The Happy Mistake That Gave Us the “Soup Almond”

How did a bureaucratic mix-up during Israel’s 1950s austerity period lead to one of Israel's most unique culinary innovations? How did an Ashkenazi Jewish Passover recipe end up on the holiday table of every Jewish Israeli, and where does the distinctive yellow color of the soup almond come from? In short, here is the story of Israel’s prized "shkedei marak"


Boys enjoying a bowl of soup in a HaNoar Haoved summer camp. Photo: Benno Rothenberg, the Meitar Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

Nothing fills us with more pride than the list of exclusive Israeli inventions, right? Every year during the Independence Day ceremony, we are reminded of how we invented drip irrigation, the cherry tomato and the disk-on-key. But there is one Israeli invention that is a special source of national pride and that no holiday table dares be without—the “soup almond”. Yes, we are referring to those crunchy, yellow, crouton-like additions to soup, which miraculously appear just about everywhere during holiday season in Israel. “Soup almond” is a literal translation of the Hebrew term shkedei marak, which is sometimes used even by English speakers (you know who you are), though others prefer “soup mandels”, “soup nuts” or the Yiddish mandlakh. We set out on a mission to discover out how this unparalleled genius invention came about.

Advertisement for Osem soup almonds. Designer: Otte Wallish, from the Eri Wallish Collection, the Ephemera Collection, the National Library of Israel

After all, what’s the point of soup if it doesn’t have a little something extra—chopped vegetables, dumplings, noodles, croutons or whatever strikes one’s fancy. This is how soup becomes a satisfying and heart-warming dish, and this was also the thinking of the Osem company’s food engineers.

Having soup in the Pardes Hana immigrant camp. What extras did they have for soup in those days? Photo: Benno Rothenberg. From the Meitar Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

It was the early 1950s, the days of tzena— Israel’s national austerity plan. Two years earlier, Osem had come up with another brilliant invention to deal with the rice shortage. They called it petitim, tiny toasted pasta balls sometimes referred to as “Ben-Gurion rice” (or “Israeli couscous” in later years). The company was now facing another rationing crisis. According to the story on the Osem website, each manufacturing plant received a monthly allowance of flour. It’s not clear whether human error or some other unfortunate accident was to blame, but one month the Osem plant did not receive its flour allowance.

Boys enjoying a bowl of soup in a HaNoar Haoved summer camp. Photo: Benno Rothenberg, the Meitar Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

Everyone is familiar with the saying, “when life gives you lemons, make lemonade”. In this case, the lemons were 300 kilograms of oil gifted to the Osem company to compensate for the missing flour. Lemonade was going to be a long shot, but during a time of severe shortage, Osem wasn’t about to pass on the offer. But what to do with so much oil? According to company’s website, they decided to use the oil to fry flour. And lo and behold—a miracle: this is how the soup almond as we know it was born. The color of fried flour may not be very appealing, so a bit of turmeric extract turned them a bright yellow.

Advertisements for Osem soup almonds and “egg almonds”. Designer: Otte Wallish, from the Eri Wallish Collection, the Ephemera Collection, the National Library of Israel
An advertisement for Osem egg almonds. Designer: Otte Wallish, from the Eri Wallish Collection, the Ephemera Collection, the National Library of Israel
Advertisements for Osem soup almonds and egg almonds in Hebrew, German, Hungarian and Yiddish. Designer: Otte Wallish, from the Eri Wallish Collection, the Ephemera Collection, National Library of Israel

Osem’s soup almonds didn’t appear out of thin air, of course. First there were zup mandlen, “soup almonds” in Yiddish, which were added to the soup that Ashkenazi Jews ate during Passover. They were made from matzah meal and egg and were apparently much larger, perhaps more similar to the matzah balls (kneidlach) that many know today. But, unlike the matzah ball which is boiled, the homemade soup almonds were either baked or fried, just like today’s soup almonds.


Passover advertisement for zup mandeln, from the Yiddish Newspaper Forverts, April 4, 1943

Like any product created by accident or under improvised circumstances, the initial appearance of the Osem soup almonds did not resemble what they look like today, and there were also variations in name and use. In the beginning, Israeli soup almonds were made in two forms: one was diamond-shaped and flatter (but larger than today’s version), and the other was oval like an egg and was called an “egg almond”. The home-made Ashkenazi soup almonds may have been the inspiration, but the company believed that the fried flour morsels might also have other uses. Early newspaper ads and posters preserved in the Ephemera Collection at the National Library of Israel recommend adding the egg almonds to cold or hot drinks, and even to a glass of beer. Feel free to try this at home and let us know what you think.


Ad for Osem soup almonds. Designer: Otte Wallish, from the Eri Wallish Collection, Ephemera Collection, National Library

The product evolved over time. It was adapted to the local market and was given new and sophisticated packaging. The soup almond finally settled on its square and puffy shape, unique yellow color, salty taste, becoming a must-have product on every holiday table, because how can you eat soup without it? Today you can buy shkedei marak in a resealable bag or in a plastic container. And companies besides Osem make them as well.  Some even eat them by the handful as a snack—hold the soup! Who are we to judge?

Chag sameach!

Advertisement for Osem soup almonds. Designer: Otte Wallish, from the Eri Wallish Collection, the Ephemera Collection, the National Library of Israel

The Story of Israel Told Through Rosh Hashanah Greeting Cards

There was a time when Israeli greeting cards designed to celebrate the Jewish New Year were the most common mail item in the country. These charming postcards expressed the sentiments of their time in every Jewish home in Israel and in Jewish communities around the world

A Rosh Hashanah greeting card from 1958

The custom of sending greeting cards before the Jewish New Year began in Germany in the late Middle Ages and gradually spread to Eastern Europe and the United States. The early twentieth century was the “golden age” of postcards, and among Jews, the Rosh Hashanah greeting card was easily the star of this particular show. With the rise of electronic communications, the custom has naturally faded, and today it is likely that most of the New Year greetings we receive arrive via other mediums: text message, Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, Tiktok, email, the list goes on. But we wanted to look back for a moment, to those distant days when sending a Rosh Hashanah greeting required more than just a click.

The holiday postcards usually carried Jewish-related motifs, such as traditional and ideological symbols, or illustrations of major Jewish current events. With the formation and rise of the Zionist movement, Rosh Hashanah greeting cards became platforms for conveying ideological and Zionist messages related to prominent public events.

This Jewish New Year greeting shows what the opening of the Second Zionist Congress in the city of Basel looked like in the last week of August 1898. Encouraged by the first Congress that had convened there the year before, hopeful representatives of Jewish communities from all over the world gathered together again to plan the future of Zionism. In the center of the photo we can see Theodor Herzl addressing the crowd.


In the spring of 1901 a meeting between Herzl and the Turkish Sultan Abdul Hamid stirred hopes in the Jewish world. At the meeting, Herzl asked the Sultan to sell the Land of Israel to the Jewish people, and offered a large sum of money to the Ottoman Empire and an equally large sum to the Sultan himself in exchange for a charter for the land, but the Sultan declined the request. This special greeting card was published on Rosh Hashanah 1901 to mark the historic meeting that had taken place a few months earlier.


The same New Year’s postcard series with the photographs of Herzl and the Sultan also included postcards of other heroes of the Jewish national awakening in Europe at the turn of the 20th century, such as Nordau, Emile Zola and one of Alfred Dreyfus, shown here below.


During the first three decades of the State of Israel, New Year greeting cards were the most common mail item in the country. These cards expressed the spirit of the New Year in every Jewish home in Israel. In the last few weeks of each Hebrew year, the post office would switch into high gear to meet the challenge posed by the countless postcards that flooded the postal system. The diverse images on the postcards expressed the hopes of Israeli citizens at the beginning of the New Year. Together they form a collective picture of Israeli society in its own eyes.


“At Basel, I founded the Jewish State”

(Theodor Herzl, Basel, 1897)


“It is with a sense of honor and awe that I rise to open the Constituent Assembly of the State of Israel, the first Jewish assembly of our day, in Jerusalem, the eternal city.”

(Prof. Chaim Weizmann, President of the Provisional State Council and the first President of the State of Israel at the opening ceremony of the Knesset, then called the “Constituent Assembly,” 1949)

This card from 1949, recalls two important events in the life of the nation: the First Zionist Congress in Basel (note the wrong year written on the card – 1896 instead of 1897) where Herzl laid the cornerstone of the future homeland of the Jewish people and the opening session of the first Knesset.


Shana Tova from 1930s Tel Aviv! A greeting card depicting Dizengoff Square, named for Zina Dizengoff, the first lady of the first Hebrew city.


Years before the Western Wall was in Israeli hands, the Jewish people prayed for “the liberation of our holy places.”


Happy New Year from the “Egged” Public Transportation Company:


1967 was an exciting year. After days of anxious waiting and uncertainty, Israel quickly defeated its neighbors in the Six-Day War. One of the symbols of this victory was the liberation of Jerusalem’s Old City after nineteen years of Jordanian rule and two thousand years of Jewish longing for the city. The postcard shows an armored vehicle entering the Old City through the Lion’s Gate. Blasts of mortar fire can be seen through the gate and outside it. Written on the postcard is the Hebrew text: “Like lions, the warriors of Israel prevailed,” along with “Peace and security”, appearing twice:


“Shana Tova from the banks of the Suez Canal – to the victorious IDF.”


Even the Hora was commemorated in Rosh Hashanah greeting cards. Originating in the Balkans, the Hora was brought to Israel by immigrants from Eastern Europe and has since been identified with the Land of Israel and Zionism. The Hora is a circle dance in 4/4 time which allows equality among the dancers and a sense of togetherness. These features of the dance suited the pioneering spirit that prevailed in the country in the early decades following Israeli independence and was nostalgically commemorated years later, as in this card, which likely dates to the 1970s.  The Hebrew inscription reads “An abundance of blessings for the New Year”.


“Today, through my visit to you, I ask you why don’t we stretch out our hands with faith and sincerity so that together we might destroy this barrier?… Why don’t we stand together with the courage of men and the boldness of heroes who dedicated themselves to a sublime aim? Why don’t we stand together with the same courage and daring to erect a huge edifice of peace? An edifice that builds and does not destroy. An edifice that serves as a beacon for generations to come with the human message for construction, development, and the dignity of man.”

On November 20, 1977, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat delivered these words during his historic visit to the Israeli Knesset in Jerusalem. A month later, in December 1977, the historic first El Al flight took off from Ben-Gurion International Airport to Cairo. To mark the occasion, a Rosh Hashanah greeting was issued with an illustration of an El Al airplane decorated with Israeli and Egyptian flags and the words Peace in Hebrew and Arabic.

An El Al plane with the flags of Israel and Egypt to mark the historic flight from Ben-Gurion Airport to Cairo


Postcards from the Heddy Or Israeliana Collection and the National Library of Israel’s Ephemera Collection.


Meet the Ottoman Kavass Guards, Protectors of the Chief Rabbi

With the rise in status of foreign and non-Muslim dignitaries in the Ottoman Empire in the mid-19th century, the Ottomans assigned special bodyguards to protect diplomatic consuls, Christian patriarchs, as well as the chief rabbis of Jewish communities throughout the empire. The church patriarchs continue to use these bodyguards to this day, but what happened to the kavass guards that were assigned to the Jews? And what does all this have to do with Rabbi Ovadia Yosef?

Bezalel Mevashov (right), Hacham Rafael Azriel, son-in-law of Chief Rabbi Yaakov Meir (center) and the kavass Yaakov Bachar (left), 1939. This item is part of Archive Network Israel and is made accessible through the cooperation of the Ben-Zvi Institute, the Ministry of Heritage and Jerusalem and the National Library of Israel

In the summer of 1969, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef was appointed Chief Rabbi of the first Hebrew city, Tel Aviv. The inaugural procession left the religious council building for a motorcade parade around the city in honor of the new appointee. At the head of the procession, marching in front of the rabbi, the mayor and their attendants, was an unusual figure: an elderly man, dressed in official uniform, carrying a large wooden staff with a silver pommel and wearing a belt holding a curved and decorated sword. Stern-faced, he led the convoy, tapping out a uniform rhythm with the tip of his staff, and only after the new Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv was safely seated in the waiting car did he get into the front seat. Later he could be seen standing to the left of Rabbi Ovadia, acting as his personal assistant. This is one of the last records we have of a Jewish kavass, a relic from another time in the Holy Land.


Bodyguards for Foreigners in the Ottoman Territories

To understand why the Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv was accompanied by a bodyguard wielding a staff and a sword, we must look back to the mid-19th century. At the time, the Ottoman Empire was trying to quash the rebellion of Muhammad Ali, an Ottoman army officer who had taken control of a large region encompassing both Egypt and Palestine. In one of the last battles between the empire and the forces controlled by Muhammad Ali, who is considered the founder of modern Egypt, the Ottomans had no choice but to accept help from foreign powers, including the British Empire, alongside the Russians and Austro-Hungarians. Recognizing the weakness of the great Muslim empire, these nations offered their help in exchange for the advancement of their own interests within the Ottoman territories. This led to the “Capitulations” – contracts signed between the Ottoman Empire and the various European powers.

As a result of these contracts, the foreign consuls became sovereign over the citizens of their respective countries living in Muslim territories. This meant the European countries could establish civil systems to serve their own citizens, which ran parallel to those provided by the empire, such as foreign banks, a post office, hospitals and schools. Later, the European countries demanded that the capitulation rights also be applied to non-Muslim populations in the Ottoman Empire, regardless of their origin—including mainly Christians and Jews.

Thus, a situation was created in which, for the first time in the Ottoman Empire, non-Muslims were granted enhanced rights and Christian and Jewish religious leaders were empowered to represent the communities they headed. The office of the Jewish Hakham Bashi, which the Ottoman authorities united at that time with the office of the Rishon LeZion (Chief Rabbi), received a new validity, with subordinate rabbis being appointed to head the various Jewish communities in the empire. In view of the changes and the new rights granted within the capitulation contracts, the Ottoman authorities decided to assign bodyguards to the consuls, foreign diplomats, and various VIPs of one sort or another, as well as to non-Muslim religious leaders.

Bodyguard (kavass) of the Pasha of Jerusalem, colored drawing by Ermete Pierotti. This item is part of Archive Network Israel and is made accessible through the cooperation of the Ben-Zvi Institute, the Ministry of Heritage and Jerusalem and the National Library of Israel

These guards, called “kavass” (the meaning in Ottoman Arabic is “archer” or “bowman”), in fact received the status of a soldier or policeman, even though they did not belong to any official body. The role of the kavass was to walk in front of the official or dignitary they were accompanying, to clear the way for them, and if necessary to protect them from harassment, mobs or even attack. European institutions, such as banks, received permission to maintain a kavass that would protect their interests. Since the kavass did not belong to the police or the army, Jews and Christians could also hold this position, thereby circumventing the ban on non-Muslims carrying weapons.

Man wearing the decorative, embroidered kavass “uniform,” Jaffa. This item is part of Archive Network Israel and is made accessible through the cooperation of the Ben-Zvi Institute, the Ministry of Heritage and Jerusalem and the National Library of Israel

Staff, Sword and Special Dress

The kavass were colorful characters, whose dress mimicked the style of the dress uniforms worn by the Ottoman military in the mid-19th century. Their uniforms consisted of wide-legged oriental-style pants, a large embroidered coat, a wide sash and “Fez” hat (tarboush), which was common throughout the Ottoman Empire at the time. Most also sported thick mustaches in accordance with the day’s fashion. As mentioned, they wore a belt with a large sword, and always carried a large staff. This staff was usually topped by a pommel made of silver or some other metal, with a steel tip attached to it, in keeping with its function as a weapon. Yet the staff had another purpose besides: the kavass would use the stick to tap the pavement while leading a religious procession or accompanying a dignitary. The taps were meant to signal to the crowd to clear the way. If at first, the kavass’ role was intended to protect foreign office holders within Muslim territory, towards the end of the Ottoman Empire the presence of kawass became a status symbol, and they were often selected to perform important duties due to their visibility and prestige.

Kavass – morning procession at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. Courtesy of photographer Dancho Arnon, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

Every Christian patriarch was assigned a kavass, and the custom continued even after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, with the appointing of a kavass for the British High Commissioner. Muslim kavass guards sometimes found themselves in a “conflict of interests”. Journalist Uri Cesari recounted an incident that took place during the 1921 riots, when the Anglo-Palestine Bank was stormed by an angry mob: “The bank had a Muslim guard, a loyal guard, a ‘kavass,’ a figure bequeathed to us in the capitulations.” Later, Cesari described how the kavass promised that he would not let any trespasser through the bank’s doors, but the Jews, unsure with whom the kavass’ loyalty truly lay, chose to flee anyway.

Funeral procession of the Sephardic Chief Rabbi Yaakov Meir, which proceeded from Jaffa Street to the Mount of Olives, 1939. This item is part of Archive Network Israel and is made accessible through the cooperation of the Ben-Zvi Institute, the Ministry of Heritage and Jerusalem and the National Library of Israel

The Ottoman kavass became part of the Rishon LeZion’s honor guard along with many important rabbis. In his memoir of the German Kaiser’s visit to Jerusalem, David Yellin writes: “Two armed men dressed in their official clothes with silver staffs in their hands walk in front of our Chief Rabbi.” In his short story “The Jewish Kavass,” the author Yehoshua Ayzenshtadt (Barzilai) describes how at the beginning of the 20th century a Jewish kavass from Jerusalem was chosen to protect a large sum of money collected by the Jewish community in the Land of Israel: “In the Eastern countries, this person dressed in strange clothing is called ‘kavass.’ These people serve the royal envoys, religious heads and all the dignitaries; anyone who has a ’kavass’ is known to be important.” Ayzenshtadt goes on to describe the kavass’ heroic qualities as well as the amount of fabric needed for his traditional costume, given his large size. In his story, Ayzenshtadt, a European Jew, drew a portrait of the kavass that was clearly influenced by Orientalist tales: a big and strong Jerusalemite, a Jew who speaks Arabic and is familiar with the city as only a native son can be.

The Sephardic Chief Rabbi Yaakov Meir in traditional dress, to his right his bodyguard Bezalel Mabshus wearing the kavass costume, 1936. This item is part of Archive Network Israel and is made accessible through the cooperation of the Ben-Zvi Institute, the Ministry of Heritage and Jerusalem and the National Library of Israel

The Kavass Receives an Israeli Identity Card

With the establishment of the State of Israel, the kavass in their original traditional appearance remained only in the area of Jerusalem. Embassies were stationed in Tel Aviv, and the Christian patriarchs are the last to still have a kavass leading their processions. Most have abandoned the full oriental dress and are seen wearing it only on special occasions. Instead of the embroidered pants and coat, most kavass guards accompanying the Christian patriarchs wear blue suits, though the tarboosh remains, a sign of the past. They also still carry the silver-tipped staffs and swords.

Inauguration ceremony of Chief Rabbi Isser Yehuda Unterman, Heichal Shlomo Synagogue, Jerusalem, 1964. This item is part of Archive Network Israel and is made accessible through the cooperation of the Ben-Zvi Institute, the Ministry of Heritage and Jerusalem and the National Library of Israel

For the bodyguards of the Christian patriarchs, being a kavass is often a lifelong profession and many have adopted hallmarks of the particular Christian church they belong to. For example, the kavass guards of the Orthodox Patriarchate wear the symbol of the Orthodox Church on their lapel, whereas some of those who serve the Armenian Patriarchate refuse to wear the fez, which, as mentioned, is a distinctly Ottoman symbol, in protest of the Armenian genocide committed by the Ottoman Empire in the First World War. The kavass guards of the Rishon LeZion, whose position was integrated into the Israeli Chief Rabbinate, continued to serve the rabbis in the early years of the State of Israel. Little by little they became akin to personal assistants of the Chief Rabbi, and wore uniforms somewhat similar to those of the Knesset Guard, with a matching cap in place of the Ottoman headdress.

Inauguration of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef as the Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv-Jaffa, June 17, 1969, Tel Aviv’s Great Synagogue. Center: Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, right: Yosef Shalit, the Chief Rabbi’s assistant, wearing the kavass uniform. The Dan Hadani Archive, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

Eventually, they became a mere symbolic relic of a bygone era. In 1968, Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Nissim’s kavass made headlines, when the rabbi and his assistant visited the Western Wall plaza and decided to remove a partition that was illegally erected there by the Ministry of Religions. In 1969, a bodyguard accompanied Rabbi Ovadia as he set out on his new path as Chief Rabbi of the city of Tel Aviv-Jaffa. Three years later, when he was elected Sephardic Chief Rabbi of the State of Israel, Rabbi Ovadia abolished the position of the rabbi’s kavass guard. This spelled the end of the role of the Jewish kavass, although the Christian counterparts can still be found in the Old City of Jerusalem, accompanying the church patriarchs who have not yet decided to relinquish this symbol of honor and dignity from the past.

A Greek Orthodox Christmas procession in Jerusalem’s Old City, 1991. The Dan Hadani Archive, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

This Was the Actual First Zionist Congress

We are often told that “the Jewish state was founded in Basel", the city where the first Zionist Congress convened. However, 15 years earlier, Jews gathered in the city of Focşani, in Romania, to promote the settlement of the Land of Israel. Israel Gilad, a member of the First Aliyah Association and great grandson of the founders of Rosh Pinna and Zikhron Ya'akov, would like to remind our readers of those who came before Herzl…


Participants in the Hovevei Zion conference in Katowice, 1884, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

In 1878, Europe’s great powers convened at the Congress of Berlin to divide up the spoils of Russia and Romania’s victory over the Ottoman Empire in the Russo-Turkish War. Romania and Bulgaria afterward declared independence, pledging to grant citizenship to all residents. Leading this effort were British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli and French Minister of Justice Adolf Crémieux. Disraeli was a descendant of a Jewish family that had converted to Christianity, and Crémieux was himself a Jew.

Romania did everything it could to thwart this move. It now enforced laws legislated years earlier that discriminated against the country’s Jews and ruined their livelihoods. The laws had not been implemented previously. These actions, which worsened the already harsh reality of Jewish life in Eastern Europe, also spurred Jews to support the idea of a ​​return to the Land of Israel, a notion that began to spread among the Jews of the region.

In late 1880, David Gordon, the editor of the Jewish newspaper Hamagid, published an article analyzing the efforts to organize settlement associations for the Land of Israel. His conclusion was that small organizations or individuals would fail in their goal of “establishing a large agricultural settlement for our people in the land of our ancestors.” He believed that a strong central body, similar to French Jewry’s “Alliance” organization, which would oversee the organization and settlement, should be established.

Portrait of David Gordon, editor of Hamagid, the Abraham Schwadron Collection, the National Library of Israel

The renewed Jewish settlement in the Land of Israel had only two colonies at the time, Gei Oni (later to evolve into Rosh Pinna) and Petah Tikva, which were established in 1878 with the aim of creating an agricultural settlement that would provide a living for its residents. Gei Oni’s residents had to abandon their settlement due to agricultural failure, while the people of Petah Tikva suffered from a very severe bout of malarial fever. By early 1880, the founders of both colonies were forced to return to Safed and Jerusalem where they survived on halukkah funds (charity collected from Jewish communities in Europe and distributed to the Jewish residents living in the Land of Israel).

Gordon’s idea was simple: the basis for organizing would be local associations that would purchase land in Palestine; each colony would appoint a certain number of peasant families (up to 150 households, as per the sultan’s permission) to work it, with the settlers making their living from agriculture. Gordon believed that a large number of colonies would eventually lead to the recognition of the Land of Israel as the homeland and state of the Jewish people.

On March 13, 1881, the Russian Tsar Alexander II was assassinated by a terrorist group. Among its members was a Jewish woman. Pogroms against Russian Jews ensued and continued for about three years. The pogroms, known among Jews as the “Storms in the South”, motivated groups in Russia to organize for immigration to Palestine. The Jews of Romania, realizing that the events in Russia would soon spread, ramped up membership in Zionist associations as well.


The Focşani Congress, the Beginning of Settlement, “Hibat Zion” and the Zionist Organization

I would claim that the Zionist movement was founded on December 30, 1881 (according to the Julian calendar), in Focşani, in Romania, at the actual “first Zionist congress”, which was attended by 51 delegates from 32 settlement organizations who met in the town’s Jewish school. The conference lasted two days, during which five members were elected to serve as the “Central Committee for the Settlement of the Land of Israel and Syria”. Samuel Pineles, a Zionist activist from Romania, was elected committee chair and secretary. Pineles, a wise and skillful organizer, ran the conference with a deft hand, knowing when to act decisively and when to be flexible, depending on the circumstance.

Portrait of Samuel Pineles, the Abraham Schwadron Collection, the National Library of Israel

The movement founded at the Focşani Congress, which would later be renamed Hovevei Zion (“Lovers of Zion”) or Hibat Zion (“Love of Zion”), set as its goal: “the solution to the problem of Romanian Jewry by immediate immigration to the Land of Israel, agricultural settlement and independent work on the part of the settlers.” In his Hebrew book The Torch Was Lit in Romania (Ha-Avuka Hudleka Be-Rumanyah), Moshe Schaerf writes that the Focşani Congress “was a new phenomenon in Jewish history.”

And thus the central committee for the first Jewish settlement movement in the Land of Israel came into being. It financed and managed the establishment of two colonies: Zikhron Ya’akov, which it managed fully, and Rosh Pinna to which it only provided assistance.

The committee sent about 120 families (over 600 people) to Ottoman Palestine on four voyages, which brought more than half of the first wave of settlers. The first Zionist pioneer group to arrive was a group from the city of Moineşti, which bought the land at Gei Oni on which they established Rosh Pinna.

Samuel Pineles led the Zionist movement in Romania until his death in 1928, with the exception of about five years during which he turned his attention to personal business matters.

Unfortunately, in the spring of 1883, the Central Committee for the Settlement of the Land of Israel and Syria went bankrupt. In late September of that year, the committee transferred the assets of the colony it had founded, Zikhron Ya’akov, to the patronage of Baron Edmund James de Rothschild.

Seal of the city of Focşani, Romania, site of the congress. Photo: Nadav Mann, Bitmuna. From the Kfar Tavor Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

During Sukkot 1882, Baron Rothschild met Rabbi Mohilever, who was accompanied by Rabbi Zadoc Kahn, the Chief Rabbi of French Jewry. The Baron agreed to Rabbi Mohilever’s request to found a settlement in Palestine and later offered an economic safety net for most of the first wave settlements, which had fallen into bankruptcy. The Baron’s philanthropy prevented the settlements’ collapse which, had it indeed happened, could have led to a great crisis of faith regarding the Zionist goal.

In November 1884, the Katowice Conference convened and officially established the “Hibat Zion” movement and with it, the movement’s leadership passed from Romanian to Russian Jewry.

We must admit that as a movement, Hibat Zion was a failure in terms of its ability to motivate pioneers and settle them in the Land of Israel. The movement operated in “bursts” that were primarily reactions to pogroms and institutionalized antisemitism. When Theodor Herzl appeared on the scene, the movement’s leadership in Eastern Europe was happy to pass the baton of the entire Zionist movement to him.

In August 1897, the “First Zionist Congress” convened in Basel—but as stated at the outset, I reject this official title. If one begins the counting at the Focşani Congress, the Basel congress in 1897 was the seventh gathering.

Herzl was an exceptionally talented journalist, and the revered leader of the Zionist movement who even financed its activity from his own pocket. He founded the World Zionist Organization at the Basel Congress and built an impressive administrative apparatus compared to those that preceded it. Nevertheless, the Zionist Organization’s practical achievements in its early years were minor at best.  In the first few years, membership in the movement dwindled, political Zionism could boast few accomplishments, and the organization’s settlement activity in the Land of Israel was negligible until about 1910.

Participants in the “Hovevei Zion” conference in Odessa, 1890, Bitmuna, the Lancet Collection. The Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

The Zionist Organization’s settlement activity followed Herzl’s “no charter, no aliyah,” concept, and therefore in those first years settlement amounted to nothing. The first settlement established under the auspices of the Zionist Organization was Degania in 1909. Only in the late 1930s did the Zionist Organization become the main settlement movement and even then it only established kibbutzim and moshavim (communal and cooperative agricultural settlements).


The Collapse and Rescue of Settlement in the Land of Israel

Baron Rothschild’s agreement to sponsor settlement in the Land of Israel and save it from collapse should not be forgotten. The founding fathers of Jewish settlement in Ottoman Palestine however paid the price by losing their independence and becoming day laborers for the Baron. I believe that the time has come for us to acknowledge our indebtedness to those early pioneers and give them their due.

David Ben-Gurion recognized Baron Edmund de Rothschild as the only one entitled to a place of honor in the Zionist story for doing more for the settlement of the Land of Israel than any other person or body. By this, Ben-Gurion minimized the actions and hard work of the organizations and pioneers active from 1882 to 1897, that preceded Herzl’s World Zionist Organization.

All this started a hundred and twenty-five years ago when the Congress in Basel was called the “First Zionist Congress” even though its full name was “The First World Zionist Congress.” The Congress in Basel was in fact the seventh of its kind. To this day, most Jews are unfamiliar with the first congresses of the Central Comittee for the Settlement of the Land of Israel and Syria. I have published my findings here in the hope that historians will one day correct this historical oversight in the common Zionist narrative.



Further Reading (in Hebrew):

ישראל קלויזנר, “חיבת ציון ברומניה”, הספרייה הציונית על-ידי הנהלת ההסתדרות הציונית, ירושלים תשי”ח

משה שרף, “האבוקה הודלקה ברומניה”, הספרייה הציונית, ירושלים תשמ”ו

גצל קרסל, אבי הישוב : הברון אדמונד דה רוטשילד ופעלו: דברי פתיחה – דוד בן גוריון, מגן, חיפה 1954