Keepers of Jewish Treasures: Meet the Participants of the International Judaica Curators Conference

Some 50 men and women charged with preserving the cultural treasures of the Jewish People came from all over the world to attend a professional conference which now took on a different, deeper, and more urgent significance. “Here, we felt a little less alone” was something we heard from everyone we spoke to. Here’s a peek behind the scenes into the world of those who seek to protect the cultural heritage for the Jewish People.

Participants at the Fifth International Judaica Curators Conference. Photo: Aviad Waizman

They came from Europe, North Africa, Latin America, and from the United States, where an unprecedented wave of antisemitism is currently being witnessed. They work at prestigious European museums, the Library of Congress, Ivy League universities, and in one case, in the service of the King of Morocco. Many of them had already been to the National Library of Israel during previous iterations of the International Judaica Curators Conference (this year’s conference being the fifth). But this time, with hatred flooding the streets and campuses where many of them work, and with the treasures they guard facing real threats around the world, what should have been a routine get together turned into something a little different.

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Photo: Aviad Waizman

The international conference, hosted last month by the National Library of Israel and its Gesher L’Europa program (an initiative of the NLI and the Rothschild Foundation Hanadiv Europe), became a safe place – a gathering bringing together different people from around the world, all with a shared purpose – to protect and defend Jewish cultural treasures. And what a mission that is, especially this year. We stopped them in the hallways, in the courtyard, or in the lecture halls. We even interrupted their lunch. The goal: to hear about their own personal experience in coming here. What’s it like to come to Israel in times like these? Why is this conference so important? We ended up amazed by the answers of these wonderful and special people and by what they had to tell us.

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Avigaille Bacon, Head of Public Services and Outreach, the Klau Library, Cincinnati, OH – “I hope they still read our posts.”

Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion is formally a college for Jewish studies, but it effectively serves as a center of knowledge, training, and research on various Jewish topics. The Institute has centers and campuses in Cincinnati, New York, Los Angeles, and Jerusalem.

The Klau Library on HUC’s Cincinnati campus, where Avigaille Bacon serves as Head of Public Services and Outreach, has the second largest collection of Hebraic literature in the world, behind only the National Library of Israel, with over 700,000 printed works alongside a wide range of antique manuscripts. The library not only possesses and preserves this enormous collection but also works to attract scholars, readers, and the general public to come be exposed to the cultural and historical wealth it has to offer.

An inseparable part of Avigaille’s work relates to this effort to attract the broader public to come view the items in their enormous collection. They do so via posts on social media, lectures, and events related to the collection’s materials.

While their audience is predominantly Jewish, they also deliberately appeal to non-Jewish audiences, including Muslims.

Since October 7, it is impossible to ignore the change in the public mood, even though Bacon feels that people around her and those who interact with her have expressed empathy regarding the situation. That being said, she has noticed that there has been much less involvement on the part of the Klau Library’s Muslim social media followers since October.

“I hope that they’re still reading our posts,” Bacon said, “especially anything that we have that’s related to Israel. We try and remind everybody that even though Israel is only 76 years old as a state, the Jewish People have been around in the Land of Israel or Palestine for over three thousand years.”

“Do you feel you need to engage in active hasbarah now?” we ask, to which we receive an immediate and unequivocal – “Oh absolutely!”

“Maybe that’s just my personal feeling, but I think that it reminds everybody how important this land is to all of us, and that whatever uncomfortable things you hear from the outside world – even if you know the content already about how important the Jewish land is to the Jewish People – to be in a kind of “safe space” as they say, and to say that we’re all still proud of our heritage and our belonging here, I think is helpful for people… Especially now, it feels very important, to feel that we’re not alone… that we’re a part of something bigger, [that] the Jews have also existed in diaspora for 3000 years and that we have an important role to play in Jewish history.”

This isn’t the first time Bacon has visited the new NLI, an experience she describes as almost “spiritual”:

“When I first came here in February, the contrast between how empty the airports were, and how empty Jaffa was and the general tourist areas – and [walking] into the National Library of Israel – and it is packed with people! There are people in the reading room, there’s people on tours and it just had this absolutely vibrant culture that made me realize – there are places where people are scared to be, there are places where it’s uncomfortable to be, but the National Library of Israel is not one of those places. It’s kind of drawing everyone together for moving the Jewish narrative forward.”

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Paul Dahan, Director of the Centre de la Culture Judéo-Marocaine (“CCJM”) in Brussels: “To be a Jew here is not like being a Jew in Brussels.”

Judging from the fluent Hebrew Paul Dahan uses when speaking with us, one could easily receive the impression he was born in Israel. The truth is he only lived in Israel for a few years and decades have passed since then.

Dahan was born in Morocco, made Aliyah immediately after the Six-Day War, worked on a kibbutz and then enlisted in the IDF. But after finishing his army service, he travelled to Belgium, where he lives to this day, to study Egyptology and archaeology (he ended up studying psychology, but that’s another story).

None of his time spent globetrotting made him forget his roots. Shortly before getting married, he returned to Morocco, the land of his birth, to study his own family history and culture.

“I myself was born in Fez, but my parents came from Tafilalt [a district at the northern edge of the Sahara Desert – M.Z.], so I went to see the place. In that whole area, people remained… as they were, for hundreds of years. When I arrived, I could actually see what life looked like back then.”

In the Tafilalt market, he found a bracelet, a common wedding gift among local Jews, and after haggling at length over the price, he purchased it. The seller refused to believe he was from Fez, saying: “You’re from here. Within a radius of a few kilometers. No-one else in the world haggles like that.” He discovered that he wasn’t just “Paul” – he was his parents’ son, and he had roots in a place he’d never been before.

“It was the first thing I bought, and then I continued to collect things. I felt that this was my way, I’d started at precisely that time to study psychology and psychoanalysis, and I understood the deep meaning of the concept of identity, of the roots I had. I bought an enormous number of books and manuscripts and since then, for more than forty years, I’ve bought something almost every day.”

Today, Dahan’s collection, which is kept at the Moroccan Jewish Museum in Brussels, is one of the most impressive such collections around: tens of thousands of books and manuscripts in a number of languages, as well as documents, inscriptions, letters, and halachic rulings by important rabbis, thousands of photographs and other items – all documenting and telling the story of one of the most ancient and illustrious Jewish communities in the world.

“What’s the atmosphere like in Brussels now?” we ask. He shrugs his shoulders.

“Listen, to be a Jew here [in Israel] is not like being a Jew in Brussels. Where I live, everyone knows I’m a Jew, I shout it from the mountaintops, even without a kippa or a necklace. And I feel safe. Precisely those who fear, those who don’t want [to go out and declare they are Jews], they see far more antisemitism. I move around with complete confidence. I had it even back in Morocco, and then when I came here to Israel, there was something Israeli I learned on the kibbutz – you mustn’t be fearful. You mustn’t.”

Since he is familiar with life in Israel, in Europe, and in the Arab world, he has a lot to say about the various types of antisemitism and the role the State of Israel has to play in this respect. He feels that European antisemitism is much more threatening.

“Every rock that’s thrown at someone’s head,” he says, “raises the horrifying fear in that same head that the Holocaust is about to return.”

Antisemitism is often connected to local history and mentality and the collective story a nation tells itself.

“In psychoanalysis,” Paul explains, “when someone speaks of others – our wife, our children, a thief who has stolen our property – that person is effectively speaking of themselves. Antisemites are also like that: When they speak of the Israeli occupation in France, they speak of themselves in Algeria.”

Back in his native Morocco, a Jewish museum was recently established on the orders of the King himself. Paul Dahan was asked to take responsibility for the museum, whose opening was delayed due to October 7 and subsequent events.

It turns out the Moroccan ruling dynasty attaches great importance to preserving the country’s Jewish heritage and demonstrating that it is also part of Morocco’s heritage.

“For me, to travel all over the world and then come back to the city where I was born and set up a Jewish museum, it’s really… hard to put into words,” he ended. He isn’t worried about the delay in opening the museum: “Just a bit more. We’re waiting just a bit longer and then we’ll open.”

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Shai Abend, responsible for founding the Jewish Museum in Montevideo, Uruguay: “it’s also important that non-Jews come to us to learn about Judaism and what it generally means to be a Jew.”

Shai Abend, an Israeli responsible among other things for founding the Jewish Museum in Montevideo, Uruguay, made it to the conference from all the way over there, and never had any doubts it was worth the trouble.

“First of all, it was important for us to come to Israel, especially during this period. And to see this [NLI] building is an experience in itself, but especially for those of us from Uruguay – we are still in the process of learning (unlike older institutions), so we absorb a lot, every moment here. We take everything we can learn from the experiences of others, thinking together about possible collaborations.

Moreover, the truth is we’ve already started the process of collaborating with the National Library, so to be here physically and meet the people we’re already working with face to face – it’s an amazing opportunity.”

At the conference, he met a colleague from Mexico for the first time, as well as an Argentinian colleague who he had met before. It turns out that in some cases, it’s best to travel to Israel to meet your neighbors!

“We’ve strengthened the Latin American connection in recent times,” he noted. “We’ve met people like us, who do very similar work to what we do. It will allow us to promote shared work.”

While the significance of the work they do was always clear to him, it has now become crucially important in his eyes:

“The (Jewish) community in Uruguay is relatively small: 12-16,000 Jews. It’s a warm, active, and very Zionist community. After October 7, we’re in a pretty sensitive situation. Most members of the community define themselves as Zionists and very clearly identify with Israel. Almost all of them have relatives in Israel, including soldiers, evacuees, or casualties from the kibbutzim. Shani Goren, one of the hostages that was released, is of Uruguayan origin. They know her. So, on the one hand, it’s very difficult to function day-to-day, while antisemitism and anti-Zionism continue to rise in the background, but on the other hand, it arouses the need to connect to the community. The museum can be an anchor for this. At the same time, it’s also important that non-Jews come to us to learn about Judaism and what it generally means to be a Jew. We are trying to create and strengthen this connection between the Jewish community and the general public in Uruguay, despite and because of the situation.”

The Montevideo community is a bastion of “old fashioned” Zionism, with very active and strong youth movements, in which almost eighty percent of children and youth take part. Young members come to Israel every year via all sorts of programs, and many even make Aliyah afterwards. They hear Hebrew at home, as many community members attach importance to maintaining the connection in their daily lives. They even know Israeli folk dances. It’s part of the culture.

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Photo: Aviad Waizman

We were also able to speak to some of the “locals” at the conference – specifically, Dr. Chaim Neria, the curator of the National Library of Israel’s own Judaica Collection and the man responsible for the conference itself.

“The curators of Judaica collections around the world are a layer of Jewish leadership responsible for the treasures of the past with a view to the future,” he says. “The encounter here strengthens the curators’ sense of community and the importance of their role in preserving, documenting, and making our spiritual treasures accessible. It warms the heart and gives us strength to see our colleagues from all over the world coming to the National Library in Jerusalem in these difficult times, seeing them take an active role in the various discussions and advancing collaborations and projects in the field of Jewish curation.”

Before the conference ends, everyone is given a guided tour of the new National Library building.

“The treasures that I’ve seen so far in the Library,” laughs Abigaille Bacon while looking entirely serious, “it’s the kind of thing that makes you want to move in and never leave the collection.”

May it be that next year, we can focus entirely on questions about conservation techniques, collection policies and other aspects of curation. In the meantime, these wonderful professionals will remain committed to maintaining and curating these Judaica collections in Israel and around the world, to ensure that they are made accessible to all of us and to future generations as well.

Franz Kafka on His Deathbed

On the author's last days, and some of the last words that he was able to put in writing.

Franz Kafka

In the early 20th century, tuberculosis was a fairly common disease. At that point in time, an effective treatment had yet to be developed. The disease mainly spread among populations that suffered from nutritional deficiencies. War could often lead to significant parts of the population suffering from malnutrition, and so it isn’t surprising that Franz Kafka contracted tuberculosis in 1917 – in the midst of the First World War.

At first, Kafka tried a very simple method of treatment; he figured a few months of rest outside the city at his sister Ottilie’s home might help. During his years of illness, Kafka occasionally returned to work at the insurance company in Prague where he was employed but he found he increasingly needed long breaks, which he took at various sanatoriums in Bohemia and Austria. During his last weeks, he stayed at a sanatorium in the town of Kierling near Vienna, Austria. Many of the patients there were in the terminal stages of tuberculosis and had hardly any chance of leaving in a reasonably healthy state. For Kafka, the disease had spread to his throat, preventing him from speaking and he switched to exclusively written communication.

The author sent letters and postcards to his friends, like the ones pictured here that he sent to Max Brod in April and May 1924:

Photo By Ardon Bar Hama
Photo By Ardon Bar Hama
Photo By Ardon Bar Hama
Photo By Ardon Bar Hama
The last postcards sent by Kafka to Max Brod. Photo: Ardon Bar-Hama

In these postcards, Kafka wrote about his own literary interests, the works of other authors, and also his unpleasant experiences due to the difficult treatments he was receiving, for example, injections of alcohol. At best, these injections offered a bit of relief.

About 40 “conversation sheets” from this difficult period have been preserved. They contain the ideas Kafka wrote down and the words he wished to express to the people who surrounded him: his friend and lover Dora Diamant, the doctor Robert Klopstock, Max Brod, and possibly others. After Kafka’s death on June 3, 1924, these pages were distributed among his friends, with five of them given to Max Brod. These items were brought to the National Library of Israel, along with Max Brod’s personal archive and a number of Kafka’s writings which were in Brod’s possession. While reading the pages (which were never published), it is not always easy to understand who exactly Kafka was “conversing” with when he wrote a certain line on the page, or what exactly the conversation was about. Some interesting references can be found among the pages, for example, his memories of experiences he had with his father when he was a child:

“When I was a little boy, before I learned to swim, I sometimes went with my father, who also can’t swim, to the shallow-water pool. Then we sat together naked at the buffet, each with a sausage and a half liter of beer. My father used to bring the sausages from home, because at the swimming school, they were too expensive.”

Photo By Ardon Bar Hama
Photo By Ardon Bar Hama
Photo: Ardon Bar-Hama

Elsewhere in these pages, two lines reveal Kafka’s concern for the flowers that were brought to his room in the sanatorium:

“Not cold water, but not too hot either, so that they don’t get sick.”

“And they should have made sure the flowers that were pushed to the bottom of the vase were not damaged. How can they do that?

Kafka also had comments about his diet: “It makes sense that in the hospital, dinner was between six and seven-thirty, after lying down all day, you can’t eat at half past eight” and “after all, a round of meals without fruit is unbearable over time.” In his deteriorated condition, it wasn’t easy for him to drink, either: “Milk? I drank sour milk for too long, then vinegar. The agony that drinking milk causes, now.

Of course, his illness and the treatments also became an issue: “It was from a cough at the time. I’m still burning from the oil. The injections don’t excite me anymore either, it’s too confusing.”

The exact order of the pages isn’t clear, nor is it clear if they contain all the content of Kafka’s written conversations in his last days or if there were more.

Despite his health and mental condition, he put together several short stories for a final collection he prepared, entitled A Hunger Artist. Proofreading the pages may have been the last literary act Kafka undertook. His friend Brod completed the process of getting it published. Franz Kafka never got to see it in print.

Photo By Ardon Bar Hama
Photo: Ardon Bar-Hama

These and many other items will be displayed in the National Library of Israel’s exhibition on Franz Kafka, which will open towards the end of 2024.

Space Left Behind: Ilan Ramon’s Diary Has Arrived

He was the kind of guy everyone wants to be. Ilan Ramon's story began in Be'er Sheva in Israel's Negev desert and came to an end somewhere beyond our planet. But before he became the first Israeli astronaut, he was just Ilan – a husband, father, son, and brother. Miraculously, the diary he kept aboard Space Shuttle Columbia survived. This diary, containing his personal feelings as well as descriptions of the historic event he was a part of, somehow landed relatively intact in Texas. It later underwent complex restoration processes and recently received a warm welcome at its new home – the National Library of Israel, where it is on extended loan.

Ilan Ramon and a page from his diary which somehow survived the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster

Ground Control: “And Columbia, Houston, we see your tire pressure messages and we did not copy your last…”

Commander Rick Husband: “Roger buh…”

That utterance by mission commander Rick Husband was the last communication sent to Ground Control in Houston, Texas from the Space Shuttle Columbia, which was on its way back to Earth on February 1, 2003.

On board the Columbia, which would disintegrate as soon as it reentered the atmosphere, was one Israeli. Almost against his will, Ilan Ramon – the first Israeli astronaut – became a national symbol in his lifetime.

Columbia Makeshift Memorial הכניסה למרכז גונסון ב 1 בפברואר 2003 לאחר שהתברר אסון הקולומביה צילום נאסא
The Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas on February 1st, 2023, after the magnitude of the Columbia disaster became clear. Photo: NASA

As the son of Holocaust survivors Tonya and Eliezer Wolferman, Ilan Ramon dreamt big when he was growing up. But “being an astronaut” was not one of those dreams. “In Israel, when you tell someone, ‘You’re an astronaut,’ it means that they aren’t…  connected [to reality], so it’s almost a joke,” he explained in one of his last interviews with American media before the Columbia took off. Still, when he accepted his assignment, he was “over the moon” with excitement.

It wasn’t the first time that Ramon was chosen to lead and carry out a mission that had never been done before. He was an outstanding, determined pilot who enlisted in the Israeli Air Force and twice returned to service after an injury. In 1980, he was sent to the U.S. as part of a small elite team tasked with learning to fly the new F-16 aircraft that Israel was about to receive. A year later, he was the youngest pilot in the squadron that flew those aircraft to Iraq to bomb a nuclear reactor being built there by Saddam Hussein’s regime.

Along with the space shuttle, an Israeli national symbol was also lost on that fateful day in February 2003. Ilan Ramon served as an example of what we can become. For his family – his wife Rona, his children, his father, and his brother – it was a completely different loss. They lost their loving partner, their father, their son and brother – a serious man with a captivating smile, a sense of humor, an almost childlike enthusiasm, and hopeless optimism. They lost the individual he was, aside from all the incredible things he achieved. “At home, you don’t think of him as if he’s Israel’s first astronaut. He’s that too, but he’s my father. Do I worry about him a bit? No, not really,” Assaf Ramon said during an interview with Israel’s Channel 10 filmed before Ilan launched into space, though it was only broadcast many years later.

The Ramon family at home, screen capture courtesy of Israel’s Channel 13 (formerly Channel 10)

Ramon enlisted in the mission with all his heart and soul. He was well aware of the significance of what he was doing, and he took it seriously. But he was also able see the lighter side of things, and would often laugh and joke with his family.

Everything we know about Ramon’s journey to space consists of these two extremes: the national, and the personal. Among the things he brought with him onto the shuttle were items that carried with them all the weight of Jewish history: a tiny Torah scroll that had come all the way from the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, a copy of a Petr Ginz painting from the Terezin Ghetto (Moon Landscape), the last letter written by captured Israeli Air Force navigator Ron Arad, wine for Kiddush, and more. He also took with him a letter from his son Assaf (who warned his father only to open it once he had taken off) and a notebook he planned on using to record his personal experience.

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One of the pages of the diary that survived, photo: National Library of Israel
Earth Seen From The Moon
Moon Landscape, the Petr Ginz painting created in the Terezin Ghetto. Ramon carried a copy with him onto the Columbia.

The notebook probably had at least one page written before lift-off, but the rest of the pages were filled in the days that followed. He wrote in a short, purposeful manner, interspersing his words with fragments of thoughts, feelings, conversations, and descriptions of routine actions that became extraordinary, not only because of the place where they were carried out.

An excerpt from the diary reads:

“Launch. No, I couldn’t believe it. Until the moment the engine(s) were ignited, I still doubted it. In the last few days of our isolation in the Cape, since the fateful discussion [on] Sunday afternoon – in those days we all already felt that [this was] real, and yet – we didn’t believe it.”

אילן רמון מרחף במעבורת החלל קולומביה צולם על ידי צוות קולומביה, נאסא
Ilan Ramon, gliding through Space Shuttle Columbia, photo: NASA

In what follows, along with other documentation from the Colombia mission, this duality can be seen again and again. It ranges from the personal to the public, from the routine to the historic. He described how he brushed his teeth and how he performed scientific experiments; he wrote to his family about how much he missed them but also mentioned, almost as an aside, conversations with the Prime Minister and the President of the United States, performing Jewish rituals such as Kiddush before the entire world, and strong friendships with the other crew members.

“Travel diary, day six. Today was perhaps the first day that I truly felt like I was really ‘living’ in space! I’ve turned into a man who lives and works in space. Like in the movies. We get up in the morning with some light levitation and we roll into the ‘family room’. Brush my teeth, wash my face, and then go to work. A little coffee. Some snacks on the way, off to the lab…a press conference with the Prime Minister, and then immediately back to work, observing the ozone layer.”

Diary excerpt
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One of the pages of the diary that survived, photo: National Library of Israel

On the one hand, he was a representative of the Jewish state. All eyes were on him, and he had something to say to the entire world:

“From our perspective here in space, we look at you and see a world without borders, full of peace and splendor. Our hearts carry a prayer that all humanity as one can imagine the world as it appears to us, without borders, and can strive to live together in peace.”

From a conversation with then Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon

On the other hand, Ramon was a loving family man who missed his loved ones:

“Even though everything here is amazing, I can’t wait any longer until I see you all. A big hug to you and kisses to the kids.”

From an email Ramon sent his family the day before the scheduled landing

But he never saw them again. They waited for him at the base, excitedly watching the clock counting down the minutes till landing, and then with increasing anxiety, watching it reach zero and then switch to displaying the time elapsed since the Columbia was scheduled to land. It wasn’t long before the news channels started broadcasting the image of the space shuttle’s wreckage burning in the Texas sky. Debris from the shuttle and the astronauts’ bodies were scattered over a vast area in Texas and Louisiana. The diary, a personal and national treasure, should have disintegrated along with the shuttle and its crew, but a few weeks after the disaster, to the surprise of the search party, someone found the remains of the diary on a muddy patch of land in Texas.

צילום היומן כפי שנמצא בשדה צילום נאסא
The remains of the diary, found in Texas, photo: NASA

How is it possible that it survived? It withstood the explosion, and then a journey of several kilometers till it hit the earth. No one knows for sure, but leading researchers in the field believe that due to the light weight of the pages, the diary didn’t fall directly to the ground but probably glided slowly downwards, carried on wind currents that eventually allowed for a soft landing. Most of the damage to its pages probably only happened after it reached the ground, resulting from the humid conditions in the marshy area where it landed.

Once it was found, the diary was transferred to the Israel Museum for restoration and preservation. The wetness caused the pages to stick together and blurred the words that were written inside, turning them into shapeless ink blots. It was almost illegible, and restoring it was a complex undertaking that included the use of the most advanced technological means, with the assistance of the Israel Police’s forensics department.

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Yiftach and Tal Ramon with their father’s diary, when it was still at the Israel Museum, photo: National Library of Israel

One of the pages that was recovered was apparently written while Ramon was still on the ground, before lift-off. The restoration team identified letter patterns between the ink spots that had spread across the page. To do so, they used some of Ramon’s other handwriting samples. When they tried to connect the letters and the spaces between them into a meaningful, understandable text, they discovered the words of the Jewish Kiddush prayer recited on Friday night. Ramon had made advance preparations to consecrate the wine during the time designated as “Shabbat” onboard the shuttle (which itself was an interesting question because the Jewish sabbath is from sundown on Friday till sundown on Saturday, but he had traveled somewhere without sunset), and he had made sure to write the exact wording of the prayer in advance so that he wouldn’t forget a single word.

For twenty years the diary was kept in the Israel Museum, but it was recently moved to its new home in the National Library of Israel, where it will be on extended loan.

“If only every item we received was at the level of preservation which this diary was at when it reached us from the Israel Museum,” said Marcela Szekely, head of the Library’s Conservation and Restoration Department.

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One of the pages of the diary that survived, photo: National Library of Israel

After the initial intake phase, during which both sides of all pages of the diary were photographed, the diary entered the Library’s rare items storeroom. The storeroom, which serves as a highly guarded vault, is bulletproof and is under strict environmental control. The humidity and temperature are continuously monitored and adjusted to preserve the materials stored inside it.

“Later, after the diary goes through additional conservation processes at the Library, we will consider presenting it to the general public as part of the Library’s permanent exhibition,” Skezely says. “In the meantime, it is being kept in good company here. It ‘lives’ in the same room as the writings of Newton and Maimonides.”

The Library also preserves other items linked to Ilan Ramon as well as the diary of another astronaut.

In 1977, Ramon, then a 23-year-old pilot, wrote a letter to Professor Yeshayahu Leibowitz, asking him: “What is man’s purpose in this world?” Leibowitz, answered, and this correspondence in its entirety is preserved in the National Library.

In 1985, Jeffrey Hoffman, the first Jewish American astronaut, went into space on the Space Shuttle Discovery. Like Ilan Ramon, he also wrote a diary documenting his journey in space, and he had also taken with him Jewish symbols such as a small Torah scroll. In March 2023, Hoffmann visited the National Library and handed over that diary, along with several other items that are now preserved in a collection that bears his name.

יומן גף הופמן
An Astronaut’s Diary, by Jeffrey Hoffman. A copy can be found at the National Library of Israel.

The transfer of Ilan Ramon’s diary – which carries both national and personal significance – was accompanied by his sons, Tal and Yiftach.

Their father’s tragic death was not the last tragedy the family would suffer. Assaf, Ilan’s firstborn, was killed in an operational accident six years after the Columbia disaster. Rona, Ilan’s widow who turned Ilan and Assaf’s legacy into a tremendous social and educational enterprise, died of cancer in 2018.

Today, Tal, Yiftach, and Noa are the ones left carrying the flag of this amazing family that, despite all the tragedies it has known, has always continued to look ahead with its head held high.

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Tal and Yiftach Ramon remove the diary from its case upon arrival at the National Library of Israel, photo: National Library of Israel

No words we write will ever be stronger or more accurate than their own:

“My name is Yiftach Ramon, and I have come here to say that my family and I insist that our name not become a symbol of tragedy or mourning. I have come here to say that people can take their grief and their mourning and turn it into action to create a better future.”

From Yiftach’s speech at the annual conference of the Israeli American Council, IAC

We at the National Library of Israel are incredibly moved to have this treasure in our collections. We are grateful for the privilege of preserving this diary, along with the spirit that created it, for future generations.

The Prime Minister’s Stuttering Speech

In the lead-up to one of Israel's greatest-ever military victories, Prime Minister Levi Eshkol took to the airwaves to address the nation. It didn't go well, and the national crisis became significantly worse as a result. Despite his failure in a critical moment, today Eshkol is often viewed as one of Israel's greatest leaders.

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Prime Minister Levi Eshkol and IDF troops during the Six-Day War, 1967. Both images are part of the Israel Archive Network project (IAN) and are made accessible thanks to the collaborative efforts of the Yad Levi Eshkol Archive, the Oded Yarkoni Historical Archives of Petach Tikva, the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage and the National Library of Israel.

If only Prime Minister Levi Eshkol, prior to addressing panic-stricken Israelis on live radio on May 28, 1967, had reviewed his short speech to ensure that everything was in order—or, better yet, rehearsed it.

If only word processing existed then, it would have obviated the need for Eshkol’s top aide, Adi Yaffe, to scribble a change to the text that the Prime Minister—fresh off a cataract procedure, exhausted from late-night meetings in the lead up to the Six-Day War and having rushed to the Tel Aviv broadcast studio to deliver his remarks—struggled to read. Confused by the wording, Eshkol whispered to Yaffe in Hebrew, “What does it say?” (again, this was a live broadcast) and stumbled and stuttered. That undermined Israel’s confidence in its 71-year-old leader, led to Eshkol being compelled to relinquish his other job as Defense Minister, necessitated the government’s being expanded on an emergency basis to include opposition parties and, at least temporarily, tarnished Eshkol’s reputation.

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Prime Minister Levi Eshkol speaking at the podium of the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, 1967. Photo by IPPA, the Dan Hadani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

The episode would become known as Eshkol’s Stutter, hardly Israel’s parallel to Abraham Lincoln’s stately Gettysburg Address at wartime a century earlier.

It wasn’t what Eshkol said, but how he said it—and its context was everything.

IDF tanks near Jerusalem’s famous Montefiore Windmill, during the Six-Day War, 1967. Photo by Boris Carmi, the Meitar Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

By the time Eshkol addressed the nation, Israelis were white-knuckled, fearing for the country’s survival after Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser in mid-May evicted United Nations peacekeepers from the Sinai Peninsula and deployed his own troops there, then blocked the Straits of Tiran to cut off Eilat from Israel’s Red Sea commerce—an act of war under international law. Israel’s military mobilized, and Tel Aviv residents dug ditches in anticipation of mass fatalities.

Reassurance through a national address was needed. Eshkol’s meetings at the Defense Ministry’s Kirya compound in Tel Aviv ran long, leaving no time to record the address that afternoon at his office on the grounds. Instead, he went across the street to a radio studio to speak live.

In a vacuum, Eshkol’s mistakes during the address were minor. Cross-outs and insertions dotted the 1½-page text, and Eshkol handled them fine, with slight hesitations and stutters here and there.

His pivotal screw-up centered on one word.

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Prime Minister Levi Eshkol during a visit to Dimona in southern Israel, 1967. This image is part of the Israel Archive Network project (IAN) and has been made accessible thanks to the collaborative efforts of the Yad Levi Eshkol Archive, the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage and the National Library of Israel.

It occurred near the end of a broadcast that ran just over three minutes. Listening to a recording of the speech today while following along on the typed text containing the handwritten changes, the drama builds. That’s because Eshkol reached the end of the first page, flipped to the second page—we hear the crinkle of the paper—and immediately encountered the fifth word crossed out and two scribbled words above replacing it.

Instead of reciting, “Likewise, directions of activity were specified for withdrawing the [Egyptian] military concentrations from Israel’s southern border,” we can imagine Eshkol’s confusion upon encountering the handwritten Hebrew word for moving. (Italics added for this article.)

That’s when Eshkol turned to Yaffe and whispered his question. Yaffe made a hand-rolling motion to signal Eshkol to quickly continue. An engineer cut the sound for seven seconds. Silence. The sound returned, and Eshkol proceeded.

But the whisper, the sound cut and the resumption—all vital to understanding the magnitude of the screw-up—aren’t grasped by listening to the audio recording today. Rather, those key components, and Yaffe’s gesture, come courtesy of an archived interview the Israel Broadcast Authority conducted years later with Yigal Lossin, who was working that day in the studio’s sound engineer booth.

The audio that exists is Eshkol’s address after it was edited—the whispered question and the seven-second pause were deleted—for rebroadcast later that night, because Eshkol’s staff realized the magnitude of the Prime Minister’s blunder.

The edited speech in Hebrew can be heard here:

Where the original audio is today is anyone’s guess.

Ehud Shapira, a businessman who was 11 years old at the time, remembers the tension Eshkol’s hesitancy caused. Shapira’s father had been called up to reserve duty and was away. Shapira, his siblings and their mother listened together to Eshkol’s radio address. She pronounced in Yiddish, “Oy a brokh!”—What a disaster!

With Eshkol’s performance, “she thought it was impossible to rely on him,” he said. “The Six-Day War was a big victory, but it was not taken as a given” at that point, he added.

Afterward, like a game of Telephone, Israelis’ anxiety levels multiplied. People commiserated about their fears, magnifying the collective dread. Rumors spread of a coup. Shapira recalled that a Hebrew term coined at the time evoked both the military and the deteriorating mood of the street: “Maj. Rumor” (Rav-seren Shmuati), which typically refers to the unclear or dubious source of whatever widespread rumor is circulating in Israel at any given moment. These days, he quipped, social media’s power would bump that up to Lt. Gen. Rumor.

Arnon Lammfromm, who worked for the Israel State Archives for many years and authored a 2014 biography of Eshkol, holds Yaffe responsible for not ensuring that his boss rehearsed, or at least reviewed, the speech. Eshkol also bears responsibility, he added, for not ensuring that Yaffe did just that.

The fallout was swift, and shocking. Opposition leader Menachem Begin approached former premier David Ben-Gurion to urge that his Rafi party join Eshkol’s ruling coalition during the wartime crisis, something Begin and his Gahal party did. Moshe Dayan, a Knesset member from Rafi and a former IDF chief of staff, replaced Eshkol as Defense Minister. (Dayan wouldn’t be sworn in until after the war.)

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Prime Minister Levi Eshkol (center, middle row) sitting between Defense Minister Moshe Dayan (left) and IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Yitzhak Rabin (right). Other members of the general staff are also pictured, including Maj. Gen. Ariel Sharon, Maj. Gen. Chaim Herzog, Maj. Gen. Ezer Weizmann and Maj. Gen Shlomo Goren, among others. Photo by Avraham Vered, the Dan Hadani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

Eshkol’s stuttering address didn’t politically doom the Prime Minister, who remained in office until his death in early 1969, having served nearly six years. Nor did it harm his legacy in the long term. Lammfromm considers Eshkol one of Israel’s most important leaders for his range of accomplishments, including, as Prime Minister, signing a defense pact with U.S. President Lyndon Johnson that became the basis for Israel’s ongoing alliance with Washington.

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Prime Minister Levi Eshkol (center) reads the newspaper as Defense Minister Moshe Dayan eats an apple and IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Yitzhak Rabin relaxes. The three were on their way to visit the troops shortly before the war broke out in June, 1967. Photo by Avraham Vered, the Dan Hadani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

Lammfromm pointed to Eshkol’s wide-ranging impact on Israel. As Treasury Minister, and as treasurer and settlement director of the quasi-governmental Jewish Agency for Israel before that, Eshkol handled the deficit arising from the War of Independence, helped the country fund the absorption of more than 650,000 immigrants (doubling Israel’s population), transferred the Absorption Ministry from the Jewish Agency to the government, expanded the economy from agriculture-based to industry-based and added approximately 300 settlements. Eshkol also launched the Mekorot water utility.

As time will do, Eshkol became forgotten in subsequent decades. But historians and older Israelis later came to appreciate Eshkol, Lammfromm said.

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Prime Minister Levi Eshkol (center) reviewing the Independence Day IDF parade in May, 1967. On the left are President Zalman Sazar and IDF chief Yitzhak Rabin. Photo by IPPA, the Dan Hadani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

“In 1967 was the last time that Israel went to war and won a clear victory. People long for victory and for his personal leadership,” he said. Eshkol wasn’t charismatic, but “his strength wasn’t there,” Lammfromm added. “It was managing people, getting into the weeds in many things. He was multidisciplinary.”

That said, was it fair that Eshkol is so well-known for his inopportune mistake in 1967?

“No, because he was a good prime minister and defense minister,” Lammfromm said. “But that’s life.”

Writer-editor Hillel Kuttler can be reached at [email protected].