The Eastern European Pinkas Kahal: Image and Reality

Through the pinkas of a given community, we can assess the life of the individual and the kahal in all its breadth and depth


Examining the Frankfurt Pinkas in the National Library of Israel Rare Books Reading Room

The word pinkas means “notebook.” These notebooks were widely used in pre-modern Jewish society by both communal organizations and individuals.  Mohalim (Jews trained in the practice of Brit Milah) would keep pinkasim to note and track the circumcisions they had performed, businessmen kept pinkasim to note the various deals they made, students kept pinkasim into which they copied the texts they were studying, and mystics kept pinkasim in which they noted their sins (and sometimes their dreams, too).  Thus, the term pinkas was distinguished from the “Sefer” – book – in both its physical form and the way texts were entered into it.  The pinkas was a notebook, initially of blank pages, into which its owner penned various texts or entries that were of interest to him from time to time.

This format of record keeping was, of course, very useful for institutions, Jewish and non-Jewish alike, that wanted to keep a running record of their activity.  European Jewish society in the early modern age (about 1500-1800 C.E.) was a complex web of institutions – from the small, local guilds (“hevrot ba’alei melakhah”) to the great trans-regional councils such as the Lithuanian Jewish Council and, of course, the Polish “Council of Four Lands.”  Pinkasim or fragments of pinkasim from these different institutions have survived over time, giving the distinct impression that maintaining a pinkas was an integral part of early modern Jewish organizational life.

The Frankfurt Pinkas, from the National Library of Israel. Click image to enlarge.

The Pinkas Hakahal – the record notebook of the community’s governing council – formed only one part of a complex of communal pinkasim. Community administration was made up of many other bodies each of which kept their own pinkas.  The gabbaim, the communal treasurers, would keep a pinkas, noting synagogue organization, particularly as it related to financial and charitable disbursements, as well as the different decisions they made to regulate their work.  The judges of the Beit Din, the rabbinic court, would a keep a pinkas to record the cases they heard, and the tax assessors would keep a record of the taxes assessed for and paid by each community member. The Kahal also kept a pinkas and as the community’s supreme governing body, its pinkas might be viewed as the most important. When brought together, these various record notebooks make up what we might call “pinkasei ha-kehillah” which provide a rich and multifaceted view of the broad sweep of Jewish communal life.

frankfurt pinkas
Dr. Yoel Finkelman, curator of the Judaica Collection at the National Library, examines the Frankfurt Pinkas.

Grasping how the pinkas functioned, and understanding its role in the life of both the community council and the community as a whole is no easy task. As Prof. Israel Bartal of the Hebrew University has shown, there are many layers of misconceptions about the early modern pinkas kahal which developed in the various cultural and political milieu of eastern European Jews in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, but were picked up and repeated, often uncritically, by future generations of scholars.  The maskilim of the nineteenth century adopted a view of the community pinkas as somehow embodying the entire history of the early modern Jewish community – an institution and a history they despised. In his satirical novel, “Kvurat Hamur – An Ass’s Burial,” Peretz Smolenskin was scathing:

A pinkas can be found in every town where Jews live, and in it, they and everything that happened in the town will be written as an everlasting memory.  There is mention of girls who lost their virginity by accident and through rape, of denouncers and those who caused Jews to lose money to non-Jews, of those who rebelled against communal authority and those who ate non-kosher meat, of those who stole the silver from synagogues and those who carried a kerchief on the Sabbath.  [It tells of] the house that was destroyed by demons and ghosts, and of sinners whose sins or mockery of the burial society caused the outbreak of plague.  In this text will be inscribed all those who transgressed the law of Israel and in their death will they pay for their sins, for they will be given an ass’s burial.

A page from the Zülz Pinkas, dated 1796 to 1805, from the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People. Click image to enlarge.

In the twentieth century, Jewish nationalists of many different stripes took an equally romantic, but highly positive, view of the pinkas. Many of them viewed it as the ultimate expression of the Jews’ autonomous bodies of the early modern period, bodies the nationalists saw as foreshadowing the development of the Jewish national institutions they wanted to develop.   Others took it as somehow embodying the spirit of the nation.  Avraham Rechtman, who participated in An-Ski’s great ethnographic expedition of 1912, expressed this in lyrical terms:

The pinkas is the mirror of the people’s life (folks leben) in past generations.  The pinkas reflects the people’s feelings, its joys and its sadness, how it expressed its concerns and what made up its demands.  Through the pinkas we can assess the life of the individual and the kahal in all its breadth and all its depth.  We can learn from them about the way of life as it was, as well as relations within society, between one society and another, between one community and another, and also of the Jews’ attitude towards the outside, non-Jewish world which surrounded them.

What was common to both, of course, was a highly romanticized view of the pinkas as embodying the history and spirit of the Jews as a whole, though the values they imparted to it were quite different.

In the face of this product of the overheated Jewish imagination, it is probably worth engaging in a more sober discussion of the pinkas kahal.  Unfortunately, despite the deepest desires of both maskilim and Jewish nationalists, the pinkas was not a kind of “communal memory.”  The vast majority of entries dealt with highly technical matters, such as taxation and other economic issues that fell into the purview of the kahal. Major events in the community’s life were recorded only in so far as the kahal had to make decisions or regulations to deal with them.

Pages 101- 102 of the Halberstadt Community Pinkas, dated 1773-1808, from the Manuscript Department of the National Library of Israel. Click to enlarge the image.

In addition, the pinkas was not available to the community but was zealously guarded by the members of the Kahal.  The Krakow community constitution of 1595 specified that the pinkas hakahal should be in the hands of the two community scribes (called at that time, “edim demata”) and locked away in a box that only they could open.

In truth, the pinkas kahal in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was very much a technical document.  Only matters dealt with by the kahal were included in it.  These could, of course, be of enormous significance for running the community though not in the romantic idealist way previously envisioned.

Crucial topics such as the question of population control through the granting or retraction of residence rights (“hezkat hayishuv”) were included in a pinkas. This was sometimes connected with regulations concerning dowries since only those wealthy enough to pay handsome dowries would be able to settle their children in the community.   The management of the annual elections to the kahal was another issue that would be included.  Other issues dealt with by the pinkasim include the management of communal charity (most often done by means of regulations concerning the gabbaim), the employment of community officials (cantors, slaughterers, doctors, midwives, teachers, etc.), most particularly the rabbi, and relations with the non-Jewish authorities.

Though the Pinkas Hakahal does not provide a window into the Jewish soul, for the good or the bad, it does shed a great deal of light on how Jews organized their communities and ran their lives hundreds of years ago.

The National Library of Israel, together with the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People in Jerusalem, holds the largest collection of pinkasim in the world. Through international academic co-operation, the Pinkasim Collection aims at locating, cataloging, and digitizing all surviving record books, making them freely available. At the first stage of the project, the focus is on pinkasei kahal, the pinkasim of the central governing body of Jewish communities. On June 20th, the National Library hosted an event marking the launch of the Pinkasim Collection, which featuring experts from around the world.


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Samuil Polyakov: Life as a Jewish Tycoon in 19th Century Russia

Samuil, the second of the brothers Polyakov, lived an interesting life, balancing his identity as a Jew with his position in the Russian business elite.

Letter of Mary Poliakov to Kurt Grunwald, 20 December 1967, with the photograph of the statue of Samuil Poliakov (CAHJP, P77-22.2)

Letter from Mary Poliakov to Kurt Grunwald, 20 December 1967, with a photograph of the statue of Samuil Poliakov (CAHJP, P77-22.2).

Samuil Polyakov and his brothers, Yakov and Lazar, were anomalies in mid-19th-century Russia. Samuil was the second of three brothers who were part of a Jewish banking family of Russian nobility in the mid to late 19th century. His older brother, Yakov Polyakov, was one of Russia’s greatest Jewish tycoons who built up the railroads across the country. Yakov kept a detailed diary of his thoughts, business dealings, and activities that are now preserved in the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People. His diary gave us much insight into his world but uncovering the thoughts and actions of his younger brother Samuil took a bit more work.

Kurt Grunwald
Jerusalem Resident ID of Kurt Grunwald, The Central Zionist Archives, A343/3

Kurt Grunwald, a native of Vienna who moved to Ramban Street in Jerusalem, wrote a vivid biography of Baron Maurice de Hirsch, one of the biggest Jewish philanthropists, whose business model was just like that of the Poliakov brothers in that he combined banking with obtaining concessions for railway construction. Baron Maurice de Hirsch most famously sealed the deal for building the railway connecting Vienna and Istanbul, and despite the fact that this vision was only partially realized because of the shaky political situation, it nevertheless became the major railway in the Balkans and for many years hosted the famous Orient Express.

Grunwald’s research naturally led him to the Polyakov family. As it turns out, these two families were in fact related as the brother of Maurice de Hirsch, James (Jakob) de Hirsch de Gereuth married the daughter of Samuil Polyakov, Zinaida. In the 1960s, Grunwald got in touch with the descendants of the Poliakov family who were scattered across post-war Europe. Mary Polyakov, a granddaughter of Yakov Poliakov, was a fiction writer who spent time living in Switzerland, Austria, and Italy. Mary provided Grunwald with some insight into her family:

Mary Polyakov Letter
Letter from Mary Polyakov to Kurt Grunwald, December 20, 1967 (CAHJP, P77-22.2).

“I know that Jacob and Samuil lived in St. Petersburg. Each had a palace. The first entertained politicians, diplomats and such like. Samuil’s house was open to artists and writers. There must be somewhere a bronze statue of his, the work of the known sculptor Antokolsky, a fine work.”

Photograph of the statue of Samuil Polyakov made by Mark Antokolsky (CAHJP, P77-22.2).

Samuil Polyakov and Horace Günzburg

The palaces of the brothers Polyakov were situated on Galernaya street near the Hermitage, which is still one of the most luxurious in the city. At the end of the 19th century, multiple buildings on Galernaya street belonged to the two most prominent clans of Jewish bankers and entrepreneurs – the Polyakovs and their neighbors the Günzburgs, the most famous Russian Jewish family of the time. Several banks were also located nearby.

Historian Ben-Zion Katz collected information about Samuil Polyakov and Horace Günzburg from persons who knew them and presented it in his memoirs. He writes that Samuil was religious and prayed with his tallit and tefillin every day, but did so in secrecy. Samuil also kept a kosher kitchen though he was insistent that his non-Jewish guests not know that he kept his food kosher. Horace Günzburg’s guests, including the Russian royal family members, knew they would receive only kosher food in his home. Count Shuvalov, a Russian noble who often dined at Günzburg’s, used to eat cheese for dessert after dinner, like most of the Russian nobility who had adopted French culture. Günzburg’s maids would promptly clear the table and replace meat dishware with a dairy set.

Not a Jewish Philanthropist?

Samuil was actively criticized among his Jewish compatriots as his philanthropy was geared only toward Russian organizations and never toward the Jewish organizations. Samuil’s reasoning, it seems, was the wish to assimilate, to be favored at court, and to gain a much desired noble title. Henrich Sliosberg, a famous Jewish lawyer, said the following:

“He avoided the Jews of St. Petersburg, stayed somehow apart from them, but very cordially accepted all sorts of dignitaries, princes, counts, who sought his favor for their material interests. They kneeled before him, they considered him a business genius, but I never heard any of the high-ranking officials who knew him closely say that Polyakov was loved and that even those whom he had helped were attached to him. His business reputation did not have any beneficial results for the Jews; it irritated people more than it appealed to them.”

Samuil donated large sums of money toward education and to many provincial theatres and museums. Paradoxically, Samuil also happened to make a certain accidental contribution to the Russian revolutionary movement which was, of course, absolutely against his wishes. This is how it happened.

Samuil donated 200 thousand rubles to the construction of the student dormitories of Saint Petersburg University. The administration decided to host a celebratory assembly and present Polyakov with a letter of thanks for his donation. While we don’t know exactly what was written in this letter, many of the students who were asked to sign the address found the tone of the text too servile. When the administration refused to change the text, the students decided to object to the ceremony since the letter was composed as if coming from the entire student body. The students called a meeting in the university lobby and staged a protest.

Dorms for the students of Saint Petersburg University constructed by Samuil Poliakov
Dorms for the students of Saint Petersburg University constructed by Samuil Poliakov

The whole situation could have been resolved easily and quietly, but the administration decided to bring the police and the mayor to the building where the protest was being held. Several students were arrested and, in the end, about one hundred students were expelled from the university. This incident provoked additional student demonstrations in other cities. Among the students who took part in the initial ‘uprising’ in Saint Petersburg was Sergey Nikonov, a future revolutionary, who later took part in the preparation of the assassination attempt on Tsar Alexander III. In his memoirs he writes:

“I can say for myself that the “Polyakov Story”, which played out before my eyes and with my modest participation and was essentially insignificant, completely determined my position in relation to the autocracy and its organs — administrations, police etc. From now on, I could only be an ardent opponent to this system, and for me the question was brought up to how I can be more productive in the fight against it.”

Crafts versus Agriculture and the Rabbis’ Conference at Polyakov’s Palace

Samuil’s policy of philanthropy started to change in the 1880s: he began taking interest in Jewish initiatives and became the major promoter of the establishment of ORT: Obschestvo Remeslennogo Truda, ‘Association for the Promotion of Crafts.’ The change in his philanthropic perspective came due to the strong influence of Professor Nikolay Bakst, a physiologist, writer, and Jewish activist. Bakst strongly believed that the condition of Russian Jewry could be drastically improved by developing their skills in various crafts, enabling Jews to find work as artisans. This view contradicted the view of Horace Günzburg who invested, like Maurice de Hirsch, in putting Jews to work in agriculture.

List of the allowances given to craftsmen for relocation to the cities of the internal provinces if the Russian Empire. Inside of the book of protocols of ORT sessions, published in Saint Petersburg in 1882. From ORT collection at CAHJP (ORT-465).
List of the allowances given to craftsmen for relocation to the cities of the internal provinces of the Russian Empire. The protocols of the ORT sessions, published in Saint Petersburg in 1882. From the ORT collection at CAHJP (ORT-465).

Bakst and Polyakov both believed that, in order to improve the lives of the Jews, they should be taught secular disciplines. Willing to help this cause, Polyakov got involved in the fate of the most famous Jewish religious school of the time – the Volozhin Yeshiva. Russian authorities tried to enforce the teaching of the Russian language and arithmetic in the yeshiva, but the head of the institution, Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin, thought that his yeshiva was not the place for these subjects and there was a serious risk that the yeshiva would be closed due to his stubbornness.

Volozhin Yeshiva

Albert Harkavy, a former student of Berlin’s, went on to become a librarian at the Imperial Library and a renowned scholar in Saint Petersburg. Berlin traveled to see him and Harkavy introduced Berlin to Polyakov and Günzburg who interceded for him with the famous liberal Count Pahlen, who was privy to the secret affairs of the ministries. The Count managed to arrange a license to open a yeshiva that would only teach religious subjects without having to teach the national language.

The question of secular studies came up again in 1887. On the initiative of Bakst, the Congress of the most prominent rabbis in Russia was convened. The Congress met in Saint Petersburg in Samuil Polyakov’s house, and, after a long and stormy debate, the attendees drew up a protocol that established that yeshiva pupils in Volozhin would learn Russian and arithmetic, but that these subjects would not be taught in the hall of the yeshiva, but rather in a separate room.

Unfortunately, this outstanding event and document did not prevent the closure of the yeshiva which happened soon afterward, but for reasons unrelated to the teaching of new secular disciplines.

Two Tragic Deaths

Samuil Polyakov had a close friend named Abram Moiseevich Varshavsky who was also in the railway business. His son married Rozalia Polyakov, Samuil’s daughter. Varshavsky was famous for his kindness and he was known to help everyone who turned to him. Perhaps this generosity is what led to his financial difficulties. Unable to face the humiliation of declaring bankruptcy, Varshavsky committed suicide. Samuil Polyakov died of a heart attack at his friend’s funeral.

polyakov diary
A page from Yakov Polyakov’s diary. Sad events are marked with a blue pencil including the death of Samuil and the death of Ernestina Rubinstein, mother of the famous ballet dancer Ida Rubinstein. A red pencil marked a happier event -The graduation from the universityof Yakov’s son, Boris (CAHJP, P238).

Here is how his brother Yakov describes that sad day:

“On April 7, my brother, his wife and I went in his Landau [automobile] to Varshavsky’s funeral (how many times did his wife and I plead with him not to go to the funeral, It led to nothing). The three of us left Varshavsky apartment following his coffin and immediately at half past ten in the morning my poor dear brother fell and died of heart failure. He fell near me on the street next to the apartment of Varshavsky and only thanks to the urgent orders of Mayor Gresser my unfortunate brother was lifted and brought into a shop near this apartment. Otherwise, he would have been trampled over for there were several thousand people attending the funeral of Varshavsky, and when they found out about what had happened to my brother they all rushed to this place and only Gresser was able to stop this crowd. I cannot give any other details about our great misfortune.”

A local newspaper reported from Samuil’s funeral:

“Along the route of the funeral procession, a countles multitiude gathered. All balconies, windows and even some of the rooftops along Nevsky Prospect were littered with the curious. Behind the coffin, marched crowd of several thousands of Jewish artisans, who arrived to pay their respects to the founder of the ‘Jewish craft fund.'”

Special thanks to Moshe Goncharok from the Central Zionist Archives and to my grandmother Ksenia Guzeeva. 


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Looking Back at the Jewish Soldiers of the Great War

A century after World War I, people are still surprised to learn the extent of Jewish participation in the military.

From the Felix Theilhaber Collection at the National Library of Israel.

From the Felix Theilhaber Collection at the National Library of Israel.

Armistice Day 2018 marked one hundred years since the end of World War I. The centenary was commemorated with ceremonies and remembrances around the world. But Jewish involvement in the First World War is often overlooked, or even forgotten, by the general public.

Paula Kitching is the project historian, co-founder and project manager of the We Were There Too project, which chronicles Anglo-Jewish involvement in the First World War. She knows from personal experience exactly why the project is necessary.

“I would be giving tours of battlefields, and people—Jewish and gentile—would ask me why there were Stars of David on some of the graves. And I would tell them it’s because the soldier was Jewish. And they would say, Oh, I didn’t know there were Jewish soldiers who fought in World War I. And of course there were.”

Jewish German soldiers praying on the Eve of Atonement, 1914. The Folklore Research Center, Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Jewish German soldiers praying on the Eve of Atonement, 1914. The Folklore Research Center, Hebrew University of Jerusalem

We Were There Too has gathered materials from individuals and organizations to create an interactive online database, complete with archival resources, personal records, and information on past events. The project has recently expanded into the North West of England, with plans to cover the whole of Britain. “We want to show people that the First World War was diverse,” said Kitching, who has also worked on projects chronicling Anglo-Indian service in World War I. “The project started in London, but every region we’ve been to, we’ve had tremendous interest, which makes me think there really is a national, rather than regional interest.”

Image Credit: We Were There Too,
Image Credit: We Were There Too,

The First World War drastically affected the lives of all those involved, of course, but Kitching notes that for many Jewish soldiers, as with soldiers from the working classes, and other minority backgrounds including Anglo-Indian and Anglo-Irish soldiers, the war also served as a chance to prove their patriotism, their abilities, and their love for Britain. The London Metropolitan Archives (LMA) has archived Anglo-Jewish materials through their UK Jewish Community Archives program which display these sentiments in incredibly personal ways. One particularly poignant example in their collection is a letter, pictured below, written to the Chief Rabbi of Beth Din, a court of Jewish law, in 1914 from a member of London’s Jewish community affirming the congregation’s patriotic support of Britain and the War. The letter illustrates how many British Jews saw the war as a space to demonstrate their patriotism and their identity as Britons.

Image Credit: Archives of the London Beth Din, held at the London Metropolitan Archives, London. Note: Items from the Beth Din archive are accessible with written permission of the depositor
Image Credit: Archives of the London Beth Din, held at the London Metropolitan Archives, London. Note: Items from the Beth Din archive are accessible with the written permission of the depositor

Kathrin Pieren, Social and Military History collections manager and curator for the Jewish Museum in London, has found similar levels of enthusiasm for information on the Jewish experience of World War I in her work with the Museum and beyond. Exhibitions on Jews in the First World War at the Museum, including a highly successful featured exhibit in 2014, have generated interest from both the public and the press and are looking to combat what Pieren calls the “knowledge gap” which led to the “nonsense” perception that Jews did not fight in World War I, nor feel the war’s impact on their lives on the home front.

Pieren also found a national, rather than a regional, interest in Jewish involvement in World War I through her own work. In giving talks on the subject in Leeds, and at the University of Chester on minority experiences during the War, she has found that both information and interest on the Jewish experience during World War I extend far beyond London and into the whole of Britain.

Yom Kippur in Brussels, 1915
Yom Kippur in Brussels, 1915

Jewish involvement in the war wasn’t limited to Britain, however. The website, Jewish Heritage Europe marked the centenary with a photo essay on memorials honoring fallen Jewish WWI soldiers that can be found across Europe. For a more personal perspective on the diversity of Jewish involvement, the German-Jewish archives at the University of Sussex shed light on Jewish participation in World War I from an often-overlooked perspective—a German one. The Sussex German-Jewish Archives have been cataloged and made available online at The Keep. This collection includes unique items such as war diaries from German-Jewish soldier Max Sondheimer, fighting in the Kaiser’s army in 1916, and the unpublished autobiographical novels of Selma Kahn, describing Jewish life on the German home front during the First World War and in the immediate aftermath.

The projects mentioned in this article are supported by the Rothschild Foundation Hanadiv Europe.

Read more about Jewish participation in World War I:

Life Under Fire: The Doctor Who Photographed the Destruction of World War I

The Jewish Soldiers of the Kaiser’s Army

Days of Awe for the Jewish Soldiers of the First World War

A Diary from Jerusalem Under Siege

“I’m very thirsty and there isn’t a drop of water in the house. I must go down to the street, perhaps I'll find something to drink, and thus I must cease my writing.” A peek into the siege diary of Menachem Zvi Kadari, a resident of the Old City during Israel's War of Independence.


Menachem Zvi Kedari's diary, the National Library of Israel

Today the residents learned that the Jerusalem front suffered a new heavy blow: the Old City has fallen … the defenders surrendered after half a year of resistance and heroic defense, when few stood against many, without weapons and equipment in the face of a well-equipped enemy. It is indeed interesting that the fall of the Old City didn’t make as much of a sad impression on the city as the previous difficult blows (Gush Etzion, Sheikh Jarrah, etc.), as if there was even a certain sense of relief: finally, it’s over, the women and children were spared, most of the defenders also remained alive, even if they will spend some time in captivity; Thank God, for that too—such are the thoughts, more or less, of a simple Jerusalemite.

With these words, Menachem Zvi Kadari describes one of the most difficult and desperate moments in the battle for Jerusalem during the Independence War. The 23-year-old, Hungarian-born Kadari, a student of Bible Studies and Hebrew at the Hebrew University, kept a diary detailing the sequence of events throughout the period of the siege of the Old City. In clear and beautiful handwriting, on the back of small index cards, accompanied by delicate illustrations, he provides a vivid and authentic account of public opinion among the people of the besieged Old City, and from the cards, colorful and fascinating Jerusalem characters spring to life. Here are some of them:


At the corner of HaRav Kook Street I suddenly see the old Yemenite man sitting by the wall and reading from the holy Zohar with amazing diligence; everything remains the same with him, he sat and read here before the siege and continued in times of danger, through the heaviest bombardment, and continues to sit here even now.

The boys in the student dormitory on Jaffa Street had a private laundress, a Kurdish woman who always came to collect the laundry and two days later, she would return it clean and neat. […] Every time she heard about young people who died, her heart seemed to sink. She has no children of her own, but all of Jerusalem’s youth are hers and she feels pain and sorrow over the loss of each of them […]  When we asked her “When will you bring our clean laundry,” she answered, looking up with her eyes: “Can one say today when I will come? God knows when I will be able to come.” […] The last time, a few days before the cease-fire, she took the laundry, but did not bring it back again … a wicked shell hit her … her husband brought our clean whites, which her own hands were not favored to bring back [to us] … Many have been your casualties Jerusalem; all have fallen in the fulfillment of their duties, who in defense, who at work … May they atone for our sins!

(Entry from June 15th, 1948)


On August 8th, during the second break in the fighting, Kadari sees:

Four young men with beards and sidelocks, dressed in caftans and beaver hats, walking in front of me along the street—they were Neturei Karta Hasidim—and behold the wonder, a truly strange and unusual sight: they are holding rifles in their hands! […] Can this really be true? Parading about the streets of the city of Jerusalem are young men in hasidic garb carrying guns and other weapons of destruction! Who could have prayed that something like this would ever happen? 


But beyond the characters, Kadari best describes Jerusalem shifting between despair and hope. He tells of the eyes turned to the great powers, the ambivalence of the Jerusalem street towards the offers of the U.N. mediator Count Folke Bernadotte, the reactions of the Arab countries, the rationing of food, and the tense hours of waiting – for bread and sustenance, but even more so – for news and information about what was going on in the rest of the country. Thus, for example he describes his own dismal situation, while reporting on the announcement from Tel Aviv:

This Sabbath was especially eventful, a historic day in Jewish history: the State of Israel was declared and immediately recognized by America and 38 other countries. Yet, there are two sides to every coin: the armies of the Arab countries began their invasion from all directions and there are already bitter consequences: they have conquered several settlement points […] the battle in Gush Etzion is completely over. The entire area has been captured and the fighters taken captive. Oh! Ten years of hard work have come to nothing! Three settlements of the religious Kibbutz movement , to which the eyes of the youth in the Diaspora were drawn, were wiped off the map […] Oh, what has befallen us!  (“I’m very thirsty and there isn’t a drop of water in the house. I must go down to the street, perhaps I’ll find something to drink, and thus I must cease my writing.”).

(Entry from May 16th, 1948)


Entry from Kadari’s diary
Entry from Kadari’s diary

The siege of the Old City lasted until the 11th of June, during which there was a terrible shortage of food (“the bread ration was reduced to one hundred and fifty grams and in a few days will be reduced to one hundred grams per person; oh well, this is real hunger, but one can suffer a bit more!” [June 6]. Following the end of fighting in Jerusalem, the situation improved significantly, (“In exchange for work they pay forty grush along with breakfast and dinner every day. By this arrangement, after just two days I have already been able to loosen my belt buckle and I can’t complain about hunger” [June 25th]).


It is not only existential distress that emerges from the pages of Kadari’s diary, but also his personal thoughts about his future and studies, which were interrupted by the war. He attends political meetings and cultural conferences, keeps himself busy with matters of language (“This afternoon I decided to go home, despite the danger of bombardment—they have already invented a new word for the concept: hafgaza [shelling]; indeed, this is the Jerusalem spirit!”). And once in a while he visits the Jerusalem homes of his teachers Gershom Scholem, Moshe Zvi Segal and others. One of the topics woven throughout the journal is the growing gap between Tel Aviv, the city where the declaration of the State had just been celebrated, and Jerusalem, which is under siege:

It truly seems from the papers that there is still life in Tel Aviv, despite everything. Only today was the public prohibited from going to the beach; the theaters and cinemas are running as usual […] only in Jerusalem we sit for months on the watch, on the frontline. The first to be tested is the city of Jerusalem. Perhaps it will be the first to be redeemed? 

(Entry from June 9th, 1948)

The institutions of the young state and the IDF (which until the day before was the “Haganah”), are concentrated in Tel Aviv, while Jerusalem is still sympathetic to members of the underground. With the outbreak of the fighting, Kadari, the native of Tel Avivi, was “stuck” in Jerusalem, and throughout the diary, he describes attempts to return home. His description of one of the most famous affairs of the period—the firing on the Irgun ship Altalena as it approached the shores of the coastal city, is mixed with a dose of racism:

There is explosive news on the internal political front: the Irgun, which declared its joining the ranks of the Haganah and full obedience to the Jewish government  institutions, brought an arms ship for itself and began unloading it, with the clear intent of violating the truce […] war is these people’s life, war for the sake of war. Internal danger awaits the Yishuv, heaven forbid, from these ne’er do wells, and careless adventurers. […] No wonder that most of the members of the Irgun and Lehi come from the Sephardic communities, and if so, it is clear from whence the fanaticism and blind enthusiasm for their actions, good or bad.

(Entry from June 23rd, 1948)

Kadari’s diary ends with his departure for Tel Aviv on August 18th. After the fighting ended, he renewed his studies at the university. Kadari submitted his doctoral dissertation in 1953 and later was appointed a lecturer at Bar Ilan University. In 1971 he became rector of the university and a member of the Academy of the Hebrew Language. In 1999, he was awarded the Israel Prize for Study of the Hebrew Language.


“The opinion of a simple Jerusalemite”


Menachem Zvi Kadari died in 2011. His personal archive was recently deposited in the National Library and includes, besides this diary, fascinating documents about underground rescue activities in which he took part in Hungary and Romania after the Nazi invasion, in addition to drafts of his research papers and lectures, as well as personal documents and correspondence.

Kadari’s full diary is held in the archives of the National Library of Israel.


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