This Remarkable Woman Made the First Israeli Flag in Jerusalem

Rebecca Affachiner trailblazed across multiple continents, and she did it all as a single, religious Jewish woman...

“I have waited my entire lifetime to see the rebirth of a Jewish state. I do not intend to miss it." Photo from the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People at the National Library of Israel

Passionate, adventurous, attractive, well-educated, a cosmopolitan world traveler and a gifted organizer, Rebecca Affachiner led an unusual life in the early 20th century, as a single religiously observant Jewish woman who held many professional firsts, as a woman without children who was deeply involved in the life of children of all ages, and as a woman who traveled globally without a chaperone or companion.

Rebecca was born in Nesvizh (in present-day Belarus) in 1884 to the Sephardic Affachiner family who had lived there since the early 19th century.

Children stand outside the Great Synagogue in Nesvizh, early 20th century. From the Center for Jewish Art at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, part of the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

Her father Yitzchak worked as a tailor until he immigrated to New York City in 1888. There he opened a tailoring store, which remained closed on Shabbat for all of his working life – almost unheard of at that time. After coming to New York in 1890, Rebecca and her siblings went to public school in 1890, where Rebecca developed a passion for reading. Rebecca bought a 2-volume collection of Emma Lazarus’s poetry, who became her heroine, and took it everywhere including to Jerusalem. She became skilled in writing and oral presentations, participated in debate from a young age.

Rebecca Affachiner as a young child with her family. From the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People at the National Library of Israel. Click image to enlarge

Unusual for her time, she decided to train as a professional social worker and then enrolled in the new Teachers Evening Course at the Jewish Theological Seminary in December 1904.

While at JTS, she became quite friendly with Solomon and Mathilde Shechter, as well as with Henrietta Szold who was also a student there at the time, but it was Rebecca who became the first woman to graduate from JTS in 1907.

Solomon Schechter. From the Abraham Schwadron Portrait Collection at the National Library of Israel

In 1908, although not a rabbi, she became the Jewish chaplain at the Home for Delinquent Girls in Hudson, New York, and would undertake many initiatives to provide positive role models and support for underprivileged Jewish girls in New York, as well as combat efforts to proselytize.

Following Mathilde Schechter’s recommendation, Rebecca became superintendent of the Columbia Religious & Industrial School for Girls, where she worked for a number of years. Photo from the May 7, 1909 edition of The Hebrew Standard / National Library of Israel Digital Collection

After coming to a February 22, 1912 meeting organized by Henrietta Szold to create a formal Women’s Zionist organization, Rebecca became involved with the Federation of American Zionists, and, being more educated than most of her female contemporaries, Rebecca quickly became central to the group.

During World War I, Affachiner travelled to France as part of National Jewish Welfare Board efforts to provide support to Jewish soldiers. From the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People at the National Library of Israel. Click image to enlarge

A few years later she became involved in a major American Zionist campaign to get President Harding to accept the Balfour Declaration. In 1921, when Chaim Weizman and Albert Einstein toured America on a well-known mission to encourage support of Zionism, she organized an event with them and raised $25,000 from her local community in Hartford, Connecticut, a princely sum at that time.

Albert Einstein and Chaim Weizmann, April 1921 (Bain News Service / Public domain via the Library of Congress)

The previous year, she had become superintendent Hartford’s United Jewish Charities, the first woman to hold such a senior role in any Jewish organization in America. She founded Jewish Big Brother and Big Sister chapters in the city and led countless other efforts to help those in need, including helping to organize a city-wide boycott of streetcar transport when the fare was raised to 10 cents a ride. The strike succeeded and the fare returned to 3 cents!

It is worth remembering that women were only given the right to vote in the United States in August of 1920.  Rebecca’s accomplishments came in an era when women’s rights were still severely restricted in many areas of their lives, including property ownership.

Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, Rebecca traveled the world, partially for leisure and partially to help better understand where Jews could find safe haven.

After the United States severely restricted immigration in 1924, Rebecca and others saw both Mexico and Cuba as potential refuges. She even wrote a report on the Jewish situation in Cuba for Louis Marshall, the renowned jurist who headed the American Jewish Committee at the time.

Later, traveling through Italy on holiday, she had an audience with the Pope arranged through Catholic friends of hers and was even afforded the privilege of viewing rare Hebrew manuscripts in the Vatican Library. Rebecca arrived in Jerusalem two days before Tisha B’Av that year. In Jerusalem, she toured the newly founded Hebrew University on Mt. Scopus, as well as other sites, meeting with leading figures including Dr. Judah Magnes, the university’s first chancellor.

Rebecca Affachiner in Hartford, Connecticut where she was a leader in the Jewish community for a number of years. From the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People at the National Library of Israel. Click image to enlarge

Upon her return to the United States, she lectured on Palestine and was soon hired by Hadassah to organize new chapters. In the late 1920s, Rebecca saw the Zionist movement as a major opportunity for Jews to create the new Jewish homeland after centuries in the Diaspora. She also recognized the need to create a dependable healthcare system with Hadassah Hospital as its touchstone.

In 1929, she beat four male candidates and was elected a delegate to World Zionist Congress in Zurich. Though she lacked the funds to actually attend, Rebecca continued to be very involved in Zionist activities. The same year, she became director of social services for the long-established Jewish community of Norfolk, Virginia, and would go on to found one of America’s first Jewish Community Centers there. The move also made her one of few Jewish professionals to have a major impact on communities in both the North and the South.

Just before moving to the Land of Israel from Norfolk in January 1934, Rebecca was interviewed on an American radio show broadcast on Christmas Day. Speaking of her wish to be a pioneer in the Land of Israel, Rebecca stated:

“There is no reason why three racial groups of different traditions and cultures cannot live harmoniously as a unit under one government”.

Rebecca quickly became involved in life in Jerusalem, working with Dr. Henry Keller to help to establish the Alyn Hospital for Handicapped Children, and serving as its director of social services.

As the Holocaust approached, she traveled to Romania and other places in Eastern Europe, working to encourage immigration to the Land of Israel, while back in Jerusalem she organized activities and initiatives to help get underprivileged children off the streets, much as she had done back in the United States.

This notice appeared in the September 18, 1939 edition of The Palestine Post. From the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

Although connected to Recha Frier and Henrietta Szold of the official Youth Aliya movement, Rebecca felt the movement involved too slow a process and too much paperwork. In 1939, she herself organized and paid the expenses to bring a group of 20 Romanian youth to Israel on one of the last boats fleeing Europe before the war.

During the Holocaust she assisted Szold absorb refugees, including the “Children of Tehran”, and after the war she became increasingly involved with the International Red Cross, as she developed an important import business as a means of supporting herself.

Despite warnings from the American government to flee for safety, Rebecca and others like her stayed during Israel’s 1948 War of Independence.

“I cannot abandon my sisters and brothers,” she reportedly told a local newspaper at the time.

“I have waited my entire lifetime to see the rebirth of a Jewish state. I do not intend to miss it.”

Upon hearing that David Ben-Gurion had declared the State of Israel on May 14, 1948, Rebecca sewed and flew the first flag in Jerusalem on that day – having colored the blue stripes and Star of David on a sheet with a blue crayon!

Historian David Geffen coined Rebecca “The Israeli Betsy Ross” in his essay on American Jews in Israel, which was published in the New Encyclopedia of Zionism and Israel.

For the last years of her life, she would fly the flag every Israeli Independence Day.

As Rebecca became increasingly unwell in 1966, her good friend and caregiver Ezra P. Gorodesky slept on a chair in her living room for one month before she moved to a nursing home, where she passed away.

Prior to her death, she entrusted the flag to Ezra, making him promise to take good care of it because “it was my personal way of welcoming Israel into existence.”

After she passed away, Ezra P. Gorodesky donated the personal papers of Rebecca Affachiner to the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People, now part of the National Library of Israel.  There is also a Rebecca Affachiner Collection as part of the National Library’s Archives Department.

In 2018, Ezra donated the flag Rebecca made in 1948 to the Ben-Gurion Archives at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. Ezra P. Gorodesky passed away in 2020.

This article has been published as part of Gesher L’Europa, the National Library of Israel’s initiative to connect with people, institutions and communities across Europe and beyond, through storytelling, knowledge sharing and community engagement.

The Abraham Schwadron Portrait Collection has been reviewed and described thanks to the generous support of The Leir Foundation.

The Circassians in Israel: From the Caucasus Mountains to the Galilee

A look at the heritage, ethos and culture of the Circassians or “Adyghe” - one of the most interesting and unique minority communities in Israel. Expelled from their homeland in the Caucasus Mountains in the 19th century, they settled in three villages in the Land of Israel, two of which survive to this day…


Israeli Circassian men wearing the traditional dress of the Caucasus warrior. The Circassian flag in the photo features three arrows surrounded by twelve stars

Every child raised in the Israeli school system is educated and brought up on the Israeli ethos, including its days of remembrance: Holocaust Remembrance Day, Memorial Day for Israel’s Fallen Soldiers, Yitzhak Rabin Memorial Daym, as well as other official days of remembrance and commemorative events. However, two high schools in Israel, Kadouri and Sasa, both in the northern Galilee region, mark yet another date:  the Circassian Day of Mourning, which commemorates the Circassian genocide and the exile of the Circassian people from their homeland. The reason these schools mark this day is that they serve the residents of the Circassian villages of Kfar Kama and Rehaniya, where the vast majority of the Circassian population in Israel lives. This is one of the most unique population groups in Israel, and despite its limited size, it occupies an important place in local and general history.


From the Caucasus Mountains to the North of the Holy Land: The Circassians as an Exiled People

The Circassians, or “Adyghe” as they call themselves in their language, are a people originating from the northwestern Caucasus, a region located east of the Black Sea, between Russia, Turkey and Iran. The Circassians lived in relative freedom in their homeland without establishing a “state”, and were generally divided into 12 separate tribes (although in practice there were apparently additional sub-groups as well). By the end of the 18th century, these people collectively saw themselves as “Adyghe” – Circassians. The Russian Empire attempted to conquer the region with the aim of annexing the Caucasus and settling other populations there. Circassian opposition to Russian colonization lasted for about a hundred years. These difficulties led the Russians to take extreme action, and in the final stages of the war (1860–1864), they burned hundreds of villages and engaged in ethnic cleansing, targeting the entire Circassian population. Most of the survivors were expelled from the Caucasus, and about a million of them found refuge in the territories of the Ottoman Empire, including the Land of Israel.

The Caucasus, homeland of the Circassians


Originally, there were three main Circassian settlements in the Land of Israel, of which two remain: Kfar Kama and Rehaniya; the third settlement, near the town of Hadera, was abandoned due to an outbreak of malaria. Throughout the 19th century, the region of the eastern Lower Galilee, where Kfar Kama was founded, was under the de facto control of Bedouin tribes. The Ottoman government tried to impose its rule over the region in various ways, settling Maghrebi migrants from Algiers there and sending Kurdish battalions to confront the Bedouin, but with little success. The arrival of the Circassians changed things and effectively paved the way for Jewish settlement in the area about twenty years later. The “Old Village” complex in Kfar Kama, founded in 1878, reflects the conditions in the Land of Israel at that time. In the Caucasus, the Circassian villages were built over large areas, with houses constructed close together, thereby creating a defensive wall around the village’s public spaces for reasons of security and defense.  Kfar Kama is one of the most impressive surviving examples of local construction from the late 19th century and early 20th century in the Land of Israel.

Wherever they went, the Circassians often brought modernization along with them. Besides the Galilee, they established 13 settlements in the central Golan Heights, while also settling across the Jordan River, where they established the modern city of Amman. They introduced advanced construction methods, metal and woodworking techniques, a mixed economy, and also incorporated European architectural styles, such as the famous “Marseille tiles” still visible in their villages. Kfar Kama became an important regional center in the late Ottoman and Mandatory periods. They built a modern mill in a central area of ​​the Old Village which became a meeting place for all of the area’s inhabitants—Arab peasants, Bedouins, Jews and the local Circassians. In the 1948 war, the Circassians chose to fight alongside the Jews, and ever since then they have fulfilled their compulsory service in the IDF.

Circassians in Kfar Kama, 1960s. Two of the men wear the “kalpak” hat, characteristic of the region of the Caucasus and Central Asia, and one wears a keffiyeh. From the Boris Carmi Archive, the Meitar Collection


The Circassians are a people and not a “sect,” as they are sometimes mistakenly referred to in Israel. They are a national minority community in Israel that maintains a robust relationship with kinfolk in Israel and abroad, as well as their desire to return to their homeland. At the same time, they are also Israeli and are completely integrated in all aspects of life in the country. While the Circassian population in Israel numbers only 5,000 people (out of several million in the Circassian diaspora), they are perhaps the most active Circassian group in terms of preserving their extensive heritage, as well as the memory of the genocide and expulsion from their homeland, which is commemorated on their Day of Mourning, May 21. Moreover, the Circassians in Israel work to preserve the Adyghe language.  Adyghe, which had been a spoken language only, became a written language in the 19th century (although the Circassians also had a well-developed and unique graphic marking system, which is now preserved mainly in various family symbols). The language has no less than 64 consonants and is taught in elementary and middle schools. Every Circassian child learns Hebrew, English, Adyghe and Arabic, and some also study Russian and Turkish. The schools in Kfar Kama and Rehaniya are the only ones in the world where the students are Muslim and the language of instruction is Hebrew.

Students in the elementary school in Kfar Kama on Circassian Flag Day. Photo: Chen Bram


The “Adyghe Xabze” and the Circassian Ethos

Most Circassians are Sunni Muslims. They adopted Islam at a relatively late stage, having previously been Christians, and pagans before that. Nevertheless, whether Muslims or Christians, Circassians have a single code of conduct, called Xabze, that guides the way they live. This is a set of laws, a code, which directs their daily behavior and wields great influence on their education and values. In addition, the Adyghe have their own mythology and folktales. Their epic Nart sagas are continually passed down, from generation to generation, telling the stories of various Caucasian folk heroes.

A Circassian from Kfar Kama in traditional dress, 1970s. The Boris Carmi Archive, the Meitar Collection


The word Adyghe means “person of virtue” and Adyghe Xabze refers to the traditional way a Circassian is expected to behave. Adherence to this way of life is very important, and those who do not respect the custom must bear the burden of hinap – “shame”. The Xabze code guides education, the rules of society and honor, marriage, ceremonies and daily conduct. Most Circassians prefer to marry among themselves in order to preserve their ethos. Besides their customs, the Circassians continue to preserve their traditional music and dance. The traditional clothing—chiefly the Circassian warrior’s coat, featuring special pockets across the breast for bullets – is worn mainly for the traditional Circassian dance.

A Circassian boy from Kfar Kama wearing a traditional Circassian warrior’s coat as well as a dagger on a belt around his waist, 1970s. The Boris Carmi Archive, the Meitar Collection


The Circassians have integrated into Israeli society in many ways. In the past, many continued to serve permanently in the security forces after their compulsory service. Many others work in all sectors of the economy, as researchers and scientists, educators and industrial workers. Many leave for a period to study, but most choose to return to live in their villages. The Circassians have also integrated into Israeli society in sports: Bibars Natkho, the captain of Israel’s national soccer team is a Circassian from Kfar Kama; his late cousin Nili Natkho, who was killed in a car accident, was a promising, young basketball player who led her teams, Maccabi Raanana and Elitzur Ramla, to the national championship and cup. The Circassian population in Israel stands out for its high percentage of recipients of higher education, and in recent years, a special curriculum has been developed specifically for Circassian schoolchildren.


Kfar Kama: An Extraordinary Landscape in Israel

In the early 20th century, with Jewish farms and colonies already established in the Galilee, the Jewish immigrants of the Second Aliyah came to an important realization: Jewish workers were not enough; there was also a need for Jewish guards and watchmen. However, regardless of the desire for Jewish independence in security affairs, there was a tradition that the Circassians of the Galilee held a central place in securing the Lower Galilee region. David Ben-Gurion, upon visiting the Jewish settlement of Sejera where the Bar-Giora Jewish defense organization (later Hashomer) was established, took note of the qualities of the neighboring Circassians from Kfar Kama, “resolute and gallant of spirit, excelling in bravery and courage,” and added the familiar Arabic saying: “Fish akhbar min cserkes” – “None are greater than the Circassian”. Eventually, the people of Hashomer established a Jewish defense in the Galilee, and even gained the respect of the Circassians, after proving their grit.

Traditional Circassian dance at the Kfar Kama Heritage Center. Photo: Shir Aharon Bram


Kfar Kama is built over the ruins of an ancient Byzantine village, and the mosque is built of basalt stones, in a style drawn from another period when Circassians lived in Israel—the Mamluk period. The Mamluks, military slaves in the Muslim Empire, at one point managed to make themselves rulers. The Mamluk Burji dynasty, which ruled Egypt for 132 years, was of Circassian origin. The most famous of the Mamluk rulers, however, was the Sultan known as Baibars, after whom the captain of the Israeli national soccer team, mentioned above, is named.

If you happen to visit the Old Village, pay attention to the details, to the construction of the houses, and most importantly, speak to the locals, who are known for their hospitality. It is also highly recommended to taste the delicacies of Circassian cuisine, especially the traditional Circassian cheeses and pastries which can be bought in the village. You can also visit Kfar Kama’s Circassian Heritage Center and museum, where you can learn more about how the Adyghe commemorate their history and preserve their culture.

Haluz, a traditional Circassian pastry, eaten on Eid al Fitr in Kfar Kama, from the kitchen of Lamaan Nash

A Celebrity’s Guide to Israel…

Some of the world's biggest celebrities have graced Israel’s shores over the years. Among them were some true “Israel lovers.” Here's a look at several typical stops on Israel's classic celebrity tourist trail…

Barbra Streisand arrives in Israel, 1972, the Dan Hadani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

We Israelis like to see ourselves as worldly, even trendy. Sometimes we think we’re the 51st state of the United States, or at least part of the OECD that just happens not to be located in Europe. The truth is, we occasionally feel a bit lonely and anytime someone comes to visit, we might go a little overboard. Otherwise, how can we explain our insatiable thirst for celebrities from abroad?

Some of these famous figures come here to give a concert or even film a movie project, but our favorites, the ones etched into our collective memory, are the ones who make a point of stating just how much they “love Israel.” In some cases we will state it for them. In any case, we sure do a good job of wearing these famous friends out while they’re here.

This guide was compiled as a trip down memory lane for those unfortunate celebrities who have found themselves practically smothered by our love and appreciation. For us locals, it serves as a short history of celebrity visits to Israel. For celebrities thinking about visiting – it may be helpful to know what to expect on your visit to our tiny country.

Sean Connery at a fundraising event for Variety, 1967. Photo: Boris Carmi, the Meitar Collection


Step One: Stepping Off the Plane

Every journey begins with one small step. So too begins the celebrity journey in Israel with careful, but symbolic, steps down the stairs from the plane. What can we say? It’s impressive and looks great in pictures. A variety of possible reception upgrades are available: bouquets, dignitaries, a crowd of adoring fans. Bear in mind dear celebrities – strike a memorable pose and we will remember it years later.  And never fear, we always have a moveable gangway on standby, ready to go, as if the visitor was no less than the Pope or the president of an enemy state, finally seeking to make peace.

Elizabeth Taylor lands in Israel, 1976. The Dan Hadani Archive, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel


Step Two: Making Small Talk with the Nation’s Finest

As we all know here, there’s nothing like the Israel Defense Forces. And to make sure that the whole world knows it too, the second stage of a celebrity’s introduction to our country is a face-to-face meeting with IDF soldiers (we are looking into swag bags, for those interested…)

Goldie Hawn visiting an IDF base, 1989. The Dan Hadani Archive, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

For those looking for a more in-depth experience, this attraction can also include a custom military demonstration – Frank Sinatra, as always, did it his way…

Frank Sinatra watching an IDF military parade, 1962. Photo: Boris Carmi, the Meitar Collection


Step Three: Be Deeply Impressed by the Country’s Advancements

You may be surprised to discover that once upon a time, the celeb’s journey to the Holy Land wasn’t complete without a display of the local innovations. Except, we weren’t the start-up nation back then, and our displays of progress didn’t always impress our glittering guests. What were we thinking? Just read the anecdote actor Kirk Douglas included in his autobiography about his visit to Jerusalem in 1994:

After the ceremonies my old friend Teddy Kollek, the former mayor of Jerusalem, along with the staff of the Jerusalem Foundation, gave me a tour of the city. They showed me the newly erected soccer field, the biggest supermarket in Jerusalem and the new zoo. I understand that secular Israelis yearn to re-create an American lifestyle for themselves, and that a supermarket was a step in that direction, but frankly if I wanted to see a spectacular supermarket, I could have stayed in Beverly Hills . . .

That’s not what I wanted to see in the Holy City. When people like me come to Jerusalem, they want to see and experience what only this ancient city has to offer. Something that no other city or country can duplicate. Something spiritual.

[Excerpt from Climbing the Mountain – My Search for Meaning by Kirk Douglas (Simon & Schuster, 1997)]

Naturally, Douglas was referring to the city’s ancient sites that make it sacred to the three monotheistic religions. Perhaps he thought that that Israelis were wary of too direct a connection with the country’s history, and therefore preferred images of “progress.”

Incidentally, this anecdote might explain why we found hardly any pictures from previous decades documenting celebrities at the Western Wall, a site that is a not-to-be-missed attraction today.

We could not find any documentation of the visit described above, so in place is a photo from an earlier one: Kirk Douglas and Yul Brynner on the set of Cast a Giant Shadow in Israel. Photo: Boris Carmi, the Meitar Collection

Of course, there’s nothing like the image of a small child looking up at you with their big eyes to pull at the heartstrings. It’s no surprise then that the archives are chock-full of photos of our celebrity guests with sweet-faced Israeli children. Like this adorable picture of Goldie Hawn visiting a kindergarten.

Goldie Hawn visiting an Israeli kindergarten, 1986. The Dan Hadani Archive, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel


Step Four: And Still, a Bit of Jewish History Never Hurts

With all due respect to adorable children and photogenic soldiers, throwing in some Jewish history never hurts. Although the story of the Jewish people is not all tragedy – disasters and catastrophes certainly do figure into it.

In case Yad Vashem is busy, you can always try another museum dedicated to Jewish history, and believe us, there’s no shortage of alternatives.

Barbra Streisand with a replica of the relief from the Arch of Titus in Rome, showing the spoils of the destroyed Second Temple at the Museum of the Jewish People, 1984. The Dan Hadani Archive, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

Israel’s universities also feature prominently in photos from celebrity visits. The prestigious Hebrew University of Jerusalem boasts two buildings on its campus with fairly familiar names. One is the Frank Sinatra Student Center.

Frank Sinatra at the inauguration of the Student Center, 1978. The Dan Hadani Archive, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

The second is the Emanuel Streisand Building for Jewish Studies, donated by Mr. Streisand’s famous daughter Barbara.

Streisand inaugurates the Jewish Studies building named for her father, 1984. The Dan Hadani Archive, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

On the Tel Aviv University campus, stars mainly visited the above-mentioned Museum of the Jewish People. The headliner this time around is Jane Fonda.

Jane Fonda at the Museum of the Jewish People on the Tel Aviv University campus, 1980. The Dan Hadani Archive, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel


Step Five: Photo-ops with Leaders of the Country

The most coveted stars may – if they aren’t careful – find themselves invited to the Prime Minister’s Office or the President’s residence (or both) for a much photographed tête-à-tête, and sometimes also a  meal. This is what happened to Barbra Streisand, who was invited to meet with Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir in 1984.

Streisand with Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, 1984. What’s he pointing at? The Dan Hadani Archive, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

Two years later, a lucky Goldie Hawn got to meet Prime Minister Shamir while she was in Israel for the inauguration of an auditorium at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque built with her donation.

Goldie Hawn with Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, 1986. The Dan Hadani Archive, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel


Cindy Crawford thanking Dani Angel of the Angel Bakery for her warm welcome, 1992. The Dan Hadani Archive, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

So dear celebrity, after you have visited every station on the trail, after showing your support for the State of Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people, after having kissed the country’s adorable children, and before you return to your own far-away lands, we beg you, please, please remember those of us left behind. And don’t forget to share with your dazzling friends the wonderful experiences you had here. Maybe even convince them to visit us themselves. We’re craving some stardust here!


An Extra Bonus Before We Go

In the spirit of full disclosure, there is also an alternative tour: in 1987, the actor Jack Lemmon stopped over for a visit in Israel. In the photos from that visit, Lemmon is seen walking around Jerusalem’s Old City, snapping pictures just like any other tourist. We were very impressed. But, on the other hand, what tourist accompanied by a team of photographers documenting him, actually documents what he is seeing? In a couple of pictures from that visit, we even spotted the very same Teddy Kollek mentioned in Kirk Douglas’s critical description (only this time, no supermarkets).

Jack Lemmon in the Old City of Jerusalem. The Dan Hadani Archive, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel


Jack Lemmon at the Tower of David. The Dan Hadani Archive, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel


(Right to left:) Teddy Kollek, Jack Lemmon and Lia van Leer. The Dan Hadani Archive, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel


Jack Lemmon and the Western Wall. The Dan Hadani Archive, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel


Kwisatz Haderach: Translating “Dune” into the Original

A new cinematic adaptation of Frank Herbert's science fiction classic was a great opportunity to speak with Emanuel Lottem, who translated Dune into Hebrew. The result was a fascinating conversation about fantasy literature in Israel and how Lottem came to translate the book while enlisting the help of his colleagues at the Foreign Ministry…

The name Emanuel Lottem is familiar to all Hebrew-reading fans of the fantasy and science fiction genre. Lottem, who began his career as a translator in the 1970s, has translated dozens of genre books—from the greatest classics in the field to the most recent titles. Along with being one of the most prolific Hebrew translators in the realms of popular science, science fiction and fantasy, Lottem is also a founding member of the Israeli Society for Science Fiction and Fantasy, serving as its chair from 1996 to 2001.

On the occasion of the release of the new Dune film, we spoke with the Hebrew translator of Frank Herbert’s classic, the Hebrew edition of which has remained in print for over 40 years, consistently connecting with new audiences over multiple generations.


How did you get started as a translator, and why science fiction?

I had just started working at Tel Aviv University and the salary wasn’t that great, so I was looking for some extra income on the side. Through a family friend at Am Oved Publishers, I started getting offers to translate books. When Am Oved began publishing its “White Series” of science fiction books [named for the white paperback covers – Ed.], I told the publishers that I wanted to translate books for this series. Their answer was: “You’re a serious person. What’s a serious person like you doing with this nonsense?” But, one day, the editorial secretary called me and told me that they were interested in translating a book called Dune. Naturally, I agreed at once. I was familiar with it since it was a book I really liked. That was in 1976.


How do you approach the work of translation?

When the opportunity arose to translate Dune, I was already working at the Center for Political Research and Planning at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. It was a civilian intelligence analysis body within the Foreign Ministry, set up following the Agranat report [commissioned by the Israeli government to assess failings during the Yom Kippur War – Ed.]. We worked from an off-site campus where there were lots of young and lively people. The atmosphere was one you would associate more with university student life than with the usual image of the Israeli Foreign Ministry. I discovered that many of my coworkers were science fiction fans. After I’d got the call from Am Oved, during the morning coffee break in the cafeteria, I told them about the book I was going to translate. They were very excited, immediately offering to help. So I delegated a few of the tasks involved in the translation.  The late Meron Gordon, who eventually became ambassador to Warsaw and Moscow, took it upon himself to find the verses from the Bible that appeared in the book, so that we wouldn’t end up translating the Bible into Hebrew. Erella Hadar, who later became ambassador to Prague, undertook to translate concepts from the feudal period that also appeared in the book. David Matnai, later ambassador to several countries in Southeast Asia and an expert in classical Arabic, agreed to correct some phrases in Arabic that were inaccurate in the original version.

I typed out the translation of the book by hand, and then the secretaries at the Center happily typed  a clean copy—on a typewriter; back then, there were no computers or word processors. The order of work went like this: I translated, my colleagues commented and corrected, and then a final copy was made, which I submitted to Am Oved. Not only do I thank them on the first page of the Hebrew version, but the sharp-eyed reader will notice that in one of the appendices at the end of the book, which describes the establishment of a certain religious council, I used for it the acronym of the organization we were working for at the time.

Dune (2021), directed by Denis Villeneuve

In an interview with Haaretz, you mentioned that this is one of your three favorite science fiction books. What is it about this book that you like so much?

The book’s psychological depth, the breadth of the plot, and the character development. Science fiction from the 1940s and 1950s is still my favorite, but the characters are usually two-dimensional and lacking in depth and development. In Dune, the reader follows the development of the characters, and as the book progresses, you discover more and more layers to them. This is some true artistry from Frank Herbert. I especially like the idea of ​​what foresight means. Let me explain: there is a character who can see the future, but what he sees it in a similar way to Borges’ The Garden of Forking Paths. He sees the paths and wants to choose one path or avoid the other—and without giving away too much, because I don’t like spoilers—his dilemma is about choosing the right path, when in the middle there is an abyss, and he can’t see where the paths split. It’s not a self-fulfilling prophecy; foresight is a much more complicated and deep phenomenon.

Can the person who “sees the futures” choose the right future? That’s the book’s big question.


What were the challenges you faced in translating? I understand you had a difficult task adapting the book into Hebrew.

In today’s computer age, I can correspond with authors and ask them questions. Back then, we never met. What were the challenges? To replicate the book’s depth. It’s easy to do a superficial, literal translation, but if you want to do it well and capture the book’s psychological depth, you need to put in more effort. On the other hand, the mysticism in the book translates well from one language to another. It’s often challenging to translate Hindu or even Christian mysticism, and you need to think about how to convey the spirit of the text without getting into Jewish mysticism, because that’s not the author’s intention. In this case, the mysticism is Muslim-Jewish. There’s a character who is described as the   “Kwisatz Haderach” [kfitzat haderekh is a Kabbalistic concept in Hebrew meaning a miraculous leap from one place to another – CM], so in this respect, I was on solid footing.


How is the original different from the Hebrew translation? Obviously, you didn’t touch the plot.

The Arabic in the original book was not very accurate, and as I mentioned before, David Matnai helped me a lot with this. For example, pretty much in the beginning of the book, the main character Paul arouses the admiration of another character who comes to investigate and discover who he is, and she utters a cry of wonder and admiration—kul wahad! Kul wahad is not an exclamation of admiration in Arabic. Matnai gave me a better word expressing admiration in Arabic—aj’aib—which means  “wonder of wonders!” There are a number of little examples like that throughout the book.


Can one translate a book one doesn’t necessarily like?

I try not to. The choice is a little more limited today. I used to be able to pass on something like that if it came up. In principle, one can translate a book one doesn’t like, because the work of translating is, at its core, technical. Art comes on top of the technique. With Frank Herbert, I went to great lengths to ensure that if there were mistakes, they would be corrected in the Hebrew. There were books where I didn’t do that.


What do you read in your spare time?

I read mostly science fiction, but also fantasy. I have a problem with the fantasy genre, though. For me, everything written after Tolkien—it’s just not the same. Here and there, you find a pearl.


To this day one hears things like “If it’s fantasy or science fiction, I’m not reading it.” Do you feel that even today the perception is that these are inferior genres, and that perhaps the boundaries of the fantasy  “ghetto” have not yet been breached?

The fantastic genres emerged from the literary ghetto largely thanks to Ursula K. Le Guin. The older generation in Israel, the generation that believed that books had a mission—Zionism first and foremost, of course—that generation saw science fiction as a waste of time. They didn’t consider, for example, that Altneuland [a utopian novel written by Theodor Herzl in 1902 – Ed.] is a science fiction story. And when asked what about 1984, and Brave New World—they would say that it was  “fine literature”, not science fiction.

This feeling has slowly been fading in recent years. If it could be said about Ursula K. Le Guin in the 1980s, then in Israel it could only be said in the 2000s, now that original and respected writers like Shimon Adaf are writing fantasy. Perhaps Adaf is our Le Guin.

Science fiction is no longer ridiculed in Israel. This, by the way, is why science fiction enthusiasts tend to organize and meet at conferences—to spend time with like-minded people a few days a year, who love what they love and who don’t look down on them. When I was still chair of the science fiction society, I would hear things like “ninety percent of science fiction is garbage.” It really made me angry, and I felt that because of my position I had to respond. Then I thought to myself, if it’s only ninety percent, then we’re in pretty good shape compared to general literature.


What translation are you most proud of?

No question at all, The Lord of the Rings and its various sequels—including most other J. R. R. Tolkien books that appeared in Hebrew. Some of these works were originally published in English only recently, not just the Hebrew translations. We have yet to see another writer of Tolkien’s stature. There hasn’t been another and I hope there will be, but I cannot see where they might come from. He was a singular, unique writer in his generation, in every sense. For me, he was everything.  It was an honor to translate his work into Hebrew.