Pearl and the Golem-Maker: A Love Story

How the decades-long romance between the Maharal of Prague and his wife began

The teachings of Rabbi Judah Loew – better known as “The Maharal of Prague”, or simply “The Maharal” – are still widely learned centuries after his death.

An exceptional intellectual figure, the Maharal was also the legendary creator of the Golem of Prague – a creature formed from mud, brought to life thanks to secret mystical knowledge possessed by the wise sage, and let loose to defend the city’s Jews from all-too-common anti-Semitic attacks.

The Old-New Synagogue in Prague, where the Maharal served as rabbi. Some claim that the Golem still lies asleep in its attic. From The Folklore Research Center, Hebrew University of Jerusalem; available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

Though Rabbi Judah looms large in Jewish culture and lore, the woman behind the man has largely been lost to history.

Her name was Pearl.

Pearl and Rabbi Judah had seven kids together: six girls and one boy. They were married for some 65 years, passing away within just a few months of one other – first Rabbi Judah and then Pearl.

From the Prague Haggadah, National Library of Israel

According to an account retold in “Sefer Niflaot Hamaral“, an early 20th century collection of tales about the famous rabbi, this is how Pearl and Judah’s love story began:

Reb Schmelke Reich was a wealthy and respected figure who arranged for a marriage between his daughter Pearl and Judah Loew, a promising 15 year old Torah scholar.

Young Judah headed off to yeshiva to learn and in the meantime, Reb Schmelke’s fortunes reversed and he became very poor, unable to pay a dowry for his daughter to wed.

From the Prague Haggadah, National Library of Israel

Three years after the marriage was arranged, Reb Schmelke wrote to his son-in-law to be, letting him know that seeing as he could not afford a respectable dowry, the young man was freed of his commitment and didn’t have to marry Pearl after all.

The young man wouldn’t hear of it, writing back that he would wait for assistance from on high.

Reb Schmelke’s fortunes didn’t turn around, yet Judah continued to wait… and wait…. and wait…

The righteous young Pearl decided to help her parents out by opening a small bakery and selling bread to support her family. She worked in the bakery for ten years, while her betrothed continued learning Torah, waiting for the day he could marry his beloved.

From the Prague Haggadah, National Library of Israel

Then war broke out.

A horseman galloped up to Pearl’s shop, spearing a large loaf of bread that was sitting out.

From the Prague Haggadah, National Library of Israel

She courageously ran after the horseman, pleading with him not to steal the bread, explaining that her livelihood and those of her aging, impoverished parents depended on income from her shop.

The horseman argued that he had no money, not even enough to pay for a loaf of bread. Instead, he offered an extra saddle blanket he had with him, violently throwing it at her and riding away.

When the frightened Pearl went to inspect the blanket, she found it to be surprisingly heavy. So heavy, in fact, that when she picked it up, it ripped and gold coins came tumbling out.

She promptly gave the riches to her father who used them for the dowry, and after more than a decade of waiting, Pearl and Judah were married.

From the Prague Haggadah, National Library of Israel


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.


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The Siddur That Survived the Nazis

This prayer book was published by Schocken in 1937, a year before Kristallnacht. Decades later, a reader at the National Library was surprised to find in it a clearly visible Nazi seal featuring a swastika...

A stamp featuring a Nazi "Imperial Eagle" clutching a swastika - the "Reichsadler", found on the siddur's title page, photo by Udi Edery

The synagogue in the current National Library of Israel building is located on the top floor. Observant visitors and employees gather here throughout the day to pray. For this purpose, the nearby reading rooms have siddurim (Jewish prayer books) available on their shelves. And so, not too long ago, a student working in the Music Department asked for a siddur so that she could take part in prayers.

Seder Avodat Israel, Schocken, 1937, the National Library of Israel collections, photo by Udi Edery

The young woman was given a siddur that was thicker, heavier and larger than usual, and began to pray. But as soon as she opened the book, she was utterly shocked to see a complete, perfectly clear stamp of the Nazi eagle, its claws clutching a swastika underneath it, surrounded by a caption in German – the Nazi Reichsadler. The seal appeared on the siddur‘s title page below the Hebrew caption which read: “Seder Avodat Israel, including prayers and blessings for the entire year, Shabbat portions and additions, selichot and additional prayers, with Yakin Lashon commentary, authored and edited by Rabbi Seligman Baer (Isaac Dov) Bamberger.”

The title page states that it is a revised edition, published by Schocken in the Hebrew year 5697, or 1937. A year later, the “Night of Broken Glass” – Kristallnacht – would take place, while the racist Nuremberg Laws were already in full effect at the time of publication. The Nazi stamp belonged to the Reichinstituts für Geschichte des neuen Deutschlands library, namely the “Reich Institute for the History of New Germany.”

The title page of Seder Avodat Israel, featuring the Nazi Reichsadler seal, Schocken, 1937, the National Library of Israel collections, photo by Udi Edery

Librarians at the National Library of Israel are very familiar with the stamp and with the Reich Institute, as the seal appears in many books in the library’s collections. The books were brought here immediately after World War II, following the Holocaust, by the Jewish Cultural Reconstruction, Inc. organization. The group’s logo – a Star of David and the JCR’s name in Hebrew – also appears in the book.

The Jewish Cultural Reconstruction, Inc. logo in the siddur‘s bookplate (ex-libris), photo by Udi Edery

The siddur contains another piece of history: a Hebrew label indicating that it was printed under a contract with the M. Lehrberger and Co. publishing house in Frankfurt am Main, “who had the good fortune of publishing the first edition of Seder Avodat Israel.” The Schocken publishing house continued to operate in Germany even after the Schocken family immigrated to Mandatory Palestine, when this was still permitted in Nazi Germany. Books such as this one were printed right up until the beginning of the Holocaust. Like many books belonging to Jews in Germany and in German-occupied countries, they were looted and collected as part of the Nazi plan to document the culture which they were simultaneously systematically destroying.

“Printed under a contract with the M. Lehrberger and Co. publishing house in Frankfurt am Main, who had the good fortune of publishing the first edition of Seder Avodat Israel“, photo by Udi Edery

The original copies of Seder Avodat Israel were published in Rödelheim (a Frankfurt suburb) in 1868 and hundreds of editions were published throughout the years. Seligman Baer was a grammarian whose work focused primarily on prayers and piyyutim (Jewish liturgical hymns). The siddur was also designed to appeal to “modern” Jews who could read Hebrew but spoke German, thus the instructions do not appear in Yiddish but rather in German spelled with Hebrew letters. The commentary on the prayers and piyyutim is philological and summarizes modern research in addition to providing the traditional erudition. The siddur’s target audience was traditionally Orthodox Jews who were acquainted with European languages, Latin, as well as philology and Bible studies.

Seder Avodat Israel, Schocken, 1937, the National Library of Israel collections, photo by Udi Edery

Either way, if you are not a librarian at the National Library of Israel, and you are not accustomed to opening books and finding the Nazi seal in them, then encountering a siddur such as this one can come as a bit of a shock. Indeed, when one holds this prayer book in their hands, the eyes move naturally from the Nazi seal to the stamp of the “Jewish National and University Library”. How fierce is the irony of history – with this siddur now being put to use in Jerusalem, in the National Library of the State of Israel and the Jewish people.


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‘You never knew when there was going to be a pogrom’

Why my grandfather left Europe

Victims of the Khorkov Pogrom, 1919. From the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

When I was six years old, I listened with fascination as my oldest brother interviewed our maternal grandfather, Isidore Weisner. As the youngest in the family, I sat cross-legged beneath the kitchen table, the only place in our cramped kitchen where I could find a spot.

“Grandpa, why did you leave Europe?” my brother asked.

“The pogroms, the pogroms were terrible, and you never knew when there was going to be a pogrom. I didn’t want to live that way, so I left.”

Grandpa died when I was 11, and in the half century since then, the questions I would have liked to ask him have multiplied exponentially. By studying life in Galicia, particularly for young men at the turn of the 20th century, I have begun to better understand the reasons why my  grandfather, like so many others, left his family and the country of his birth.

My grandfather was born in 1889 to Abraham Wiesner and Rose Fleisig. They lived in Kulikow (now Kulykiv, Ukraine), which was just north of Lemberg, Galicia’s provincial capital. Abraham worked as a grain merchant, a common occupation for Galician Jews. At that time, roughly 35% of Kulikow’s inhabitants were Jewish. My grandfather was the youngest of a large family. All his siblings later perished with their spouses and children in the Holocaust, except for one nephew.

Isidore Weisner’s mother Rose in Kulikow, 1926. Inscribed on the back of the photo in German: “A memento from your mother.” (Courtesy: Sharon Taylor)

But long before the cataclysm, in December of 1908, my 18-year-old grandfather left his home and made the long journey to Rotterdam, where he boarded a ship bound for Ellis Island. On the ship, with his funds dwindling, he befriended a well-to-do family who paid him to look after their young children. He spent the 12-day crossing teaching the children to play chess, a skill that has been passed down in my family through generations. He arrived in New York on January 5, 1909, where immigration officials recorded his name as Asryel Wiesner. Sometime after his arrival, eager to sound more American, he changed his first name to Isidore and the spelling of his surname to Weisner.

While most Jews left Galicia in the late 19th and early 20th century to seek better economic opportunities, my grandfather’s decision to emigrate was motivated by anti-Jewish violence. During his childhood, anti-Semitism was on the rise across the crownland. In the spring of 1898, when my grandfather was nine, The Standard of London reported “bread riots” in Lemberg which were quickly crushed. Although hunger was the motive there, the riots spread west and began to target Jews. Just 81 miles (130 kilometers) away in Przemysl, rioters entered the Jewish section of the city, ransacking Jewish homes and shops.  Despite Austrian military intervention, the attacks in Przemysl became so violent that on May 29, The Observer of London reported that “the entire Jewish population has fled.”

Jews and uniformed officials in Przemysl, ca. 1900. From the Folklore Research Center, Hebrew University of Jerusalem; part of the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

Throughout the spring and early summer of that year, anti-Jewish riots continued, mostly in western Galicia. Jewish homes were looted and then set on fire. Christians placed crucifixes, candles, and figurines of saints in their windows in an attempt to save their homes. The military was called to control the violence, but the rioting didn’t subside until the end of June when the equivalent of martial law was proclaimed in several of the most affected districts.

Unlike the pogroms of 1898, most Galician pogroms were local events that were never reported in English-language newspapers. In his book Shtetl Memoirs, author Joachim Schoenfeld gives several accounts of how more localized violence was a daily threat underlying Jewish life in Galicia around the turn of the century. In his hometown of Sniatyn (present-day Snyatyn, Ukraine), Jewish boys rarely ventured from the Jewish parts of town, and Jewish wagon drivers moved their merchandise in groups to avoid becoming targets of violence.

Victims of the Bialystock pogrom, 1905. From the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

An unfavorable bargain in the market square or too much to drink at a wedding could easily turn into a pogrom, with peasants marching through the Jewish streets of the town yelling “Kill the Jews!” Jews were beaten, windows were broken, and shops were looted. Often, it was all over before authorities could arrive. According to Schoenfeld, the Jews of Sniatyn would spend the following days replacing windows and nursing bruises and broken bones, but it wasn’t long before the same peasants were back in the market square doing business with Jewish merchants as if nothing had happened.

A woman surveys her destroyed and ransacked home following the Kishinev Pogrom, 1903.  While the Kishinev Pogrom elicited outcry from around the world, pogroms were a common occurrence throughout Eastern Europe, often garnering little attention outside of the immediately impacted community. From the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

It’s likely that this type of violence occurred in Kulikow, particularly around the time of the contentious election of 1907, which saw the National Democratic Party, with its anti-Semitic rhetoric, winning a number of seats in the Imperial Council in Vienna (the Reichsrat).

My grandfather began his journey to America the very next year. I will never know the details of the pogrom that caused him to leave Galicia, but if I could go back in time to that long-ago interview, that would be one of the first questions I would ask.


A variation of this article first appeared as part of “Leaving Galicia – Poverty, Pogroms, and Draft Evasion” in the March 2020 edition of The Galitzianer, the quarterly research journal of Gesher Galicia. It has been published 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.


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Hand in Glove? or Not? How Manuscripts Should Be Handled

We decided to check, once and for all, whether gloves are necessary when handling rare manuscripts

“But why are you handling that manuscript without gloves?!” This is perhaps the most common question scholars come across every time they are photographed with a manuscript. No doubt about it- handling a manuscript with gloves looks much more impressive. However, in most cases – this can actually do more harm than good.

There are two main reasons for this: The first is the issue of sensitivity. Wearing gloves causes us to lose the natural sensitivity in our hand – our sense of touch. This increases the chances that the person handling the manuscript will damage the very work that they are seeking to examine and preserve. This is especially true when it comes to manuscripts with fine or thin pages.

The second reason is that cotton gloves used by libraries and universities around the world can get just as dirty as bare hands – if not more so.

At most, wearing gloves can be said to be a neutral approach (though as aforementioned, it probably does more harm than good). However, many institutions indeed demand that gloves be used due to norms that have been established over time. A strange result of this is that these institutions often don’t bother teaching their handlers how to properly hold and browse through manuscripts, based on the assumption that glove-use is sufficient. An assumption that turned out to be mistaken.

Dr. Yacov Fuchs, of the National Library of Israel’s Manuscript Department, gloveless while handling a manuscript from the department collection

So the next time you’re handling a rare manuscript (and every manuscript is rare, don’t let anyone tell you otherwise), remember that the best way to read it is with bare hands, which were washed in soap and dried carefully beforehand. However, if the manuscript you intend to touch is infected with a harmful fungus or covered in some sort of hazardous material, it is recommended, and even crucial, that you use gloves. In addition, the room should be properly ventilated and a protective mask should be worn as well. Why would a manuscript be hazardous, you ask? In one recent case, researchers at the University of Southern Denmark discovered three books dating back to the 16th and 17th centuries which were covered in a green pigment containing arsenic – a highly toxic substance that would become even more common in the Victorian era, when it could be found in everyday items. At the time, people were not fully aware of the dangers of the substance.

Incidentally, it is unclear when people started using gloves in libraries and universities in order to handle rare manuscripts and books. This is probably a new practice, which began in the second half of the 20th century. Some associate it with the practice of photographers, who as early as the nineteenth century, used gloves when working with negatives. Or perhaps the answer is concealed in the book, The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco. Have you read it?


The Name of the Rose, by Umberto Eco, (Hebrew edition) Kinneret Zmora-Bitan Dvir Publishing, 1987

Read more on the topic in this study from 2007.


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