Moe Berg: Baseball Player and Secret Agent

The Ivy League-trained linguist and lawyer, professional baseball player and American spy was an enigma in life — and he remains so. Somehow, a number of Berg's documents entered the collections of the National Library of Israel.

A 1933 Goudey baseball card featuring Morris "Moe" Berg of the Washington Senators alongside a letter written by Berg to his family in 1932 during a trip to Japan. The letter is among a number of Berg's documents kept at the National Library of Israel.

Moe Berg could be in Jerusalem right now.

Then again, Berg might be in Tokyo, where he shot moving images during a visit in 1934, film he gave to the U.S. government that he figured helped American military planners fighting the Japanese in World War II. Or in Europe, where Berg spied for the U.S. Office of Strategic Services, an intelligence agency that evolved into the Central Intelligence Agency, during the war. Or at the sites of American stadiums, where he played baseball in the major leagues for 15 seasons. Or back in Manhattan, where Berg was born in 1902, earned a law degree at Columbia University and won quiz contests on national radio programs; or New Jersey, where he earned a bachelor’s degree at Princeton University, lived much of his life and died in 1972.

More likely, Berg is in all of those places simultaneously, the winds having long ago exiled his ashes from Jerusalem’s Mount Scopus, where his sister Ethel scattered them.

That was 50 years ago, and either on that visit or in 1975 Ethel Berg donated some of Moe’s papers and photographs to the National Library of Israel — or to the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where the NLI was housed at the time. NLI’s archives don’t reveal how the Bergiana ended up in its possession.

It’s probably just as the secretive Berg would have preferred.

Moe Berg, who played baseball in the major leagues for 15 seasons and later became a spy for the U.S. government. Photo from the Morris Berg Collection at the National Library of Israel

An article published in 2016 by the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum quoted legendary manager Casey Stengel as hailing Berg’s smooth transition early in his career from shortstop to catcher, baseball’s most difficult fielding position. Stengel then added: “[N]obody ever knew his life’s history. I call him the mystery catcher. Strangest fellah who ever put on a uniform.”

Berg may have been odd, but he excelled in the sport. Mock his .243 lifetime batting average if you wish — various versions of a popular joke at the time among fellow ballplayers held that Berg could speak multiple languages but couldn’t hit a curveball in any of them — but Berg’s playing tenure at baseball’s highest level far exceeded the norm then or now. He played for the 1933 American League champions, the Washington Senators. Members of the Boston Red Sox in the early 1940s cited his acumen as a coach for that team.

In the authoritative biography of Berg, Nicholas Dawidoff’s The Catcher Was a Spy, outfielder Dom DiMaggio wondered why such an intelligent man, who was one of his coaches in Boston after Berg concluded his playing career there, worked in professional baseball.

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One of the photos of Moe Berg donated by his sister Ethel following his death in 1972. The Morris Berg Collection at the National Library of Israel

In addition to Berg’s playing experience — catcher is considered a thinking man’s position because of its constant decision-making consider the baseball knowledge he absorbed in conversations with just some of his teammates and managers, who included such all-time greats as Walter Johnson, Jimmie Foxx, Lefty Grove and Ted Williams.

As it was, baseball’s nomadic lifestyle — sports teams spend half of every season on the road — might have shaped Berg’s later pursuits in espionage and his inability to put down roots.

Berg, who was Jewish, visited the Land of Israel at least once, in early 1933, during his return from a visit to Japan with other major league players. Dawidoff’s book mentioned that Berg visited the Sea of Galilee, the Jordan River and the Valley of Jehoshaphat outside Jerusalem’s Old City, but said nothing about Berg’s impressions of those places or others in the country – or of Berlin later in the trip, the day Hitler became chancellor of Germany.

Once his baseball career wound down following his stint as a coach, Berg began working for the U.S. government in 1942.

The biography posits that in 1969, Berg – who implied that he was still working for the CIA at the time— “probably” played a role in providing Israel with 100 military helicopters, and might have met Prime Minister Golda Meir at that point.

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One of the photos of Moe Berg donated by his sister Ethel following his death in 1972. The Morris Berg Collection at the National Library of Israel

What’s clear is that Berg, for all of his embellishments, played a role in American espionage during a critical period in history. He was even assigned to assassinate a leading German physicist and Nobel Prize winner, Werner Heisenberg, in Zurich in December 1944 if Heisenberg indicated during a lecture there that Berlin was close to developing an atomic bomb. Heisenberg didn’t, so Berg’s pistol stayed in his pocket (see Heisenberg’s War by Thomas Powers, pp. 391–392).

Berg’s contributions were such that in 1945 he was selected for the Medal of Freedom, an award going to Americans safeguarding the country’s national security. Berg declined the award, and Ethel accepted it on her brother’s behalf following his death.

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Moe Berg writes home from his trip to Japan with a delegation of baseball players in 1932. The Morris Berg Collection at the National Library of Israel

The NLI’s file provides some insight into Berg’s life. The main item is a 12-page letter to his family that Berg wrote on Tokyo’s Imperial Hotel stationery on November 9, 1932, when he was still a ballplayer. Berg wrote about the hotel (it was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright), where his roommate was future Hall of Famer Ted Lyons; the local custom of bowing in greeting; Japanese food (“raw fish to dip in soy sauce (very tasty)”); words (“OCHA = tea”); geisha shows (“the dances are more or less poses — instead of motion”); hygiene (“the Japanese … bathe in extremely hot water once or twice every day”); women’s shoes (he drew two diagrams); kimonos; traffic control; Tokyo’s Ginza (a boulevard he nicknamed “the Ginzberg”); and baseball (the American players had come to run clinics for teams representing six universities).

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“raw fish to dip in soy sauce (very tasty)” – Berg elaborated on Japanese food during his trip in 1932. The Morris Berg Collection at the National Library of Israel

Berg later that month typed short remarks he delivered in English on Radio Tokyo. “I hope an innocent adventure like ours [the baseball tour] will turn out to be a scoop of diplomacy without portfolio,” he wrote of his stay in Japan.

Strangely enough, he all but ignored the biggest news in his homeland: the presidential election the day before. Berg’s last words before signing off were only these: “heard Roosevelt won — lucky.”

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Moe Berg noted his impressions of Latin American societies and the ability of sports to bridge cultural differences. Berg was sent to the region in 1942. The Morris Berg Collection at the National Library of Israel

A document in the National Library’s collection that Berg wrote in about 1942 apparently preceded his first undercover assignment, as a sports ambassador in Latin America under the aegis of the Office of the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs – a U.S. government agency tasked with countering Italian and German propaganda efforts in Latin America. It consists of two pages of Berg’s typed notes about sports’ ability to bridge cultural differences.

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A letter from Nelson Rockefeller notifying Moe Berg that his contract with the Office of the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs wasn’t being renewed. The Morris Berg Collection at the National Library of Israel
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Neslon Rockefeller thanks Berg for congratulating him on winning New York’s gubernatorial election. The Morris Berg Collection at the National Library of Israel

On May 17, 1943, his boss at the Office of the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs sent a letter stating that Berg’s contract wasn’t being renewed. The boss was the agency’s head, future Vice President Nelson Rockefeller. A November 26, 1958, letter signed by Rockefeller thanked Berg for congratulating Rockefeller on winning New York’s gubernatorial election.

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Moe Berg is seen here wearing a suit and a hat alongside two uniformed soldiers. Beside them is a shorter person, perhaps a child… and a goat. The Morris Berg Collection at the National Library of Israel

The two letters are also preserved at the National Library of Israel, as are four black-and-white photographs. One picture shows Berg wearing a suit and a hat and standing in a field with two uniformed soldiers, one of whom is smoking. Beside them is a shorter person, perhaps a child, who is holding a leash.

The animal on the leash is a goat. Where the snapshot was taken, who the three people are with Berg and why a goat is in the picture — well, we just don’t know.

Maybe Berg’s CIA file can tell us.

Writer-editor Hillel Kuttler can be reached at hk@HillelTheScribeCommunications.com.

How Did Queen Esther Become a Christian Saint?

They fled from Spain to neighboring Portugal but were soon forced to cross the Atlantic on their way to the New World. They were baptized as Christians against their will and were forced to remove any signs that hinted at their Jewish heritage. But they were willing to risk their lives to hold on to something. This is the story of the conversos who invented a Christian saint who was in fact a Jewish queen, to remind themselves of who they truly were.

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Queen Esther. Wall painting in Villa Carducci

Little Boy kneels at the foot of the bed,

Droops on the little hands little gold head.

Hush! Hush! Whisper who dares!

Christopher Robin is saying his prayers.

(From “When We Were Very Young”, A.A. Milne)

For centuries, the bedtime prayers of innocent young children, kneeling at the bedside with their chubby little fingers intertwined as they did their best to recite the words, represented the ideal image of family life in the context of Christian culture. Home. Children who have not tasted sin or violence, and an honest, innocent prayer for protection and peace.

But for hundreds of thousands of families, this image of sweet innocence was in fact something terrible – a source of pain which caused them more agony than the actual flames that threatened to engulf their bodies. It was a terrifying symbol of what had happened to them: the knowledge that their little children would grow up without knowing the faith of their ancestors and without knowing who they really were.

In the late Middle Ages, just before the discovery of the New World and the expansion of the great colonial empires, the Jews of Spain were presented with an unequivocal choice: leave or convert to Christianity.

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A postcard depicting a group of Spanish Inquisition soldiers breaking into the home of Jewish conversos who had been conducting a Passover Seder in secret. From the National Library of Israel’s postcard collection

This event was not a sudden turnabout – it was preceded by hundreds of years of Jewish persecution, the marking of Jews as inferior citizens (physical signs such as a ban on shaving their beards or a requirement that they wear certain conspicuous articles of clothing), and large-scale efforts to convert them to Christianity. It is no wonder that in Spain at the time of the expulsion, there was already a very large community of “New Christians” – Jews who had converted to Christianity, under threat or out of a desire to maintain their status and economic well-being,

But the Spaniards were neither sympathetic nor accepting of the New Christians (whom they referred to as marranos – “pigs”), who somehow managed to maintain their uniqueness and wealth after converting. Influenced by the masses and swept up in this general atmosphere, the Catholic monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella issued a royal decree demanding that all Jews leave Spain within three months, using the claim that the Jews who remained openly faithful to their religion were “ruining” the New Christians and “a bad influence”.

It was a horrible choice to make. The Jews weren’t being offered a wonderful opportunity to relocate to a new country. Those who chose to leave had to give up all their possessions and set out destitute on a dangerous journey that claimed the lives of many even when done under the best conditions. Many ships carrying Jews away from Spain were sunk, and those who didn’t drown were tortured and slaughtered.

And yet – according to the lower estimates, over 100,000 Jews left Spain in what is probably the most famous expulsion in history.

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The royal decree ordering the expulsion of the Jews of Spain, signed by the Spanish monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella, 1492

But their troubles had only just begun. Half of the exiles moved to the neighboring kingdom of Portugal. King João (John) II agreed to grant them asylum, on the condition that he receive payment for each Jew he accepted.

This is how Portugal became the main competitor for Jewish trade relations with the Ottoman Empire. Sultan Bayezid II welcomed the Jews into the Ottoman territories, telling his courtiers: “You venture to call Ferdinand a wise ruler, he who has impoverished his own country and enriched mine!”

Initially, it was agreed that the exiles would live in Portugal for only eight months, but as the months passed, the Jews assimilated into the country’s economy and helped the Portuguese in opening the gates of distant trading cities where other Jews lived, and the authorities chose to turn a blind eye and allow them to stay.

Ferdinand and Isabella were furious. The fact that these deportees were living comfortably and securely only a few kilometers from the Spanish border threatened the grip that the Spanish Inquisition had on the New Christians within its domain.

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Auto-da-fé ceremony in the Plaza Mayor in Madrid, painting by Francisco Rizi, 1683

Only four years after the expulsion, they served their revenge: The Spanish monarchs proposed a deal, offering the new King of Portugal, Manuel I, their pious daughter – named after her mother, Isabella, in exchange for the complete expulsion of Portuguese Jews. King Manuel signed the contract, but he wasn’t interested in losing his country’s Jews who had a fundamental impact on the kingdom’s economy, which by then was the second largest on the Iberian Peninsula.

Since it was the late Middle Ages, the era of absolute monarchies, he could do whatever he wanted, and the solution was very simple. The Jews of Lisbon who chose not to convert to Christianity were required to gather in the city square. There they were promised they would soon be put on board ships to the countries of their choice. As history has taught us, such promises generally end in cruelty for the Jews. It was true then, and was still true hundreds of years later.

Above the heads of the packed crowd, Christian priests went out to the balcony overlooking the square, sprinkled the crowd with “holy water”, and the Jews’ fate was decided. At that moment they were baptized into Christianity. By that point, if they chose to return to Judaism or declare their Jewish faith, they could expect to be burned at the stake on charges of heresy and treason.

Similar ceremonies were performed in the other cities of Portugal, which was quickly and officially rid of all Jews.

These Jews, who had even less choice in their conversion to Christianity than the first Spanish conversos, sought a secret way to preserve their heritage under the watchful eyes of the Inquisition. They knew that no matter how much they remembered and believed in their religion in their hearts; for the future generations – their children and grandchildren – there was no chance that their faith would persevere.

In an attempt to preserve it despite it all, they took advantage of one of the practices of the Catholic faith, whereby believers often “sanctify” various figures and make them into saints who can be revered, even if they haven’t yet received official status from the Church itself.

And so “Santa Ester” (Saint Esther) came to be.

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An icon of “Santa Ester” that hung in the homes of Jewish conversos in South America. Photo: Ronit Treatman, SCJS Kanter Lecture: Conversos & Santa Ester

It isn’t hard to understand why the conversos felt connected to Queen Esther. The story of the beautiful and innocent girl, who was taken from her home and community against her will to the king’s palace – where the megillah tells us that “Esther did not reveal her people or her kindred” (Esther 2:10) – reflected their own sad situation as well as their hope. Would they or their children have the privilege of openly declaring once again, before the king, the ministers, and the whole nation, that they belonged to the Jewish People?

The figure of Santa Ester became an integral part of the homes of many conversos. Icons bearing her image were hung on their walls. The women lit candles in her honor. And the little children – to whom the big family secret could not be revealed – knelt near their beds every evening, clasping their little fingers together, praying to Santa Ester that she should watch over them, protect them, and show them the right path.

It was dangerous. Any sign indicating that a family was still holding on to its Judaism resulted in showcase trials by the Inquisition. The best-case scenario was a trial resulting in a humiliating display of “repentance” and “atonement”, which involved torture and severe punishment. More often, the accused and their families were burned at the stake in a public ceremony called an auto-da-fé. According to various estimates, tens of thousands of Jews met their ends with this method of execution.

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Auto-da-fé ceremony in Mexico, 1601. From the Encyclopedia Judaica

Over time, some of the conversos migrated to the New World, to the territories controlled by Spain and Portugal in South America, where they hoped (in vain) that the long arm of the Inquisition wouldn’t catch up with them. They brought Santa Ester there with them and made sure to celebrate her holiday – which was essentially the same as the Jewish holiday of Purim.

The women were the ones who were responsible for the Santa Ester festival, or “Santa Esterica” as they called it in some places.

The holiday would begin with three days of fasting, to commemorate the fast that Esther established before she appealed to King Ahasuerus.

“And Esther sent back this answer to Mordecai: Go, assemble all the Jews who live in Shushan, and fast on my behalf; do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. I and my maidens will observe the same fast. Then I shall go to the king, though it is contrary to the law; and if I am to perish, I shall perish” (Esther, 4:15-16).

They would divide the fast among themselves, with each woman fasting for one day, and when the fast was over they held a feast.

Instead of public celebrations that were customary in Spain before the expulsion, the families celebrated by having a small, discreet and yet dangerous festive meal at home. The mothers cooked traditional recipes with their daughters that had been passed down through the generations and used the time they spent cooking and baking to whisper to their eldest daughters about other traditions related to kosher food.

As stated above, this was an extremely dangerous practice.

In 1643, a descendant of conversos named Gabriel de Granada was caught in Mexico. During his interrogation, he confessed to the family’s “crimes” and described the holiday and the fast. He and his family members were burned at the stake for the crime of “converting to Judaism.”

The Church continued persecuting the families of conversos, who needed to find increasingly creative ways to hide their traditions. But they continued to maintain those traditions and families whose Jewish memory was fading continued to celebrate the festival of “Santa Ester” every year.

And they held onto the image of Esther with good reason.

In their eyes, Esther, the daughter of Avichayil, was also a converso – a woman who was forced to conceal her lineage and her faith in order to save her life, until she stood up bravely, even though she was all alone in the palace of King Ahasuerus, and declared her national and religious affiliation before the king and his people. In doing so, she saved not only herself but also her people. And not only in her generation. How many descendants of conversos managed to maintain their identity thanks to her? How many of them openly returned to their Judaism when they arrived in countries that allowed this or when the Inquisition’s power declined? We will never know the exact number, but Queen Esther’s strength of spirit and steadfastness persevered in another world and another time.

I, Woman: Janet Asimov Tells Her Story

Both were writers, both were doctors - she in psychiatry, he in chemistry. But does the name Janet Opal ring a bell if it isn’t attached to the famous surname she received from her husband? Janet Opal Asimov was her husband Isaac’s right hand throughout their years of marriage. She shared credit with him for quite a few books, short stories, and essays she wrote, and edited many of his writings. But even though her work was often overshadowed, she was a fascinating woman who deserves to be remembered in her own right.

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Janet and Isaac Asimov, from the American edition of their "shared" book "Norby, the Mixed-Up Robot"

“One of the deepest desires of a human being is to be known and understood.”

With this sentence, Janet Asimov begins the very personal epilogue she attached to her husband Isaac Asimov’s biography, which she edited. In trying to describe Isaac’s fascinating life story, she may have been telling us a little something about herself as well.

Did she feel like the world knew her? Understood her?

If you search for “Janet Asimov” in the National Library of Israel’s online catalog, you will only find a handful of results. One is It’s Been a Good Life, Isaac Asimov’s biography which she edited. Another is a small Hebrew edition of the book Norby, the Mixed-Up Robot,with an old-fashioned-looking cover where their names appear side by side: “Janet and Isaac Asimov”.

We will come back to this book later.

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The Hebrew edition of Norby, the Mixed-Up Robot can be loaned at the National Library of Israel

This selection, of course, is far from an accurate reflection of the scope or quality of her literary work, most of which the publishers in Israel chose not to translate.

Janet Opal Asimov (née Jeppson) was a doctor of medicine, as well as a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, long before she began writing. Her written work incorporated quite a bit from her professional training, which she used to raise issues of identity, self-determination, and consciousness.

In May 1966, she had her first story published. It was a short mystery story that was sold to a publication called The Saint. Eight years later, her first science fiction novel, The Second Experiment, was published. Since then, she never stopped writing and publishing – novels, novellas, short stories, anthologies, and essays.

While working on her budding writing career, Janet was also extremely busy with other matters. She had a full-time job at the William Alanson White Institute of Psychiatry, Psychoanalysis & Psychology, published many medical articles, and also fell in love with and married a quite well-known man named Isaac Asimov.

She first met Isaac in 1956. She was still a psychiatry intern at Bellevue Hospital, and he was already a famous author. Janet attended a convention for science fiction fans and went to get an autograph from Asimov, who was cold toward her. At the time, Isaac was suffering from kidney stones, and Janet got the impression that he was not a pleasant person.

They met again three years later, at a festive dinner honoring mystery writers hosted by Veronica Parker Johnson. They were seated next to each other, and this time they immediately clicked.

Janet and Isaac kept in touch, even though he was still married to his first wife, Gertrude Blugerman – the mother of his two children. In 1970 he separated from his wife and moved in with Janet. The divorce proceedings took three years, and in 1973, when the process was officially completed, Asimov and Janet got married in a modest ceremony at their home.

Isaac Asimov was a proud Jew. He insisted, for example, that the Hebrew translations of his books use his Hebrew name, Yitzchak. For some reason, the Israeli publishers managed to get away with using the name י. אסימוב (“Y. Asimov”) on the covers until the seventies, when they all decided to completely ignore his request and he remained אייזק  (“Isaac”, not “Yitzchak”) to his Israeli readers. Janet, on the other hand, had Mormon roots. But this inter-religious connection was not an issue for them. They were both humanists, and their marriage ceremony was based not on religion but rather on ethical principles.

From the day they moved in together, Janet began playing an active role in her husband’s work. She was writing science fiction before she met him, with her stories mostly published under the name “Janet O. Jeppson”, but now she had begun to collaborate with one of the most prolific, original, and famous writers in the genre. While continuing her work as a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, she edited many of his works (including his autobiographical books), co-authored many of his essays, and the two even wrote several non-fiction works together.

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How to Enjoy Writing, not just science fiction – one of the non-fiction books that Janet and Isaac Asimov wrote together

Isaac loved Janet and valued her writing and her opinions. “My letters to you are first drafts,” he once wrote to her, “…and I leave it to you to get past the maunderings and potterings and see my meaning. In fact, it is very wonderful to be able to leave it to you to do that –in full confidence and trust.”

But even if Isaac felt that she was a partner in his creation, as far as the world was concerned, she often disappeared in his shadow. He was the star of this relationship. Her own stories, good as they were, got a bit lost in the oblivion of literary history.

Let’s go back for a moment to the little book we found in the collections of the National Library of Israel: this one slim book, 107 pages in all, might be able to demonstrate more than anything else how Janet was overlooked due to the fame of her husband.

Norby, the Mixed-Up Robot was the first book in a series of twelve that describe the adventures of an independent-minded robot named Norby and a young fellow by the name of Jeff who had the privilege of being his owner. This is a children’s science fiction series full of things that today have become commonplace in children’s literature and film. Back then, these were still relatively new, and truly awesome inventions and literary innovations: space shuttles and interstellar “jumps”, ancient dragons, aliens, computers that run the household, flying transportation, and most of all – robots that transcend their basic programming and develop independent personalities.

These are funny, light, and captivating stories and it is a shame that only the first book in the series was translated into Hebrew. But Isaac Asimov, whose name appears on the cover as one of the writers, hardly had anything to do with them.

According to his own testimony, these were Janet’s stories. At the request of the publisher, Isaac intervened a bit in the editing just so that his name could appear on the cover – purely for marketing reasons.

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The cover of one of Janet Asimov’s books, The Package in Hyperspace, an accessible science fiction book for children – that did appear under her name

If Janet was hurt or felt disrespected by this request, she never let on. Her relationship with Isaac seems to have remained strong and loving. They had their share of arguments. Life at home was not always easy, but they didn’t hold grudges and stayed dedicated and loyal to each other.

In 1983, Isaac Asimov underwent a bypass surgery that was ostensibly a success, but from that day on, his health began to deteriorate. The doctors couldn’t understand the connection between the various symptoms he began to develop, but Janet, who was a doctor herself, had an idea. She asked them to test him for HIV.

The prejudiced doctors initially objected to testing for the virus, which in those years was considered a source of terrible shame and almost complete social isolation. But she insisted, and the test results proved her right, much to her great sorrow. Asimov contracted the virus from blood transfusions he received during his bypass surgery. At the time, this diagnosis was a death sentence and all that was left to do was to wait and see when it would be carried out.

Janet left her job at the William Alanson White Institute and devoted her time to caring for her husband. She fed him in his sick bed and also took care of other matters of interest, like their joint writing, completing essays he was unable to finish, and editing drafts and letters so that they would be fit to print.

About a year before his death, he wrote the book Asimov Laughs Again, and in the summary of the manuscript he added the following:

“I’m afraid that my life has just about run its course and I don’t really expect to live much longer […] In my life, I have had Janet and I have had my daughter, Robyn, and my son, David; I have had a large number of good friends; I have had my writing and the fame and fortune it has brought me; and no matter what happens to me now, it’s been a good life, and I am satisfied with it.”

He died with Janet and his daughter by his side. Janet used to say that the last sentence he said was “I love you too.”

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Janet and Isaac Asimov. Photo: Jay Kay Klein

After his death, she continued both their joint work and her independent writing. She went back to publishing science fiction novels under the name Janet O. Jeppson, but she didn’t abandon Isaac’s legacy: For a while, she took over writing the popular science column he used to write, she edited two biographical books of his writings – one of which she entitled It’s Been a Good Life – and she even edited his 400th essay in Fantasy and Science Fiction entitled “A Way of Thinking” from letters he wrote to her and fragments of drafts he left behind.

Despite the objections of his doctors, she insisted on publicizing the cause of his death, and she did so, albeit belatedly, in the epilogue to the book It’s Been a Good Life. She believed that this would help in the fight against prejudices, stigmas and the lack of awareness that surrounded HIV and claimed so many lives.

Janet passed away in 2019, at the age of 92. Most reports about her death referred to her as “Isaac Asimov’s widow”.

Here and there, some websites or science fiction magazines also mentioned her own writing. In one of them, Don Kaye wrote:

“Janet Asimov, one half of one of science fiction literature’s great power couples, has passed beyond the realm of human understanding.”

What would have happened if Janet Opal Jeppson hadn’t become half of this couple? What would have happened if she hadn’t met Isaac Asimov? Did we lose another Ursula K. Le Guin because Janet Asimov didn’t have the freedom or space to develop her own unique style and language? Or did Asimov act as a close mentor who improved her writing and opened up a whole world to her?

We won’t get answers to these questions, but even without them we can say that it’s a shame that history doesn’t remember her enough, and it’s a shame that more of her work wasn’t translated into Hebrew. She was an excellent writer who combined humor and flowing plotlines with great psychological and human questions, and she deserves to be recognized as Janet Opal Jeppson, a writer in her own right.

The Mystery of the Spanish Esther Scroll

"¡Que tengas un feliz Purim!" - That’s Spanish for: Have a happy Purim! A 17th century megillah stands out for being penned in the language of descendants of the inquisitions’ survivors.

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The Book of Esther, handwritten in Spanish, Amsterdam, 1684, the National Library of Israel collections, photo by Shir Bram

A partial list of key figures in the story of Purim, the festive holiday that will begin on Saturday night (Sunday night in Jerusalem), includes the following descriptors:

King Ahashverosh: Rey Ahasueros

Queen Vashti, Queen Esther: Uasti la Reyna, Ester la Reyna

Mordechai the Jew: Mordehay el Iudio

Haman, son of Hamdata the Aggegite: Haman hijo de Hamedata el aghageo

Shushan the capital: Susan la metropolitan

At least, that’s how the words appear in the Book of Esther in an all-Spanish megillah (scroll) handwritten in 1684 in Amsterdam that is in the collection of the National Library of Israel.

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An Esther Scroll, handwritten in Spanish, Amsterdam, 1684, the National Library of Israel collections, photo by Shir Bram

The Amsterdam megillah’s being written in a language other than Hebrew makes it unique. In synagogues throughout the world, the Book of Esther is read aloud from scrolls on the eve of Purim and again the next morning — always in Hebrew.

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An Esther Scroll, handwritten in Spanish, Amsterdam, 1684, the National Library of Israel collections, photo by Shir Bram

Why would the Amsterdam megillah have been written, and presumably recited on Purim, in a different language? After all, even in today’s congregations, where prayers sometimes are led by cantors and intoned by worshippers in the native land’s tongue — such as French in Reform synagogues in France or English in the United States — it’s inconceivable that Torah scrolls are not written or chanted in Hebrew. Ditto for the Book of Esther and other megillot recited on Jewish holidays.

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An Esther Scroll, handwritten in Spanish, Amsterdam, 1684, the National Library of Israel collections, photo by Shir Bram

Of course, in homes and synagogues of all Jewish denominations throughout the world, printed books of the Torah and other portions of the Bible are commonly published, read and studied in translated form alongside the facing pages’ Hebrew original. Non-Jews reading the Bible commonly do so in their native languages, too.

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An Esther Scroll, handwritten in Spanish, Amsterdam, 1684, the National Library of Israel collections, photo by Shir Bram

Maybe, then, the Amsterdam megillah was a variation of that: a Spanish-only translation that was not intended to be read publicly on Purim.

No, said Aliza Moreno, NLI’s Judaica specialist and coordinator for Latin America, who is sure that the Amsterdam megillah was written for the purpose of being read publicly.

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An Esther Scroll, handwritten in Spanish, Amsterdam, 1684, the National Library of Israel collections, photo by Shir Bram

The proof, she said, lies in the three complete blessings that appear before the megillah’s text begins. The first words of each, Bendito tu ANDR, meaning, “Blessed are You, our God, king of the universe,” is a standard opening for Jewish prayers. The megillah’s prayers are chanted only when the scroll is read publicly — and not, for example, when someone reads or studies it at school or at home.

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Bendito tu ANDR – “Blessed are You, our God, king of the universe”, an Esther Scroll, handwritten in Spanish, Amsterdam, 1684, the National Library of Israel collections, photo by Shir Bram

“Unfortunately, we can’t determine who read it or to whom, but it’s clear that the person who wrote it did so for the purpose, like a Torah scroll, of reading it in public to fulfill the mitzvah,” Moreno said of the Amsterdam megillah.

The “larger, more interesting” questions, she said, are: Why was it written in Spanish, why in Amsterdam and why in the late 17th Century?

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An Esther Scroll, handwritten in Spanish, Amsterdam, 1684, the National Library of Israel collections, photo by Shir Bram

“The story is this,” Moreno began, launching a sensible supposition encompassing Jewish history, migration and tradition — in short, the real life experienced by Jews of the day.

Following the expulsions of the Jews from the Iberian Peninsula in the late 15th century, some of those who had outwardly converted to Christianity and remained in Spain and Portugal, continued to practice Jewish customs in secret. Some of their descendants eventually settled in Amsterdam beginning about a century after the expulsion, where they were able to reconnect openly with the Judaism of their ancestors.

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An Esther Scroll, handwritten in Spanish, Amsterdam, 1684, the National Library of Israel collections, photo by Shir Bram

Because they couldn’t read Hebrew, for the first time in Jewish history, we see a pattern of communities translating multiple Hebrew texts into languages written in Latin script, Moreno said.

One of the most notable cases, she explained, was the Biblia de Ferrara, a translation of the Bible into Spanish published in the northern Italy city in 1553. NLI’s collection includes one such first edition. The Biblia de Ferrara was later published in Amsterdam in the 17th century.

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An Esther Scroll, handwritten in Spanish, Amsterdam, 1684, the National Library of Israel collections, photo by Shir Bram

“We do know that the most important community [of descendants of conversos] was Amsterdam, and we know that the style of the congregation is that the cantor prayed in Hebrew, but some of the worshippers had siddurim [prayer books] in Spanish and said the prayers in Spanish,” she said.

“This is important to state: One year before the Biblia de Ferrara was translated to Spanish, the siddur was translated to Spanish. It was a parallel phenomenon in the translations of both the siddur and Tanach [Bible],” Moreno said. The Amsterdam megillah “reflects the use of Spanish in historical context,” she added.

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An Esther Scroll, handwritten in Spanish, Amsterdam, 1684, the National Library of Israel collections, photo by Shir Bram

In the 1560s, Sephardic diaspora communities — including Salonika and Kushta (contemporary Istanbul) — who maintained Jewish observance and were not lacking in Jewish knowledge, published a limited range of Jewish texts in Ladino, such as a prayer book for women and a partial translation of the Shulkhan Arukh (Code of Jewish Law), known as Shulkhan HaPanim.

By the time the Amsterdam megillah was written, nearly two centuries had elapsed since the inquisitions began.

According to the Amsterdam megillah’s inscription under the blessing, the scribe was Benyamin Senior, and the work was commissioned by Ishak de Matatia Aboab.

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An Esther Scroll, handwritten in Spanish, Amsterdam, 1684, the National Library of Israel collections, photo by Shir Bram

The megillah’s writing is straightforward and all-text, lacking adornments and colors and illustrations. Moreno called the calligraphy “very, very beautiful” for the size of its letters and the gaps between them. “It’s beautiful, professional and readable,” she said.

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An Esther Scroll, handwritten in Spanish, Amsterdam, 1684, the National Library of Israel collections, photo by Shir Bram

So much so that the megillah was exhibited at a meeting at the National Library in mid-March of the U.S.-based Samis Foundation, which last year provided a generous grant to NLI dedicated to the Moreshet Sepharad (Sephardic tradition) collection.  

Moreno found no document explaining how the megillah came to reach the Library. Nor is she sure how it was used. “In a synagogue? In a home? Was it never read? It’s very curious for me,” she said.

If it was never recited, why was the megillah written, given the cost and time invested in producing it?

“That’s a very good question,” Moreno said, “but I can’t give a definitive answer.”

Writer-editor Hillel Kuttler can be reached at hk@HillelTheScribeCommunications.com

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Books and manuscripts in disguise? The items in the special Purim video below have been “dressed up” to appear as something they are not… Happy Purim from the National Library of Israel!