An Ode to the National Library of Israel, the Love of My Youth

“I fear any attempt to harm the love of my youth. The imposition of any sort of political oversight or involvement regarding the life of the Library, may indelibly tarnish it, causing it and those who enter its doors irreparable damage.” Professor Aviad Hacohen pleads: Do not harm the love of my youth—the National Library of Israel

Opening day of the new building of the Jewish National and University Library, November 1, 1960 – the Circulation Desk, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

 “I was an unhappy boy during the nights, wandering alone, never letting anyone know, you were the love of my youth.”

-From Ahavat Neurai (“The Love of My Youth”) by Shalom Hanoch

The first time I saw you, I was on my way to the Gymnasia high school. Back then, I would sometimes skip the boring classes and run to you instead, if only to inhale your scent. You are not a great beauty, I know, but you always welcomed me with love and a warm embrace.

At sixteen, a first love can seem like that, all roses and sunshine. But forty-five years on, that first love is still going strong. It cannot and must not be stopped.

You stood there, your pale, white facade hidden among the trees and grassy lawns of Givat Ram, your body upright, confident in yourself, radiating an aura of dignity.

On the ground floor one would see the heavy wooden card cabinets, their old hinges worn with use, the drawers filled to bursting with thousands of cards covered in dense handwriting.

The Jewish National and University Library, Givat Ram. Reference Hall and Card Catalogue, 1992. The Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

Every day, for years, at 9:00 a.m. sharp, the regulars would show up at your door to be let in and then move quickly to their regular corners. (There was a running joke back then that these scholars were so much a part of the Library, that if movers were ever called in for a relocation, they would move them right along with the rest of the “furniture”.)

Among these regulars were some of the world’s greatest scholars of Jewish studies: Jacob Katz, Gershom Scholem, Menachem Brinker, Shmuel Safrai, Shmuel Werses, Hava Lazarus-Yaffe, David Weiss Halivni and Meir Benayahu, to name but a few.

After a few hours, the prophet of rage would arrive. Somewhat grim-faced, he would stride briskly through the Library’s doors to the “press room”. There, seventy-five-year-old Yeshayahu Leibowitz would begin to go one by one through the journals—hundreds of scientific periodicals that were arranged like soldiers on shelves along the walls. He would start with the journals that dealt with the Bible and Talmud, then move to the medical journals, followed by the chemistry and microbiology section, and finish up with the daily newspapers stored between two giant wooden boards and that smelled intoxicatingly of the past

His younger sister, the great biblical scholar and teacher Nechama Leibowitz, also well on in years, would sometimes stroll into the adjacent hall, the Judaica Reading Room, her signature beret pushed down low on her head, her students hurrying to offer her help in locating a book.

The Jewish National and University Library, Givat Ram: Judaica Reading Room. Early 1960s, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

Inside the Institute of Microfilmed Hebrew Manuscripts, located on floor -1, scholars and yeshiva students would sit side by side, each one hunched over a creaking microfilm machine, working tirelessly in order to rescue centuries-old Hebrew manuscripts from oblivion. Next to them would be a literary researcher asking to look at the notes and early drafts of the great Hebrew author, literary genius and Nobel laureate S.Y. Agnon, in order to try to grasp the hidden meanings contained his works. Peering out above them would be the bright bald head of the gifted writer Yossel Birstein, who worked in the Hebrew Manuscripts department alongside cultural figures such as Rafi Weiser and Shlomo Zucker, from whom no secrets were hidden.

On the second floor, among the dusty piles of old audio tapes, Ephraim Yaakov would be trying once again to convince a one hundred-year-old newly arrived immigrant from Georgia to sing her community’s lullabies and lamentations, so that they would be preserved for generations in the Library’s Sound Archive.

Only in the rarest cases were we permitted to enter the “underworld”: floor -2. That was where the real treasures were kept. The manuscripts of Maimonides and Albert Einstein, genizah fragments and ancient Qurans.

The Jewish National and University Library, Givat Ram: General Reading Room. early 1960s, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

Full disclosure: Over the years, I have had the pleasure of her favor, but I have also had the privilege of giving something in return to my great love.  During its renewal, I had the privilege of participating as a representative of the Library’s readers, the “users,” in meetings of its board of directors and even to represent the Library in court in order to protect its rights.

I also drafted the “National Library Charter”, which was signed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the then-President of the State of Israel, Shimon Peres, as well as by the Mayor of Jerusalem, Nir Barkat, and the President of the National Academy of Sciences, Rut Arnon, alongside dozens of other renowned public figures from Israel and around the world.

The charter reflects the unique spirit of the Library, whose doors are open to all, regardless of religion, race, gender, political outlook or orientation:

“The physical and virtual doors of the Library will be open to people of all nations and religions, to draw an increasing number of users from among the general public and from among the research community in Israel and the world, and to serve them in the best way possible.”

The charter emphasizes the National Library of Israel’s status as a “national and Zionist cultural and educational center”, meant to serve as an “inspirational space, which will be both an optimal learning environment and a meeting place drawing researchers, intellectuals, artists and seekers of knowledge from Israel and around the world, as well as a site of vibrant cultural creation that is based on its treasures and collections.”

Days and years have gone by and the love of my youth has matured and long since passed one hundred and twenty. The guards who used to zealously rummage through our briefcases and backpacks by hand are now aided by technological devices. The old-fashioned, awkward hand-written paper slips once used for ordering books were replaced by a simple computerized system, accessible from anywhere in the world, even by mobile phone. The old creaking elevators were replaced with new ones; even the official name was changed from the “Jewish National and University Library” to the “The National Library of Israel.” The Library began hosting an array of inspiring cultural events, wonderful concerts ranging from classical music to Israeli song, and the entrance hall was filled with groups of Jewish and Arab elementary school students coming to see and experience this great hall of culture for the first time, maybe even falling in love with it, as I did so many years before.

The Jewish National and University Library, Givat Ram: Reference Hall, 1992. The Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

The National Library of Israel was and remains a unique nature reserve in the Israeli landscape. A fascinating human and cultural microcosm unlike any other. Perhaps the last place, apart from the hospitals, where a university professor conducting research for a new book or article might sit beside a regular Joe who took a four-hour bus ride to come explore his family’s roots; a place where a young Torah scholar from Mea Shearim might sit surfing the internet and its “forbidden fruit” next to a young bare-shouldered university student leafing through rare books for a seminar paper she is writing.

Indeed, like many others, I fear any attempt to harm the love of my youth. The imposition of any sort of political involvement in the life of the Library may indelibly tarnish it, and cause irreparable damage to the Library and those who enter its doors. And we haven’t even talked about donors—whether of money or of rare and irreplaceable archival materials— who might be discouraged from supporting a body that is guided by politics, and not professionalism. Many of them may avoid donating to the Library or perhaps even choose to rescind donations of funds or collections they have already made.

If this plan to impose political involvement in the Library goes forward, the National Library of Israel will become one more political estate among many. A pointless institution, devoted only to the powers that be.

As the saying goes, “If it ain’t broke—don’t fix it.” The National Library of Israel is not broken and is not in need of a fix, certainly not of a political nature.

The Jewish National and University Library, Givat Ram: A view from the South-East, 1970. The Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, The National Library of Israel

The Holy Land “in Natural Color”: German Postcards From 1932

Less than a year before the Nazis came to power, a collection of postcards featuring holy sites and the developing Jewish settlement in the Land of Israel was published in Munich…

The Jaffa Gate

In addition to the thousands of books that find their way to the National Library of Israel every year, there are also hundreds of other historical items which are added to the collections on an annual basis: photo albums, posters, letters and, once in a while, the occasional mysterious cardboard box.

Such a box was recently donated by Chana and Yoram Harel. On its cover appears a description in German that offers a first clue to its contents. The description reads:  Das Heilige Land: 126 Ansichten in Naturfarbenphotographie. Preiss & Co., Munchen – “The Holy Land: 126 Postcards in Natural Color, Price and Co., Munich”.

When we opened the box, its contents were as we had expected—several dozen postcards featuring landscapes of the Holy Land, two maps of Palestine (north and south), a map of Jerusalem and a booklet in German. A closer look at the postcards reveals that these were created using the photochrome technique.

A young Bedouin


Landscapes of the Holy Land

In 1880, a Swiss printing company by the name of “Orell Füssli” developed a technique for creating color images. This method came to be known as the photochrome technique. Long before the development of analog color photography, which captures original colors of the subject being photographed on a roll of film, the photochrome technique enabled color reprinting of a black and white photo. Orell Füssli’s innovation was the use of the centuries-old technique of lithography to produce these color prints.

Ironically, the photochrome technique gave rise to a strange state of affairs: in the event that the colorists did not have precise instructions concerning the original colors of the image they were being asked to reprint, they had no choice but to use their own imagination and common sense.

This was the case in many photochrome albums, where the relationship between the actual colors of the photographed subject and the colors that were artificially added later on is often purely coincidental. In the postcards we have here, on the other hand, it seems that the “Uvachrom” company that published them went to great lengths to get as close as possible to reality.

The booklet that accompanies the postcards provides the necessary background. The 126 photos in the collection were taken during a “trip to the Holy Land in spring 1931,” a year before the postcards were printed in Munich. The booklet’s title page makes reference to a “High Shepherd”, who gave his approval to the project. It seems this collection of postcards was produced for a German Catholic audience, printed with the approval of a high-ranking bishop, possibly even the Pope himself.

Das Heilige Land: 126 Ansichten in Naturfarbenphotographie. Preiss & Co., Munchen – “The Holy Land: 126 Postcards in Natural Color, Price and Co., Munich”

But don’t let this fact mislead you. Despite the many images of Christian holy sites (including, of course, the Church of the Dormition, which was built following the visit of the German Kaiser Wilhelm II to the Holy Land), many others depict the progress of the Zionist enterprise in the Land of Israel. There are, for example, pictures of the Hebrew University, the National Library at its former location on Mount Scopus, the tomb of Rabbi Meir in Tiberias, and the electric power station established by Pinchas Rutenberg.

The Tomb of Rabbi Meir in Tiberias

Eighty of the original 126 postcards in the collection remain in their original box. The rest were probably sent by the owners of the collection to friends and family. This leads us to the obvious question: Who was the target buyer of such a collection? While we do not know the identity of the collection’s original owner, the accompanying booklet makes clear who it was meant for. The collection is described as a “precious souvenir for anyone lucky enough to see the land with their own eyes, providing all others with a vivid glimpse of its beauty.”

The 67-page booklet contains detailed information about the Holy Land: general topographical information, an explanation of the perpetual water shortage; a history of Zionism and the Hebrew language; an in-depth discussion of Jerusalem including information about the Temple Mount and the Western Wall; as well as details of the different stations in the life of Jesus in Jerusalem and the Land of Israel.  The booklet concludes with a drawing of the Temple Mount Plaza.

The collection’s date of publication is of particular historical significance. It was published in Munich, Germany, in 1932; less than a year later, on January 30, 1933, Adolf Hitler was sworn in as Chancellor of Germany.

Yohanan Ben Zakai Synagogue in Jerusalem


The Jewish Quarter in Jerusalem’s Old City. The domes of the Hurva and Tiferet Yisrael synagogues are both visible


Jerusalem children enjoying locally grown oranges


Tomb of Rabbi Akiva


Rachel’s Tomb


This building on Mount Scopus housed the Jewish National and University Library at the time, today’s National Library of Israel


A view from the Hebrew University on Mount Scopus


The Dome of the Rock


Dr. Stephen Litt, Curator of the Humanities Collection at the National Library, contributed to the preparation of this article.

How to Move Four Million Books

How did the National Library of Israel move its collections—not once, but twice—from one location to another? These photos captured the transfer of hundreds of thousands and then millions of books to the various homes of the National Library over the years

On the left, moving the National Library of Israel’s books from the Terra Sancta building to the Givat Ram campus in 1960; on the right, the robot-operated automated stacks in the new National Library building

On January 10, 2023, the transfer of all the books from the National Library of Israel’s current location on the Givat Ram campus to its new home was completed. In all, 3.6 million books were moved, an important milestone ahead of the relocation to the new National Library of Israel campus across from the Knesset, Israel’s parliament.

Since its establishment, the Library has undergone many changes, both in terms of its location and its collections. However, the transfer of its books on such a massive scale from one building to another was carried out only twice: in 1960, and in 2022.


Moving the Books: 1960 vs. 2022

In 1948, during the War of Independence, access to the Hebrew University on Mount Scopus was cut off along with access to the National Library, then called the “Jewish National and University Library.” As a result, the Library’s collections were dispersed among different locations in the western part of the city, including the Terra Sancta building, the Yeshurun Synagogue library and several other places. In 1960, the Library moved once again, from the various buildings where its collections had been housed temporarily to its current location on the Hebrew University’s Givat Ram campus. Photographer David Harris documented this transfer in many fascinating photos showing how the Library staff worked diligently to move the hundreds of thousands of books from all the different sites to the new building. Today, photographers are once again documenting the process of transferring the Library’s books to a new permanent home.

Loading books for transport to the Library’s current building on the Givat Ram campus, 1960


The beginning of the transfer of books, October 2022. Photo: Udi Alfassi

As you can see, this is hard work. It involves first sorting, then packing and finally moving the books. Back in 1960, the books were loaded into sacks, bundled and tied with rope or packed into boxes. Staff members then loaded the sacks, bundles and boxes onto pick-up trucks. Today, the process mainly involves forklifts and semi-trailers – the collections have grown, after all.

Workers transporting books from the Terra Sancta building to the Givat Ram campus location, 1960. Photo: David Harris


Sorting books in the new building. Photo: Albatross


The Jewish National and University Library storeroom at Terra Sancta, 1960. Photo; David Harris

The sorting process is also completely different today: in the past, the process was done completely by hand. Today, it is a combination of manual and digital work centered on scanning the books’ barcodes.

Sorting books at Givat Ram, 1960. Photo: David Harris


Sorting books in the new National Library of Israel building, 2022. Photo: Albatross

As of today, all the Library’s books have been transferred to the Main Automated Stacks in the new National Library of Israel building, stored inside special crates on a multistory shelving system. When a book is ordered, it is no longer located by an actual human being, rather, this task is now performed by a crane-like robot. The robot knows which crate to take from which shelf. It then moves the crate to a location where staff can pull out the specific book that has been ordered. Even more astounding is that there is no human involvement at all inside the gigantic automated storeroom, which maintains a low level of oxygen and contains the vast majority of the Library’s collections. The robot knows exactly where to find a particular book from among the millions packed in the precisely stacked crates.

Stacks at Givat Ram. Photo: Hanan Cohen


The automated storeroom in the new National Library of Israel building, 2022. Photo: Yaniv Levi Korem

From the photos, you can see that moving books on such a scale—whether hundreds of thousands or millions—is a visually compelling and technically complex process. And whether analog or digital, the Library has always taken care of its collections, making sure that each and every book is in its correct location on the shelf, with the storeroom space only expanding over the years.

In the coming year, the National Library of Israel will complete its relocation to the new campus and when we open our doors, all these millions of books will be available to you, along with the rest of the Library’s collections.

The Magical Reincarnation of the Ancient Date Tree

When scientists found 2000 year-old plant seeds buried deep inside the ancient fortress of Masada, no one dared hope that they would lead to the recultivation of one of the most powerful trees in Israel. This is the story of Methuselah, the 18-year-old tree sprouted from biblical roots!

A poster designed in 1929 by artist Ze'ev Raban, of the Bezalel Art School, for the "Company for the Promotion of Travel in the Holy Land", the Joseph and Margit Hoffman Judaica Postcard Collection

Since the earliest records of human history, the date palm tree has been a symbol of life and prosperity in the Land of Israel. They were cultivated in the region as far back as 3100 BCE by the Mesopotamians and due to their sweet and long-lasting fruit they were even considered a gift from the heavens. As far back as the days of King Solomon, Israelites were busy cultivating this special tree, known for its compatibility with sandy desert areas. It was considered to be a symbol of fertility, blessing, peace and prosperity and was important enough to be mentioned several times in the Bible including the well-known verse in Psalms: “The righteous shall flourish like the palm tree” (Psalm 92:12).

Mordecai Kafri and a friend climb a palm tree in Nahalal, northern Israel. This item is part of Archive Network Israel and has been made accessible thanks to the collaborative efforts of the Yad Ben Zvi Archive, the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage and the National Library of Israel


1924 postcard from Denmark depicting a date palm tree, along with the Hebrew verse ‘The righteous shall flourish like the palm-tree’ [Psalms. 92:13]. A Hebrew greeting for the New Year is printed at the bottom. The Joseph and Margit Hoffman Judaica Postcard Collection

The Bible describes the date palm being carved into the walls of Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem, while several biblical women were given the name “Tamar” – the Hebrew word for the date palm tree. It was so important that its image appeared on ancient Judean and Roman coins and is even featured on the ten-shekel coin in modern-day Israel.

A Hebrew manuscript from 19th century Russia depicting details of Solomon’s Temple, including a tabernacle wall decorated with date palm branches (center-right, below the Menorah, you can zoom in here), the Center for Jewish Art at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem


Photo of a Roman coin from 80 CE. It depicts a date palm tree and Jews in mourning. On both sides of the tree an abbreviated Latin inscription reads: Judea Capta, the Center for Jewish Art at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem


Photo of a Roman coin from 71 CE, depicting a palm tree with a cluster of dates hanging from either side. The inscription reads: IMP VESPA SIAN. Vespasian besieged Jerusalem shortly before becoming Emperor of Rome. The Center for Jewish Art at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem


This mosaic floor decoration featuring a Judean date palm was located in the Maon Nirim Synagogue in pre-state Israel and dates back to the year 500 CE, the Center for Jewish Art at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem

It is hard to overstress the importance of this species. As far back as 400 BCE, Herodotus would speak of the Judean date tree with pride, expressing appreciation for the dry and non-perishable dates which made them perfect for export (Palm Trees in the Greco-Roman WorldWathiq Ismaeel Al-Salihi). In the 1st century CE Pliny the Elder commented that the dates from this tree type were famous for their succulence and sweetness.

A field trip in the Arava Desert, circa 1930-1944. This item is part of Archive Network Israel and has been made accessible thanks to the collaborative efforts of the Yad Ben Zvi Archive, the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage and the National Library of Israel

However, the date palm was to meet a sad end. Most of these trees were razed down over time as farmers cleared new fields or as invaders sought building materials for their homes and weapons for wars. When the Romans came to take control of the region in 70 CE, date palms were an integral plant to the Judean economy, making them a prime target of destruction for the Roman empire. By the year 500, the plant was thought to have been wiped out in its entirety. It’s worth noting that Asaph Goor, in his prominent article “History of the Date through the Ages in the Holy Land,” contests that the date tree was not actually wiped out completely until the 14th century, during a collapse in agriculture under the Mamluks. Either way, it is agreed that the poor tree was killed off far before the modern state of Israel was founded.

That was, until 2005, when Dr. Elaine Solowey stepped into the picture. Dr. Solowey was a horticulturalist who specialized in desert environments. One fateful day, a discovery that had been made years earlier was brought to her attention by the Arava Institute.

Image from an article published in The Australian Jewish Times, 23 January 1986, celebrating the finding of date palm seeds on Masada

In 1963, Professor Yigal Yadin and his team of archaeologists discovered a handful of 2,000-year-old date palm seeds at Herod’s Palace on Masada. They were found at the northern entrance of the palace, next to the site of the ancient food stores, and they had been preserved in a small clay jar that had been maintained by the extremely dry and sheltered environment for millennia.

Dr. Solowey hurried to send the seeds to the University of Zurich, where researchers radiocarbon-dated the seeds to between 155 BC and 64 CE.

When this discovery was made in 1963, Israel was experiencing a terrible drought and the archeologists feared that if they replanted the seeds immediately, they would wither and die. To preserve whatever treasures these seeds had been hiding away for the last two millennium, they were held in storage at Bar-Ilan University, waiting patiently for a day when the weather conditions might improve and a scientist with enough skill and passion might suddenly appear on the horizon.

Image of young Methuselah from a newspaper article in the Jerusalem Post – May 27, 2016, courtesy of the Arava Institute

Dr. Elaine Solowey was certainly sure of her skill set and knew that she could be the one to revive the ancient seeds. She had been studying endangered medicinal herbs, searching for plants that could be grown in marginal and arid areas, and studying biblical plants native to southern Israel. In short, she had all the expertise needed for this monumental task.

Dr. Solowey, not one to stick to traditional methods, took a baby’s bottle warmer and used it as an incubator in which she could slowly hydrate the seeds. After they had sprouted, she fed the sprouts a careful mix of fertilizers and growth hormones and to everyone’s surprise, a baby sapling was born. “I assumed the food in the seed would be no good after all that time. How could it be?” said Solowey.

She decided to name the new tree “Methuselah” after the biblical character with the longest lifespan. Six of the cultivated seeds were planted in Ketura in Southern Israel. The first surviving male from the other 5 seeds was named Adam and the first surviving female was named Hannah. These seeds from Masada are the very oldest ever to be germinated.

This newspaper excerpt comes from The Australian Jewish News (Sydney), 17 June 2005

Years later and the seeds were doing ex-seed-ingly well. All six seeds originally found on Masada had lived to adulthood and Methuselah itself was producing his own babies! “He is a big boy now. He is over three meters tall, he’s got a few offshoots, he has flowers, and his pollen is good,” Solowey said three years later. “We pollinated a female with his pollen, a wild female, and yeah, he can make dates.”

Article from The Jerusalem Post, August 25, 2021. The item shows a harvester picking dates from Methuselah, photo by Marcos Shonholtz


Image from a Jerusalem Post article published on May 27, 2016. Dr. Elaine Solowey is standing on the right in this 2008 image, alongside Methuselah and Dr. Sarah Sallon, courtesy of the Arava Institute

The story of Methuselah was picked up worldwide and the tree was listed in the Guinness Book of World Records. In 2016 Dr. Elaine Solowey deservedly received the Ben Gurion Prize for the Development of the Negev and she is currently working to build an ancient date grove with date trees cultivated in the same conditions found in biblical descriptions. She longs to see how the dates differ to those we can create from Methuselah today.

Any interested person can take a trip to Ketura and visit Methuselah and his five friends including Adam and Hannah. As for Dr. Solowey, she will be known forever more as the magical woman who revived the great Judean date tree.

Image of Methushelah from a Jerusalem Post article published on May 27, 2016. Courtesy of the Arava Institute