The Epidemic That Brought Jews Back to Jerusalem

Fleeing a Galilean plague, a handful of the Vilna Gaon's students rewrote the holy city's history

The 'Vilna Gaon Map' is believed to be a copy of a map drawn by the Gaon, which was illustrated by his students shortly after his death around 1800. From the Eran Laor Cartographic Collection at the National Library of Israel

A century ago, the Spanish Plague killed tens of millions of people globally.

A century before that, communities throughout the eastern Mediterranean were devastated by a bubonic plague outbreak, which reached the ancient Galilean city of Safed in 1812, quickly decimating its population.

Just a few years prior, three waves totaling some five hundred followers of the Vilna Gaon – one of Jewish history’s intellectual and spiritual giants – had come to the Land of Israel from White Russia, fulfilling their leader’s own dream a decade after his death. It was a significant demographic boost to the relatively small and overwhelmingly Sephardi Jewish community already in what was then Ottoman Palestine.

An illustration of the Vilna Gaon. From the Abraham Schwadron Portrait Collection, National Library of Israel archives

Nearly a full century before Herzl, some consider the arrival of the Vilna Gaon’s students to be a watershed event in the history of modern Zionism.

The failure of the last major group of Ashkenazi Jews that tried to establish itself in the Land of Israel was the main reason why this group had to settle for the slightly less holy city of Safed, instead of Jerusalem.  At the end of the 1600s, a group led by Polish Jew “Judah the Pious” had set out to establish a community in Jerusalem. Arriving in 1700, the community was soon unable to support itself, nor pay off its growing debts. Ashkenazi Jews were banned from living in the holy city. Those already there either moved out or lived in disguise, dressing like their Sephardic brethren. Not particularly interested in the differences between a Litvak and a Hassid or any other intra-religious distinctions for that matter, the local authorities held all Ashkenazim accountable for the debts owed.

Needless to say, a large group of Jews from White Russia would not feel particularly welcome.

In fact, it would take the bubonic plague to get Ashkenazim back into Jerusalem.

With the plague ultimately claiming the lives of some 80% of Safed’s Jewish community, towards the end of 1815 some of the Vilna Gaon’s disciples decided it was time to finally go up to Zion.

Safed in the 19th century. From the Lenkin Family Collection of Photography at the University of Pennsylvania Libraries

The group was led by Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Shklov, a man who had led efforts to organize and print the Vilna Gaon’s writings following his death in 1797, and who had also led the first wave of immigrants in 1808. Rabbi Yisrael of Shklov, the other leader of the community, would briefly flee to Jerusalem but ultimately choose to stay in Safed. Efforts were made to ensure that Rabbi Menachem Mendel’s group remained small in number and did not syphon off too much funding from the communities’ patrons throughout Europe, many of whom had been cultivated by Rabbi Yisrael as he made fundraising trips across the continent.

According to various legends, the Ashkenazi community in Jerusalem was so small that they did not have a minyan (traditional Jewish prayer quorum of ten adult males), and would either pay a Sephardi Jew to be their tenth man; utilize a legal loophole to count a child holding a Torah scroll as a member of their prayer quorum; or simply count the Torah scroll.

Nonetheless, Rabbi Menachem Mendel and his band were determined to reestablish an Ashkenazi presence in the holy city.

It took about five years, but after sending representatives all the way to Istanbul to negotiate with the Ottoman authorities, Rabbi Menachem Mendel’s men succeeded in securing a royal decree annulling the debts owed by the previous un-related Ashkenazi community, decades earlier. They then successfully focused their efforts on securing additional documents from local and international Islamic and civil authorities that would ultimately allow them to develop the compound which had been abandoned by the previous Ashkenazi community and destroyed by its creditors. Warm relations with some of the Christian and Muslim neighbors certainly did not hurt these efforts.

Letter from R. Yisrael of Shklov asking an emissary to speed up efforts to obtain Turkish approval for rebuilding Jerusalem’s Hurva Synagogue, and not to hesitate to go to Vilna to collect donations for distribution to the community. From the National Library of Israel archives

Rabbi Menachem Mendel and his group thus succeeded in both ridding themselves of the debt left by a community to whom they had no connection, and then achieving official recognition as (in some way) the lawful heirs to the property rights of that very same community!

While visiting Jerusalem in 1837, Rabbi Yisrael of Shklov, the head of the Safed community, received word of a devastating earthquake in the Galilee. His entire city was destroyed, 4,000 members of its Jewish community lost. Perhaps he took it as a sign or else simply had no other options, but Rabbi Yisrael decided to stay in Jerusalem for the last two years of his life. Many refugees from Safed did the same, joining the followers of Rabbi Menachem Mendel and their descendants.

Ultimately, this small contingent of the Vilna Gaon’s disciples laid the foundation for much of the dramatic renewal and expansion of Jewish life in Jerusalem which continues until today.

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin is one of many notable descendants of these early Zionists. A mysterious and controversial work entitled Kol HaTor (“The Voice of the Turtledove”) was purportedly passed down in the Rivlin family for generations before being published in the 20th century. It includes Kabbalistic teachings attributed to the Vilna Gaon and relating to the Messianic age. In the work, two dates on the Jewish calendar were identified as having exceptional spiritual qualities especially as related to the redemption of the Jewish people. The first was the Fifth of Iyyar, which we now celebrate as Israeli Independence Day. The second was the 27th of Iyyar, the date on which – at the height of the Battle for Jerusalem in 1967 – the decision was made to unify the city under Jewish sovereignty for the first time in two millennia.

Israeli soldiers overlook the newly liberated Western Wall and the Old City of Jerusalem in June 1967 (Photo: Dan Hadani). From the Dan Hadani Archive, part of the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel


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.

Thanks to Dr. Zvi Leshem, director of the National Library of Israel’s Gershom Scholem Collection for Kabbalah and Hasidism for his insightful comments.

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The Story of Israel’s National Anthem

How did the only original written copy of "HaTikva" arrive at the National Library of Israel? And how does it differ from the version we know today?

Decades after his death, the author of Israel’s national anthem, HaTikva would become known as “the first Hebrew beatnik”. A more common moniker, and perhaps more fitting, was “Imber, the Wandering Jew”. Indeed, the title reflects some of the adventures of this man who was a bit of an enigma in the eyes of his contemporaries, and has largely remained one to this day. Even after arriving at the destination about which he wrote so many poems, he only managed to stay there for five years before moving on to continue his wanderings.

In 1882, Naftali Herz Imber closed the shop where he sold matches, charms and amulets in the market of Istanbul, and went to meet Sir Laurence Oliphant, a Member of the British Parliament and businessman. Imber’s initial goal was to declare before Oliphant that the Jewish people didn’t need Britain’s favors in order to return to their ancestral homeland. However, as he described later on, “when I entered, I laid my eyes on Mrs. Oliphant for the first time.” This was enough for the young man to come up with a new plan – a joint journey to the Holy Land. That same year, funded entirely by Oliphant, (Imber was broke and wouldn’t have it any other way), the three reached the port of Haifa.

Naftali Herz Imber, the Schwadron Portrait Collection at the National Library of Israel

After arriving in Ottoman Palestine, the members of this strange love triangle parted. The Oliphants, who were essentially Protestant Zionists before the term had even been coined in the modern sense, chose to travel and enjoy the beauty of the land and its holy sites, all while working on a plan to return the Jews to their homeland – which would, of course, hasten the coming of the Messiah.

Meanwhile, Imber, according to every available account, preferred to drink the days away. Whenever he found himself in the proximity of a fair maiden who caught his eye or a patron with enough wine at his disposal, the poet pretended that he had been struck by inspiration at that very moment, proceeding to “compose” the legendary poem which captured the essence of Zionist longing before their very eyes, Tikvatenu – “Our Hope”.

The impressions left by Imber’s time in the Land of Israel can still be witnessed today, in places such as Gedera, Yesod HaMa’ala, Mishmar HaYarden, and Rishon LeZion all of which claim, without exception, that the poem that would later become the anthem of the Zionist movement and the State of Israel, was written within the boundaries of their own territory.

In truth, Imber most likely began to compose the poem which would bring him world fame in the city of Iași in Romania, basing it on a German song, Der Deutsche Rhein (“The German Rhine”), which also opens every stanza with the words “As long as”. In 1884, in Jerusalem, he finally completed the composition. The final version of Tikvatenu consisted of nine stanzas. Later, the poem was abbreviated to two stanzas and some of the words were changed in order to fit the contemporary context of people returning to their homeland. The last modifications were made by Dr. Y.L. Matmon-Cohen, founder of the Herzliya Hebrew Gymnasium high school. Cohen replaced the words “the ancient hope” (hatikva hanoshana) with the words “The two-thousand-year-old hope” and replaced “To return to the land of our fathers, the city where David encamped” with “To be a free nation in our land, The land of Zion and Jerusalem”. These changes sealed the final version of the song, with its new name, HaTikva. In 1886, a farmer named Samuel Cohen composed a tune for Imber’s anthem of longing.

Three years later, when the farmers of the Jewish settlement of Rishon LeZion rose up in rebellion against Baron Rothschild’s bureaucrats, they would choose Tikvatenu as their protest song. Imber, who at that time happened to be visiting Rishon LeZion, was lucky enough to hear them singing – as he sat at the dining table of one of those very bureaucrats. This event marked the beginning of the song’s ascent into the heart of the Zionist pantheon, and it also served as Imber’s sign to continue his wanderings. He soon left for England, and from there on to New York.
During the last year of his life, Imber was admitted to a Jewish hospital in New York, where he met a young singer – Jeanette Robinson-Murphy. At her request, he wrote down the original words of the first two stanzas of his song, which would become the national anthem, on a piece of hospital paperwork that was at his disposal at that moment. In 1936, Ms. Robinson-Murphy sent the manuscript, the only one of its kind in the world as far as we know, for eternal keepsake at the National Library of Israel in Jerusalem.

Imber’s original handwritten text of Tikvatenu, the Schwadron Collection at the National Library of Israel


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That Other Time They Almost Declared a Jewish State (and No One Noticed)

In July 1943, in the midst of World War II, notable members of the "yishuv" gathered in secret in a Tel Aviv suburb, to proclaim the establishment of a Jewish government in the Land of Israel

Seated from left to right: Prof. Joseph Klausner, Abraham Krinitzi, Israel Rosov, and Dr. Abraham Weinschal

Few people are aware that the declaration of independence of the State of Israel on May 14th, 1948, (the fifth day of the month of Iyar in the year 5708, according to the Hebrew calendar) was preceded by another, almost clandestine ceremony, in which the establishment of a Jewish government in the Land of Israel was proclaimed. In many ways, that forgotten ceremony represented a last hurrah for the Zionist movement’s old guard.

“[British police] detectives were tracing our every move the entire day,” recalled Abraham Krinitzi, one of the organizers of the proclamation ceremony, in his memoir. Krinitzi, head of the local council, and later a legendary mayor of Ramat Gan, a suburb of Tel Aviv, had some experience with the British police. They had even called the settlement he headed “the incubator of terrorism,” because of its involvement in sheltering members of the underground. The day Krinitzi recounts was July 25th, 1943 – the day “The People’s Congregation” was set to convene in Ramat Gan.

The People’s Congregation will open at 11 am sharp…” – A Hebrew announcement published on the morning of the event in the HaMashkif newspaper

By the summer of 1943, news of the annihilation of European Jewry had begun to reach the country, and many in the Jewish community felt a sense of helplessness in the face of it. Alongside the call from Jewish leaders for cooperation with the British in their war against their mutual Nazi enemy, the underground organizations, the Haganah and the Irgun, announced a pause in the struggle against the British. The Lehi, another group which had split off from the Irgun, was then at a low point following the murder of its leader, Avraham “Yair” Stern, and the jailing of his successors.  The fact that many Jews enlisted in the British army and assisted in the war effort did not dull the sense of rage and powerlessness the Jews in Mandatory Palestine felt about the closing of the country’s gates to Jewish immigration and the negative stance of the British government toward any manifestation of independence.

Given this situation, a group of veteran Zionists of Jewish-Russian background who had been sidelined from positions of leadership around two decades earlier, decided to take action. The Zionist movement’s “changing of the guard” had left no room for the founding generation. They increasingly saw themselves pushed aside, not to mention taken aback by the struggle between the socialists and revisionists. Most of the members of this group naturally tended toward the right of the political map and identified more with a firm and independent approach in relation to the British Mandate.

Their idea was simple, even if not completely rooted in reality: The Jews of Palestine would establish a united front that was independent of the institutions of the Jewish Agency, which they perceived as weak and ineffectual. Based on relative political power, the parties would elect representatives who together would constitute a 120-member Hebrew parliament. Given the state of war in which Britain found itself, and in consideration of the loyalty demonstrated by the Jewish yishuv (the Jewish population in Mandatory Palestine), they believed Britain would recognize the independence of the Jewish authority to be established in Palestine and grant it limited independence, under its protection.

Krinitzi wrote in his memoirs, but not before he made a point of noting his own role as one of the idea’s initiators, that “the living spirit behind this was Dr. Avraham Weinschal.” Weinschal, a respected lawyer from Haifa, a friend of Jabotinsky’s and one of the founders of the revisionist movement in Palestine, made sure to include his likeminded ally and colorful figure Dr. Wolfgang von Weisl in this endeavor. The doctor, who had served as an officer in the Austrian army and bore a noble title, was, in addition, a respected journalist and welcome guest at the courts of Arab princes, who showed high regard for his vast knowledge of Islamic culture.

Von Weisl’s bold and daring nature suited the plan that was beginning to take shape. Perhaps more than it was meant to rebel against British rule, the plan was intended to defy the existing Zionist leadership and constitute a kind of “revolt of the elders.” Van Weisl needed help preparing for action and forging contacts with various groups, and for this task, he chose the young Uri Avnery, then barely twenty years old, who would go on to become a famous figure in the realm of Israeli journalism, activism and politics.


“The delegates in attendance”

In his memoir titled Optimistic, Avnery recounts meeting with Von Weisl and the latter’s failure to achieve the broad coalition for the establishment of a “government in exile.” Skepticism, along with partisan divisions, apparently prevented the great rebellion from being carried out to its full extent. Also, the close surveillance of the British forced Von Weisel to temper the plan of action.

Weinschal, Von Weisl and their friends decided to hold a large public meeting in which a “Jewish Government in Exile” would be declared. Krinitzi volunteered to host the gathering in Ramat Gan, in the auditorium of the Ohel Shem high school, today the Yahalom High School. The name of that select gathering— “The People’s Congregation” — from which the government was elected, showed the desire to achieve a broad consensus as well as the desire to not arouse the anger of the British,  by avoiding words like “government” or “parliament.”

The proclamation began with a symbolic act intended to show the loyalty of the Jewish yishuv: in the Great Synagogue of Ramat Gan, Rabbi Yaakov Moshe Toledano held a memorial service to commemorate those of the community who had died while serving in the British Army. Immediately afterwards, hundreds of the invitees walked from the synagogue to the school building, where the assembly was officially opened. Seated on the dais were the members of the directorate, Prof. Joseph Klausner, Israel Rosov, Avraham Weinschal, and Abraham Krinitzi, among others. Von Weisl’s name was absent from the directorate and from the list of participants. Was the decision to moderate the demands of that “temporary government” what caused him to leave?

Years later, Avnery, who was likely the youngest participant at that event, did not recall an extraordinary historical event. The long, pathos-filled speeches delivered by members of the directorate and other veteran public activists turned the historic proclamation of a Jewish government into yet another toothless public gathering. In the slim pamphlet of the collected speeches delivered that day, the anonymous publisher took care to note whether a speech was received with “sustained applause” or “thunderous sustained applause”. From the perspective of the young Avnery who found himself in a strange event organized by the “elders of the generation,” he remembered it as a particularly lackluster affair.

A Proclamation to the Hebrew People in Zion and the Diaspora” summarizing “the decisions unanimously agreed by The People’s Congregation“, which consisted mainly of proposals for further action to be taken later…

The text of the telegram sent at the end of that day to British Prime Minister Churchill, to US President Roosevelt, and to the Prime Minister of South Africa, reinforces the sense of a missed opportunity, the result of a lack of political daring. “The People’s Congregation that gathered in Ramat Gan,” the telegram says, “draws the attention of nations united in their fight for the freedom of the world’s peoples, to the severe violation of the rights of the Hebrew People, caused by the lack of recognition of the People of Israel as an ally, fighting party and equal partner with the other united nations.” Only towards the end of the telegram is the explicit demand made: “Basic justice demands recognizing the right of the Jewish People to be represented by a temporary Jewish government to share in the war and in peace building and to secure its future as a free nation in its homeland.”

Avraham Krinitzi was forced to admit that the historic conference ended only with proposals for action and the election of representatives, and no practical significance. However, the fact that British censorship prevented the event from being publicized in the press did not, he said, prevent the leaking of the news of its having taken place. Krinitzi mockingly refers to the blackout imposed on this “ideological terror” as the British called it, concluding: “Indeed, there are also those for whom an idea is terrorism, and perhaps not one of its less dangerous forms. It sows the seeds in hearts, in minds. And I know from experience: He who plants the seed is destined to see it grow.”


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Blood of the Maccabees: How a Little Red Flower Became the Symbol of Israel’s Memorial Day

Every year on Yom HaZikaron, Israel's Memorial Day, many of us wear the famous Dam HaMaccabim sticker; the connection between the flower and the occasion was made in the early days of the state


Photo: Efrat Cohen

The days were the days of the Maccabean Revolt, and the battles were brutal. The Maccabees fought fiercely, but many of them fell in battle. And, according to legend, wherever a Maccabi warrior’s blood spilled, a small flower instantaneously sprang up and bloomed, its color the color of blood. This is how the flower in question, received its Hebrew name: Dam HaMaccabim (literally “Blood of the Maccabees”; Helichrysum sanguineum, otherwise known as “red everlasting”). With spring now upon us, Dam HaMaccibim can be seen blooming across the Land of Israel, from the north to the south.

From this poignant legend, which is not unlike the legends of other cultures around the world, one can easily guess the answer to the question posed by this article: How did this protected plant become a prominent symbol of Yom HaZikaron – “Memorial Day for the Fallen Soldiers of Israel and Victims of Terrorism”? Yet, even though the answer is seemingly quite clear, we dug a little deeper into the historical roots of this connection to find out when exactly this link between the flower and the occasion was forged.

Photo: Gideon Pizanty; the red leaves are actually the outer covering, the flower itself is yellow

A search of the National Library’s JPress – Historical Jewish Press collection reveals that the first mentions in print of the Hebrew phrase “Dam HaMaccabim” were mainly quotations from passionate speeches that sought to strike a chord in the hearts of young Zionist Jews. Writers and speakers sought to remind their audiences that the blood of the brave Maccabees still flowed in the veins of Jews who were soon to return to their ancient homeland. Or perhaps they had already returned and were in need of some extra encouragement. The link between the heroism and blood of the Maccabees and the blood now being spilled protecting that same homeland was almost self-evident.

A poem about Dam HaMaccabim, which appeared in the December 12th, 1947 edition of HaTzofe ; the “Blood” in the flower’s name also appears in both the Arabic and binomial names for the flower

And the blood will not rest nor be silent

It wells up from the stones of Jerusalem                       

Wander across the surroundings hills

At your feet, see the red-eyed flowers…

– From the Hebrew poem “Blood of the Maccabees” by Y.D. Kamzon, which appears in the image above

Thus, the cultural reference of the blood of the Maccabees and the fallen may have already appeared as early as the days of the War of Independence. In Haim Gouri’s famous poem “Here Lie Our Bodies,” the flower, not mentioned by name, is evoked in the line: “We will return, we will meet again, we will come back as red flowers.” The idea of ​​connecting a red flower to the memory of the fallen in battle was not a new one: it had become common after World War I, with the adoption of the poppy as the symbol of the British soldiers who fell on Flanders Fields. In Palestine, a new symbol not associated with the British conqueror was needed; one that would stress the connection to the ancient Jewish heroes instead.

In 1950, a woman by the name of Miriam Trop designed a poster for Israel’s Independence Day that included the flower mentioned by name. Unfortunately, we were unable to find a copy of the poster, and therefore we do not know exactly which flower was depicted.  This is because at that time Dam HaMaccabim was also the name for another flower, known in English as “pheasant’s eye”, or Dmumit in today’s Hebrew. This flower was emblazoned on a special medal awarded to the disabled veterans of the IDF beginning in 1954. The botanical confusion was considerable, and that same year, a special stamp was issued in honor of Independence Day featuring the flower we know today as Dam HaMaccabim.

Stamp commemorating Israel’s sixth Independence Day, 1954

Another contributor to the flower’s symbolism during this period was Yitzhak Sadeh, “The Old Man”, who was among the founders of the Palmach and one of the IDF’s first generals.  In one of the many texts he wrote, Sadeh returned once again to the ancient story and appealed to the hearts of the young members of the Palmach, the underground Haganah organization’s elite fighting force:

“Thus time has ground down and washed away the figures of the Maccabees, erased the inconsequential and left us only that which is essential. . . the blood of the Maccabees.  And this very blood, I say this simply and with conviction, this blood courses through our veins. And on this point, as it was for them, so shall it be for us.  And should even a drop of our blood fall on the soil of our homeland, there will grow a small, red, low-lying flower that will be named for them.” These very words were also recited at Sadeh’s graveside on the thirtieth day following his death in 1952.

Photograph of Yitzhak Sadeh. Contrary to the above quote, the Dam HaMaccabim flower is not a low-lying plant but grows to a height of 40 centimeters

In the mid-1950s, we find further evidence of the flower’s place among the Memorial Day symbols as well as indications of the British custom’s influence. As in Britain, where it is customary to wear a poppy flower on the lapel at ceremonies commemorating the fallen soldiers of World War I, an announcement was made in 1955 declaring that elementary school children would be asked to wear the Dam HaMaccabim flower. That same year, it was decided that the flower would be an official symbol of Israel’s Memorial Day.

From the mid-1960s, the Dam HaMaccabim flower took center stage in one of the most successful ad campaigns in Israeli history: the campaign against picking wildflowers. Dam HaMaccabim was one of the first flowers to be declared a “protected flower” and picking them was forbidden. This was apparently the start of the alternate practice of affixing the by now well-known sticker featuring the red flower to the lapel. This sticker is distributed every year in the millions by the Israeli Ministry of Defense.


In recent years, an association known as the Dam Hamaccabim Project has begun operating in Israel with the aim of replacing the sticker with a pin of the flower. It has even set a future goal of growing the flower commercially so that it can be picked without fear.  In 2019, the association conducted its first pilot and distributed 30,000 pins.

If you have more recollections or information about the Dam HaMaccabim tradition and its connection to the commemoration of the fallen soldiers of Israel, if you were there when this tradition first began, or if you used to wear the flower on your clothing, tell us more here in the comments, on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram.


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