Chaim Topol and the Giant Shadow of Sallah Shabati

Sallah Shabati, the character that launched Chaim Topol's acting career, also threatened to typecast him as a mere impressionist. But thanks to Topol’s great talent and determination, what could have been an obstacle to a rich and varied career became the role of a lifetime. Topol’s wife Galia and son Omer discuss the role that became the actor’s ticket to the international stage and screen…

Chaim Topol and Esther Greenberg in the film Sallah Shabati. From the Chaim Topol Archive, courtesy of the family and with the cooperation of the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage, the National Library of Israel and the University of Haifa

Hearing the name Chaim Topol inevitably brings to mind either Sallah Shabati from the film of the same name, or Tevye the Milkman from Fiddler on the Roof. Indeed Sallah, the role that launched Topol’s international career, has largely become synonymous with the well-known actor. It was therefore surprising to learn that it was this very role, which Topol performed so brilliantly, that almost became an obstacle on his path to a theater career. Can you imagine Chaim Topol being overlooked for major acting roles? That unimaginable scenario for Israel’s first international film star did not come to pass for the simple reason that Topol did not believe for a moment that it could, and he also went on to prove why not.

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Chaim Topol, circa 1969. From the Dan Hadani Archive, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

Our story begins with a Hebrew article published in Maariv in May 1964, about two weeks before the Israeli premiere of the film Sallah Shabati. The article states that when Topol left the Batzal Yarok (“Green Onion”) performing troupe to set up the Haifa Theater, he was asked what he wanted with theater since the only role he knew how to play was the character of Sallah, a Mizrahi Jewish immigrant, newly arrived in Israel. To this Topol replied, “I’m not worried. . . I’ve already proven to myself and to others that I’m able to go beyond all of this Sallah business.” It sounds absurd, looking back at his great international success, but just imagine how such criticism at the beginning of one’s career can be an obstacle. Topol, it seems, took it all in stride.

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“Sallah Shabati was the man who made Chaim Topol (as an actor), who embodied his whole stage presence and who embedded himself in his very bone marrow. But the same Sallah Shabati also threatened to destroy Topol (as an actor), when he moved from the small stage to the theater.” –  From a promotional article for the film Sallah Shabati, Maariv, May 15, 1964

Topol, like many Israeli entertainers of his generation, got his start in the IDF’s performance ensembles and theater troupes.

“Topol fell by accident into the Nahal troupe,” says Galia Topol, his wife of 66 years who herself was part of the second-year class of the Israeli army’s Nahal performing troupe. “He was in the middle of an eight-month Nahal training course. At the time, he and a couple of friends performed together as entertainers and Chaim was the resident comedian. One evening, the first-year Nahal troupe, with Yossi Banai and Yona Atari [famous Israeli performers], came to perform for them, and everyone decided not to laugh for the entire show. And that’s how it was—no one laughed the entire evening. Then the troupe asked Topol and his friends to come on stage and within minutes they had the whole audience rolling on the floor. That’s how Chaim ended up being selected for the Nahal troupe.”

In 1955, Ephraim Kishon, the famous Israeli author, director and satirist, collaborated with the Nahal troupe, composing a skit titled “The New Social Worker”. This was the first appearance of the character Sallah Shabati. It turns out that Topol played a big part in the creation of the skit, even before inhabiting the written character. “The Nahal [troupe] decided to introduce some more serious material,” says Galia. “Chaim thought to turn to Kishon. They didn’t know each other, but before the army, Chaim had been a printer at the Davar newspaper where Kishon worked, and he felt he could approach him.  Kishon wrote the character of Sallah for Chaim. Topol was actually opposed to the serious skit, and he wasn’t alone. We all thought that a serious skit wasn’t right for the troupe. But Kishon insisted and this was the army after all, so that’s what was decided, and we all went along with it.” Galia also participated in the skit, eventually playing the role of the social worker sergeant after Nechama Hendel left the troupe.

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The Batzal Yarok (“Green Onion”) troupe in a publicity photo for the Sallah Shabati skit. From left: Chaim Topol, Nechama Hendel, Avraham Mor and Uri Zohar (seated). Photographer unknown, from the Chaim Topol Archive, courtesy of the family and with the cooperation of the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage, the National Library of Israel and the University of Haifa

Today it’s likely that no one would think to cast the young Ashkenazi Topol as the older Mizrahi Sallah , but one cannot judge a nearly 60-year-old film by today’s standards. When the film came out, Israeli public opinion was firmly behind the idea of a societal melting pot, in the hope that within a generation or two the question of identity would become unimportant. Topol received quite a bit of criticism for portraying a character who at times appeared ridiculous and laughable, but as a professional actor he took the role extremely seriously, approaching it in the spirit of the times. He embodied Sallah regardless of the essential difference between himself the actor and the character.

 

Did Topol do anything special to prepare for the role? In one interview he said that the director David Bergman used the Stanislavsky method and that preparing for the role was intense.

“He took his training for the role very seriously. He spent hours in m’aabarot [transit camps for new immigrants to Israel], studying the language, the diction and just listening. He also got the idea for the hat from there and one time he came home especially to look for his beret from his own schooldays. Chaim immersed himself in the character, but he was also certain that it would not be appreciated by the audience, mainly because he thought the sketch was too serious and not suitable for the troupe. But Kishon insisted and it became a hit.”

Topol and the rest of the troupe learned very quickly that they had been wrong, and the audience welcomed Sallah with open arms. “The skit was performed more than 500 times on stage,” recalls Galia. “Already at the general rehearsal, the Nahal commander, the chief education officer and other senior officers sat in the front row, and when the Sallah skit came on they burst out laughing, even before anyone started speaking. As soon as Topol came on stage they started laughing. We looked at them and didn’t understand what was so funny, but they burst out laughing—this was largely Kishon’s genius.”

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Poster for the film Sallah Shabati, from the Abraham Deshe (Pashanel) Archive, available in digital format, courtesy of the family and in cooperation with the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage, the National Library of Israel and the University of Haifa

But even Kishon himself recognized that Sallah Shabbti’s enormous success was due in no small part to Topol’s genius. When asked about this once, Kishon said that “the secret of its success lay in the perfect union between actor and character, a rare stage phenomenon.”

“There is no doubt that Chaim completely embodied the role as well as grasped Kishon’s critique,” Galia says. “He conveyed it thrillingly on stage. It was that rare connection between Kishon’s ability to provoke sympathetic laughter while revealing the [character’s] soul and Chaim’s acting ability. It was not for nothing that they were friends and partners for many years after.”

Topol continued to collaborate with Kishon, playing the character of Sallah for years. After his army service Topol played Sallah in the sketches “Ziggy and Habuba” and “Cat in the Sack” as part of the Batzal Yarok troupe that he founded with Uri Zohar, another major Israeli talent. In fact, Topol played Sallah Shabati on stage from 1954 to 1960, fleshing him out in form and spirit in five different skits to the delight of theater-goers.

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The Batzal Yarok troupe in rehearsals, from right: Galia Topol, Zahrira Harifai, Topol, Eliyahu Barkai and Avraham Mor. Photographer unknown, from the Chaim Topol Archive, courtesy of the family, and with the collaboration of the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage, the National Library of Israel and the University of Haifa

For Topol, it was time to move on to the next career stop—the repertory theater, and thus, he found himself among the founders of the Haifa Theater, whose establishment was initiated by the mayor at the time, Abba Hushi. “During the Haifa Theater period, there was no Sallah,” says Galia. “Chaim was one of the first to join the troupe and the first thing he did there was The Taming of the Shrew, directed by Yosef Milo, in which he played Petruchio. I remember he had to wear tights and he found it very embarrassing.”

 

Did these six years in which he played and became identified with Sallah make people think that that was all he could do?

“First of all, Sallah is a multi-layered character, so being identified with him is not a bad thing,” replies Galia. “But I don’t remember anything like that. Maybe people thought that, but Chaim didn’t think so. He knew he was a serious actor and set himself goals and the fact is he was able to achieve them and more.”

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Chaim Topol and Uri Zohar during the Batzal Yarok period. Photo: Boris Carmi, the Meitar Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, National Library of Israel

“I don’t think that Sallah eclipsed [Topol] at any point, but there is no doubt that he got under his skin in some sense,” says Omer Topol, Galia and Chaim’s son. “He also definitely brought him home, for example in the mannerism of throwing the backgammon dice,” he says and they both laugh and demonstrate. “It isn’t just idle talk about the connection between an actor and a character, because in this case there definitely was, only in this instance the actor was also much more than that.”

There is no doubt of Topol’s acting abilities, but it seems that in the first years of his career, Sallah cast a shadow nevertheless. Topol’s personal archive, which was scanned and made available on the National Library of Israel website, also sheds a different light on the subject. In an article published two weeks before the release of the movie Sallah Shabati, Topol remarks that quite a few people raised an eyebrow when he moved to the repertory theater because they thought he was unable to play other characters. Although theater critics were unanimous about Topol’s phenomenal success as Petruchio, it seems that even people who knew Topol’s abilities initially shared this feeling that Chaim was Sallah and nothing else. An excerpt from Ma’ariv written after the opening of The Taming of the Shrew, suggests that even Kishon didn’t see Topol as a serious actor in the beginning. “Imagine Chaim Topol playing the part of an Italian nobleman,” Kishon joked as he tried to demonstrate the concept of absurdist humor to the audience.

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Ephraim Kishon was speaking of absurdist humor, and wishing to bring forth a fitting example, he said: ‘Imagine Chaim Topol playing the part of an Italian nobleman‘” – From Maariv, October 10, 1961. Photo: the Chaim Topol Archive, courtesy of the family and with the cooperation of the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage, the National Library of Israel and the University of Haifa

It seems that the 26-year-old Topol was determined to prove to everyone that he was much more than Sallah. In hindsight, after two Golden Globe Awards, an Oscar nomination, countless plays, including on the stages of the West End and Broadway, one James Bond film, and also the Israel Prize, the Kinor David Prize and a slew of international and other awards, it is clear that Topol certainly succeeded in his mission.

 

But then, in the early 1960s, after he had already proven himself on the theater stage, the idea of ​​a film came up and essentially brought Topol back together with Sallah. Did Topol want to return to this character again?

“Chaim and Kishon were partners,” Galia says. “It was both of their dreams to expand the five Sallah sketches that had been performed up to that point into a movie,” she says. “Production began when Menachem Golan entered the picture. Chaim as usual was skeptical. Kishon kept telling him that the film was good, but Chaim refused to believe it. However, he was completely committed to it and felt tremendous responsibility for its success. Since at the time he was still an actor with the Haifa Theater, he would finish performing the Brecht play The Caucasian Chalk Circle at night, and go straight to Tel Aviv to film. He would drive like a madman and get to Tel Aviv in under an hour. He would film, then drive back to Haifa to rehearse, put on another show that evening and then sleep for the night, only to do it all over again the next day. While making the film, he appeared in several plays, also in Rashomon and Karnafim.”

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Topol and Kishon with the Golden Globe, Maariv, February 19, 1965

Looking back, Topol had nothing to regret about agreeing to reprise the role that has become so identified with him. Sallah Shabati, the first film directed by Ephraim Kishon, was an immediate massive hit, winning the Golden Globe and receiving Israel’s first Oscar nomination. Sallah’s international success was also the springboard for Topol’s own international career. “Chaim was happy when the film received such a warm reception when it came out,” concludes Galia. “Despite the doubts, he was fully committed to Sallah Shabati and gave it his all. His ability to do it all is part of his inner drive. He proved that he can be Sallah, or Petruchio, or Azdak in The Caucasian Chalk Circle.” Topol has proven that he is an actor of diverse abilities and that no role can cast a shadow on his bright star.

A Cinderella Story: The First Winner of the International Bible Contest

Overnight, Amos Hakham, winner of the first International Bible Contest, became an Israeli celebrity. From that point on, the Israeli public just couldn’t get enough of him…

Amos Hakham, winner of the first International Bible Contest, the Eddie Hirschbein Collection, the National Library of Israel

“Some people spend their free time reading novels or crime fiction. I read the Bible,” said the first winner of the International Bible Contest. His name was Amos Hakham, he had cerebral palsy and suffered from a speech impediment. Yet, Hakham proved himself an extremely knowledgeable young man, despite not receiving any formal education – he did not attend elementary or high school and did not study at any institution of higher learning. He was 37 years old when he won the coveted title, suddenly becoming famous and receiving widespread admiration from the Israeli public.

Hakham was born in Jerusalem in 1921 without any disability, but before his first birthday, he suffered a traumatic head injury that left him with cerebral palsy and a speech disability. His father, Dr. Noah Hakham (after whom Amos’ son would eventually be named), decided to home school the boy, fearing that the neighborhood children would bully him. Amos Hakham thus never attended a “regular” school. At the age of 29, after both of his parents had passed away, he found a low-paying job as a clerk at the School for the Blind. While his employer greatly appreciated his dedication, day after day Amos would wait impatiently for his shift to end, so that he could go home to his small, modest room, where his only possessions were his books. There, he would pore over the Bible—his most favorite book of all.

In 1958, thanks to an initiative spearheaded by Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, Hakham was given an opportunity that changed his life. Even before the establishment of the state, Ben-Gurion had worked to renew and strengthen the Jewish people’s ancient affinity to the Bible. In accordance with his belief that “the Bible is the secret of the Jewish people’s existence and eternalness,” with the establishment of the state, Ben-Gurion supported various initiatives to consolidate a new Jewish-Zionist tradition. Some of the initiatives were complete and utter failures, such as the “Independence Haggadah.” A few were resounding successes— the International Bible Contest was the most significant of these.

The International Bible Contest we know today is a quiz for Jewish youth, broadcast live every year on Yom HaAtzmaut, Israeli Independence Day. But the contest was originally a Bible quiz for adults, launched during the state’s celebrations of its first decade of existence. Back then, the contestants were not only Jews, but people from all over the world.

The announcement of the upcoming Bible contest took Hakham by complete surprise. He didn’t see himself as a possible contestant, but his neighbors, well aware of the depth of his knowledge of the Bible, pushed him to enter. He successfully passed the first screening round which was conducted in writing, and was invited to the next stage—the national quiz. What troubled Hakham however was not his biblical knowledge but his financial situation, namely how was he going to afford a decent suit for the stately event. In the end a neighbor offered to loan him one.

The National Bible Quiz for Adults took place on August 4, 1958 and aroused enormous excitement among the Israeli public. From the start, Hakham demonstrated an impressive proficiency, easily and precisely answering every question. After handily winning the national quiz, he advanced to the next stage—the International Bible Contest held later that month. Again, he won first place, outsmarting his competitors who had come from all over the world. An excited Prime Minister Ben-Gurion awarded Hakham the first prize and immediately after, invited him to his office where they talked, of course, about the Bible.

The first International Bible Contest, held on August 19, 1958 at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Givat Ram Campus. Photo from the Bitmuna Collection, Eddie Hirschbein Collection, the National Library of Israel

With his win, Hakham’s life changed completely. He began academic studies for the first time and eventually became an important Bible scholar. He wrote commentaries for several books of the Bible as part of the Da’at Mikra series, which are known for their clarity and thoroughness. About two years after winning, Hakham married Devora Atas, and the couple had a son, Noah Hakham.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. With his win, Hakham quickly became known as a world expert on the Bible and he began receiving inquiries, from everyone from fourth graders to major corporations, research institutes and universities. He was even asked to suggest Bible verses suitable for decorating the halls of the Knesset, Israel’s parliament building. Even after many decades, his fame as the winner of the first International Bible Contest did not wane and he continued to receive letters and requests.

“Please give a helping hand in decorating the halls of our legislature with biblical verses and sayings of the sages…” – a request from 1977

One interesting request came from the commander of a new secret Israeli army intelligence unit, who asked Hakham to propose an animal from the Bible that would be a fitting symbol for the unit’s spirit and goals. Would the eagle be a good choice or was there another animal that might be more suited?

“My intelligence unit, which handles hostage interrogations and psychological warfare, has tasked me with coming up with a symbol and flag design for the unit… In what context is the eagle mentioned in the Bible?” – a letter from a member of an IDF intelligence unit

From time to time, Hakham was called in to settle a family dispute, such as a dramatic debate over the name “Nimrod”. Was this a suitable Hebrew name? Or the name of an evil idolator?

“We gave our son the name Nimrod and were later told that this name is unacceptable in Judaism and the child’s grandfather now shuns us…” – a letter from a disgruntled family

Hakham was even asked to contribute his biblical knowledge in legal matters. In the next letter, the issue at hand is whether a child of divorced parents can have her last name legally changed to that of her new stepfather.

“This question has great legal ramifications” – a lawyer’s urgent question

Before the Google age, Hakham was also called upon as a human search engine for verses from the Bible. For example, the poetry translator Yehoshua Kochav maintained an extensive correspondence with Hakham who helped him in his translations of biblically inspired poets such as William Blake and John Milton.

A question “regarding a specific literary work” – a poetry translator’s query

Hakham’s love (one could also say private obsession) for the Bible was what made him so sought after. And along with requests for help, many wanted to reward him for his knowledge with various and sometimes unusual perks. At Ben-Gurion’s order, Hakham received state-funded treatments from Dr. Moshe Pinchas Feldenkrais, whose method of physical exercise and movement was said to improve a person’s quality of life. The Egged Public Transportation Company awarded him a lifetime of free bus travel. In Hakham’s archives, you can even find a letter from politician Pinchas Lavon asking where he preferred the location of the apartment that the Histadrut (the national labor union) had decided to purchase for him. These were only a very small part of the rewards showered on Hakham.

How did the once anonymous Amos Hakham deal with his unexpected celebrity? In a conversation with us, Amos’ son, Prof. Noah Hakham, recalled that his father reacted mainly with humor. His father would say, “It’s just easier for someone to call me instead of looking for the biblical verse in question using a Bible concordance.” Although Noah was born five years after his father’s success, he remembers the many phone calls Amos received at all hours of the day, usually from a stranger with a burning biblical question. “From someone who wouldn’t be given a second glance or even a first glance on the street, he became the most famous man in the country,” said the son of his father’s transformation.

Hakham meeting with Ben-Gurion after his win (you can guess what the topic of conversation was). The Eddie Hirschbein Collection, the National Library of Israel

Amos Hakham passed away in 2012, at the age of 91, 54 years after the achievement that changed his life. Hakham’s archive was deposited at the National Library of Israel, in which are preserved, among other items, the letters presented in the article.

We conclude the article about this fascinating man with Hakham’s own words, words that largely defined his life, and which he wrote immediately after winning the contest in 1958: “There are facts that even the most resounding applause of all the citizens of the country will not change. Being disabled is one such fact. And every disabled person can follow one of two paths: one is isolation, escaping from active life and depending on others. This path seems at first to be the easiest way out, but it ends in depression and decay. This had been my path from the day I was able to decide things for myself. Although, in my heart I always felt that this is not the right path, that there is another way, a path of complete integration into life, while developing qualities and talents that lie hidden in every person,  and that can serve as a kind of substitute for what was lost and cannot be recovered.”

This article was prepared with the help of Arik Kitsis of the Archives Department at the National Library of Israel

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"

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

 

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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.

 

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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!

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

When General Allenby Saved Sukkot

In the midst of World War I, two old Jews, Chaim Weizmann and General Edmund Allenby teamed up to ensure that the holiday could be celebrated properly...

General Edmund Allenby may not have personally participated in the Sukkot celebrations of 1918, but many Jews had reason to thank him that year (Composite image: Allenby, ca. 1917 and a ca. 1900 paper cutout depicting observance of the Sukkot holiday / Public domain)

Chaim Weizmann waited patiently for the one train that could take him to Cairo that day.

As the departure time approached, so too, did two seemingly ancient men. Weizmann estimated that their combined age must have been 180.

The Zionist leader had come to the Land of Israel as head of the Zionist Commission – a delegation of prominent figures tasked with gauging and laying down initial foundations for a Jewish state following the British government’s Balfour Declaration the previous autumn.

The Zionist Commission arriving in British-controlled Palestine in 1918. From the “Palestine at the End of First World War” photo album, National Library of Israel archives. Click image to enlarge

The First World War was still raging and the Commission, which a few iterations later would become the Jewish Agency, faced a host of problems. The heterogenous group was ripe for internal division, with members from different countries and ideological persuasions. Its role and authority rather vague, the local British military command was all but unsupportive despite official backing from London. Poverty and disease were rampant and the internal politics of the small local Jewish community needed to be addressed, as did the concerns and opposition of the local Arab population, which the Commission sought to engage in productive dialogue.

The Zionist Commission visiting a school in Nes Ziona, 1918. From the “Palestine at the End of First World War” photo album, National Library of Israel archives. Click image to enlarge

All of these issues and many more were on Chaim Weizmann’s mind one day in September 1918 as the elderly men approached him.

In his autobiography, Trial and Error, Weizmann recalled how besides the men’s age, the thing that immediately struck him was that he did not recognize either of them:

“By this time I was under the impression that I had met every man, woman and child in the Jewish community of fifty thousand, most of them several times.”

They looked closely at Weizmann and his luggage.

“But you are not really going away? You can’t go yet. There are still some matters of importance to be settled here.”

The brilliant scientist and statesman knew very well that there were in fact many matters of importance that remained to be settled – some of them for decades to come.

Yet, while poverty, disease and conflict may indeed have troubled the men, those were not the issues about which they had come to talk to Weizmann.

“Do you not know that the Feast of Tabernacles [Sukkot] is almost upon us, and we have no myrtles?,” they asked, referring to one of the “Four Species” required to properly observe the holiday in accordance with Jewish law. 

An old Jewish man holding myrtle branches, ca. 1920 (Photo: François Scholten). This photo is part of the Israel Archive Network project and has been made accessible thanks to the collaborative efforts of the Yad Ben Zvi Archive, the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage and the National Library of Israel

“Though I was familiar enough with the need for myrtles… it had somehow slipped my mind, and it had not occurred to me to include this particular job among the many chores of the Zionist Commission, operating in the midst of a bloody war,” Weizmann recalled in his memoirs.

Not fazed, he responded, “Surely you can get myrtles from Egypt,” to which the old men looked pained:

“…one must have myrtles of the finest quality. These come from Trieste. In a matter of high religious importance, surely General Allenby will be willing to send instructions to Trieste for the shipment of myrtles.” 

Weizmann explained that the world was at war and that Trieste was located in enemy territory. 

“But this is a purely religious matter,” one of the men responded, “a matter of peace. Myrtles are, indeed, the very symbol of peace…”

As the time for his train’s departure neared, Weizmann, ever the visionary pragmatist, tried persuading the two men that they would simply have to do with inferior Egyptian myrtles. Though seemingly oblivious to the geopolitical realities of a world war, the ancient men in fact did know something about importation restrictions and pointed out to Chaim Weizmann that myrtles could not be brought from Egypt because a quarantine was in place and the British authorities forbade importation of plants from Egypt to Palestine.

Somewhat stumped and soon to miss his train, Weizmann promised the men that he would make every possible effort to secure a myrtle supply in time for Sukkot, yet he had no idea how exactly he might do that.

“I travelled down to Egypt genuinely worried over this question of myrtles and the quarantine; and even more worried by the responsibility for some thousands of people living, like these two old gentlemen, in a world of their own so remote from ours that they seemed as unreal to us as the war did to them. By the time I fell asleep in the train I was no longer sure what was, in fact, real, the war or the Feast of Tabernacles.”

The countless other issues at stake and meetings in Cairo all but drove the myrtle promise from Chaim Weizmann’s mind. Yet then, just before his boat sailed and he took leave of General Allenby, the legendary liberator of Jerusalem (not Trieste) exclaimed:

“By the way, about those myrtles!  You know, it is an important business; it’s all in the Bible; I read it up in the Book of Nehemiah last night. Well, you’ll be glad to hear that we have lifted the quarantine, and a consignment of myrtles will get to Palestine in good time for the Feast of Tabernacles!”

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