That Time Seinfeld Did a Gig for the Maccabiah

This is how Jerry Seinfeld, Bill Maher and Billy Crystal found themselves telling jokes about Jews and sports in order to raise money for the 12th Maccabiah Games

Jerry Seinfeld fundraises. Photograph: Joe Seligman

One evening in 1985, Billy Crystal, Bill Maher and Jerry Seinfeld, along with other Jewish comedians, all got together. The purpose of this meeting: Fundraising for the American delegation to the Maccabiah. We are proud to present you photographs of that fundraising evening, which took place four years before ‘Seinfeld’ was first aired.

“During the 1980’s I worked as a television producer and producer of stand-up comedy events, and I was looking for new ways to raise money for the American delegation to the Maccabiah. Friends suggested I put on a stand-up comedy evening, and I decided to go for it,” Joe Seligman explains how one fine day, Jerry Seinfeld, Bill Mahler and Billy Crystal found themselves telling jokes about Jews and sports to raise money for the 12th Maccabiah Games.

Seligman was active in ‘Maccabi’ for many years, and even participated in several Maccabiahs himself. In 1973, Seligman was a member of the American cricket team in the 9th Maccabiah, after he left a career as a baseball player. “I thought, how hard can it be to play cricket? It’s just English baseball. It turned out in the end that it’s definitely not English baseball,” he relates. He soon discovered that his first hurdle was to find other Jewish American players who were familiar with cricket, a mission which turned out to be much more complex than he had originally envisaged.

At the end of the day, most of the cricket players he located were former baseball players, and the American delegation struggled to play against more experienced teams such as India, England and South Africa – losing every game they played. Despite the dismal results, Seligman became hooked on Maccabiah, and has taken part in organizing the American delegation to each subsequent Maccabiah.

In 1985 he came up with the idea to put on a comedy evening to raise money for the 12th Maccabiah. Now, over thirty years after the event we are pleased to share the pictures from that evening.

The first evening was held in February 1985, at the Improv club in Los Angeles, (which is now a chain of stand-up comedy clubs, with branches in Chicago and New York as well). The event was emceed by the comedian Norm Crosby and the star of the Los Angeles Riders football team, Lyle Aldazo. On the stage appeared: Jerry Seinfeld, Bill Maher and Billy Crystal, all young and talented Jewish comedians, alongside such veterans as Shelley Berman and Dick Shawn. At the time, Jerry Seinfeld was a talented comedian who appeared in clubs and had made appearnces on the Tonight Show with Jonny Carson, but “Seinfeld” the sitcom would only go on the air four years later. Crystal and Maher were also well on their way to becoming major stars of the comedy scene.

The efforts were not in vain, and the evening was an overwhelming success: “There was room for 224 people in the club, and we sold 227 tickets – and there were those who managed to sneak in,” Seligman explains.  The American delegation was the largest delegation at the 12th Maccabiah, though it’s hard to say of the comedy fundraising event can be credited directly for that….

While we unfortunately, we do not have video footage of this memorable evening avialable, we can at least we can enjoy some photographs:

Billy Crystal takes part in the fundraising event. Photograph: Joe Seligman
Bill Maher in the service of the Maccabiah. Photograph: Joe Seligman
Billy Crystal, the club owner Bud Friedman and his wife Nancy. Photograph: Joe Seligman

The evening’s success led Seligman to initiate several more fundraising evenings for the subsequent Maccabiah games, which also featured big names.

“Letter Returned to Sender: The Jewish Council No Longer Exists”

59 envelopes attest to the destruction of dozens of Jewish communities throughout Poland. "It is important that the world know that the Poles collaborated with the Germans' cruel actions during the Holocaust and were fully aware of the horrors."

“I have a very important item which I must give to you,” said the voice on the other end of the telephone, “And I ask that you come to collect it personally, as soon as possible.” The name of the man who telephoned the archive department some six months ago is a familiar one in the Library: the engineer Yosef Weichert, son of Michael Weichert whose large, extensive archive has been preserved in the National Library for almost fifty years.

A surprise awaited us when we came to visit him in Tel Aviv: Mr. Weichert gave us an item which for various reasons had not been deposited with the rest of his father’s archive material, and had remained in the family’s possession. With great excitement he handed us an album with a faded cover and said: “The time has come to present you with this historical item. It is important that the world become aware of the story and remember and know that the Poles collaborated with the Germans’ cruel actions during the Holocaust and were fully aware of the horrors.”

Meticulously arranged in the album were 59 letter envelopes sent between September 1940 and May 1941 to the various branches of the Jewish Social Self-Help Organization (ZSS) from the central office in Krakow. All the letters sent by the chairman of the organization, Michael Weichert, were returned to him.

The Polish postal service returned them to his office, a while after they were sent, with various handwritten additions on the envelope: “Left the address”; “The Jews were deported” or “The Jewish council no longer exists”.

Without a doubt, the Polish postmen were fully aware of what had befallen the addressees whose letters were returned to the sender. Michael Weichert was horrified by the returned mail, knowing that each envelope bearing a Polish postman’s comment hinted to a community which no longer existed. In his eyes, the envelopes, some of which were also stamped with a Polish stamp: “Victory to the Germans on all fronts!” were also an expression of the collaboration and unrestrained affinity many Poles felt toward the Nazi’s actions.

On the above envelope: the logo of the “Jewish Social Self-Help Organization”, underneath it, a red stamp: “Victory to the Germans on all fronts!” Michael Weichert Archive, the National Library

Weichert decided to conceal the envelopes in a hiding place, together with other documentation from that time. After the war, he removed the envelopes from their hiding place, so his son who witnessed his actions told us, and added them to his archive. But who was Michael Weichert and what was the organization for which he sent these letters to dozens of communities throughout Poland?

Michael Weichert was born in 1890 in the city of Podhajce, Eastern Galicia. His natural affinity for the world of literature and theatre and his excellence in classical studies mapped this talented young man’s path, and he decided to dedicate his life to Jewish theatre.

After completing his studies, with excellence, in the law faculty of Vienna University, he travelled to Berlin and registered for studies at the Academy of Theatre Arts headed by the well-known director Max Reinhardt. When the First World War came to an end Weichert returned to Poland and settled in Warsaw, where in 1929 he opened a studio for young experimental theater which gradually developed into the “Young Jewish Theatre”. Despite Weichert’s great success as director of the theatre, he needed another job to supplement his meager income, and he worked in his profession as an attorney in the service of various Jewish charitable and social aid institutions.

Dr. Michael Weichert

When the Second World War broke out, Weichert found himself in the eye of the storm – he was the legal consultant of the umbrella organization which unified the Jewish self-help social aid organizations in Poland. His natural leadership abilities led to him being the person who decided to accept the Germans’ offer to continue to operate these organizations. The aid funds sent to the organization from the Joint Distribution Committee in America were the deciding factor in the Germans’ decision to permit the activity to continue, under their tight supervision. In May 1940 Weichert was transferred to Krakow, where he was appointed as chairman of the Jewish Social Self-Help Organization (in Polish: Zydowska Samopomoc Spoleczna – ZSS).

Weichert was joined by Marek Biberstein, the head of the Krakow Judenrat as co-director of the organization. Many people were disconcerted by the organization’s close connections with the German authorities, and an attempt was even made at the end of the War to accuse Weichert of collaboration with the Nazis. Weichert was deeply hurt by these accusations, and spent many years clearing his name and proving his innocence.

“The Jewish council in Leszno no longer exists”. An envelope returned by the Polish postal service in May 1941.

All of the ZSS’s foreign relations had to be conducted – by order of the authorities – through the German Red Cross, and the organization was under close supervision of the authorities. Even its management was approved directly by the authorities in September 1940. The organization had advisers for each of the four Generalgouvernement districts, as well as representatives on local aid committees. The ZSS distributed food to the Jews of the Generalgouvernement and directed other widespread aid activities – such as operation of centers for agricultural training for the members of the socialist youth movements, aid to Jews in the forced labor camps, and more.

Many towns had branches of the organization which were all subordinate to Weichert’s management. The management of the organization in Krakow, headed by Weichert, coordinated, initiated and supervised the social aid activities in all the towns under its authority, including of various organizations which were effectively subservient to it but were often given full freedom of action. During the three years of its activity, this organization dealt with some half a million people, half of the total number of Jews in the area it was responsible for. Despite the tremendous disparity between the needs of the public and the ability to help them, the self-help organization managed to provide portions of food to the soup kitchens, as well as to send packages of dry food, medicine and clothing to the poor. The Germans ordered the organization to shut down once they began the implementation of the ‘Final Solution’. Its activity ceased on July 29, 1942, and a Jewish self-help office was opened in its stead, which was subordinate to the Gestapo and closely supervised by it.

The many frictions between Weichert and the various Polish underground movements led to him being forced to hide from them and to his life being in two-fold danger –  not only from the fury of those who saw him as a Nazi collaborator, but also due to having been sentenced to death by the Germans themselves, who issued an arrest order against him. Weichert, managed to survive the Holocaust, along with his wife and son. They arrived in Israel in 1958, bringing with them a large and valuable archive of documentation which has unique significance for the history of the Holocaust, as well as, and perhaps primarily in Weichert’s eyes, material which told the story of the Jewish theatre in pre-Holocaust Poland, during the War and in the short-lived period of flourishing after the War.

Comments of the Polish postman who returned the envelopes to the sender. Michael Weichert Archive, the National Library

The envelopes of the letters sent back to Weichert from the various branches of the aid organization he managed are important testimony and a painful memory of those difficult days. It was the Polish postmen who informed him about the destruction of dozens of Jewish communities throughout Poland. This extraordinary documentation is now preserved in the National Library and is available to researchers and historians who undoubtedly, will continue to study this dark and terrible period of human history.


Lucie Dreyfus and Her Fight for Her Husband

The personal letters Lucie Dreyfus sent to her husband Alfred and the extensive correspondence she conducted with the authorities reveal the tremendous efforts she exerted and the personal aspect of one of the most notorious anti-Semitic affairs in history.

Lucie and Pierre Dreyfus, a photograph from 1891. The Dreyfus Family Collection

On October 15, 1895, Alfred Dreyfus, an officer with the rank of captain in the French General Staff, was asked to report to headquarters at nine in the morning in civilian clothing for “an examination of the trainee officers”. Despite the puzzling request, the captain remained unperturbed and parted from his family as he did regularly. It was a pleasant morning, and his three year old son Pierre insisted on escorting him to the front door. The memory of this parting, Dreyfus later wrote in his memoirs, is what helped him cope with everything the following years sent his way.

Colonel du Paty de Clam, who was sent to question Dreyfus, wasted no time and dictated a document to the captain under express orders that he “be fastidious with his writing”. At the end of the dictation, the colonel rose wildly from his chair and declared “I arrest you in the name of the law, you are accused of a serious crime of treason.” Dreyfus was imprisoned in a military jail and was forbidden to contact his family.

“The Martyr”, Graphic (an illustrated weekly newspaper), London 1899. From the National Library collections

During a period of increasing national paranoia – a period in which the French Republic was rife with rumors and reports of treason and the sale of secrets to the German arch enemy – the suitable scapegoat had been found in Alfred Dreyfus.

When a secret document containing a series of military secrets was found being offered for sale, suspicion fell on Dreyfus, the only Jewish officer on the French General Staff. At the end of a short military trial he was convicted of treason and sent to lifelong exile on Devil’s Island, which is close to the shores of French Guiana in South America.

The story did not end there. Before being sent to Devil’s Island, the astounded Dreyfus was forced to undergo a terrible ceremony of degradation in which he was denounced as a traitor to the Republic. During the ceremony, which was held in the courtyard of the military school in Paris, he was stripped of all his ranks, his sword was taken from him and broken and the furious crowd which had gathered screamed anti-Semitic expletives at him.

Despite the drastic deterioration in his physical and mental health during his time in jail, until his dying day, Drefus refused to believe that it was hidden anti-Semitism in the army which led to his terrible ordeal.

Alfred Dreyfus, stripped of his ranks, Le Petite Journal, January 13, 1895. From the National Library’s collections

Upon his arrest, he was given the opportunity to choose the only “honorable way out” in such cases – a loaded revolver was placed in his cell to enable him to take his own life. To the jailers’ great surprise, Dreyfus refused to make use of the revolver and continued to protest his innocence. From the moment he was denied his freedom and his personal dignity, Dreyfus’ family decided to serve as his mouthpiece and worked tirelessly for his acquittal.

While his brother Mathieu acted within legal and diplomatic channels to obtain a re-trial and acquittal for his older brother, Lucie Dreyfus – Alfred’s beloved young wife – decided to invest all her energy into improving the new prisoner’s living conditions.

She sent him letters regularly, in which she updated her husband about their children, his brother’s tireless efforts for his acquittal, and of course, offered him words of encouragement and compassion. In a letter sent on January 16, 1895, Lucie wrote worriedly: “How are you my poor beloved, do you not feel weak because of the prison regime, you, who are in such need of fresh air and movement?”

Lucie’s letter to her husband, Paris, January 16, 1895. From the Dreyfus Family Archive at the National Library of Israel

It can be assumed that she was aware of the conditions in which her husband was imprisoned, and that she knew Dreyfus spent his five years on Devil’s Island living in a filthy shack. Temperatures sometimes reached 120 degrees fahrenheit. No amount of pleading from her would have changed the basic circumstances of his imprisonment, and therefore she tried to ease his lot in different ways. She conducted extensive correspondence with the Ministry of the Colonies, which was responsible for prisoners such as her husband.

On July 2, 1895 she received a reply: “Madame, you contacted our offices in order to receive permission to send fifty bottles of condensed milk to your husband (…) as according to law the exile Dreyfus has the right to take care of his needs and his food at his own expense, I do not oppose you sending these food products directly to Guiana…”

A letter from the Ministry of the Colonies to Lucie Dreyfus, July 2, 1985. From the Dreyfus Family Archive at the National Library of Israel

Other letters which she sent and received from the Ministry of the Colonies prove how persistent Lucie was in her fight to improve her husband’s conditions. Documentation from the archive reveals that Lucie received a letter from the Minister of the Colonies himself, André Lebon, informing her that he rejected several books she sent to her husband under the pretext that their pages were not properly cut.

Letter from the Minister of the Colonies to Lucie Dreyfus, May 5, 1896. From the Dreyfus Family Archive at the National Library of Israel

Resourceful Lucie found a solution, and in a later letter the director of the prison informed her that all the travelogue books she sent to her husband were approved and  passed on to the prisoner.

In 1899, the pro-Dreyfus coalition (known as the “Dreyfusards”) succeeded in securing a re-trial for the convicted officer. When Dreyfus was informed about the re-trial, he immediately sent a moving letter to his wife’s parents – the Hadamards – in which he expresses deep gratitude to their daughter for her support, support without which he would not have survived the grueling period of imprisonment. Why did Dreyfus send the letter to Lucie’s parents? The opening lines provide a clear answer: “If my letter should reach you before my return to France,” he writes to Lucie’s parents, “I ask that you hug Lucie and our dear children on my behalf, in anticipation of the overwhelming joy yet to be felt when I hold them in my arms, and when I will finally be able to help Lucie forget the long years of terrible suffering through a peaceful and happy life.”

The letter Alfred Dreyfus sent to Lucie’s parents. Iles de Salut, June 4, 1899. From the Dreyfus Family Archive at the National Library of Israel

The military tribunal which convened to review Dreyfus’ case found the accused guilty once again, this time of less severe treason, and he was sentenced to ten years in prison. The legal battle originally seemed to have been a further defeat for his supporters (led by Mathieu and other relatives). However, a month after the verdict, the President of the Republic pardoned Dreyfus – on the condition that he confess to his crime. Due to the heavy pressure exerted on him by Mathieu and his many other supporters, he reluctantly confessed. As soon as he was released he began to take action to obtain complete exoneration from any suspicion of treason.

The pain in confessing to the most despicable act a soldier in the service of the Republic could commit, as Dreyfus himself saw it, was dimmed only by the reunion with his wife and children.

The military establishment refused to recognize his innocence, and it was only in 1906, after a long trial, that the judge ruled that all the evidence and claims against Dreyfus were not credible and issued a final ruling exonerating Alfred Dreyfus of any guilt. Despite Dreyfus’ desire to return to the army, his poor state of health (the result of prolonged imprisonment in sub-human conditions) prevented him from continuing to serve the Republic. He was released from all military service a year later. He returned to the army during the First World War and stood by the Republic during one of the most brutal wars in history.

Alfred Dreyfus passed away in 1935, 29 years after receiving the presidential pardon and his freedom.

In 1975, Jeanne Dreyfus-Levi, Alfred and Lucie’s daughter, decided to transfer part of the Dreyfus Family Archive to the National Library of Israel. Out of feelings of closeness and affection for the State of Israel and the Jewish people, she ensured that the most personal and moving family letters dealing with the Dreyfus affair be transferred to the Library.

Alfred and Lucie Dreyfus in their later years. From the Dreyfus Family Archive at the National Library of Israel

The article was written with the generous assistance of Dr. Betty Halpern-Gadez of the National Library of Israel’s Archives Department.

Natan Sharansky’s Little Book of Psalms that Survived the Soviet Prison

During the darkest period of his eventful life, a small black book gave light to the imprisoned Natan Sharansky, symbolizing his connection with his wife and with the Land of Israel

Natan Sharansky's Book of Psalms

“On January 20th, 1980, my birthday, I was impatiently waiting for a congratulatory telegram from home…The next day I received an unexpected surprise – a real birthday gift! – when the official in charge of storing the prisoners’ belongings brought me a tiny book with a black binding, my Book of Psalms!”

(Fear No Evil, Natan Sharansky, translated by Stefani Hoffman, Random House New York, 1988)

This is how former Soviet political prisoner Natan Sharansky describes a rare moment of joy which he experienced on the 21st of January, 1980, when his prison officer gave him back his little black Book of Psalms. The book provided Sharansky with renewed hope throughout the long years of his imprisonment. He was never to be separated from this book ever again.

Natan Sharansky with his Book of Psalms

The book accompanied Sharansky during his most difficult years in prison. In his autobiography, Sharansky tells of how the book, given to him by his wife Avital on the eve of his arrest, was confiscated. As a religious book printed outside the Soviet Union, it wasn’t exactly recommended reading material in the Soviet prison system. At one point, when Sharansky was being transferred from one prison to another, the book was temporarily returned to his possession.  The prisoner took advantage of this opportunity and tore out the page which indicated the book had been printed in Israel. When asked about it later, Sharansky described it as a “book of folklore”. It was only thanks to this that the prison authorities finally agreed to return the book to him.

“The Psalm book was the sole material evidence of my mystical tie with Avital. What impelled her to send it to me on the eve of my arrest? And how did it happen that I received it on the day of my father’s death? The reading of the Psalms not only reinforced our bond but also demystified their author. King David now appeared before me not as a fabled hero or as a mystical superman but as a live, indomitable soul – tormented by doubts, rising against evil, and suffering from the thought of his own sins.”

In 2014, Natan Sharansky visited the National Library of Israel. One of his meetings was with the director of the Conservation and Restoration Department, Timna Elper.

“I was so excited to meet Sharansky,” she said, “I told him of the impact that the story of his Psalm book, as he described it in his autobiography, had on my life.” Sharansky then pulled the tiny book out of his pocket and showed it to her. It wasn’t in great shape, as could be expected after years in a Soviet prison.

Upon seeing the state of Sharansky’s book, the Library administrators who accompanied the visit offered to restore it.


Natan Sharansky’s Book of Psalms, before and after restoration

The book was given thorough treatment in the Library’s facilities.  The heavily damaged cover was restored, torn pages were mended and and the many eroded page corners were treated using the Conservation and Restoration Department’s unique techniques. Finally, on the 8th of May 2014, the Psalm book was returned to its excited owner.

Sharansky receives his Psalm book after its restoration

Towards the end of his autobiography, Sharansky writes about his very last moments of imprisonment, all those years ago, just before he stepped onto the plane that would take him to freedom:

“Where’s my Psalm book?

“You received everything that was permitted,” answered the intellectual in an unexpectedly rough tone. He signaled to the tails to take me away. I quickly dropped to the snow.

“I won’t move until you give me back my Psalm book.” When nothing happened, I lay down in the snow and started shouting, “Give me back my Psalm book!”

The photographers were aghast, and pointed their cameras to the sky.

After a brief consultation the boss gave me the Psalm book. I got up and quickly mounted the ramp.

In a dark world of suffering and injustice, one small black book gave light to the imprisoned Sharanksy. It was a reminder of his Jewish heritage. It was a reminder of his wife, Avital, who gave him the book before his arrest. It was what provided him with the strength to survive those most terrible times.


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