A Vanishing World: What Will Become of the Yung Yiddish Museum?

The “Yung Yiddish" museum, tucked away inside a massive bus station, is something in between a library and an underground club. Its collections have survived two world wars in Europe. Whether they can survive the disparaging attitude in Israel remains to be seen.


The Yung Yiddish museum in the Tel Aviv New Central Bus Station. Photo: Amit Naor

“May your journey be as smooth as ice!” I imagined the fellow I bumped into on my way to the New Central Bus Station in Tel Aviv shout after me. With a tilt of the head and one eye closed, the huge station, with its eclectic mix of stores, hawkers, passers-by and a general ramshackle atmosphere, could perhaps pass for a bustling Polish shtetl from the early twentieth century. That kind of chilly greeting is exactly what one would expect to hear in such a shtetl, if one had bumped into a young fellow rushing to the market to sell his eggs.

With this thought in mind, I entered the bus station’s hulking edifice. I was there to visit a place known as “Yung Yiddish”, hidden somewhere on the fifth floor, in the abandoned artists’ complex. The institution styles itself as “A Lively Yiddish Museum”. The reason for my visit was the impending threat to its future, with plans being prepared for clearing out the entire building. While working on this article we were informed that, for the time being, the bus station structure had been saved from demolition, but the pressure to evacuate the tenants was still on. The media attention surrounding the building’s fate and the threat of eviction has led the association’s directors and the museum to consider relocating in any case.

Mendy Cahan, founder of the Yung Yiddish Association and the living spirit behind the museum, arrives a little late to our meeting. He pours me some Turkish coffee and tells me about this somewhat unconventional location for a museum-cum-archive-cum-Yiddish club. “We feel comfortable in the central station. Sure, there are some problems related to whether it’s going to shut down or not, but we would not have been able to function anywhere else. We have financial constraints and our work is based entirely on volunteering.”

Cahan with a theater costume and posters at the Yung Yiddish museum. Photo: Amit Naor

Beyond material concerns, do you feel that your presence at the central bus station has any added meaning?

Being in the central bus station also gives us a cultural context. We, after all, represent a culture in distress, like many other of the central bus station’s tenants [the station is home to dozens of businesses run by immigrants living in Tel Aviv’s southern neighborhoods – Ed.]. We also love the polyphonic surroundings. It’s a bit like the West End in London or Second Avenue. This is a port. There is a lot of traffic and immigrants here. And yet, it’s in the middle of Tel Aviv. Yiddish is also like that: something central and huge that has somehow been left crumpled on the sidelines.

Do you like being here?

Definitely. I love this place. We can reach all kinds of audiences this way. Although there are people who are less likely to come here because of the fact that it’s here, on the other hand a lot of young people come by, eclectic, special types who wouldn’t have found us anywhere else.

Will you be sad to leave?

There’s not really anywhere to go.  No one’s waiting to receive us. Our location is also important in terms of the ability to bring books from all over the country. This is a collection project that has expanded beyond its dimensions and become a cultural and research center.

Any thoughts about what will happen when everything has to be vacated? Where will you go?

There are plenty of thoughts. Thoughts and worries. Right now, there is no direction because we have nothing. We have no money. We can barely even afford this place. I can’t imagine what it would mean to move to Rothschild Boulevard and calculate how much the property tax will cost us there. On the other hand, all the talk about the possibility of vacating the station in recent weeks has made me realize that we are sustaining a very, very big project. We have grown over time and stretched out into different directions. We do events, collect books and also try to catalog and sort, as well as do projects and exhibitions. There are a lot of things to do and we constantly feel a little behind and unable to keep up. Because we’re always busy, it’s difficult for us to stop for a moment and find solutions. We may need outside help from the establishment for that.

And there’s no support? How about the Tel Aviv Municipality or the Ministry of Culture?

There’s nothing. The municipality only sends bills. We are a volunteer non-profit, no one receives a salary; there isn’t even a paid manager. Even taking care of the bureaucracy required for that kind of funding is difficult; even filling out a form and knowing which office to contact, and sending the form in on time—that’s already complicated for us.

The central space of the Yung Yiddish museum. Photo: Amit Naor


The Wide World of Yiddish

Cahan came to Israel in 1980 and began studying at the Hebrew University. He studied philosophy, literature and other subjects in the humanities, until he decided to join the university’s Yiddish department. “Then the wide world of Yiddish opened up to me, in all its breadth and depth. I discovered how special this language is; how alive and connected it is to European cultures and also thriving in its own right. On the other hand, I thought to myself, here we are in the State of Israel and there is not even a whiff of this anywhere in the public space. I saw that there were no Yiddish books in stores, so I decided to collect them myself. I took up the responsibility.”

He started the book collection on his own, in the early 1990s. “At first it was in my house. I remember sitting in the sealed-off room [a protective measure meant to protect from potential chemical missile attacks during the first Gulf War – Ed.] with all the Yiddish materials around me. Then we moved to another place in Jerusalem, and slowly the collection grew. I collected fragments of dreams and memories.”

When you started, were you only thinking of collecting books, or were you already planning for a wider collection?

I collected everything. Anything that was in Yiddish. A book, a newspaper, anything printed. I also realized from the beginning that I wanted other people to be excited about it. I realized that I was collecting books, but that I also wanted to construct a huge tower made out of them – so that others would notice them. So very quickly, I took part in the Jerusalem International Book Fair.

Tens of thousands of books inside a relatively small space. Photo: Amit Naor

Did you set any guidelines for this collection process?

The only guideline was to be open to everything. I thought to myself: There’s the Bund, there’s Beit Sholem Aleichem, there’s the Kultur Lige, there’s YIVO [all of these are Yiddish cultural institutions – A.N.] There are all of these islands with their own traditions; each organization has its own respective emphasis and specialization. Then it happens, for example, that in one place they don’t want to store Hasidic melodies, and in another place they aren’t interested in housing something else. But we live in a postmodern, eclectic world, so I wanted to collect everything. And we don’t just collect, we also broadcast the collection outwards. From the first moment, I wanted people to take books, to come and talk to each other. The idea was to connect everyone.

Cahan is a native of Antwerp, Belgium, where he grew up speaking Yiddish. “Antwerp is an interesting Jewish city. The pre-war local Jewish community hardly survived the Holocaust. The Jewish population after World War II was composed of many Holocaust survivors who came from Poland and Moldavia. There are about 20,000 Jewish residents with 30 different synagogues. That’s why the Jewish community in Antwerp speaks Yiddish.”

A Rosh Hashanah greeting card in Yiddish. Photo courtesy of the Yung Yiddish Association

And you never felt any tension between European culture and Yiddish culture? Was Yiddish culture perhaps looked down upon?

I read Sartre and Camus in the original language. But studying in the Yiddish Department, I understood the depth of Yiddish and its culture. Even having learned French and German culture, I came to the realization that my culture is something else. It’s both European and something else. I dived into the history of Yiddish, into its power, its multifaceted dimensions.

And yet, in Israel this culture is almost forgotten.

Here, the vacuum surrounding Yiddish called on me to act. There’s a saying in Yiddish, “B’makom she’eyn ish, iz hering oykh a fish” (“Where there is no worthy man, even a herring is a fish.” – A.N.). Yiddish is still significant; people still speak this language. It’s not dead.

Have you felt a change in the attitude toward Yiddish in recent years?

Yes, young people are showing more interest. The creative space of the language has grown. The audience is expanding. There’s more research. It’s considered less exotic. You also see it in the visitors. There are 18-year-old boys who come here to visit or volunteer. There was even a class of fourth graders, ten-year-olds, who came to hear about Yiddish for half an hour. Besides that, there are more Hebrew translations of Yiddish literature. New works as well, not just the classics. And there’s poetry and klezmer bands. Interest in Yiddish is still alive in many forms.

How many Yiddish speakers are there in Israel?

The numbers vary. Some say that there are several hundred thousand Yiddish speakers here. There are about a million in the world. But even those who remain silent in Yiddish are important to me, and there are many of those. People aged 40, 50, and 60 come for tours of the museum. I talk with them a little, sing a little, say a couple of phrases in Yiddish, and suddenly they’re surprised to find out how much they understand. These people interest me as well. You know, Kafka gave only one lecture in his lifetime—a lecture on Yiddish. He said, “You’ll be surprised how much more Yiddish you understand than you think you do.” And he was right.

The jacket cover of a record by comedian Shimon Dzigan. Who else is on the cover? Photo: Amit Naor


A Creative Study House

So what exactly is the Yung Yiddish museum? Until further notice, it’s here, on the fifth floor of the New Central Bus Station. You’re welcome to visit. After you enter through the glass doors, you’ll feel as if you’ve stepped into a kind of library-warehouse-pub-theater. Long rows of high shelves, filled to bursting with books, pamphlets and newspapers. There are other items as well. Posters of Yiddish cabaret performances, dresses and other costumes from the Yiddish theater, as well as a corner filled with records, CDs and sheet music. You can find memorial books here too, as Yiddish is the language of the destroyed communities of Eastern European Jewry, along with entertainment magazines, translations of literary masterpieces, science books and pamphlets of Hasidic tales that continue to be published in Yiddish in Israel. In another section are manuscripts by writers and artists. Somewhere among the shelves is a collection of thousands of jokes in Yiddish copied out in long hand—an item that no Yiddish collection would be complete without, naturally. There’s even a board game in Yiddish stashed somewhere in a closet if you feel like playing.

What do you do here besides collect books?

We hold cultural events here. We have sing-alongs, launch parties, holiday celebrations, exhibitions. We did a rave, cabarets, klezmer music performances, Hasidic melody performances, everything. The place is open. We don’t have money, so this is how we get by, by hosting all kinds of events. Besides that, there are a lot of groups that come to the central station for all sorts of reasons, and then the tours pass by here as well. Each visit, I reveal a little about Yiddish culture, the written culture, things that will soon be forgotten.

Books in the Yiddish museum. Photo: Amit Naor

“This place is a theater, a tavern, a synagogue, a study house, a yeshiva,” explains Eli Benedict, who serves as the association’s director—on a volunteer basis, of course. “When I first came here, as a young volunteer, it was a community place, a place of shared creativity and this has vanished. It is reminiscent of the Strashun Library in Vilnius, a glorious library that attracted people from all corners—secular, religious—they all met there. This is a study house for creation.”

And you continue to collect books. How do they get to you?

In most cases, people who want to bring books call us. We hardly look for them on our own anymore. Sometimes places refer people to us, the Yiddish department or a community center or libraries, where people are told “we don’t deal with books like this, go to Yung Yiddish.” Very high quality things come here. There are also collections, manuscripts and archives of intellectuals who want their archives preserved here and not elsewhere.

“Sometimes people call because they saw books on the sidewalk,” Benedict adds. “After you see that a couple of times, you feel as if our culture is going up in smoke. To go outside on Holocaust Memorial Day and see a mountain of Yiddish books dumped somewhere, to see the stamps in the books and realize that these books were saved from Hitler only to be thrown out on a curb in Israel. It leaves an impression on your soul. The Nazis burned books, the gentiles have always burned our books. And here in the Jewish state, books are tossed like so many pebbles in the street. Why did we build a state if not to preserve our culture?”

The entire system is run by the volunteers. Cahan estimates that there are currently dozens, of all ages: high schoolers, soldiers, retirees, all are welcome. “The volunteers did a phenomenal cataloging job here and it’s not done yet. I squeeze every last drop out of them. We have volunteers who got their first taste of Yiddish here and have gone on to study and research it.”

A Yiddish board game called Kfitzat Haderekh (a Kabbalistic concept with connotations of a miraculous leap to a distant location). Photo: Amit Naor

“Our volunteers collect books from all over the country,” says Benedict. “We once managed to stuff 700 books into a Toyota Corolla. We made 12 trips in private cars to transfer books, then we switched to trucks.”

“All the interviews and conversations I’ve had recently made me realize that the museum needs to be institutionalized,” says Cahan. “There also needs to be professional staff here who know what an archive is, and what a library is. Yes, we have good intuitions, but we’ve already grown above and beyond.”

What is your vision for this place?

“Something big, something international. It has to be institutionalized. But it can’t be too tidy,” laughs Cahan. “I want to keep the eclecticism and the ability to do things for free.”

And should it be in Tel Aviv?

“If they give us a place in the periphery, then we’ll go there,” says CEO Benedict. “We will of course also be happy to receive support from the Ministry of Culture. We see the preservation as a national goal. In time, we believe people will understand this collection better, and will give it more respect.”

“We may have to leave for a less central location,” Cahan admits with a smile. “But we want a permanent place. Just so we don’t have to leave town again.”

The Forgotten Holidays of David Ben-Gurion

"Ingathering of the Exiles Day" - intended to make immigrant soldiers feel welcome - was one of a number of 'festivals' that helped form the national ethos...

David Ben-Gurion with soldiers at Sarafend, 1949. Photo by Rudi Weissenstein, all rights reserved to Pri-Or PhotoHouse; part of the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

The State of Israel lacked many things during its first year of existence – peace and prosperity, food, economic stability, housing and basic infrastructure to name just a few.

National holidays, on the other hand, were plentiful!

Not holidays in the traditional celebratory sense; but rather holidays that were intentionally designed, declared and commemorated in order to achieve important national objectives under the complex circumstances and realities of the nascent Jewish state.

At the behest of David Ben-Gurion, these holidays were all imbued with deep symbolism – both timeless and timely.

David Ben-Gurion, 1949. Photo by Rudi Weissenstein, all rights reserved to Pri-Or PhotoHouse; part of the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

Symbolically and literally, the holidays largely centered around the army, which was responsible not only for defense, but also for immigrant absorption, educating the masses and instilling Zionist values.

As Israel’s prime minister and minister of defense, Ben-Gurion directly oversaw and commanded the army, paying particular attention to its role as a tremendously formative player in the country’s society and culture.

During the very first temporary ceasefire during the 1948 war, just a month after the official establishment of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), the first such holiday, “Swearing in Day”, was celebrated throughout the country’s military bases and beyond.

“Heads of the Nation on Swearing in Day”. From the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

Then came “State Day” on the anniversary of Theodor Herzl’s death, which featured Israel’s first official military parade.

During the festival of Sukkot (the Feast of Tabernacles), the country celebrated “Settlement Day”, emphasizing the army’s role in helping to fulfill the Zionist mission and dream of settling the land.

Then, during Hanukkah, which took place at the end of December 1948 and into January 1949, “Ingathering of the Exiles Day” was celebrated, emphasizing the importance of another central Israeli value: immigration.

The day’s name is decidedly more natural in Hebrew: “Yom Kibbutz Galuyot” – a clear reference to traditional Jewish texts describing the almost magical messianic period in which Jews will finally return to the Land of the Israel from the four corners of the earth. In one famous line from the Talmud, for example, Rabbi Yochanan claims that the day of the ingathering of the exiles is even greater than the day on which the heavens and the earth were created (Pesachim 88).

In some ways, the massive immigration to Israel during that time was truly no less than miraculous. Some 100,000 new arrivals had come over the course of just a few months.

Immigrants in Pardes Hanna, 1948. Photo by Rudi Weissenstein, all rights reserved to Pri-Or PhotoHouse; part of the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

While the ideal of immigration was certainly an important value to emphasize and instill, the point of the day was also very practical.  The absorption of all of these immigrants was hardly going smoothly, especially in the army where successful absorption in the context of conflict could literally mean the difference between life and death.

With about a third of all combat soldiers in Israel’s War of Independence being fresh immigrants, their acceptance was critical to the success of the entire effort, yet in many cases those who had been born in Mandatory Palestine or had immigrated even just a few years prior looked down on the more recent immigrants in their midst.

They often had little empathy or compassion for the recently arrived Holocaust survivors, many of whom had actually enlisted while still in displaced persons camps in Europe. Immigrants from the Arab world were often considered inferior and barbaric due to the dramatic differences in culture and language.

Immigrants from North Africa, 1949. Photo by Rudi Weissenstein, all rights reserved to Pri-Or PhotoHouse; part of the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

Moreover, for diplomatic reasons Israel had largely refrained from emphasizing the fact that many of its soldiers had come from overseas.

By Hanukkah of that first year, the circumstances and needs were ripe for the new state and army to make efforts encouraging the acceptance and appreciation of its new immigrants, especially those fighting on the front.

“Ingathering of the Exiles Day” was largely born out of the realization of this need, and in fact, the immigrant soldiers were the focus of the holiday.

It was not incidentally scheduled to take place on Hanukkah, the most militarily heroic festival on the Jewish calendar.

“Ingathering of the Exiles Day” ceremonies and special events took place in communities across the country and were held on virtually every IDF base, as immigrant soldiers were invited to share their stories, and special materials were distributed in Hebrew, as well as their native languages.

A leaflet with poetry verses and some illustrations distributed by the IDF for the first “Ingathering of the Exiles Day”, 1949. From the National Library of Israel collections

At the official national ceremony, Ben-Gurion compared the diplomatic and military difficulties faced by the young country to the internal struggle of successful immigrant absorption.

The connection between the global Jewish people had never been stronger, he said, calling the immigrant soldiers, a “clear living manifestation” of that connection and pointing out that they had come from 50 countries across the world, from all ethnicities, tribes and socio-economic backgrounds.

“The connection between the nation and the Diaspora doesn’t recognize in our army distinctions between East and West. There are soldiers from the West, and there are from the East, Habash [Ethiopia], Burma, India and China. From East and from West all as one came to the army of liberation.”

Civilian institutions were also called upon to participate, with the goal of making every immigrant feel at home in their modern-ancient homeland.

At large ceremonies throughout the country, the nation’s leaders called upon the general public to invite immigrant soldiers to family Hanukkah parties, and – as possible – even to stay overnight in their homes.

This official IDF poster for the first “Ingathering of the Exiles Day”, conveys all of this spirit simply, yet powerfully:

Poster for “Ingathering of the Exiles Day”, January 1949 (Design: Yohanan Simon / IDF Culture Service). From the National Library of Israel Ephemera Collection. Click image to enlarge

Designed by artist Yohanan Simon, the poster depicts the new army and state as the center of gravity for Jews dispersed around the globe, featuring the words:

“And they will be brought to us from East to West, a great army to help the nation…”

Reverberating with prophetic Biblical connotations, the line comes from Hebrew poet laureate Hayim Nahman Bialik’s poem “LaMitnadvim Ba’Am” (“To the Volunteers Among the People”), a work known for its allegorical Maccabee references.

The poem, written by Bialik in Odessa in 1899, quickly became popular in the Zionist movement, with its stirring Hanukkah-infused call for national renewal, unity and settlement of the Land of Israel.

It was put to music by a number of different composers in the early 20th century, recorded and sung at Zionist gatherings and events.

All of the poster’s elements – quite intentionally assembled – formed a message aimed at Israel’s citizens, especially its new immigrants.

Over the next year, 300,000 additional new arrivals would come from across the globe, and Israel’s second “Ingathering of the Exiles Day” would become known by another name: “The Day of the Million”, in celebration of the Jewish population surpassing one million people.

Celebrations that year took place across Israel and the Jewish world: from Los Angeles to Yemen, Romania to Libya, Australia and elsewhere, including aboard ships on their way to bring the next million new arrivals.

This ad for an “Ingathering of the Exiles” / “Day of the Million” celebration appeared in the Australian Jewish News on December 16, 1949; available as part of the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

Two flights of immigrants from Yemen arrived at the airport and spirits were generally high at their welcoming party, though at least one report compared the festivities to “The Parade That Didn’t March”, as chaos reigned, with crowds of people squeezed together shouting, and government clerks “fighting like lions by the buffet to get a plate of food…”

A true familial homecoming!

Other reports, however, related a more civilized, if not heartwarming affair. A chapter from the Book of Ezekiel and poems by Natan Alterman and David Shimoni were recited, the Police Band played and Hanukkah candles were lit.

After thousands of years of exile, these immigrants were being welcomed home to ancient and modern words hearkening the “Return to Zion”.

Though the “Day of the Million” and the other Israeli holidays of 1948-1949 may be long forgotten, they all helped form the foundation of a national narrative and ethos upon which the young State of Israel could build, despite all that was lacking during those difficult early years.


A version of this article was originally published in Tablet Magazine. It appears here as part of Gesher L’Europa, the National Library of Israel’s initiative to connect with people, institutions and communities across Europe and beyond, through storytelling, knowledge sharing and community engagement.

Thanks to Dr. Hezi Amiur, curator of the Israel Collection at the National Library of Israel, for his expertise and assistance.

This Remarkable Woman Made the First Israeli Flag in Jerusalem

Rebecca Affachiner trailblazed across multiple continents, and she did it all as a single, religious Jewish woman...

“I have waited my entire lifetime to see the rebirth of a Jewish state. I do not intend to miss it." Photo from the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People at the National Library of Israel

Passionate, adventurous, attractive, well-educated, a cosmopolitan world traveler and a gifted organizer, Rebecca Affachiner led an unusual life in the early 20th century, as a single religiously observant Jewish woman who held many professional firsts, as a woman without children who was deeply involved in the life of children of all ages, and as a woman who traveled globally without a chaperone or companion.

Rebecca was born in Nesvizh (in present-day Belarus) in 1884 to the Sephardic Affachiner family who had lived there since the early 19th century.

Children stand outside the Great Synagogue in Nesvizh, early 20th century. From the Center for Jewish Art at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, part of the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

Her father Yitzchak worked as a tailor until he immigrated to New York City in 1888. There he opened a tailoring store, which remained closed on Shabbat for all of his working life – almost unheard of at that time. After coming to New York in 1890, Rebecca and her siblings went to public school in 1890, where Rebecca developed a passion for reading. Rebecca bought a 2-volume collection of Emma Lazarus’s poetry, who became her heroine, and took it everywhere including to Jerusalem. She became skilled in writing and oral presentations, participated in debate from a young age.

Rebecca Affachiner as a young child with her family. From the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People at the National Library of Israel. Click image to enlarge

Unusual for her time, she decided to train as a professional social worker and then enrolled in the new Teachers Evening Course at the Jewish Theological Seminary in December 1904.

While at JTS, she became quite friendly with Solomon and Mathilde Shechter, as well as with Henrietta Szold who was also a student there at the time, but it was Rebecca who became the first woman to graduate from JTS in 1907.

Solomon Schechter. From the Abraham Schwadron Portrait Collection at the National Library of Israel

In 1908, although not a rabbi, she became the Jewish chaplain at the Home for Delinquent Girls in Hudson, New York, and would undertake many initiatives to provide positive role models and support for underprivileged Jewish girls in New York, as well as combat efforts to proselytize.

Following Mathilde Schechter’s recommendation, Rebecca became superintendent of the Columbia Religious & Industrial School for Girls, where she worked for a number of years. Photo from the May 7, 1909 edition of The Hebrew Standard / National Library of Israel Digital Collection

After coming to a February 22, 1912 meeting organized by Henrietta Szold to create a formal Women’s Zionist organization, Rebecca became involved with the Federation of American Zionists, and, being more educated than most of her female contemporaries, Rebecca quickly became central to the group.

During World War I, Affachiner travelled to France as part of National Jewish Welfare Board efforts to provide support to Jewish soldiers. From the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People at the National Library of Israel. Click image to enlarge

A few years later she became involved in a major American Zionist campaign to get President Harding to accept the Balfour Declaration. In 1921, when Chaim Weizman and Albert Einstein toured America on a well-known mission to encourage support of Zionism, she organized an event with them and raised $25,000 from her local community in Hartford, Connecticut, a princely sum at that time.

Albert Einstein and Chaim Weizmann, April 1921 (Bain News Service / Public domain via the Library of Congress)

The previous year, she had become superintendent Hartford’s United Jewish Charities, the first woman to hold such a senior role in any Jewish organization in America. She founded Jewish Big Brother and Big Sister chapters in the city and led countless other efforts to help those in need, including helping to organize a city-wide boycott of streetcar transport when the fare was raised to 10 cents a ride. The strike succeeded and the fare returned to 3 cents!

It is worth remembering that women were only given the right to vote in the United States in August of 1920.  Rebecca’s accomplishments came in an era when women’s rights were still severely restricted in many areas of their lives, including property ownership.

Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, Rebecca traveled the world, partially for leisure and partially to help better understand where Jews could find safe haven.

After the United States severely restricted immigration in 1924, Rebecca and others saw both Mexico and Cuba as potential refuges. She even wrote a report on the Jewish situation in Cuba for Louis Marshall, the renowned jurist who headed the American Jewish Committee at the time.

Later, traveling through Italy on holiday, she had an audience with the Pope arranged through Catholic friends of hers and was even afforded the privilege of viewing rare Hebrew manuscripts in the Vatican Library. Rebecca arrived in Jerusalem two days before Tisha B’Av that year. In Jerusalem, she toured the newly founded Hebrew University on Mt. Scopus, as well as other sites, meeting with leading figures including Dr. Judah Magnes, the university’s first chancellor.

Rebecca Affachiner in Hartford, Connecticut where she was a leader in the Jewish community for a number of years. From the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People at the National Library of Israel. Click image to enlarge

Upon her return to the United States, she lectured on Palestine and was soon hired by Hadassah to organize new chapters. In the late 1920s, Rebecca saw the Zionist movement as a major opportunity for Jews to create the new Jewish homeland after centuries in the Diaspora. She also recognized the need to create a dependable healthcare system with Hadassah Hospital as its touchstone.

In 1929, she beat four male candidates and was elected a delegate to World Zionist Congress in Zurich. Though she lacked the funds to actually attend, Rebecca continued to be very involved in Zionist activities. The same year, she became director of social services for the long-established Jewish community of Norfolk, Virginia, and would go on to found one of America’s first Jewish Community Centers there. The move also made her one of few Jewish professionals to have a major impact on communities in both the North and the South.

Just before moving to the Land of Israel from Norfolk in January 1934, Rebecca was interviewed on an American radio show broadcast on Christmas Day. Speaking of her wish to be a pioneer in the Land of Israel, Rebecca stated:

“There is no reason why three racial groups of different traditions and cultures cannot live harmoniously as a unit under one government”.

Rebecca quickly became involved in life in Jerusalem, working with Dr. Henry Keller to help to establish the Alyn Hospital for Handicapped Children, and serving as its director of social services.

As the Holocaust approached, she traveled to Romania and other places in Eastern Europe, working to encourage immigration to the Land of Israel, while back in Jerusalem she organized activities and initiatives to help get underprivileged children off the streets, much as she had done back in the United States.

This notice appeared in the September 18, 1939 edition of The Palestine Post. From the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

Although connected to Recha Frier and Henrietta Szold of the official Youth Aliya movement, Rebecca felt the movement involved too slow a process and too much paperwork. In 1939, she herself organized and paid the expenses to bring a group of 20 Romanian youth to Israel on one of the last boats fleeing Europe before the war.

During the Holocaust she assisted Szold absorb refugees, including the “Children of Tehran”, and after the war she became increasingly involved with the International Red Cross, as she developed an important import business as a means of supporting herself.

Despite warnings from the American government to flee for safety, Rebecca and others like her stayed during Israel’s 1948 War of Independence.

“I cannot abandon my sisters and brothers,” she reportedly told a local newspaper at the time.

“I have waited my entire lifetime to see the rebirth of a Jewish state. I do not intend to miss it.”

Upon hearing that David Ben-Gurion had declared the State of Israel on May 14, 1948, Rebecca sewed and flew the first flag in Jerusalem on that day – having colored the blue stripes and Star of David on a sheet with a blue crayon!

Historian David Geffen coined Rebecca “The Israeli Betsy Ross” in his essay on American Jews in Israel, which was published in the New Encyclopedia of Zionism and Israel.

For the last years of her life, she would fly the flag every Israeli Independence Day.

As Rebecca became increasingly unwell in 1966, her good friend and caregiver Ezra P. Gorodesky slept on a chair in her living room for one month before she moved to a nursing home, where she passed away.

Prior to her death, she entrusted the flag to Ezra, making him promise to take good care of it because “it was my personal way of welcoming Israel into existence.”

After she passed away, Ezra P. Gorodesky donated the personal papers of Rebecca Affachiner to the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People, now part of the National Library of Israel.  There is also a Rebecca Affachiner Collection as part of the National Library’s Archives Department.

In 2018, Ezra donated the flag Rebecca made in 1948 to the Ben-Gurion Archives at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. Ezra P. Gorodesky passed away in 2020.

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 across Europe and beyond, through storytelling, knowledge sharing and community engagement.

The Abraham Schwadron Portrait Collection has been reviewed and described thanks to the generous support of The Leir Foundation.

From Russian Villagers to Galilean Farmers: The Story of the Dubrovins

Yoav Dubrovin, a farmer from Russia, immigrated to Ottoman Palestine with his family in the early 20th century | The Dubrovins were among a group of Russian converts to Judaism who settled in the Land of Israel, in hopes of leading a Jewish life | Eighty years later, the family farm is now a museum and visitor’s center commemorating the lives of the area’s early pioneers

One day, towards the end of the 19th century, in a small village near the Russian city of Saratov, the following strange scene unfolded: a band of Cossacks was making its way towards the village, looking to raid the local families of Russian “Judaizers,” when suddenly they stopped dead in their tracks. Before them, they saw something unexpected – a procession of villagers, locals who were known as “Subbotniks,” were walking towards them, reverently singing verses from Psalms and led by an older man carrying a large Torah scroll.  The Cossacks, the most fearsome of Russian soldiers, were dumbfounded. Finally, the commander called on his men to retreat, and the band turned around and galloped away, leaving the Jews unharmed.

The story of how a group of Russian converts to Judaism managed to evade a Cossack attack, thanks to the intervention of the God of Israel, was retold for many years after. The Dubrovins, the family that led that procession, would settle in the Land of Israel in 1909, in Yesud HaMa’ala in the Hula Valley. They were led there by the family patriarch, Yoav (formerly Andrey) Dubrovin. A solemn and serious brood, the Dubrovins arrived on the land they had purchased bringing with them agricultural equipment as well as knowledge and expertise. They also brought  the very Torah scroll Yoav had carried during his legendary stand-off with the Cossaks, and which can be found to this day in the synagogue at Yesud HaMa’ala. Whether the legend is true or not, it has become part of the folklore surrounding the arrival of those Russian Jewish families in the Holy Land.

Yoav and Rachel Dubrovin. Photo courtesy of the Orni family

The Dubrovin family was one of the most prominent examples of Russian gerei tzedek (lit. “righteous converts” to Judaism) who immigrated to the settlements of the Galilee in the northern Land of Israel. These converts were in fact part of a diverse group of Russian-Christian peasants, who were drawn to Judaism and who began to observe various Jewish customs. Popularly referred to as “Subbotniks,” the origin of the term is the Russian word subbota, meaning “Sabbath”. The nickname was given to groups of Christians who began observing various Jewish commandments, chief among them – the marking of the Sabbath. However, most of these families of converts who arrived in the Land of Israel underwent a “reverse” process: They began by keeping certain Jewish commandments and observing various customs, and only after a period of gradual adoption of a Jewish way of life, to one degree or another, did they undergo a full halakhic conversion.


Subbotniks? No, Righteous Converts

Yoav Orni, the great grandson of Yoav Dubrovin (who is also named after him), says that his family’s immigration to the Land of Israel had been for purely religious reasons, though it coincided with the parallel activities of the Zionist movement and its emissaries, who were busy promoting Jewish immigration to Ottoman Palestine at the time. Yoav Dubrovin underwent religious conversion even before he immigrated, and during their final years in Russia, he and his family had lived as Jews. The process of conversion to Judaism was a complicated matter for all parties involved: the decision of a Russian Orthodox Christian to convert to the religion of the persecuted Jews was a difficult and courageous one. Meanwhile, the local Jews feared the wrath of the authorities, which could easily suspect them of proselytizing and respond with violence and harsh restrictions. This was one of the reasons that Subbotniks of all kinds, including righteous converts like the Dubrovin family, began to observe Jewish commandments even before they converted.

“Yitzhak, Yoav Dubrovin’s second son, was drafted into the Tsarist army. There was a grave fear that Yitzhak would not be able to keep kosher in the army. This was the last straw for Yoav Dubrovin, who decided to immigrate to the Land of Israel with his whole family to live a Jewish life,” says great-grandson Yoav Orni. Orni recounts how Yoav Dubrovin arrived at the military barracks where his son was serving, bribed the commander, took his son with him and continued on to the Land of Israel. “On the way, the Dubrovins met some Jews who had immigrated there and returned, warning them about the harsh conditions. In response, Yoav said to his family, “Forget these Jews, we are going to the Land of Israel and that is where we will build our home.” They were experienced farmers, with substantial resources, who arrived in the Holy Land to continue living a Jewish life at all costs.

Yoav Dubrovin on a return trip to Russia after emigrating, 1910. Dubrovin is seen wearing an Ottoman “Fez,” the height of local fashion of the day. The Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

Tough Farmers on Their Way to the Land of Israel

The story of the Dubrovin family’s immigration was typical of their general attitude: they did not come seeking comfort or an easy life, they simply wished to build a safe home for themselves, and nothing was going to stand in the way of that goal. At that time, the days of the First Aliyah, Zionist immigrants and pioneers were finding it extremely difficult to cope with the harsh conditions in the country as well as the demands of an agricultural livelihood, not to mention the competition and occasional conflict with the local Arabs. “Most of them are incapable of being simple peasants, of hard physical labor and making do with little,” wrote Ahad Ha’am at the time about the people of the First Aliyah. Moshe Leib Lilienblum held similar views, pointing out that these immigrants did not possess sufficient knowledge of farming skills —plowing, sowing, tillage and so forth. The righteous converts who had arrived from Russia managed to fill this knowledge gap, and even if they had not come as part of the Zionist enterprise, their presence was a godsend for the early Zionist farmers. At first, the local Jews were suspicious and even acted condescendingly towards the former Christians, who sometimes prayed in Russian alongside Hebrew, and who had their own customs which initially set them apart in the Holy Land. Eventually, however, these differences blurred or gradually gained acceptance.

Dubrovin Farm. Photo: Tomer Hu

A few years after his arrival, Yoav Dubrovin went back to Russia for a visit, and returned with agricultural equipment that supplemented his already extensive farming knowledge. Unlike most of the people of the First Aliyah, Dubrovin was an experienced farmer, accustomed to hard work and scarcity. In 1909, after several years of farming in various settlements, Dubrovin purchased land near Yesud HaMa’ala (the land was offered to him free of charge at first, yet he refused to accept it as a gift) and established the Dubrovin farm, one of the best examples of local agriculture during this period. The estate is built in a European style, resembling a fortress; its buildings are built around an inner courtyard and connected to each other, creating a structural wall which provides protection from any outside invasion. Inside, the Dubrovins built one of the grandest and most prosperous farms in the Land of Israel at the time. On it, they raised bulls, cows, geese, horses and chickens while cultivating grain and wheat as well as other agricultural crops and fruit orchards. The extended family lived on the Dubrovin estate, alongside workers who joined the farm and lived in subsidized housing nearby.

Certificate of Honourable Mention awarded to the Dubrovin Family by the British Mandatory Government for chickpea cultivation. Courtesy of the Orni Family

Tragedy Strikes

Yoav Dubrovin, who was already 70 years old when he immigrated, was largely able to realize his dream. The estate he built was a model of local farming and was recognized by the local authorities for its achievements. Dubrovin himself lived to the ripe old age of 104, but many of his family succumbed to disease after immigrating. During this period, the last days of Ottoman rule in Palestine, most of the land’s inhabitants lived far from malaria-stricken areas, but the Zionist settlers and the gerei tzedek had no choice but to establish their settlements in less-desirable disease-ridden areas. Thus, in addition to their alienation from local Jewish-Hebrew society due to their religious roots, the righteous converts also had to struggle with health-related issues.

Malaria, transmitted by the Anopheles mosquitoes that multiplied in the Galilee swamps, devastated the Dubrovin family. Near their estate was a small swamp the malaria researchers in the area called “Dubrovin Swamp,” from where the mosquitos reached the family farm. The first to fall victim was Yoav’s son, Yaakov, followed by his eldest son Avraham. Three of Yoav Dubrovin’s grandchildren also fell ill and died at a young age. Dubrovin, who dealt courageously with this as well as with repeated attempts at theft and burglary on his farm, was finally forced to give up. Having no choice, he moved to nearby Rosh Pina, leaving his son Yitzhak to maintain the farm. Yoav Dubrovin and his wife were deeded a new plot of land and established another small farm. However, malaria struck again, killing Yoav’s youngest son Ephraim, his son’s wife and finally Yoav’s wife Rachel. Dubrovin finally died in 1935, at the age of 104.

Ezra Orni, great grandson of Yoav Dubrovin, next to Yoav Dubrovin’s grave in Rosh Pina. Levin Kipnis wrote the poem Rakefet (Cyclamen) about Ezra’s mother, Batsheva.


The Dubrovin family, like the other families of righteous converts who immigrated to the Land of Israel in the early 20th century, merged into the country’s Jewish society. Yitzhak Dubrovin, Yoav’s son who remained on the farm after his father left, continued living there well into the 1960s. He finally left as well in 1968 and bequeathed parts of the farm to the Jewish National Fund. Twenty years later, a special association dedicated to the farm’s restoration was established, along with a museum that recreated the Dubrovin family’s pioneer settlement living conditions and agricultural work. The buildings, orchard, furniture and agricultural equipment were restored and farm animals were brought in. The site has become the documentation and conservation center for the nearby Yesud HaMa’ala settlement. The visitor’s center, opened in1986, is considered one of the most developed and successful conservation sites in the country.

The Dubrovin Farm museum logo, showing the farm’s unique structure