The Vilna Gaon Makes a Surprise Appearance

Archivists at the Lithuanian State Historical Archives were surprised to discover a famous figure while examining historic 250 year old records from Vilnius

Rabbi Elijah, son of Solomon Zalman, the Vilna Gaon

In 1764, Stanislaw Poniatowsky, King of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania, enacted a number of far-reaching political reforms with the aim of reinforcing his control over the country. Unfortunately, Poland had a much bigger headache to contend with during this period… Eight years later, the combined armies of Prussia, Austria and Russia invaded and carved great chunks out of the country, in what proved to be just the first of three divisions of Poland. By the end of the process, history had accorded Stanislaw a title he’d much rather have done without – that of last King of Poland and last Duke of Lithuania.

Stanislaw’s reforms brought an end to the central autonomous Jewish government known as the Council of Four Lands, (Lithuania was effectively the fifth land governed by the body). The Council had acted as the highest supra-communal authority of Polish Jewry since the beginning of the sixteenth century, at a time when Poland represented the world’s largest center of Jews. The council’s main purpose was to divvy up the government levy on the country’s Jewish minority among the various communities, ensure the taxes were collected and hand them over to the authorities. (Until the modern era, taxes weren’t levied on individuals, but on the segment of the population to which each individual belonged, whether a guild, a church or, in the case of the Jews, the community or Kahal.) The administration of this communal tax was in many ways the most significant expression of Jewish autonomy in Poland.

A panorama of Vilnius (Vilna) and drawings of various sites in the city, including the Jewish quarter, painted in 1901 by Nathan Ben-Zion Chavkin, the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People. Click to enlarge

The Polish government generally mistrusted the statistics provided by the Jewish supra-communal authorities, assuming they underestimated the true number of Jews in order to minimize taxation and suspecting that some of the money collected was kept back for Jewish communal purposes. Once the 1764 reform had been enacted, the council was dissolved and the authorities began collecting taxes directly, on the basis of the size of the Jewish population. The number of Jews was estimated on the basis of a general census taken between 1764 and 1766. At the time, the Jews were not thrilled by to the whole idea of the census, but today it’s regarded as crucial resource for the history of Polish and Lithuanian Jewry in the last third of the eighteenth century. Census documents are scattered over the archives of all the various states whose territory was then part of the Kingdom of Poland, and copies of many of them can be found in the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People.

Vilnius today


The Lithuanian State Historical Archives in Vilnius houses numerous censuses, including examples from the early 1760s, as well as later censuses, and a wonderful collection of BMD (birth, marriage and death) records from the important Jewish communities that populated the region.

The census provides researchers with plenty of useful sociological information, including the average size of families, the number of widows in the community, as well as its members’ occupations. As family names were still not compulsory in Poland when it was taken, it’s not easy to trace individual families in the records, but for genealogists able to puzzle their way back this far, it provides a wealth of detail.

In certain instances, a careful search will award the researcher with great findings that will warm the heart of anyone interested in Jewish heritage, especially those of Litvak origin.

The census page from 1765 mentioning Eliasz Zelmanowiz and his family, courtesy of the Lithuanian State Historical Archives. Click to enlarge


We will focus here on the census taken in Vilnius (then: Wilno) in 1765. The census was arranged according to streets. A few pages are dedicated to one of the main streets of old Vilnius – Niemieckiey (meaning ‘German’ in Polish) Street, now known as Vokiečių Street, an area highly populated by Jews at the time. On one of the pages dedicated to the right side of the street, we find one Eliasz Zelmanowiz, his wife (ZONA) Chana, his son (SYN) Zelman, his daughter (CÓRKA) Basia (=Batia), as well as the servant Nechama. The name of the paternal head of the family, combined with the names of the other family members, reveals that we are dealing with Rabbi Elijah, son of Solomon Zalman, better known as the Vilna Gaon!

Rabbi Elijah, son of Solomon Zalman, the Vilna Gaon


The Gaon was 45 years old at the time. He lived in Wilno and dedicated his life to the study of Torah, but did not serve in any official position in the community. Of his eight known children, only two are mentioned here. Some of them passed away as infants, others were not born yet, and two of the older girls may have been married at the time.

The census sums up that this household consists of four members, as well as one servant. It is interesting to note the fact that the servant also bears a Jewish name – Nechama.


Source: LVIA, Fond Nr. 11, Inventory Nr. 1, File Nr. 1014, page Nr. 7 v. [a microfilm copy can be found at the CAHJP: HM3-204.02]

This census can be accessed through the LVIA website.


The @ the Source training program is bringing together in Jerusalem a group of heritage professionals from the Baltic states. The National Library of Israel and the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People used this opportunity to invite genealogists and other interested parties to an event titled  “Litvak Roots” which presented the rich palette of historical and genealogical sources stored in the National Archives of Lithuania and Latvia, as well as insight into communal and personal histories brought by expert scholars: Professor Shaul Stampfer and Ilya Lensky, director of the Jews in Latvia Museum. The event included a question and answer session with the panel of presenters.

This document was presented at the event, as well as many other important sources for the history of the Jews in Eastern Europe in the 18th-20th Centuries.


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The Chad Gadya Melody That Survived the Holocaust

Shmuel Blasz was murdered at Auschwitz, but the original melody he wrote for the beloved Passover song lives on

חד גדיא

Shmuel Blasz's version of Chad Gadya, the Music Department at the National Library of Israel

Hungary, 1940-1942

Shmuel L.:

Shmuel Lazarovich, a young Jewish man in his early thirties, is recruited to the Hungarian Labor Service. He leaves his wife and children behind. The Hungarian military has no interest in Lazarovich and his Jewish brethren, who are forced to take on difficult and arduous labor tasks.

Shmuel B.:

Shmuel Blasz, a Jewish musician, is also recruited to the Hungarian Labor Service. Blasz, who works alongside Lazarovich, teaches his new friend his own original melody, a Hungarian version of the famous “Chad Gadya” Passover song. One of the two jots down the notes on a random sheet of paper, thus preserving Blasz’s composition. Later on, during a short vacation in his home village of Hőgyész, Lazarovich places the notes in a side cabinet in his home.


“Chad Gadya” – a Hungarian version composed by Shmuel Blasz


Shmuel Lazarovich (right) during his time with the Hungarian Labor Service


Hungary, 1944

On the 19th of March, 1944, the German army invaded Hungary. Many Hungarian Jews perished, including Shmuel Blasz and Shmuel Lazarovich’s wife and children. Shmuel Lazarovich himself was sent to the Dachau concentration camp.


Shmuel Lazarovich wearing a prisoner’s uniform at Dachau


Hőgyész, Hungary, 1945

As a holder of a certificate attesting to his being a Yugoslav, Shmuel Lazarovich was allowed to return to his home in Hőgyész. Wearing a German soldier’s hat emblazoned with the symbol of the Wehrmacht, he received a warm welcome from the Swabian villagers who greeted him. Lazarovich hurried to his house to check if everything was in order. The wooden cupboard in which he had concealed his Jewish ceremonial items remained intact. He opened the cupboard and saw his complete set of tefillin and his Talit (prayer shawl) just as he had left them. Next to them lay a Passover Haggadah, with a single brownish sheet covered in musical notes inserted between its pages. This was the music composed by Shmuel Blasz for his Hungarian version of Chad Gadya.


Listen to Shmuel Blasz’s Hungarian version of “Chad Gadya”:


Israel, 1964

Following the war, and after many hardships, Lazarovich remarried. Until 1956, he continued to live in Hőgyész where he served as a cantor, shochet and mohel. Later, he was asked to move to Budapest and serve in similar positions for the local community. In 1964 he immigrated to Israel and settled in Bnei Brak where he lived for nearly two decades. In 1983, Shmuel Lazarovich passed away, leaving behind a daughter – Judith.


Shmuel Lazarovich. Photo: Gabriel Laron


Israel, the National Library, February 2019

Gabriel Laron, Shmuel Lazarovich’s nephew, approaches the Music Department at the National Library, offering to donate a manuscript of the notes to Shmuel Blasz’s Chad Gadya melody. The original manuscript had been preserved for many years by Judith Lazarovich – Shmuel Lazarovich’s daughter – who had passed away a few years earlier. Following her death, the manuscript was handed over to Gabriel Laron.

Laron himself was even recorded in the Sound Archive studio, so that the songs which were sung in his childhood home could be documented and preserved.

During the recording process, he told of another Hungarian song he had learned from his uncle: “The story takes place in 1882, in a village in northeast Hungary. A maid, who had apparently quarreled with her (non-Jewish) masters, took a walk along the banks of the Tisza River, where she either committed suicide or fell to her death.

“It was the eve of Passover. The local Christians claimed the Jews had killed the girl because they wanted to use her blood to make matzot. The body was found but there were no signs indicating that the girl was murdered. Her mother refused to identify her and claimed it was not her daughter. The local prosecutor, who was anti-Semitic, forced the shochet‘s son to admit he had witnessed the murder while peeking through the keyhole of the synagogue. The trial lasted many years. The shochet, the rabbi, and other members of the community were sent to prison, tortured and punished. A Hungarian nobleman who advocated on behalf of the Jews was able to prove that the shochet‘s son was too small and short to see what was happening through the keyhole. Things eventually escalated to the point where only the intervention of Emperor Franz Joseph finally put an end to the trial… Many years later, my uncle heard the tale being sung by a female servant in a house he was staying in.”


A Hungarian Folk Song:


And now back to Chad Gadya and Shmuel Blasz’ melody. Laron, Lazarovich’s nephew, did not know any details about Blasz’s identity. A search of internet sources led me to an article published in the United States in 2011, titled: “Holocaust survivor to hear live performance of father’s music“, as well as two additional articles “Springs Holocaust survivor hears father’s music for first time since WW II” and “Giving Voice to History: Shoah-Era Scores Get First Hearing“.

Eva Egri, a ninety-year-old Holocaust survivor, was able to give new life to pieces of music written by her father Shmuel Blasz. Blasz was a composer and the chief cantor at the synagogue in Eger, Hungary. Egri managed to survive the war and made her way to the United States after many long, difficult years. For about six decades, she preserved many of her father’s manuscripts which had ended up in her hands. In 2011, Samuel Blasz’s compositions were performed in New York and later in Florida.

I tried unsuccessfully to contact Egri and other family members. Eventually, Professor Nachum Dershowitz referred me to Judy Merrick, who knew Blasz’s daughter and had also performed and directed some of his works. She confirmed that this was the same Shmuel Blasz.


Berlin, Germany, December 2019

Nur Ben-Shalom is a Jewish-Israeli clarinetist living in Berlin. “When you perform a composition you never know what will happen. You start something, throw something into the air and don’t know how it will end,” he told me. In a sense, this is the story of Blasz’s Chad Gadya melody – words and notes that have moved between different places and time periods, music that has been given new interpretation, beyond what the original composer could have imagined. Ben-Shalom heard the story of the melody and decided to give it a new life. He extracted the notes from a scan of the manuscript (which appears above) and arranged the song for a chamber music ensemble including clarinet, violin and piano.

“I’ve performed in different parts of the world, with ensembles and orchestras, and nothing has given me such special satisfaction as reviving this kind of piece,” he said. “There is a very strong connection here which is difficult to explain, a connection to tradition, a connection to history, a musical connection. It’s a special feeling to be able to revive the stories of Jews who were part of this culture, who were valued, and to tell their stories in Germany of all places.”

Ben-Shalom arranged the song in two different versions; one is slow and lyrical and the other is faster, with a Klezmer feel to it. The piece was performed at a Protestant church in Berlin before an audience of 1,300 people. When I asked if this represented a contradiction – performing a work by a Jewish composer who was murdered in the Holocaust in a Christian church – he answered: “I think it’s a statement. When the head of the church in Germany comes and says: ‘I want to perform Jewish music in the church’ – that’s a strong statement. The church in Germany is a powerful force with a significant influence on culture in Germany.”





“And there is also something special about dealing with the source material. After the concert, people approached me, asking questions about Shmuel Blasz and Shmuel Lazarovich, wanting to know more. I had printed the scan of the notes and people were examining it. People asked for the arranged version. I have no control over what will happen from here on out. The music will live on. Someone else will arrange it in one way or another. The story will be told and suddenly Samuel Blasz will be resurrected. “


Thanks to Gabriel Laron, Anat Wax and Elena Kampel for their assistance in preparing this article.


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A History in Pictures: The Jews of the USSR

In the early 1980s, Ilya Dvorkin came up with the idea of documenting the lives of Jewish communities throughout the vast territories of the Soviet Union


Jewish children at school in Bukhara

Ilya Dvorkin is a man of vision. His white hair and matching beard give him the appearance of precisely the kind of person who dreams big. Ilya Dvorkin’s dream is to document, distribute and memorialize the rich culture of the Jewish diaspora in the former Soviet Union. He has probably done more than anyone to realize this vision. Dvorkin is the founder and director of the St. Petersburg Institute of Jewish Studies (previously known as the St. Petersburg Jewish University), where he has been working on his huge project for nearly 40 years.

The history of Jewry in Russia and in the territories of the former Russian Empire stretches back many centuries. According to some theories, Jews have been living in the Caucasus region since the Second Temple period, possibly even earlier. It is only natural that such a lengthy, rich history should consist of a wide range of stories; stories of assimilation and separation, nationalism and cosmopolitism, religious persecution and religious tolerance, subjugation and autonomy, and so forth.

The Jewish communities of the former Soviet Union were never monolithic. For the better part of this history, most Jews did not live in Russia itself, as we know it today. In fact, the only thing connecting the different Jewish communities was the prosaic fact that they were all ruled by the Russian-speaking USSR for roughly 70 years. The communities differed in ethnic origin, language, dress and even in religious and cultural customs. Jews from the shtetls of Poland or Ukraine were different than the Jews of Bukhara, Moscow and the towns of the Caucasus. All were consumed by the USSR.

A synagogue in the town of Slonim. Photo credit: Vladimir Levin, the Nevzlin Collection, the National Library of Israel

It was this vast cultural wealth that Ilya Dvorkin set out to conserve. In 1981, he took up what seemed like a crazy idea – photography expeditions to the Jewish communities of the USSR. Dvorkin himself funded the expeditions. He brought along a photographer and set out to find Jews in different towns under Soviet rule. The expeditions lasted until 1998, through the years of glasnost and the dissolution of the Soviet Union. In many cases, Ilya and his photographers were only able to find the last remnants of Jewish communities which had almost completely dispersed, only a few years earlier. Dvorkin’s photography project provides unique documentation of these disappeared communities.

Photo credit: V. A. Dymshits, the Nevzlin Collection, the National Library of Israel


A cat in the town of Gorodkovka. Photo credit: Yefim Babushkin, the Nevzlin Collection, the National Library of Israel

We may not have time or space to conduct a complete review of the history of Russian Jewry, but we can offer a peek at it. The first Jews to settle in the areas that would eventually come under Soviet sovereignty apparently lived in the ancient Greek colonies along the Black Sea on the Crimean Peninsula. Archeological evidence suggests Jews began to settle there as early as the first centuries CE, possibly even earlier. Many centuries later, a large percentage of the Russian Empire’s Jews lived in Poland, Ukraine, Belarus and the Baltic states. Others came from the republics of central Asia.

Dvorkin’s documentation project reached all of these communities. Community buildings such as synagogues and batei midrash (“Houses of Learning”) that no longer exist were recorded as part of his project, as were ancient Jewish cemeteries. Customs, rituals and cultural traditions that were common among local Jews were also documented. In addition to the many photos taken, interviews with members of the different communities were recorded on video, as were local songs and unique prayers. Dvorkin and his team also documented Jewish daily life in what was then known as Leningrad (today’s St. Petersburg). Some of the community’s public figures were also captured in this documentation. One of these was the Prisoner of Zion, Ida Nudel, who later immigrated to Israel.

Photo credit: V. A. Dymshits, The Nevzlin Collection, the National Library of Israel
A synagogue in the town of Tyachiv. Photo credit: V. A. Dymshits, the Nevzlin Collection, the National Library of Israel


Ida Nudel in Leningrad (St. Petersburg). The Nevzlin Collection, the National Library of Israel

The massive project contains valuable documentation of life in the USSR during the 1980s and 1990s – a unique period in Soviet and Russian history. Dvorkin takes special pride in images of “the last European shtetl” – photos from the town of Sharhorod, which is today part of Ukraine. Sharhorod was one of the only towns in the region that was conquered by Romania and not by Nazi Germany, which is why most of its Jews survived. There, Dvorkin’s team recorded a klezmer musician playing one of the local Jewish community’s songs.


A home in Sharhorod. Photo credit: Michael Heifetz, the Nevzlin Collection, the National Library of Israel


A celebration in Leningrad (St. Petersburg), the Nevzlin Collection, the National Library of Israel


Chanukah in Leningrad, the Nevzlin Collection, the National Library of Israel

The true gem of the collection is undoubtedly the huge and unique assortment of photos, video recorded interviews, and other recordings and items that came from the Jewish communities of Bukhara. These Jews, who lived in the territory covered by modern-day Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, represented one of the oldest Jewish communities in history. The Nevzlin Collection is an exceptional treasure of unique Jewish history.

A Tashkent local. Photo credit: Michael Heifetz, the Nevzlin Collection, the National Library of Israel


A school in Bukhara. Photo credit: Michael Heifetz, the Nevzlin Collection, the National Library of Israel


A wedding in Samarkand. Photo credit: Michael Heifetz, the Nevzlin Collection, the National Library of Israel


Jews in Samarkand. Photo credit: Michael Heifetz, the Nevzlin Collection, the National Library of Israel

This project, which documents the various Jewish communities in Russia and the USSR, would not be accessible without the support of the Leonid Nevzlin Center for Russian and East European Jewry at the Hebrew University. Thanks to the Nevzlin Center, visitors of the National Library website can explore the documentation project which includes approximately 10,000 photos, and counting.


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Robinson Crusoe in the Languages of the Jews

How the classic English novel spread throughout the Jewish world and its many languages

In late April of 1719, the English author Daniel Defoe published the story of the wonderful tales of Robinson Crusoe. Crusoe was a young Englishman who ran away from home at the age of 18. He spent a few years on merchant ships in the New World, was taken captive at sea and became a slave of the North African Moors. After escaping captivity, he settled in Brazil and bought an orchard where he, a freed slave, hired African slaves who were forcibly brought to the New World. From Brazil he decided to embark on a trade expedition that ended in a shipwreck on a deserted island.

At first, he spent his days building a shelter to protect from predators and natives whom he believed inhabited the island. When the awaited deliverance failed to arrive, he began establishing a new one-man civilization. Crusoe lived on the island for 28 years before returning to England, his homeland, along with a friend he met on the island. He made a promise to never disobey his father again and to refrain from dangerous adventures at sea, but this vow was not kept for long.  Though the novel’s plot was a figment of Defoe’s imagination, the author’s name did not appear on the cover of the book’s first editions and Crusoe’s memoirs were depicted as authentic.

The first edition of The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, 1719, held at the British Library

1,000 copies of the original April 1719 edition of Robinson Crusoe were printed. The May edition consisted of another 1,000, and an additional 1,000 copies were printed in June of that year. The same year, the novel was translated into French, German and Dutch. By the beginning of the 20th century, Hebrew readers – or more accurately readers of the Hebrew letter – living in Thessaloniki, Warsaw and Tunisia, could choose from approximately ten different translations of the tales of Robinson Crusoe. However, most Jewish readers would have their first encounter with the character through a later adaptation of the novel, which appeared in Germany in the 18th century; This German adaption was created in the year 1779/1780 by the teacher and author of children’s books, Joachim Heinrich Campe.

As previously noted, in the first year Robinson Crusoe was published, the name of the author did not appear on the book which was initially presented as a record of the true adventures of an English sailor who survived for 28 years on a deserted island. Campe created a new structure for Defoe’s realistic novel – a didactic book delivering a universal moral in the form of a father telling his children a story. When the time came and Campe’s book was adapted into various other languages, most Jewish translators omitted its dialogue-like style but kept the educational tone, which they preferred to the religious Christian tone of the original novel.

The first “Jewish” translation of the work remained in the realm of European language. This edition was in fact a Hebrew transliteration of German (German in Hebrew letters), published in 1784/1785. A single copy is kept at the British Library. Aside from various omissions, the transliteration remains largely faithful to the Campe adaptation.

The second version, also in German transliterated into Hebrew characters, was published in Frankfurt in 1813. A copy of the transliteration is kept at the National Library of Israel and can be accessed via the following link. It is called The Story of Rabanizn (מעשה ראבאניזן).

German in Hebrew characters: The Story of Rabanizn by Daniel Defoe, unknown translator, 1813

Why translate into German instead of into Hebrew or Yiddish? One theory is that the translation was meant to bring readers closer to German culture; another is that it was motivated by commercial concerns. Either way, the most popular version of Defoe’s bestseller among European Jewish readers was not written in German at all…

The first translation into a Jewish language is the one attributed to the maskil Yosef Vitlin, who translated Campe’s adaptation into Yiddish. It is probably the most successful Jewish adaptation of the novel in the 19th century and we have much evidence of its great popularity. Campe’s didactic tone is preserved but the dialogue between a father reading to his children and the children answering was omitted. The book’s title translates into ‘Robinson: The history of Alter Leb: a true and wonderful story for entertainment and education.’ It can be viewed here.

The first Yiddish adaptation/translation: Yosef Vitlin’s “Alter Leb”, 1820s

The work’s name indicates just how far apart the English Crusoe and the Yiddish Alter Leb were. Alter Leb is Robinson Crusoe’s alter ego, and he is the hero of Vitlin’s translated novel. A rich Jewish merchant from Lemberg, Alter starts out as a drunk transgressor. As the story unfolds, the translator takes several opportunities to teach readers about the basics of sailing – how to use an anchor and what a lighthouse is – while also offering lectures on Jewish law.

Alter Leb isn’t the only character with Jewish characteristics; his companion, named Friday in the original novel, is called ‘Shabbos’ (Sabbath) here. Shabbos teaches Alter how to quickly light a fire and Alter teaches Shabbos about monotheism, the Torah and the Sabbath customs. Seeing as Alter Leb’s prayers are answered time and again throughout the novel, it’s hard to say which of the two benefited more from their companionship. The story concludes with a good Jewish ending – Torah study, proper spouses for Alter and Shabbos, and lives lived happily ever after with plenty of cute children all around. Amen!

Robinzon der yingere (“The Young Robinson”), translated by David Zamośź, 1824

From Yiddish, we move on to Hebrew. The first Hebrew translation of Robinson Crusoe was written in 1823/1824 by the Galician maskil David Zamośź, though we will not elaborate on it here. This translation is also loyal to Campe’s adaptation, and it is the only version that keeps the structure of the father speaking with his children.

The beginning of the first Hebrew translation of Robinson Crusoe by David Zamośź, 1824

The reason we won’t go into detail is simple: The second translation is considered far more influential and includes some fascinating additions to the Hebrew language. This translation was titled Kour Onni (“The Furnace of Affliction”), written by Yitzchak ben Moshe Rumsch and first published in Vilnius in 1862. Rumsch was a teacher at a government boys’ school and later became the principal of a private girls’ school. Translating the book into Hebrew was not a simple task. For example, Rumsch decided to leave the names of people and places in Yiddish transcript (ראבינזאן, לאנדאן, בראזיליען), while providing Hebrew alternatives for many of the tools used by Robinson. Rumsch even coined Hebrew terms for the words ‘telescope’ (קנה הָרֳאי) and ‘compass'(מַרְאֶה-פְּאַת-הצפון), though these were not generally accepted into the Hebrew canon.

Kour Onni, the second Hebrew translation by Yitzchak ben Moshe Rumsch, 1872

In the introduction to Rumsch’s translation, he discounts the previous complete Hebrew translation. It is unclear if he blames David Zamośź for the poor job or if he attributed the flaws he saw in the translation to the state of the Hebrew language at the time, though it is clear he felt it was his role to make things right. Particularly unnerving for him was Zamośź’s use of Mishnaic Hebrew. Rumsch and others in his generation preferred Biblical Hebrew. Rumsch’s translation coined the modern Hebrew term for “breakfast”, or more literally “morning meal” (ארוחת בוקר), which is a combination of two biblical words replacing the Mishnaic פת שחרית which can be literally translated as “dawn’s bread/morsel”.

We mentioned that this was a particularly influential translation and now it’s time to prove it: One famous reader was Eliezer Perlman, who would soon change his name to Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, commonly known as the “reviver of the Hebrew language”.   Perlman came across the book in the possession of his teacher, Rabbi Yossi Bloyker, and wrote as follows:

And gradually and quickly he began to tell me, little by little, that there are books written beautifully and poetically in the holy language, and one time as I sat before him to study a ‘Gemara page’, and no one was home, he pulled out a small book from under his seat and opened it and told me to read before him. It was the book Kour Onni, a Hebrew translation of the story of Robinson Crusa. Before I could read two pages there was a knock on the door. And the head of the yeshiva grabbed the book from my hand and hid it back under his seat, and together we returned to discuss the issue in the Gemara before us.

Eliezer Ben-Yehuda working on his great dictionary, the Abraham Schwadron Collection at the National Library of Israel

Yael Baruch shared a similar, though naturally different, story about her grandparents in Tunisia.

In the 1930s and 1940s in Tunisia, children and adults would visit the home of Rabbi Rahamim Baruch and his wife Simcha on Sabbath mornings to hear the honorable Rabbi read from a different book each time. Two novels were at the forefront on those mornings: The Count of Monte Cristo and Robinson Crusoe. The translations were in Judeo-Arabic, the language of North African Jews. In the National Library catalog, we found the translation from which Rabbi Baruch used to read to the neighborhood children. The title of the translation was Ḥikayat Robinson Krusoi translated by Hai Sitruk. It is a condensed version of the novel, and in it, too, Robinson Crusoe tells the story of his adventures.

Ḥikayat Robinson Krusoi, translated into Judeo-Arabic by Hai Sitruk, (apparently) during the first decade of the 20th century

In a bibliography written in 1939 by the Jewish Tunisian author Daniel Hagège, we find a few crumbs of information on the English novel’s Judeo-Arabic translator. Like Yitzchak Rumsch, Hai Sitruk worked as a school principal at a large boys’ school in Tunisia, which was later used as the Agudat Zion (Zionist Society) building. His work, including Ḥikayat Robinson Krusoi (The Stories of Robinson Crusoe) was first printed at a publishing house owned by the Vazan family in Tunisia. From the 1930s on it was printed at the Makhluf Najar publishing house in the town of Susah. This wasn’t Sitruk’s only translation of world literature; he was also a proofreader, journalist, and the translator of Alexander the Great, The Mysteries of Paris, and more.

The decision to translate Robinson Crusoe into the language of the North African Jews is somewhat surprising. Most of the Judeo-Arabic translations of world literature were of French origin, not English. French literature was often translated into yet another Jewish language – the language of the Spanish exiles.

Two Ladino translations of Robinson Crusoe were written at the end of the 19th century; the first translation was created in 1881 and published in Thessaloniki. The translation was printed as the third and final part of a book called Bracha Ha’meshulushet. It was printed again in the year 1900. The editor of the second version was Elijah Levi. The translation ends with Robinson Crusoe in his second year on the deserted island.

El isolado en la isla (“The Isolate on the Island”), a Ladino translation by Elijah Levi, 1881

In 1897 the second Ladino translation of Robinson Crusoe was published in Jerusalem. The translator, Ben-Zion Taragan, was a Hebrew teacher; this is noticeable in the way his translation is influenced by Hebrew syntax. Here and there we find a Turkish word thrown into his 150-page-long translation. This translation covers most of the original novel’s story.

In the beginning of Taragan’s Ladino translation, which we were able to loosely translate into Hebrew with the help of Ilil Baum, Robinson Crusoe addresses the readers in an attempt to lure them to read on:

Many of you, my dear readers, have surely heard my name, and many of you had the privilege of seeing me in my goat leather clothes with my loyal dog, cat and parrot at my side, and will surly take great pleasure in hearing my story. And now I am here before you to tell you my story, and I truly hope you learn many good things from it.

It may be that this introduction, which is different than the beginning of the original novel and that of Campe’s adaptation, is an original adaptation by the translator. The translation ends with three educational pieces on ethics, the last of which is directed at young girls.

The second Ladino translation, La ermoza istoria Robinson o la miseria. This is a late edition published in Constantinople in 1924, translated by Ben-Zion Taragan

For both the Ladino and Judeo-Arabic languages, the first half of the 20th century was the golden age of popular literature intended for adults and teens. The Robinson Crusoe translations are one example of that. The golden age which began at the turn of the 20th century ended with the outbreak of WWII. The Holocaust was terribly destructive to Yiddish and Ladino culture. Most of the world’s Ladino speakers were murdered when the Jewish communities of Thessaloniki and other Ladino centers in the Balkan were nearly completely wiped out. The fate of the Yiddish language was all too similar.

Following the waves of immigration to Israel after the establishment of the Jewish State, Judeo-Arabic has gradually faded away and is rarely used today. We may not see new translations of the work into these three languages which continue to struggle in the early 21st century. On the other hand, it is likely that in Israel the classic book will continue to be translated and updated so long as the local language, Hebrew, continues to evolve. A translation into an additional local language, Arabic, was published in 1835 by an anonymous translator in Europe. As for the second most widely-spoken language in today’s Jewish world, readers can simply choose to make their acquaintance with Robinson and Friday, in the original English.

Many thanks to Iris Idelson-Shein, Anabel Esperanza, Ilil Baum, Marta Katarzak, Tamir Karkason, David Guedj, Yael Baruch, Idan Perez and Ofek Kehila for their cooperation in writing this article.



Alpert, Michael. “The Ladino Novel”, European Judaism 43, no. 2 (2010)

Backscheider, R. Paula.  Daniel Defoe: His Life, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989

Baroukh, Nehama. 2010. “’A Language That Was Torn from its Biblical Slumber’: Changes and Shifts in Written Hebrew (1880–1980) as Reflected in Translation of Books for Children.” [In Hebrew.] PhD diss., Tel Aviv University

Garrett, Leah. “The Jewish Robinson Crusoe.” Comparative Literature 54, no. 3, (2002).

Idelson-Shein, Iris. Difference of a Different Kind: Jewish Constructions of Race during the Long Eighteenth Century (Philadelphia, 2014), 151-178

Judeo-Arabic Literature in Tunisia, 1850-1950, Wayne State University Press, 2014

Saraf, Michal. “Daniel Hagege and His Essay on the History of Judeo-Arabic Literature in Tunisia, 1862-1939” (in Hebrew), Pe’amim 30 (1987): 41-59.

Shavit, Zohar. “Literary Interference between German and Jewish-Hebrew Children’s Literature during the Enlightenment: The Case of Campe,” Poetics Today (Children’s Literature) 13, no. 1 (1992).

Wolpe, Rebecca.  “Judaizing Robinson Crusoe: Maskilic Translations of Robinson Crusoe,” Jewish Culture and History (2012)


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