew, Tel Aviv, 1935. This record is part of the Israel Archive Network project (IAN) and is accessible thanks to the collaborative efforts of the Ben Zvi Institute, the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage and the National Library of Israel.

World War II would begin just a few years later. The fate of European Jewry would be worse than anything the Purim parade participants could have imagined.



Further Reading:

Tel Aviv’s 1933 Purim Parade Starred This Controversial Hitler Float \ JTA

The Story of Israel’s First Shelter for Battered Women

“We didn’t think we were making history. All we wanted was to work on behalf of women”: The story of the first shelter for battered women in Israel, established in Haifa in 1977, and the women who founded it

Israel’s first shelter for battered women in Haifa. Photo: Courtesy of the Haifa Women’s Coalition Feminist Archive

Among the first was Tzilla, who came to us straight from the hospital, the eye she’d almost lost still bandaged. Tamar who came with four small babies. Sarah, a kibbutznik whose husband had tried to kill her. Carmella, with twenty stitches in her scalp, ominously certain she would never escape her husband’s death threats. Shula, mother of five, who pulled up her sweater to show us her chest and back covered with knife wounds and cigarette burns.

All these women came because they were sure that the next beating would be their last. They came because they feared death and because there was no place else to go. This apartment in Haifa, they all said, was their last stop. No, we said, you will move on from here to live again. We were right about most of the women . We were wrong about Carmella.

– From Exile in the Promised Land: A Memoir, by Marcia Freedman


“Doyou want to open a shelter for battered women?” Marcia Freedman asked her friend Judy Hill.

It was shortly after Marcia had failed in her bid for re-election to the Knesset, this time as a member of the Women’s Party in Israel.

Her question would change the course of everything related to the treatment of battered women in Israel. Five women—Marcia Freedman, Judy Hill, Joyce Livingstone, Cholit Bat-Edit and Barbara Swirski—turned that “question” into a reality. Though none of them were born in Israel, all were pioneers of Israel’s women’s movement. Search high and low and you won’t find a single photograph of these women together. “We never thought we were making history, so we didn’t see the point of taking a picture together,” says Barbara Swirski, who was one of the founders of the shelter and ran it in its early years. “All we wanted was to work on behalf of women.”

Marcia Freedman. January 1974. Photo: Yaakov Saar, GPO

Like many great things, it started from humble beginnings: a group of women, with the help of dozens of other feminist activists, began by renting an apartment in the Hadar HaCarmel neighborhood in the northern Israeli city of Haifa to be used as a shelter. The location was kept a secret for obvious reasons, and everything in it was either donated or improvised. The furniture was donated by local residents and collected in a small truck.

The shelter was actually a five-room residential apartment. It wasn’t much, but even long journeys begin with one small step. Almost the entire staff of the new shelter agreed to work on a volunteer basis: a lawyer, a doctor, a gynecologist, all worked for free or for a nominal fee. The shelter opened in the fall of 1977. For the first time in Israeli history, abused and battered women who until then had nowhere to turn, finally had a place to go.

“Rape? Physical Abuse? Call 04-660281” Haaretz reports on the new shelter. November 4, 1977. Click to read.

Since there was no precedent in Israel for this type of shelter, in order to determine the rules for its use, the team of women had to look at similar projects already operating in other countries. For example, they determined that a stay in the shelter could last for up to three months, men were not allowed access, and each resident would receive legal, personal and medical assistance while there, enabling her to start out on a new path at the end of her stay.

“In the end, all we wanted was to help women suffering from abuse,” Swirski said in a conversation with us. “We read the professional literature on the subject. We learned about the shelters set up in England and the Netherlands. Then we had to learn on our own what to do and what not to do.”

Following the shelter’s opening on November 3rd, 1977, the founders launched a “hotline” for women seeking assistance. At first, the flow of women seeking shelter was very limited, but an article in Yedioth Ahronoth on February 3rd, 1978, just a few months after the shelter opened, changed everything. Suddenly the phone was ringing off the hook. Women would simply show up at the entrance, and in the months following the article’s publication, more than a hundred women applied for shelter.

“Battered Women”, by Orly Azulay. The article that was published on February 3rd, 1978. Courtesy of Yedioth Ahronoth

“Once the article in Yedioth came out, the shelter never closed,” Swirski says. “The first women to come to the shelter were actually the stronger ones for whom the shelter was a lifeline. They simply saved themselves. Women from other parts of society only came at a later stage.”

The change was rapid and unequivocal. The founders described it in a special report issued after the first six months:

Within two weeks, the woman calms down. She starts eating and sleeping. After a month in the shelter, she is usually ready to help the newer arrivals in their various tasks. She begins to think about work and the future. She is no longer a helpless victim facing an omnipotent man, but a stronger woman, and not frightened.

The shelter in Haifa, 1978, photo: Yossi Rot, Yedioth Aharonoth

Not everything went smoothly, and not all the women were able to break the cycle of violence and begin a new life, but “Whoever saves one life saves the world entire,” says Swirski, quoting the familiar saying. “There was one woman who had recovered in the shelter and was well on her way out of her difficult reality. We became very close. About two years ago, she contacted me through Facebook Messenger. I went to meet her and saw that she was doing well, raising her children. One had been a baby in a crib when she was at the shelter. She has a steady partner, but she was not ready to remarry. We spent a few hours together. What a joy!”

Six months after the establishment of the first shelter, a second opened in Herzliya. In 1981, a third shelter was established in Jerusalem, and at the end of that year, a fourth was opened in Ashdod. Over the years, many other shelters have been established and even received organizational and governmental “support,” but the first shelter in Haifa was the one that broke new ground in protecting victims of domestic violence. “It’s a great thing to do something that has not been done before,” Swirski says. “Seeing a woman come in hunched over and then to see her leave with her back straight, getting on with her life—it’s a great feeling when that happens! You change the world!”

Barbara Swirski, Spring, 2021

“Actually,” Swirski concludes with a sober look at the present, “nothing has changed.” “What’s really changed? There are more institutions, more solutions, more options. The phenomenon hasn’t disappeared and probably never will. Unfortunately, Israel is in competition with the United States and is becoming increasingly violent in all areas, not just in the home.”


Many thanks to Hannah Safran of the Haifa Women’s Coalition for her assistance in preparing this article.

The article is dedicated to the memory of all victims of violence against women in Israel.



Further Reading

Exile in the Promised Land: A Memoir, by Marcia Freedman

Daughters of Eve, Daughters of Lilith, by Barbara Swirski

Don’t Wanna Be Nice Girls: The Struggle for Suffrage and the New Feminism in Israel, by Hannah Safran

Isaac Newton’s Map of the Apocalypse

Isaac Newton, who possessed one of the greatest scientific minds in human history, had some fascinating views on the End of Days. His vision even linked the apocalypse to the return of the Jews to their ancient homeland.

So then the mystery of this restitution of all things is to be found in all the Prophets: which makes me wonder with great admiration that so few Christians of our age can find it there. For they understand not that ye final return of ye Jews captivity & their conquering the nations (of ye four Monarchies) & setting up a peaceable righteous & flourishing Kingdom at ye day of judgment is this mystery. 

—Isaac Newton, Of ye Day of Judgment & World to Come

How does one bridge the gap between science and faith? In 1795, the English poet and artist William Blake created one of his most iconic paintings. Its subject was the English physicist and mathematician Isaac Newton (1642–1727), one of the greatest scientists in all of history. Blake defined Newton as one of the fathers of rational thought. However, make no mistake, the painting was not complimentary of its subject. Blake painted Newton at the bottom of the ocean, immersed in measurements and calculations and ignoring the world around him.

The modern image of Newton is perhaps not so far from Blake’s somewhat mocking representation. After all, the first image that generally comes to mind when one mentions the name “Newton”, is that of a rationalist scientist so preoccupied with his theoretical musings that it took an apple dropping on to his head to bluntly remind him that there was indeed a real, tangible world to be contended with. In the popular imagination, Newton’s apple was responsible for sparking his mission to formulate the universe’s physical laws.

Despite this stigma, it seems that few, including Blake, were familiar with Newton’s mystical and esoteric writings. The collector Abraham Shalom Yahuda purchased these manuscripts in 1936, which were deposited, along with the rest of his collection, at the National Library of Israel in 1969. Many of the writings are digitally accessible through the Library’s website, and reveal a completely different side of Newton’s world.

Isaac Newton by William Blake (1795)

In Jewish tradition, the End of Days is not generally a common topic of discussion or study. Indeed, the Day of Judgment is mentioned only briefly in some of the apocryphal books (ancient texts that were not included in the Bible), although over the course of Jewish history, the issue did occasionally surface during darker periods, which brought with them episodes of messianic revival. Nevertheless, the belief in the destruction of the existing world and the creation of a new one in its stead does not occupy a central place within Judaism. On the contrary, Jews are commanded to preserve the existing world. In Christianity, on the other hand, the apocalyptic vision in the New Testament describes the End of Days with chilling accuracy. The Book of Revelation (also called the Apocalypse of John), the last book of the New Testament, describes the exact geographic location where the final and decisive war in history, known as Armageddon, will take place. Apologies for the spoiler.

Newton believed in the unequivocal, divine origin of the Bible. He devoted his time not only to clarifying the laws of nature, but also to searching for the essence behind them. The scientific motivation to comprehend the world and explain it was also what pushed him to seek understanding of reality’s more esoteric secrets, as well as any religious meaning that lay behind them.

One of Newton’s main pursuits in this respect was calculating the exact time and location of the end of the world. Among the seemingly vague chapters of the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, Newton sought accurate prophecies for the future of the world and the redemption of the human souls living in it. It is important to understand that at the time Newton formulated his great scientific theories, modern science had not yet completely abandoned the esoteric and religious sources from which it had developed.

Already in his early theological writings, Newton invested much interpretive energy in deciphering John’s apocalyptic revelation. Among other things, he hoped to discover the exact location where the events that would lead to the End of Days would begin. Not satisfied with theoretical research and written interpretation, the scientist even attached a map that indicates precisely the area expected to be the focus of the Day of Judgment to one of his essays on the subject. We will come back to this map, created some 300 years ago, and the many notes scribbled in its margins, which hold an abundance of multidisciplinary information.

Newton’s map of the apocalypse. Click for a closer look. View the full manuscript here.

John’s Revelation tells of the sounding of seven trumpets, each of which heralds a different apocalyptic event. Because Newton did not believe that the end of the world would come in his lifetime, he did not define the location of the seventh and final trumpet sounding. What he did mark on the map were the events leading up to the End of Days; that is, the sounding of the fifth and sixth trumpets (Revelation 9). Newton understood the fifth trumpet to be the rise of Arab Islam. And the sixth – the rise of the Ottoman Empire, which Newton believed was sent by God to punish sinful Christians and finally destroy the remnants of the corrupt Roman Empire, that is, the Byzantine Empire.

And where, according to Newton, do the end time events take place? Why, right here, in our own cozy little neighborhood known as the Middle East, where else? With great precision, Newton identified four provinces: Asia (the city of Konya, in modern day Turkey), Syria (the city of Damascus), Mosul (in Iraq), and Meyafarikîn (today the city of Silvan, also in modern Turkey). To each he assigned one of the four angels of the apocalypse liberated from the Euphrates River during the sixth trumpet event (Revelation 9: 14). According to John’s vision, the departure of the four angels of the apocalypse to sow destruction and devastation throughout the world precedes the coming of the mysterious beast—mentioned in the book as one of the initiators of doomsday—and symbolizes the final battle.

Given the starting point of the angels of the apocalypse according to Newton, one area stands out for its absence from his map. This is Mount Megiddo, which in the Greek translation became Armageddon, later taking root in Christian tradition as the name for the Judgment Day event itself. Megiddo is mentioned in the Bible several times, often in the context of an important battle (remember the story of Yael and Sisera? That happened nearby), but only in Christianity is it incorporated into the vision of the end of days. According to Revelation, the final battle between the forces of evil, led by the beast, and the forces of good commanded by God, will take place at Mount Megiddo. In this battle, the wicked will be defeated, after which the kingdom of heaven will reign over the earth.

Newton provides a historical example for the connection between the forces of evil and divine providence. In a note scribbled on the map’s margins, Newton discusses two military leaders of the forces of evil: one is Saladin (1138–1193), who expelled the last of the Crusaders from the Holy Land, and the other is Genghis Khan (1162–1227), whose Mongol hordes appeared from the East, and sowed destruction and devastation across much of the world. Newton perceived the rise of the two conquerors as the intervention of divine providence.

The first page of Newton’s essay to which he added the Judgment Day map. Click here for a closer look.

Newton’s manuscripts preserved at the National Library of Israel offer an intriguing glimpse into aspects not widely known about this venerated scientist, notably his interest in alchemy and his systematic attempt to recreate the divine prophecy that had been lost since biblical times; that is, to understand the prophecies handed down by the Hebrew prophets. Albert Einstein made the case for the significance of these documents clearly in a letter to his friend, the collector and Middle East expert Abraham Shalom Yahuda, in 1940. Einstein elucidated for Yahuda the importance of collecting and making Newton’s theological and alchemical writings available for study, emphasizing that these writings open an unprecedented window into the man’s work. Einstein wrote:

While the formative development of Newton’s lasting physics works must remain shrouded in darkness, because Newton apparently destroyed his preparatory works, we do have in this domain of his works on the Bible drafts and their repeated modification; these mostly unpublished writings therefore allow a highly interesting insight into the mental workshop of this unique thinker.

From the theological records preserved in the Library, it is clear that like a number of 17th-century Protestant commentators, Newton also believed that the end of the world was encrypted in the text of the Bible. The thousands of carefully hand-written pages are evidence of the devotion of one of human history’s greatest minds to the solving of this riddle. As hinted in the quotation which appears at the beginning of this article, the return of the Jews to Zion was a central part of the Newtonian vision.


Browse through Isaac Newton’s theological manuscripts, preserved at the National Library of Israel, here.


A Vanishing World: What Will Become of the Yung Yiddish Museum?

The “Yung Yiddish" museum, tucked away inside a massive bus station, is something in between a library and an underground club. Its collections have survived two world wars in Europe. Whether they can survive the disparaging attitude in Israel remains to be seen.


The Yung Yiddish museum in the Tel Aviv New Central Bus Station. Photo: Amit Naor

“May your journey be as smooth as ice!” I imagined the fellow I bumped into on my way to the New Central Bus Station in Tel Aviv shout after me. With a tilt of the head and one eye closed, the huge station, with its eclectic mix of stores, hawkers, passers-by and a general ramshackle atmosphere, could perhaps pass for a bustling Polish shtetl from the early twentieth century. That kind of chilly greeting is exactly what one would expect to hear in such a shtetl, if one had bumped into a young fellow rushing to the market to sell his eggs.

With this thought in mind, I entered the bus station’s hulking edifice. I was there to visit a place known as “Yung Yiddish”, hidden somewhere on the fifth floor, in the abandoned artists’ complex. The institution styles itself as “A Lively Yiddish Museum”. The reason for my visit was the impending threat to its future, with plans being prepared for clearing out the entire building. While working on this article we were informed that, for the time being, the bus station structure had been saved from demolition, but the pressure to evacuate the tenants was still on. The media attention surrounding the building’s fate and the threat of eviction has led the association’s directors and the museum to consider relocating in any case.

Mendy Cahan, founder of the Yung Yiddish Association and the living spirit behind the museum, arrives a little late to our meeting. He pours me some Turkish coffee and tells me about this somewhat unconventional location for a museum-cum-archive-cum-Yiddish club. “We feel comfortable in the central station. Sure, there are some problems related to whether it’s going to shut down or not, but we would not have been able to function anywhere else. We have financial constraints and our work is based entirely on volunteering.”

Cahan with a theater costume and posters at the Yung Yiddish museum. Photo: Amit Naor

Beyond material concerns, do you feel that your presence at the central bus station has any added meaning?

Being in the central bus station also gives us a cultural context. We, after all, represent a culture in distress, like many other of the central bus station’s tenants [the station is home to dozens of businesses run by immigrants living in Tel Aviv’s southern neighborhoods – Ed.]. We also love the polyphonic surroundings. It’s a bit like the West End in London or Second Avenue. This is a port. There is a lot of traffic and immigrants here. And yet, it’s in the middle of Tel Aviv. Yiddish is also like that: something central and huge that has somehow been left crumpled on the sidelines.

Do you like being here?

Definitely. I love this place. We can reach all kinds of audiences this way. Although there are people who are less likely to come here because of the fact that it’s here, on the other hand a lot of young people come by, eclectic, special types who wouldn’t have found us anywhere else.

Will you be sad to leave?

There’s not really anywhere to go.  No one’s waiting to receive us. Our location is also important in terms of the ability to bring books from all over the country. This is a collection project that has expanded beyond its dimensions and become a cultural and research center.

Any thoughts about what will happen when everything has to be vacated? Where will you go?

There are plenty of thoughts. Thoughts and worries. Right now, there is no direction because we have nothing. We have no money. We can barely even afford this place. I can’t imagine what it would mean to move to Rothschild Boulevard and calculate how much the property tax will cost us there. On the other hand, all the talk about the possibility of vacating the station in recent weeks has made me realize that we are sustaining a very, very big project. We have grown over time and stretched out into different directions. We do events, collect books and also try to catalog and sort, as well as do projects and exhibitions. There are a lot of things to do and we constantly feel a little behind and unable to keep up. Because we’re always busy, it’s difficult for us to stop for a moment and find solutions. We may need outside help from the establishment for that.

And there’s no support? How about the Tel Aviv Municipality or the Ministry of Culture?

There’s nothing. The municipality only sends bills. We are a volunteer non-profit, no one receives a salary; there isn’t even a paid manager. Even taking care of the bureaucracy required for that kind of funding is difficult; even filling out a form and knowing which office to contact, and sending the form in on time—that’s already complicated for us.

The central space of the Yung Yiddish museum. Photo: Amit Naor


The Wide World of Yiddish

Cahan came to Israel in 1980 and began studying at the Hebrew University. He studied philosophy, literature and other subjects in the humanities, until he decided to join the university’s Yiddish department. “Then the wide world of Yiddish opened up to me, in all its breadth and depth. I discovered how special this language is; how alive and connected it is to European cultures and also thriving in its own right. On the other hand, I thought to myself, here we are in the State of Israel and there is not even a whiff of this anywhere in the public space. I saw that there were no Yiddish books in stores, so I decided to collect them myself. I took up the responsibility.”

He started the book collection on his own, in the early 1990s. “At first it was in my house. I remember sitting in the sealed-off room [a protective measure meant to protect from potential chemical missile attacks during the first Gulf War – Ed.] with all the Yiddish materials around me. Then we moved to another place in Jerusalem, and slowly the collection grew. I collected fragments of dreams and memories.”

When you started, were you only thinking of collecting books, or were you already planning for a wider collection?

I collected everything. Anything that was in Yiddish. A book, a newspaper, anything printed. I also realized from the beginning that I wanted other people to be excited about it. I realized that I was collecting books, but that I also wanted to construct a huge tower made out of them – so that others would notice them. So very quickly, I took part in the Jerusalem International Book Fair.

Tens of thousands of books inside a relatively small space. Photo: Amit Naor

Did you set any guidelines for this collection process?

The only guideline was to be open to everything. I thought to myself: There’s the Bund, there’s Beit Sholem Aleichem, there’s the Kultur Lige, there’s YIVO [all of these are Yiddish cultural institutions – A.N.] There are all of these islands with their own traditions; each organization has its own respective emphasis and specialization. Then it happens, for example, that in one place they don’t want to store Hasidic melodies, and in another place they aren’t interested in housing something else. But we live in a postmodern, eclectic world, so I wanted to collect everything. And we don’t just collect, we also broadcast the collection outwards. From the first moment, I wanted people to take books, to come and talk to each other. The idea was to connect everyone.

Cahan is a native of Antwerp, Belgium, where he grew up speaking Yiddish. “Antwerp is an interesting Jewish city. The pre-war local Jewish community hardly survived the Holocaust. The Jewish population after World War II was composed of many Holocaust survivors who came from Poland and Moldavia. There are about 20,000 Jewish residents with 30 different synagogues. That’s why the Jewish community in Antwerp speaks Yiddish.”

A Rosh Hashanah greeting card in Yiddish. Photo courtesy of the Yung Yiddish Association

And you never felt any tension between European culture and Yiddish culture? Was Yiddish culture perhaps looked down upon?

I read Sartre and Camus in the original language. But studying in the Yiddish Department, I understood the depth of Yiddish and its culture. Even having learned French and German culture, I came to the realization that my culture is something else. It’s both European and something else. I dived into the history of Yiddish, into its power, its multifaceted dimensions.

And yet, in Israel this culture is almost forgotten.

Here, the vacuum surrounding Yiddish called on me to act. There’s a saying in Yiddish, “B’makom she’eyn ish, iz hering oykh a fish” (“Where there is no worthy man, even a herring is a fish.” – A.N.). Yiddish is still significant; people still speak this language. It’s not dead.

Have you felt a change in the attitude toward Yiddish in recent years?

Yes, young people are showing more interest. The creative space of the language has grown. The audience is expanding. There’s more research. It’s considered less exotic. You also see it in the visitors. There are 18-year-old boys who come here to visit or volunteer. There was even a class of fourth graders, ten-year-olds, who came to hear about Yiddish for half an hour. Besides that, there are more Hebrew translations of Yiddish literature. New works as well, not just the classics. And there’s poetry and klezmer bands. Interest in Yiddish is still alive in many forms.

How many Yiddish speakers are there in Israel?

The numbers vary. Some say that there are several hundred thousand Yiddish speakers here. There are about a million in the world. But even those who remain silent in Yiddish are important to me, and there are many of those. People aged 40, 50, and 60 come for tours of the museum. I talk with them a little, sing a little, say a couple of phrases in Yiddish, and suddenly they’re surprised to find out how much they understand. These people interest me as well. You know, Kafka gave only one lecture in his lifetime—a lecture on Yiddish. He said, “You’ll be surprised how much more Yiddish you understand than you think you do.” And he was right.

The jacket cover of a record by comedian Shimon Dzigan. Who else is on the cover? Photo: Amit Naor


A Creative Study House

So what exactly is the Yung Yiddish museum? Until further notice, it’s here, on the fifth floor of the New Central Bus Station. You’re welcome to visit. After you enter through the glass doors, you’ll feel as if you’ve stepped into a kind of library-warehouse-pub-theater. Long rows of high shelves, filled to bursting with books, pamphlets and newspapers. There are other items as well. Posters of Yiddish cabaret performances, dresses and other costumes from the Yiddish theater, as well as a corner filled with records, CDs and sheet music. You can find memorial books here too, as Yiddish is the language of the destroyed communities of Eastern European Jewry, along with entertainment magazines, translations of literary masterpieces, science books and pamphlets of Hasidic tales that continue to be published in Yiddish in Israel. In another section are manuscripts by writers and artists. Somewhere among the shelves is a collection of thousands of jokes in Yiddish copied out in long hand—an item that no Yiddish collection would be complete without, naturally. There’s even a board game in Yiddish stashed somewhere in a closet if you feel like playing.

What do you do here besides collect books?

We hold cultural events here. We have sing-alongs, launch parties, holiday celebrations, exhibitions. We did a rave, cabarets, klezmer music performances, Hasidic melody performances, everything. The place is open. We don’t have money, so this is how we get by, by hosting all kinds of events. Besides that, there are a lot of groups that come to the central station for all sorts of reasons, and then the tours pass by here as well. Each visit, I reveal a little about Yiddish culture, the written culture, things that will soon be forgotten.

Books in the Yiddish museum. Photo: Amit Naor

“This place is a theater, a tavern, a synagogue, a study house, a yeshiva,” explains Eli Benedict, who serves as the association’s director—on a volunteer basis, of course. “When I first came here, as a young volunteer, it was a community place, a place of shared creativity and this has vanished. It is reminiscent of the Strashun Library in Vilnius, a glorious library that attracted people from all corners—secular, religious—they all met there. This is a study house for creation.”

And you continue to collect books. How do they get to you?

In most cases, people who want to bring books call us. We hardly look for them on our own anymore. Sometimes places refer people to us, the Yiddish department or a community center or libraries, where people are told “we don’t deal with books like this, go to Yung Yiddish.” Very high quality things come here. There are also collections, manuscripts and archives of intellectuals who want their archives preserved here and not elsewhere.

“Sometimes people call because they saw books on the sidewalk,” Benedict adds. “After you see that a couple of times, you feel as if our culture is going up in smoke. To go outside on Holocaust Memorial Day and see a mountain of Yiddish books dumped somewhere, to see the stamps in the books and realize that these books were saved from Hitler only to be thrown out on a curb in Israel. It leaves an impression on your soul. The Nazis burned books, the gentiles have always burned our books. And here in the Jewish state, books are tossed like so many pebbles in the street. Why did we build a state if not to preserve our culture?”

The entire system is run by the volunteers. Cahan estimates that there are currently dozens, of all ages: high schoolers, soldiers, retirees, all are welcome. “The volunteers did a phenomenal cataloging job here and it’s not done yet. I squeeze every last drop out of them. We have volunteers who got their first taste of Yiddish here and have gone on to study and research it.”

A Yiddish board game called Kfitzat Haderekh (a Kabbalistic concept with connotations of a miraculous leap to a distant location). Photo: Amit Naor

“Our volunteers collect books from all over the country,” says Benedict. “We once managed to stuff 700 books into a Toyota Corolla. We made 12 trips in private cars to transfer books, then we switched to trucks.”

“All the interviews and conversations I’ve had recently made me realize that the museum needs to be institutionalized,” says Cahan. “There also needs to be professional staff here who know what an archive is, and what a library is. Yes, we have good intuitions, but we’ve already grown above and beyond.”

What is your vision for this place?

“Something big, something international. It has to be institutionalized. But it can’t be too tidy,” laughs Cahan. “I want to keep the eclecticism and the ability to do things for free.”

And should it be in Tel Aviv?

“If they give us a place in the periphery, then we’ll go there,” says CEO Benedict. “We will of course also be happy to receive support from the Ministry of Culture. We see the preservation as a national goal. In time, we believe people will understand this collection better, and will give it more respect.”

“We may have to leave for a less central location,” Cahan admits with a smile. “But we want a permanent place. Just so we don’t have to leave town again.”