NLI Participates in 66th Jewish Book Week

Thousands flock to the annual festival in London to engage in the extraordinary world of Jewish books.

At the start of March, the National Library of Israel participated in the 66th Jewish Book Week– London’s International Festival of Arts and Ideas, and one of the leading Jewish literary events in the world.

With thousands of people flocking to the annual festival, Jewish Book Week consistently features a fascinating, extensive and varied program, presenting writers and speakers from across the world, from the most prominent of authors, to the first-time published.

Dr. Stefan Litt, archival expert for European language holdings at the NLI, along with writer George Prochnik, and Professor Susan Suleiman, participated in a panel chaired by Rebecca Abrams on “The Jewish Question in 20th Century Literature,” to discuss how some of the leading writers of the last century identified as Jews and how this impacted their writing.

Dr. Stefan Litt, George Prochnik, Professor Susan Suleiman, participate in a panel chaired by Rebecca Abrams.

The NLI holds the personal archives and materials from several of the writers who were discussed by the panel – including Stefan Zweig, Gershom Scholem, Walter Benjamin, and Franz Kafka.

“During the panel, Susan expressed a unique take on the subject,” said Stefan Litt. “She divided the Jewish question into two parts: Where do I see myself as a Jew in the non-Jewish world, and where do I see myself as a Jew in the Jewish world.”

“This panel was important as self- identification is still a question for authors and their writings today,” explained Dr. Litt.

Dr. Zvi Leshem, Director of the Gershom Scholem Collection and Judaica reference librarian at the National Library of Israel, chaired a discussion with George Prochnik, author of Gershom Scholem – Stranger in a Strange Land, a book that explores the life of Scholem, the renowned researcher of the Kabbalah, and his emigration from Berlin to the Land of Israel in 1923.

Dr. Zvi Leshem and George Prochnik discuss “Gershom Scholem – Stranger in a Strange Land”

“It is interesting to see how many people are still interested in Gershom Scholem. Our session was packed,” said Zvi Leshem.

“During the panel we discussed the continued interest in Scholem and his work and concluded that Scholem represents more than just himself. His trajectory as the 20th century academic trying to find his own path to Jewish identity through the Kaballah is something that resonates,” explained Dr. Leshem.

On the final day of the festival, the NLI hosted a session on “The Story of Hebrew,” a book by Professor Lewis Glinert that explores the historical narrative of the Hebrew language.

Professor Lewis Glinert and Jeremy Dauber discuss “The Story of Hebrew.”

Professor Glinert and Jeremy Dauber discussed the importance of the Hebrew language and its unique preservation by the Jewish people across history to its modern renewal- both spoken and written Hebrew – over the last 70 years.

The session opened with a video presentation “Letter of Lights,” featuring a deeper look into the art installation created by Micha Ullman for the new National Library building in Jerusalem.

A Nice Jewish Doll: She Goes By “Barbie”

How Ruth Moskowitz Handler, the Jewish creator of the Barbie doll, changed history and the toy industry forever.

"Barbie Reads Torah" by Jen Taylor Friedman, HaSoferet. Posted with permission

When Ruth Handler (formerly Moskowitz) traveled to Switzerland in 1956 with her family – her husband Elliot and their children Barbara and Kenneth – they came across a small figurine in a shop with a striking appearance: she was blonde, thin, and tall at 11 inches (28 cm). Her name was Lilli.

Bild’s “Lilli”

The Lilli doll was a novelty item for adults. The all-American Barbie doll, named for little Barbara Handler of course, debuted in 1959 would soon become a mass-produced doll for young girls (and also boys, we don’t judge, and neither should you). Barbie eventually solidified her status as the most popular doll in the history of toys. The Ken doll, which debuted a few years later, was named for Ruth Handler’s son Kenneth, of course.

Elliot, Ruth, Barbara, and Kenneth Handler in their home, 1960s. From Ruth Handler’s, “Dream Doll: The Ruth Handler Story”, 1994.

Ruth Handler’s story, and Barbie’s, is part and parcel of the American story. The daughter of Polish-Jewish immigrants, Ruth Moskowitz was born the youngest of 10 children in Denver, Colorado. As a teenager she was sent to be a shop-girl in her aunt’s store, where she not only learned the basics of running a business, she fell in love with it.

During her marriage to Elliot Handler, the two formed a plastic and wood business, making props and toys for Hollywood studios and toy shops nationwide. Along with another business partner, the Handlers formed “Mattel”.

In 1959, after three years of development, Barbie sprang fully formed into the world, bathing suit and all. Barbie was a child’s toy with adult outfits, accessories, and most importantly – a job.

The first Barbie, 1959

Handler herself wrote in her autobiography, “Dream Doll”:

“The idea had been the result of the many times I had observed my daughter Barbara playing with paperdolls with her friends… Barbara and her friends always insisted on playing with adult female paperdolls. They were simply not interested in baby paperdolls or even those representing ten-year-olds, their own age… I discovered something very important: They were using these dolls to project their dreams of their own futures as adult women.”

The Barbie doll was the first “adult” doll intended for girls – not a doll in the shape of a baby or a child, but one with which the young girl could play at being a grown up. Barbie was a loyal, mature companion.

Contemporary Barbie

The Barbie doll may not have a particularly Jewish “look”, but her heritage is Jewish and full of chutzpah. Ruth Handler was ambitious and held her own in the male-dominated world of business. She thought of young girls not merely as consumers, but as the future generation of women in America and all around the world. Well, almost all. Back in 2003 Saudi officials declared the “Jewish Barbie Dolls” a threat to morality.

You can’t please everyone.

Though Barbie’s Jewish roots may be bleached blonde, they are undeniable. Just by immigrating from Europe, changing her name and weaving herself into the very fabric of American life, the Barbie doll became an international sensation – a cultural icon that is both inspired and inspirational.


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That Time Seinfeld Did a Gig for the Maccabiah

This is how Jerry Seinfeld, Bill Maher and Billy Crystal found themselves telling jokes about Jews and sports in order to raise money for the 12th Maccabiah Games

Jerry Seinfeld fundraises. Photograph: Joe Seligman

One evening in 1985, Billy Crystal, Bill Maher and Jerry Seinfeld, along with other Jewish comedians, all got together. The purpose of this meeting: Fundraising for the American delegation to the Maccabiah. We are proud to present you photographs of that fundraising evening, which took place four years before ‘Seinfeld’ was first aired.

“During the 1980’s I worked as a television producer and producer of stand-up comedy events, and I was looking for new ways to raise money for the American delegation to the Maccabiah. Friends suggested I put on a stand-up comedy evening, and I decided to go for it,” Joe Seligman explains how one fine day, Jerry Seinfeld, Bill Mahler and Billy Crystal found themselves telling jokes about Jews and sports to raise money for the 12th Maccabiah Games.

Seligman was active in ‘Maccabi’ for many years, and even participated in several Maccabiahs himself. In 1973, Seligman was a member of the American cricket team in the 9th Maccabiah, after he left a career as a baseball player. “I thought, how hard can it be to play cricket? It’s just English baseball. It turned out in the end that it’s definitely not English baseball,” he relates. He soon discovered that his first hurdle was to find other Jewish American players who were familiar with cricket, a mission which turned out to be much more complex than he had originally envisaged.

At the end of the day, most of the cricket players he located were former baseball players, and the American delegation struggled to play against more experienced teams such as India, England and South Africa – losing every game they played. Despite the dismal results, Seligman became hooked on Maccabiah, and has taken part in organizing the American delegation to each subsequent Maccabiah.

In 1985 he came up with the idea to put on a comedy evening to raise money for the 12th Maccabiah. Now, over thirty years after the event we are pleased to share the pictures from that evening.

The first evening was held in February 1985, at the Improv club in Los Angeles, (which is now a chain of stand-up comedy clubs, with branches in Chicago and New York as well). The event was emceed by the comedian Norm Crosby and the star of the Los Angeles Riders football team, Lyle Aldazo. On the stage appeared: Jerry Seinfeld, Bill Maher and Billy Crystal, all young and talented Jewish comedians, alongside such veterans as Shelley Berman and Dick Shawn. At the time, Jerry Seinfeld was a talented comedian who appeared in clubs and had made appearnces on the Tonight Show with Jonny Carson, but “Seinfeld” the sitcom would only go on the air four years later. Crystal and Maher were also well on their way to becoming major stars of the comedy scene.

The efforts were not in vain, and the evening was an overwhelming success: “There was room for 224 people in the club, and we sold 227 tickets – and there were those who managed to sneak in,” Seligman explains.  The American delegation was the largest delegation at the 12th Maccabiah, though it’s hard to say of the comedy fundraising event can be credited directly for that….

While we unfortunately, we do not have video footage of this memorable evening avialable, we can at least we can enjoy some photographs:

Billy Crystal takes part in the fundraising event. Photograph: Joe Seligman
Bill Maher in the service of the Maccabiah. Photograph: Joe Seligman
Billy Crystal, the club owner Bud Friedman and his wife Nancy. Photograph: Joe Seligman

The evening’s success led Seligman to initiate several more fundraising evenings for the subsequent Maccabiah games, which also featured big names.

The Yankee Talmud Gives a Different Spin on Purim of 1892

Purim is upon us! And it so happened that the 1892 American elections happened at around the same time. And so Gershon Rosenzweig, a Hebrew author and Jewish immigrant to the New World, wrote "Tractate America", to answer the question of who will win the election – the one with the most gold.

The large wave immigration of Eastern European Jewry to America began in 1881. For them, America was an unknown country, but was also “der goldener medinah”, a country which promised a safe haven, liberty and equal rights, regardless of religion.

The immigrant Jews saw America as a completely different diaspora than Europe. It was a place where they could continue to live as Jews while taking part in building a new and improved society; a far-cry from the intolerant and tyrannical regimes they left behind.

However, the utopic image of the new land was contrasted with a negative reality of America: an America whose citizens were low class immigrants, an America whose new lifestyle threatens Orthodox Jews, an America devoid of Torah and fear of God.

America, the capitalist country who truly did worship a golden calf.

Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe are received with open arms by their American brothers, late 19th century. From the book “In the Footsteps of Columbus: Jews in America”, The Museum of the Jewish People at Beit Hatfutsot, 1987

In a world without internet and television, it was authors and journalists who painted the picture of America for the Eastern European Jews, people like famed Yiddish author Shalom Aleichem (Shalom Yaacov Rabinowitz) and Gershon son of Zalman Leib Rosenzweig who wrote a humorous Purim tractate about the improper characteristics and the ugly deeds and customs “which the Americans are not immune from”.

Rosenzweig was born in Bialystok in 1861. He studied and worked there as a teacher, and in 1888 left to build himself a new future in America. He lived in New York, where he worked in different professions: teaching, a worker in a shoe store and Yiddish journalism. Concurrently he worked “to bestow a Hebrew newspaper on the Jewish people in America”. His love for his beautiful new country did not blind him to its shortcomings, which he wrote about in his special parodic and cynical writing style.

In his own words, he was one of the Americans “who knows this country, and the livelihood and the rottenness [in Hebrew – מחיה וקלקלה a play on words found in the Grace After Meals] within it, and not those who live across the sea and see dreams in America”.

His most famous parody is “Tractate America”, a humorous “Talmudic tractate” in which he criticizes the materialism, spiritual poverty, greed and servitude to money which were also part of Jewish life in America. He wrote especially for Purim and the 1892 elections of that year.

Tractate America from the Yankai Talmud, Gershon Rosenzweig. New York, 1892. Signed by the author.

Rosenzweig wrote the tractate in Talmudic language, in the style of the Talmud with the commentary of “Rashi”. So, for example, one of Rosenzweig’s imaginary “sugyot” (Talmudic topics) asks: Why America?

And the ‘Talmud’ answers: “Because empty [in Hebrew – reikim] and reckless people came to it, and it is the place of an Ama Reika (lit. an empty nation – a stupid nation)”. And: “Because it cleanses [in Hebrew – memareket, a play on the word America] the sins of sinners who become pure in it and of unfit people who become pedigreed in it”.

The humorous Tractate America continues: “Ten statuses came first to America, and they are: murderers, thieves, reporters (of Jews to the secular authorities), ignitors of houses, printers of banknotes, sellers of souls, false witnesses, bankrupt people, people who were excommunicated and rebellious sons. And there are those who say even girls who were tempted”.

Rosenzweig also explains that Tractate America is part of the “Yankai” (Yankee) Talmud. Why Yankai? In the name of the Yankees – the residents of the north eastern states of the USA and “in the name of the citizens who absorbed [yank]) the Torah of America in their childhood“.

It’s All About the Gold

The first edition of Tractate America was published in New York in 1892, which was also an election year. The president elected in those elections was Grover Cleveland, the 22nd and 24th president – the only president in American history to be elected for two non-consecutive terms of office.

This was his second term of office. Cleveland was known as being arrow-straight, a warrior against corruption, and a sworn capitalist who supported reducing taxes and believed that federal government should limit its involvement in economic issues as much as possible.

Part of his election campaign revolved around the American currency policy. At the time, Cleveland fought for “the Gold Standard” – linking the currency to gold, which enabled any person to enter any bank and exchange his banknotes for gold. In the period which preceded Cleveland’s term of office, the dollar was linked not only to gold, but to silver as well, which was less stable.

This caused fluctuations of the economy, which continued, and even worsened, during Cleveland’s term of office. Through no fault of Cleveland’s, his second term of office is known for a series of economic disasters: a railway company collapsed, hundreds of banks closed, thousands of farmers and business owners went bankrupt, the stock exchange plunged, and the country fell into a deep economic crisis. The crisis was so deep-seated that it destroyed the Democratic Party and caused it to split.

So how is a president elected in America? Here are several related “sugyot” found in Tractate America, possibly even on the backdrop of that tumultuous election, and the “Gold Standard”:

How are Presidents elected in America?

Each and every president appointed in America, is appointed by casting lots. What are lots? Bribery.”

According to Rosenzweig’s humorous Talmud, no president is elected without bribing his voters and scattering his gold to “the politicians“.

He adds:

“It says in the Mishna, the gold buys the president and the judge and Rabbi Yankee says even the tyrant.”

This is followed by a scholarly discussion whose conclusion is: “From here we learn that anyone who has gold becomes pleasant, good and pure“.

Don’t believe it? Here is the “sugya” before you:

In humorous tractates and newspaper articles Rosenzweig continued to write satire about the difficulties experienced by the Easter European immigrants and their new lives in America… he is also known for “Tractate Lies” about April Fools’ Day pranks and “Tractate Camouflage” about Purim costumes.

Rosenzweig died in New York in 1914, but has never been forgotten. His works from the “New World” of the time are read and reread to this day by Hebrew readers who find them to still be as relevant ever.

Gershon Rosenzweig