The National Day of Mourning… and Fundraising?

In the early 20th century, Zionists rallied around Tisha B’Av

Both Jewish Temples in Jerusalem were destroyed on the same date, the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av, or “Tisha B’Av“. Besides destroying the national religious and spiritual center – the very home of the divine presence on Earth, according to Jewish tradition – each destruction was accompanied by mass carnage, unspeakable violence and forced expulsion still mourned thousands of years later.

The Destruction of the Temple, as depicted in an early 18th century Dutch prayer book. From Seder Hamisha Taaniot, printed in Amsterdam by Abraham Attias, ca. 1727. Click image to enlarge

The Biblical “Sin of the Spies” over three millennia ago; the disastrous end of the Bar Kokhva Revolt in the year 135 CE; the beginning of the First Crusade and its murderous destruction of Jewish communities across Europe; the Medieval expulsions of Jews from England, France and Spain; and the bombing of the AMIA Jewish community center in Buenos Aires in 1994 are just a few of the events that have also occurred on or around Tisha B’Av over the centuries.

To this day, Tisha B’Av is a day for mourning these national tragedies. Traditionally observant Jews mark it by fasting and refraining from worldly pleasures. Somber poetry, written across the generations, is read while community members sit on the floor, morning the destruction of the Temples and the other national calamities associated with the day.

Yet, in the early 20th century, there was a major effort to turn this day of grief and sadness into one of hope, renewal and redemption.  In fact, the Jewish National Fund (JNF) made Tisha B’Av into a major fundraising day, soliciting contributions from around the world to support the renewal of Jewish life in the Land of Israel.

An early 20th century Jewish National Fund postcard showing founder Theodor Herzl, Zionist pioneers and the Old City of Jerusalem. Publisher: “Lebanon” publishing company, Warsaw; From the Postcard Collection, National Library of Israel archives.

According to Dr. Hezi Amiur, curator of the Israel Collection at the National Library of Israel, “Tisha B’Av is considered a national day of mourning and the JNF would often utilize ‘national days’ such as Hannukah and Tu B’Shvat for fundraising purposes. These were called ‘Ribbon Days’, and they presented a major source of income for the young Zionist movement.”

While fundraising is not generally associated with this most somber day, JNF would use it to raise serious funds from thousands of communities across the globe. In fact, from the organization’s founding in 1901 by Theodor Herzl, Tisha B’Av was commemorated by asking Jews across the world for money to help rebuild the common ancestral homeland.

Within just a few decades, the calls for support declared that there was no more free land left to accommodate the burgeoning Zionist enterprise. Contributions were needed to buy more land in Palestine, and to continue building infrastructure to support the courageous halutzim (pioneers).

One call to action published in 1926 under the banner “Remember Jewish National Fund on Tisha B’Av” asked “every true Jew to donate on the Ninth of Av, the day of national mourning, a piece of land in Palestine for the Jewish people.”

All were implored to be generous according to their means, with everyone asked to give at least enough to purchase 1/4 of a dunam (roughly 1/16 of an acre, or 250 square meters) of land. After all, continued the cry, “Fellow Jews! The sacrifice we ask of you is insignificantly small in comparison with the sacrifices of our brave Halutzim who are giving their all for the restoration of the homeland.”

Excerpt from an article urging international contributions to JNF on Tisha B’Av, published in The B’Nai B’Rith Messenger on July 16, 1926. Click for the full article

A mixture of Jewish guilt and Biblical inspiration was employed to encourage donors to open their wallets:

“Consult your own conscience, your Jewish heart, your racial pride and do your duty to your People. Claim no exception, attempt not to evade your own sense of duty, bring your brick towards the great structure, help redeem Erez Israel! From the grief over the Desolation, onward to the joy of Restoration!”

While different years had slightly different styles and themes, often relating to current events, it was generally the same call to action: Brave Jews in the Land of Israel need your support!

In 1924, donors were enticed with commemorative illustrated receipt booklets, a visual reminder of their help rebuilding the Land. Three years later, Tisha B’Av came just a few weeks after a devastating earthquake rattled the Levant. Jews were forbidden from praying at the Western Wall, after the authorities forbade it as a precaution following massive damage caused to many of Jerusalem’s structures. Nonetheless, instead of lamenting this additional point of sadness on the national day of mourning, the JNF encouraged donors around the globe to “shake to the core the indifference… of the many who could aid mightily in the speedy up-building of a Jewish Palestine”, and turn the day into “a splendid beginning… by swelling the coffers of the Jewish National Fund this Tisha B’Ab.”

Jerusalem following the 1927 earthquake. From the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel. Click image to enlarge

In 1939, Biblical verses and powerful imagery were used to gather contributions and rally opposition to the recently published White Paper, which severely limited Jewish immigration to British Mandatory Palestine. Less than a decade later, the State of Israel was born, largely thanks to decades of financial and political support from Jews across the world.

“If I forget you Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its cunning.” This image, published in The Sentinel on July 20, 1939, appeared as part of JNF efforts to raise funds and opposition to the White Paper. Click for the full article

It may seem strange or even inappropriate to use the saddest day on the Jewish calendar – one commemorating destruction, slaughter and expulsion – to fundraise. Yet, in a way, turning mourning into hope and action is a reflection of the resilient Jewish spirit over the centuries, and even more so of the Zionist dream to rebuild and resettle the very land from which the Jewish people were exiled millennia ago.

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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New Digital Platform Celebrates Else Lasker-Schüler

Lasker-Schüler, one of Germany's greatest poets, fled to Jerusalem in the 1930s. "Poetic Textures: Else Lasker-Schüler Archives. An Online Platform" offers digital access to a large portion of her literary and artistic legacy.

Else Lasker-Schüler in 1919, the Abraham Schwadron Portrait Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

Else Lasker-Schüler (1869-1945) is considered to be one of the greats of German poetry, a bohemian artist who corresponded with many of the most prominent cultural figures of her time including Albert Einstein, Martin Buber and Thomas Mann. She fled Nazi Germany to British Mandatory Palestine, ultimately settling in Jerusalem, where she lived a life of obscurity and poverty.

Poetic Textures: Else Lasker-Schüler Archives. An Online Platform” is a collaboration between Jerusalem’s National Library of Israel (NLI), home to Lasker-Schüler’s personal archive, and the German Literature Archive (DLA), home to a significant collection of her works. The platform, available in English, provides a window into the life and work of Lasker-Schüler, offering digital access for the first time to a large portion of her physically scattered literary and artistic legacy, accompanied by explanatory and illuminating texts provided by leading experts.

Der zielende Blitz übt sich im Pfeil und Bogen vor, by Else Lasker-Schüler, 1940, the Else Lasker-Schüler Archive at the National Library of Israel

The materials on display reveal the deliberately hybrid forms of Lasker-Schuler’s work: manuscripts, letters, telegrams, fragments, collages and drawings, which reveal the dissolution of boundaries between life and art, writing and drawing, staged self and imaginary figures, even between German and Hebrew in tone, writing and illustration. The platform has been made possible with the generous support of Karl Albrecht.

An online event celebrating the launch of “Poetic Textures” will be held on Tuesday, July 14 at 19:00 Israel time / 18:00 German time.  The event is presented as a DLA – NLI collaboration, and as part of the “Gesher L’Europe” initiative to connect NLI with people, institutions and communities in Europe and beyond.

“Poetic Textures: Else Lasker-Schüler Archives. An Online Platform” is available at:



The Else Lasker-Schüler Archive has been reviewed and described thanks to the generous support of The Leir Foundation.


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Tel Aviv’s First Firefighters

The story of Israel's first fire department

A Tel Aviv firefighter, the Photohouse Collection

Growing up, we all wanted to be firefighters. It’s what we saw on television. We dressed up as firefighters for Purim or Halloween, played with red firetrucks and put out fires with an imaginary hose. We wanted to fight fires and rescue cats stranded in treetops. To be honest, it wasn’t the heroic aspect that was appealing so much as it was the simple fact that firefighters take a great photo. The Tel Aviv firefighters were well-aware of this and gladly went along with the tradition – to no one’s surprise, they were unbelievably photogenic.

Tel Aviv firefighters, 1938, the Photohouse Collection

The city’s merchants were the first to recognize the need and also the first to act: Two large manual fire pumps, two small ones, 200 meters worth of hoses, 50 pails, axes and shovels were donated for the establishment of the first fire department in Israel – the Tel Aviv Fire Brigade.

In its early years, the brigade relied primarily on volunteers. They operated throughout the 1920s – the decade of the brigade’s establishment – improvising as they went along, with no guidance from the authorities. Once they were set up, the volunteers requested that the city council provide them with equipment and funding.

It wasn’t until 1929, when the number of fires in the city rose, that the city council began to allocate funds for the fire brigade. In 1935, a year after the volunteers struggled to extinguish a fire that broke out in the Petah Tikva “Ha’argaz” factory, a special committee was appointed to investigate the state of the city’s firefighting infrasctructure, concluding that a staff of volunteers would no longer suffice; instead, a large-scale fire department was to be built, fully equipped with high-end extinguishing equipment and paid firefighters.

In her book, Surrounded by Light and Sea (Hebrew), Anat Helman notes that “Some of the committee’s conclusions were gradually implemented, and a few years later fires were handled in most part by paid firefighters, while volunteers were left with a secondary role.”

A booklet titled “The Volunteer Firefighter: The Tel Aviv Fire Brigade celebrates its ‘Bar Mitzvah’ anniversary“, (Hebrew) January, 1938. The illustrated graph in thebottom image displays the number of fires in Tel Aviv during the years 1931-1937.

The Tel Aviv fire department was not only busy extinguishing fires and rescuing cats. After the Tel Aviv Police Orchestra shut down, the fire Department Orchestra and the Maccabi Tel Aviv orchestra competed for the public’s affections. In the mid-1930s, the fire brigade won first place in the Tel Aviv orchestra competition.

The volunteer firefighters would also be tasked with providing security for public events. On more than one occasion, they used their fire hoses to disperse protests that had gotten out of hand, a practice that received some harsh criticism from sections of the public.

The Tel Aviv fire department by the water tower on Rothschild Boulevard, the 1920s, the Bitmuna Collection

Tel Aviv’s firefighters, 1938, the PhotoHouse Collection

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Feeling Israel: Helen Keller in the Holy Land

"I can't see you, but I feel you, and I know that you are happy, because you are in your homeland, which is being rebuilt."

Helen Keller carrying an infant, the village for the blind at Kfar Uriel, photo: Beno Rothenberg, the Meitar Collection

The name of Helen Keller is known today throughout the world for her personal struggle as a blind and deaf woman. She became a social activist, promoting awareness and working to integrate people with disabilities into society. In the early 1950s, she even visited the young State of Israel as part of a tour on behalf of the American Foundation for the Blind.

Helen Keller’s visit in Israel in May 1952 wasn’t only for the purpose of meeting politicians in the Knesset or Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion in his home. Keller toured the country and met members of her community in Israel. “I can’t see you, but I feel you,” she conveyed through a hug to the children of Kibbutz Degania, who gathered around her car. “I know that you are happy, because you are in your homeland, which is being rebuilt.”

Helen Keller (left) in a meeting with Labor Minister Golda Meir, photo: David Eldan, GPO

While visiting Jerusalem, Keller was impressed by the work being done at the Brandeis Center, where she received explanations regarding new methods of teaching the blind. She also visited the Hadassah nursing school. Keller was so impressed that she stated: “Israel is more advanced than the United States in its efforts to ease the suffering of the unfortunate.”

At the city’s Jewish Institute for the Blind (Beit Hinuch Le’Ivrim) a touching moment was documented, when Helen Keller walked through the door. “At the entrance to the house, the students of the institute handed her dozens of letters written in Braille, and Ms. Keller received their welcome as she hugged and kissed the students excitedly.” At the party held in her honor, Helen Keller couldn’t hide her exhilaration: “The dedicated care and work done to help the blind and deaf in this country, encourage me greatly, in my work for these people.”

Helen Keller’s car arrives at Kfar Uriel, photo: Beno Rothenberg, the Meitar Collection

A particularly interesting meeting took place at Kfar Uriel, which was actually founded as an experimental project, with the goal of integrating blind immigrants into various workplaces in nearby Gedera. Helen Keller visited the workshop in the village where, among other things, immigrants from Yemen and their families also worked, and was extremely impressed by what she encountered. She enjoyed meeting and talking with the blind Yemeni immigrants and encouraged them. At the local kindergarten, children greeted her with traditional songs. A Maariv reporter described the touching scene in Hebrew: “The deaf woman’s hands move in rhythm with the melody and you almost believe that she can hear. She places her hand on a toddler’s throat and ‘listens’ to the song. The child does not panic. A toddler hands her a bunch of daisies, receives a kiss from the elderly lady, and shyly blushes.”

Helen Keller visits Kfar Uriel, photo: Beno Rothenberg, the Meitar Collection

Another important stop on Keller’s tour was the city of Netanya, where she made a special visit to what is today known as the Central Library for Blind and Reading Impaired People. After welcoming all those present, Keller turned to the books, running her fingers over the Braille script. She browsed through a work written by Stefan Zweig and when she felt the author’s name, she remarked, “A pity he ended his life so tragically.”

An interesting interaction occurred during Keller’s chat with the mayor of Netanya, Oved Ben Ami. Keller urged the mayor to employ the blind in industrial factories, to make use of their talent and precision: “In the United States there are 257 professions in which the blind are employed!”

Helen Keller receiving flowers from a little girl at Kfar Uriel, photo: Beno Rothenberg, the Meitar Collection

Helen Keller summarized her fifteen-day visit to the Holy Land with inspiring and hopeful words addressed to Israel’s citizens: “I leave Israel greatly impressed by everything that is being done here. The flourishing cities, villages, and kibbutzim that are being built, the industrial factories and the happy, healthy faces of the children and youth – they all fill my heart with faith in Israel’s prospects for future development.”


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