Torah, Raki and Yogurt: Shavuot on the Aegean Sea

A nostalgic celebration with the Jews of Saloniki

Jewish dancers and musicians in Saloniki, early 20th century (Publisher: Albert Nissim). From the Folklore Research Center at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, available through the National Library’s Digital Collection

“Saloniki’s Jews… eagerly awaited the arrival of the Shavuot holiday… They especially loved and cherished it as the holiday of spring, of the verdant fields, of the flowers and of the ripe fruits, and anyone who got to enjoy the greenery and the fruits where they grew in the fields outside the city, in the forests, in the gardens and in the meadow – it is sublime…”

Jewish fruit vendors in Saloniki showing off citrus and seeds, early 20th century (Publisher: David M. Assaël). From the Folklore Research Center at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, available through the National Library’s Digital Collection

The excitement in the Aegean air was palpable as Shavuot – the festival celebrating the giving of the Torah and the ancient wheat harvest – drew near. The community’s homemakers would get wide pots ready for preparing the traditional sutlach, a dairy, sugary rice pudding dusted with cinnamon; as well as special vessels for fresh yogurt and soft cheeses prepared just for the holiday.

Knowing the season, the itinerant tinsmith would appear, announcing his arrival and his purpose: “Istañador para istañar!” Collecting dented pots and returning them “like new” a few days later, he would bless the ladies and their rice pudding, too: ¡Para sutlachiko bueno!” – “May your sutlach be good!”

Three generations of Jewish women in Saloniki, early 20th century (Publisher: H. Grimaud). From the Folklore Research Center at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, available through the National Library’s Digital Collection

Of course the festive meal was not just sutlach, yogurt and cheese.

There were the injaminados – colorful hardboiled eggs – and pastil ­– cheese cake that came in all shapes and sizes with its two main ingredients, cheese and eggs, seemingly the only thing any of them actually had in common.

And to drink?

Raki, of course! Though not just any raki. The kind that can only be procured from the humble home of Rabbi Yitzchak Shmuel, rich in taste and full of good luck for the holiday and season to come.

With pots clanging and the smells of sutlach and raki wafting, festive clothes certainly had to be prepared for the holy day as well. A folk adage prohibited wearing white suits and dresses prior to Shavuot, but now they could finally be readied as the holiday and summer neared.

Upper class Salonikan Jews in fine traditional dress, early 20th century (Publisher: Hananel Naar). From the Folklore Research Center at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, available through the National Library’s Digital Collection

Then, the sun set and the time finally came.

Some went to synagogue, likely struggling to focus on the prayers in anticipation of what they knew awaited them at home.

With the fruits of the housewives’ labor (and Rabbi Yitzchak Shmuel’s raki) heartily enjoyed, as the festive meal wound down and dessert was served, the Book of Ruth was read in Hebrew and Ladino, its words sung to traditional melodies. Then some would go back to synagogue for “Nochada de sevo” – traditional all night Torah study – where men and children would sit on cushioned sofas, trying not to nod off as they waited for a boost of refreshment  from the finjan.

Saloniki’s Italian synagogue was first built in 1423; the synagogue pictured here was rebuilt in 1896 following a fire. From the Folklore Research Center at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, available through the National Library’s Digital Collection

While study, prayer and song celebrating the giving of the Torah in Hebrew and Ladino may have provided spiritual sustenance to complement the physical nourishment of the sutlach and pastil, for many, the highlight of Shavuot largely took place outside the city walls.

Bustling street corner in Saloniki, early 20th century (Editeurs: M.S.R). From the Folklore Research Center at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, available through the National Library’s Digital Collection

The streets became packed by the thousands – young and old – picnic baskets and mats on which to sit in hand, bouquets of flowers coloring the landscape, excited chatter filling the air as they set out: some towards the Monastery of the Whirling Dervishes, others towards the Five Oaks or the Sheikh’s Spring, while youth groups and the more intrepid ventured as far as the surrounding mountains and villages.

The Monastery of the Whirling Dervishes outside Saloniki, early 20th century (Publisher: Imp. B&G). From the Folklore Research Center at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, available through the National Library’s Digital Collection


More festive holiday food would be eaten under the fruit trees. Young and old would sing songs – some traditional and some recently introduced Zionist tunes. Albert Molcho would entertain the crowd, “speaking” English, Russian and Hebrew, without actually knowing any of them. Laughter filled the air – the joy of festival, family and the impending summer.

Then as the sun began to set, children – sun-kissed and tired – would roll up into their parents’ arms and everyone would slowly make their way home, savoring every last moment of Shavuot in Saloniki.

The White Tower of Saloniki today

For much of the past millennium, the majority of the population of Saloniki – now Greece’s second largest city more commonly known as Thessaloniki – was Jewish. Most of the account above came from the personal recollections of David Benvenisti, published in “Saloniki /Ir V’Em B’Yisrael“, as well as from an article which appeared in the weekly “Hed Ha-Mizrach” on the eve of Shavuot in 1946, three years after the city’s Jews were sent to the death camps. Though dedicated to “Sarah and Leah, victims of the evil one”, the article was much less lamentation than it was a poetic celebration of Shavuot in Saloniki, reflecting perhaps the core essence of a holiday centered around the transcendent and binding power of words to preserve communal memory and tradition.

This article has been published as part of 
Gesher L’Europa, the National Library of Israel’s initiative to connect with people, institutions and communities in Europe and beyond.

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Contagious Books: Epidemics in Literary Masterpieces

Coronavirus? We've seen it all before… A look at several plagues (both real and fictional) that were commemorated in literature over the years

In these tumultuous days of corona, as we all endure the weighty rules of social distancing, allow me to recommend that you keep the four following books close by – at best they will provide comfort; at worst, they’ll remain sealed on your book shelf, because this article will tell you all you need to know (spoiler alert!).

Let’s start with The Pied Piper of Hamelin, a common folk tale which dates back to the Middle Ages, and which has been told and retold in many different versions. The story takes place in the year 1248, in the city of Hamelin, Germany, during the outbreak of a disease among the city’s rats.

Just when the residents of Hamelin despaired of their unsuccessful struggle against the pestilence, a mysterious piper appeared and offered to remove all the rats from the city for a fee. After facing the ridicule of the city’s residents, the city council approved the pact with the odd visitor. The piper took his pipe and started playing a tune as he strode along the streets of the city. As he played, the rats were lured out of their hiding places, to the great surprise of the locals.

A painting of the Pied Piper on stained glass, 1592

When all the rats were gathered, the piper left the city and walked down to the Weser River. When he reached the water, he walked into it, while still playing his pipe. The rats followed him in and drowned. The city of Hamelin was saved from the rats, and the city council immediately declared a holiday and held a festive ball.

When the piper came to demand his fee, he was met with derision, and to his surprise, the locals even demanded that he be thrown out of the city. When the residents were exposed as ungrateful villains, the piper once again took up his pipe and began to play. This time, he played another magical tune – yet it wasn’t the rats that ran after him bewitched, but the children of the city! Once all the children had gathered around him, the piper made his way into a large mountain, from which no child ever returned. And so, the city of Hamelin lost all its children, as a result of the evil deeds of its people.

The story was rewritten again and again over the course of history; including by the Brothers Grimm. The moral of the story teaches us that the punishment of a corrupt, rotten society is annihilation – just like the biblical story of Noah’s Ark and the following literary plagues.

The Pied Piper of Hamelin, a Hebrew edition, Guy Publishers, 1990

Unlike the previous story, the next book isn’t based on an actual historical plague.  However, just like the tale of the Pied Piper, it also makes use of the theme of disease to hint at a process of decay in society (and rats are again at the center of it all! Is someone trying to give us a hint…?)

The Plague is a novel by Albert Camus, a French Algerian author, and a Nobel laureate in Literature.

The novel is divided into five parts: in the first, we are told of an outbreak of plague in the city of Oran, in Algeria. The locals grow anxious as the city is filled with dying rats and before long people begin to succumb to the disease as well, at an ever-growing rate. Preventive measures are taken and a special department is opened in order to treat the patients and isolate them. Due to the sharp increase in the number of people infected and the lack of proper equipment to take care of them, the city is sealed off and a state of emergency is declared.

In the second part, all resources are severely limited and the city is completely cut off – communication with the outside world is impossible, apart from phone calls in cases of emergency. The narrator emphasizes the separation of family members, friends, and couples. The separation and lockdown affect daily activity in the city and crush the peoples’ spirit, despite their attempts to continue to behave normally.

(Don’t panic, it’s only a book…)

The remainder of the book reads like the script of your typical post-apocalyptic thriller, as the atmosphere in the city descends into chaos, and attempts to revolt and escape are violently suppressed. Just as people begin to despair, the disease miraculously abates and the rats return to the city.

The book, perceived as an allegory of the maladies of human society, was published in 1947 after World War II. Some also consider it a metaphor for the French resistance to the Nazi occupation.

The Plague, Albert Camus, a Hebrew edition, Am Oved Publishers, 2001

And now let’s head down the Atlantic coast from France to Portugal…

Blindness is a novel by the Portuguese author José Saramago, published in 1995.

The story begins with a driver who suddenly goes blind. However, this is no ordinary blindness – the only thing the driver sees before his eyes is the color white! A passerby volunteers to bring the driver home, but exploits his blindness and steals his vehicle. The blind man contacts an eye doctor, who is unable to find anything wrong with his eyes.

Gradually, the blindness becomes contagious, spreading from person to person: when a blind person looks at someone, that person also becomes blind. This is how the car thief is afflicted with blindness, the people in the doctor’s waiting room, and the doctor himself. The only person who remains immune to the blindness is the doctor’s wife. As the epidemic of blindness continues to spread, the authorities declare a state of emergency, placing all the blind people in isolation in an abandoned psychiatric hospital, in order to prevent the spreading of the blindness, which becomes known as “the white sickness.”

The patients suffer hardships until they manage to escape the asylum and return to the city. There, they discover that all of the city’s residents have gone blind and that chaos rules. The group tries to establish a measure of structure and order in what has become a lawless world, and is confronted with the difficulties of this strange new life and the necessity to search for food and water (and, I assume, toilet paper, as well).

At the end of the book, the blindness is lifted, and all the residents of the city get their sight back in the same order in which they were infected – starting with Patient Zero and so on. The cause of the strange blindness isn’t explained in the book, and remains a mystery.

Blindness, Jose José Saramago, a Hebrew edition, Hakibbutz Hameuchad-Sifriat Poalim Publishing Group, 2000

And now, an abrupt transition, from the white plague to the black plague, in a literary masterpiece which narrates a fictional plot against a backdrop of historical reality. Here, too, we see an attempt to preserve normal social order amidst instability and social disintegration, in Giovanni Boccaccio’s great work – The Decameron.

Boccaccio wrote The Decameron in the 14th century, as the bubonic plague (“The Black Death”) ravaged Florence.  In his story, ten young noble Florentines flee from the plague to an unaffected rural area. Quarantined with their servants in a luxurious villa, they spend ten days telling each other stories. We won’t dwell on these fascinating tales, but rather on the introduction describing the situation in the city during the epidemic.

A painting by Sandro Botticelli, Decamaron, 1487

Instead of explaining and expanding, I’ll just let the text speak for itself.

“Thirteen hundred and forty-eight years had passed since the fruitful Incarnation of the Son of God, when there came into the noble city of Florence, the most beautiful of all Italian cities, a deadly pestilence, which… several years earlier had originated in the Orient, where it destroyed countless lives, scarcely resting in one place before it moved to the next, and turning westward its strength grew monstrously. No human wisdom or foresight had any value: enormous amounts of refuse and manure were removed from the city by appointed officials, the sick were barred from entering the city, and many instructions were given to preserve health… at the beginning of the spring of that year, that horrible plague began with its dolorous effects in a most awe-inspiring manner, as I will tell you.

…But what gave this pestilence particularly severe force was that whenever the diseased mixed with healthy people, like a fire through dry grass or oil it would rush upon the healthy. And this wasn’t the worst of the evil: for not only did it infect healthy persons who conversed or mixed with the sick, but also touching bread or any other object which had been handled or worn by the sick would transport the sickness from the victim to the one touching the object.

…Because of all these things, and many others that were similar or even worse, diverse fears and imaginings were born in those left alive, and all of them took recourse to the most cruel precaution: to avoid and run away from the sick and their things; by doing this, each person believed they could preserve their health.”

The Decamaron, Giovanni Boccaccio, a Hebrew edition, Carmel Publishing, 2000

It’s true that the social distancing that’s been forced upon us isn’t easy to cope with, but let’s stay optimistic (and adhere to the rules), and remember that things are gradually getting better (and warmer). Let’s hope we get a few good books out of this pandemic too!


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When the ‘Jerusalem of Austria’ Burned to the Ground (on Lag B’Omer)

A look back at the disaster which befell the city of Brody in 1867, and how Europe's Jews came together to help the victims

“There is no way to estimate, no way to tell or describe the great catastrophe that occurred in our city that day…  All the houses were completely consumed by fire, all that people had worked for came to nothing, everyone’s faces became disconsolate from the flames, holy books flew into the air, utterly sparks of light. The new and old synagogues, the houses of study, and the hospital went up to heaven in fiery smoke.”

Brody was a commercial and intellectual center. Since at least the 1500s, it was home to a thriving Jewish community and notable figures from different streams of Jewish thought and life had called it home – Kabbalists, Hassidim, proponents of the Enlightenment, even famous writers and entertainers.

The Fortress Synagogue in Brody, late 19th century. From the Folklore Research Center at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem

It was known as the “Jerusalem of Austria”.

By 1867, Brody’s population had reached about 20,000, some 75% of whom were Jewish. In March of that year, the Kaiser himself granted the Jews of Brody the exceptional right to hold up to half of the seats on the municipal council as opposed to the one-third generally permitted.

On Lag B’Omer, just two months later, the “great catastrophe” described above by newspaper editor Baruch Werber, destroyed much of Austria’s Jerusalem.

Brody had suffered fires in its history, even as recently as 1859. Just a generation before that, a massive blaze in the village inspired noted Hebrew scholar, poet and Brody native Marcus Strelisker, to publish “The Cup of Poison“, a raw lamentation on the destruction of his hometown, which included these words:

“Poor turbulent Brody! She almost turned into a wasteland
Soon a moon will have passed, and she is not yet consoled
The fury has not yet subsided, the wrath has not yet abated!”

From a copy of Marcus Stelisker’s “The Cup of Poison“, the National Library of Israel

The city had just a few poorly outfitted firemen. Nearly all of the homes and roofs were made of wood.

Besides the destruction of central institutions, two major synagogues and a hospital, according to one account no less than 32 batei midrash (Jewish houses of study) were destroyed in the 1867 blaze, alongside between  800 and 1300 homes (sources vary). The wooden homes served as ready kindling. Some roofs were made of zinc, which turned into molten streams running down the collapsing walls of what had once been homes, oozing into the streets.

“I saw  masses of people running and not getting tired, their eyes  turned to the heavens, towards clouds of smoke rising higher and higher. Before I knew it I was among the runners… I became one of the terrified ones lifting my legs to run towards home, and before I even got to my doorstep, ha! Fire stood over me, and every place I went there was a pillar of fire before me…” wrote Baruch Werber, the editor of local newspaper Jbri Anochi, a week after the blaze.

Baruch Werber’s son Jakob, pictured here as a young man, survived the fire as a child. He would follow in his father’s footsteps as editor of Jbri Anochi. From the National Library of Israel archives

Thousands like Werber fled, gathering their loved ones and most valued possessions and running to the fields.

Then something kind of beautiful happened.

As the flames continued dancing in the sky and the smoke billowed on, people began to arrive from the surrounding villages. Some had seen the fire and smoke, while others had heard the fast-spreading rumors of Brody’s fate. They came from places like Radyvyliv, Dubno, and Tarnopol, and brought with them clothes, blankets and bread.

As the fires retreated and the embers sizzled into ash over the coming days, many of those fortunate enough to still have a bit of roof over their homes invited the less  fortunate into their homes until the devastation could be better assessed, and the reconstruction could begin.

In the coming weeks, accounts of the carnage, accompanied by pleas for assistance, and words of gratitude to those who had already sent aid cluttered newspaper pages. Donations came in from near and far as simple peasants, synagogues and communities heard the plight of their neighbors and availed themselves to help. Donations were listed in Werber’s Jbri Anochi newspaper, even spurring complaints that he had not included them all.

Leon Ephrussi, one of the richest men in the world, a “King of Wheat” described in Edmund de Waal’s The Hare with Amber Eyes, even spearheaded a campaign to raise funds for the decimated shtetl, where his wife Minna had grown up.

Headline in the Hamelitz newspaper on June 6, 1867 imploring its readership: “Turn your hearts to mercy!”
“Wake Up Call!” in the Hamagid newspaper on June 12, 1867, asking readers to help the victims of the Brody fire


According to a first-hand account from Adela Landau Misis, who was a child at the time, the fire prompted the creation of a well-equipped volunteer fire department. Wood shingles were banned.

All of the homes in Brody were re-built with better materials and iron roofs, and “The Jerusalem of Austria” never again saw a fire like the one kindled that Lag B’Omer.

Postcard showing a rebuilt Brody in the late 19th century. From the Folklore Research Center at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem


This article has been published as part of Gesher L’Europa, the National Library of Israel’s initiative to connect with people, institutions and communities in Europe and beyond.


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The Jewish Heroes and Heroines of Victory Day

These Jewish soldiers took part in the liberation of Europe from the clutches of Nazi Germany

During the Soviet era, the 9th of May – Victory Day – became the main national holiday of the U.S.S.R., celebrating the great motherland’s victorious triumph in the war against Nazi Germany. It is still celebrated today in Russia and other countries, while in Israel, many immigrants from the nations of the former Soviet Union also mark the holiday with various parades and events (many other countries, including the U.S. and U.K., celebrate a variation of the holiday, VE Day – Victory in Europe Day – on the 8th of May).

The Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People at the National Library of Israel has revealed rare images of Jewish heroes and heroines of the Red Army during World War II. The images were found thanks to a special documentation project being conducted by the Central Archives, in collaboration with the Eva Jewish Charity Organization based in St. Petersburg, Russia, which provides homecare services and various social and cultural activities for the elderly. In the course of the project, family photo albums are scanned and supplementary documentation is also collected.

Many Jews took part in the war effort against Germany and the Axis nations during World War II, and around 250,000 lost their lives as a result. Their story has been somewhat overlooked because of the dominance of the Holocaust in Jewish collective memory of the war period. Even the “Heroism” ethos of Israel’s Holocaust Remembrance Day (Yom HaShoah) emphasizes the role of the Jewish rebels in the ghettos and the Jewish partisans. The contributions of the many Jews who took part in the war itself are often forgotten.

In these family photo albums, the place of Jewish soldiers in the Red Army is emphasized. Sometimes the fallen family member is a father of the album’s owner, and sometimes it is a long-lost aunt.


The Photographs

Israel Danilovich Stackelberg was severely wounded in battle in 1942. In the first photo he appears alongside the nurse who saved his life. In the second photo, he is seen with the soldiers of his company, holding a machine gun, and in the third he is wearing a medal. Captain Stackelberg fell on the frontlines in 1944 at Leningrad. His son Leonid brought the photographs to Daria Zacharova, who scanned them for the project.




The family of Gregory Meller brought forward the photograph below, in which he is seen adorned with medals. On the other side of the photograph, Meller wrote: “Me, right after the Battle of Stalingrad, December 1943”.

Many women also filled combat roles in the former Soviet Union, among them many Jewish women. One of these was Sofia Zacharovna Golovinskaya (1909-2005). During the siege of Leningrad, Sofia was drafted into a military fire-fighting unit, in which she served for more than a year, until the siege was lifted. After the siege she received training to join a bomb-removal squad in the engineering corps, and worked to locate and disarm mines that had been placed in strategic locations throughout the city during the siege, to be used in case the Germans were able to force their way into the city. Afterwards, in May 1944, she joined the local air defense regiment. Sofia disarmed 750 mines, and was awarded a citation and five medals for her contributions. Sofia made aliyah and arrived in Israel in 1994.

מימין: גולובינסקאיה סופיה זכרובנה
On the right: Sofia Zacharovna Golovinskaya

Mayor Smuelovich Kalibko was drafted into the army, despite being short-sighted. He took part in the conquest of Berlin in May, 1945. In the picture below he is seen with a friend, on Berlin’s Kaiser Wilhelm monument.

משמאל: מאיור (מארק) סמואילוביץ קאליבקו
On the left: Mayor Smuelovich Kalibko


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