In 2014, Antony (Tony) Blinken guided the American response to civil unrest in Ukraine, yet the U.S. secretary of state’s roots connecting him to the region run much deeper.
The Blinkens of Ukraine
Tony Blinken’s great-grandfather, Meir Blinken, was born in 1879 in Pereiaslav, the birthplace of the famous Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem, not far from Kyiv. During his childhood, Meir had a Jewish education at the Talmud-Torah, a religious elementary school.
In the late 1890s, Meir studied at the Kyivan Commercial College, which was built as part of a joint educational project undertaken by Ukrainian and Jewish businessmen. The college’s main sponsor was the Kyivan millionaire and philanthropist Lev Brodsky.
In Kyiv, Meir Blinken became a master cabinetmaker, carpenter, and even massage therapist.
His son, Moritz (1900–1986), Tony’s grandfather, who would become a prominent American lawyer and businessman, was born in Kyiv.
If Ukraine would like to present a souvenir to the next U.S. secretary of state, it could be the recently discovered archival documents about his ancestors: civil registration records from the book of the Rabbinate of Pereiaslav and Kyiv for Meir and Moritz, as well as the Blinken family page from the document collection of the 1897 Kyiv census.
Crossing the Atlantic
When Meir was 25 years old, he and his young family moved to the U.S., a tiny drop in the flood of 105,000 Jews who arrived in America in 1904.
There he opened a private massage office on East Broadway.
This district was filled with the bustling life and Yiddish culture of Jewish emigrants from Eastern Europe. In the early 1900s, the Lower East Side had the highest concentration of Jews on the planet: 300,000 Jews occupying one square mile.
Dr. Mordechai Yushkovsky, academic director of the International Yiddish Center at the World Jewish Congress, told the Ukrainian Jewish Encounter that Meir Blinken mostly wrote short satirical sketches for the Yiddish satirical journal Der Kibetzer, for example, a feuilleton about a writer who swamps all Yiddish-language newspapers in America with his texts, whenever a new publication appears.
Blinken portrayed the real world of Jewish immigrants: the poverty and lack of food, unhygienic conditions, religious superstitions, the lack of education, a lack of understanding of the new country, and the desire to find one’s place in it.
Incidentally, the editorial offices of Der Kibitzer were located 400 meters from today’s Tenement Museum on Orchard Street, where in the building dating to that period you can see the reconstructed world of Jewish immigrants with all the accompanying difficulties of life in this New York City “ghetto”.
In 1908, Meir Blinken published his book Weiber (Women), a poem in prose, in London. In this work, as well as in his short stories, the young writer – one of the first Yiddish writers to raise the subject of women’s sexuality – writes about marital infidelity, abortion, and sexual desire.
In 1965, the literary critic Dovid Shub noted that Meir Blinken was the first Yiddish writer in America to write about sex.
The ancestral home’s fate
Meir always signed his name as Blinkin, but his descendants changed one letter, and the name became Blinken. Even on the headstone of the prematurely deceased 36-year-old writer (d. 1915), his children wrote his name as Blinken.
In the opinion of Professor Wolf Moskovich of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, a leading Israeli Slavist and member of the Board of Directors of the Ukrainian Jewish Encounter, Blinken’s Jewish surname means that the founder of the family arrived in Kyiv gubernia from the village of Blinki, which was then in Nevel County, Vitebsk gubernia (today’s Belarus).
In Ukraine, there is no settlement with such a name.
It is interesting to note that Nevel is legendary among Hasidim, who belong to the Chabad movement. In the nineteenth century, the town of Nevel and the surrounding district were a stronghold of Hasidic learning.
In 1927, the communist government seized Nevel raion from Belarus and ceded it to Russia. Thus, today the village of Blinki is located on the territory of the Russian Federation, even though it is only two kilometers from the border with Belarus.
Between the censuses of 2001 and 2010, the population of the village of Blinki decreased from twelve to ten inhabitants. The irony is that if the incoming U.S. state of secretary decides to visit the village from whose name his surname is derived, he will probably find his ancestral home completely deserted.
—A version of this article was originally published by the Ukrainian Jewish Encounter. It appears here 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.
Lost Letter on Zionism from ‘Father of the Chinese Nation’ Surfaces
Century-old message from Dr. Sun Yat-sen found at the National Library of Israel now online
Dr. Sun Yat-sen, leader of pre-Communist era China: "All lovers of Democracy cannot help but support whole-heartedly and welcome with enthusiasm the movement to restore your wonderful and historic nation…"
On April 24, 1920, Dr. Sun Yat-sen, the pre-Communist era leader venerated until today as the father of the Chinese nation, expressed his strong support for Zionism, calling it “one of the greatest movements of the present time.”
The words were written in a letter sent to N.E.B. Ezra, an influential writer and publisher, and founder of the Shanghai Zionist Association.
Dr. Sun Yat-sen served as the first provisional president of the Republic of China, established in 1912 following the fall of the last imperial dynasty, prior to the Chinese Civil War and Communist Revolution. While his support of Zionism is well-documented and the letter’s text was previously known, the original signed copy has only now been rediscovered, over a century after it was written.
According to Prof. Gao Bei, an expert on Shanghai’s 20th century Jewish community, “It is very exciting that this original letter from Sun Yat-sen to N.E.B. Ezra has been unearthed. It is one of the seminal documents that illuminates the Chinese Nationalist government’s early support for the Zionist cause.”
It appears here online for the first time.
Full text of the letter:
29 Rue Moliere,
Mr. N. E. B. Ezra,
Dear Mr. Ezra:
I have read you [sic] letter and the copy of “Israel’s Messenger” with much interest, and wish to assure you of my sympathy for this movement – which is one of the greatest movements of the present time. All lovers of Democracy cannot help but support whole-heartedly and welcome with enthusiasm the movement to restore your wonderful and historic nation, which has contributed so much to the civilization of the world and which rightfully deserve [sic] an honorable place in the family of nations.
Yours very truly,
The letter has surfaced as part of a major National Library of Israel initiative, supported by the Leir Foundation, to review and describe millions of items in its archival collections, including personal papers, photographs, and documents from many of the 20th century’s most prominent figures. The initiative is part of the National Library’s current renewal, which includes the 2022 opening of its new landmark campus adjacent to the Knesset (Israeli Parliament) in Jerusalem.
Recently reviewed internal National Library documentation indicates that the letter has been in its collections since at least 1938, but was never included in the public catalogue available to external scholars until now.
How exactly the letter got to the Library remains a mystery, though according to NLI archivist Rachel Misrati, “N.E.B. Ezra passed away in 1936. The fact that the letter arrived in 1938 at latest indicates that – like many Zionist figures of the period – Ezra himself may have bequeathed it to the Library, or perhaps someone came across it after his death and sent it to us after determining that the National Library was its rightful home.”
Born in Lahore (modern-day Pakistan), Ezra was a Jewish scholar, writer, publisher and activist who lived most of his life in Shanghai. In addition to founding the Shanghai Zionist Association, he edited its mouthpiece, Israel’s Messenger, for decades. Though far removed from the main centers of Jewish life and Zionist activity, Ezra made his voice heard by distributing his newspaper globally, and submitting for publication letters and articles on a range of topics including the Jews of China, Zionism, Kabbalah and current events.
Dr. Sun Yat-sen and other members of the Chinese leadership had warm relations with local and international Jewish communities and figures, many of them cultivated during years of exile prior to the ultimate fall of the Qing dynasty. Just one example was Sun’s colorful personal bodyguard and senior adviser, Morris “Two-Gun” Cohen, a Polish-born Jew and an ardent Zionist.
Nonetheless, Sun was certainly not the first or only prominent Chinese figure at the time to publicly support the Zionist movement, with such support stemming from both ideological and practical considerations.
In her book Shanghai Sanctuary, Prof. Gao explains that already in 1918, Chen Lu, the Chinese government in Beijing’s vice minister of foreign affairs, wrote a letter to Shanghai Zionist Association chairman Elly S. Kadoorie expressing “personal sympathy” for the movement and that following the Balfour Declaration, “the Chinese government had adopted the same attitude toward the Zionist aspirations as the British…”
After Sun’s death, N.E.B. Ezra and another representative of the Shanghai Zionist Association attended his state burial at the invitation of the Chinese government, further demonstrating that the connection was more than just a personal one.
It may seem somewhat surprising that Sun’s letter to Ezra – sent from one Shanghai resident to another – would be written in English.
Yet, according to Prof. Gao, Sun and many other Chinese Nationalist officials during that period were educated in English and were known to employ it as their language of communication, such that even “much of their official correspondence with each other [was] in English.”
It was also certainly in Ezra’s interest that the letter be written in English, so that he could publicize it internationally, which he did, including publication of the letter’s contents in Israel’s Messenger.
Fortunately, the language of the letter also now enables a broad global audience to read it in the original, more than a century after it was written.
Many thanks to Prof. Gao Bei and Rachel Misrati for their expertise and assistance.
Was One of Catholic Spain’s Prominent Religious Scholars Secretly Jewish?
New research suggests that Alfonso de Zamora may have remained true to his faith
For centuries Catholic historians opposed admitting that a prized converso (a Jew who had converted to Christianity) may have actually maintained Jewish identity and practice in secret, regardless of whether he was forcibly dragged to the baptismal font or promised a high post in the Church hierarchy as reward for his heresy.
There were certainly Jews who willingly converted to Christianity, even rabbis such as Solomon HaLevi of Burgos who not only became a respectable Bishop, but an ardent promoter of discriminatory laws against Jews.
However, most Jews who remained in Spain, referred to as “Crypto-Jews”, continued to covertly practice their religion in some form and pass it on to their children. Generations later, the descendants of these conversos continued to flee Spain and Portugal to other lands where they sought to live as free Jews.
The Yeshiva-educated refugee Catholic scholar
One of the Spanish “New Christians” most cherished by the Catholic authorities was Alfonso de Zamora (1474–1545/6). A graduate of the famous Campanton Yeshiva in Zamora, he first escaped to Portugal in 1492, but for unknown reasons returned to Spain around 1497 as a converso.
In a few years we find him in Salamanca as a teacher and a scribe until 1512 when he was transferred to the University of Alcala de Henares. His involvement in the editing of the first Polyglot Bible, his books, scribal and teaching positions raised his esteem and importance at the dawn of the Renaissance.
Throughout that almost 40-year period, he was employed by the highest Catholic prelates, the archbishops of Spain, right under the watchful eye of the Inquisition.
Indubitably he was famous.
Top clerics patronized him, hired him to copy Hebrew books, the grammar books of Rabbi David Kimhi (also known as “Radaq”), books about the Bible, including various commentaries, and so on. But as a “blemished” Christian, Alfonso was cheated in court when he tried to claim his rightful wages from the “upstanding” publisher.
Alfonso could never become head of his department or immune from being summoned to the Inquisition. All he could do was release his fury in innumerable annotations on the margins of his copied books and in his “diary”, preserved at the Leiden University Library.
Textual hints and imagined students
Over the course of fifteen years, at the Institute of Microfilmed Hebrew Manuscripts in Jerusalem (now part of the National Library of Israel), I examined about 70 manuscripts written or edited by Alfonso de Zamora.
During these intense years I could not but conclude that the man’s notes, essays, poems, criticisms, bible commentary, historical records, books, and teaching curriculum reflected a tormented, resentful, bitter and penitent Crypto-Jew.
He wrote almost exclusively in Hebrew.
His poems called out for God’s help to heal his emotional and physical pain, to release him from cursed Spain, to punish the greedy and immoral Spanish society from the king to the Church clerics, the businessmen, and the farmers all the way down to the babies.
He attacked the Popes and the judges and mocked King Carlos V and his administration. He supported, at least in words, the revolt of the comuneros against the nobles and the king, and he attacked judges who had converted to Christianity and abused their powers to discriminate against conversos.
In his commentaries, Alfonso emphasized the ethical superiority of the patriarchs, matriarchs, and kings of the Jews over those of the Christians. He insisted that conversos hold on to hope that God redeem them and bring them back to Zion.
Redemption from the “Trouble,” i.e., the Expulsion, would come only when conversos kept God’s Laws – the Torah – as much as they could.
His advice to the conversos facing the Inquisitors was to stand tall and show knowledge of the Holy Scriptures, for their tormentors were ignorant and inferior. When accused of keeping Jewish customs like avoiding non-kosher foods, he advised to explain them away as stemming from health concerns rather than from religious practices. He encouraged them to continue keeping the Sabbath, to light Sabbath candles, to relinquish debts on the seventh year, and even to keep the counting of the Omer.
Lying to and confusing the Inquisitors was paramount to staying alive.
Alfonso’s Shema was different than the traditional text of this core Jewish prayer. He commanded himself and/or imaginary Jewish students:
“Hear, People of Israel … Know that YHWH who is our God, is YHWH the only One!”
Christian in name
His view of Christianity was clear and unapologetic. He emphatically stated that he did not believe in Christianity nor in the anti-Christ. Christians were those who worshiped mute idols, who would perish before YHWH’s magnificence on the Day of Judgment. Christian dogmas were to kill people. Unlike Judaism, Christianity was flesh-centered, lacking spiritual values. Christians indulged in gluttony; they were fat and boorish; he wished for their dwellings on earth to be destroyed.
At the same time, Alfonso’s public life exemplified pure devotion to his new faith.
He wore a cross and the manuscripts he produced for patrons were adorned with crosses at the top of the pages. One of his major jobs was to find “evidence” within the Hebrew Bible, that portended Jesus’s life and mission, especially in the Books of Isaiah and Daniel. He distorted the texts and took them out of context.
His Christian commentaries and compositions lacked clarity, consistency and logic. Sensing this discrepancy and detachment, he often excused his questionably-founded renderings by describing them as “the spiritual meaning” or as an “alternative.”
To survive his complicated life situation, he subconsciously developed a defense mechanism: Even though Alfonso de Zamora lived a respectable and successful life, he lived in a make-believe, dangerously fragile world.
In Hebrew, he wrote:
“It is better [to gain] freedom [through] resistance than [to live in] peaceful slavery.”
For Alfonso, life in Spain was tantamount to slavery and prison.
In another text, he declared, “We shall not tolerate the abominations [perpetrated on] the holy seed. We shall die before that!” He imagined himself taking up arms to fight back. Through personal notes and comments jotted in the margins of his manuscripts, his frustration is palpable, as are his resolve and hopes, despite knowing that they may forever remained unfulfilled.
Alfonso excused his stay in Spain by comparing himself to Joseph and Daniel, who remained in their respective lands in order to benefit the world by teaching the beauty of Jewish wisdom to the Gentile power structure.
He saw himself not only as a good, honest, and a faithful Jew, but as a man of noble ancestry, as he cited B. Kiddushin 71b: שתיקותיה דבבל היינו יחוסא, “When people keep silent in Babylonia it means a high pedigree.” He described this adage as “A parable for the wise.”
Alfonso was certain that whoever read his compositions would never be able to reveal his secrets which were lodged deep in his heart.
Alfonso de Zamora recognized that in spite of his furtive life, he was a sinner. But he honestly believed that God would forgive him, as he turned to the divine attribute of compassion, saying: “Shaddai will forgive all my iniquities.”
With such belief, he could survive to his dying day.
The author has studied Alfonso de Zamora for two decades. Her comprehensive portrayal of Alfonso de Zamora’s evidence as a Crypto-Jew has just been published in Iberia Judaica XII (2021): 15-45. She has also recently published an historical novel based on de Zamora’s writings entitled Dagger in the Heart,which imagines the adventures of his children to leave Spain, the whereabout of his diary, and the murder of Archbishop Cisneros of Spain. Her complete study of Alfonso de Zamora’s writings is forthcoming.
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.
How the Jews of the Caucasus Used an Epidemic to Trick the Nazis
During the Nazi occupation, Muslims aided efforts to hide the origins of the local Jews, preventing the extinction of a community
German soldiers conquering the Caucasus. Photography: The German Federal Archive
In July of 1942, the German Wehrmacht began occupying territories in the northern Caucasus. Although this occupation lasted only a few months, the Jewish communities of the area were severely impacted. In villages such as Bogdanovka and Menzhinsky, where there were collective kolkhozes of Caucasus Jews (or “Mountain Jews”) and Ashkenazi Jews, large scale massacres were carried out by firing squads.
At first, the Nazis didn’t treat the local Jewish population any differently. They thought that their fate should be similar to that of the European Jews. The term “Mountain Jews”, commonly used by the Russians, disclosed the community’s origins. However, when German forces conquered the city of Nalchik, there were those who tried to challenge the community’s Jewish identity, in a desperate attempt to save it.
At the time, there were thousands of Jews in the city. With heavy bombardment underway, the Nazis ordered the Jews to register with the SS unit that accompanied the German military. The esteemed Efraimov and Shaulov families were the first to be executed. A group of local Jewish leaders, headed by Markel Shaulov, tried to save the community from the threat of annihilation by attempting to convince the Nazis that the Mountain Jews weren’t actually part of the Jewish race. They instead claimed to belong to the Tat people, one of the various ethnic groups living in the Caucasus.
As part of this effort at benevolent deception, the Jewish leaders made use of their excellent relationship with the local Muslim community. The head of the Kabardino-Balkarian National Council appealed to the Nazi command and requested that they treat the Mountain Jews as one of the ethnic communities of the Caucasus.
The German army, which, for political and military reasons, adopted a cautious approach toward the local Muslim population, delayed execution of the order instructing the annihilation of the city’s Jews for a period of two months. During that time, German research institutes, headed by the Reich Genealogical Office, studied the issue. Questions were raised regarding common origins with European Jews, while religious symbols, literature, traditional clothing, customs, and spoken language were also examined. The entire Jewish community tried to cover up any indications of its true identity. Many Jews hid and buried books and sacred objects in the courtyards of their houses.
During this period, a famous event transpired, which is mentioned in several autobiographical accounts of the period. These accounts concern an attempt to secretly remove Torah scrolls from the local synagogue. A group of men, led by the city’s chief rabbi, Nachmiel Amirov, staged a funeral in order to conceal the Torah scrolls and bury them in the ground, while wrapped in funeral shrouds. The fictitious funeral procession advanced toward a cemetery which was located near German headquarters. In order to keep the Nazi SS officers away, the funeral organizers convinced them that the deaths were the result of a typhoid epidemic, which had indeed become widespread during World War II. These rumors of disease caused the SS soldiers to keep their distance, and the Torah scrolls were successfully buried.
The efforts to delay the resolution of the question of the community’s Jewishness finally saved most of the city’s Jews. It wasn’t long before the German army had to withdraw its forces from the Caucasus, following its defeat in the Battle of Stalingrad. However, during this brief period of occupation, the Nazis were able to loot property, harass Jews, and send many to forced labor.