A ‘High Holiday Prayer’ to the Czar

After he freed the serfs, Alexander II was virtually deified by one leading Jewish newspaper

As far as 19th century Russian autocrats went, Czar Alexander II did some decent things for the Jews. He abolished the cruel “Cantonist school” system, which ripped Jewish children away from their families and into decades of forced military service. He allowed some Jews to attend high school and even university. While the ultimate goal was certainly Russification, Alexander generally promoted a gentler form of it than others.

In 1861, the day before Abraham Lincoln was sworn in as president of the United States, a no less significant event took place across the world. On March 3 of that year, Czar Alexander II signed the Emancipation Manifesto, which, along with accompanying legislation, freed some 23 million serfs across the Russian Empire.

Liberty was not immediate even for those officially freed by the proclamation, and for the 2.5 million disenfranchised Jews living in Russia’s Pale of Settlement, the Manifesto held little to no meaning.

The Jewish market in Minsk, home to one of the largest Jewish populations in the Pale of Settlement. From the Folklore Research Center, Hebrew University of Jerusalem; available via NLI’s Digital Collection

Nonetheless, the editors of HaMelitz, a leading Jewish weekly published in Odessa, celebrated the Emancipation Manifesto and its signer as if it were the High Holidays and Alexander was the Almighty Himself.

HaMelitz generally championed values of the Jewish Enlightenment (Haskalah), and played a critical role in the modern rebirth of the Hebrew language during the second half of the 19th century. It thus only seems natural that a modern take on traditional Jewish liturgy praising the Czar of Russia instead of the God of Abraham graced the publication’s cover shortly after the Emancipation Manifesto.

And it wasn’t subtle.

Following the blasts of the shofar on Rosh Hashana, worshippers traditionally say “Today, the world came into being, today [He] will stand in judgment…”, as they plead for God’s compassion and favor.

The difficult-to-translate Hebrew words “Hayom harat” begin this prayer, and they, along with other identical terms, open the ‘liturgy’ published by HaMelitz, as well: “Today the success of our Land came into being, today a KING [large font in the original] of justice and righteousness will stand…”

Perhaps the most well-known High Holiday refrain “Avinu Malkeinu” (“Our Father, Our King”) also makes an appearance, as Alexander is referred to as “Avinu Malkeinu HaRachaman“, “Our Merciful Father and King”.

Alexander II in his coronation robes. From The Coronation of the Russian Monarch Beginning with Tsar Mikhail Fedorovich to the Emperor Alexander III, Hermann Hoppe Publishing, 1883 (Public Domain)

While other Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur tropes continue throughout, additional Jewish holidays make appearances as well.

The Hebrew term for “light and happiness”, which famously appears in the Book of Esther after the Jews are saved from the hands of  the evil Haman, is here employed to refer to the day the beneficent Russian monarch freed 23 million serfs, with the latter referenced in a manner clearly reminiscent of the wording used to recount the myriads of Jewish slaves miraculously redeemed from Egyptian servitude.

The “prayer” concludes with a call for all who “loyally love the land of our birth” to “Bless the one who has granted us life, sustained us, and allowed us to reach this day” – the exact text of the well-known “Shehecheyanu” prayer, seemingly directed towards the King of Russia, as opposed to the King of the Universe.

Front cover of the HaMelitz newspaper, Thursday, March 28, 1861. The ‘prayer’ to Czar Alexander II is the lead item. Click image to browse the paper
The ‘prayer’ to Czar Alexander II, published in HaMelitz, Thursday, March 28, 1861. Click image to enlarge

Similar works were written in honor of Alexander II across the Empire. In fact, over the course of his reign, Hebrew texts were composed to mark other events as well, including his anniversary and his survival of an assassination attempt (at least one of them). Some of these texts were even intended to be read in synagogue. This phenomenon is not specific to the czar, however. Over the centuries, countless Hebrew prayers, songs and poems have been composed to fete leaders around the globe – sometimes written from a place of authentic appreciation and gratitude, while other times more out of fear or attempted groveling.

While Biblical phrases and wording generally reserved for God may have sometimes been utilized by anti-religious authors in order to denigrate tradition and sanctify secularism and modernity, that was certainly not always the intention, as prior to the broader development of modern Hebrew, the language’s lexicon and contexts were overwhelmingly religious in nature. Hamelitz  specifically served as a major force driving the modernization and secularization of Hebrew, helping enable it to be used more widely.

A contemporary illustration of Alexander II’s assassination (Public Domain)

On March 13, 1881, an assassin’s bomb tore Alexander II’s body apart. He bled to death in the same room in which he had signed the Emancipation Manifesto almost exactly two decades earlier.

Alexander’s son would immediately go on to rule with an iron fist and usher in an era of state-supported anti-Semitism. His grandson, present in the Winter Palace for the assassination’s aftermath, would be the last Czar of Russia.


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.

Dodging the Draft in the Old Country

Besides poverty and pogroms, forced conscription weighed heavily on European Jews

My great-grandfather, Meshulim (or Szulim) Nemeth, served in the Austro-Hungarian army for ten years, two months, and twenty days, plus another two years in the reserves. He completed his service in 1889, almost exactly a century after Jews first started serving in the Austrian military under Emperor Joseph II.

Meaning “farewell” in German, a document known as an Abschied was awarded to a soldier who had completed his required service in the Austro-Hungarian Army. Signed in Stanislawow (now Ivano-Frankivsk, Ukraine) in 1889, the Abschied for my great-grandfather, Meshulim, was printed in true Galician style – German on one half and Polish on the other – and was carefully preserved and passed down through our family.

Meshulim Nemeth’s Abschied, Stanislawow, 1889. (Courtesy: Sharon Taylor)

While many Jews like him served in the Empire’s military, others chose a different path.

In fact, evading the draft by any means available was commonplace, sometimes even elevated almost to an art form as documented in memoirs, Yizkor books, and even in a novel written by Nobel Prize laureate S.Y. Agnon.

For the son of a wealthy family, influence was commonly used to escape military service. With corruption rampant, military draft boards could often be bribed. By pulling strings and paying off officials, the sons of wealthy Jews and non-Jews were able to evade service altogether or to acquire desk jobs, serving as clerks in the military.

Well-to-do Austrian Jewish children, ca. 1900. From the Nirenstein Family Album, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

But even for the wealthy, bribery could only go so far. On occasion, word would spread that a particular draft board coming to town could not be bribed, creating a situation that required more drastic action. Young men of draft age who had the means would often travel, taking extended trips to evade conscription. Some chose to emigrate.

However, with poverty rampant, young men often lacked the funds to travel, emigrate, or bribe the draft board. Observant Jews feared that it would be impossible to adhere to a religious lifestyle while serving in the military, and others dreaded leaving their families and communities. Throughout Eastern Europe, these young men found ingenious ways to avoid military service. Repeatedly, Yizkor books (many of which are available via the JewishGen Yizkor Book Project) document both the desperation and creativity of these young men.

Austro-Hungarian cavaliers and Jewish boys in an unidentified early 20th century Eastern European town. Postcard Collection, National Library of Israel archives

Life in Jewish Tluste (today, Tovste, Ukraine) by Abraham Stupp, for example, describes some of the methods of evading conscription employed by the men in that Galician town. A few weeks before the draft board was due to arrive, eligible men would band together and stay up night after night, hoping to make themselves appear unfit for service when examined by the draft board. Known in the town as “sufferers,” they would spend their sleepless nights in groups, singing and shouting in an effort to stay awake. Trying desperately not to sleep, the sufferers often turned to mischief, deliberately waking their relatives in the middle of the night.

In Kalusz (now Kalush, Ukraine), young men would stay awake in the synagogue, hoping to make their eyes appear red and sickly for the medical examiners. As in other towns, by the early hours of the morning, these bored young men turned to pranks in order to keep themselves going. In the Jewish section of Kalusz, they would walk through the streets from house to house with a musician, waking the inhabitants with a serenade and requesting money. Those who refused their demands for payment became further victims of the pranksters. Returning later that night, the mischievous sufferers of Kalush would remove the wooden steps from the entrances to the attached shops of the residents who had refused to pay. In the morning, when those people tried to leave through their shop door, they would inevitably fall out of the house and onto the sidewalk.

The Landsmann Hotel in Kalusz, early 20th century. From the Folklore Research Center, Hebrew University of Jerusalem; available via the NLI Digital Collection

In Tlumacz (present-day Tlumach, Ukraine), young men were known to drink vinegar to slow the heart, or to rub their eyes with weeds to make them appear red and unhealthy. They practiced abstinence, fasting during the day and eating only at night. Attempting to make themselves look unfit for service, they gathered in the synagogue to keep each other awake. They spent their nights wandering through the sleeping town, playing cards, moving wagons from one house to another, and switching piles of firewood from the rich to the poor. Sometimes they would leave a bleating goat tied beneath the window of a sleeping family.

Back in the synagogue, the men were known to drink the congregational whiskey and refill the bottles with water. On Friday nights, they would steal trays of gefilte fish that were left out to cool for the Sabbath. Tales of their pranks were handed down from year to year, with each new batch of potential conscripts trying to outdo the exploits of previous groups.

Draft age men in Chorostkow (today’s Khorostkiv, Ukraine) spent three to four months depriving themselves of sleep so that they would appear weak and unfit for military service. In the town, these young men were referred to as “plaagers”. It has been noted that their efforts to avoid conscription were rarely successful.

For those who wanted to eliminate all chances of being drafted, self-mutilation was the most drastic option. Desperate to stay in their communities, draft age men were known to make themselves unfit for service by cutting off fingers or even blinding themselves in one eye.

Parents and communities generally supported efforts to avoid conscription, and mothers often boasted of the creative methods their sons used to evade the draft board and trick its medical inspectors. Practicing abstinence to avoid the draft became almost a rite of passage and a bonding experience for young men in countless shtetls.

This practice was so prevalent that it even played a key role in the novel, A Simple Story by S.Y. Agnon (published in Hebrew in 1935 by Schocken Publishers; published in English most recently in 2014 by The Toby Press). A Simple Story is set in Szybusz, a fictitious version of Agnon’s hometown, Buczacz (now Buchach, Ukraine). Agnon brings Szybusz to life, with its small Jewish shops, dusty streets, and Dickensian cast of townspeople.

S.Y. Agnon as a young man, 1908. From the S.Y. Agnon Archive, National Library of Israel

Shortly after his marriage, the main character, Hirshl Hurvitz, finds himself lying in bed awake, night after night, thinking about his lost true love and about the draft board which is on its way to town. It’s rumored that this draft board can’t be bribed, unlike the ones in past years. As a result, Hirshl fears that he will certainly be drafted. With the draft board traveling toward Szybusz, Hirshl’s anxiety and his unhappiness with his marriage deepen, and he stops eating.

Hirshl’s doctor recommends daily walks to improve sleep and appetite, so after working all day, Hirshl spends his sleepless nights walking, sometimes staying out until dawn. He begins drinking strong coffee during the day to stay awake, and as time passes, his melancholy and anxiety, as well as his lack of food and sleep, take their toll. Eventually, Hirshl suffers a complete and embarrassing public breakdown. Humiliated, his parents fear that Hirshl’s madness will cause them to lose their standing in the town.

Buczacz in the early 20th century. From the Folklore Research Center, Hebrew University of Jerusalem; available via the NLI Digital Collection

While Hirshl recovers at a mental asylum in Lemberg, his parents discover that all of Szybusz believes that Hirshl was simply practicing abstinence and that his breakdown was a performance aimed at evading the draft board and tricking its medical examiners. The townspeople even praise his ingenuity, noting that his methods were far preferable to cutting off a finger or blinding an eye to escape conscription. Since only his parents know the truth, once Hirshl recovers, he is able to return to his life in Szybusz without disgrace.

 A Simple Story is fiction, but this plot line is firmly based on practices that were widespread in Galicia at the time. After the fall of the Austrian Empire, the practice of abstinence and the tradition of draft evasion carried over into reborn Poland. Across the border in the Russian Pale of Settlement, draft evasion through emigration or “suffering” was also widely practiced.

As for my family, avoiding military service does not appear to have had any influence on my maternal grandfather’s decision to leave Europe. In February of 1911, just two years after he arrived in America, he enlisted in the U.S. Army serving for seven years and rising to the rank of sergeant. Because of his Austrian citizenship, he was honorably discharged a year after America entered the First World War.

Isidore Weisner at Eagle Pass, Texas,1917 (Courtesy: Sharon Taylor)

A version of this article first appeared as part of “Leaving Galicia – Poverty, Pogroms, and Draft Evasion” in the March 2020 edition of The Galitzianer, the quarterly journal of Gesher Galicia. It has been published here 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.

For more “Jewish Journeys”, check out our online exhibition launched in collaboration with AEPJ as part of European Days of Jewish Culture 2020.

The Jewish Doctor Who Said “No” to the Corset

Dr. Rahel Hirsch broke with mainstream convention and paved the way for the women who followed after. This is the story of the doctor who insisted that women's health was about more than female genitalia.

רחל הירש

Rahel Hirsch

The life story of Dr. Rahel Hirsch could easily be the plot of a Hollywood tearjerker. This groundbreaking pioneer was born to a Jewish family in the Kingdom of Prussia in the late 19th century. Her origin and perhaps having been born in the wrong place at the wrong time forced Hirsch to face many hardships during her life. First, she had to fight her way into the medical world. Later on, she continued to struggle with attempts to delegitimize her as a woman in the field.

Rahel Hirsch was the daughter of a school administrator and was originally sent to study education. However, her mind was always drawn to science. More than anything, she wished to become a physician. Unfortunately, the German Reich at the time forbade women to attend university studies. But why?

Back then, many men believed women should not be allowed to engage in academic professions, certainly not medicine, since they were simply perceived as unfit to do so – both mentally and physically. Those who advanced this “scientific” theory, pointed for example, to the fact that the female brain was smaller on average than that of the male (while mistakenly disregarding the size of the brain in relation to the rest of the body).

Under these restrictions, and in order to realize her dream, Rahel Hirsch left her home and everything she knew and traveled to Switzerland, where she was permitted to study medicine. In 1903 Hirsch received her long-desired medical license and from that moment on broke professional and gender-related boundaries. In 1907 she was accepted to work as an intern at the medical clinic at the Charité – a university hospital in Berlin. She was only the second woman to be hired by the institution in its entire history.

Rahel Hirsch

She later became the first person to find indications of starch particles in blood and urine and thus was able to refute the widely accepted notion that only liquids could penetrate the kidneys. The discovery that certain medical conditions could cause microscopic cells to penetrate the kidneys and exit via urine was invaluable to the medical world. She recorded her findings in a study on metabolic processes and diseases but instead of being acclaimed for them, she was mocked by her colleagues – because she was a woman.

It was a closed, patriarchal society, and so despite her accomplishments, when Hirsch presented her study at a meeting of the Charité’s directors, she was ignored by the doctors, who believed women to be of inferior intelligence. Nevertheless, she managed to move ahead and in 1908 was appointed head of the Charité’s medical clinic. Sadly, despite her new senior position, she was not paid for her services.

Hirsch soon left the Charité and opened her own private clinic in Berlin, where she installed modern X-ray equipment; this attracted wealthy clients and allowed her to live comfortably. In 1913 she became the first woman to receive the title “professor” in Prussia. However, she hadn’t seen the last of her challenges yet.

Rahel Hirsch was a Jewish woman. As a result, she was barred from teaching medicine in Germany during this period. In order to expose her colleagues to her ideas regarding women’s health – ideas that were not yet accepted in academic circles – she wrote a treatise titled Physical Culture of Women.

Physical Culture of Women (“Körperkultur der Frau”) by Rahel Hirsch, 1913, the National Library of Israel collections

The essay focused on refuting prejudiced conceptions about women’s exercise and how they should dress. She recommended clothing that fit the female physique naturally, without corsets; clothing that enabled a normal blood flow. Hirsch tried to draw attention to women’s health by raising awareness of hygiene, nutrition and exercise, though it seems the primary focus of the essay was to prove that women were no less intelligent than men. In an article published in the Munich Medical Weekly, she wrote her colleagues that the theory that males were more intelligent than females was unsubstantiated and that any difference between the mental capabilities of men and women was not biologically determined but rather a matter of faulty education. She also suggested they look at women not only from a gynecologic point of view, as women’s medicine was not all about female genitalia.

Left page: The picture on the left shows a woman with poor posture. In the picture on the right, her posture is corrected by distributing the weight on the skeleton correctly and standing in a proper position. Right page: Hirsch even gave guidelines on how to do chores around the house in a healthy and proper manner. Left: Hirsch demonstrates incorrect posture while performing chores. Right: A demonstration of correct posture.


Left page: In Hirsch’s day, it was assumed that exercise was not fit for the female body. Hirsch protested this and illustrated what the female body looked like before the physical exercise she recommended for women, and what it looked like three months into training. Right page: The left image illustrates an incorrect sitting position. The right picture shows a correct, flattering and practical sitting position.

When the Nazi prosecution of Jews grew more intense, Hirsch lost many of her clients, who were now afraid of associating with Jews. Also, her authorities as a physician were gradually taken away from her. This process reached a peak in 1938 when she was 68 years old: Hirsch’s medical license was taken from her. When she heard she was going to be arrested, Hirsch fled to live with one of her sisters in London, though in England she could not practice medicine. Instead, she worked as a librarian, while also translating and working as a laboratory assistant. During the war, she lived in Yorkshire before returning to London once the hostilities were over.

The events that occurred in her homeland and the atrocities committed against the Jews, along with the restriction on practicing the one thing she truly loved and for which she had worked her entire life – drove her to madness. Hirsch was hospitalized in a psychiatric hospital, where she died on October 6th, 1953. She was buried anonymously in one of the city’s Jewish cemeteries.

A few years after her passing, in 1957, a research assistant from Charité named Gerard Volkheimer, who would later become a professor, came across Hirsch’s study and published it under the title the “Hirsch Effekt”. Approximately four years after she died, Rahel Hirsch’s work and contribution to science were finally recognized.



Clothing to Corona, the Life and Legacy of Sir Montague Burton of Leeds

Born Moshe Dovid Osinsky, he was a giant of industry, welfare and charity knighted by the king

Montague Burton's Sun Room. Courtesy: West Yorkshire Archive Service

The photo comes from the West Yorkshire Archives and shows the Sun Room in the 1930s – at Montague Burton’s factory in Hudson Road, Leeds.

Who was Sir Montague Burton, what was his story and – perhaps most importantly – what can we learn from his legacy today?

Leeds, city of men’s clothing

First a bit of history – West Yorkshire used to be the textile manufacturing heartland of the UK. Leeds was men’s clothing; Bradford was wool; Halifax was carpets; Huddersfield was high quality cloth and engineering, especially for textile machinery; and Batley and Dewsbury were for shoddy – the recycling of rags.

The Jews came mainly to Leeds and it was a good partnership – Jews brought with them tailoring skills and Leeds was the expanding centre of the UK men’s clothing industry.

Production had moved from one individual making an item of clothing to a factory system with a distribution of labour – workers doing an individual task in the factory.

Montague Burton’s clothing factory, the largest in the world. Courtesy: West Yorkshire Archive Service

From Moshe to Montague

Sir Montague Burton, born Moshe Dovid Osinsky in the Kovno Province of Lithuania in 1885, came to the UK in 1900 aged 15 along with thousands of other Jews. He opened his first shop in Chesterfield in 1904 and when he was naturalised in 1910 he became known as “Morris Burton” living in Sheffield, but the shops were called “Montague Burton”.

Burton built up a chain of men’s clothing shops and by 1919 he had 40. In 1921, he acquired the land at Hudson Road, Leeds where he built his factory, which at its height employed over 10,500 people, the largest clothing factory in the world.

The photo from the 1930s of the Sun Room was when production was at its height. Burton, as a factory owner, was conscious of the need to look after his staff and the Sun Room was an example of a facility provided for the staff. There was a doctor, a dentist and medical facilities on site – it was a complete factory-town where staff were looked after.

Burton built a huge empire, was knighted in 1931 and died in 1952 aged 67.

Newspaper headline announcing Burton’s knighthood, published in The Sentinel on June 12, 1931

He was buried in Leeds but wanted to be buried in Harrogate – fifteen miles from Leeds where there was a Jewish community but at the time no Jewish cemetery. By 1964 there was a Jewish cemetery in Harrogate and Sir Montague and his wife, Lady Sophia, were reinterred in the new Jewish cemetery in Harrogate as the first burials.

Burton’s tombstone in Harrogate Cemetery. Photo: Nigel Grizzard

A legacy of industry and philanthropy

So what was Sir Montague Burton’s legacy?

Burton wasn’t the only clothing manufacturer in Leeds – there were many others, large and small, and the large players such as Burton were key players in the UK clothing industry.

From an employment perspective he built a huge manufacturing and retail empire. He gave the opportunity of working in a large factory to many first-generation Leeds Jews who became part of a Jewish industrial proletariat in Leeds.

He was a very generous funder of many institutions – he endowed a chair at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and he funded charities and Jewish projects in Yorkshire.

His legacy lives on through the Jewish Museum in London, in Raymond Burton House, and his descendants were key arts funders in Yorkshire.

Letter from Montague Burton, signed in Hebrew, to the renowned poet Shaul Tchernichovsky regarding Burton’s support for a Hebrew University scholarship. Shaul Tchernichovsky Archive, National Library of Israel, image from the Genazim Institute: TSHERN-31378/2. Click image to enlarge

Clothing to corona

I arrived in Leeds in 1976 when the tailoring industry was still functioning, the next decade saw the decline as manufacturing was shipped overseas.

When I took young Jews round the former tailoring areas it wasn’t even a memory – it was too far removed from their current families.

Burton’s Factory today. Photo: Nigel Grizzard

Recently, I went down to the Hudson Road Complex where 10,500 people were employed. It is in Harehills, Leeds and the huge factory still stands. Only when you visit it do you realise how enormous it was. Today it is a clothing depot for Arcadia – a UK clothing chain store, a centre for ESOL (English as a Second Language) and additional small work places.

Most interestingly, during the PPE – Personal Protective Equipment – crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic in April and May this year – the subject of the Leeds clothing industry was resurrected.

I go to an online morning service at the United Hebrew Congregation in Leeds and one of the clothing manufacturers now in his 90s lamented with a former colleague how they could have turned their factories into production centres for PPE rather than send RAF (Royal Air Force) planes to Turkey and China, as the British government opted to do given contemporary circumstances.

The photo of the women working in the factory harks back to a previous era when Leeds and the North of England was a manufacturing base.

The last few months have taught us many lessons and perhaps the most important one is that it would serve the United Kingdom well to restore its manufacturing base rather than be hostage to overseas suppliers.

Montague Burton would have agreed with that sentiment.


The story of the Montague Burton Sun Room is one of many featured on the recently launched “Hidden Treasures: Celebrating Jewish Archives in Britain” website. It has been published here 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.