A Woman as She Is: The Story of Rachel Katznelson-Shazar

She was a different sort of feminist Zionist leader, establishing an alternative female ideal in the pioneering era of the Zionist Second Aliyah. Alongside widespread social activity, she raised her special child, without shame or concealment, in an era when such a thing was highly unusual. She also found time to edit one of the first Hebrew-language women’s monthlies and win the Israel Prize. Despite this, she is still remembered and commemorated mostly as the “President’s wife.” The time has come to get to know this incredible woman in her own right.

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Rachel Katznelson-Shazar. Photo courtesy of Government Press Office

Sixty-six years of a relationship that knew its ups and downs, a daughter with Down’s syndrome, decades of Zionist public activity before and after the founding of the state, ten years in the President’s Residence. Despite this impressive record, the name Rachel Katznelson-Shazar doesn’t mean much to most people, even Israelis, unless she is mentioned alongside her husband – Israel’s third President Zalman Shazar.

But Rachel Katznelson-Shazar was not just “the President’s wife.” She was a woman of many accomplishments and a Zionist leader brave enough to knowingly and deliberately focus on an issue which was then in its infancy and even treated with criticism and contempt: the role of the woman and her importance within the Zionist movement.

Rachel Katznelson was born in 1885 in the city of Bobruisk in Belorussia. This was a city with a clearly Jewish majority, with a rich and varied Jewish life. She herself was born into an established, well-off family that allowed her to acquire a western-style education. But despite a comfortable living, surrounded by a loving family, Rachel was always drawn towards that which was different.

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The synagogue in Bobruisk, Rachel’s hometown. The Institute of Jewish Studies St. Petersburg, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection]

In those days, Zionism was a new, revolutionary movement growing in Europe, attracting younger members of Jewish families. After the Kishinev pogrom in 1903, many Jews were drawn towards the Zionist dream of establishing a Jewish state in the distant Land of Israel, even if the practical realization of that dream remained distant.

Rachel, for whom a long, obstacle-ridden path only served as an incentive, became an enthusiastic Zionist activist, inspiring her relatives to join the cause as well. By the end of the 1930s, all of her close family members had made Aliyah, with the exception of her brother who died before he could leave (his widow and children made Aliyah after his death).

How irregular was this? Rachel said it best: “Of all my 70 cousins, only the children of my father and mother came to the country, another one or two had a peek and left; others did not bother with a peek.”

As befitting the pioneer that she was, Rachel came first, reaching the port of Jaffa in 1912. The country, then under Ottoman rule, was far from a comfortable or easy place to live. The neglected, dusty, and poverty-stricken land was utterly different from any reality she had experienced or known from the wealthy European home she left. But Rachel faced another, no less formidable obstacle in coming to be a Zionist pioneer: she was a woman.

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The spirit of the Hebrew woman – serves as a guarantee for the people as a whole” – A feminist Zionist doctrine? From Dvar Hapo’elet, 1948

On the one hand, it could have been much worse. The pioneers of the Second Aliyah – people like David Ben-Gurion, Moshe Sharet, and Berl Katznelson – were influenced by socialist ideals that developed almost in parallel to Zionism, and as a result Zionism would become a truly pioneering movement (pun intended) when it came to the status of women.

On the other hand, like any historic change, the struggle of the pioneering Hebrew women for status and recognition was not a smooth one. The female pioneers, most of whom were single and childless, were expected to be completely devoted. Family life and the life of a Zionist pioneer did not go hand in hand. Alongside the Zionist men who believed in women and their ability to become an integral part of the pioneering project, there were many who dismissed them and closed the door in their face. Besides, the men did not want to take an active role in the life of the family and the household, forcing women to face a cruel choice – avoid family life entirely, or leave the rearing of children to nannies or the kibbutz children’s home and entirely disavow the motherly role.

In some places, things were so bad that women took their own lives, unable to cope with the gap between their duties and their desires.

These were Rachel’s first few years in the country, and she experienced every aspect of the pioneering lifestyle: She worked on the farm at Kinneret and other kibbutzim, was a partner in establishing another farm with Berl Katznelson in Jerusalem, and even taught Hebrew at the “Maiden’s Farm” (Havat Ha’Almot) where she was sent shortly after making Aliyah.

This farm was founded by Hana Meisel, an agronomist and pioneer who bought farmland on the banks of the Sea of Galilee, where she trained women in farm labor alongside “normal” household duties.

When Rachel was sent there to serve as a Hebrew teacher, she felt inferior compared to the male immigrants who had also just arrived and who were also teaching Hebrew. She wrote to her close friend Berl Katznelson, who had encouraged her to apply for a teaching position at the farm: “Berl, it’s a hard thing for me to write a letter like the one I wrote to Hana Meisel. I wished her to know that I should not be compared to a real teacher who taught in heder [a traditional Jewish school] and so on. Do it for me. Tell her all this. I’m especially pained at not having gotten around to going over the whole Bible.”

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With kibbutz members at the spa at Ma’ale HaHamisha. This picture is part of the Archive Network Israel project, made available thanks to collaboration between the Kibbutz Ma’ale HaHamisha, the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage, and the National Library of Israel

It was in that atmosphere that she started to form her feminist outlook, which differed from those of other women of her generation.

While other Zionist activists like Manya Shochat and Golda Meir believed the ultimate goal was to emulate the successful men around them, Katznelson believed in equal opportunity while also seeing benefit in fundamental differences between men and women, with the idea that it was these differences which would allow female pioneers to contribute even more to Zionist society.

She was especially sad to see how women were pushed aside when they formed families and became mothers: “Is it not absurd that such a young woman, when she enters into a family life, thinks with complete seriousness that she will organize her life as her mother and grandmother did and be happy – serving the children and the husband? Why does her husband organize his life openly and she in concealment? Why is it that he simply lives his life, while she lives only during the breaks – after satisfying the needs of the home, the needs of the child, and his needs? Why is the stream of her life but a side stream?”

Based on that same sense of missed opportunity and public marginalization, the female pioneers of the Second and Third Aliyahs founded the Va’ad Hapo’alot or Female Workers’ Council in 1921, one year after the establishment of the Histadrut or General Organization of Workers in Israel. The council operated under the Histadrut, but with openly feminist goals – with a special emphasis on the image of the Hebrew, Zionist female pioneer.

Meanwhile, alongside her work, Rachel turned to building up her personal life, marrying Zalman Rubashov, the man she loved, in 1920. Her life with Zalman had its ups and downs: Rachel was already in the country as Zalman, who spent much of his life working for the Zionist cause, toured Europe as a Zionist activist and diplomat.

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Rachel with her husband, Zalman. Photo courtesy of Government Press Office

A year after their marriage, Rachel joined her husband in Vienna, where he was appointed a member of the offices of the Poele Zion movement (“Workers of Zion”). It was in Vienna that she gave birth to their only daughter – Roda.

Already from the start, Rachel felt that Roda was not like all the other infants. The “ordinary” difficulties of motherhood combined with Roda’s uniqueness led to a real crisis- for Rachel. “I cannot hide from you,” she wrote Zalman, who was far away on a mission in Berlin. “I live in a nightmare world. Day and also night, there is no rest. My heart is not silent, different thoughts pass and I cannot even let them leave my mouth. I am not afraid of evil, but rather of the hardening of the heart.”

When Roda was three, she was diagnosed with Down’s syndrome. The concern and duties of caring for her accompanied the Shazars for the rest of their life. Unlike many others during that period in time, they did not turn their back on their daughter. They did not send her off to be taken care of by someone else, or feel ashamed of her.

Throughout her life, Roda Shazar was treated with love and devotion, but there is no doubt that the difficulties and the sense of missed opportunities left their mark on her mother, Rachel. Although she believed, contrary to most female pioneers of her time, that motherhood was not a handicap but rather a privilege and even a virtue, she was disappointed at the failure of women in getting men to share more of the family burden: “I have long since ceased to see the idyll of the worker’s family life. I see the suffering … the young mother is entirely mired in her private life and she is blind and deaf to the affairs of our lives. This blindness does not mean that she takes excellent care of the child. Every woman feels she is sinning: [not fulfilling her duties] to the child, the home, the floors. She works a great deal and always lists her sins. The woman is an echo of the life of the male comrade.”

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The “First Mother”. Rachel Katznelson visiting IDF wounded at Hadassah Hospital. From: the Dan Hadani Archive, the National Library of Israel

In 1924, the Shazars returned home, and Rachel was selected for a position on the cultural committee of the Female Workers’ Council. This was further proof of her uniqueness in the pioneering milieu – she believed culture was an inseparable part of the shaping of Zionist society, just as important as farming and security.

She also consciously chose to remain with the Female Workers’ Council. While other female activists like Golda Meir and Manya Shochat viewed it as nothing but a springboard to the main political arena, Rachel believed that the cause of the female worker was just as important.

After a few years at the Histadrut, she began editing the first edition of Kovetz Divrei Ha’Poalot [“The Collected Words of the Female Workers”]. After its publication, she was even elected to the secretariat of the Female Workers’ Council in 1930. She did all this while she and her husband continued their shared Zionist work in Europe and America.

But in 1934, she left to found a new paper – Dvar Hapo’elet [“The Word of the Female Worker”], and a new era began for Rachel Katznelson-Shazar.

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Already in 1926, Rachel strove to found a paper which would give voice to the women of the Zionist movement, speak in their name and bring more women closer to the Zionist idea and existing institutions in the country.

Journalism and writing were not foreign to the Shazars. Both worked in writing, translating and editing journals or newspapers over the course of their lives. Zalman Shazar wrote the first draft of Israel’s Declaration of Independence, while Rachel edited and collected articles, books, and works of Zionist thought.

In those years, members of the Female Workers’ Council founded Ha’Isha or “The Woman”, an independent publication addressing current events from a female perspective. “The monthly Ha’Isha aims to create a new type of Hebrew woman, who does not see her home and work as an end in itself but rather as part of the public and national building enterprise in general,” read the editorial in the publication’s sixth monthly issue. But the paper did not last long and ultimately closed down.

Now it was replaced by Rachel Shazar’s life’s work – Dvar Hapo’elet. The paper started as a supplement of the leftwing workers’ paper Davar, with the aim of helping it reach new audiences. Only in the early 1950s did it become an independent paper in its own right.

Aside from Rachel, who was the editor-in-chief who brought all the other writers on board, women like Devorah Dayan, Moshe Dayan’s mother, Rivka Aaronsohn, a relation of the founders of the Nili underground, Manya Shochat and more were part of its roster.

All, aside from Rachel who earned a pittance, wrote for free. Rachel considered the paper to be a means for educating women and delivering messages, knowledge, and information to female workers in Israel: “(The female worker) must stress her independence and originality and add to the intellectual culture of the whole movement.”

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Rachel speaks at the President’s Residence. Photo: the Meitar Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

Finally, Rachel had found a real home where she felt she could act and express herself freely. After years of public and political activity during which she never felt like she fit in, being forced to adopt male airs or ignoring her feminine traits, she now found her place in the pages of a newspaper, which she would edit for twenty-seven years.

Years passed, and more crises befell the Jewish People at home and abroad. During WWII and the Holocaust, Rachel supported the idea of women enlisting in the British Army, in the hope that their practical participation in the defense of the country and the Jewish community would make its own contribution to advancing their social status.

Once the state was founded, her husband joined the provisional government and served as its Education Minister. He also served in a variety of positions in the Jewish Agency and other Zionist institutions.

Rachel continued to edit the paper while engaging in activism to advance the cause of women. On Israel’s tenth Independence Day in 1958, she received the recognition she so richly deserved when she was awarded the Israel Prize.

Among the reasons for her selection were “…her work among society and its systems, for her work close to fifty years in the field of the educational and cultural absorption of the working woman in the country. She should be seen as the soundboard and the collector of the literary expression of the pioneering woman.”

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Rachel Yana’it Ben Zvi (right) speaks to Rachel Katznelson-Shazar at the seventh Workers’ Convention. This photo is part of the Archive Network Israel project 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

In 1963, Zalman Shazar was elected President of Israel, a role he filled for a decade. Rachel continued her public activity alongside him, this time as the President’s wife.

Naturally enough, this role left its mark on how the two were remembered. Rachel Katznelson-Shazar is known today primarily as the wife of the fourth President. But before that, she was an enthusiastic pioneer and Zionist, a journalist and an author, and a staunch feminist in the days when the feminist struggle was still in its infancy. Even if it seems that true equality is still far off, her ideas and writings were the solid foundation from which generations of women set out to pave the path of the Israeli woman for recognition and equality.

“The Night of the Ducks”: An IDF Drill Gone Wrong

What had all the makings of an April Fools’ prank in 1959 was no joke.

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Photo of IDF soldiers by Nadav Mann, Bitmuna. From the Yitzhak Sadeh collection. Collection source: Yoram Sadeh. The Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel. Photo of radio: Rawpixel, photo of ducks: ZeroOne

This is the story of how the Israel Defense Forces attempted to mobilize its reservists in a drill in 1959 to test the call-up system on national radio, while needing to be sure that citizens didn’t misunderstand the exercise to mean that a war loomed, but neglecting to make that clear in the broadcast, but then having enemies react by mobilizing because they figured Israel really was planning to attack (so did IDF soldiers and Israel’s population), but then red-faced political leaders and IDF brass admitting that this might’ve been a colossal screw-up and then having to prevent escalation into a real war…

Well, the incident came to be lampooned as “Night of the Ducks,” a play on one of the code words the military had selected for the faux mobilization.

Night of the Ducks? It might as well have been Israel’s hybrid sequel to the Marx Brothers’ 1930s comedies A Night at the Opera and Duck Soup, no doubt produced by Chelm Studios.

Wait, wait — there’s more. The episode even involved a Belgian royal, Queen Elisabeth the Queen Mother.

And here’s the kicker: This scenario occurred on April 1.

Rest assured that you, dear reader, are not being pranked this April Fools’ Day, when people like to play practical jokes. The crisis in Israel truly occurred on April 1, 1959.

That Wednesday night, Israel Radio informed listeners that soldiers in three units — codenamed “Water Ducks,” “Expression of Importance” and “Band of Artists” — should report the next day to reserve duty. It was meant to test the military’s responsiveness. Problem was that the IDF didn’t clue anyone in that the call-up was merely a drill.

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IDF artillery forces in the 1950s, photo by Nadav Mann, Bitmuna. From the Yitzhak Sadeh collection. Collection source: Yoram Sadeh. The Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

Hearing the announcement, Israelis sensibly figured that a security crisis brewed, perhaps even that war was imminent. So did Arab countries monitoring the radio. In response, for example, Syrian reserve units were called up and Jordan raised its alert level.

Israel’s leaders were left in the dark and fell for it, too. Knesset deliberations on the budget were interrupted as parliamentarians headed for radios to learn what was happening. Rumors spread. One minister announced that Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, who also served as Defense Minister, was incommunicado.

The mistake was corrected on the radio later that night, and calm was restored. The Foreign Ministry alerted other governments to the blunder and reassured them that Israel wasn’t on war footing. Even Belgium’s former queen and the mother of its then-king, Elisabeth Wittelsbach, during a week-long visit in Israel, had to be persuaded that the country remained safe enough to stay in. (In 1965, two months before her death at age 89, Elisabeth was awarded Yad Vashem’s Righteous Among the Nations designation for intervening with Nazi officials to release several hundred Belgian Jews during the Shoah.)

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Former IDF Chief of Staff, Lt. Gen Haim Laskov, seen here smoking a pipe. Photo by by Boris Karmi, the Meitar Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

In fact, in the chaotic moments following the radio announcement, Ben-Gurion sought to reach IDF Chief of Staff Haim Laskov. He telephoned the concert hall where Laskov was attending an event honoring the Queen Mother. An employee there, figuring himself to be the butt of an April Fools’ prank, hung up when the caller identified himself as the Prime Minister. Ben-Gurion called back, and again was hung up on. And yet again. Finally, Ben-Gurion prevailed upon the man to summon Laskov — pronto.

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IDF chief Haim Laskov was forced to explain the mix-up to Belgium’s Queen Mother, from the April 10, 1959 issue of The Detroit Jewish News, the Historical Jewish Press Collection at the National Library of Israel

It wasn’t Israel’s finest hour. Ben-Gurion set up a commission of inquiry. “The failure was not in the call-up but in the broadcasting,” he said. The flub came about, he explained, because, while the call-up drill was planned, its timing hadn’t been decided — and the broadcast occurred without the Defense Minister (himself) or Laskov having approved it.

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Laskov (left) and Ben-Gurion (right), pictured about a decade before the incident, when Laskov was still a colonel. Photo by Benno Rothenberg, the Meitar Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

The fall-out was severe. Two top IDF major-generals, Chief of Reserves Meir Zorea and Chief of Military Intelligence Yehoshafat Harkabi, lost their jobs. A no-confidence motion was brought in the Knesset; the government easily defeated it and remained in power.

With the passage of 65 years, the episode can be shrugged off as an amusing anecdote, even a footnote.

Indeed, Yoav Gelber, a retired professor of Israeli military history who at the time was a 16-year-old student at a military boarding school in Haifa, chuckled about the incident during a telephone conversation this week.

But the backstory he related was no laughing matter. It was a story he learned of years later directly from Laskov, who Gelber said was “a good friend” of his.

In short: There was never meant to be a call-up. The duck hunting was all a decoy.

In those days, Gelber explained, Egypt flew surveillance planes into Israel at night, certain that doing so carried little risk: By the time the Israeli Air Force responded, the Egyptians would have photographed the areas they desired and departed. So the IAF’s commander in chief, Ezer Weizmann (later to become Israel’s president), set up an ambush. Announcing the IDF’s mobilization would draw Egypt’s surveillance planes. IAF planes by then would be aloft, ready to shoot down the Egyptian planes.

For some reason, Egypt didn’t bite and its planes stayed away.

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Maj. Gen. Ezer Weizmann, head of the Israeli Air Force and future Israeli President, pictured speaking at an IDF ceremony in 1959. Photo by Boris Karmi, the Meitar Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, he National Library of Israel

That night, Gelber recalled, military commanders at his school ordered students to report to the armory to take weapons. Gelber went to sleep alongside a Czech rifle. When he woke up, things had returned to normal.

Gelber said that at the time, he was cognizant of the date, so he first suspected that the call-up order was a gag. He then decided it was real because, he reasoned, “it was at night, and April Fools’ jokes you generally do in the morning.”

The incident “wasn’t funny at all. It was very serious,” said Gelber.

Not that he resisted temptation decades later.

Gelber related a story from his days as a battalion commander in the reserves. This was in 1982, soon before the Lebanon War broke out. Gelber told his soldiers that because of the security situation, he was cancelling all vacations and leaves.

His men groaned.

“Everyone swallowed it. No one suspected,” Gelber said, giggling like a comedian struggling to restrain himself from revealing the punch line.

“Then I told them to look at the calendar. It was April 1.”

Writer-editor Hillel Kuttler can be reached at [email protected].

How Did Queen Esther Become a Christian Saint?

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

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Queen Esther. Wall painting in Villa Carducci

Little Boy kneels at the foot of the bed,

Droops on the little hands little gold head.

Hush! Hush! Whisper who dares!

Christopher Robin is saying his prayers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As stated above, this was an extremely dangerous practice.

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

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

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

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

I, Woman: Janet Asimov Tells Her Story

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

תמונה ראשית

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

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

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

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

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

We will come back to this book later.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Janet and Isaac Asimov. Photo: Jay Kay Klein

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

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

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

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

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

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

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