When the first Kenyan Jews settled in Nairobi in 1903, it didn’t take long before they became a proper community, but they remained a small community of just a few dozen people for several decades.
All that changed when the Nazis took power in Germany and an exodus of German Jews found themselves seeking refuge in places they never would have expected.
Granted, the influx of Jews to Kenya was small, but that didn’t stop them from having to go through the British Colonial Office that was in charge of immigration to Kenya. In order to gain immigration status in Kenya, one had to be registered as a farm manager- something that was hard to come by for the Jewish immigrants and which limited their ability to settle. The local Jewish community worked hard to encourage Jewish immigration, but found much resistance from white European settlers and from the Indian community in East Africa that had backing from the British Colonial Office. Obviously, the opinion of the indigenous black population was not considered.
While the Jews of Nairobi were working hard on the local immigration initiative, British Jewry in England started their own widespread settlement campaign for thousands of Jews to relocate from Europe to the Kenyan Farmlands. They would settle in the White Highlands, which had already been designated for colonial farms.
In August 1938 the British initiative was registered as a private company limited by shares under the title Plough Settlements Association LTD that had an initial capital of 25,000 pounds. One of the partners for the British company was the JCA – Jewish Colonization Association – or as it is commonly known by its Hebrew initials: יק”א.
The initiative was presented as a colonial and financial enterprise and the hidden idea of rescuing Jews from the European continent was kept under wraps. The immigration activists met with established farmers in Kenya, the British Colonial Office officials, and other officiants in order to study and ready the ground, and gain traction and support for the immigration initiative.
The Jewish immigrants were not able to purchase farms upon their arrival, nor could they find ways to work on the farmlands where they could train as farm hands in order to eventually become farm managers. Many of the requests, and their rejections, were kept in the initiative’s archives.
This article is based on the Jewish Colonization Association archive kept in the Central Archive of the Jewish People.
Photographs courtesy of David Lichtenstein, Sydney, son of Henry (Heinz) Lichtenstein, a farmer in Kipkarren, Usain Gishu province, Kenya.
The Red that Created a Revolution
In 1868, a German laboratory synthesized a color that changed the course of the Industrial Revolution.
Friedrich Bayer & Co. Dye Label. 1865. From the Edelstein Collection in the National Library of Israel
The year 2018 marks the 150th anniversary of the first synthesis in a laboratory of a complex, naturally occurring organic chemical product. This was the important red dye known as alizarin, obtained from the root of the madder plant. The madder red, second in importance only to indigo blue, had been used as a versatile dye for hundreds of years and is best known for its application in production of the famous Turkey red cloth. By clever application of the agents used to fix the dye to cloth, various shades and hues could be achieved from the same dye.
The chemical synthesis of alizarin was achieved in early 1868 by Carl Graebe and Carl Liebermann (a relative of the artist Max Liebermann), who were research assistants of the chemist Adolf Baeyer. The significance of this achievement lay in the tremendous industrial importance of the natural dye, which was often applied using high-speed printing machines that colored millions of yards of cloth. As an outcome of the synthesis, alizarin was manufactured on vast scales in Britain and Germany, which in a flash, almost wiped out much of the cultivation and trade in the natural dye. This success was the main stimulus for the emergence of the synthetic dye industry, which transformed coal tar waste into alizarin and a myriad of other colored textile dyes. The early dyes were based on the chemical known as aniline, which gave its name to the industry.
Theodore Herzl was so impressed that, in 1896, he was inspired to write a short story, ‘The Aniline Inn’, in which, just like the transformation, or processing, of waste tar into ‘beautiful radiant colors’, the oppressed Jewish peoples could turn their despair into highly colorful achievement. This ‘refuse of human society’ was then waiting to be processed and given purpose in the Jewish State.
The synthesis of alizarin stimulated scientific studies into the chemical constitutions and molecular structures of both natural products such as alizarin and indigo, and others without analogous colors in nature. In 1868, only a partial structure could be drawn for alizarin. Six years later, the modern structure of alizarin was published by Adolf Baeyer and the industrial chemist Heinrich Caro at BASF, a chemical company based in Ludwigshafen.
This advance drew on, and in many ways reinforced, the acceptance of Kekulé’s famous six membered benzene ring of 1865. It also led to scientific studies into all novel colorants, such that within a few years it was possible to create color by design. This was a high point of the second industrial revolution, based on chemical industry and electricity. Synthetic dyes represented the very first high-tech science-based industry.
By the close of the 19th century, Germany practically dominated the industry of making synthetic dyes. This success relied on the opening of dedicated research laboratories, and collaborations between industry and technical institutes. In 1897, two German firms, BASF and Hoechst, commenced the manufacture of synthetic indigo, which within a few years displaced the blue natural product imported into Europe from India.
This revolution in the production of textile dyes, which began with synthetic alizarin, and its implications for global industries and economies, as well as for progress in science and technology, is recorded in the magnificent collection of books, pamphlets, recipes and archival documents gathered together by Sidney M. Edelstein. Today these documents are held with the Sidney M. Edelstein Library for the History and Philosophy of Science, Technology and Medicine at the National Library of Israel.
Philip Roth: Life in the Shadow of Portnoy
After publishing “Portnoy’s Complaint,” Roth found himself fielding accusations of anti-Semitism from Jewish leaders across the globe - and even from his own mother.
“She was so deeply imbedded in my consciousness that for the first year of school I seem to have believed that each of my teachers was my mother in disguise.”
― Philip Roth, Portnoy’s Complaint
Philip Roth wrote several books before publishing his novel, “Portnoy’s Complaint,” which hit the book stores in 1969. The book became a fast best-seller and a source of controversy that haunted Roth throughout his career and life as a novelist.
A polarizing and confrontational book, “Portnoy’s Complaint” brought to the forefront the inner machinations of the mind of a character portraying the direct opposite of the idealized Jew in America. Roth wrote the novel voiced as a stream of consciousness that many considered obscene to the point of being worthy of censorship. Indeed, for many years, “Portnoy’s Complaint” was banned in many public libraries due to the use of unpolished language and an explicit description of masturbation.
The convention of framing the story as a psychoanalytical session, the sexually explicit nature of the book, along with the main character’s, Alexander Portnoy, neurosis seemed to feed the worst stereotypes held of Jews after the Second World War, a representation that caused an outcry in American and Israeli public discourse.
The great Jewish mysticism and Kabbalah researcher, Gershom Scholem, was so incensed by the book that he wrote a scathing and contemptuous review and sent it out across the world.
[Content Warning: The text below contains language that may be inappropriate for young audiences]
“Let the pollyannas not tell us that here we have satire, although it may that into the hearts of those who say this some doubts about the work may already have crept. The hero of a best-seller, which is being grabbed avidly by the public, proclaims as the basic motto of his whole life (and lives his proclamation) that his behavior is shaped by but one lust: to get ‘shikse c**t.’
…And all of this in order to square accounts with that demonic figure, the Yiddishe Mame, who had not been told all that she deserved until this author came along and ‘artistic’ release to his secret drives. This hero is no longer some miserable individual writing in his lust; he is the Jew taking vengeance of his upbringing in the Jewish home, which has become detestable to him, and going forth to lay shikses, thereby freeing himself from his nightmare of mame.
This is the book for which all anti-Semites have been praying. I daresay that with the next turn of history, which surely will not be long delayed, this book will make all of us defendants at court.”
Scholem was part of a vocal contingent of Jewish readers and critics who would continue to call Philip Roth “self-hating” and an “anti-Semite” for the ways in which he portrayed Jews in his fiction. Philip Roth actively engaged with the storm of criticism more than once and was very self-aware of his position as an American Jew and as an author of Jewish characters in America.
In “Reading Myself and Others,” Roth responded directly to the sort of criticism that Scholem pitched at him in the interview, “On Portnoy’s Complaint (1974),” where he was asked by George Plimpton about the accusations of anti-Semitism:
“… I have always been far more pleased by my good fortune in being born a Jew than my critics may begin to imagine. It’s a complicated, interesting, morally demanding, and very singular experience and I like that. I find myself in the historic predicament of being Jewish, with all its implications. Who could ask for more? But as for those charges you mention- yes they probably will be leveled at me. Because of the U.N. condemnation of Israeli ‘aggression,’ and the anti-Semitic rage flaring up in the black community, many American Jews must surely be feeling more alienated than they have in a lone time; consequently, I don’t think it’s a moment when I can expect a book as unrestrained as this one to indulged or even tolerated, especially in those quarters where I was not exactly hailed as the Messiah to begin with.”
Though it was “Portnoy’s Complaint” that skyrocketed Roth into literary stardom, his other books and stories like “Goodbye, Columbus,” only gave fodder to the rabbis who charged him with the aforementioned “self-hatred.” In his essay, “On Writing Jews,” published in 1963, Roth explained:
“Among the letters I receive from readers. There have been a number written by Jews accusing me of being anti-Semitic and “self-hating,” or at least tasteless…
Furthermore, it is charged that such criticism as I make of Jews- or apparent criticism- is taken by anti-Semites as justification of their attitudes, as ‘fuel’ for their fires, particularly as it is a Jew himself who seemingly admits to habits and behavior that not exemplary, or even normal and acceptable. When I speak before Jewish audiences, invariably there have been people who have come up to me afterward to ask, “Why don’t you leave us alone? Why don’t you write about the Gentiles? – ‘Why must you be so critical?’ – ‘Why do you disapprove of us so? …’
It is difficult, if not impossible, to explain to some of the people claiming to have felt my teeth sinking in that in many instance they haven’t been bitten at all. Not always, but frequently, what readers have taken to be my disapproval of their lives lived by Jews seems to have to do more with their own moral perspective than with the one they would ascribe to me: at times they see wickedness where I myself had seen energy or courage or spontaneity; they are ashamed of what I see no reason to be ashamed of, and defensive where there is no cause for defense.”
“My mother did say to me at one point, ‘Philip, are you anti-Semitic?’ And so I said, ‘Ma, what do you think? You’ve known me since kindergarten and before.’ But they were getting that from the Rabbi, you know?”
Philip Roth, through his fictional works, never stopped exploring his complicated existence as an American Jew in an America in which he happened to be Jewish. His characters beyond Alexander Portnoy, including Nathan Zukerman and his own fictional alter-ego, Philip Roth, made up a collection of unforgettable stories that influenced the literary world far beyond the scope of Jewish-American writing.
Philip Roth died on May 22, 2018 at the age of 85.
Rare and Illustrated Islamic Manuscripts
Come view select items from the National Library of Israel’s Islamic manuscript collection.
Layla and Majnūn, by the master Persian mystical poet, Nizāmī Ganjavī (d. 1209). The epic poem relates the tragic story of a young poet driven crazy (Ar., majnūn) by his forbidden love for Layla. Iranian ms from 1602.
In honor of Ramadan, the Library is holding an exhibition of rare and beautiful Islamic manuscripts, dating from the 10th through the 18th centuries.
Among the unique items exhibited is a miniature Qur’an from the 10th century; mystical poetry written in Jerusalem in 1362; a royal manuscript from the library of the Ottoman Sultan, commissioned by Hatice Sultan (1766-1821); a liturgical poem called “The Great Armor”, which is traditionally recited by Shi’ite Muslims during Ramadan; magnificently illustrated Persian poetry from the 17th century and much more.
Founded in 1924, the NLI’s Arabic and Islamic collection is the largest collection in Israel and one of the most important research collections in the Middle East.