The Ugly Duckling Is Set Free

The story of how a fighter in the Palmach, a Jewish underground organization from the pre-state era, managed to translate a popular children's classic while incarcerated in Jerusalem’s central prison…

Tuvia Hadani with an illustration from his translation of “The Ugly Duckling”

I’m holding this tiny booklet wrapped in a plain, orange book cover, and reading the words written in fastidious circular Hebrew handwriting, in the right corner of the title page:

“Just before school,

kind Hagit!

Accept from afar,

a humble gift”.

Underneath, the title reads:

“The Ugly Duckling.

By Andersen.

Jerusalem P., 15 Elul, 5704.”

 

 

Who is Hagit? Who was responsible for this mysterious handwritten translation of a classic children’s fairytale? What is “Jerusalem P.” (ב”ס ירושלים)? And exactly how “afar” was the booklet sent from?

The origins of this story stretch back eighty years, to the day when a British military court sentenced Tuvia Hadani to five years in prison for possession of illegal arms.

 

Life Imprisonment for Possession of Bullets” – An article describing Tuvia Hadani’s (Hodansky) trial, during which he was sentenced to five years in prison, Haaretz, September 6, 1942.

It was the same day that newspaper headlines ran with the news that the British were finally successful in stopping the Germans in North Africa, and it was easy to overlook the meager caption in the page before the last: “Life Imprisonment for Possession of Bullets”.

The article described the verdict from the trial of several Palmach members that were caught “near a path leading to Givat Brenner”, and in possession of weapons that could only have been taken from British army bases or warehouses. The Palmach was the elite fighting unit of the Haganah, the largest Jewish underground organization during the British Mandate period in the Land of Israel. One of the defendants, as noted in the caption, was sentenced to life imprisonment. The others were sentenced to “lesser” prison sentences of five to seven years.

When one of the accused, Tuvia Hodansky, raised his hands and surrendered to the British soldiers together with his friends, he probably wasn’t thinking about graceful swans, ugly ducklings or European fairytales altogether. It was much more likely that he was pondering the sentence that awaited him and the family he would be forced to leave behind. There was nothing beautiful or whimsical about this moment – his life was about to change and not in a good way.

Tuvia (or Teddy, as his friends and family called him) was born in Leipzig, Germany, a few years prior to World War I. After becoming infatuated with Zionism, he joined one of the Zionist youth movements, left his family and made Aliyah (immigrated) to Israel.

The year was 1932, a year before the rise of the Nazis to power. Together with other recently arrived “Yekkes” (German Jews), he became a member of Kibbutz Givat Brenner, which at the time was a poor kibbutz, with land too meagre to support all its inhabitants. Since Teddy had been a carpenter’s apprentice in Germany with some expertise in the field, he and his friends established a carpentry shop, that would subsequently become a famous factory, known across Israel.

Tuvia Hadani at a Bikkurim ceremony (first-fruits offering) at Kibbutz Givat Brenner. From the Hanan Bahir collection. The Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

But all of this productive work was put to a halt after about a decade. During World War II, Teddy voluntarily enlisted in the Palmach, along with many youths from the kibbutzim and other Jewish agricultural settlements. Before he had even had a chance to gain experience and establish a reputation in the organization, he was caught with other Palmach members smuggling weapons. The mission’s details had been leaked to British military personnel, who were waiting for them at the designated place and time.

Following his sentence, he arrived at the prison, where he was to share a cell, some moldy mattresses and a bucket with several other underground prisoners.

The prison cell in Jerusalem’s central prison, illustrated by Tuvia Hadani

It was not a quiet place. He had no desk, peace of mind or any source of inspiration. But still, when he wasn’t performing tasks for the prison administration, he sat and diligently worked on his project, a meticulous and delicate translation of the children’s fairytale, with its ironic title, considering his situation – “The Ugly Duckling”.

Did he identify with the duckling and see himself, and his own life story, when he wrote about the poor bird’s suffering and isolation?

“He got up and ran away. As he left the huge lake far behind, he came upon a small pond. He hid in the dark among the trees and waited for the break of dawn.”

Aside the beautiful and meticulously handwritten Hebrew words, he added sweet and graceful illustrations for children.

He dedicated his creation to Hagit, the daughter of Uri Steinberg, who was arrested together with him but had been given a shorter sentence.

The first pages of the illustrated manuscript

His final product was not a professional or polished Hebrew translation by any means. It included a number of grammatical errors, which were very common at the time in the immigrant society of the early State of Israel. When I read it, I could almost hear my grandmother’s voice reading it to me, with Hebrew enunciation that we would laugh at as children: using the long “oo” vowel sound instead of the long “o”, or “sh” instead of “s”.

Was the inadequacy of the translation the reason it never got commercially published? Or was it the reality of war and conflict with the British that prevented a resourceless Palmach fighter from promoting his work?

Whatever the reason, the children of the young country never got to enjoy this creation. It was only in the latter part of the 1950s, that they were able to read a Hebrew version of “The Ugly Duckling” (translated by Malka Fishkin, Yizre’ela Publishing).

Following his release from prison, Teddy returned to the kibbutz, where he managed the famous carpentry shop. Later on, being something of an intellectual, he returned to his studies in order to complete his formal education, while also working to facilitate further Jewish immigration to the Land of Israel.

Since then, there have been numerous published Hebrew translations of Hans Christian Andersen’s literature, and particularly of “The Ugly Duckling” classic. It was only posthumously, in Teddy’s memory, that members of Kibbutz Givat Brenner finally published his “Booklet” (as Amos Rudner, who had edited several of Naomi Shemer’s writings and produced the publication of this creation, called it).

When it was finally published, Hagit was a much older woman, perhaps even a mother of adult children, and so the publishers dedicated the work to all of Givat Brenner’s children.

Tuvia never got to enjoy seeing the letters of his booklet in print, letters that he managed to handwrite in erratic conditions, on the bare, cold prison floor. He never saw his delicate illustrations brought to life in color either.

He did get to see the country that he had only dreamt of back in Germany, and for which he fought for from the moment he arrived. The country that grew up and shifted from a young, feeble duckling, lacking any grace, into a beautiful and splendid swan, walking proudly and confidently among its peers, the other swans of the world.

“But when we look through this booklet, when we read it, or when we listen to our parents read it to us, we see before our eyes a proud Hebrew prisoner writing and illustrating for us, on the prison floor, translating Andersen’s story about the ugly duckling, even as he remains certain that all of his friends, his fellow prisoners, are nothing but swans dressed in ugly duckling clothes, imprisoned in a duckling pen, who are destined yet to sail and fly away as swans.”

(Amos Rudner, in the introduction to the translation)

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.

When a Grenade Exploded in the Knesset, Israel’s Parliament

No one believed it could happen, and even today it is difficult to comprehend how easy it was. In 1957, a man walked into the Knesset, then located in downtown Jerusalem, with a grenade in his pocket. He proceeded to throw it into the assembly hall. David Ben-Gurion and Golda Meir were among those injured. The explosion can be heard in a recording found in the National Library of Israel's Sound Archive…

“Doctor! Doctor!” – came the yells from the assembly hall. “Get the doctors! Move! Ambulance!”, others called out. These exclamations took place right after an explosion shook the Knesset assembly hall, the main chamber of Israel’s parliament. Back then it was located at Frumin House, on King George Street, in downtown Jerusalem. A recording found in the National Library of Israel’s Sound Archive documents these moments in history, a recording which originated in the archives of the Knesset itself.

Hear the moment the grenade was thrown into the Knesset’s assembly hall:

It was October 29, 1957. The young State of Israel was approaching its ten-year anniversary. At the time, the country’s parliament held its meetings in a rather ordinary residential building that housed commercial establishments on its ground floor. The building had been renovated to allow the Knesset to convene in the structure. Unlike the current Knesset location, Frumin House was in the center of the city, on a crowded, busy street. Security was handled by two unarmed guards stationed at the entrance.

On that day, 24-year-old Moshe Dwek, simply walked into the Knesset building and obtained permission to sit in the visitors’ gallery, overlooking the assembly hall. He had a hand-grenade in his possession, that no one had been able to detect. At the time, the Members of the Knesset were discussing matters relating to international and security affairs in the assembly hall. Yitzhak Rafael, from the Mafdal (national religious) party, had been addressing the assembly, shortly after 6:00 pm, Dwek tossed the grenade from the gallery into the assembly hall. The explosion was followed by long moments of chaos and confusion, that we can now hear in the recording.

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Moshe Dwek is brought to trial. Photograph: Eddie Hirschbein. Courtesy of Nadav Mann, Bitmuna. Collection: Tamar Levy. The Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

The grenade thrown by Dwek landed between the dais and the cabinet table. The explosion injured the Minister of Transportation, Moshe Carmel, and the Minister of Religion, Haim-Moshe Shapira (who, in fact, adopted the name Haim, which means “life” in Hebrew, after he recovered from his severe injury). Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion and Foreign Minister Golda Meir were both lightly injured by shrapnel.

The United States Secretary of Agriculture, Ezra Taft Benson, visits Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion at the Hadassah Hospital. November 4, 1957. Photograph: David Gurfinkel, GPO

Dwek was immediately seized by those that were seated next to him, who had seen him throw the grenade. During his initial interrogation, he sounded confused and scared, and immediately expressed remorse for his actions. It was subsequently revealed that Dwek had sued the Jewish Agency for alleged damages he had suffered, and that his claim was rejected. His response was to threaten the President of the Supreme Court of Israel, and as a result he was sent to a mental hospital. This was apparently his motive for the assassination attempt.

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Moshe Dwek in the courthouse. Photograph: Eddie Hirschbein. Courtesy of Nadav Mann, Bitmuna. Collection: Tamar Levy. The Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

Shortly before 9:00 pm that same day, the Knesset again convened in the assembly hall. Yosef Sprinzak, who was the first Speaker of the Knesset, apprised the assembly of the event. His address to the Knesset can also be heard in the recording from the Sound Archive: “At 6:35, a grenade was thrown into this hall, injuring the Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion, Minister Moshe Shapira, Foreign Minister Golda Meir, Transportation Minister Moshe Carmel. The Prime Minister is in good condition, his injuries are superficial, caused by shrapnel which hit both of his arms as well as his left leg. He is being treated for these wounds.”

Regarding the man detained by the authorities, Sprinzak stated: “The police arrested the man, his name is Moshe Hacohen Dwek, and the police have reason to believe that he was the one that threw the grenade. The man is under investigation and the police are investigating the motives of the crime” These comments appear in the protocol proceedings from the session at the Knesset.

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Moshe Dwek on the defendant’s bench. Photograph: Eddie Hirschbein. Courtesy of Nadav Mann, Bitmuna. Collection: Tamar Levy. The Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

All those injured eventually recovered. The Prime Minister’s hospitalization resulted in its own tragic story, with a not-so-happy ending. Even though he was claimed by some to be mentally unstable, Dwek was found fit to stand trial and he received a 15-year prison sentence. In 1988, he returned to the public arena for a brief period and founded the Tarshish political party, which ran in the elections that year. The party assumed the Hebrew letters זעמ (meaning “rage” in Hebrew), and demanded equal rights for immigrants from the Arab countries, however it did not reach the minimal electoral threshold when the votes were cast.

The event triggered many changes in the day-to-day functioning of the Knesset. In the visitors’ gallery, secure partitions were installed that separated the gallery and the assembly hall, while security guards were required to meticulously inspect those entering the building and the items they brought with them. In addition, the incident led to the formation of the Knesset Guard in 1958, which to this day is responsible for the protection of the Knesset building and its members.

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