A Plea for Assistance in Buying Poor Man’s Bread from 1908

Chayem Benzion Kassier wrote letter after letter pleading for financial help so he could properly celebrate the holiday of Passover and feed his starving family and other needy members of the community.

making matzah

Baking matzah, Bill Gross Collection at the National Library of Israel

There is an old Jewish tradition of giving money or food to the poor in the weeks ahead of Passover to ensure that they can cover the costs that come along with the holiday. The tradition of Kimcha D’Pischa, Aramaic for “flour for Passover,” dates as far back as the time of the Jerusalem Talmud when the community would establish a fund for locals to donate money or food that would be distributed to families in need of financial support.

Passover celebrates the exodus of the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt. The holiday is also referred to as Hag HaHeirut, or in English, the “Festival of Freedom.” The custom of giving money to the poor before Passover stems from the hope that, with the generosity of the community, every Jew can successfully celebrate their freedom without feeling enslaved to the high costs of preparing for the holiday.

In fact, included in the Passover Haggada, the book that is read at the traditional meal called the Seder, there is a paragraph that invites all those who are poor to come into the homes of the readers and join them for the meal. “All who are hungry, come and eat; all who are needy come and celebrate Passover.” Kimcha D’Pischa, the giving of money before the holiday, ensures the words are not said in vain or without meaning and that steps have been taken to ensure those who potentially do need a meal have been accounted for and are also celebrating.

Kimcha dpischa
Letter sent by Rabbi Chayem Benzion Kassier, from the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People.

According to several letters found in the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People and the National Library of Israel, Kimcha D’Pischa was a matter of life and death for one man living in the Land of Israel in the early 20th century.

Rabbi Chayem Benzion Kassier lived in Tiberias, a city located on the shores of the Sea of Galilee and, while not much is known about the man himself, Kassier’s letters tell a tale of a very poor man, desperate to raise money to feed his starving family and other poor members of his community.

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It appears that, in 1908, Kassier sat and hand wrote letter after letter in beautiful Hebrew script from his post near the grave of the Jewish sage, Rabbi Meir Ba’al HaNes, to various wealthy Jewish families living in Europe, pleading with them to send money to help relieve his family and community from destitution. In a letter written during the Jewish month of Adar, just one month ahead of the Passover holiday, Kassier wrote, “We are suffering from a hunger that cannot be described. I have no one to turn to for help in this time of tremendous trouble.”

“I am desperate now more than ever,” he wrote in another letter. “Passover is coming and the need of the nation of Israel is great. I have no clothing and no bread. People ask me to give them bread but I have nothing to give to help save them from their desperation.”

Kimcha Dpischa
Letter sent by Rabbi Chayem Benzion Kassier, reproduction from the National Library of Israel.

“This is why I dare to write to send you this request to have mercy on us in this desperate time and to extend your hand in charity so I can help save the people from the shame of hunger and continue my work in the name of God.”

He asked for his reader to consider the costs that go into properly celebrating the holiday of Passover and to help him buy Matzah, the poor man’s bread before the upcoming Festival of Freedom. “I am hoping you will have mercy in your heart to help resurrect my soul,” wrote Kassier. “With the help of flour, Kimcha D’Pischa for Matzah, the poor man’s bread to help bring back my miserable soul.”

His heartbreaking cries for help filled entire pages of the beautiful stationery he used that featured a small picture of the gravesite of Rabbi Meir Ba’al HaNes and a biblical verse encouraging people to give charity to the poor.

kimcha depischa
Letter signed by Rabbi Chayem Benzion Kassier, reproduction from the National Library of Israel.

In return for their generosity and assistance to his family and the wider Jewish community in the Land of Israel, Haim Ben Zion Kassier promised to pray for the souls of his benefactors at the gravesite from which he wrote his letters. “There are those who buy their place in the next world in just an hour by giving charity as they can. More specifically because the act of Pikuach Nefashot, the act saving of lives is a great Mitzvah (commandment.)”

Additional research found another two letters written in the same year by the same man that have been digitized and made accessible online by the National Library of Denmark. The letter is easily identifiable as one written by Kassier as he signed each letter in the same format in English and marked each letter with his personal stamp. Donations were to be very simply addressed to, “Rabbi Chayem Benzion Kassier in Tiberias (Palestina).” While we do not know if his desperate pleas bore fruit and whether or not he received money as a result of his efforts, it seems hard to believe that his heartbreaking words would go unanswered.

Special thanks to Yochai Ben-Ghedalia of the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People for his help in writing this article.

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.


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Between Two Worlds: Feminist Yiddish Poetry in America

The fascinating life and works of one of the greatest female poets of the Yiddish literary world

Malka Heifetz Tussman

Yiddish poet Malka Heifetz Tussman seemed to have known a thing or two about lust – a subject she describes in her writings as being a part of God’s very nature. Malka also seems to have known a thing or two about the lives of those who were given an extra drop of that Godly passion.

In the beginning,
there was lust.

Out of lust, God
emerged in flames.

is God’s nature.

Everything God creates
is in God’s nature.

Whoever gets more
of God’s nature –

a teardrop more –
becomes an artist, a poet.

One more drop –
a murderer.

(In the Beginning)

Malka Heifetz Tussman was born in Wolyn in Ukraine in the late 19th century, though her exact year of birth is unknown. She was the second of eight children born to a Hassidic family of landowners and she spent her childhood on the farm run by her grandfather. Malka was a lively, rebellious girl with an affinity for nature who felt foreign in the world she grew up in.

At the age of eight, on her own initiative, Malka joined the nearby general Russian school, becoming the first Jewish child to attend it. It was at that tender age that she began to write poetry in her native Russian using the familiar letters of the Hebrew language. Several years later, due to the pogroms which targeted the region’s Jews, her family decided to emigrate to the United States. Her brother was the first to make the move, and, at the age of 16, Malka followed him across the Atlantic Ocean to start a new life.

Upon reaching America, Malka settled in Chicago and like many other young Jewish immigrants, she began to work as a seamstress and laborer. Though the family had been wealthy in Ukraine, they suffered from poverty during their early years in America.

Despite the material struggle and the hard work, Malka was fascinated by the new world and tried to adapt as fast as possible. She quickly learned English – both the spoken word and the language of English poetry.

“Edgar Allan Poe. I love the rhythm of his poems,” wrote Malka. “I walk on the sidewalk to the pace of his poems. I chew my breakfast to the pace of his poems. English begins to sing in my bones.”

Malka even began to write in English, but, within a short period of time, she went back to writing in Yiddish.

Yiddish poetry at the time was alive and vibrant. The authors hovered between two worlds – their native countries in Eastern Europe, and America, their new home. They also teetered between Torah observance and secularism, and between different social values – with feminism playing a major role in their work. The female poets of that generation were the first ones with the opportunity to build their lives beyond the traditional female roles. In addition to Heifetz Tussman, this wonderful group included leading artistic figures such as Celia Dropkin, Anna Margolin, Kadia Molodowsky (who would also eventually make it to the United States) and many others.

Despite the obvious quality of their writing, the female Yiddish poets often encountered derision regarding their works. Their writing was placed in a different category that set them aside as female poets – as writers of poetry which was intrinsically restricted and even slightly inferior.

Malka Heifetz Tussman, image from the "In geveb" website
Malka Heifetz Tussman, image from the “In geveb” website

Perhaps on purpose, Heifetz Tussman chose poetry structures that were considered inherently “male” and wrote poems on the “big” topics of the day which were also considered the domain of male poets. However, she also wrote extensively about women and about her own inner femininity. Her aspiration for freedom and expansion as a woman shines through in her writing, but its practical implementation was more complex, both in her private life and in how she defined herself as an artist.

Malka was 18 when she married Shlomo Tussman. The couple had two children. Tussman’s profession – a cantor – led the couple to frequently move from one community to another. Before they married, ever the free spirit, Malka set two conditions: firstly, that she would not be required to take part in Tussman’s religious and communal activities, and secondly – that she would have her own room wherever they lived.

Malka with Shlomo Tussman, photo: Ben Tzadok. the "In geveb" website
Malka with Shlomo Tussman, photo: Ben Tzadok, the “In geveb” website

Malka never stopped writing, but many years passed before she published her first book. She objected to the definition “female poet,” and unlike others Heifetz Tussman refused to allow her poems to be included in a 1928 anthology dedicated to female poetry. She saw the distinction between female poetry and “regular” poetry as illegitimate.

Malka was very open to the different trends, ideas, and styles of her period. She constantly aspired to learn, to expand and to choose; to place herself within the boundaries – and to break them. In her writing, she moves, experientially, between poems with an inflexible structure such as the sonnet and the triolet, and free-form writing, though even poems lacking any defined structure have somewhat structured content with most of Heifetz Tussman’s poems moving in a certain direction, toward release. She herself writes: “I am confined/within the form/I am short of breath/in my poems”.

In her early days in America, Heifetz Tussman had a definitively secular outlook. Later on, following the events of the Second World War, the Jewish world made more frequent appearances in her work. The main reason for her detachment was always her aversion to the institutionalism of the traditional world she grew up in, and not to the individual religious experience. Many of her poems are addressed to God, with longing:

With one sound of your many names,

You pierced yourself in me —

 and now you feed

 on my heart’s blood.

Malka Heifetz Tussman’s inner world is expressed in her poems. No clear distinction is made between globally significant events and those of her personal life. Heifetz Tussman left nothing out– she wrote of protest, her own spiritual search, and ordinary day-to-day events.

Her poems also lack any distinction between rational thought, emotions, and ethics. Perhaps such distinctions would contradict the very nature of Heifetz Tussman’s work, the power of which stems from her complete devotion to everything she writes about.

In a poem dedicated to Marcia Falk, Malka’s student and one of the translators of her poems into English, she wrote:

“Do not shy away from writing

about the small things

Large things give themselves over

in units to the small things.

The small things

spur on large things.”

Malka lived everything with the same passion and internalized it all, expressing it through her poetry. Above all, her poetry reveals her wonder for life itself: “Oy, what you can do with life in the hand”, She wrote in one of her poems.

Malka Heifetz Tussman’s deep wonder for life itself was expressed in her many poems about nature. Nature comes alive in her poems and is depicted as a conduit to enable a person to draw close to the riches of life. However, in her poetry, closeness to nature also accentuates the gap between humanity and nature. Nature has a certain wholeness and understanding and the questions people may ask are already clear and understood by nature.

Often I stroll in a nearby park;

old trees wildly overgrown,

bushes and flowers blooming all four seasons,

a creek babbling childishly over pebbles,

a small bridge with rough-hewn railings-

this is my little park…

Leaning on the railing

looking at myself in clear water,

I ask;

Little creek, will you tumble and flow here


The stream babbles back, laughing:

Today is forever.

Forever is right now.
(Excerpts from “Today is Forever”)

Life itself, with all its wholeness and bounty, also always contains pain – pain when it ends, pain when it’s flowing bounty halts. During the Second World War, in 1944, Malka Heifetz Tussman hoped to re-awaken the wonderment of her son who returned from the war. She described a green leaf, a red flower, a toy, and the smell of a homecooked meal. Further on in the poem, she shows him the wider world – towers, trains, bridges, and also talks to him about faith.

Over the years Malka Heifetz Tussman became a respected teacher and even worked in translation. She translated Yates and Auden, Christina Rossetti and Rabindranath Tagore into Yiddish, but from her own words it is clear that her initial admiration was reserved for Walt Whitman through whom, to a certain degree, she discovered America and experienced a new horizon of poetry.

Abraham Sutzkever, the famed Yiddish poet, said that the older Malka Heifetz Tussman got, the younger her poetry became.  “Everything she touched turned into poetry” he added.

Malka kept in touch with the Yiddish poets of the younger generation, teaching and guiding them. As one of her students, Kathryn Hellerstein explained, Malka Heifetz Tussman became a bridge between the generations – between those who emigrated from Eastern Europe and the young Jewish poets who took it upon themselves to make Yiddish poetry more widespread among readers with scant knowledge of Yiddish.

Heifetz Tussman moved to Israel following her husband’s death but returned to America a year later at her children’s request. She died on March 30th, 1987 in Berkley, California after publishing six books during her lifetime (the first was published when she was already over fifty). Malka had been working on her seventh book when she passed away. It was eventually published after her death.

English translations of the poems are taken from “With Teeth in the Earth: Selected Poems by Malka Heifetz Tussman,” translated, edited, and introduced by Marcia Falk (Browser Books Publishing, 1992).

This article originally appeared in Hebrew in the “HaMusach” online literary journal hosted on the National Library website.


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Meet the Oldest Printed Book in the National Library!

Printed in Rome, this book was once part of an Italian prince's library. Years later it made its way to Argentina, and eventually to Israel. The tome is now over 550 years old...


The oldest printed book in the National Library collections, from 1469

The National Library of Israel collections include thousands of rare books from a plethora of countries, most of which were printed hundreds of years ago. About 300 of them were published during the Incunabulum period, the term used to denote the first 50 years of printing history, between 1450-1500. Printing was introduced to Europe around 1450 by Johannes Gutenberg in Mainz, Germany. One of the first books Gutenberg and his publishers printed was the Biblia Gutenberga, which contained both the Old and New Testaments in Latin. The book was well received thanks to the high quality print of the sacred text and the relatively large number of copies produced. Around 50 copies have survived to this day and they are considered extremely rare and valuable. A single page from one of the copies printed between 1450-1455 is preserved in the National Library of Israel.

Printing technology spread rapidly. First in Germany – by the year 1500 there were already some 300 printing presses up and running in different locations across the country. Other European nations soon followed suit: Printing began in Italy in 1464, a year later the Netherlands followed, while France received the new technology in 1469. In 1473, books began to be printed in Spain, and then in England in 1476. Often, the printing pioneers in these countries were German experts who had studied and operated presses in their homeland, and then immigrated to other parts of Europe to establish new printing houses.

The rapid expansion of printing houses across the known world led to the First Knowledge Revolution. Christian religious books were the most commonly printed literature in the early days of the printing press, but philosophical works and even popular literature found their way onto the presses as well.

European Jews also recognized the advantages of printing. By the 1470s production of Hebrew books in Italy and Spain had begun. In most cases, the editions were relatively limited in quantity. The first books, released in batches of only 200 to 300 copies, were quite expensive.

Among the incunabula preserved in the National Library of Israel is a copy containing several ancient philosophical texts, all originally composed in the second century CE. It contains essays by Lucius Apuleius Madaurensis, “Hermes Trismegistus” (there was no such author in truth, this was a later given name for an author or multiple authors active in the 2nd-century), and Albinus Platonicus.  Printed in the city of Rome by Konrad Sweynheim and Arnold Pannartz (a German pair who had immigrated to Italy) in 1469, this marked the first time that the philosophical texts were printed.

The printing of this book, as according to the colophon (the author or printer note that usually appears at the end of a book), was completed on February 28th, 1469. This precise, recorded date helped us to determine that this is the oldest printed book in the National Library of Israel’s collection.

Lucii Apuleii Platonici Madaure[n]sis philosophi Metamorphoseos liber



As was customary during this period, typesetters left room for the first initials of passages or chapters to be added in later. Book purchasers could then take the book to a professional illustrator to add colored letters, which often transformed the books into fascinating works of art. However, in our copy, these places remained empty. On the other hand, there were at least two owners of the book through the centuries who filled the tome with many handwritten footnotes.



We can reconstruct some of the history of the book via the various seals and the ex-libris. For a certain period at the end of the 18th century, it was part of the library of Prince Marco Borghese of Italy. At the beginning of the 20th-century, it was owned by the collector Marcel Schlimovcz. For a period of time, it was kept in the Jewish community library in Argentina. The book was then donated to the National Library around 40 years ago.





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All that Remains of “The Great Unknown”

When culture critic Carl Ehrenstein reviewed the 1927 film, "The Great Unknown," he could not have known the fate that would befall the actors at the hands of the Nazis.

the great unknown

Cover of the invitation to the premiere of "Der Große Unbekannte" - "The Great Unknown", 1927, the National Library of Israel collections

Beginning in the last years of the 19th century, a new medium conquered the entertainment industry: cinema. During the first three decades of the development of cinema, viewers had to tolerate watching moving pictures that played with musical accompaniment. From the end of the 1920s, the number of films featuring synchronized sound (“talkies”) began to grow steadily, and within just a few years, silent films disappeared entirely.

Disappearing with them were also many actors who did not adjust to the new demands of the medium, including the soundtrack. In effect, film was a technological upgrade of theater: on theater stages, actors would appear every evening before a new audience, as they do today, while films preserve a one-time production of the plot. The film reels could be reproduced countless times, so copies of the film could be screened in the various cinemas in many cities across the globe – and in every screening, the audience would see the same version of the work (with the exception of differences that arose from the conditions of screening or from technical defects in the particular copy of the film).

Many cinemas also sprung up in Germany. Already in the days of Imperial Germany, these institutions drew an audience that was enthusiastic for even more films to be produced. The rate of film production was greatly accelerated during the years of the Weimar Republic – despite the tremendous economic problems that hindered the growth of the branch in the early 1920s. The production companies also operated movie theater chains such as UFA and EMELKA. In 1927, there were already some 4,300 cinemas in Germany, and the largest among them could house over 1,000 viewers. Premiere screenings of the new films took place in prominent movie theaters in the large cities, in order to ensure a large audience and immediate positive public response with the film’s release. Film critics and journalists were invited to these screenings, in the hope that they would write positive reviews in the newspapers, which in turn would be likely to draw more viewers to subsequent screenings.

One of the cultural critics active in Berlin was Carl Ehrenstein (1892-1971), a Viennese Jew, and brother of the well-known expressionist writer Albert Ehrenstein.

Albert Ehrenstein, Karl's brother
Albert Ehrenstein, Carl’s brother

Carl, who also attempted to create literary works in the expressionist style (but without much success), wrote reviews of various cultural events that took place in the German capital in the mid-1920s, often for the communist newspaper, Die Welt am Abend (“The World in the Evening”). Ehrenstein saved the invitations, entrance tickets and drafts of his articles about the events, as well as the final texts that were ultimately published in the newspaper. In this manner, his personal archive presents an impressive picture of the cultural life of Berlin in the “Golden Twenties.”

Cover of the invitation to the premier of Der große Unbekannte, 1927, National Library of Israel Collections
Cover of the invitation to the premiere of “Der Große Unbekannte” – “The Great Uknown”, 1927, the National Library of Israel collections

One of the events reviewed by Carl Ehrenstein was the first screening of the silent film “The Great Unknown,” held on October 13, 1927, at the Emelka Palace Theater on Berlin’s grand entertainment boulevard Kurfürstendamm. This movie was the first rendering of one of the spy novels written by British author Edgar Wallace (1875-1932): The Sinister Man. Wallace’s spy novels were very popular in Germany and appeared on the bestseller lists even decades after their publication. However, because this particular book was translated into German only a year after the premiere screening of the film, the plot was still unknown to most of the viewing audience.

The text of Ehrenstein's review of the film
The text of Ehrenstein’s review of the film

The film was produced and directed by Manfred Noa, a German director, who apparently came from a Jewish background, and who directed approximately 30 films during the 1920s. The most outstanding of these was a cinematic version (the only to this day) of the play “Nathan the Wise” (1922) by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing. “The Great Unknown”, however, whose spectators included Carl Ehrenstein, belongs to another genre and appealed to a wider audience.


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The plot tells the story of a drug dealer, the power struggles of criminal gangs, and big money. The assortment of actors appearing in the film is a good representation of the cosmopolitan atmosphere of Berlin in the 1920s. It included actors from England, France, Austria, Germany, and even Asia. As occurred often, six years after the production, with the Nazi rise to power, the paths of the actors who appeared together in the film diverged. For example, Jack Trevor, the British actor who played the film’s leading role, moved to Germany and stayed there even through the Nazi period, during which he was forced to broadcast news on the radio throughout World War II. His Jewish colleague, Kurt Gerron, who was a very well-known actor in Germany, attempted to flee the Nazis but was apprehended and became an inmate at Terezín (Theresienstadt) where the Nazis forced the actor, who was also a director, to direct a propaganda film on the Theresienstadt Ghetto, the “City of Jews.” Ultimately, Kurt Gerron was murdered in Auschwitz a few months after the film was produced.

The invitation to the premiere, including the names of the actors and their parts
The invitation to the premiere, including the names of the actors and their respective roles

It is clear that when Carl Ehrenstein wrote his review of “The Great Unknown,” all that was yet to happen to those involved in it, and to the film itself, was unknown to him. In Ehrenstein’s opinion, the plot of the film was boring and represented bourgeois values (it should be remembered that he was writing for a communist newspaper). In contrast, he did not conceal his opinion that the directing and acting were good. As far as we know, every existing copy of the film disappeared. All that remains from “The Great Unknown” is the announcements advertising it, as well as the rare invitation to the opening screening presented here, which Carl Ehrenstein preserved among his documents.