The Jewish Child Soldiers Who Rebuilt Their Lives in Riga

An elaborately decorated Pinkas now kept at the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People tells the story of the Talmud Torah of Riga which sought to return former child soldiers - and their children - to their Jewish roots.

In 1827, the Imperial Russian Army began drafting Jewish citizens into its ranks. When Nicholas I set up the draft laws for the Jewish community, they had some significant differences than the laws applied to the rest of his subjects.

The new draft laws forced Jews to contribute more cantonists (children taken into special state schools to be trained for military service) than the general population, creating a disproportionate number of Jewish conscripts. Instead of applying the age requirements already in place for recruitment that called for the draft of 18 year-olds, the law for Jews allowed for children aged 12 to 25 to be drafted into the military.

The leaders of the Jewish community were tasked with choosing who would be sent to fulfill the conscription quotas. They were also charged with maintaining the financial and social stability of the community. This meant that the community leadership would select those people who were deemed to be the least useful to the community at large for the draft. This included the unskilled, the unmarried, the poor and the young. Those who would not or could not actively contribute to society on a significant level were included on conscription lists. There were also those leaders who chose to send the less fortunate – meaning, those could not afford to bribe their way out – for the draft rather than include their own children on the lists.

As soon as a child was drafted into a cantonist school, their family and community had no choice but to consider him dead, for all practical purposes. Cut off from their homes and loved ones, these youngsters were taken into custody of the state where they were encouraged to forget their religious upbringing, abandon their traditions and convert to Christianity, revealing the not so secret goal of the Czar to utilize the conscription laws as a way to encourage assimilation amongst the most vulnerable parts of the Jewish community.

After completing 25 years of mandated service, many cantonists signed on for additional service and became career military men, while those who chose to take their leave were granted full citizenship rights including the freedom of movement – a freedom that was usually only granted to Jews under special circumstances.

For these soldiers, freedom came with more problems than solutions. With families they didn’t know and no home to return to, the cantonists were left with little choice but to build a new life from scratch in a territory that was now open to them thanks to their newly earned freedom of movement.

A visit to the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People to speak with Dr. Yochai Ben-Ghedalia gave me new insight into the difficulties faced by these Jewish children turned soldiers who managed to make it out of their service alive and maintain their connection to their roots.

riga talmud torah
Dr. Yochai Ben-Ghedalia examines the Pinkas of the Talmud Torah of Riga, Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People.

A Pinkas (Jewish community ledger) now preserved in the CAHJP tells the story of one such group of soldiers who, in 1865, settled in Riga and joined the local Jewish community. The unique and ornately decorated Pinkas was brought to Israel in the 1970s through Lishkat HakesherNativ, an organization that helped connect people in the Soviet Union with Zionism and the State of Israel and assisted people who sought to immigrate to Israel.

The cover of the Pinkas from the Talmud Torah of Riga. The text reads, "This Pinkas belongs to the Talmud Torah of the Soldiers of Riga."
The cover of the Pinkas from the Talmud Torah of Riga. The text reads, “This Pinkas belongs to the Talmud Torah of the Soldiers of Riga.”

The cantonists who arrived in Riga, which was still part of the Russian Empire at the time, found that they had a united goal: to rediscover and recommit to their Jewish heritage. These soldiers were a rare breed- not only had they made it out of the military alive, but they had also successfully maintained their religious connection and their desire to rediscover their Jewish roots. The soldiers established the Talmud Torah of Riga, an educational institute focused on Jewish study.

talmud torah riga
Opening page of the Talmud Torah Pinkas. Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People.

The Pinkas opens with a beautifully written introduction reflecting the tenets of the institution, the importance of Torah study in the lives of the Jewish people and the responsibility that falls on Jews as a nation to ensure all Jewish children are educated in the ways of the Torah with a special emphasis on those who lack a proper teacher. The Pinkas includes a letter from a local rabbi giving his full support to the Talmud Torah and their important and worthy works and then goes on to list 23 points of action in regards to the practical operations and the rules of the organization.

talmud torah riga
The mission statement of the Talmud Torah of Riga includes the importance of educating Jewish children in the ways of the Torah. Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People.

The Talmud Torah took upon itself to hire two teachers who were provided with room and board and were charged with educating participants. Students were divided into two different classes: one dedicated to those who were just starting on their Torah journey and would begin study with the Alef-Bet, the Hebrew alphabet, and one for those who were more advanced and could move forward to bible study and the study of Jewish law.

talmud torah riga
The tenants of the Talmud Torah as outlines in the Pinkas. Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People.

Membership in the Talmud Torah was approved for any “army orphan,” which essentially referred to any boy born to a cantonist father who was killed during his service. The Talmud Torah also accepted children whose fathers could not care for them or provide them with a proper Jewish education. Admission into the institution was determined by three Gabaim, the people in charge of the day to day logistics of managing the organization.

The hand-drawn layout for the potential synagogue to be built by the Talmud Torah of Riga as included in the Pinkas. Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People. Click to enlarge the image.

Years went by and the Talmud Torah continued to serve as an institute of learning but also grew to become a full-fledged synagogue with a surrounding community. The Pinkas begins to discuss the purchase of a plot of land on which to build a new home for the synagogue. As it grew, the Talmud Torah joined forces with other organizations that provided poor children with food and clothing.

The Hanhala (administration) of the Talmud Torah was changed every few years through an election process described in the Pinkas. For every new administration that took charge, a new elaborately decorated page was added to the book to honor the incoming leadership. Interestingly, many of the pages contain similar elements though they were not necessarily created by the same artist. Several of the pages include large, fierce-looking birds, a symbol of the Russian Empire, reflecting the original purpose and members of the Talmud Torah.

In 1937, a page was prepared and designed in dedication to the latest administration but it was never completed. The records in the Pinkas drop off suddenly during the years of the Nazi occupation. While we do not know the specific story of what happened to the participants of the Talmud Torah during the Holocaust, we do know that the majority of the Jewish community in Latvia was murdered in the war. The Pinkas managed to survive the war and a new page was later added in 1959.

Incompleted page from 1937. Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People.

When I think back to that five-year-old boy who was taken from his family for a life in a military school before joining the ranks, I can only hope that his future held a community and an adoptive family like the one built by the soldiers who settled in Riga. Their dedication to their heritage and their desire to continue to grow and experience life as Jews, despite the efforts of the authorities to strip them of their families, religion, and identities, is astounding. While the Talmud Torah of Riga may no longer be active, the history of the organization and the strength and dedication of those who worked to build it lives on in the archives of the National Library of Israel.

This post was written as part of Gesher L’Europa, the NLI’s initiative to connect with Europe and make our collections available to diverse audiences in Europe and beyond.

Special thanks to Dr. Yochai Ben-Ghedalia and Dr. Gil Weissblei for their assistance in writing this article. 

The Brazilian-Israeli Who Was Sent to the Front, Captured, and Returned in a Syrian Uniform

The story of the prisoner of war, Julio Friedman, whose picture was identified by his family as part of the National Library’s 'Naming the Soldiers' project


“This is a picture that we, the family, didn’t know about,” says Clarinia, the sister of Julio Friedman, who appears in the center of the picture. When we told her about the National Library’s ‘Naming the Soldiers’ project in honor of Israel’s 71st Independence Day, we could hear the excitement in her voice. Her voice would break more than once throughout the course of our conversation as she relived those distant, unpleasant days.

Clarinia begins the story in 1970. This was the year she (then married with a child and a second on the way) immigrated to Israel with her brother, Julio. Julio first worked picking bananas (“he was a big, strong man”) while he learned Hebrew in an ulpan, a Hebrew-language school for new immigrants (olim). After he was able to save up a bit of money, he bought a Volkswagen van and used it to drive around a troupe of flamenco dancers he had met. He also found work as a technician at Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI).

Julio, Clarinia, and many others who emigrated from Brazil to Israel found it difficult to master the new language of Hebrew. This fact would prove to play a crucial role when Julio joined the IDF.

After two and a half years in Israel, Julio, who was 26 when he immigrated to Israel, was called up to serve a shortened military service that was compulsory for olim – six months of service. He would not, however, even have the opportunity to complete the three-month basic training. Less than two and a half months after his enlistment, the Yom Kippur War broke out. Julio was dispatched to the northern front – the embattled Golan Heights.


Private Julio Friedman
Private Julio Friedman


On the second day of the war, Clarinia felt something was wrong. The day before, she and her friends were baffled by a siren going off on Yom Kippur and what the illogical sentences crackling out of the radio meant. It was not until Golda Meir herself broadcast a dramatic announcement over the airwaves that the members of the Brazilian immigrant community in Herzliya understood that something serious had occurred. Thanks to a neighbor who decoded the Hebrew message by translating it into her mother tongue, Romanian (“Portuguese and Romanian are both Latin languages, so we managed to understand a little”), the members of the small community of Brazilian-Israelis understood that a war had broken out over the High Holiday.

Only several hours after getting her bad feeling, uniformed soldiers knocked on Clarinia’s door. They explained that since Julio had left basic training a few days prior, they thought it was best to return a package that Clarinia had previously sent to her brother. The soldiers did not know to which base Julio had been dispatched. They had only come to return the package out of courtesy. At that very moment, no one in the IDF knew that Julio had already been captured by Syrian forces, and was apparently being taken by his captors to the Syrian capital. Over the next two weeks, he would undergo a series of interrogations and mistreatment. Afterwards, he and other Israeli prisoners of war would be held in the Al-Mezzeh prison, overlooking Damascus

Through a family friend, Clarinia and her husband discovered that Julio’s most likely last known location – or, more precisely, the location of an Israeli soldier of Brazilian origin – was in a bunker in the north of the country. Their attempt to track down the last person to see Julio alive led them to a soldier who was healing from an ear injury at a base in Acre. This was all the information that Clarinia and her husband had to go on. They did not know the name of the soldier or what he looked like. The couple traveled to the base in search of information and answers.

When they arrived, Clarinia and her husband received confirmation that a soldier who was recovering from an ear injury and had been in a bunker in the north was indeed assigned to the base. But, he had received a weekend pass and had already left the base.  The couple spoke with the base commander, but he did not know the name of the soldier in question. The commander only knew that he was of Indian origin and lived in Lod.

Clarinia and her husband tracked down the soldier at the cinema in Lod, and he was able to confirm that the missing Brazilian soldier who was with him and two other soldiers in the bunker was indeed Julio. He explained that the situation in the bunker had been dire. Except for Julio, all of the soldiers in the bunker had been wounded. Supplies were running dangerously low, so Julio volunteered to venture out of the safety of the bunker in search of water. “We heard words in Arabic and we did not know what happened after that,” the soldier explained to Clarinia and her husband. It was only after his return from captivity that Julio told his sister that he thought that the Syrian soldiers he heard were speaking in Hebrew, which led him to approach them for help.

“We informed Julio’s direct superior of what we had learned. Three or four IDF commanders showed up with maps in their hands, to tell us what they thought had happened.” Then, Clarinia repeated a sentence that is burned painfully in her mind to this day, a sentence uttered by one of the commanders. “Do not think too much about it. In the first few days of a war, you do not take prisoners.”

The war that had broken out on October 6, 1973 was officially ended with a ceasefire on October 24. Although the ceasefire had officially gone into effect, Israelis and Syrians would continue to exchange fire along the border into 1974. It was in February, 1974, that US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger was able to obtain the full list of Israeli prisoners from the Syrian government. On the night the list was released to the public, another military delegation knocked on Clarinia’s door. “This time, it was a sweet young female soldier who informed us that Julio was on the list of prisoners. Until that moment, we still did not know what had happened to him.” It was only then that Clarinia phoned her mother, who had stayed behind in Brazil, to inform her of her brother’s situation. This was the first time that she had told their mother that anything was wrong.

Kissinger’s list paved the way for the Red Cross to become involved in the conflict, and a connection between the prisoners in Syria and their home country was established. “That’s how we saw him for the first time, in a photo sent by the Red Cross. He very thin, but alive.”


Julio Friedman and other prisoners return from Syrian captivity. June 6, 1974. From the Dan Hadani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel
Julio Friedman and other prisoners return from Syrian captivity. June 6, 1974. From the Dan Hadani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel


The return of the prisoners, which was planned for May, was postponed to June 6, 1974. David Avaky spent the eight months of captivity as Julio’s cellmate. In the conversation we held with David, he told us about the moment the prisoners realized that they were returning to Israel. “We had one jailer who treated us very well…He spoke with us on a human level…One day he came in to visit a wounded soldier and asked him to collect all his personal effects and come with him. We were used to the Syrians taking us away for short periods of time. But, having the soldier take his things with him was something new. Half an hour later, he returned and spoke with us about the history of the region, about Israel and Syria. He told us that all the wounded were being returned to Israel and that he was going on holiday. ‘Inshallah, we will not meet again when I return.’ Indeed, a week later, we returned to Israel. In the days following his visit, we felt the relationship begin to change. But, the biggest change was the day before we were released. They brought us sports clothes and took us out to exercise. Representatives of the Red Cross were there, and they informed any prisoners who were still in the dark about our planned return home. We remained skeptical the entire trip south to the border.”


Julio Friedman, together with other Israelis held in captivity, are hosted by the Jewish community in Switzerland. 1976 (Julio is standing in the back, on the left side of the picture, sporting an impressive mustache)
Julio Friedman, together with other Israelis held in captivity, are hosted by the Jewish community in Switzerland. 1976 (Julio is standing in the back, on the left side of the picture, sporting an impressive mustache)

Clarinia remembered the day that the prisoners returned to Israel. At the welcoming ceremony, the IDF placed the families behind a barrier. In front of the barrier was a platform for Prime Minister Golda Meir and Defense Minister Moshe Dayan, who were supposed to meet the prisoners first. “As soon as the blue plane with the Red Cross touched down on the tarmac, there was no barrier that could hold us back.”

Among the last of the prisoners to disembark the plane was Julio. He could not walk. When Clarinia finally saw Julio’s smiling face, she saw that he was missing his two front teeth. This was the first sign of the horrors that he had endured. “Were you wounded in the leg?” asked his worried sister. Her brother explained that he was not, but that he had been given shoes three sizes too small. And why was he the only soldier dressed in Syrian army uniform? “I did not believe it. I refused to take off my prison uniform until my feet stood on Israeli soil.”

Julio talked with his sister about his captivity for three days and nights. It was during this release of emotions that he revealed to Clarinia the atrocities he had endured in Syria. After the three days, he never spoke of his captivity again. Julio died in 2008 after a long struggle with cancer, a disease that the IDF later recognized as a result of Julio’s coping with his time in captivity. His two children knew almost nothing of this period of his life. It was only at their father’s shiva that Clarinia told them the story that Julio had revealed during the first three days after his return.

At the end of our conversation with Clarinia, we asked about the man he was. Who was the man who had experienced these terrible things at the hands of his captors? Who was the man who had told her everything over three days and never spoke of it again? He later married, adopted two children, and raised a family. Did his captivity change his character? Clarinia says no. Julio was an easy-going character. He allowed troubles to pass by him, all the while remaining stable and unchanging. “That’s the only way he got through it,” she said, adding that there was one thing Julio was not able to overcome, “Only the noise of keys, that was the only noise that bothered him.”

Julio’s wife, Bella Friedman, identified the picture of her husband returning from captivity in a post that we published. The couple, who first met in the Hashomer Hatzair youth movement in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, met again in Israel in 1974. In February 1975 they married. Bella was also the one who recommended we speak to Clarinia and David Avaki.

•Julio and Bella Friedman
Julio and Bella Friedman


We would like to thank Bella, Clarinia, and David for sharing Julio’s story with us, as well as their own memories, and especially for opening their hearts to us.


If you liked this story, try these:

Naming the Soldiers: A Special Joint Project by the National Library and Facebook

A Life Story in One Picture: The Photographer Who Fell in the War of Independence

The Mother Who Stayed Behind to Defend Her Home During Israel’s War of Independence

Abraham Shalom Yahuda: The Scholar, the Collector and the Collections

The story of the fascinating figure who established the National Library's collection of Arabic and Islamic works

Abraham Shalom Yahuda in traditional Arabic dress

The Collection, which I began to assemble some 45 years ago, was brought together from all parts of the East. They have mostly been purchased from private scholars and libraries, which belonged to old patrician or scholarly families of Cairo, Damascus, Aleppo, Baghdad, Tunis, Fes and other ancient towns of the Islamic world. Some others emanate from private mosques in larger or smaller cities in Egypt, Palestine, Syria, Mesopotamia, Turkey, Persia, Morocco, India and other parts of the East, including the Yemen in South Arabia, Adana and Ankara in Asia Minor. Only a very small part was acquired in Europe from private collections or at auctions.

Abraham Shalom Yehuda


Abraham Shalom Yahuda (1877-1951) was a polymath scholar, public intellectual, and bibliophile. Yahuda was born in Jerusalem to a wealthy and distinguished Jewish family of mixed Sephardic and Ashkenazic ancestry. His father, Rabbi Benjamin Ezekiel Yahuda, was from an illustrious Baghdad family. Yahuda’s mother, Rebecca Bergman, descended on her father’s side from an important rabbinic family originally from Frankfurt, Germany, and from her mother’s side from a noted Iraqi family whose ancestors claimed descent from Yosef Ben-Shoshan, a courtier of Alfonso VIII of Castile (r. 1158-1214).

A bright and precocious student, Yahuda devoted himself to study from an early age, focusing both on rabbinics (including the Hebrew Bible and its exegetical traditions, Talmud, and Jewish law), and arts and sciences. From the age of 15, he began learning European languages and literary Arabic; the Yahuda family spoke Arabic at home. When he was 16, in October 1893, he published his first monograph, Arab Antiquities (in Hebrew), on pre-Islamic Arab history and culture. A little more than a year later, in 1895, he published a scholarly translation of selected classical Arabic poetry, Nobles and Heroes of the Arabs (in Hebrew).

Abraham Shalom Yahuda, 1897, the Abraham Shalom Yahuda Archive, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel


In 1895, Yahuda traveled to Germany to pursue academic studies in Semitics and Oriental Studies in Darmstadt, Frankfurt am Mein, and Nuremburg. He then entered the University of Strasbourg (except for one year at Heidelberg), completing his doctorate in 1904. During this time, Yahuda studied with renowned Orientalists Theodor Nöldeke, his doctoral adviser, and Ignaz Goldziher. Yahuda’s scholarly writings and personal letters suggest that he developed a close relationship with Goldziher and established a friendship with his son Karl that continued throughout Yahuda’s lifetime. After Goldziher’s death in 1921, Yahuda played a key role in securing the acquisition of Goldziher’s private library by the World Zionist Organization for the Jewish National Library in Jerusalem.

In an article dedicated to Goldziher and his library, Yahuda describes this acquisition as critical not only for the development of the Semitic languages department of the nascent Hebrew University, but also for the creation of a shared intellectual space for Arab and Jewish scholars:

And behold, such a library as this, which contains a lovely and amazing treasure of the best of Arabic literature and the finest works of Islam, may indeed become a meeting place for Arab and Jewish scholars alike. There they may sit as brothers in wisdom and friends in scholarship, and the inspiration (Shekhina) of enlightenment will impart upon our neighbors, those closest to us both genealogically and in mindset, the same spirit of tolerance, of munificence, kindheartedness, and generosity in which the Arabs excelled in ancient times, during their rule of East and West and during the most sublime generations of their intellectual achievement and culture.

The arrival of the 6,000 volumes that comprised the “Goldziher Library” in 1924 was, in fact, marked by a cross-denominational celebration that attracted the political and cultural spectrum of elite Jerusalem society, and was hailed as a meeting place for scholars from all religions and communities. The Goldziher collection served as the foundation of the National Library of Israel’s Arabic and Islam collection, which today contains close to half a million volumes.

During his student days in Germany, Yahuda became acquainted with a number of fellow students who became leading figures in the Zionist movement, including Shaul Tchernichovsky, Joseph Klausner, and others. Yahuda participated in the first four Zionist Congresses (1897-1901), and became a follower and confidante of Zionist thinker Max Nordau. Yahuda expressed a keen interest in the revival of the Hebrew language and established Hebrew language classes in Frankfurt. He also expressed an abiding concern for Jewish-Arab relations in the Land of Israel/Palestine and offered his assistance on this matter to Zionist leaders Theodor Herzl and Chaim Weizmann.

Abraham Shalom Yahuda, London, 1910, the Abraham Shalom Yahuda Archive, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel


In 1905, Yahuda completed his doctorate, a pioneering study on the 11th century Andalusian Jewish thinker, Bahya ibn Pakuda. His interest in manuscripts can already be detected at this early stage: his dissertation was devoted to a general study of Ibn Pakuda’s Duties of the Heart and a critical edition of the first chapter. In 1912, he published a critical edition of the entire treatise. Yahuda then began teaching as a lecturer at the Berlin Hochschule für die Wissenschaft des Judentums (Higher Institute for Jewish Studies), a position he held until 1914. In 1915, he was appointed the first-ever professor of Judaic studies at the University of Madrid, where he taught courses on Jewish history and literature and Arab culture. Yahuda developed warm relations with the Spanish king Alfonso XIII (r. 1886-1931), and was an active member of the academic societies both in Madrid and Toledo, as well as in Lisbon. During his time in Spain, Yahuda collected extensive archival material on Jewish history in Spain and published numerous articles on related subjects.

In 1920, Yahuda travelled to Jerusalem after receiving an invitation from the Hebrew University’s founding committee to join the new faculty and teach Bible studies and Arabic language and literature. However, he left Jerusalem just a few months later in early 1921, bitterly disappointed both by the lack of reception to his ideas about a shared Arab-Jewish culture and future and having his university appointment effectively rescinded. Yahuda returned to his residence in London and, in June of that year, married Ethel Judes, originally of South Africa.

During the ensuing twenty years, Yahuda turned his attention to scholarship, public lecturing in England, travelling, and manuscript collecting. His set of monographs — Die Sprache des Pentateuch in ihren Beziehungen zum Aegyptischen (1929); The Language of the Pentateuch in Its Relation to Egyptian (1933); and a popular English edition, The Accuracy of the Bible, (1934) — caused an international debate. Yahuda argued there that the ancient Egyptian language strongly influenced the Egypt-related narratives in the Torah, such as Joseph and the Exodus; this argument presumed that the Torah was composed around the time of the biblical Exodus from Egypt, nearly in line with traditional Jewish chronology. While his thesis was rejected by biblical critics and other Orientalists, Yahuda maintained his position. Throughout this time, he also continued his attempts to aid Jewish communities in Europe and the Middle East and to improve relations between Jews and Arabs in Palestine. His letters express his strong opposition to the intercommunal policies of the Zionist Organization in general, and with those of Chaim Weizmann in particular.

Abraham Shalom Yahuda, Madrid, 1916, the Abraham Shalom Yahuda Archive, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel


In 1942, Yahuda immigrated to the United States and received an appointment as visiting professor at the New School for Social Research in New York. In 1946, he published Hebrew and Arab (in Hebrew, Ever ve-‘Arav), an anthology of scholarly articles and personal recollections that spanned his career. He died in 1951 and was survived by his wife Ethel.

Yahuda was a prolific and wide-ranging intellect who did not shy away from public debate. He published fifteen monographs and scores of scholarly articles in German, Hebrew, Arabic, Spanish, English, and French. In addition to the subjects mentioned above, he published extensively on medieval biblical exegesis; Hebrew poetry; Jewish philosophy under Islam; Qur’an and Hadith interpretation; and contemporary political affairs. His personal papers, now housed at the National Library of Israel, reflect the breadth and depth of his intellectual life. It includes correspondence with some of the great European intellectual and cultural minds of his day, such as Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud, Thomas Mann, Stefan Zweig, Max Liebermann, Hermann Struck, and John Maynard Keynes, as well as British, Jewish, and Arab leaders in Mandatory Palestine.


Yahuda as Manuscript Collector

Yahuda’s manuscript collecting activities were preceded and augmented by those of his older brother, Isaac Ezekiel Yahuda (1863-1941). Isaac Yahuda was himself a well-respected scholar of Semitic languages and of Islam. He first became a dealer in Oriental manuscripts in Darmstadt, Germany, in 1904. He then took up residence in Cairo in 1906, where, until 1920, he engaged both in scholarship and in selling Islamic books and manuscripts through his store, located near al-Azhar University. Abraham Yahuda, who likely collected manuscripts as a hobby beforehand, began to collect more systematically during the 1920s.

Yahuda’s letters describe his method of carefully selecting manuscripts from the libraries of renowned Islamic scholars and of his continuing search for unique or autograph copies. In a letter to his friend and client, the Irish-American collector Chester Beatty, from July 13, 1928, Yahuda writes:

I have now a nice little collection of very valuable and rare old MSS. by famous authors, which I picked from among three collections I bought at Damascus, The Lebanon and Cairo, and which have again been selected from three old libraries which belonged to famous scholars of the 15th & 16th centuries and remained in the hands of their families up to now.

Yahuda also acquired manuscripts through associates. In another letter to Beatty, dated May 15, 1929, Yahuda describes his ability to cover broad regions of the Islamic world:

I have also succeeded in getting the right men, men of personal authority and knowledge in books to go to Yemen and Irak [sic], and am negotiating with a scholar to persuade him to go to Asia Minor or Morocco. The first result of the Irak excursion is the purchase of two collections coming from two very old libraries in Baghdad and Nedjef [sic] respectively. There are very important books among them, some unique copies as well as some autograph copies of famous authors of the 6th and 7th centuries A.H. and many other books of fundamental importance in different fields of knowledge.

These vignettes echo Yahuda’s more comprehensive description, cited above, of the myriad sources of his collection from across the Islamic world. Throughout his travels, Yahuda developed a singular reputation as a collector both for his profound erudition in the content of the manuscripts and for his uncanny ability to identify valuable material.

An early Qur’an, dated to 905 CE, the Abraham Shalom Yahuda Collection at the National Library of Israel


The Yahuda Collections
Besides being an avid manuscript collector, Yahuda also sold large parts of his and his brother’s collections to eminent institutions and collectors. Yahuda sold manuscripts to the British Museum for over three decades. His connections with the British Museum also led to other clients. In 1926, Edward Edwards, who purchased 200 manuscripts from Yahuda for the British Museum in the early 1920s, facilitated Yahuda’s sale (on behalf of his brother) of 265 additional manuscripts to the University of Michigan. In addition, Yahuda sold numerous illuminated manuscripts to Chester Beatty. Between 1940 and 1942, he sold his collection of Islamic medical manuscripts to the U.S. Armed Forces Medical Library (now called the National Library of Medicine). And then, in 1942, Yahuda sold the majority of his collection (5,321 manuscripts) to Robert and John Garrett on behalf of Princeton University. The Princeton scholar of Semitic literature, Professor Phillip Hitti, described this collection as “reputedly the largest and most valuable collection of Arabic manuscripts in private possession.”

Taken from the Revision of Ibn al-Haytham’s Book of Optics by Kamal al-Din al-Farisi, dated to 1511 CE, the Abraham Shalom Yahuda Collection at the National Library of Israel


History of the Yahuda Collection at the National Library of Israel
Beginning in 1949, Abraham and Ethel Yahuda began planning to move to Israel and explored the possibility of setting up an Arab-Jewish research center in Jerusalem based on Yahuda’s collections. By 1951, Yahuda indicated his interest to house his collection at the Jewish National and University Library. In a letter dated August 9, 1951, only weeks before his death, Yahuda informed the head of the JNUL, Dr. Curt Wormann, that his collection was packed at a warehouse near their home in New Haven and ready for shipping instructions. Following Yahuda’s sudden death, Ethel Yahuda carried on cataloguing the collection in preparation for its transfer to Jerusalem. During a visit to Israel in 1953, she publicly announced her intention to donate the collection to the JNUL at a luncheon in her honor with Hebrew University officials and Israel’s then President Yitzhak Ben-Zvi. However, when she died in 1955, she had not yet completed her cataloguing work and, more significantly, had neglected to include a provision for the donation to the Hebrew University JNUL in her will. One of the executors of the estate, Abraham Yahuda’s nephew, objected to the donation. The case was contested in the Connecticut court, and the state Supreme Court finally ruled in favor of the Hebrew University in 1966. The Yahuda Collection finally arrived at the Library in 1967.

A beautiful Iranian manuscript of Layla and Majnun from 1602 CE, the Abraham Shalom Yahuda Collection at the National Library of Israel


The Yahuda Collection, including his private collection of manuscripts, rare books, scholarly literature, and personal papers, is undoubtedly one of the most valuable and significant bequests ever received by the National Library of Israel (which was known as the Jewish National and University Library [JNUL] of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem from 1925-2011). It comprises some 1,400 manuscripts, including 1,186 manuscripts in the Arabic script (primarily in Arabic, with 350 in Persian and 250 in Ottoman Turkish). The collection dates from the third/ninth through the thirteenth/nineteenth centuries. It includes compositions from Spain and North Africa to Central and South Asia, and encompasses all the major Islamic religious fields, as well as the study of language and literature, and science, medicine, and mathematics.

The collection also includes 240 manuscripts in Hebrew script and fifty manuscripts in Roman script, including a number of beautifully illuminated copies of the Book of Hours. In addition to manuscripts, the Yahuda collection also includes a number of incunabula and many other rare printed editions. Among the more remarkable non-Islamic items is the vast archive of Isaac Newton’s theological writings including 7,500 pages, purchased by Yahuda after they were auctioned at Sotheby’s in 1936. Another unique collection comprises 1,100 documents from the period of Napoleon’s rule in Egypt, some signed by his own hand. Finally, the Collection encompasses Yahuda’s vast archive of approximately 3,000 letters, which provides a clear window into the complex and fascinating life of Yahuda himself.

You can browse through many of the Arabic manuscripts in the Abraham Shalom Yahuda Collection at the National Library of Israel, here.


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Eliezer Ben Yehuda Writes from Prison

"My heart tells me,  my hope is strong, that the judges themselves will realize that this is just a false plot made up by those who hate me,  and will set me free"

Just before Hanukah, 1893, Shlomo Naftali Hertz Jonas published an article in the newspaper “HaTzvi” titled “Commandments Require Intent” in which, in the spirit of the burgeoning Zionist idea, he called for the celebration of Hanukah as a holiday of Jewish strength. Jonas, Eliezer Ben Yehuda’s father-in-law, closed the article with the words: “gather strength to move forward” (לאסוף חיל ללכת קדימה). Ben Yehuda’s detractors from the Ultra-Orthodox community used this sentence as an excuse to inform on him to the Turkish authorities. The Ultra-Orthodox translated the word חיל  (strength) as “army” and the phrase ללכת קדימה (to move forward) as “to conquer the east”.  Thus, this innocent remark was interpreted as a plot to revolt against the Turks. This was the climax of the feud between the “Old Yishuv” in Jerusalem and Eliezer Ben Yehuda, the driving spirit behind the revival of the Hebrew language. Eliezer Ben Yehuda, the editor of the “Hatzvi”, was arrested as a traitor to the crown and was sentenced to a year in prison.

Portrait of Eliezer Ben Yehuda, Moscow, circa 1885​​


Portair of Hemda Ben Yehuda, Mogilev, Russia, 1904

When he was informed he was going to be sent to prison, Eliezer Ben Yehuda wrote a letter to his son, Itamar.

Exactly 120 years later, while organizing an archive that was received by the National Library, the original letter was discovered:

“Ben Zion, my son, they summoned me to court next Wednesday, apparently regarding the article about the police. Maybe we should confer together about what to do, or maybe it is better, in any case, that you should not be there during the judgment? I am confused. I didn’t know what to do. Your Father”.


Eliezer Ben Yehuda’s letter to his son Itamar


Ben Yehuda’s letter to his son set his release in motion. He was released during the Hanukah holiday.

During his incarceration, which lasted about two weeks, Eliezer Ben Yehuda wrote a letter to his second wife, Hemda. This letter is also preserved at the National Library:

“My Hemda, my wife, life of my soul and spirit, tomorrow is judgment day. My heart tells me,  my hope is strong, that the judges themselves will realize that this is just a false plot made up by those who hate me,  and will set me free. I feel like this is my last night in prison, and that by this time tomorrow we will be together in our house.  How I will hug you, my dear girl, how I will kiss you my sweet wife! How pleasant is the prison to me this night, how dear is my prison cell, as I hope to be together with you tomorrow! However, my wife, my dear Hemda, no man can know what tomorrow might bring. The smallest incident could bring about some confusion, some slight delay, and that will be enough to return me to my cell for a few days. We must always anticipate the worst, and be ready to accept the bad bravely, as is fitting for people like ourselves; as is fitting for a woman like you. Therefore, my dear Hemda, with all our hope they we will see each other tomorrow at our house, we should be prepared and ready for the bad. Let our hearts not fall, we will strengthen ourselves with the knowledge that it is due to our regard and labor for our people and for the good of progress that those who hate us blamed us and told falsehoods about us. This knowledge will be sufficient for us to carry and suffer everything with brave hearts and spirits. Therefore, my precious wife, be strong and of a good courage, and know that in your serenity I will also find serenity and in knowing that you will overcome this trouble that has come upon us and that you are healthy, I will also find strength to suffer so that afterwards we will be able to be together and return to our great work for the good of progress like we did before. I will hug you, my lovely girl, and I will kiss you”.


Eliezer Ben Yehuda’s letter to his wife Hemda

16 years after his release, on 18.12.1908, Eliezer Ben Yehuda wrote in “HaTzvi” about the Hanukah holiday:

“Hanukah, the holiday of the Hasmoneans. For the first time in 16 years I utter these words without fear and trembling… lo, the sun of freedom is shining on us in all its glory! Hurrah!… to you, Freedom! Everything is yours! For only in you man is man! You, You my Goddess, our heroes, whose names I feared to mention for over 15 years, have served. In Your name they fought, and in Your name they performed acts of bravery that astounded all the nations of the world, in Your name they were victorious and in Your name they expelled the foreigners from the land, and shook off the yoke of the strangers from the neck of their fellows, and in Your name they gave us this sweet holiday so that I can now call without fear and terror: Hanukah, Hanukah, Hanukah!”