The Daring Life and Tragic Death of Tunisia’s Jewish Pop Sensation

Habiba Msika reveled in the pleasures of free love in 1920s Tunis. A rejected paramour ultimately took her life

Habiba Msika, ca. 1920 (Public domain / Colorization and enhancement: MyHeritage)

Tunisian singer and actor Habiba Msika was a legendary figure in Tunis’s 1920s art scene. Msika’s bold nonconformity and tragic fate resonated deeply with her contemporaries, and fascinate me now: I marvel at how she subverted the patriarchy of her time, though violence born of that very misogyny would one day kill her.

The El-Grana marketplace in Tunia, ca. 1900 (Publisher: Lévy & Fils). From The Joseph and Margit Hoffman Judaica Postcard Collection, part of the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

Born in 1899 or 1900 to a family of musicians living in Tunis’s hara (or Jewish quarter), Msika began her musical training at a young age. She was instructed by her aunt, Leila Sfez, who had herself been a diva and cabaret owner. Under Sfez’s tutelage, Msika learned classical Andalusian music (Maalouf) and oud. But it was as a cabaret singer, dancer, and actor that she would become something like the Madonna of her time.

A rebellious soul, Msika crossed boundaries in all that she did: she insisted on playing male roles in her theatrical career (sensing they’d give more range to her talent), and is said to have been the first singer in the country to mix dance and song, a practice that electrified her performances. Despite furious attacks from the conservative press, she sang dozens of songs reveling in the pleasures of free love. The song “Ala Srir Ennoum,” which translates to “In My Bed,” is one of them.

The forthright Msika also aligned herself with the emerging Tunisian nationalist movement. She became the main artistic collaborator of the theater director Mohamed Bourguiba, whose brother Habib Bourguiba would become the first president of independent Tunisia in 1957. With Mohamed Bourguiba, Msika adapted classic European plays into Arabic, and developed original theater productions infused with revolutionary sentiment. In one infamous performance of Les Martyrs de la Liberté, Msika appeared onstage wrapped in a Tunisian flag, crying “Vive la liberté!” The French police stormed the second performance, arrested the cast, and censored the play.

Msika in costume, ca. 1930 (Public domain)

Offstage, Msika’s life was just as dramatic. She was often referred to as “l’aimée de tous”, or “Habibat al-Kul” — a play on her first name that translates to “beloved by all”It’s said that she counted princes of Egypt, Iraq, and Tunisia among her lovers. And she presided over a devoted fan club, a group of male admirers called the Asker Ellil (Soldiers of the Night), who sometimes provided her with financial support. Even so, she amassed a personal fortune through her performances, and was able to achieve financial independence.

Tragically, it was from the Asker Ellil that Msika’s murderer emerged. A much older man named Eliyahu Mimouni became obsessed with her and vowed he’d make her his wife. For five years, he tried to woo her with endless gifts, including a villa she refused to set foot in. Finally, after Msika announced that she would marry her long-time partner Raoul Merle, the enraged Mimouni entered her home one night and burned her to death.

She was thirty years old.

This new rendition of “Ala Srir Ennoum” was recently performed in homage to Habiba Msika’s free and defiant spirit:


A version of this article was originally published by Ayin Press, an artist-run publishing platform, production studio, and research collective rooted in Jewish culture and emanating outward. It was part of Ya Ghorbati: Divas in Exile, a multimedia folio created by Laura Elkeslassy, which takes readers on a musical journey across North Africa to rediscover Judeo-Arab divas from the early twentieth century through the 1960s.

In Ya Ghorbati, singer Laura Elkeslassy musically excavates her family’s history in Morocco, France, and Israel, coming face-to-face with forgotten ancestors and reclaiming a lost family name. Developed in collaboration with music director Ira Khonen Temple, this project weaves together the stories of Judeo-Arab divas from the last century with original recordings and new performances of folk and sacred music. Ya Ghorbati looks across time and space to tell a tale of political upheaval, exile, and displacement—ultimately questioning the supposed binary of Arab and Jew. The project was made possible by the Greater New York Arts Development Fund of the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, administered by the Brooklyn Arts Council; Rise Up; and the New Jewish Culture Fellowship.

An adapted version of the article appears here 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.


Further Reading:
Bessis, Sophie. Les valeureuses. Tunis: Éditions Elyzad, 2017.

Silver, Christopher. The Life and Death of North Africa’s First Superstar, History Today, 2018.



Celebrating English Royalty at Synagogue

Though England's royal coronations are traditionally held at Westminster Abbey, over the years the Jews of the British Empire have celebrated the ascensions of new monarchs in their synagogues, with special prayers tailored for the occasion…

This year (2022) the United Kingdom and much of the world is celebrating Queen Elizabeth II’s Platinum Jubilee, marking her 70th year on the royal throne. Though she became Queen in 1952, her official coronation was held more than a year later, to allow the nation to mourn the death of her father, King George VI, as well as to allow time to prepare a magnificent ceremony.

To mark the momentous jubilee, the UK’s Chief Rabbi composed a special prayer for the occasion.

This, however, was certainly not the first time the Jews of England have prayed for the well-being of their respective kings and queens. Ahead of royal coronations held over the years, special prayers were prepared for Jewish congregations and read in synagogues across the British Empire. These prayers and rituals were published by the Chief Rabbinate as well as other Jewish organizations. Many of the resulting prayer books are preserved today in the collections of the National Library of Israel.

The obligation to pray for the safety and well-being of kings is rooted in a verse from the Mishnah – Pirkei Avot, 3:2:

Rabbi Chanina, the deputy Cohen Gadol, says “Pray for the welfare of the government, because if people did not fear it, a person would swallow their fellow alive.”

(The above translation is taken from here)

The hope conveyed in the words above is that a proper and effective monarchy, meaning one that is not preoccupied with wars and infighting, is more likely to invest its resources and time in good governance, legislation and public order, for the benefit of its subjects, including Jews.

To this day, in Jewish congregations in Britain and the Commonwealth countries, a prayer for the blessing and health of the Queen and the Royal Family is recited before the Musaf Shabbat prayer.

Queen Elizabeth II is England’s longest serving monarch. The previous record holder was her grandfather’s grandmother – Queen Victoria.

Victoria’s coronation was held in 1838, a year after she acceded to the throne. 50 years on, the Chief Rabbinate and the kingdom’s Sephardic community published prayers giving thanks for the protection afforded to the Queen “during a long and prosperous reign”.

From a prayer book published by the British Sephardic community to mark Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee celebrating 50 years on the throne


An Ashkenazi prayer book marking Victoria’s Golden Jubilee

A decade later, Queen Victoria celebrated her 60th year on the throne. Prayers were renewed and even the Jews of Jerusalem published a Hebrew song of prayer, citing “the children of Israel who dwell in Zion and who appreciate your feelings and take part in your joy and in the happiness of your peoples”.

A Hebrew song of prayer celebrating Queen Victoria’s 60th year on the throne, printed in Jerusalem

Victoria’s son and heir, Edward VII, was crowned along with his wife Queen Alexandra in 1902. Once again, in England, Australia and other countries, prayer books containing psalms, hymns such as Adon Olam, special prayers for the protection of the new king and queen as well a general prayer for the safety of the Royal Family were printed. One of the books included the last-minute addition of a thanksgiving prayer in Hebrew on its final page, noting that “the sword hath been put into the scabbard, and the covenant of peace and brotherhood hath been established”.

The coronation was held about a month after the conclusion of the Second Boer War in South Africa. The Chief Rabbinate felt it was fitting to address the issue during the coronation celebrations.

“the sword hath been put into the scabbard, and the covenant of peace and brotherhood hath been established..” – A prayer prepared for the occasion of Edward VII’s coronation, shortly after the conclusion of the Second Boer War, 1902

A Hebrew “Ode on the Coronation of His Most Gracious Majesty Edward VII” was also composed and translated into English and Yiddish. The author, Joseph Massel, had immigrated to Britain from Russia in 1895. He settled in Manchester, where he worked in printing and translation while writing poetry as well. A passionate Zionist, he took part in the Zionist congresses and even hosted Chaim Weizmann in his home.

Ode on the Coronation of His Most Gracious Majesty Edward VII

The next coronation was that of King George V, alongside his wife Queen Mary in 1911. Aside from the more common prayers printed in London, here we have examples of prayers published in distant parts of the British Empire, such as the cities of Bombay and Calcutta in India.

A brief prayer published by the “Gate of Mercy” Synagogue in Bombay
A prayer published in Calcutta, India (today Kolkata). Note that George V is referred to here as “King-Emperor”, as among his other titles he was also considered “Emperor of India”

George V was eventually followed by his son King George VI and his wife Queen Elizabeth in 1937 (Edward VIII was George V’s immediate successor but abdicated before his coronation could be held). Yitzhak Ben Zvi and Rachel Yanait represented the Jewish Yishuv of Mandatory Palestine at the ceremony.

Yitzhak and Rachel Yanait Ben Zvi at the coronation of George VI, Nadav Mann, Bitmuna. From the collection of Benzion Israeli. Collection source: Aharon Israeli, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

In this case as well, a variety of brief prayer books were printed. One of these hailed from Tianjin (Tientsin) in northern China, where a community of some 2000 Jews, mostly refugees from Russia, had settled.

This was the first appearance of Elizabeth II in the coronation prayers, though here she was still a princess. Elizabeth was 11 years old when her parents were crowned, and the prayers made reference to her as well. She also appeared alongside her sister Margaret in official photos of the event.

The coronation prayers of 1937 mention Princess Elizabeth

In the Land of Israel, a “Grand Coronation Ball” was organized to celebrate the event. According to the official programme, primarily filled with advertisements, the ball featured three orchestras, and participants were able to enjoy dances, catering and a fireworks display.

The programme of the “Grand Coronation Ball”, 1937

With the passing of George VI in 1952, Elizabeth II was made Queen. Her mother, also named Elizabeth, now became “The Queen Mother”. The official prayer published by the Chief Rabbinate for the 1953 coronation ceremony features a minor, understandable, mistake. The booklet was printed while Elizabeth’s grandmother, Queen Mary, was still alive and her name appears among those of the other Royal Family members. Mary passed away little more than two months before the official coronation and there was no time to reprint the booklets.

Elizabeth II’s coronation prayer mentions the late Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, as well as her son, Prince Charles, Duke of Cornwall

That same year, the Jewish National Fund planted a forest near the town of Nazareth in honor of the Queen with funds donated from around the world. To mark this occasion, an elegant book was produced, featuring a poem dedicated to Queen Elizabeth II, as well as an article on the subject of the Royal Family and the Jewish people and another article on the topic of forestation and agriculture in the Holy Land. The book also included several photographs of yet another forest planted in honor of George V in 1935.

From a book titled The Queen Elizabeth Coronation Forest, celebrating the trees planted in her honor by the Jewish National Fund

To mark Elizabeth II’s Silver Jubilee, celebrating 25 years on the throne, a special prayer service was held at the central synagogue of the United Synagogue organization, with the Chief Rabbi in attendance along with other dignitaries. After the Rabbi’s sermon, the Holy Ark was opened and the cantor recited:

Five and twenty years have passed since our Gracious Queen ascended the throne. In common with our fellow citizens we pray humbly that Her Majesty will be granted many more years of fruitful and felicitous reign that will continue to shed lustre and glory upon our Sovereign and her people.

Our Father Who art in Heaven,

Bestow Thy bountiful blessings upon Her Majesty the Queen and Prince Philip, upon the Queen Mother and the Prince of Wales. Wonderful in their splendor, may they be richly blessed together with all the Royal Family. Prolong their years in health, well-being and strength…

In this year of joyful remebrance and exultation we are filled with the deepest sentiments of loyalty, esteem and gratitude. We pray for the peace and prosperity of Great Britain, for the security and salvation of Israel and for the redemption of mankind under the sovereignty of God.

May our prayers and supplications find speedy and abiding fulfillment. 



And with that, all that is left is to wish Her Majesty health and happiness.

God save the Queen.

Revealed: Rare Documentation of the Portuguese Inquisition

A recently discovered manuscript documents the first 130 years of the Portuguese Inquisition’s tribunals, mainly in Lisbon. Recorded on the pages are trials conducted by inquisitors and others against newly converted Christians accused of continuing to practice Judaism in secret…

The Portuguese Inquisition

In 2020, the Portuguese Parliament declared March 31 to be the official Memorial Day for the Victims of the Inquisition. This unprecedented initiative by the parliament in Lisbon is indicative of the government of Portugal’s desire to acknowledge the historical trauma of the many that were tortured or punished over the years by the monarchy and the Inquisition.

In 1536, at the request of King John (João) III of Portugal, the Catholic Church initiated the Inquisition following a mass influx into the country of anusim (Jews who had been forced to convert) who had fled the Spanish Inquisition. The forced conversions and persecution by the Inquisition tribunals brutally cut off hundreds of thousands of Jews from their religion, although the exact number of Jewish victims is unknown. The Portuguese Inquisition included particularly cruel punishments often carried out before large crowds that gathered to watch autos-da-fé (public penance rituals for heretics and non-believers). Trials ceased after about 250 years, although Portugal’s Inquisition was only officially abolished in 1821.

A page from the manuscript describing auto-da-fé trials in Lisbon. The Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People, the National Library of Israel

The Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People at the National Library of Israel have revealed a manuscript from the 18th century comprising about 60 pages documenting the first 130 years of the Inquisition tribunal’s activity, mainly in Lisbon. These pages document the trials conducted by inquisitors and others, who often questioned whole families of converts accused of continuing to practice Judaism in secret.

Evidence of the tribunals in Lisbon leaps from the pages of the bound manuscript discovered by the Central Archives. Entitled Memoria de todos os autos da fé que setem feito em Lisboa (“An Accounting of All the Autos-da-Fé that Took Place in Lisbon”), it includes dozens of pages in Portuguese succinctly documenting the autos-da-fé held in the Portuguese capital between the years 1540–1669, with a brief mention of trials that took place in the city of Tomar. Next to the exact dates and locations of the trials the manuscript cites the names of the priests who delivered the sermons. The sermons served as a means of encouraging religious discipline among the Christian masses and were a significant part of the trial, so much so that they were later printed and disseminated separately as a further form of commemoration.

Title page of the auto-da-fé sermon of the priest Phillippe Moreira, printed in 1646, the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People, the National Library of Israel

The manuscript also contains the numbers of men and women accused of heresy and cites the amount of people burned at the stake. Among those prosecuted were “New Christians” accused of “Judaizing.” Yet, it appears from the recently discovered pages that religious practice was not the only reason for the persecutions. “Old Christians”’ (defendants who came from families without any Jewish background) were convicted of sodomy, bigamy, possession of forbidden books, and sacrilege. The punishment mentioned in the pages is exile aboard “a galley ship”, essentially meaning slave labor.

It should be noted that over the centuries, most of the anusim in Portugal abandoned any sign of their Jewish roots that might betray them—circumcision, immersion in the mikvah, and the observance of Jewish holidays. Some, however, continued to observe Jewish rituals in their homes in secret, or commemorate holidays, often a number of days after the actual date. For example, to confuse the inquisitors, some would secretly celebrate Yom Kippur and Passover belatedly, or light Shabbat candles inside pottery vessels to conceal the flames. Children under the age of 12 were not permitted to attend these clandestine religious ceremonies in order to keep them from revealing secrets that might betray their families.

These discoveries shed light on the realities of a complex chapter of Jewish history as well as on the devotion of Iberian Jewry to the observance of religious precepts, even in the direst of times.

Click here to view the manuscript

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What Made This Top Russian Jewish Author Descend into Madness?

Lev Levanda spent decades advocating for Jewish assimilation into Russian culture. It all changed after pogroms shook the empire...

Lev Levanda, seen here in the 1860s, was a leading promoter of "russification", yet ultimately concluded that his life's work was "without purpose". Photo from the National Library of Israel's Abraham Schwadron Portrait Collection

In 1888, Lev Levanda, one of Russia’s most renowned Jewish writers, died in an insane asylum outside of St. Petersburg. He was 53 years old. In the decades before the pogroms of 1881-82, he, along with many others, had called for “russification” as a solution to the “Jewish Question”. Russification meant that Jews should speak Russian, study in Russian schools, join its cultural life; in other words, love Russia. All that came to a crashing end with the pogroms of 1881-82, and the subsequent antisemitic legislation known as the May Laws.

Levanda’s life is significant in our own day for a variety of reasons. Through Levanda we can learn a great deal about Russian Jewry of the 1880s. He was a central figure in a brilliant generation of maskilim, Jewish intellectuals of the 1860s, who were the first Jews to enter Russian culture in large numbers. He was one of the fathers of Russian-Jewish literature (creative writing and journalism by and about Jews in the Russian language). However, in the 1880s, after the pogroms, he began to write differently, expressing the anger of a cultural insider who had been rejected by his adoptive parents. Levanda’s choices help us piece together a history of Jewish discourse about Russia, Russian literature, and Jewish culture in the key decade after the pogroms of 1881-82.

Illustration of Jews being harassed during a pogrom in Kiev, while police look on. Published in the February 4, 1882 edition of The Penny Illustrated Paper (Public domain)

In his day, Levanda was widely known thanks to his literary output. Among his major novels are Seething Times (Goriachee vremia), The Grocery Affair (Delo bakaleinykh tovarov), Sketches of the Past (Ocherki proshlogo), The Big Fraud (Bol’shoi Remiz), The Magnate’s Anger and Mercy (Gnev i milost’ Magnata), and Avraam Iezofovich (1887). In 1860, he was one of the original founders of Rassvet, the first Jewish newspaper published in the Russian language, and he was also a consistent contributor to Voskhod, the long-standing Russian-Jewish newspaper established in 1879. Besides Jewish newspapers, Levanda also contributed to Vilenskii Vestnik (The Messenger of Vilna), a paper later known for its antisemitic bent.

Levanda’s initial reaction to the pogroms was fury.  However, once the initial shock of the pogroms passed, Levanda reexamined his ideas and found them wanting. He began to express new views in the Russian-language press, using the pseudonym “W”, though it is unclear why he needed a pseudonym at all given that many knew the author’s true identity, and the censors ripped apart some of his articles in any case.

Himself a Russian-language author, Levanda had often used sarcasm, irony, and skaz narrative (use of a voice other than the author himself), just as Russian authors did. But now, in the 1880s, he used these tools not to affirm his affiliation with the Russian literary tradition, but to mock it. Instead of showing confidence in the attainment of the great nineteenth-century value of progress – the triumph of reason over superstition, prejudice, and oppression – Levanda put his doubts into print. In fact, his writings from this period reflect a mind racked with pain.

Portrait of Lev Levanda printed in Vilna, ca. early 1860s. From the Abraham Schwadron Portrait Collection at the National Library of Israel

The titles of his articles in the 1880s give an indication of his mood. “Flying Thoughts of One Unable to Grasp It” (“Letuchie mysli nedoumevaiushchego”), “Modest Conversations about Last Year’s Snow” (“Skromnye besedy o proshlogodnem snege”),  “On the Subject of How a Mountain Gave Birth to a Mouse” (“O tom, kak gora rodila mysh”), and “Convoluted Speeches” (“Bezsviazye rechi”).

He was especially agonized by the nefarious role of Russian literature in the persecution of Jews. Formerly his moral lodestar, Russian literature was now a tool of his enemies. It had been used to betray its ideals of universalism and ethical idealism. Simultaneously, Levanda turned his bile on the community of writers who projected optimism. He recoiled at their frivolous attitude toward serious issues, referring to their attitude as concern with ”last year’s snow”.

Focusing on a famous line from Alexander Pushkin’s poem, “The Prophet”, in which the great Russian author refers to “burning the hearts of people with the word,” Levanda condemned Jewish journalists, despite being one. By mocking a poem that for Russians of his generation represented a sacred promise to help the underprivileged, Levanda committed blasphemy.  By criticizing Pushkin and Russian society, Levanda indicated that the promise of social-progress (as projected in the Pushkin poem) was a lie. The poem reflected Levanda’s rage at Russian literature. Pushkin, who previously represented everything good, had also turned upside-down.

Portrait of Alexander Pushkin by Pyotr Sokolov, 1836 (Public domain)

Levanda continued his assault on Russian literature by reinterpreting Nikolai Nekrasov’s famous poem, “Who Lives Well in Russia?” For Levanda’s generation, Nekrasov represented the idea of moral progress. Levanda purposefully distorted the poem, thereby reversing Nekrasov’s reputation and possibly disowning the entire Russian literary tradition. In an article from June 1881, he quotes Nekrasov’s poem, adding his own subjective commentary in parentheses at the end of each line:

You are poor (in bread)
You are rich (in drunken stupor)
You are powerful (in appetite)
You are powerless (in will)
Mother Russia!

Levanda pummeled other sacred cows, such as the Jewish youth on which he had placed so much trust to help enact social change. However in 1885 he depicted a different group, one that betrays traditions and family honor for the sake of material success:

“The wild flow of the present day, having washed away the stable, proper, and comfortable home of earlier days, left in their place a huge, full, joyless, and thin swamp, in which creatures with human form, one uglier than the next, dawdle, flounder, rise from the water, cling, press against one another, push, and strangle each other, so that each holds himself somehow on the smelly surface, although at the price of the others’ destruction.”

Levanda also expressed disappointment in Russian officials, another category of people in which he had placed his faith. From his previous beliefs in the good nature of Russian officials, to the promise of Jewish youth, the value of Jewish journalism and, above all, Pushkin and Russian literature, when it became clear that his former ideals were empty of promise, Levanda disowned them.

He also began to seek new ideological solutions to the problems of his day. For a brief moment he became enamored with Zionism, or more precisely, Hibbat Tsiyyon and its goal of developing a Jewish home in the Land of Israel. In 1884, his article, “The Essence of the So-Called ‘Palestine’ Movement (A Letter to the Publishers),” appeared in the volume, Palestine: a Collection of Articles and Information about the Jewish Settlements in the Holy Land, edited by Vasily Berman and Akim Flekser.[1]

The clothing of these late 19th century Zionist pioneers in Rehovot reflects Russian influence. Part of the Israel Archive Network project, made accessible thanks to the collaborative efforts of the Yad Ben Zvi Archive, the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage and the National Library of Israel

Levanda hailed the successes of the fledgling movement that no one had expected would survive. The Zionists, he wrote, had forged a new path, started something practical by settling in the Land of Israel. Levanda raved about a change in psychology, underscoring the difference between generations. Earlier, he wrote, Jewish intellectuals (including himself) sought solutions in theory; they wondered, how to solve the “Jewish Question”? Their answer depended not only on ideas, but also on the ruling powers. Since these theories had brought few results, the new generation turned to praxis.

Levanda explained:

“Has the solution to the Jewish question progressed from the time of Haman to our present day? […] The thing is this, through bitter experience, I have become convinced that theory, useless theory, will not drive the Jewish Question out of the vicious circle where it got stuck at the very beginning of its appearance. Our national instinct whispers to us: ‘Try to introduce practical action, basing it not on words, but actions from which one may expect results.’”

Nonetheless, Levanda only tenuously attached himself to the movement, and certainly did not assume a leadership role. In fact, before long, Levanda cut his ties with Hibbat Tsiyyon, rejecting its ideology and focusing on Russia, and the more general cultural achievements of Jewish diasporas.

“In its essence Jewish national identity composes an exceptional phenomenon in history so much so that, despite logic and the most convincing theories, a definite territory is perhaps more harmful than useful. Jewish national identity strengthened itself and became crystalized precisely at the time when the Jewish people’s land had been taken away.”

Although Levanda seemed to advocate something like “diasporism,” the view that the Jews have developed more effectively outside of the Land of Israel than in it – he did not focus on this idea for long.

During the mid-1880s, the seeds of his nervous illness were growing. As a child, the folklore scholar Mortkhe Rivesman saw Levanda in Vilna and wrote about him:

“The patriotism of L. O. Levanda and many other Jewish ‘russofiles’ declined significantly. One should presume that the break in his sermonizing about ‘assimilation’ with the Russian people who had become the anchor of autocracy shook his entire spiritual world. He even became a Proto-Zionist and died from a painful spiritual ailment at age 53.”

Simon Dubnov describes meeting Levanda in 1886:

“Finding myself in Vilna, I considered it my duty to visit L. O. Levanda who was ill. I was warned about the writer’s strangeness; during the last years he had locked himself in and avoided meeting people, but I wanted to see the author … the bard of enlightenment and russification who had turned into a Proto-Zionist before my very eyes.

The conversation was lifeless until I mentioned his articles, The Fates of Jews in Congress Poland, that had been published in Voskhod. […] Here my partner became animate and bragged with a child’s exclamation. ‘Of course I was called upon to write such things because I know Polish literature well.’ And then again a strange coldness wafted from the twisted figure of this man who was far from old (he was only 52) with his obviously disturbed soul. With a mournful feeling I left this living symbol of the extinguished torch of ‘enlightenment,’ and a bit more than a year later, I read in Voskhod about Levanda’s death in a psychiatric hospital near Petersburg.”

Observers give us a good perspective, but the emotions that Levanda felt may be perceived from his own expression. He doubted, worried, and suffered. One can grasp his emotional condition by examining his response to the suggestion to celebrate his 25th anniversary as a writer. In this exchange of letters (we only have Levanda’s letter to Alfred Landau, the editor of Voskhod, and the Hebrew poet Yehuda Leib Gordon), we perceive Levanda’s emotional loneliness as well as his refusal to consider his literary work as an achievement or service to the Jewish people.

Landau believed that Levanda had improved the lives of thousands of Jews who had learned Russian from reading him, and wanted to recognize Levanda’s career.

On June 16, 1885, Levanda replied to Landau, refusing any honors:

“I do not want it [a celebration] because it is not the time for anniversaries, because I am not in the mood for celebrations now, because if I don’t care to recognize the fact that the Jewish public has been reading me for 25 years, they shouldn’t cheer that I’ve been writing for them for 25 years, but, alas, without purpose. I know more than anyone else about it, and therefore I do not acknowledge any services rendered on my part and did not correct anything through my writing. It’s sad, but true, and the truth is more valuable to me than holy incense, especially one undeserved.”

Levanda wanted the anniversary to pass without notice, as it seemed inauthentic to him. Incidentally, Levanda detested Landau personally which probably also contributed to the former’s hostility. Levanda’s assertion that he wrote “alas, without purpose” is somewhat difficult to understand logically. Jews, the vast majority of whom were Yiddish speakers, had in fact rushed to learn Russian. By saying that his 25 years of writing had no purpose, his point was to imply that integration into Russian culture ultimately had no purpose. This claim was obviously influenced by the pogroms, which, as far as he was concerned, had invalidated his decades of literary activity.

Lev Levanda’s disappointment alone could explain his insanity, but other factors clearly contributed, as well: his inescapable emotional reaction to the pogroms, potential feelings of guilt, resistance to physical integration with Russians, and his apparently ultimately fruitless soul-searching. These multiple and overlapping factors illuminate his degenerative emotional condition.

Following the bloody pogroms and enactment of the so-called May Laws, antisemitic legislation that impeded the movement, business, and education of Jews in Russia,  Levanda saw his dream and life’s work shatter before his very eyes.  Russian Jews, led by Levanda and others, had been living in an illusion all the while.

His emotional journey and descent into madness ultimately reflected the dilemmas, disillusionment and despondency of at least one entire generation of Russian Jews.

A version of this article was originally published in Prooftexts: A Journal of Jewish Literary History. It appears here 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.