The Egyptian Belly Dancing Sisters with a Secret Jewish Identity

Meet Leila and Lamia Jamal, the nearly identical sisters who took Cairo – and later, the rest of the world - by storm with their exhilarating belly dancing routines.

The Jamal sisters in Cairo

The foreign military forces that filled Egypt’s main cities in the post-World War II era brought about many changes in the local entertainment culture. Many nightclubs were opened and musicians, actors and dancers – both male and female – took advantage of the tremendous thirst for entertainment, which they were more than happy to supply.

One of the most popular and well known nightclubs at that time was Helmieh Palace on the outskirts of Cairo. The entertainment offered by the proprietor of this club was not the regular fare – the special attention paid to costumes, appearances by leading musicians and precise dance choreography, turned the nightclub into a breeding ground for new eastern culture.

The jewels in the crown of the Helmieh Palace were “The Jamal Twins -” belly dancers who introduced a new flair into this ancient eastern dance style. The sisters, Leila and Lamia, became the biggest stars of the Egyptian entertainment scene towards the end of the regime of King Farouk I. Their audiences were always packed and the Egyptian monarch was one of their greatest admirers. But what was the magical secret that launched their star-studded careers?

The Mediterranean Sharkiya dance was one of their specialties. The musicians who accompanied the pair practiced with them for hours at a time to match the choreography to the musical repertoire, which was carefully selected. Grueling practice sessions, endless exercises and daily rehearsals produced extraordinary results. The Jamal sisters’ performance was bright and innovative; the two dancers moved in wonderful harmony, with the dance and the music completely in sync.

Their performances, in which they also used various stage props, were not simply another example of exotic oriental dance. They knew how to create a symmetrical picture, and then reverse it virtuosic fashion, while vibrantly expressing the music they moved to. The connection between them and the musicians was lively and exciting for the audience.

The Jamal sisters’ musical talents were wholly unsurprising. They were daughters of musicians and had learned to play instruments from early childhood. Their father, Fishel Alpert was a violinist in the Vienna symphony orchestra. His name reveals his origins as a Jew who had moved from Chernowitz to the Austrian capital, where he became a professional musician. The reason for his immigration in the 1920s to Egypt is unknown. It could well have been the great economic crisis which propelled him far away from Europe, to a place where he would have a dignified position in an orchestra and a decent income.

In Alexandria, Fishel met his wife, Jini (Janin) Elpert. The impressive presence and the beauty of this opera singer, the daughter of Jewish emigrants, captured his heart. Their firstborn daughter, Helena, was born just a year after their wedding and her younger sister, Bertha, was born two and half years later, in 1932.

Helena and Bertha grew up in a musical home, and were sent by their parents to ballet lessons from a young age but, the environment in which they were raised seemed to influence them to go beyond the usual classic ballet lessons and the sisters began to study Mediterranean dance as well. To their teachers’ great surprise, they revealed extraordinary talent in the eastern dance movements. It was not long before they began to receive offers to appear in public. For their mother, this led to a serious deliberation. She was worried about the future of her young daughters, aged only 12 and 14, who would be exposed to a world she saw as promiscuous. On the other hand, the temptation was great.

At that time her husband lost his fixed source of income and the family ran into financial trouble. Jini did not dare tell him about the girls’ performances, and they decided to keep it a secret between them. The devoted mother accompanied her daughters to every rehearsal and performance, zealously preserving their innocence. She continued to do so for many years, accompanying them on their journeys around the world.

However, the three women of the Alpert family couldn’t keep their secret from the father of the family for long. The talented pair of sisters became a hit almost overnight and their success was dizzying. With the help of their mothers and teachers, they built an inventive performance which showcased their flexibility and abilities as professional dancers.

The stage names they selected, Lelia and Lamia (or: Lyn and Liz) also needed a surname and a cover story which would attract the audience. So Helena and Bertha Alpert, daughters of Fishel from Chernowitz, became “The Jamal Twins”.

The Helmieh Palace nightclub was only the springboard from which the pair leaped to international stardom. Their appearances in a string of Egyptian movies, which began with brief cameos, became longer and more central due to the high demand from the audience. Their names soon became known throughout the Arab world. They don’t appear to have denied their Judaism, but they were rather successful in concealing their origins. The cover story was perfect, and it can be assumed that none of their many admirers – in Egypt and beyond – realized that these girls were not Arab.

The military coup in Egypt and Nasser’s rise to power gradually changed the atmosphere in the country, which had enabled the sisters’ meteoric rise. The two were invited to more and more shows outside of their native country, and they were most popular in Singapore and in India.

A dance routine in one of the Indian films they starred in was censored due to “immodesty.” The military authorities in Egypt became suspicious of the Jamal sisters’ frequent trips, a suspicion that may have been driven by their knowledge of their Jewish origins.

In late 1957, in the midst of a successful tour in the far east, their father, who had stayed in Cairo, suddenly received a telegram. He quickly warned the girls, accompanied as always by their mother, not to return to Egypt. The Egyptian police had issued an order for their arrest – they were wanted for investigation, for the crime of espionage.

It was not hard for the Jamal sisters to find an impresario to invite them to appear in the United States. America had attracted them for a while, and they considered it to be a suitable place of refuge. Now they had only one troublesome problem: how would they manage to quickly attain the necessary visas to enter the US?

That very evening, a delegation of American congress members who were visiting Bombay came to the nightclub where the Jamal sisters were scheduled to appear. Their enthusiasm for the belly dancing performance was boundless. The next morning, the coveted entry visas were in their hands.

The vibrant artistic scene in New York’s Latin quarter welcomed the Jamal sisters with open arms. The refreshing feel the pair brought with them from the east integrated well into various trends which were extremely popular in 1950s America. Their collaboration with the musician Eddie ‘the Sheik’ Kochak and his band contributed to their success.

Regrettably, it is not clear what caused the sisters, now simply known as Lyn and Liz, to turn their backs on their successful career. Was it the girls’ Jewish mother who put pressure on them to marry quickly and leave the entertainment business?

The sisters soon settled down with new husbands, one after the other, not long after arriving in America. The men they chose to share their lives with, both respectable businessmen, were apparently not so enamored by their careers as dancers in nightclubs.

Within a short time, the Jamal sisters’ schedule of performances dwindled. The passion for dance and music, which still burned in them, was expressed in teaching belly dancing in various frameworks. During the 1960s and 70s the pair – especially Liz – were considered the most professional teachers in the field in the west.

Lyn died in Long Island in 1992. Liz outlived her by many years and passed away in 2016. She had re-married a man named David Marks, a Holocaust survivor who came to Israel a year before the establishment of the Jewish State aboard the illegal immigration boat “Moledet.” He later moved to America, where he became a successful furniture manufacturer.

The photo albums, mementos and stories from his wife Liz’s glory days always fascinated David. As one who had personally experienced the tumultuos fortunes of Jewish life in the twentieth century, he believed that his wife’s story should also be part of the multi-colored mosaic that documents the story of the Jewish people, and in April 2017, he donated her archive to the National Library. Liz, or Bertha Alpert, to give her true name, will now dance for eternity in the archives of the National Library, and the story of the Jamal Sisters, will live on.

Jewish History From Bamiyan to Brooklyn

The journey of Jewish languages was the topic of a fascinating lecture held at the Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan on June 11th.

Naomi Schacter speaking at the Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan

In June of 2018, Dr. Yoel Finkleman, Curator of the Haim and Hanna Salomon Judaica Collection at the National Library of Israel, presented fascinating insights about the twists and turns of the Jewish language as it evolved with the wanderings of the Jewish people, in honor of the opening of a new National Library of Israel exhibit at the Marlene Meyerson JCC in Manhattan, New York.

Throughout history, the Jewish community has been carried by, among other things, distinctive Jewish languages, explained Dr, Finkelman. Over the centuries, Jews have created new languages, combining Hebrew with the dialects of their home countries and developing distinctive localized languages, such as Yiddish and Ladino. In other cases, their language was largely comprised of the local vernacular written in Hebrew characters, such as Judeo-Arabic and Judeo-Persian.

Dr. Yoel Finkleman speaking at the Marlene Meyerson JCC, Manhattan

Even when Jews were fully comfortable in the local vernacular, they often had a unique vocabulary that would pepper their speech with uniquely Jewish terms and expressions, such as the Yeshivish dialect of today’s Orthodox young men.

The National Library of Israel recently acquired 250 manuscripts from Bamiyan in Northern Afghanistan, from a collection known as the Afghan Genizah. These manuscripts are written in Arabic, Aramaic, Judeo-Arabic, Judeo-Persian, exhibiting the diversity of Jewish language. From medieval Afghani receipt books to contemporary comic books, unique Jewish languages are a central building block of Jewish culture.

The exhibit, “Curating the Past, Creating the Future,” at the JCC Manhattan.

The exhibition, “Curating the Past, Creating the Future,” developed in partnership with the JCC Manhattan, presents highlights from the Library’s vast collections, which contain manuscripts, books, posters, maps, music, photographs and more. The Library treasures reflect and reveal Jewish life across continents and centuries, and highlight the diverse history and cultures of Israel and its region.

In honor of Israel’s 70th year of independence, the exhibit also includes wonderful examples of the official Independence Day posters produced in celebration throughout the decades.

Independence Day posters from the exhibit, “Curating the Past, Creating the Future,” at the JCC Manhattan.

The event was attended by over 70 people. Ruth and Sandy Gottesman, leading partners in the Library renewal, participated in the event, along with other colleagues, friends and donors from the area.

Invitation to NLI event at the JCC

Also in attendance was Dr. Jacqueline Heller, who sponsored the exhibit in memory of her parents, Joseph Heller and Fanya Gottesfeld Heller, whose commitment to Jewish life, culture, and history extends from New York to Israel.

The Surprising Jewish Story Behind a Traditional Spanish Bullfight

Read the story behind a poster advertising a bullfight in honor of the great Jewish philosopher, Maimonides.

Take a look at the rather unique poster below from the National Library of Israel’s European Ephemera Collection. What makes it extraordinary is not the illustration of a black bull hurtling towards the matador’s red cape, nor is it the elegance of his stance opposing the power of the bull’s massive body. It is one word above the names of the two bullfighters that makes this poster so extraordinary.  That word, written in small font close to the bottom of the poster is Maimonides- the name of one of the greatest Jewish writers of the last two thousand years.

Poster advertising a bullfight set to take place on Sunday, March 31, 1935 in honor of Maimonides from the National Library Ephemera Collection.

As the text of the poster says, a great bullfight was set to take place in the Cordoba bullring on the 31st of March 1935, at four in the afternoon, “in commemoration of the Eighth Centenary of the major philosopher of Cordoba, Maimonides.”

It is perplexing to see that particular name on that poster, because, in 1935, Jews like Maimonides had been expelled from Spain for nearly 450 years.  Until about 100 years ago, Spain was officially a Jew-free zone, and ancient Jewish Spaniards, however wise and influential, were not celebrated with stately occasions.

This event is also rather puzzling because Spain at that time was just one mountain range and one river away from Germany where Hitler was in power. Already in 1935, Hitler’s intentions towards the Jews were clearly outlined in his best-selling Mein Kampf.  The Nuremberg laws were just months away. Isn’t it odd that the Jews were being denounced in one country and yet were suddenly embraced in another so close by?

Maimonides himself would have found the event perplexing.  He thought needless cruelty to animals was abhorrent and believed that, as stated by Menachem Kellner in his book, “Maimonides’ Confrontation with Mysticism,” sacrifices of bulls and sheep in the Temple “were not God’s ideal plan for the Torah, but rather an accommodation to the unfortunately primitive character of the ancient Israelites.” It is unlikely he would have agreed to being lauded at an event that involved harming animals for entertainment.

The bullfight itself was part of a five-day state festival in celebration of his life.  It included receptions, cultural events, garden parties, society balls, the opening of a Maimonides museum at Madrid University and the renaming of a square in Cordoba in his honor. Jewish representatives from around Europe were invited to attend the lavish affairs as honored guests. As part of the festivities, the centuries old expulsion of the Jews was reversed – the Jews could now come back to Spain, and some did choose to return.

One of the Jewish visitors to the festival was a young man from Northern England named Chaim Raphael. He reported that there were Jewish men from Lithuania, France, Greece, Yugoslavia, Italy, and even Palestine, in attendance. He noted how, despite their national differences, there was a palpable kinship among them.

A list of the books and papers written by Maimonides on display at the Jewish Museum in Cordoba. Photo by Janine Stein.

The Jewish Telegraphic Agency was there too and reported on March 31, 1935:

“A ban proclaimed by the Jews of the world against Spain about 450 years ago, was officially lifted today at an impressive ceremony concluding the five-day celebration arranged by the Spanish government to honor the 800th birthday of Moses Maimonides, Jewish philosopher and physician of the Middle Ages.

The festivities closed with a banquet at which high civil and military Spanish authorities were present. President Zamora and Premier Lerroux sent messages to the banquet.

A moving scene was the reopening of the old Cordoba synagogue and with Jewish religious services for the first time since 1492, when the entire Jewish population was expelled from Spain. Chief Rabbi Julian Weil of France recited a special prayer for the President of the Spanish Republic and for Spain, for restoring the Hebrew language and Judaism for the first time since 1492.”

Beyond the emotions of the day, several questions still remain unanswered. Why Maimonides, why Cordoba and why then? Why the sudden interest in reclaiming Maimonides in pre-Spanish Civil War Spain?

The first two questions are easy to answer.  Maimonides was born in Cordoba and left with his family at age 13, after the Almohad invasion in 1148.  Although he lived in Morocco, and ultimately settled in Egypt, he was always nostalgic for the Andalusian Jewish tradition of learning of his youth.

The last question is more difficult to answer.

In March 1935, the government in power in Spain was made up largely of communists, socialists and anarchists united in the hope that they could change the conditions for farm workers. They were opposed by the right-wing Nationalists, including Fascists, the Monarchy and the Church, who rejected any land reform.  This schism became the Spanish Civil War in 1936, with Hitler actively supporting the side of the fascists.

Idealistic young men from Europe and beyond joined the fight to defend the Republican state against the Nationalists led by General Franco. Of this International Brigade, 25% were Jewish.

Janine Stein in Cordoba with a statue of Maimonides. According to Janine, the local tour guide claims that rubbing the shoe of the statue will make you wise. Photo courtesy of Janine Stein

But all of this was in the future on that Sunday afternoon in Cordoba.  Chaim Raphael reported from the event:

“It was too early in the season for the real thing. The fight was little more than a testing of bulls, a gay frolic in which the experts pricked and prodded the young animals to find out which of them had enough spirit to fight for their lives on another day. There were moments of discomfort, when the rabbis and the other visitors wished themselves elsewhere, but for the most part they were able to see the thing through. The Jews and the Spaniards were for the moment at peace.”

Trying to understand the events twenty years later, he wrote:

“Even I, longing to believe, could sense uncertainty in the air. The Republic had run through its first rapture. The graceful gesture toward the Jews of the world was like the wave of a hand from a train passing through a country station. The passengers on the train are not quite sure of the name of the station; the country folk watching the train wave happily in return, but they do not belong on it, and they have no idea where it is going”

The Jews of Europe would soon be on a train themselves, and, looking back, we now know the destination of that train.

But that poster commemorating Maimonides birthday stands as a witness to a different possibility. For one afternoon in Spain in 1935, history took a different turn and for a brief moment there was a celebration of an extraordinary Jewish life.

This post was written as part of Gesher L’Europa, the NLI’s initiative to connect with Europe and make our collections available to diverse audiences in Europe and beyond.

The Nazi Atrocities Revealed in Invisible Ink

Postcards and coded letters sent from a concentration camp written in urine reveal the secret experiments performed on human subjects.

Lola Bergman's postcard sent from Krakow to Jakob Rosenblum in Bucharest. The Yad Vashem Archives.

In a small museum in Poland there is a display of letters which reveal information on a series of Nazi experiments on humans subjects. These letters were written in invisible ink made from urine in the Ravensbrück concentration camp. The medical experiments were performed on Polish political prisoners. The letters were donated to the “Saints Under the Clock” museum in Lublin in Eastern Poland, by the family of one of the former prisoners, Krystyna Czyż-Wilgat.

During the Holocaust, Nazi Germany conducted medical experiments on humans – not only in the Auschwitz camp, but also in Sachsenhausen, Buchenwald, Ravensbrück, and others. Ravensbrück was a German concentration camp for women in northern Germany. Between 1939 and 1945, some 132,000 prisoners passed through the camp, including about 40,000 Poles and 26,000 Jews.

At Auschwitz, brutal experiments of marginal medical value were conducted, such as attempting to change eye color by injecting chemicals into the eyes of children. At Ravensbrück however, the experiments were designed to improve the health of German soldiers. Modern penicillin was not yet available and many German soldiers died of gangrene caused by infected wounds. In the attempt to find alternative medicines to cure infections, the Nazis implanted bacteria into the leg bones and muscles of soldiers by inserting pieces of wood or glass into the wounds. The human victims of experiments in the lab were called little rabbits. The experiments were also conducted on 74 Polish women, young and healthy, whose names appear in the 27 letters that contain hidden messages about the horrors of the experiments they were part of in the camp.

In the concentration camps it was forbidden to hold any personal belongings. Correspondence was permitted under strict regulation and with the scrutiny of censorship. It was possible to send letters from the camp that contained neutral information that was approved by the censors, but several prisoners managed, through the use of invisible ink made of human urine, to inform their families and the world of the shocking medical experiments being conducted.

The brilliant idea to write using urine as ink belonged to Janina Iwańska and was carried out by Krystyna Czyż who had a very clear and beautiful handwriting. Their extraordinary intelligence and love of literature was the key. In her first letter to her brother, Krystyna mentioned the period when they would read books together. She particularly emphasized the book, “Satan from the Seventh Grade,” by the Polish children’s author Kornel Makuszyński. In that novel, the hero sends a letter in which the first letters of each line of text, when put together, form a secret message. Krystyna also placed the words “letter,” and “urine,” in the overt text. Krystyna’s brother understood the intentions and knew what to do. That was how their secret correspondence began.

One of the envelopes containing text written in human urine from the Ravensbrück women’s camp between 1943-1944

Janina Iwańska planned to escape the prison and wrote a secret text on the envelope containing a letter addressed to her father. The letter itself contained some clues indicating that the envelope held secret information written in invisible ink. Since the letter did not have a censorship stamp, it was likely smuggled out by prisoners working in the factories outside the camp. Once the letter reached its destination, the recipients still faced the task of reading the invisible text. The usual method was to heat the pieces of paper with the hidden text using an iron. Thanks to the encrypted messages, the list of 74 women from Lublin who had undergone medical experiments by Nazi doctors in Ravensbrück was made public in the first few years following the end of World War II. In addition to information on medical experiments which included the intentional infection of wounds for the sake of testing new drugs, the letters also contained information about the camp’s operations, punishments and executions.


A letter written and sent by Janina Iwańska from the Ravensbrück concentration camp to her father on May 6, 1943

In 1995, Yad Vashem received a postcard containing a message written in hidden ink to add to their collections. This seemingly innocent postcard was sent by a woman from Krakow, Poland, to Bucharest, the capitol of Romania in 1943. It contains a secret message written in invisible ink describing terrible conditions in a concentration camp. The postcard is part of a collection of letters and postcards, yellow patches and other objects which were donated to the  Yad Vashem Archives as part of the estate of Theodore Feldman, a Romanian-born Holocaust survivor who passed away in 1993. According to the donor of the collection, Elisheva Ezri, Feldman’s daughter, her father purchased the postcard in a small town near Bucharest. On the postcard, in addition to the addressee and the address, there is a short text is spread out along two lines and written in German: “My dear, I’ll remember you with love. Lola, Krakow, 20.8.1943.”

The back side of Lola Bergman’s postcard sent from Krakow to Jakob Rosenblum in Bucharest. The postcard is kept in the Yad Vashem Archives and is an integral part of a collection of letters from the Holocaust period.

The sender of the postcard was Lola Bergmann of Krakow. Her address did not contain a street name. The recipient was Yaakov Rosenblum, who, according to the address, lived in the Jewish ghetto in Bucharest. The invisible message included was sent by a man called Otto. The text, written in invisible ink, was in German and contains inside information about one of the concentration camps in the area, incuding details of a well-organized underground movement. The letter even contained a request for aid and equipment suitable for advanced underground warfare conditions, which lends to the theory that this was a part of an espionage operation on behalf of the Allies.

The front of Lola Bergman’s postcard sent from Krakow to Jakob Rosenblum in Bucharest. The postcard is kept in the Yad Vashem Archives and is part of a collection of letters from the Holocaust period.

The postcard bears the stamp of the Romanian censor, indicating that it had indeed reached Romania, but it is unclear whether it was read by the addressee or not. According to Elisheva Ezri, Feldman himself made the secret text visible by heating up both sides of the postcard with a household clothing iron. If that is the case, it can be concluded that the postcard did not reach the destination or that if it arrived, it seems that it was not clear to the recipient that it contained a message written in secret ink. In addition, the ink may belong to a group of chemicals that can be removed and then made visible when it comes in contact with another chemical. There are many materials and recipes for manufacturing hidden ink and many methods for making the hidden text visible. The use of secret ink for transmitting secret messages was already well known during World War I, and the censor was alert to this even during World War II. Across the postcard is a thick, light brown line. This line attests to an attempt to discover the hidden text using chemical material. Was the hidden text of the postcard visible and therefore caught by the censors? Or was it able to evade censorship because censorship checks could not identify the secret ink?

The contents of the hidden text and its interpretation, including the attempts to discover the identity of Otto, were presented at length on pages 6-7 of issue No. 7 (fall 1997) of Yad Vashem Magazine.