The First Jewish Book Printed in England

With the return of Jews to England in the 17th century, the developing community’s members surprisingly saw no need for a Jewish printing house. The first printed book was published decades later and only in the wake of a controversial internal dispute…

An 18th century view of London. Credit: Cleveland Museum of Art

Not many years after Johann Gutenberg invented the printing press in the mid-15th century, printed books began to appear targeting Jewish audiences. In Spain, Italy, the Ottoman Empire and other places, Jews could enjoy scholarly texts and prayer books that were either printed in their own countries or imported from other places.

This important development skipped over England.

The Jews, expelled from its shores in the year 1290, were only allowed to return in 1656. Even after their return, primarily from Holland and Germany, there was no rush to establish a printing house to publish new or existing books for the Jewish community’s own purposes. For decades, Jewish books continued to be brought over from the continent.

A handful of works featuring Hebrew print were published in England before the Jews were allowed back into the realm, but these were usually individual words or brief Hebrew passages printed for Christian scholars who were interested in the language or in the early roots of Christianity.

The first book published in England to include Hebrew letters was Oratio de laudibus & utilitate trium linguarum: Arabicae, Chaldaicae & Hebraicae. This was a printed copy of a lecture given by Robert Wakefield, a scholar and lecturer at the Universities of Cambridge and Oxford. The lecture was delivered in 1524 and printed soon after in London. Later, books featuring Hebrew words were also printed in Oxford and Cambridge, among them several books on Hebrew grammar and language. The first complete Hebrew text to be published was a translation of the Book of Psalms in 1643. The next twenty years saw the printing in England of Maimonides’ Commentary on the Mishnah, Maimonides’ Laws of Repentance, and the Mishnah tractates Berakhot and Yoma. All of these were intended for Christian scholars of one sort or another.

Maimonides’ Commentary on the Mishnah in Latin translation, Oxford, 1655

The first publication in Hebrew intended for the Jews of England was only published in 1705, in response to an acute controversy that had engulfed London’s Sephardic community.

The community’s rabbi, David Nieto, was born in Venice in 1654. He studied medicine at the University of Padua after which he worked as a physician, rabbinical judge and rabbi in the city of Livorno. It was in Livorno that he wrote his first work entitled Pascalogia – a study in Italian that dealt with efforts to determine the date of the Christian festival of Easter and the differences between the Catholic, Greek and Jewish calendars. He dedicated the work to a powerful Italian nobleman – Francesco Maria de’ Medici, a member of the famous family from Tuscany. Throughout his life, Rabbi Nieto continued to grapple with matters related to the Jewish calendar.

Pascalogia by Rabbi David Nieto, 1765, the second edition, printed after his death

In 1701, Rabbi Nieto was invited to serve as the leader of the Sephardic community in London on the condition that he promise to not practice medicine there. Shortly after his arrival he had already composed and published a prayer for the success of King William III in Spanish.

Portrait of Rabbi David Nieto, 1654–1728

One Shabbat in November 1703, a few days before Hanukkah, Rabbi Nieto gave a sermon in which he stated, among other things, that God and “nature” are one. Even today, these words might seem provocative and even offensive to some, but for English Jews in 1703, most of whom had come to London from the Netherlands, the rabbi’s words had a particularly negative resonance.

Some who were present at his sermon must have been familiar with their Dutch Jewish compatriot Baruch Spinoza, a philosopher whose views were contrary to the principles of Judaism. Among other things, Spinoza (like other philosophers of his time) claimed that nature itself was the true God, not the spiritual entity accepted by Jewish believers. This worldview, known as pantheism, claims that God did not create the universe, but that the universe and the laws of nature are an infinite entity that creates and animates reality. According to this view, the concepts of reward and punishment, good and evil, as well as personal providence, do not exist.

For some listeners, Rabbi Nieto’s sermon was an expression of heresy, in the spirit of Spinoza.

The philosopher Baruch Spinoza, 1632-1677

Some members of the London community expressed concern and even anger at the words of their new rabbi. The climax came when a member of the congregation, Yehoshua Zarfati, refused to take part in a wedding attended by Rabbi Nieto on the grounds that he was an apostate. In response to the division and strife that arose in the community, Rabbi Nieto published his book De La Divina Providencia on the subject of divine providence. The book contains a dialogue between two Jews, Reuven and Shimon, in which one explains to the other the principles of individual providence and God’s relationship to nature. The book was published in London in 1704. It was written in Spanish and surprisingly, was never translated into Hebrew.

In his book, Rabbi Nieto claimed that the very use of the word “nature” (teva טבע, in Hebrew) was new to Judaism, in circulation for only a few hundred years. Before that, there had been no need for a word to describe God’s creation. It was only after Greek philosophy became known to the Jews through its translation into Arabic that the need arose for an appropriate term with which to contend and debate with those holding other scientific and philosophical opinions. Rabbi Nieto emphasizes that God and nature are the same and cites Psalm 147:

Sing to the LORD with thanksgiving, make music to our God on the harp; He covers the sky with clouds, he supplies the earth with rain, and makes grass grow on the hills.

Nature’s meaning is “providence” and providence is divine. Those who claim otherwise, says Rabbi Nieto, are “Karaites and apostates.”

De La Divina Providencia, 1716, second edition, London

The book did not do what its author had hoped and the storm did not subside even after the rabbi’s opponents were banned and some members of the community expelled from the synagogue.

The community decided to turn for help to the prestigious rabbinical court of Amsterdam to rule on the matter. For various and perhaps not entirely innocuous reasons, the Amsterdam rabbinical court did not deliver a clear answer. The members of London’s Sephardic community then thought to turn to the Sephardic community in Hamburg, but that community was without a rabbi at the time, and so the leaders of the London community turned to Rabbi Tzvi Ashkenazi of Altona (in Germany), who was known as “the Hakham Tzvi” and was considered one of Europe’s greatest rabbis in his day. Rabbi Ashkenazi, who was born in Moravia, had served for a significant part of his life as a rabbi of Sephardic communities, and thus the Sephardic community of London also saw him as a trustworthy figure.

Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch Ashkenazi (the Hakham Tzvi), 1656–1718, the Schwadron Collection at the National Library of Israel

In August 1705, a letter arrived in London from the Hakham Tzvi, in which he placed his full support behind Rabbi Nieto.

In his answer, he quoted from 16th-century Italian preacher Rabbi Judah Moscato’s commentary “Kol Yehuda” on the Sefer HaKuzari (“Book of the Khazar”) by Judah Halevi.  Moscato explains that the Hebrew root teva – that is “nature” – also appears in the Hebrew word hatba’ah (הטבעה), meaning the act of imprinting or stamping. The context here being the stamping or imprinting of the seal and very essence of God, the Holy One, blessed be He, on all of His deeds and creations.

In his answer, Rabbi Moscato discusses the semantics of the Hebrew word teva, “nature” and the differences between general nature and individual nature in the context of divine providence. The issue was a theologically and philosophically complex one, but the Hakham Tzvi saw no point in delving more deeply into the matter since the purpose of the correspondence was mainly to hear his opinion about Rabbi Nieto. Hakham Tzvi reassured those who feared the use of the word “nature” in relation to God and noted that other great rabbis, such as Rabbi Isaiah Halevi (1555–1630), also used “nature” in this way in their writings.

The Hakaham Tzvi concluded his answer with the following words:

“We must give thanks to the wise and exalted Rabbi David Nieto for the sermon he preached warning the people not to let their hearts follow the opinion of the philosophers who speak of nature for this has led to many faults and rather enlightened them with his true belief that everything is by His blessed providence.”

This letter sent by the Hakham Tzvi was printed at a non-Jewish printing house in London and distributed by the community’s leadership among the Jews of London in 1705. Although comprising only a few pages, and not an actual book, it was the first publication in Hebrew to be published in England explicitly for a Jewish audience. Later, the letter was also printed in a book of Hakham Tzvi’s halakhic responsa (questions and answers about Jewish religious law).

The reply of the Hakham Tzvi to the matter of Rabbi David Nieto’s sermon, London 1705

The controversy subsided and the life of the London Jewish community returned to normal. In the end, it had all been either a simple misunderstanding on the part of those who had come to hear Rabbi Nieto’s sermon or an unclear explanation of a charged philosophical issue.

Two years later, two slightly longer books were printed in Hebrew. In this case as well, the books were published in the wake of a debate that arose in the community. Only this time it involved the Ashkenazi community of London, but more on that another time…

“Israel is a graveyard for Jewish languages”: An Interview With Dr. Tamar Eilam Gindin

The culture of Iranian Jews in Israel is bound up with a language that is nearly lost: Judeo-Persian. According to Dr. Tamar Eilam Gindin, a linguist and scholar of Iran, Judeo-Persian is not just one language. It is rather like a tapestry woven over thousands of years of Jewish history in Persia, so that sometimes different dialects were even found in the same city. In this interview, Dr. Eilam Gindin discusses the fate of Judeo-Persian in Israel as well as the secret language of Persian Jewry…


A story written in Judeo-Persian, 17th-18th century. Courtesy of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, New York, accessible through the National Library of Israel’s Ktiv project

When was the last time you heard someone speaking Judeo-Moroccan, Ladino or Judeo-Persian? You may be familiar with a few words that come up in conversations at home with family members, but the truth is that most Jewish languages are no longer spoken, certainly not on a daily basis. Yet, these languages carry a great deal of cultural baggage, each one telling the story of a whole community, stories that for the most part have disappeared into the mists of time.

One of these Jewish languages that has been nearly forgotten ​​in Israel is Judeo-Persian, which is why we turned to Dr. Tamar Eilam Gindin, a linguist and scholar of Iran, who is herself fluent in quite a few languages. We wanted to focus on the story of Judeo-Persian but we very quickly learned how mistaken we were in making such a generalization. “It is highly inaccurate to speak about Judeo-Persian as one language. In fact, there are many Iranian-Jewish languages, not all are even Persian, and all of them have undergone quite a few changes. What began as Judeo-Persian is today a language very similar to Persian and is not written in Hebrew,” she explains with a smile.

Dr. Tamar Eilan Gindin. Screenshot courtesy of Kan Broadcasting Corporation

How did this group of languages we call Judeo-Persian come about?

[Dr. Tamar Eilam Gindin]: “In general, wherever Jews settled, as with any immigrant community, the first generation probably spoke Hebrew, but the second generation spoke the local language. What preserved the language was the desire to maintain a Jewish identity and this was expressed in the preservation of the “family slang”, that was spoken in Grandma’s house. In addition, given the sacred status of Hebrew, there was always a scholarly elite that continued to speak Hebrew, which remained the common language (Lingua Franca) of all the Jewish communities in the world. Through that elite, Hebrew words continued to permeate the local Jewish language. Specifically in Iran, there are many dialects. Some imagine it like the branches of a tree, but in fact it’s more like patterns on a carpet—between neighboring villages there are small differences, but a few villages away, it’s a completely different dialect. Anywhere with a large enough Jewish community, a Jewish language developed. In Yazd, the language was different from one Jewish neighborhood to the other, so that while the residents of the northern neighborhood understood both languages, the residents of the southern neighborhood didn’t understand the northern one.”

Do the Jewish languages share any characteristics?

“It was once common to speak of the three characteristics of a Jewish language—it had to be written in Hebrew script, it had to have a Hebrew element, as well as archaisms. Yet we now know that none of these are necessary nor sufficient. Most of the Jewish languages ​​today, including Judeo-Persian, are written in local script but are still Jewish and used mainly by Jews. The other two characteristics are not always present either. Take for example, Jewish-American English, we can’t claim that it’s archaic. Also, the Hebrew component in it is not exclusive to the language: Hebrew words have permeated common English. Likewise, today’s Judeo-Persian is not archaic. Contact between Jewish society and the general society in Iran grew closer during the mid-20th century, so that today Judeo-Persian is almost indistinguishable from Persian and the Hebrew component in it is very minimal.”

A manuscript of a Judeo-Persian piyut (liturgical hymn), late 19th century. National Library of Israel, a gift of the President of the State of Israel, Reuven Rivlin, from the estate of his father Prof. Yosef Yoel Rivlin

What singles out Judeo-Persian among all the Jewish languages?

“What’s beautiful about Judeo-Persian is that because it’s been around for so long, you can see different stages in its development. You can see the first stage in books like the Book of Esther, which is Hebrew with a Persian element. The Talmud contains a lot of Persian words, but it’s still Hebrew and Aramaic with a Persian element. This is the beginning. In fact, the books of Daniel, Ezra and Nehemiah also contain a Persian influence, and in modern Hebrew there are quite a few words that derive from Persian and are deeply rooted in the Hebrew language, such as pardes (orchard), egoz (nut), zman (time) and handasa (engineering).”

When was the first written documentation of Judeo-Persian?

“Ancient Judeo-Persian is recorded from the 8th century CE. In fact, it is the earliest recorded writing of New Persian. The Muslims, who spoke Persian at home at the time, wrote in Arabic, so there is no record of their spoken language. The Zoroastrians were still trying to write in Middle Persian, which reflects a phase before New Persian. The Jews wrote in the language they spoke, using the letters they knew—the Hebrew alphabet. This is equivalent to Israeli Arabs writing in Arabic in Hebrew letters, or “Penglish”, Iranians writing Persian using the English alphabet.”

A manuscript of a poem in praise of Moses, written in Judeo-Persian, 19th century.  National Library of Israel collections

“The same early Judeo-Persian documentation also contributed to the study of Iranian languages ​​in general. The earliest document in Persian in Hebrew letters, from the 8th century as mentioned, is an inscription found in Afghanistan. Researchers were unable to decipher it. They tried all kinds of Middle Persian scripts and were unsuccessful, until they realized that the letters were Hebrew written in a script that was something between Rashi script and square script. And voila! They were then able to decode this Persian text. In fact, the different languages ​​of the Jews in Iran make it possible to study the history of the Iranian languages, because while the local population was already speaking a different language, the spoken Jewish language remained faithful to the original local dialect. As mentioned, there were many local Jewish dialects in Iran and most were descended from the Median language. Few of them have been studied, mainly those of Isfahan, Yazd, Kerman, Shiraz, Hamadan and Kashan.


How did all these languages ​​develop?

In Iran, the Jews first adopted the local language and then preserved it in a changing environment, which was relatively easy within a closed community. It turned out that like many small and closed communities, they preserved the original language while the Muslim communities around them advanced linguistically. In the Muslim communities, the language was lost in favor of Persian or changed in another direction. The Zoroastrians, for example, are also a minority in Iran, and there are other ethnic minorities and not just religious ones. Every minority in Iran, even in different villages, has different dialects. This is possible because these are closed communities and these dialects remain more archaic, that is, more similar to the original language. So often times, when we want to understand what Iran looked like linguistically, we have to go to the Jewish languages ​​and the local languages ​​and to see through them. What’s also interesting is the Jewish secret language that developed there.”

Judeo-Persian tales. Courtesy of The Jewish Theological Seminary of America, NY, accessible through the National Library of Israel’s Ktiv project

A secret Jewish language in Iran?

“Yes, Loterāʾi is a Persian dialect that uses a Hebrew lexicon which developed at the same time as Judeo-Persian, and was designed to prevent Iranians from understanding what was being said. A whole jargon of a hidden language developed, which Iranians usually could not decipher. Only those in the know, meaning the Jews, could.

The Jewish community in Iran maintained its Jewish language, but after most of the community immigrated to Israel, the Iranian-Jewish languages ​​suffered a severe blow. I call the unique phenomenon occurring to the Jewish languages in Israel “sandwich languages”: the bottom layer, which we call the substrate language, is the language of the conquered—not necessarily in a military or political sense, but it can certainly be cultural—and affects the language from the bottom up. The top layer is the superstrate language, that is, the influence of the conqueror on the conquered to the point where the language of the conquered is lost and a new language forms. Hebrew was the substrate of all the Jewish languages ​​around the world and the need to maintain a distinct identity is what preserved the Jewish languages ​​in the Diaspora. Jewish language, which was created everywhere, was the product of the dialogue between Hebrew and the local language. With the immigration to Israel, the superstrate of Israeli Hebrew went into action. Because of the melting pot policy, Israel became a giant cemetery for Jewish languages, because not only is there no longer a reason to preserve these languages. The need to remain separate has been removed as well and in its place is the need to come together and unify in the melting pot.

A manuscript of Judeo-Persian piyutim, 19th century. National Library of Israel, a gift of the President of the State of Israel Reuven Rivlin, from the estate of his father Prof. Yosef Yoel Rivlin

In Israel today, the Judeo-Persian language of those who emigrated from Iran is heavily influenced by everyday Hebrew. It’s a similar situation to that of the Persian communities in the US, who preserved their Persian heritage but who have also assimilated into society, so that Persian has naturally disappeared over time.”

Maya the Bee in the Service of Germany’s Soldiers

The beloved children’s book about the brave little bee who saves her beehive became one of the most popular books among German soldiers during the First World War. What led them to carry this book about the adventures of a small bee with them onto the battlefield? Does it contain hints of the devious ideology that would cause global devastation only a few decades later?

Maya the Bee and German Soldiers in WWI

Maya the Bee is all grown up, and this year (2022) she celebrates 110 years of delighting the world’s children with her adventures in a multitude of languages ​​and media. It was therefore all the more disappointing to discover that the creator of this beloved character was openly antisemitic and promoted some questionable values. However, if you are one of Maya’s fans, don’t worry. We aren’t going to spoil the image of this adorable fictional and animated character. Along the way, we’ll meet Henrietta Szold’s younger sister Adele, who will remind us that books can be read in many ways.

Maya and Willy seem concerned. From the 1975 television cartoon series

First published in Germany in 1912, The Adventures of Maya the Bee tells the story of a little bee who leaves her hive in the midst of a rebellion, encounters the outside world with its friendly and dangerous creatures, and eventually returns to her hive to save it. The book was written by Waldemar Bonsels (1880–1952) for his sons, and became a great success when it was published.

First edition of The Adventures of Maya the Bee

The fact that it was popular not just among German children, but also among Germany’s soldiers in the First World War suggests that there is more to this book than meets the eye. What was it about this story and the adventures of a little bee that brought young men on the battlefield to eagerly read a book that was clearly intended for children?

The reason is that among the flowers, insects and adventures, hide militaristic and nationalist messages and values which can be interpreted as a parable of the German people and its army.

One of the clear messages conveyed in the book is that one must fight—and if necessary be prepared to die—for the homeland. Already at the beginning of the book, the nanny Cassandra says to the newly born young bee: “So do not sting . . . except in dire need, and then do it without flinching or fear of death” (unless otherwise noted, all quotations are from The Adventures of Maya the Bee [New York: Thomas Seltzer, 1922]). Maya internalizes this lesson and when she finds herself captured (for the second time in the book!) she thinks, “I am doomed anyhow. So since death is certain one way or another, I may as well be proud and brave and do everything I can to try to save them . . . If my people are to be vanquished and killed, I want to be killed, too. But first I must do everything in my power to save them.” This message reaches its climax in the battle that takes place between the bees and the wasps, where we find this exchange: “’I should like to die for you,’ Maya stammered, quivering. ‘Don’t worry about us,’ replied the queen. ‘Among the thousands inhabiting this city there is not one who would hesitate a moment to sacrifice his life for me and for the welfare of the country. You can go to sleep peacefully.'”

Here too death in battle is presented as sad but also heroic. The brave commander bee perishes in battle, and the readers learn how “His brave death inspired them all with the wild rapture that comes from utter willingness to die for a noble cause.” Reading these passages makes the book’s presence on the brutal battlefields of the First World War a little more understandable.

The book also emphasizes the duty of loyalty to the homeland. Maya’s leaving the hive is a reprehensible act, and only the fact that she returned to save it means that she is forgiven for “the crime of  leaving her homeland” (from the Hebrew translation by Aryeh Leib Smiatitzky, Devora Zivit, Omanut Publishers, 1928). Even during her journey, the readers understand that it is better to shelter in the shadow of the rulers and serve them, rather than set out on an independent path. “Oh, thought Maya, how happy it made you to be able to count yourself one in a community like that, to feel that everybody respected you, and you had the powerful protection of the state. Here, out in the world, lonely and exposed, she ran great risks of her life. She was cold, too.” Even the wasps admit that “we are a more powerful race, but the bees are a unified nation, and unflinchingly loyal to their people and their state.”

“You did not forget your home and your people… In your heart you were loyal.” The illustration above is by Franz Franke, from a German edition dating to 1920

As can be understood from the last sentence, nationalism is not limited to loyalty to the homeland but also includes expressions of national and racial superiority. Emphasized throughout the book is the bees’ superiority over all other insects. “For it is to our courage as well as our wisdom that we bees owe the universal respect and esteem in which we are held,” explains Cassandra to the young bee Maya. In her meeting with the beetle, the narrator points out that “The bees had more culture and better manners,” than the other insects, and the fly, which is afraid of being stung, declares “Everybody knows that you bees are the most respected of all insects.”

The author Waldemar Bonsels

This feeling of superiority is connected to the fact that Bonsels, a humanist and lover of nature, was also an avowed antisemite. He openly expressed his support for the Nazis with their rise in 1933 by publishing a hateful article about the Jews. According to the article, the Jewish people are a deadly enemy that poisons German culture and must be stopped. The book about Maya the Bee was written years before, but some believe that an inkling of this thinking can also be found among its pages. On one of the first pages of the book, the governess Cassandra tells Maya: “The hornets are our most formidable enemy, and the wickedest, and the wasps are a useless tribe of thieves, without home or religion. We are a stronger, more powerful nation, while they steal and murder wherever they can.” It is not unreasonable to assume that the evil wasps in the book symbolize the Jewish people. Bonsels was even approached to turn Maya the Bee into an animated film in the service of Nazi propaganda. The request came from a German studio established in 1941, with the aim of presenting an alternative to Walt Disney’s American studios and spreading German ideology through animated films. Bonsels accepted the offer and only a financial dispute led to the deal’s falling apart. After the war, Bonsels’ ties with the Nazi Party led to the boycott of his books for a short period.

Maya the Bee appears in a Nazi magazine for Germany’s soldiers, June, 1941

In the United States, the book was first published in 1922. The English translator was none other than Adele Szold-Seltzer, the younger sister of Henrietta Szold, leader and founder of Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America. At the time, Bonsels’ views were not yet widely known and the story was seen as a naïve children’s book. Reading it today, we cannot ignore what we now know about the writer’s personal views or the various militaristic messages embedded throughout. Nevertheless, it also shows appreciation for nature’s beauty, as well as the values of curiosity, compassion, and coming to the aid of one’s fellow creatures. Maya befriends many insects she meets along the way, marvels at the beauty of the butterfly, the dragonfly and the night gnome, the song of the red-breasted robin, the melody of the cricket. The various insects share information with her and come to each other’s rescue—Maya helps the dung beetle regain its footing, and later he will be the one to save her from almost certain death in the spider’s web. And we haven’t yet mentioned love. In one episode, upon seeing a loving young couple and thinking it the most glorious sight, Maya says to herself “human beings are most beautiful when they are in love.”

The American edition of The Adventures of Maya the Bee, translated by Adele Szold-Seltzer

But let’s be honest, most of us first fell in love with Maya the Bee at the movies or on television and not in the pages of a book. The first film adaptation was a silent film starring real animals, released in 1926 during Bonsels’ lifetime and with his collaboration. Yet Maya’s great success came only in 1975, over twenty years after Bonsels’ death, and from Japan, of all places. It was the Japanese animated 104-episode series that brought Maya into homes all over the world and turned her into a famous and beloved children’s character and star of an array of merchandise from chocolates and puddings to dolls and bedding. The series also brought us Willy and Flip, two beloved characters who don’t appear in Bonsels’ book and were only added in the animated series. Willy became so popular that he appeared in almost every adaptation of the story (for example, in the French animated series from 2012), even though, as mentioned, he doesn’t appear at all in the original book.

A Hebrew poster for the movie Maya the Bee. L.A.C. Productions


The first Hebrew translation of the original book was by Aryeh Leib Smiatitzky in 1928, titled Hadvorah Zivit. A new translation by Bezalel Wechsler appeared in 1977 under the title Hadvora Maya VeHarpatka’oteha.  Added to these were shorter books based on the television series, which were already far removed in spirit from the original.

Hadvora Maya Veharpatka’oteha, 1977


Hadvora Maya Nilhemet BaTzra’ot (“Maya the Bee Battles the Wasps”)


The makeover was finally completed in 2014, with another motion picture based on the book (Maya the Bee Movie), featuring even fewer ties to the original narrative. The film received poor reviews but was quite successful at the box office and also spawned two sequels. It even managed to completely overturn Bonsels’ doctrine from beginning to end. Not only does it erase all traces of any antisemitic undercurrent and offer a practically pacifist message, but it also reverses Bonsels’ most basic message for young, especially female readers – to obey and conform. Instead, the film teaches its young viewers to see Maya’s free spirit and independence in a sympathetic and positive light, and in the spirit of the times educates them to listen to their hearts and to be themselves. Bonsels, who died in 1952, but whose name appears in the credits as one of the writers, would not have approved.

A Hebrew poster for Maya the Bee Movie, 2014

An Inimitable Talent: The Qanun Player Yusuf Za’arur

Yusuf Za’arur was a talented musician and expert qanun player who served for many years as the musical director of the Radio Baghdad Orchestra. When he immigrated to Israel, he had to fight for recognition, but his great talent led him to renewed success in Israel as well

Yusuf Za’arur at the International Congress of Arab Music in Cairo, 1932

One day, during a rehearsal of the Israel Broadcasting Authority’s Iraqi Maqam Orchestra, the qanun player Yusuf Za’arur saw a fellow qanun player, Avraham Salman, sitting outside the door trying to imitate Za’arur’s wonderful technique. Za’arur approached Salman and said to him jokingly: “What are you doing, young man? Trying to imitate my playing? Copying from me?” The joke was an attempt to diffuse the inherent tension that is palpable whenever a student tries to outdo his master. After all, Za’arur knew Avraham Salman from their days back in Iraq, when Za’arur had been the musical director of the Radio Baghdad Orchestra. Za’arur would promote talented young musicians, mainly from among the Jewish community. Avraham Salman was one of them.

The Baghdad Radio Orchestra, 1936

Yusuf Za’arur was born in 1902 to a wealthy family in Baghdad. He displayed musical talent from a young age, and at 18 bought himself his first qanun. He also played the violin and cello. In 1932, he participated with other Iraqi musicians (all Jews) in the First International Congress of Arab Music in Cairo. A rare recording from this event can be found in the collections of the National Library of Israel. On track five, one can hear Za’arur’s virtuoso playing on the qanun. His talent earned him a medal and first place in the Congress.

Za’arur joined Radio Baghdad in 1936 and by 1941, he was appointed the station’s musical director. He held this position until his immigration to Israel in 1951. While working at Radio Baghdad, he promoted many Jewish musicians, among them the singer Salim Shuwat, Albert Elias, Avraham Daoud, Avraham Salman, Daoud Akram, Haki Ovadia, Shuweh Yehezkel, Elias Zebida, Sasson Abdu, Yosef Yaakov Shem Tov and the young singer Saleh Alshabli.

The Radio Baghdad Orchestra, 1938

Za’arur did not just promote Jewish singers. When the Iraqi singer Nazem Al-Ghazali came to audition for him, he sang a song in an Egyptian style. Za’arur then asked him to sing an Iraqi song and told him that the Iraqi maqam was better suited to his style of singing. After the audition, Za’arur told Ghazali that he was very talented and he predicted a great future for him, which indeed turned out to be true.

During the years he worked at Radio Baghdad, Za’arur composed many popular tunes and worked with the great Arab singers of the time, from the respected composer Mohammed Abdel Wahab to the great singer of the Arab world Umm Kulthum.

Although he was a much sought-after musician, as a civil servant he gave private performances only to a limited number of personalities, among them King Faisal of Iraq and Prime Minister Nuri Al-Said.

The famous violinist Sami al-Shawwa performing in Baghdad in 1931, at the Cinema Royale, with Yusuf Za’arur on the qanun and Ezra Aharon Azouri on the oud

Immigrating to Israel inevitably brought a sharp decline in Za’arur’s status, and he went from managing singers and orchestras to playing private concerts for families from the Iraqi community in Israel. Although having fallen from his revered status in Iraq, he continued to try and include other musicians. His family says that when he was offered to play at a family celebration, he would ask the hosts if they were also interested in having a violin or oud player accompany him on the qanun. The hosts generally declined his offer because they only wanted to hear him play. However, out of appreciation for his great talent, they paid him as if he were an entire orchestra.

The 1932 International Congress of Arab Music in Cairo. All the Iraqi musicians were Jewish with the exception of the singer Mohammad al-Gubenchi. Yusuf Za’arur was among the senior members of the orchestra and won first place in the qanun

His great talent brought him renewed recognition in Israel and he founded the Chalery Baghdad maqam orchestra which was part of the Arab Orchestra of the Israel Broadcasting Authority. Many of Yusuf’s recordings from his time with the Israel Broadcasting Authority can be found in the collections of the National Library of Israel. However, he had to fight for his place among established musicians in Israel, some of whom he had promoted and cultivated in Iraq.

Yusuf Za’arur in his home in Israel, 1966

The story with which we began this article demonstrates the struggle for recognition between newer and older immigrants and Yusuf Za’arur’s unique and inimitable talent. Many musicians have tried to achieve his level of skill, including his great-grandson, the qanun player David Regev-Za’arur, who says that he tries to play like his great-grandfather, and hopes that he will one day succeed.

Many thanks to David Regev-Za’arur for the stories and photographs