The Ghost Shtetl of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s Youth

30 years after his death, the Nobel laureate's village is being rebuilt, including a massive replica of a synagogue that was never there

Isaac Bashevis Singer in his Nobel Prize ceremony tuxedo appears in front of the Wolpa Synagogue [Source: Photo by Israel Zamir, from the Dan Hadani Archive, Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at NLI / Center for Jewish Art at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem]

In his 1978 acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize in Literature, Isaac Bashevis Singer employed memories from his earliest years as a source of hope for coping with the troubles of modern times:

“In our home and in many other homes the eternal questions were more actual than the latest news in the Yiddish newspaper. In spite of all the disenchantments and all my skepticism I believe that the nations can learn much from those Jews, their way of thinking, their way of bringing up children, their finding happiness where others see nothing but misery and humiliation.”

As a teenager, in the midst of the First World War, Singer moved with his siblings and his mother to her hometown, the small shtetl of Biłgoraj, where they belonged to a prominent rabbinical family.

The main square in Biłgoraj around the time Singer lived there

Following a short stint in a Warsaw rabbinical seminary, a young Singer would return to the ancestral shtetl, where he would fail to support himself by giving Hebrew lessons – an interesting historical detail for the man destined become the first Yiddish writer to win the Nobel Prize.

Biłgoraj was home to a thriving, if modest, Jewish community, and would inspire many of Singer’s later works.

A rabbinic text printed in Biłgoraj, 1912. From the National Library of Israel collection

Nearly a century has passed since Singer left Biłgoraj for good. Other notable former residents included Rabbi Mordecai Rokeach of the Belz Hasidic Dynasty, who famously fled Europe for the Land of Israel in 1944, and the well-known writer and educator Shmuel Ben-Artzi, father-in-law of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The town has long been bereft of Jewish inhabitants, yet a replica shtetl now stands there, the brainchild of Tadeusz Kuźmiński, a businessman and philanthropist, who recently passed away.

Tadeusz Kuźmiński stands in front of the replica synagogue in Biłgoraj, 2016 (Photo: Ruth Ellen Gruber)

Kuźmiński dreamed of building a site that reflected the multicultural nature of pre-War Poland, which could also serve as a contemporary cultural, commercial and residential center. With the vision only partially realized, Biłgoraj is now home to a recreated Jewish marketplace, with plans ready for a second market square set to include replicas of wooden churches and a wooden mosque (of the type long-used by some descendants of Tatars in eastern Poland).

The new square in Biłgoraj, 2016 (Photo: Ruth Ellen Gruber)

A small museum in Singer’s honor is housed in one of the replica town’s structures, yet the most striking feature of the modern reincarnation of Jewish Biłgoraj is Kuźmiński’s full-scale reproduction of the destroyed wooden synagogue of Wolpa (a town in modern-day Belarus) – some 400 km (250 miles) away.

Postcard featuring a ca. 1930 photo of the Wolpa Synagogue (Publisher: Tomy). From The Joseph and Margit Hoffman Judaica Postcard Collection, The Folklore Research Center at the Mandel Institute of Jewish Studies, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem; available via the NLI Digital Collection
Prayer for the czar inside the Wolpa Synagogue (Photo: Alois Breyer). From the Center for Jewish Art at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem; available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

Somewhat ironically, Wolpa was probably most well-known for the very synagogue now recreated in Biłgoraj.

Wood synagogues were quite common throughout Eastern Europe, and yet the Wolpa Synagogue was considered to be one of the finest examples, an aesthetic and technical masterpiece, which stood for well over two centuries – surviving one world war before being destroyed in the next.

Interior photo of the Wolpa Synagogue’s dome, ca. 1910-1913 (Photo: Alois Breyer). From the Center for Jewish Art at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem; available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

After receiving his Nobel Prize, Singer addressed the distinguished guests at the subsequent banquet:

“People ask me often, ‘Why do you write in a dying language?’ And I want to explain it in a few words.

Firstly, I like to write ghost stories and nothing fits a ghost better than a dying language. The deader the language the more alive is the ghost. Ghosts love Yiddish and as far as I know, they all speak it.

Secondly, not only do I believe in ghosts, but also in resurrection. I am sure that millions of Yiddish speaking corpses will rise from their graves one day and their first question will be: “Is there any new Yiddish book to read?” For them Yiddish will not be dead.

Thirdly, for 2000 years Hebrew was considered a dead language. Suddenly it became strangely alive. What happened to Hebrew may also happen to Yiddish one day, (although I haven’t the slightest idea how this miracle can take place).

There is still a fourth minor reason for not forsaking Yiddish and this is: Yiddish may be a dying language but it is the only language I know well. Yiddish is my mother language and a mother is never really dead.”

Isaac Bashevis Singer preparing his speech before the official Nobel Prize ceremony, 1978 (Photo: Israel Zamir). From the Dan Hadani Archive, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

Isaac Bashevis Singer passed away some two decades before Tadeusz Kuźmiński’s dream of a simulated pre-War Biłgoraj began to take shape.

What would Singer have thought or written about Kuźmiński’s renascent Biłgoraj?

Would he have seen humor in the idea of a replica shtetl with no Jews?

Or the notion of a once-iconic synagogue transported through space and time, plopped down in tiny Biłgoraj, steps away from a modest museum in his honor (despite the fact that he himself only lived there for a brief period)?

Is Kuźmiński’s Biłgoraj a living ghost? A mother that was never really dead?

Or – in the spirit of Singer’s childhood home – an attempt in post-Holocaust Poland to “find… happiness where others see nothing but misery and humiliation”?

This article has been published as part of Gesher L’Europa, the National Library of Israel’s initiative to share stories and connect with people, institutions and communities in Europe and beyond.

For more on the replica shtetl in Bilgoraj and other news, information and resources about Jewish monuments and heritage sites all over Europe, check out Jewish Heritage Europe.

Two-Gun Cohen: Artful Dodger Turned Chinese Legend and Hero of Israel

“He was like a character out of a book. He was like something somebody wrote.”

Morris "Two-Gun" Cohen – known as "Ma Kun" in Chinese – surrounded by troops, July 1926. Original image from the Collection of Josef L. Rich OBE

“It turned out that General Two-Gun Cohen wasn’t kidding when he said he had influence with the Chinese,” recalled Canadian Jewish Congress leader Saul Hayes. Not only did he know the Chinese members, but “he would get us the damnedest documents. I never asked how or why.”

One day while Hayes was walking down the street with Cohen they came across Wellington Koo, the Chinese ambassador to the United States, Vice Premier H.H. Kung, and Premier T.V. Soong.

“And, by God, the first thing I know is they embrace the man.”

It was April 1945, right before Nazi Germany surrendered and the thousand-year Third Reich died. Four-dozen nations had gathered in San Francisco to form the United Nations. Britain had controlled Palestine since they assumed stewardship of it following World War I, and many Jews were anxious about the future of the British mandate for the territory.

T. V. Soong, Chairman of the Chinese Delegation, addresses the First Plenary Session at the San Francisco Conference, on 26 April 1945 (UN Photo/Rosenberg; CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Representatives from such groups as the American Jewish Conference and the Jewish Agency of Palestine – along with prominent leaders like Rabbis Stephen Wise and Abba Hillel Silver – descended on the Bay City to lobby their cause.

Jewish organizations especially worried that Britain might abandon her commitment to establish a Jewish homeland. They sought to make sure the UN did not reduce or eliminate Jewish rights in Palestine under the 1917 Balfour Declaration – which states that Britain “view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people” – or the 1922 League of Nations-approved mandate over Palestine. They therefore hoped for the insertion of a clause within the UN charter that protected the rights of minority groups like those of the Jews living in Palestine.

Yet they were not the only lobbyists there. An Arab delegation hoped that the council would only recognize the rights of the single largest group in each trusteeship territory. In Palestine, the Arabs made up the majority.

The Jewish delegates held planning meetings and prepared for the formal sessions, yet struggled to gain access to some delegations. One group the Zionists could not contact was the Chinese. Then Rabbi Israel Goldstein, the head of the Zionist Organization of America, recalled that Morris “Two-Gun” Cohen had settled in Montreal during the war.

Rabbi Israel Goldstein visiting newly established settlements in the Negev, 1969 (Photo: Dan Hadani). From the Dan Hadani Archive, Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

Goldstein had recently met the adventurer who had improbably become a general in the Chinese Army. The rabbi cabled him, “urging him to fly out to San Francisco and assist us with an introduction.”

Cohen happily obliged.

Cohen, who had spent two decades in China, knew many of that nation’s leaders and offered to introduce Jewish Agency leader Eliahu Elath and others to his friends in the Chinese delegation.

The group’s lobbying of all the national delegates paid off. Palestine remained a mandated territory, and Clause 80 – nicknamed the “Palestine Clause” of the U.N. Charter – protected the rights “of any states or any people” within the trusteeships.

As Saul Hayes later said:

“I am not suggesting that if we didn’t succeed there’d be no state of Israel… I am suggesting it would have taken a great many years of hard slogging if it had ever gone into the trusteeship division.”

 

From London’s East End to the Canadian prairies

Morris Abraham Cohen was an anomaly.

No one would have suspected that a man who started out as a juvenile delinquent would turn out so well. Born on August 3, 1887 in Poland into an Orthodox family, he arrived in London as a young child, and grew up in the East End of London. He was more of an Artful Dodger than a yeshiva bucher, and was arrested as a teenager for picking pockets. The authorities shipped him off to an industrial school for wayward Jewish kids.

Map of East London color coded by percentage of Jewish residents, 1900. Black indicates a population that is 95-100% Jewish. From the Eran Laor Cartographic Collection, National Library of Israel. Click image to enlarge

Like many of those the British wished to be rid of, they then packed Cohen off to western Canada in 1905. On a farm outside the town of Whitewood, Saskatchewan he got to work planting crops, tending to the animals and helping with the chores. And for someone who would one day be known as “Two-Gun,” he also learned how to handle a pistol. But a year working the land was enough for Cohen, and he began wandering from Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan to Winnipeg, Manitoba.

He was a talker in a traveling circus, peddled questionable goods, and plied his trade as a card sharp. Not surprisingly, he regularly got arrested and incarcerated for everything from gambling and pick pocketing to carnal knowledge of a girl under 16 for whom he was a pimp.

Robsart, Saskatchewan, ca. 1915 (Photo: John Asplund)

Becoming a Chinese legend

If it wasn’t for a fluke, Cohen would have been ignored by history. Cohen was a porky man who enjoyed Chinese food almost as much as he loved a shady hand of cards. One evening he walked into a Chinese restaurant-cum-late-night-gambling-den in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. There he stumbled right into the middle of an armed robbery.

“I saw it was a holdup,” he later recalled, “but I wasn’t heeled – that is, armed – and I had to be careful. I closed in till I was too near for him to use his rod and socked him on the jaw. The fellow was out for the count.”

Such an act was unheard of. Few white men ever came to the aid of a Chinese man in early 20th century Canada. As a Jew, though, Cohen felt an affinity for the Chinese underdog. He knew what it was like to be an outsider, someone who society shunned.

Cohen’s selfless act immediately won him the respect of the Chinese community. His new Chinese friends spotted him wagering money and soon asked him to join the Tongmenghui, the political organization of the revolutionary leader Dr. Sun Yat-sen, which a few years later developed into the Guomindang. Cohen became a loyal member, learned of Sun’s teachings, regularly attended lodge meetings, started speaking at some of the get-togethers and gave generously from his gambling earnings to various funds.

Guomindang (Chinese National League) members and invited guests, 1918. From the Galt Museum and Archives, Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada

Yet even with his political awakening, Cohen continued to drift. He spent time in prison in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan and missed Dr. Sun’s fundraising visit to Canada. Cohen eventually rambled to Edmonton, Alberta, made money in real estate and tended to the needs of the Chinese as a spokesman for the local expatriate community.

 

World War I and on to China

When the glory days of the real estate bubble burst just prior to World War I, Cohen did what many recently unemployed men did, he enlisted.

In Belgium he and his comrades in the 8th Battalion of the Canadian Railway Troops built train tracks to rush troops and supplies to the front, and he oversaw some of the Chinese Labour Corps. There he painfully lived through one of the war’s worst slaughters during the Battle of Passchendaele.

Acting Sergeant Morris Cohen (middle), ca. 1916. From the Collection of Victor D. Cooper

After the Armistice, Cohen became heavily involved with the Great War Veterans’ Association in Edmonton, and acted as a political advocate for his Chinese brothers.

Life, though, wasn’t the same after the war. The Canadian real estate market had not bounced back. Cohen felt unsettled, and wanted a change. So in 1922 he headed to Shanghai.

Once in town, he used his Guomindang connections and polished salesman ways to wrangle an interview with Dr. Sun and a job as a bodyguard to the leader and his wife, Soong Qingling.

As an aide-de-camp to Sun, Cohen quickly became one of the leader’s main protectors, and lived in Sun’s military compound when the Chinese leader returned to Canton.

Cohen’s business card, early 1920s (Public Record Office, Kew)

During this period in the 1920s, warlords had divided up the nation. While Sun Yat-sen was known and respected across China, he controlled little and desperately sought to consolidate his position in the south of China. He was a dreamer who believed that he could conquer the nation and establish a democratic society. In a small way, Cohen tried to assist his boss in making that dream a reality. He helped supervise the other bodyguards, trained the men to box, taught them how to shoot, all the while thwarting attempts on Sun’s life.

Cohen in a white suit at the dedication of the Whampoa Military Academy (on stage from left: Liao Zhongkai, Chiang Kai-shek, Sun Yat-sen, Soong Qingling), June 1924. From the Collection of Josef L. Rich

General Two-Gun

During one attack on Sun, a bullet nicked Cohen’s arm. The injury gave Cohen pause:

“The bullet that caught me in the left arm had made me think. Supposing it had been my right arm and I carried my gun that side, I’d not have been able to use it. As soon as we got back to Canton I got me a second gun, another Smith and Wesson revolver, and I packed it handy to my left hand. I practiced drawing and soon found that I was pretty well ambidextrous – one gun came out about as quick as the other.”

His fashionable two-gun accessories attracted attention amongst the western community already intrigued by this Jewish Englishman who cavorted with the Chinese. They started calling him “Two-Gun” Cohen. A nickname was born.

Alas, Sun died in 1925, never having realized his dream of unifying China. Cohen then worked for a series of leaders in Canton and Shanghai, from Sun Yat-sen’s son, the politician Sun Fo, to Sun Yat-sen’s brother-in-law, T.V. Soong. He also attached himself to various south Chinese warlords.

Cohen with the troops, July 1926. From the Collection of Josef L. Rich OBE

One of Cohen’s main jobs for his bosses was purchasing weapons. He was all over the place, visiting North America, South Africa and Southeast Asia, buying Lewis guns from England, Mausers from Germany, Zephy machine guns from Czechoslovakia and gunboats from Hong Kong.

He was promoted to the rank of Major General in 1935, and by then had become a regular fixture in the night life of Shanghai and Hong Kong, throwing banquets and squandering much of his earnings.

“His parents believe he is the real president of the country…” This quote and photo of Cohen appeared in a feature about him published in the B’nai B’rith Messenger⁩⁩, 6 May 1932. Available via the NLI Digital Collection

Socialite and spy

Cohen also passed time at the Hong Kong Jewish Club, whiling away the time playing poker with friends and showing magic tricks to children. The New Yorker writer Emily Hahn had become friends with Cohen, and especially remembered that

“He was like a character out of a book. He was like something somebody wrote.”

With the start of World War II, Cohen was involved in arms buying and surveillance work to combat the invading Japanese army, and did work for British Intelligence’s Special Operations Executive.

As the war spread in Europe, Jewish refugees streamed to Shanghai, one of the few places that did not require a visa to enter. With the Japanese controlling the surrounding territory, the city’s International Settlement had become a hostage community, and the Japanese forces anxiously waited to enter.

German, Austrian and Polish Jews inundated the city. In February 1939, 2,500 new Jewish refugees arrived in Shanghai. By the end of year the number had reached 17,000. Most needed assistance. Shanghai’s modest Jewish relief organizations could not cope with the influx of so many people, and the U.S. State Department wanted to process those heading for the United States.

Haggadah printed and used in Shanghai, 1943. From the National Library of Israel collection

Hoping to smooth out the procedures, the State Department pressured the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee to start sending money for relief. The J.D.C. also dispatched the American social worker Laura Margolis to investigate and reorganize the refugee relief efforts.

Margolis landed in Hong Kong in May 1941. She spent a week in the colony as she tried to secure a spot on a Dutch ship heading north. With time on her hands, she visited the offices of the Far East Rice Bowl Dinner Campaign.

“When I got back to the hotel I found an invitation to dinner – at the home of Mrs. Sun Yat-sen. I would be picked up in the evening by a General Cohen,” she said of the unexpected arrangements. “He picked me up and we got to her home for dinner. It was a delightful evening, with both foreigners and Chinese.”

Margolis was to see more of Soong and Cohen:

“General Cohen and I became very good friends. He took me all over and became my Hong Kong escort.”

Similarly, when Ernest Hemingway and his wife, the correspondent Martha Gelhorn, came to China to report on the growing war, Cohen also showed them around.

Martha Gellhorn and Ernest Hemingway in Chongqing, China, 1941. From the Ernest Hemingway Photograph Collection, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston

Cohen was in Hong Kong in December 1941 when the Japanese attacked, and escorted Madame Soong along with her sister Ailing – the wife of H.H. Kung – to one of the last planes out of the colony.

“I took the two sisters across to the mainland and saw them off,” said Cohen of that long evening.

“It was a pretty grim farewell. We all knew that it was likely to be our last. For once I found myself absolutely tongue-tied. I couldn’t think what the hell to say. We shook hands, and I just blurted out, ‘We’ll fight to the bitter end, anyway.’”

Madame Soong stopped on the ramp and gazed down at him. “We’ll fight too, Morris,” she told him, “but not to the bitter end. The end, when it comes, will be sweet!”

Cohen with Soong Qingling, 1950s. From the Collection of Victor D. Cooper

The Japanese quickly captured the city, and interned thousands in prison compounds. Cohen was clapped into Stanley Prison Camp on an isthmus at the south end of the island. There his captors badly beat him, and he spent his time there trying to keep a relatively low profile.

False report of Cohen’s demise published in The Sentinel, March 19, 1942. Available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

Between Canada and China

Cohen held Canadian citizenship, and in late 1943 the Japanese included him in a prisoner exchange with the Allies. He arrived in Montreal in December. The following summer he married Judith Clark – the owner of a high-end dress shop – at Temple Emanu-El.

Morris and Judith Cohen on their wedding day, June 18, 1944. From the Collection of Josef L. Rich OBE

This was when Cohen’s active Chinese career ended, but it was also the start of his myth-making as he exaggerated his position in China and desperately tried to reestablish his position in the country.

It was difficult.

Mao Zedong and Chiang Kai-shek were battling for the soul of China, and there was no place for Cohen in the new political pot. Even so, his time with Sun and the reverence for the leader’s name guaranteed that he was always to be remembered as a loyal assistant to the father of modern China.

Cohen and Chiang Kai-shek, 1950s. From the Collection of Victor D. Cooper

Cohen’s link to Sun also gave him rare though limited access to both camps.

He spent about four months each year in China, mostly hanging out in Shanghai and Hong Kong, visiting old friends and speaking to anyone who would listen to his stories.

There were many stories.

The book Two-Gun Cohen helped cultivate the myths surrounding Cohen’s life and exploits. From the National Library of Israel collection

Zionist and Jewish activism

Besides his work for the Zionists at the 1945 United Nations conference in San Francisco, Cohen assisted a Shanghai Zionist group formulate plans to bomb British sites in the event that the British did not pull out of Palestine, and in the late 1940s aided a number of Jewish Shanghailanders win their freedom after they were kidnapped by unruly Chinese troops.

In 1947 the United Nations approved the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine.

The Arabs opposed the plan, and further fighting erupted between the Arabs and the Jews. Fearing that the surrounding Arab nations would attack once the British left in 1948, many Canadian Jews bought rifles, machine guns, mortars, airplanes and other war surplus for shipment to Jewish Palestine.

They packed the cargoes in crates marked “machine tools” and sent them via front organizations to the Middle East.

Sydney Shulemson, the most highly-decorated Canadian Jew to fight in World War II, actively worked to round up troops and weapons for Palestine. In November, he heard that China had purchased 200 De Havilland Mosquito bombers from Canada. The legendary plywood and balsa “Mozzie” had a resilient fuselage and a Rolls-Royce engine, which made it so fast and maneuverable that the aircraft distinguished itself in its sorties against shipping and V1 flying bombs.

De Havilland Mosquitos

According to Shulemson:

“The Canadian government had a large number of them at the end of World War II… I remember reading that these had all been test flown, reconditioned and then disassembled, crated and shipped to China. It occurred to me that I had never heard that China had ever used them. I wondered whether it might be possible to acquire these for Israel. That could have comprised the whole air force.”

Shulemson met with Cohen, who called the Chinese Ambassador in Ottawa. When Cohen hung up the phone, he asked Shulemson, “Do you like Chinese food?” Shulemson said yes, and Cohen then told him, “Well we are having lunch with the Chinese ambassador in Ottawa tomorrow.”

Despite their efforts, nothing came of the plane deal. The Chinese government was too corrupt to be bothered.

“Eventually General Cohen told me not to pursue it. The planes had never been uncrated, but they could not be sold. Apparently the people who arranged the exchange were more interested in exchanging Chinese currency for Canadian currency.”

 

Back to England

Unfortunately, Cohen’s long periods away from Montreal took a toll on his marriage to Judith. By the time of his divorce in 1956, he had moved in with one of his sisters in Manchester.

Cohen in Manchester, England, 1966. From the Cohen Family Collection

Cohen’s last visit to China was in 1966 as a guest of Premier Zhou Enlai for the 100th anniversary of the birth of Dr. Sun.

His battles finally ended on an autumn day in 1970. The man who during his lifetime was reported killed numerous times died peacefully in England, surrounded by two of his sisters, but far from his adopted home and his Chinese comrades. Relatives, acquaintances, and the press attended the Jewish funeral service the following day.

The funeral marked one of the few public occasions where Communist Chinese and Nationalist Taiwanese officials appeared together in public.

Even if these countrymen refused to accept each other’s existence as they stood side by side above Cohen’s grave, his old allies could not ignore their western brother.

Dr. Sun’s wife, Soong Qingling, could not forget Cohen either. Upon being contacted by his family, she sent a Chinese inscription to be carved alongside the English and Hebrew markings on his black granite tombstone. A final tribute to her faithful protector and friend.

Morris “Two-Gun” Cohen’s tombstone, Manchester, England (Photo: Daniel S. Levy)

Daniel S. Levy is the author of Two-Gun Cohen: A Biography. In the fall of 2021, Oxford University Press will release his Manhattan Phoenix: The Great Fire of 1835 and the Emergence of Modern New York, which deals with that city’s transformation in the years leading up to the Civil War.

This article has been published as part of Gesher L’Europa, the National Library of Israel’s initiative to share stories and connect with people, institutions and communities in Europe and beyond.

The Making of the Story “Shloyml Boyml and His Lucky Dreydl”

A klezmer-infused children's book inspired by journeys to the Eastern Bloc and the Black Sea

From the cover of “Shloyml Boyml and His Lucky Dreydl”, artwork by Emil Singer-Fuer

In 1981, I was slated to start law school, but those plans were upended after I attended a klezmer concert.

I was inspired to form a band instead, but I knew it had to be unique. I realized there had to be a lot more forgotten and unpublished klezmer melodies among the Holocaust survivors and Romani musicians who had played for Jews before the Holocaust.

So I bought a one-way ticket to what was then the Eastern Bloc. My first stop in Romania was Bucharest. After speaking to several Jewish informants, I quickly learned that if there were any Jewish and/or Romani musicians still playing klezmer music to be found, it would be in the northeastern province of Moldavia.

Moldavia, 1969 (Photo: Zusya Efron). From the Center for Jewish Art at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem; available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

It was in Iasi (the capital of the province) that I met Itzik “Cara” Svart, Romania’s leading scholar on anything to do with Romanian Jewish folklore (including klezmer music). We would meet either in his home or at the kosher kitchen (cantina, as they called it in Romanian).

I was the student asking question upon question and Itzik was the patient teacher. He told me how in his town of Podu Iloaiei, there had been no Jewish klezmer musicians, so they would hire klezmers from Iasi for all the Jewish weddings.

On Purim, however, local Roma were hired to accompany the Purimshpilers (Purim actors) from house to house.

Yale Strom with Itzik “Cara” Svart and his wife Cili, 1996 (Photo: Elizabeth Schwartz)

He also said that some of the Jewish musicians had even traveled as far as Constantinople before World War I, where they played for anyone who would pay to listen to them. He delivered all of this information in perfect English in between bites of his hot kosher lunch.

One day, Itzik introduced me to a Romani gentleman named Paul Babici, who, along with his father, played klezmer music on the alto saxophone with Jews before and after the Holocaust.

Paul Babici and Yale Strom playing together in the cantina in Iasi, 1985 (Photo: Brian Blue)

Babici told me in Yiddish about a Jewish man, Yehuda Schulman, in Piatra Neamt, who remembered many “Buhusher nigunim”, tunes according to the traditions of the Buhusher Hasidic court.

Schulman’s family had been Buhusher Hasidim, followers of the righteous sage Yitshak ben Shalom Yosef Friedman (1834-1896) and his successors.

I finished my research in Iasi, took a bus to Piatra Neamt and went straight to the synagogue, where someone told me that Yehuda attended Friday night services. As it was Thursday, I only had to wait one day.

Yehuda was extremely friendly and was more than happy to sing many Buhusher nigunim, which he had learned from his father and grandmother. We met several times, and on one occasion, he sang a nigun that was sung especially during the festival of Hanukkah.

Click for rare footage of a Hanukkah candle lighting celebration with the last Buhusher Rebbe, ca. 1990. The nigun taught by Yehuda Schulman can be heard at 0:41. From the National Library of Israel collection

He told me how in the mid-19th century, klezmers would travel to Constanta (a city on the coast of the Black Sea in what is now Romania) to play music, exchange tunes with other musicians – some of whom came from as far away as the Ottoman Empire – and buy goods that were not available at home, such as olive oil from the Land of Israel.

Some of their nigunim certainly had origins in these travels.

The Great Synagogue of Constanta (Photo: Moshe Kunes). From the Center for Jewish Art at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem; available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

These journeys to Constanta, characterized by the exchange of melodies and exotic wares including precious olive oil from the Land of Israel, stayed in my mind for years and would inspire my second children’s book.

My first children’s book, “The Wedding that Saved A Town”, was also based upon a kernel of Jewish history.

In certain parts of Eastern Europe (particularly Poland) there was a little-known practice of klezmer musicians being asked to play in a Jewish cemetery for two orphans who were getting married. This was done during cholera epidemics when all else failed to alleviate the plague and desperate rabbis resorted to this superstition. They called this in Yiddish a “shvartse khasene” – a black wedding.

Illustration by Jenya Prosmitsky from “The Wedding That Saved A Town”

“Shloyml Boyml and His Lucky Dreydl,” my latest story based on those long-ago journeys to Constanta has recently come out, published by a wonderful small publisher I found, Olniansky Tekst Farlag in Lund, Sweden. They were established in 2010 to publish new Yiddish material for all ages.

This past spring, they got a lot of press as they published the first volume of Harry Potter in Yiddish by the renowned Yiddishist Arun Schaechter Viswanath to resounding success. The first edition sold out.

The illustrations for “Shloyml Boyml and His Lucky Dreydl” were done by a wonderful Hungarian Jewish artist in Budapest, Emil Singer-Fuer. The book is in Yiddish (right to left) and in English (left to right).

My research over the years in Eastern Europe has resulted in books, documentary films, plays, recordings, photo exhibitions and oral histories, and I look forward to mining further in creating new art that celebrates Yiddish culture.

 

This article has been published as part of Gesher L’Europa, the National Library of Israel’s initiative to share stories and connect with people, institutions and communities in Europe and beyond.

Putting the J in Majorca

After hundreds of years underground, Jewish life on the Spanish island is reawakening

The once vibrant Jewish community of Majorca is now experiencing an historic renaissance (Photo: Dani Rotstein)

In November of 2014, I moved to Majorca, an island off of Spain, thinking I would never meet another Jewish person there.

Majorca is located in the Mediterranean Sea, off the eastern coast of Spain. This map shows the island as depicted by pioneering 16th century mapmaker Giovanni Francesco Camocio. From the Eran Laor Cartographic Collection, the National Library of Israel

I was quickly proven wrong when I found out about a volunteer-led synagogue with a small group of followers on the island. As I sat at one of the services, I learned that not everyone there was Jewish.

In fact, there’s a group of people on the island known as “Chuetas” who identify as Catholic yet quietly preserve the light of a Jewish community nearly forgotten. The Chuetas are descendants of Majorca’s once thriving medieval Jewish community, and some feel connected to their Jewish ancestry to this day. This finding blew me away as I thought about how powerful Jewish history is: these people are resurrecting a nearly dissolved Jewish legacy from over 600 years ago!

A 15th century manuscript chronicling the 1286 Disputation of Majorca, a religious dispute between a Christian merchant and a number of Jews. From the National Library of Israel collections

I was soon invited to attend once-a-month Shabbat dinners with a small group of Chuetas who had converted and/or returned to Judaism. I looked forward every month to spending time with them, learning from them, hearing their incredible family stories that were being left untold to the general public.

I brought my non-Jewish girlfriend at the time (now wife and mother of our son) who also began to express an interest in learning about Judaism, as I was expressing an interest in re-learning my own Judaism. You see, history and culture and what binds us together as a people with a collective shared past – that is what excites me, and who better to learn from then a group of people that were reconnecting to their ancestors’ faith from centuries ago!

Jews lived in Majorca for nearly a millennium before the persecutions of 1391 and the 1435 mass forced conversion, which took place in the Santa Eulalia Church, shown here (Photo: Sophia Kulich)

This spiritual and cultural discovery reminded me that for millennia, the Jewish people have overcome darkness. We have prevailed against those who sought to destroy us in each generation by carrying our beliefs, traditions, culture, and most importantly, our strong sense of peoplehood forward. In Pirkei Avot 1:14, Rabbi Hillel tells us: “If I am not for myself, who is for me?” implying that each one of us can carry the torch and lead our communities out of darkness.

And this flame can continue to glow when we are connected and dare to share the beauty of our people with the world around us.

Early on in life, I was raised with a strong sense of Jewish identity, though was never very observant. Growing up in New Jersey, USA, my parents sent me to a Jewish sleep-away summer camp where I befriended other Jews from around the country and learned the song “Wherever you go, there’s always someone Jewish.”

Dani Rotstein (Photo: Mark Edwards)

When I was 18 years old, I had a unique opportunity to live and learn in Israel, embarking on the Young Judea Year Course program.

There, I strengthened my relationship with Israel and the Jewish people. From learning Hebrew and being able to communicate with my Israeli grandparents, to training with the Israeli Air Force for a week, to living on a religious kibbutz, it was the best year of my life.

As I witnessed Jews from around the world come together in Israel, it opened my eyes to the value of our Jewish family—for myself, my friends, and the global community.

After returning to the United States and graduating college, I worked in film production in Miami and New York but was starting to feel the need for a change. I was missing that same sense of fulfillment I experienced in Israel. It wasn’t until I moved to Majorca five years ago that I found my purpose in the Jewish community.

 

The historic Jewish Quarter in Palma, Majorca (Photo: Dani Rotstein)

So I became more involved, determined to instill the passion for Jewish life around the island. I started by hosting challah baking workshops and Purim parties, and from there, the excitement spread to others.

Our numbers kept increasing, and we became a tighter knit community. In fact, we are now up to 60-70 attendees at our Shabbat dinners.

My wife and I founded Limud Mallorca – a Jewish cultural association intent on bringing Jewish culture and life to disconnected Jews living on the island, families of mixed-marriages, and those non-Jews interested in learning about and connecting with Jewish values and history.

We organized multiple trilingual learning conferences – in English, Spanish, and Mallorquin (a dialect of Catalan that is spoken on the island). We are a volunteer-run organization that is now working with the City Hall and organizing cultural activities and social events – documentary screenings, book presentations, choir concerts, lectures, seminars, holiday celebrations and community Shabbat dinners at different vegetarian restaurants around the island. Last year the Department of Education asked us to visit different public schools and conduct workshops centered on Holocaust education.

The first public Rosh Hashana celebration in Majorca, organized by Limud Mallorca in conjunction with the City Hall, 2019 (Photo: Felipe Wolokita)

Our first educational Jewish learning conference was in May 2018 and we expected around 20 or 30 people, but we ended up with over 85 attendees from around the world! The following year we had over 150 attendees.

Soon after our first event, the president of the local synagogue decided to resign and nobody wanted to fill his shoes. I decided to step up to the task and was elected to sit on the synagogue Board of Directors.

Along with me were three Jews by choice, two of whom were Chuetas. This was the first time in over 600 years that Mallorquin natives with Jewish ancestry were once again a part of the leadership of the local Jewish community, as the synagogue had been started in the 1970s by British Ashkenazim who had retired and moved to the island. Ever since, the community had been lead by Jewish expats or Spanish nationals from outside the Balearic Islands.

A Hanukkah celebration at the synagogue in Majorca (Photo: Mark Edwards)

In August 2018, not only was the new board elected but two Chuetas traveled to Israel to be married under a chuppa (traditional Jewish wedding canopy) – apparently the first wedding between two Chuetas in Israeli history.

The other event worthy of noting was the inauguration of a memorial to the Crypto-Jews that were burned at the stake in 1691 in Plaza Gomila. A memorial had been under petition for at least 40 years prior and finally manifested itself in the very same month as the wedding in Israel and the new board assuming its role.

Memorial in Plaza Gomila to the Crypto-Jews burned at the stake in 1691 (Photo: Carla Rotstein)

We are living through watershed moments within Mallorquin Jewish history.

After volunteering with the synagogue and Limud Mallorca, I finally decided to make the final leap of faith – to leave my work as a TV commercial producer and open up an educational tourism company called Jewish Majorca, with the goal of offering an interactive learning experience that engages both visitors and residents alike and sparks further curiosity.

A Jewish Majorca tour group admiring a statue of Jafuda ben Cresques, the famous 14th century Jewish Mallorquin cartographer (Photo: Gabrielle Weiniger)

We opened up in May 2019 and had a wonderful first summer, followed by bookings for a 400-person Kosher-for-Passover holiday in 2020, along with multiple bar mitzvah cruise trips and Jewish destination weddings planned.

All of this was stopped in its tracks due to the arrival of “Señor COVID,” yet instead of shutting down operations and giving up our dream, we decided to adapt and innovate.

We now offer virtual Zoom tours to different communities around the world, as well as a stand-alone Video Virtual Tour. The fact that international tourism has been temporarily shut down has actually encouraged us to do what we have always been wanting to do – go online and share the Jewish, Converso, and Chueta history of Majorca with the global audience.

Jewish Majorca also connected with Jewish tour guides and community members around the world in an effort to tell other Diaspora community stories, as well, with the “Chanuka 2020 Around the World in 8 Days” virtual program.

Announcement about a virtual trilingual Limud Mallorca event

Throughout my life I have been blessed to witness the beauty of Jewish life and the immense power of a connected community, whether in New York City or in Israel.

And now, on the tiny island of Majorca, I hope to continue sharing that light with others, showing that anyone can come together and live in harmony. My experience in Majorca shows how the spirit of the Jewish people lives on in each one of us. Together, we can help reignite the flames of Majorca’s Jewish community and unite the global Jewish community.

 

For more information on Jewish Majorca visit: jewishmajorca.com or email: jewishmajorca@gmail.com.

This article has been published as part of Gesher L’Europa, the National Library of Israel’s initiative to share stories and connect with people, institutions and communities in Europe and beyond.