Memories from my Sephardic Grandparents, by James Russell

Greek songs and stories, a book from Morocco, and one ruby-eyed snake ring...

Ladino speakers from opposite edges of the Mediterranean, Russell's maternal grandparents passed down a rich and curiosity-sparking cultural inheritance

My maternal grandmother, Marguerite Sananes, née Saltiel, of blessed memory (1900-1997), was a native of the northern Greek city of Salonica (Tk. Selanik, Gk. Thessaloniki).

At the time of her birth it was one of the great ports of the Ottoman Empire. Her forebears on that side of our family had fled to safety in Muslim Turkey from Toledo in 1492 following the infamous edict of expulsion by Ferdinand and Isabella. Like other Sephardim (except for those from the other kingdom of the Iberian peninsula, Portugal, of course) we preserved the Judeo-Spanish language, Ladino or Judezmo, which my mother Charlotte, her three sisters Esther, Clarice, and Gloria (may their memory be for a blessing), Grandma, and my Great-grandmother Rachel of blessed memory all spoke as their native tongue.

Sephardim wrote Ladino in the notoriously difficult Hebrew cursive called Solitreo; they printed it in “Rashi” and standard square-character Hebrew letters. Great-grandma Rachel (whom we called Manache) knew Ladino, Italian, and, I am told, some Greek and Turkish, and that was enough— by the time I knew her she had reverted to Spanish alone.

Excerpt from a letter in Solitreo script. From the National Library of Israel collection

Manache had learned English well enough to pass the test on the US Constitution for her citizenship examination, and to converse fluently with my father, an American-born Ashkenazi Jew innocent of Ladino, not to mention Turkish or Bulgarian. Manache passed away in 1964 at the age of 96.

In the year of Grandma Marguerite’s birth, Salonica was the only great city on earth with a majority Jewish population. Most of the Jews belonged to the working classes, and they spearheaded the nascent labor movement in the Ottoman Empire. Many were stevedores, and on Shabbat, the port came to a standstill.

A Jewish porter in Salonica, early 20th century. 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 National Library of Israel Digital Collection

Grandma Marguerite told me when I was very young how she used to distribute socialist newspapers in Ladino to workers at the waterfront— she reminisced about the famous White Tower (Gk. Leukos pyrgos) by the sea. Our family attended the synagogue called Los figos locos, “The Wild Figs”, which, she explained, was named after a place remembered from the Toledo of the fifteenth century.

These memories were still vivid after nearly half a millennium: many Jews still kept the keys to the houses in Spain that they had been forced to abandon.

In the Balkan Wars, when Grandma was twelve, the city reverted to the Kingdom of Greece and returned to its original name, Thessaloniki. Grandma had attended the school of the Alliance Israelite Universelle, where she learned fluent French, and had been set to attend college in Auteuil. But the World War broke out in 1914 and those plans never materialized; she became a journalist for a local newspaper.

Her knowledge of French enabled her to find a job with the French military authorities and to feed our family during the famine in the aftermath of the conflagration that devastated the city, particularly the poorer, Jewish neighborhoods, in 1917.

View of Salonica from the Jewish cemetery around the time of World War I. 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 National Library of Israel Digital Collection

Manache broke her hip during the Great Fire. It was never set; and when I was little she used to get about the house with a great cane. She was a tall, gaunt woman, bedridden in her last years, and used to call me to her saying “Camina, pasha!” –  “Walk, little prince!”

Grandma, her parents, and many other members of the Saltiel and Ben Ruby families immigrated to the United States in 1920, sailing from Piraeus— the port of the Greek capital, Athens— on the Meghali Ellas, (“Greater Greece”, after the grandiose plan of Venizelos to liberate Ionia and the Hellenic communities of Pontus and the Anatolian interior from Turkish rule).

Greek immigrants board a small boat that will take them to a ship bound for America, ca. 1910

It ferried thousands of Greek, Jewish, and Armenian immigrants from Athens to the New World. Grandma used to describe the good ship to me when I was a boy as rather less grand than its name might suggest: “half a walnut shell”.

Over the month-long passage the only food was bread and onions that were, she used to add, not very fresh. But the Meghali Ellas bore its passengers safely to New York.

Great-grandmother Rachel was a clairvoyant and practiced magic: I remember being told that she would go and sacrifice a black cock at midnight over the grave of the spirit she discerned had caused an illness in the family. Manache wore a gold ring of entwined snakes, one with a single ruby eye; the other, with a single diamond eye: I inherited it upon her death.

Great-grandmother Rachel’s mysterious snake ring (Photo: James Russell)

It may have significance as an apotropaic amulet, cf. the brazen serpent Nechushtan of Moses. I am named after her husband Ya‘aqov, whom people called “el bueno“, “the good”, for his kindness and his honesty in business.

In Ottoman Salonica he had been a grain merchant: he was a polyglot and used to strike a verbal deal with the farmers up north in the partly Slavic-speaking province of Macedonia and in Bulgaria, and seal the contract for the price for the year’s crop with a handshake. He always paid the agreed sum, even if it turned out to be a bad harvest. So he was good, if not rich.

The family settled on upper Park Avenue in Manhattan— then as now a poor neighborhood. They advertised for a suitable match for Grandma in the Ladino newspaper, and when each swain came to call, the women would leave a book on the table and hide in the kitchen to see what the prospective spouse did with it.

Most men showed no interest in the book. (That is fair enough, in retrospect: they had not come to visit a library.) One fellow did, but as he was holding it upside-down it was plain he was not literate and therefore a bad match.

Finally, a somewhat older gentleman immersed himself in the volume, not looking up right away when the ladies emerged. So Grandmother married him.

Joseph Sananes, my maternal grandfather, was also a Sephardic Jew and Ladino speaker, but from the other Mediterranean edge of the Iberian dispersion: Tetuan, on the northern coast of Morocco.

The Jewish Commerce Street of Tetuan, ca. 1900. 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 National Library of Israel Digital Collection

The newlyweds settled in a large, comfortable house in the Bensonhurst neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York. Grandpa was a successful businessman in the 1920s.

Those were the days of the Prohibition of liquor in the United States, so he grew grapes in the backyard and made Shabbat wine for our family, as well as the strong anisette liquor raki. Grandma baked honeyed kadayif pastry and cooked the Moroccan tejine for him, along with the traditional Shabbat adafina stew and the delicious dishes of the Jews of Greece.

Ethnic memory in America is often culinary, partly because such innocuous things spice quaintly the melting pot of the shared, diverse culture, but partly too because tastes and smells of early childhood have a visceral power in the memory.

The stock market crash of 1929 that ushered in the Great Depression wiped out the family finances, but Grandpa worked very hard and managed to support his wife, four daughters, and a large extended family. He would enjoy a small glass of raki when he came home from work, and my mother told me he regularly studied the works of the eleventh-century philosopher and Torah sage, the Rambam (Maimonides).

On Shabbat and other holidays, visitors would come to call and Grandma served them raki, coffee, and homemade candied orange peel. The other Moroccan Jews – some of whom were unlettered, rough men – considered my gentle, learned Grandpa a “hakham“, and turned to him as a sage and adjudicator of disputes.

My Grandfather Joseph Sananes, passed away in 1956, when I was three; but I am told he and I were great friends: once one evening after supper he gave me a thimbleful of Turkish coffee in my parents’ apartment on the southwest corner of 164th Street and Broadway in Manhattan and I giggled all night long.

Joseph Sananes shortly before he passed away (Courtesy: James Russell)

I still treasure his silver tiger-eye ring and have the painted wooden stool embossed with metal studs that he made for me.

Joseph Sananes’s ring (Photo: James Russell)

But the most precious inheritance is a Psalter given him when he left Morocco for the new world, around 1900 (see Plates 5, 6, and 7). This Sefer Tehillim was printed at Livorno, in the year encoded on the title page as “Ve-zot ha-berakha“, “And this is the blessing” [= 5626, 1865 CE] with the owner’s name embossed on the tooled red leather cover:

“With peace upon Israel! Shelomo son of David/ N[ahon?], May the right hand of God preserve us, in the city of Tetuan, may God protect her.”

There follows a dedication on the verso of the title page:

“This book is a gift given as a memorial of love and affection to one close to me who is from amongst those who know God’s law, the friend of my soul and spirit: in honor of Rav Joseph Sananes, may his Rock watch over him. ‘And thou shalt discourse upon it by day and by night.’ (Joshua 1.8) The Psalms of King David, peace be upon him: may he by his merit defend us and all Israel, Amen.”

Shelomo ben David’s signature in the cursive Solitreo script used for Ladino follows.

This much, then, for the circumstances of the written evidence.

“Write it down!” the historian Simon Dubnow commanded the Jews of the ghetto of Riga before the Nazis murdered him in 1941. So, one writes, in love and vengeance.

But of the life itself there is much more that cannot be set down in any book, but that moves and speaks in color and sound and scent in the tableaux vivants of the chambers of the mind where the past lives— the lazy warm light of a Sunday afternoon, the taste of fish cakes and rice with tomato sauce and fried peppers in a little Brooklyn kitchen, the crackle of fijuela pastries, the hard sweet rolls called roscas.

Coffee brewing. The voices.

Marguerite Sananes, née Saltiel, shortly after her arrival in New York, ca. 1920 (Courtesy: James Russell)

Stories about Djuha, the holy fool, and the way Grandma told them as cousin Michelle and I hung on every word in enraptured delight: The time he taunted the cat who snatched his fish by saying, “You’ve got the fish, but I have the recipe!” or the time he asked the wind to help him carry the heavy bag of flour he needed to bring home…

The melody of the Greek lullaby Grandma sang “Samiotissa” (“The girl from Samos”) and of the Ladino song “La vida dó por el raki” (“I would give my life for raki!”)

Picnics and laughter.

And still, beyond, remoter memories: a white tower, the flowering Aegean sea, men in fezzes, the hushed Sabbath of Salonica.

And before that, in the backward and abysm of time, wild fig trees in a dry Castilian landscape, and the arabesques adorning the walls of a holy house in Toledo.

It is said that the Holy One, Blessed be He, will accomplish the resurrection of the dead through His perfect memory of all they were and all there was.

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

In Photos: Jewish Africa

Jono David's 'never-ending Jewish photo tour' led him to document a diverse collection of the African continent's often-overlooked Jewish communities, both new and old

Lemba community members. Manavhela, Limpopo Province, South Africa ©Jono David

In July 1997, I embarked upon a six-week rail odyssey from Beijing, China to London, England.

The journey was the realization of a long-held dream. Its promise was greater than I could have imagined.

Sojourns in bucolic Mongolia and at Lake Baikal, the world’s deepest and largest freshwater lake, in Siberia, did not disappoint. Down the line, I would alight in Moscow, St. Petersburg, each of the Baltic states, and Warsaw, before pulling into London’s Waterloo Station, spitting distance from the shabby digs I once called home.

But something unforeseen happened on that great adventure.


Unexpected change of course

In Irkutsk, I stopped into the synagogue and was warmly welcomed by a few locals and an American visitor who was residing there temporarily for a research project. The encounter unwittingly set in motion an entirely different thought approach to the journey.

Irkutsk Synagogue, August 1997. Irkutsk, Russia ©Jono David. Click image to enlarge

While I was wholly engrossed in everything the train journey in itself had to offer, I became equally focused on my Russian Jewish roots on my father’s side. When I reached Poland, I wondered about my Polish Jewish heritage on my mother’s side and, more specifically, where my great-grandmother’s hometown may be. I knew her — and her latkes — well. She passed away when I was 18.

By the time I got home to Osaka, Japan (where I had been living since 1994) that September, my mind was already made up: I was going to go back to Central Europe in February-March with the sole intent of taking as many “Jewish photographs” as possible.


My first “official” Jewish photo tour

I flew to Frankfurt, then took a train to Prague. From there, the haphazard journey took me to several corners of the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Poland and Austria.

It was utterly unorganized. No appointments. No advance permissions. No schedules. No benefit of the internet. And poor photo skills.

I could not have known it at the time, but the trip was my first “official” Jewish photo tour. It sparked a lifelong commitment to documenting the Jewish world in photographs.

Photo taken at Auschwitz in February 1998, on the author’s first “official” Jewish photo tour ©Jono David. Click image to enlarge

Over the years and many trips of a lifetime later, I realized it was time for something bigger, better, bolder. In 2010, I turned my sights to Jewish Africa. While I had previously visited some parts of northern Africa and traversed southern Africa, those trips — like the Trans-Siberian Railway — were primarily for tourism peppered with a few Jewish photo ops. In other words, they were not Jewish photo tours per se, and they were certainly not structured.

I had merely amassed a collection of images. But Jewish Africa was going to be different.


Developing African Jewish communities

Between August 2012 and April 2016, I embarked upon eight unique Jewish Africa photo tours comprised of some 60 total weeks of travel to 30 countries and territories. Ultimately, I archived some 65,000 Jewish Africa photographs, and I did so with the aim of answering one primary question: Who are the Jews of Africa?

Beth Yeshourun Jewish Community spiritual leader Serge Etele (L) inspects a new mezuzah at the Ambomo family home. Douala, Cameroon ©Jono David. Click image to enlarge
Matzoh Bakery. Hara Kebira, Djerba, Tunisia ©Jono David. Click image to enlarge

I was particularly interested in the emerging Black Jewish communities in places such as Uganda, Kenya, Ghana, Madagascar, Gabon, and Cameroon. Over the last 20 or so years, the phenomenon of religious renouncement and self-conversion to Judaism has – in some cases, such as in Ghana, Cameroon, and Gabon – grown with the rise of internet connections there: Real-time connections are weaving a Black Jewish tapestry across the continent.

Children of the Kasuku Jewish Community. Kasuku, Ol Kalou, Nyandarua, Kenya ©Jono David. Click image to enlarge

So far, these small but fervent communities remain largely ignored by official entities in Israel and in the mainstream Jewish world — the century-old Abayudaya community in Uganda is officially recognized by Conservative Judaism, but that is an exception.

Connections with outside Jewish organizations and rabbis are increasing, however, and official Jewish recognition remains an important aim.


European roots across the continent

In my travels, these communities held a particular fascination, but I was equally mindful of the European-rooted congregations. I was curious not merely about their history, but about their manifestations of Jewish life in comparison to the familiar ways in Europe.

The community in South Africa, for instance, began mainly under British rule in the 19th century. They are predominantly Ashkenazi Jews descended from pre- and post-Holocaust immigrant Lithuanian Jews. Between about 1880 and 1940, the community had swelled to some 40,000 (it peaked at about 120,000 in the 1970s).

Ketubbah (Jewish marriage contract), Benoni, South Africa, 1922. From the National Library of Israel collection

It may even be said that a Jewish influence in the region dates back to the 1400s and Portuguese exploration with Jewish cartographers who assisted explorers Bartolomeu Dias and Vasco da Gama. But it was not until the 1820s that Jews had any significant presence. In 1841, they built their first synagogue in Cape Town. In the 1880s, a gold rush lured thousands more Jews, mainly from Lithuania.

Over the years, Jews all across the southern African region have had a disproportionately large influence on local society, politics, business, and history. In fact, the same may be said of Jewish settlements from Kenya to northern African nations too.

Upshernish at Northcliff Hebrew Congregation. Northcliff, Johannesburg, Gauteng, South Africa ©Jono David. Click image to enlarge

Jewish colonies in what are today Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Zambia, and Namibia all thrived. They built their synagogues, schools, and social centers very much in European architectural styles — with some notable exceptions in South Africa, which feature Cape Dutch designs and in the Maghreb, which feature Islamic and Moorish lines — and maintained all the trappings, traditions, customs, and culinary flavors from their homelands. I found these consistencies compelling evidence of the ties that bind Jews the world over.

Windhoek Hebrew Congregation Synagogue. Windhoek, Namibia ©Jono David. Click image to enlarge
Rabbi Bisal El Synagogue. Hara Kebira, Djerba, Tunisia ©Jono David. Click image to enlarge
Synagogue at Talmud Torah Jewish School. Sefrou, Morocco ©Jono David. Click image to enlarge

Despite their successes in these far-flung lands, there were hardships aplenty. Early settlers in the southern African region forged across dry and dusty lands to create new settlements. Some sought riches in diamonds, sealing and whaling, and ostrich farming. Others, meanwhile, went on to prominent political and judicial posts. Yet, anti-Semitism had not been entirely left behind in Europe.

Though freedom of worship was granted to all South African residents in 1870, an 1894 law, for instance, debarred Jews from military posts and various political positions. In 1937, the Aliens Act aimed to stem the flow of Jewish refugees coming from Germany. Jews also faced resistance from pro-German Afrikaners. And they waded through the emotional and moral minefield that was apartheid.

Today, while Jewish communities of the southern African region shrink and ancient ones of the Maghreb cling on (notably in Morocco and Tunisia), Black Jewish groups are growing in number, in location, in commitment. Following subjugation over the centuries by both political and religious invaders, motivating factors for this Jewish awakening are rooted in a quest for truth and identity: a truth rooted in the tenants of Judaism and the Torah, an identity founded in self-determination.

Book cover, The Jews of Africa: Lost Tribes, Found Communities, Emerging Faiths

My photographs endeavor to weave together this complex tapestry of the Jewish African peoples segregated by historical, cultural, linguistic, and regional divides yet united by a faith in Hashem.


Since the late 1990s, British-born photographer Jono David has traveled the globe, amassing an extensive archive of contemporary images of Jewish heritage and heritage sites in the world – a growing compendium of more than 120,000 photographs from 116 countries and territories. His recent book, The Jews of Africa: Lost Tribes, Found Communities, Emerging Faiths, is based on years of travel to some 30 African countries and territories. It includes 230 photographs and 14 essays by scholars, rabbis, and members of Jewish African society.

A version of this article first appeared on Jewish Heritage Europe. It has been published 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.

The Age of Discovery as Reflected in Antique Maps

The Age of Discovery led to the broadening of human knowledge about the geography of the world we live in and landscapes and peoples in faraway regions in America and Asia. These discoveries are reflected in antique maps preserved in the National Library

This year marks the 500th anniversary of the death of the famous explorer Ferdinand Magellan. His voyages in the service of the Portuguese and Spanish crowns led to the discovery of sailing routes and parts of the world that were previously unknown in the West. It is possible to trace Magellan’s travels and discoveries as well as the knowledge accrued by other travelers and researchers during the Age of Discovery by studying the antique maps preserved in the Eran Laor Cartographic Collection at the National Library of Israel.

Gregor Reisch’s unique world map from 1503 is one such interesting example. The basic format of the map follows the famous Ptolemy world map, which includes the ancient world that was known to geographers before the Age of Discovery.

However, at the bottom of this map, on the land bridge linking Southeast Asia to Africa there is an inscription (marked in yellow): “Here there is no continent but a sea with islands that were not known to Ptolemy.” This is the first ever reference on a printed map hinting at Columbus’ discoveries and his belief that he had discovered islands off the coast of Asia.

This is also the first time that the winds are depicted as individualized, stylized faces (and not as cherubs as had been the practice until then); one of the winds is even wearing spectacles, the first printed representation of their use.

As everyone knows, one of the most significant finds of the Age of Discovery was Columbus’ discovery of America in 1492. In the first decades after Columbus’ voyage, the continent was referred to on maps as the “New World”:

A New Description of America the New World, 1570

This map of North and South America from 1596 titled “America the New World” includes the figures of explorers Columbus, Amerigo Vespucci, Magellan and Francisco Pizarro, along with the year of their voyages, as well as depictions of ships, an anchor, and navigation tools such as compasses and maps.

Ferdinand Magellan
Amerigo Vespucci after whom the continents of America are named

The Clover Map, 1585, presents the continents of the ancient world in the shape of three clover leaves, with “America the New World” in the lower left corner.

This map represents the old and the new. On the one hand, it presents the three continents of Europe, Asia and Africa as well as the religious motive behind the map’s creation, with Jerusalem at the center and the city of Rome – the seat of the Pope – also highlighted.  On the other hand, the map also features the “new” geographical reality – the discovery of the continent of America.  Although the book from which the map is taken deals with sacred literature, the author felt he could not ignore the new discovery and decided to include it in the map.

World atlas, 1585

The first map appearing in the atlas is a world map that includes America. A caption in the southwestern part of the map refers to Magellan’s discoveries.

The second map in the atlas is entitled “America the New World.”

This meticulously hand-painted pocket atlas makes use of gold leaf to give it an impressive, high-quality finish.

Map of America, circa 1610

The map features the captions Nova Francia, (today—most of the Quebec region in Canada) and Nova Hispania (today—the central United States and the countries of Central America). With the discovery of these new lands, the European powers were quick to take control of the territories and exploit them for their own needs.

The Europeans who came to South America viewed the indigenous peoples of the new continent with curiosity and they adorned the maps with illustrations depicting the daily lives of the natives. Here, indigenous people in Brazil make an alcoholic beverage from the manioc root (fermentation of the plant root involves a process of cooking, chewing and spitting).

Hunters and fishermen in boats:

This picturesque map includes both local and mythological fauna. In the sea, we can see a flying fish and a sea monster, and along the bottom frame, the map’s illustrator includes birds native to South America.

The explorers were not always able to accurately determine the nature of their discoveries in real time. An example of this is the representation of the Baja California Peninsula:

Map of North and Central America, 1669, with the incorrect identification of the Baja California Peninsula as an island.

One can see that the shoreline is mapped in relative detail, while the interior is mostly empty because the cartographers did not yet have the time to study it and map it accurately. Illustrations of animals typical of the area do appear on the map.

This world map from around 1580 includes an inscription referring to Columbus and the date of the discovery of America, 1492, as well as the inscription “America or New India.” This inscription matches Columbus’ belief that he had reached India (this is the origin of the term “Indians” for the indigenous people of this continent).

Map of the region of the Philippines, 1593 [Ferdinand Magellan discovered the Philippine islands during his voyage in 1521]

In the illustrations on the map in the south and the areas of the oceans, the indigenous peoples engaged in fishing and hunting using spears and bows are depicted half-naked. On land, in the north, most of the figures are clothed.

Map of the region of the Philippines, 1595, pointing south. The map features illustrations of animals and a European ship.

The areas of China on the map include beautiful illustrations of animals that contemporary Europeans were unaccustomed to seeing:

In 1519, Magellan’s ships passed from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean through what would later be named the Strait of Magellan.

Map of the Strait, 1638

Next to the strait is a pair of penguins standing in the territory of Chile.

A Portolan chart from Blaeu’s Atlas, 1663, includes markings of the sailing routes in the East Indies and Philippines and illustrations of European ships.

World Map with New Discoveries—Including Figures and Landscapes of Recently Discovered Lands, 1748

The illustration below shows an example of a newly discovered land in which farmers gather crops in the fields, packed goods await shipping, a hunter shoots an arrow from a bow, while ships sail in the background.

And here we see the deserts of Africa, and a figure with a lion.

Map of the region of Polynesia and Australia, 1790. The map includes markings of the sailing routes of explorers such as James Cook (who was the first European to reach Eastern Australia) and Abel Tasman (after whom Tasmania was named) who discovered New Zealand.

Australia is called Ulimaroa—the name given to it by a Swedish geographer, which remained in use in European maps for about four decades.

The northeast region of New Zealand with Cook’s and Tasman’s travel routes and the years of their journeys.

Map of the region of Australia and Polynesia, 1796, with the caption “New Holland” for Australia. This was the period when the Netherlands was one of the leading powers in maritime trade and shipping, and the area of Western Australia was under Dutch ​​control.

This map too, features the sailing routes of navigators and explorers, including their names and the dates of the voyages.

Magellan’s discoveries and the new findings of the Age of Discovery are reflected in these picturesque antique maps that offer evidence of a changing worldview in light of the new discoveries and the scientific innovation in the fields of navigation and cartography. The maps document not only the new continents, but also the landscapes that were so unique to the Western eye. Today they still offer the viewer an experience that is both aesthetic and educational.

You are welcome to continue browsing the Eran Laor Cartographic Collection– on the National Library of Israel website.

How I Found the Lost Ending to a Legendary Author’s Story

Modern technology helped reveal the conclusion to "Falik and His House", written by renowned Yiddish author Jacob Dinezon nearly 120 years ago

Old Yiddish newspapers now online brought to light the end of the tale of Falik, who refuses to leave the Old Country even as his house literally falls down around him (Image: Dinezon, his story and a shack like Falik's)

There is something exhilarating about making a research find—especially when the discovery adds real historical or literary value. That’s what happened recently when a lost piece of Jacob Dinezon’s writing was located in an old Yiddish newspaper available via the Historical Jewish Press project, an initiative of the National Library of Israel in partnership with Tel Aviv University.

My first encounter with this extraordinary resource was in obtaining information about Dinezon’s death and funeral in the Warsaw Yiddish newspaper, Haynt (Today). Most of these reports, which were translated into English by Tina Lunson and are now online, were published in late August and early September of 1919.

Full page death announcement for Jacob Dinezon, published in the August 31, 1919 issue of Haynt. From the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

This latest discovery was motivated by the Yiddish translator Mindy Liberman who recently completed the first English translation of Jacob Dinezon’s novella, Falik un zayn hoyz (Falik and His House), which was initially published in fifteen installments in the Yiddish newspaper, Der fraynd (The Friend), in 1904. These installments were subsequently republished by Akhisefer in Warsaw, Poland, as part of a collection of volumes celebrating Dinezon’s 10th yortsayt (the 10th anniversary of his death) in 1929. Interestingly, the book was titled, Falik in zayn hoyz (Falk in His House).

The Akhisefer publishing house’s 1929 printing of Falik in zayn hoyz. From the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

I first met Mindy at a meeting of the California Institute for Yiddish Culture and Language in December 2019, during a commemoration of Dinezon’s 100th yortsayt. After my talk, Mindy approached me and mentioned that she had been translating poems by the Yiddish poet Miriam Ulinover, was enjoying the process, and was interested in continuing her translation efforts with a work of fiction.

At that time, I told her that I was about to take a break from the Dinezon work but that there was one short Dinezon novel, Falik un zayn hoyz (Falik and His House), which had always intrigued me. From what I had read, the plot was most unusual. The story focuses on an old tailor, Falik, whose sons have moved from Eastern Europe to America. The sons want their parents to join them, but Falik, even though his house is falling down around him, doesn’t want to leave the Old Country. According to the Yiddish literary historian Shmuel Rozshanski, “Dinezon was possibly the first of the Yiddish writers in Russia to describe this type of Jew who doesn’t want to leave his old home even though he endlessly suffers in it.” (Translation by Miri Koral)

Mindy and I exchanged email addresses, and a short time later, I sent her a link to an online version of Falik un zayn hoyz made available by the Yiddish Book Center’s Steven Spielberg Digital Yiddish Library.

When Mindy read the Yiddish book, she discovered something startling: the final few pages of the story were missing!

Instead of the end of the story, this notice from the publisher appeared:

Publisher’s note at the end of Falik in zayn hoyz. From the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

Mindy’s translation of the notice:

From the publisher:

This story “Falik and his House” was once published in “Fraynd.” Before his death, Jacob Dinezon heavily revised (literal: improved) it, threw out and added whole pages, and had it typeset in book form. He prepared the proofs himself.

The story was typeset until the last page, but he did not manage to set the type for the last few lines of the proof sheet.

We present it as it was left at the hand of the deceased author.


The novella was published without the ending!

I couldn’t believe that Dinezon hadn’t written an ending to his story. Certainly, Der fraynd wouldn’t have published fifteen installments without the final words. Why didn’t they just go back to the original newspaper to find the ending?

Then it occurred to me, the original newspapers were published twenty-five years earlier. At that time, finding an archive of Der fraynd, which stopped publishing in 1913, was probably impossible. So Falik’s publishers did the best they could and printed what they had.

Today we have resources they couldn’t have even imagined back then, including the aforementioned Historical Jewish Press! So I headed online to see if they had issues of Der fraynd and was delighted to find that they had digital images of the entire run of the newspaper!

Now, at this point, I have to admit, there was still a problem: I don’t read Yiddish. I’ve always had to hire Yiddish translators to read any of Dinezon’s books or the research materials related to his life and times. So I knew there was no way I could read the bold Yiddish headlines on my own. But I did have an image of the title from the book, so in effect, like a computer, I basically relied on image recognition.

By matching the name of the work to that which appeared in the digitized issues of Der Fraynd, the author was able to locate the long-lost conclusion to Dinezon’s story

Starting with Friday, January 1st, 1904, I began scanning through the newspaper, day-by-day and page-by-page.

The first appearance of Falik un zayn hoyz showed up on January 17th. The page was damaged, and the installment number was missing. There was also a surprise: the title was not Falik IN His House but Falik AND His House — which makes sense when you read the story and realize the house is presented as a character who Falik often calls “Brother.”

Part one of “Falik un zayn hoyz”, published in the January 17, 1904 issue of Der Fraynd. From the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

Jumping forward a few months from January, I found the installment for Part 13 on May 8th and Part 14 on May 22nd. At the bottom of that installment were the words, “ende kumt” (“end coming”).

Part 14 of “Falik un zayn hoyz”, published in the May 22, 1904 issue of Der Fraynd, concludes with the words “ende kumt” (“end coming”). From the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

Needless to say, my excitement soared as I thought, “At last, I’m going to find the final chapter of this story!”

With renewed energy, I slowly started going through each issue of the newspaper from May 23rd through the end of June, page-by-page, column-by-column. But as hard as I tried, I couldn’t find the missing part. I went back again through the whole lot without success.

Part 15 was missing.

Was it possible that Dinezon had never finished the story or that for some reason, the newspaper had never published the final installment? Frustrated and exhausted, I said, “To hell with it!” and went to bed.

Getting up the next morning, I just couldn’t let it rest. It just didn’t make sense. How could Dinezon not finish his story, and how could Der fraynd not publish it after promising the installment was forthcoming? It had to be there somewhere!

So I went back and downloaded twenty-five full-page PDF copies of the newspaper starting from the day after the appearance of Part 14. This way, I could scan through each day in a much more precise manner on my large computer screen.

And that’s how I found it! At the very bottom of page two on June 1st: Part 15 of Falik and His House! An early 20th-century historical literary discovery made possible by our 21st-century technology.

Part 15, the lost installment of “Falik un zayn hoyz”, published in the June 1,1904 issue of Der Fraynd. From the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

Mindy Liberman has now completed her translation of Jacob Dinezon’s Falik and His House, which includes Dinezon’s long-lost final lines — an additional four full pages! On April 16th, 2021, Jewish Storyteller Press published Dinezon’s novella in its entirety for the very first time in English.

There’s one more thing that was confirmed by scanning through all those online newspapers. It has always been my contention that Jacob Dinezon deserves equal recognition alongside the other prominent Yiddish writers of his day. For Dinezon, 1904 was a banner year. Der fraynd published two of his novellas and several of his short stories. Dinezon’s works appeared side-by-side with the works of Sholem Aleichem, I. L. Peretz, Mendele Mocher Sforim, and S. Ansky.

At that moment in time, Dinezon was easily as well-known and popular as his now more famous colleagues and friends.


A version of this article originally appeared in Jacob Dinezon: Beloved Uncle of Modern Yiddish Literature under the headline “A Research Discovery”. It has been published 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.

Dozens of letters written to Dinezon (sometimes spelled Dineson), as well as a number of manuscripts he wrote, may be found in the National Library of Israel’s Jacob Dineson Collection.