“The Mother of Monasteries” vs. “The Tower of Babel” in World War II

The Abbey of Monte Cassino, often called the “Mother of Monasteries”, occupies a very strategic location dominating the road leading north-west to Rome. From January to May 1944, fierce battles took place there in which Allied soldiers from more than twenty different nations faced off against German, Austrian and Italian troops. The campaign ended with a German withdrawal after Allied troops breached the “Gustav Line”…

Polish soldiers inside the ruins of the Abbey of Monte Cassino. Photo: Melchior Wańkowicz

The Abbey of Monte Cassino, founded in the 6th century, is the oldest of Western Europe’s monasteries. Its founder was Benedict of Nursia, who was also the founder of the Benedictine Order. Benedict is buried at Monte Cassino alongside his sister, the nun Scholastica. The regulations established by Benedict served as a prototype for the monastic orders that followed, which led to Monte Cassino being dubbed the “Mother of Monasteries.”

Over its lifetime, the monastery accumulated many treasured artworks. During the Second World War, works of art from the museum in Naples were transferred there for safekeeping. As the Allies neared the monastery, the Germans organized the transfer of some of the pieces to the Vatican, as well as to other monasteries in Italy. The evacuation operation led to disputes among the German officers over where to take the works and who would escort them. This was mainly due to the intention to transfer some of the artworks to none other than Hermann Göring, after whom their military division was named. Göring was notorious for “adopting” looted works of art from occupied areas.

Among the Hebrew manuscripts found in the National Library of Israel’s catalog is a scan of an interesting manuscript currently kept at Monte Cassino. It is in fact a palimpsest, that is, a manuscript written over an earlier manuscript. In our case – a Latin book of Psalms written over an earlier Hebrew manuscript from the 13th century containing the religious Jewish laws of Rabbi Isaac Alfasi for the Talmudic tractate Eruvin.

In World War II, after a failed series of ground attacks to capture the abbey from the Germans who controlled the area, the Allies bombed the monastery from the air. Despite its importance to the Christian world and the Vatican’s attempts to prevent its destruction, the bombing of Monte Cassino was carried out due to public pressure following the heavy number of allied casualties from the ground offensives, primarily in the United States. To this day, researchers still debate whether the Germans did in fact have positions on the grounds of the monastery, although none dispute that the Germans had observation posts and machine guns positioned outside the monastery’s walls which benefited from their shelter.

After the war, the monastery was restored, and most of the art and cultural treasures were returned.

The Monte Cassino campaign exacted a terrible price: over 54,000 Allied deaths, and about 20,000 deaths for the Axis countries. Many studies have been published on the strategic and tactical considerations and military decisions of the warring parties. I would like to focus on the personal and human aspect of the campaign and its later cultural influence.

The Allied forces that took part in the battles at Monte Cassino were made up of people from many different countries and nationalities: Americans soldiers—including Japanese US citizens; British soldiers— including forces from England, Australia, New Zealand (among them Maoris); and India (among them Punjabis and Gurkhas). In the French Expeditionary Corps, alongside French European troops, there were also Moroccan, Algerian and Tunisian soldiers. They were joined by Polish and Italian volunteers, as well as troops from Czechoslovakia, the Soviet Union, the various Baltic countries, and soldiers from as far as Brazil. And of course, among these, were also Jewish soldiers, whether in the Polish Anders’ Army, in the British Army or in the US Armed Forces.

“The New Zealanders, these tall, raw-boned men who had come from halfway around the world, now contributed their distinctive accent to the polyglot medley of shouts and curses along the road. One of the officers described his introduction to the multinational world of the Fifth Army:

‘Running up Highway Six we were nearly put in the ditch by American Negro drivers. An Indian military policeman warned us to waste no time at the San Vittore corner, beyond which we overtook an Algerian battalion with French officers. We passed through an English field regiment’s area, several hundred American infantry working on the road, and reached Corps headquarters immediately behind two Brazilian generals. In the first room I was astounded and mystified to hear that the Japanese had taken the castle'”. (Monte Cassino, by David Hapgood and David Richardson, pp. 160-161).

The officer in question was most likely Major General Sir Howard Kippenberger, whose autobiographical book Infantry Brigadier gives a similar description. In it, he explains that the “Japanese” are American soldiers of Japanese origin.

In his memoirs, Jan Eibenschutz, a Jewish soldier who served in Anders’ Army, in the 3rd Carpathian Rifle Division, offers a glimpse into the lives of the soldiers and their feelings in wartime on the road to Rome:

“During the first months, I discovered that what characterizes our units is physical effort and fatigue, the fear of danger was only a secondary component. To think that I received this impression while serving in the modern British Eighth Army, of which our unit was a part and which had at its disposal enormous amounts of services and means of transportation. Despite this, at the frontline, we almost always had to reach our destination on foot, walking along difficult paths, while carrying heavy weaponry.”

(Translation of an excerpt from Eibenshcutz’s memoirs published in Hebrew:

יאן אייבנשוץ, “שביתי פלוגת צנחנים גרמנים”. בתוך: עדות, 13: 112, 1996)

And this is how Eibenschutz describes the arrival at Monte Cassino, from the chapter “Journey to Hell”:

“Here we are in the Monte Cassino theater facing a key position of the German defensive Gustav Line. Here, in November 1943, the Germans managed to stop the attack of the American Fifth Army and then one after another the attacks of the English, New Zealanders, Indians, the South African units, the French (which included Algerians, Moroccans and Italians) while causing heavy losses of life and equipment. All these were not helped by the heavy bombardment of hundreds of bombers, which turned the famous Benedictine monastery on the mountain into ruins.

Now it’s our turn to attack Monte Cassino.

The approach to the front line began on April 27, a beautiful spring day. We climbed a steep path on foot which even jeeps could pass up to a certain point. The path led to a hill situated between the monastery and the top of Monte Cairo, which was over 1,500 meters high, and from where the Germans controlled the whole area and all the access roads. Already, the trees growing there had become naked black skeletons, but the entire ground was covered with carpets of red poppies; it would be hard to describe a greater contrast” (p. 113).

Jan Eibenschutz and his friends remained at Monte Cassino until May 1944, when the monastery was conquered.

“On the night of May 17, everything was ready to strike at the Germans and finish them off…

Shortly before dawn we received the order to capture the monastery, which was on the other side of the valley. We had to take up new deployment positions… It wasn’t until around 10 o’clock in the morning that we noticed movement near the monastery ruins. A short time later we saw the red and white flag flying over it. We let out cries of relief and joy.

It happened on May 18, my 24th birthday.

…with a joint effort of the Fifth and Eighth Armies, the ‘Gustav Line’ was finally breached and the Germans found themselves in retreat.

Two weeks later on June 4, 1944, Allied forces entered Rome and liberated the city from the Germans” (ibid., pp. 114–115).

About 1000 Polish soldiers are buried in the Monte Cassino cemetery, and among the gravestones about 20 are decorated with the Star of David.

One exceptional Polish soldier stood out on the battlefield – he was awarded a medal of bravery and promoted from the rank of private to corporal. This soldier was a Syrian brown bear named Wojtek that had been bought as a unit mascot and was eventually officially recruited into the 22nd Polish Artillery Supply Company in Anders’ Army. Wojtek the bear, who had learned by imitating his fellow soldiers to walk upright, could, thanks to his great strength, single-handedly lift and carry an artillery munition crate that would normally require four soldiers to transport. In the Battle of Monte Cassino, Wojtek excelled in speedily carrying crate after crate of heavy ammunition while under fire, which earned him both a medal for bravery and a promotion. Wojtek was even commemorated on the unit’s official emblem, and in May 2019, a commemorative statue of him was installed in Monte Cassino’s town square.


Jewish Brigade soldier Yehuda Harari’s illustrations, which he published in a book in 1946, also reflect the difficulties experienced by the soldiers in the battles to break through to Rome.

The Hebrew sign reads: “Don’t move -The enemy sees you”. The captions reads “Too late!” in Yiddish.


“Don’t be an antisemite!” reads the Hebrew caption

The Battle of Monte Cassino also led to the writing of one of the canonical works of modern science fiction. Walter Michael Miller, Jr. served in World War II as a tail gunner in the US Air Force. He participated in the bombing of the Abbey of Monte Cassino, and said that this experience influenced his entire life’s work. His dystopian novel A Canticle for Leibowitz published in 1959, was awarded the Hugo Award for Best Novel by the World Science Fiction Convention in 1961. It is considered by many to be one of the seminal works of speculative post-apocalyptic literature. The only book he published in his lifetime (alongside short stories), it describes a world after a nuclear holocaust in which Catholic monks are the guardians of humanity’s cultural knowledge and values.

A Hebrew translation of the science-fiction classic A Canticle for Leibowitz, by Walter Michael Miller Jr – inspired by the Battle of Monte Cassino

The legacy of the Battle of Monte Cassino lives on to this day. For example, the Swedish metal band Sabaton, whose songs deal with military history from different periods, were so inspired by the combined efforts of the Allies at the Battle of Monte Cassino, involving so many disparate nationalities, that they wrote a song about it, which they titled “Union” (The song is featured on the album The Art of War. Original battle photographs and film clips appear in the official music video and related video segment analyzing the battle).


Mile after mile our march carries on
No army may stop our approach
Fight side by side
Many nations unite
At the shadow of Monte Cassino
We fight and die together
As we head for the valley of death
Destiny calls
We’ll not surrender or fail

To arms!
Under one banner
As a unit we stand and united we fall
As one! Fighting together
Bringing the end to the slaughter
Winds are changing
head on north


What resonates most in the recollections of those who took part in the campaign, and in later military analyses of the battle, is the cooperation that existed among soldiers from all over the world, among army units with different battle doctrines, languages and even diametrically opposed traditions of officer/soldier relations. But the common goal of subduing the Nazi enemy bridged the gaps and resulted in victory in the battle at Monte Cassino and the opening of the road to Rome.


Further Reading:

  • Monte Cassino, David Hapgood and David Richardson, New York: Berkley Books, 1986
  • Cassino to the Alps, Ernest F. Fisher, Washington: Center of Military History, United States Army, 1977
  • Bloody River: Prelude to the Battle of Cassino, Martin Bluminson, London: Allen & Unwin, 1970
  • A Canticle for Leibowitz, Walter M. Miller Jr., Toronto: Bantam Books, 1959
  • Infantry Brigadier, Major-General Sir Howard Kippenberger, London: Oxford University Press, 1949

• אייבנשוץ, יאן: “שביתי פלוגת צנחנים גרמנים”. בתוך: “עדות”, 13: 112-119, 1996
• בן אריה, כתריאל. מערכת קסינו. תל אביב: אוניברסיטת תל אביב – פקולטה למדעי הרוח – בית הספר להיסטוריה, 1978
• הררי, יהודה. סביב אירופה על חוד העפרון (מיומנו המצוייר של חייל ארצישראלי). בריסל: דפוס החיל, תש”ו
• מג’דלני, פרד. קאסינו : דיוקנה של מערכה. ישראל: מערכות, תשנ”א
• מג’דלני, פרד. הפטרול / המנזר. ישראל: מערכות, תשכ”ב


Translation: Sharon Assaf

The Kindergarten That Became the Mossad HQ in Morocco

In 1954, Yehudit Galili arrived in Morocco as part of a Jewish Agency mission. She set up a kindergarten, an "Ulpan" for teaching Hebrew, and a network of contacts within Casablanca’s Jewish community. One day she discovered a group of strangers in the building that housed her kindergarten and was surprised to hear them speaking Hebrew. This is the true story of how a kindergarten teacher became a spy for the Jewish underground in Morocco.

المربية اليهودية يحزقيلي غليلي (من اليسار) في احتفالات عيد الأنوار في الروضة العبرية الأولى، الدار البيضاء، المغرب.

Kindergarten teacher Yehudit Galili (left) overseeing Hanukkah celebrations in the first Hebrew kindergarten in Casablanca, Morocco

Imagine the following scenario: You are sent to a foreign country with the mission of opening a Hebrew kindergarten for the children of the local Jewish community. One bright morning, you suddenly discover that your kindergarten has become a training ground for the Mossad as well as a branch of the local Jewish underground. This is not the plot of a spy novel, but a true story, and the description you’ve just read is only the tip of the iceberg. In her book Shlihut Goralit (“Fateful Mission”) published in late 2022, Yehudit (Galili) Yehezkeli recounts the parts of her story that have been approved for publication, including many of her incredible experiences in Morocco.

In 1954, Yehudit Galili was sent to Morocco on behalf of the Culture and Education Department of the Jewish Agency. Her mission was simple: to start an Israeli-Hebrew kindergarten in Morocco and to teach Hebrew in an Ulpan (lit. “studio”, the common Israeli term for a Hebrew school). At the time, Yehudit was working as a teacher at the Hartuv transit camp for new immigrants (a ma’abara) which she had helped establish. One day, while waiting for the train home to Jerusalem, a friend told her that the Jewish Agency was looking for teachers for a mission to Morocco. Yehudit, who could not point out Casablanca on a map, didn’t think twice and applied for the job. After passing the interview and the rest of the admissions process, she found herself at only 24 years old, on her way to Morocco as an official representative of the Jewish Agency.

Yehudit Galili was born in Tiberias in 1930 and grew up in the small town of Nesher. During her childhood she was a member of Zionist youth movements, and as a young adult she trained as a squad commander in the Palmach (the Haganah’s elite fighting force). Yehudit took part in military operations and was even wounded in the battle for Haifa during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. In May 1948 she joined the Harel Brigade where she escorted and trained convoys.

Yehudit Galili (later Yehezkeli) practicing with a firearm during a Palmach training course]


Palmach fighters train for a river-crossing. Yehudit Galili Yehezkeli is in the foreground, on the shoulders of a fellow-soldier


The Mission: Establish a Zionist Kindergarten in Morocco

Yehudit’s mission, at least in the beginning, was the essence of Zionist outreach activity at that time: to arouse interest in Israel among Moroccan Jews, particularly the middle and upper classes who had distanced themselves from the Zionist idea and the State of Israel. Moroccan Jewry was the largest of the Jewish communities in the Islamic countries. The educated and affluent Jews sent their children to French educational institutions rather than to Zionist schools such as Alliance and similar establishments. A large part of this population, which was concentrated in Casablanca (where Yehudit was sent), did not even consider the idea of immigrating to the State of Israel. At that time, Morocco was still a “protectorate” of the French colonial regime—which was about to come to an end. Despite a number of violent incidents (such as the pogroms in the cities of Oujda and Jerada after the declaration of Israel’s independence), the Jews of Morocco had a relatively comfortable life under the French regime. However, the State of Israel was aware that this situation might not last for long—and sent emissaries to bring Moroccan Jews closer to the Zionist cause, just in case.

In her first year there, Yehudit worked to set up a Hebrew kindergarten in Casablanca as well as an Ulpan for Hebrew language instruction. She conducted the kindergarten entirely in Hebrew, with the help of her assistant Zippora, a local Jewish girl who spoke Hebrew. The kindergarten followed the same format and curriculum as the Hebrew kindergartens in Israel. The children were provided with transportation to and from the kindergarten, and Zionist organizations in Israel and the Joint Distribution Committee donated the equipment. The kindergarten was housed in a fancy villa in the French quarter in Casablanca, and included an apartment for Yehudit. Besides running the kindergarten and Ulpan, Yehudit also forged connections with the parents of the children, which would prove very useful later on, when some of the parents were recruited into the Misgeret (“framework”)—the code-name for the Jewish underground in Morocco. As early as 1954, representatives of the Israeli security service were sent to Morocco, headed by Col. Shlomo Havilio, to assess the situation of the Jews in the country. Morocco was moving towards independence, and the Jews—whose status had improved during the French colonial period—had to prepare for the impending changes. This, in fact, had been one of the reasons behind Yehudit’s original mission, since encouraging immigration was one of the official ways Israel chose to deal with the situation.

Kindergarten class photograph for the Purim holiday (Yehudit Galili Yehezkeli is standing on the far right in the second row), Nesher

After working for a year, Yehudit took a few days off. When she returned, the situation in the country had significantly worsened. The State of Israel assessed that Morocco would adopt the anti-Israel position taken by other Arab countries and feared for the lives of the nearly 200,000 Moroccan Jews remaining in the country. The Mossad sped up the establishment of the Jewish underground in Morocco, and various cells began forming secretly throughout the country, one of them right inside Yehudit Galili’s kindergarten. November 16, 1955, the day the King of Morocco returned to his country, was a turning point for Yehudit. The underground at that time was trying to find a cover story by blending in among the Jewish Agency workers who had “official” permits to be in the country, while also attempting to recruit locals into its ranks. When Yehudit returned from her short vacation, she discovered that the villa that housed her kindergarten had also been recruited for this purpose.

Sultan Mohammed V and his son Mawlay Hassan return from exile in Madagascar. Their car was accompanied by a cavalry guard through the streets of Casablanca, Morocco. Photo by Yehudit Galili Yehezkeli

Yehudit Galili Alias “Nora”

“While walking upstairs to my room, I heard strange voices coming from the second floor […] At first, I thought about getting out quickly, but what I heard sounded like Hebrew and I calmed down. I was shocked to find strangers, but I think they were more frightened than I was… Their presence in Morocco was supposed to be top secret. They had come to Morocco under cover and no one knew of their existence, and suddenly an Israeli woman had found them out…” Yehudit Galili recalls in her memoir about her first meeting with members of the Jewish underground in Morocco. Shlomo Yehezkeli, the leader of the cell and later Yehudit’s husband, was the first to get a grip of himself. He asked her to sit down and after briefly introducing himself he started to interrogate her. “At first, I politely answered all the questions but then my patience ran out. Angrily, I said ‘What’s with all these questions? Who are you? Who authorized you to enter the kindergarten? I live here and this is my kindergarten!’” Yehudit writes about the meeting. Her assertive outburst served to diffuse the tension and by the end of the encounter she found herself recruited into the Jewish underground in Morocco. She agreed to join, despite having little idea what this was all about, after discovering that the members of the underground already knew everything about her without her telling them anything.

A girl placing a donation inside a KKL-JNF blue and white charity box, Hebrew kindergarten, Casablanca, Morocco. Kindergarten teacher Yehudit Galili is standing in the center of the photo. The children are wearing costumes for the Purim holiday

It was during this same meeting that the secret agents decided to set up shop in the kindergarten building in Casablanca, which is how it became the temporary headquarters of the Jewish underground in Morocco. The basement was turned into a slick – a hiding place for the underground’s weapons. Later it was also used for training members in how to take apart and reassemble weapons, as well as for secret meetings in which new recruits were sworn in. Mossad personnel posed as Jewish Agency emissaries, and thus the well-known Zionist organization became deeply involved in the Mossad’s activities. Yehudit, as a “certified” Agency worker with papers, became an asset for the underground. Her role as a kindergarten teacher enabled her to be in contact with locals without raising any suspicions. She was in touch with parents of the children in the kindergarten and students in the Ulpan and could listen to their conversations and assess their mindset. Most importantly, her position was ideal for finding potential recruits. Yehudit was trained in using invisible ink, preparing hiding places and various methods for gathering materials and information. She was even given an alias – “Nora”. Yehudit also acted as a courier and liaison between different groups, and eventually began to forge passports for Jews wanting to escape from Morocco.

Kindergarten teacher Yehudit Galili Yehezkeli with the children of the first Hebrew kindergarten in Morocco dressed up for Purim, Casablanca, Morocco


A Kindergarten and an Underground HQ: How Did It Work?

How did this strange combination of kindergarten and Jewish underground headquarters function day to day? Let’s consider the case of Carmela and Yona—two Mossad agents—who arrived in Morocco with their young daughter Orly and settled in Casablanca. Carmela and Yona arrived under cover as Jewish Agency emissaries. Orly enrolled in Yehudit’s kindergarten, which provided a perfect cover for conversations between Yehudit and the couple. In the mornings, when Carmela brought her daughter to kindergarten, she would leave confidential packages and letters with Yehudit who in her role as courier would deliver them. Yona, who was Shlomo Yehezkeli’s deputy, was involved in gathering and hiding weapons as well as training recruits in how to use them. He was also an expert in creating special envelopes to hide secret messages. When he came to the kindergarten, he would be busy devising hiding places for weapons and secret storage spaces for messages within the villa grounds. For example, he built a secret compartment inside the pot of a large plant placed near the villa’s entrance where messages could be stored.

A love story. Shlomo Yehezkeli, commander of the underground, and his wife Yehudit Galili who he recruited, in a classroom used to teach Hebrew and arithmetic, Casablanca, Morocco

In early June 1956, the Moroccan authorities decided to limit Zionist activity in the country. Yehudit’s kindergarten continued to operate at full capacity and serve as the center for the underground’s work until it finally was closed down.  After this, the Jewish underground operated from other locations. Yehudit continued her work in the Mazagan immigrant camp near Casablanca until she was forced to leave the country. She would continue her underground work on behalf of Moroccan Jewry from Marseille.

Continuing her work even after her expulsion from Morocco. Yehudit Galili Yehezkeli at a typewriter preparing a list of illegal immigrants from Morocco to Israel, Marseille, France

Yehudit married the commander of the underground in Morocco Shlomo Yehezkeli, whom she met for the first time on that fateful day in the kindergarten. The couple relocated to Paris, where they continued to engage in security, intelligence and public work on behalf of Israel from 1960 to 1964. Later they also took up official posts in Africa before eventually returning to Israel where they raised their three children. In Israel, Yehudit was involved in education, teaching and writing, as well as painting, sculpting, and filmmaking. She published nine books and dozens of articles, as well as numerous exhibitions and even three films. She has won many awards over the course of her life. Her latest book, Shlihut Goralit (Hebrew), about her mission in Morocco, served as the source for this article. The book is available to read online.

Just like in the spy movies. The debonair couple Yehudit Galili Yehezkeli and Shlomo Yehezkeli at a café in Casablanca, Morocco


The photos in this article are part of Archive Network Israel, made accessible through the collaborative efforts of the Ben Zvi Institute, the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage and the National Library of Israel

“Half of My Soul Is Made of Longing”: One Man’s Mission to Preserve the Jewish Heritage of Debdou

If not for the efforts of "Rabbi Eli", much of what we know about this particular Moroccan Jewish community would likely have been lost forever…

Jewish girls in Debdou, Morocco, early 20th-century, the Joseph and Margit Hoffman Judaica Postcard Collection, the Folklore Research Center, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem

For much of its history, the town of Debdou was home to more Jews than Muslims. The Jewish community in the town in Northeast Morocco traced its roots back to Jewish refugees, many Cohanim (priests), from the Spanish city of Seville, who fled the Iberian Peninsula after the anti-Jewish violence of 1391. The town hosted tens of synagogues, well-known ritual scribes, and several scholars. The Jewish community was active and had all the institutions needed to thrive, including (if an early 20th century French postcard is any indication), a traditional school for young Jewish girls, who came to their studies in elaborate headscarves.

A young Jewish woman“, Debdou, Morocco, early 20th-century, the Joseph and Margit Hoffman Judaica Postcard Collection, the Folklore Research Center, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem

Like other locales with significant Jewish presence, we learn about its history from books, photos, legends, documents, and even gravestones. As time passes, many documents are lost, and history becomes harder and harder to document and reconstruct. Regarding Debdou, however, we have a surprising quantity of documentation, thanks to the tireless efforts of one modest man with an unassuming attitude and easy smile. Rabbi Eli dedicated much of his long life to preserving the memory of Jewish Debdou, publishing dozens of books, ranging from the genealogy of the towns’ Jews, to  lists of the communities’ local and unique religious practices (minhagim) and folklore, and even a bibliography of Hebrew printing in North Africa.

The grin that spreads quickly from his mouth to his eyes does not fully hide a light sadness that appears when he speaks of his birthplace. As Rabbi Eli tells it, his passion for the memory of Debdou stems from yearning and loss, from the half of his soul made of longing.  His mother passed away in the early 1940s, within a year of his birth, and he grew up with his grandparents, father, and later stepmother. But Debdou had little to offer a young man as bright and religiously motivated as Eli. In his early teens, he travelled alone to Paris to study in a Yeshiva for mostly North African young men. After marrying and serving as a young rabbi through the local French Jewish community (the Consistoire), the fears leading up to the Six-Day War inspired him and his wife to move to Israel.

There, he reconnected with his dear grandfather, who had since moved from Morocco to Jerusalem, and whom Rabbi Eli described as a walking encyclopedia of the lore of Jewish Debdou. But within a few short years of their reunion, his grandfather had passed away, and in a moment of profound regret, Rabbi Eli realized that the man’s accumulated knowledge had been lost.

Eli dedicated the rest of his years to collecting memories and documents. At first, he knocked on the doors of Jerusalem residents who had moved from Debdou, asking them to share stories, memories, and lore. Many laughed at him, wondering why he was bothering. Others cooperated, whether enthusiastically or reluctantly. In the course of these conversations, many former residents gifted him with documents, letters, marriage contracts, and communal record books. These interviews and pages served as the basis for his lifelong research and publishing. During the 1990s, a philanthropist asked him to travel to Morocco, and he spent several months gathering information and documents. Over the years, he worked with related sources housed in the National Library of Israel and the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People, where he developed a relationship with the staff. Every few years since 1997, he would donate some of his collected documents to the NLI. One morning in April 2023, he woke up knowing that the rest of his collection should be donated on that very day to the Library. He took the remaining materials and, unannounced, knocked on the door of the archives department at the NLI.

The documents say less about learned topics, and much more about the daily life of the community as reflected in letters, business deals, or marriage contracts. One manuscript records the impressions – and criticisms! – of Moroccan Jewish life made by Meir bar Sheshet, a Shadar (charity collector) who had come from the Land of Israel to Morocco to raise funds for the Jews of Tzefat in the Holy Land.

A pinkas (ledger) maintained by Meir bar Sheshet, who  recorded his impressions and criticisms of Moroccan Jewish life. The Eliyahu Refael Marciano Collection, the National Library of Israel

Another document that struck my eye was a recording of the local rabbinical court’s decisions regarding family life, while World War II raged in Europe. A couple had divorced, and the husband would not pay child support properly. The court took measures to ensure that he would. In another case, a wife refused to move with her husband to a new location, and the court ruled that she would thereby lose her divorce settlement (Ketubah). I asked Rabbi Eli if there was any document that stood out for him. He did not hesitate, answering that it was an 18th century will that demonstrates the connection between the Debdou community and its roots in Seville. An elderly man wrote a will, giving his descendants his property, including the known piece of land that the family “owned” in Seville. Nobody expected to ever get that property back, but it was part of the family lore that they came from there and their ancestors had owned it.

As time passes, fewer people will have personal memories of Jewish Debdou, but the legacy of the community will live on in the hundreds of documents that Rabbi Eli gathered over his long life and in the research and writing that it enabled.


The Eliyahu Refael Marciano Collection is being cataloged and will be made accessible thanks to the kind donation of the Samis Foundation, Seattle, Washington, dedicated to the memory of Samuel Israel.




Breaking Bard: Uncovering Shakespeare’s True Identity

For centuries, the true identity of William Shakespeare has been shrouded in mystery. What if the famous playwright we all know and love was not who we thought him to be? The controversial theory that ‘Shakespeare’ was a group of women writing under one pseudonym has been gaining traction, raising fascinating questions about gender, authorship, and the nature of creativity. It's high time we examine the evidence behind this theory and explore its implications for our understanding of Shakespeare's legacy.

If I asked you to name the most famous playwright in history, you would almost certainly say Shakespeare. In fact, if I were to ask you to name the most famous people in history, Shakespeare would probably make the list! Whether you genuinely enjoy his writing, or you were simply forced to memorize his plays in English class at school, most people can confidently name at least a few Shakespeare works and their basic plotlines.

Shakespeare, El Progresso-La Bos del Pueblo-La Epocaאיל פרוגריסו/לה בוז דיל פואיבלו/לה איפוקה די נו יורק, 23 June 1916, Artist: Phinsan, via the Historical Jewish Press Collection at the National Library of Israel

But the world of Shakespeare is not as innocuous as it may seem. Many prominent authors have actually posited the theory that Shakespeare was not just one man, but a group of multiple people acting under a common pseudonym.

Much evidence to support this invigorating theory has been uncovered over the last 50 years, and it’s easy to see why the idea has so much traction. For a start, the way Shakespeare describes both the life of royalty and the life of a serf in magnificent detail points to the fact that Shakespeare had access both to the upper floors and the lower basements of the noble British household – something absolutely unheard of in the 1500s. Maybe today we wouldn’t scoff at the concept of being able to truthfully describe the lives of both a sailor and a servant, a prince and a pauper, but if you consider the fact that during Shakespeare’s lifetime the majority of people never even left their own small hamlet, or met anyone more diverse than their own neighbors, it does seem odd that Shakespeare should have had such an intimate understanding of so many varied lifestyles. We’re talking about someone who didn’t have a car, a phone, the internet, or even access to very many books. We’re talking about someone who relied on excruciatingly slow snail mail to talk to anyone outside his immediate village. We’re talking about a time in which most people never set foot outside their own town, let alone their home country.

So how is Shakespeare able, in his plays, to describe all these diverse lives that he unquestionably should not have had access to? He depicts numerous countries in vast detail, despite the fact that during his lifetime he would have had neither the time nor resources to visit those places. Moreover, Shakespeare confidently describes the taste of an orange in Much Ado About Nothing, a fruit not found in his native England until decades after his death. It is unlikely that one person, even today, could have acquired such a wealth of experiences to write about, much less 500 years ago without access to the internet, or even, by modern standards, a well-stocked library!

How are we to believe that a middle-class man born in the provincial English town of Stratford gained the plethora of experiences needed to write the plays that we find in his anthology? Intimate knowledge of the Elizabethan court, the ability to write in multiple languages, understanding of law, astronomy, music, the military, other continents, and multiple cities across Europe? This is even more astounding when we realize that no proofs exist of him ever traveling outside England. Moreover, the language he used and vocabulary that he employed in his plays far exceeds what his abilities rightfully should have allowed, seeing as his only formal education ended at the age of 13.

Ephemera – Hamlet, author: Benjamin Pollock Limited, Shakespeare & Company, 1948-2006, the Roni Toren Archive, made accessible through the collaboration of the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage, the University of Haifa and the National Library of Israel
Ephemera – Hamlet, author: Benjamin Pollock Limited, Shakespeare & Company, 1948-2006, the Roni Toren Archive, made accessible through the collaboration of the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage, the University of Haifa and the National Library of Israel

If all that doesn’t convince you that something suspicious is happening here, maybe this fact will: After Shakespeare’s death, he left behind not one original writing or manuscript in his home, no proof that he had ever put a pen to paper, not one reference book, not one musical instrument (despite a seemingly innate familiarity of over 25 instruments cited throughout his works), and he also left nothing in his will to his daughter, despite the blatant feminism apparent in so many of his plays (a point worth bearing in mind for later!)

Most convincing in the quest to prove that Shakespeare was not actually a single entity, is the fact that the signature of Shakespeare appears throughout his manuscripts with seven completely different spellings, almost all of which were bizarrely found in unexpected locations or years after his passing with no way to trace them back to his hometown. Many forensic scientists have pored over the numerous differing signatures attached to his manuscripts and determined that they may not in fact all belong to the same person. Maybe Shakespeare simply forgot how to spell his own last name, or maybe something unexpected was happening…

Shakespeare’s signature on the cover of a first edition copy of the book – Of the Vanitie and Uncertaintie of Artes and Sciences, by Cornelius Agrippa, 1569, the National Library of Israel collections
Fragment from the first edition of The First Folio, a compilation of all Shakespeare’s plays, 1623, the National Library of Israel collections

The biggest question to ask upon receiving any new theory is always “why?” If you suddenly hear the sound of galloping, you can assume you’re hearing a zebra, but it is probably just a horse. There is, however, one obvious answer to the question of why multiple people may have wanted to write under a single presumed name.

Have you ever heard of the Bell brothers? Otherwise known as the Bronte sisters. What about George Eliot? Now known as Mary Ann Evans. Or A.M. Branard, who was actually Louisa May Alcott? I could go on and on, and by now you perhaps understand where we are going with all of this.

First edition of Shakespeare’s poems, 1640, the National Library of Israel

Women in the 1500s were scarcely permitted to speak their own truths, let alone write them down for public consumption! So, if there were hypothetically a group of female writers, seeking empowerment from their constrained existences, a collective name would be a great secret code to symbolize to those in the know that this work had actually been written by a woman. Shakespeare.

In case you’re still not convinced, let me explain. Perhaps today, a perceptive and well-educated man could write pretty decently from the perspective of a woman, as he is almost certainly surrounded by women who are willing to share their experiences and let him watch their feminine rituals. However, needless to say, this is a recent phenomenon entirely.

Hamlet, photographer: Isaiah Feinberg, courtesy of the Beit Lessin Theatre
Hamlet, photographer: Isaiah Feinberg, courtesy of the Beit Lessin Theatre
Hamlet, photographer: Isaiah Feinberg, courtesy of the Beit Lessin Theatre

Thus, how Lady Macbeth and her sisters describe their femininity so accurately in Macbeth, a play supposedly written by a man, is perhaps a tad suspicious. Beatrice, in Much Ado About Nothing, rages in a uniquely perceptive way at the limitations of being a woman; and Rosalind, in As You Like It, alters her demeanor to appear more masculine and thus progress further in life, an act that surely only aggrieved women usually identify with; Isabella, in Measure for Measure, understands, as women unfortunately often did, that her word was less trustworthy than a man’s and consequently fears that no one will hear her pleas; and Emilia, in Othello, argues passionately for women’s equality – I am sorry to say it, but these accounts which so acutely describe the inner-lives and struggles of women, do not seem to have been written by a man.

Hamlet, photographer: Isaiah Feinberg, courtesy of the Beit Lessin Theatre

“Why was Shakespeare able to see the woman’s position, write entirely as if he were a woman, in a way that none of the other playwrights of the age were able to?” asks Tina Packer, Founding Director of Shakespeare & Company, in her book Women of Will. There is one obvious reason that a group of playwrights would need to use a pseudonym in Elizabethan England: being female. “One would think that Shakespeare had been metamorphosed from a man to a woman,” wrote Philosopher and Playwright Margaret Cavendish.

Cover of Isaac Edward Salkinsohn’s Hebrew translation of “Romeo & Juliet,” 1878, the National Library of Israel collections

It may seem slightly outlandish to posit the theory that ‘Shakespeare’ was the encoded pseudonym for an underground society of female playwrights, but this theory is actually becoming more and more widely accepted. In fact, it was discussed in detail at the International Shakespeare Convention last year, by some of the most renowned Shakespeare scholars in the world.

The writer John Ruskin fascinatingly pointed out that “Shakespeare has no heroes—he has only heroines.” And many of these heroines are seemingly quite feminist: At least ten Shakespearean women defied their fathers, eight disguised themselves as men, six led armies – this was far from the norm in male playwriting until probably the second half of the 1900s!

If more evidence is needed, an incredibly interesting little nugget is found in the works of Gabriel Harvey, a famous Elizabethan literary critic. In 1593, he mysteriously mentioned an “excellent Gentlewoman” who had composed three sonnets and a comedy play. “I dare not particularize her description,” he wrote. In 1593, Shakespeare wrote three sonnets and a comedy play.

William Shakespeare Sq. Chandos Portrait, Wikimedia Commons, Author: Buaidh

At least one of the women often supposed to belong to this group, Emilia Bassano, was Jewish – yet another reason, amidst the raging antisemitism of the 16th century, to hide her real identity. Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, Henry James, Sigmund Freud, Helen Keller, and Charlie Chaplin are amongst the many who propose lists of different women who may have belonged to the Shakespeare collective. Much of their theorizing is based on the fact that although Shakespeare’s life is well documented by any standards as an actor and theatre-owner, we have no proof that he ever actually put pen to paper: No letters mentioning him writing, no documents recording payments for commissions or plays, no journal entries proving that he ever wrote so much as a word. For example, despite his wife’s extensive journaling, she not once mentions that her husband was a playwright.

So, was Shakespeare a group of women from around the globe, writing under this pseudonym and thus displaying their literary brilliance far before society would allow them to do so? We may never know, but you can decide for yourself.

The National Library of Israel is one of only a select few institutions around the world who hold “The First Folio,” a collection of Shakespeare plays published in 1623. This unique piece, as well as other rare Shakespeare manuscripts, were anonymously donated to the NLI in the autumn of 2022. To mark the First Folio’s 400th anniversary, The National Library of Israel is organizing a series of lectures on William Shakespeare and his legacy, with leading Israeli cultural and academic figures. The series will be broadcast between May and July 2023.


Episode 1: Israeli Contemporary Theater and Shakespeare, with Yair Sherman and Dori Parnes. May 7, 2023.

Episode 2: Contemporary Translations of Shakespeare into Hebrew, with Dori Parnes and Ronen Sonis. May 28, 2023.

Episode 3: General overview on NLI’s Shakespeare collection and the Folio structure, with Dr. Stefan Litt and Dr. Micha Lazarus. Date to be announced.

Episode 4: The early modern English objections to Shakespeare, with Dr. Reut Barzilai. Date to be announced.

To see more and register for the free events, visit: https://www.nli.org.il/en/visit/events/theater-and-shakespeare