“Different Nights”: Alice Shalvi Recounts Passover During & After the War

One Seder during WWII - and one right after - left an indelible mark on the renowned educator and activist

Alice And Family 1940s 832

Alice (first seated from left) and family, 1940s. From the Alice Shalvi Archive, National Library of Israel

The Passover Seder is unique in the Jewish calendar, the only one of the festivals which is celebrated in the home, in the presence of family, friends and even strangers.  Indeed, at the very beginning of the Haggadah reading we invite strangers, the hungry, the needy, to join us.

From early childhood on, I recall my mother always setting an extra place at the table, in anticipation of my father’s bringing a stranger from out of town from the synagogue.  During the years when Soviet Jews were not permitted to leave their country, we set an empty chair to symbolize our hope for their passage to freedom.  I do not recall a single Seder night in my parents’ home or my own, when there was not even one stranger present (until coronavirus imposed isolation, leaving me with the four members of my family who share my home).

Alice and her siblings, circa 1935. From the Alice Shalvi Archive,  the National Library of Israel

Of the scores of Seder nights that I recall well, two in particular stand out. One was in a time of war, the other in the first year of post-war peace, soon after we first learned of the extermination of European Jewry under Nazi occupation.

In 1940, when I was fourteen years old, my parents, brother and I fled the fury of the German Blitz on London for the safety of a small village in Buckinghamshire, some fifty miles north-east of the capital.  My father bought a house on High Street which, though small, was blessed with a large plot of land on which we could not only keep chickens, but also grow vegetables and fruit to supplement the comparatively meagre rations that were available at the local grocery.

Apart from ourselves, there were a few Jewish families among our fellow evacuees, almost all of whom came from the comparatively poor East End of London.  Some of them were also refugees who escaped from Europe before the war.  None were wealthy.

My father took upon himself the task of organizing a minyan for the High Holidays and Shabbatot and, in 1944, also the hosting of the Seder night for some forty or so Jewish soldiers among those serving in an army camp on the outskirts of the village.

Two days before Pesach, he announced to my mother that there were still thirty soldiers for whom he had not succeeded in finding hospitality. We ourselves would have to host them.

Alice and her mother, Perl, circa 1943. From the Alice Shalvi Archive, the National Library of Israel

The slaughterer was brought from London, seasonal vegetables were picked, dozens of eggs collected.  Benches were brought from the village hall, our dining table, extended to the full, was supplemented by a smaller table from the kitchen.  My role was to whip the egg-whites for the eight sponge cakes that my mother baked.  Electric beaters not yet having been invented, this task was performed with the aid of a simple fork and required strong arms, with which I was fortunately blessed.

The guests streamed in.  I, the youngest present, recited the Four Questions.  When the time came for me to help my mother bring the food from the kitchen, I was forced to crawl under the table to reach the door.  There was not space enough for me to go around it.  The guests could not stop expressing their thanks. Like Cinderella, they had to leave before midnight, leaving us glowing with gratification at their response to our welcome.

Two years later, in 1946, when we were back in London, my father, who had been active in the Polish-Jewish Federation that was established some years earlier, was invited to attend the first anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.

Seder Night fell on a Monday.  At noon on Sunday, he phoned from Paris to announce that he was bringing three guests from the US who could not reach their homes in time for the festival.

It was still a time of food shortage and strict rationing and we no longer raised chickens nor grew vegetables. My brother, then studying in Cambridge, had invited a number of Jewish fellow students from the Land of Israel to join us.

Alice with her brother William in the field behind their wartime home, circa 1941

My mother met the challenge unfazed.  Chickens could still be bought in the morning, additional vegetables bought for soup, the giblets could be served in a sweet-sour sauce as an entrée, there was a local bakery nearby and fortunately we had a plentiful stock of wine.

When my father returned on Sunday evening, he brought with him a huge carp, a fish unknown in Britain, but beloved by Polish Jews like my parents. It more than adequately supplemented the feast.

However, the greatest surprise and delight stemmed from the identity of the three guests:  Opera singer Emma Schaver, who had developed an extensive repertoire of Yiddish songs which she performed in the Displaced Persons camps in Europe; the poet-philosopher Israel Efros; and Leib Halpern, a poet-dramatist who wrote  under the pen-name of H. Levik, and whose most famous work was the poetic drama “The Dybbuk”.

The wide-ranging, sparkling, fascinating conversation was mainly in Yiddish, the commentary original, illuminating; and the food, delicious, evoked justified compliments.  And finally, a cherry on the icing, Emma Schaver introduced us to a melody for the “Who is One” song that comes at the close of the Haggadah.  Though it proved to be well known in the Land of Israel, we had never before heard it.  It is the one we’ve sung ever since and each year, when we sing it, I recall Emma’s strong contralto ringing out at our first post-World War Pesach Seder.

We had survived.

The Alice Shalvi Archive is safeguarded among the collections of the National Library of Israel in Jerusalem.

The “Passover Memories” project on The Librarians has been created as part of Gesher L’Europa, the National Library of Israel’s initiative to connect with people, institutions and communities across Europe and beyond, through storytelling, knowledge sharing and community engagement.

Celebrating Passover… as the Ambassador to Egypt

"...we felt it would have been strange to hold a Seder in Egypt"

Ambassador Daniel C. Kurtzer in Cairo with Nobel Prize-winning Egyptian author Naguib Mahfouz, 2000 (Courtesy)

We lived in Egypt twice, for a total of seven years, but never spent the Passover holiday there – for reasons we thought were obvious. Somewhat counterintuitively, as we departed the country each year during our first tour of duty, 1979-82, tens of thousands of Israelis made the reverse exodus to celebrate Passover among the Egyptian antiquities.

Israeli tourists arriving in Sinai, 1970s (Photo: IPPA Staff). From the Dan Hadani Archive, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

Our experiences with other Jewish holidays and Shabbatot in Egypt were quite positive. Perhaps because we were the only kosher household between Eilat and Nairobi, we hosted a stream of visitors, many of whom we had not known previously. Our devout Muslim chef loved Shabbat, and he would often join us toward the end of the Friday night meal to listen to the songs we sang. He and the staff also constructed one of the most beautiful sukkot we had ever seen, made entirely of palm fronds.

However, we felt it would have been strange to hold a Seder in Egypt, with its repeated references to the travails of the Israelites in slavery. Indeed, a senior Egyptian diplomat who had served in Washington told us often that he would gladly participate in any Jewish holiday observance except the Passover Seder.

The best part about our own annual exodus was the opportunity to spend Passover with family. Our “traditions” included rubber frogs that appeared during the recitation of the ten plagues, a play on a range of words and phrases in the Haggadah, and more recently, a variety of charoset ranging from the traditional to Mizrachi to Hawaiian.

Ambassador Daniel C. Kurtzer served as the United States Ambassador to Israel and as the United States Ambassador to Egypt. He was a long-time member of the board of NLI USA, which builds support for the National Library of Israel by increasing public awareness of its many cultural, intellectual, and educational resources.

The “Passover Memories” project on The Librarians has been created as part of Gesher L’Europa, the National Library of Israel’s initiative to connect with people, institutions and communities across Europe and beyond, through storytelling, knowledge sharing and community engagement.

Priests, Rabbis and Sweets: A Bold Approach to Interfaith Relations

The 19th century words and efforts of Rabbi Israel Moshe Hazan

Patriarch of Jerusalem Giuseppe Valerga appears in front of the letter sent by Rabbi Israel Moshe Hazan to Chief Rabbi of Ottoman Palestine Chaim Avraham Gagin

Rabbi Israel Moshe Hazan (1808-1862) was a fascinating and multi-faceted figure: a Talmudic sage, great orator, poet, and speaker of many languages. He believed in interfaith dialogue out of mutual respect, and spoke highly in praise of Christian leaders in Italy.

In his book Nahala LeIsrael (Vienna, 1851) he writes some rather extraordinary things, including the following (pp 46-47):

“Will the esteemed Jewish Roman congregation forget that from the day of the exile from their land, they were not forced to move from place to place, but rather were allowed to settle down in Rome? And they did not hear from any Pope (even during harrowing times) any decree to expel them from Rome.  […] our Christian brethren! Our Messianic lovers! Aren’t we brothers? Are we not two plants that feed off the same source, which is G-d’s Torah!  The Christian Apostles gave you the interpretation of the Messianic Christian religion, and our rabbinical ancestors gave us the interpretation of the Jewish religion.”

Original manuscript of “Nahala LeIsrael“. From the British Library; available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

He goes on to praise Christian scholars:

“And truthfully I say, as I said in the past, ‘that the Christian scholars are genuine and science loving people, they judge fairly, they respect religion and religious people, always researching for the truth, and when they find it, I swear, they courageously make it publicly known. They stand like lions to defend the truth.'”

The words of Rabbi Hazan are very bold, and even today would be considered heresy in the eyes of many adherents to Jewish Orthodoxy. Nonetheless, the late Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, former chief rabbi of the United Kingdom, wrote similar words in his 2002 book, The Dignity of Difference: How to Avoid the Clash of Civilizations, arguing that the time has come for religions to truly recognize that there is truth in each of them.

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks speaking at the 2016 gathering of the Global Forum of the National Library of Israel (Photo: Hanan Cohen)

In the book, Rabbi Sacks claimed that “God has spoken to mankind in many languages: through Judaism to Jews, Christianity to Christians, Islam to Muslims”. One God must be believed in, but not in the existence of one religion. All three monotheistic religions, he claimed, express the divine truth in the world. The publication of the book caused significant controversy, forcing Rabbi Sacks to soften his words, and publish a revised second edition.

In a letter found in the Meir Benayahu Collection, I discovered an interesting practical implementation of Rabbi Hazan’s religious approach. The letter was written on December 16, 1847 in Rome, while Rabbi Hazan was serving as a rabbi there. It was sent to Chief Rabbi of Ottoman Palestine Chaim Avraham Gagin (1787-1848), more than simply a colleague to Rabbi Hazan, who had once referred to himself as “the humblest student of this great, holy, genius and famous Rabbi of all the Jews, Rabbi Gagin.”

In his letter, Rabbi Hazan tells Rabbi Gagin about his meeting with Pope Pius IX, who “received us with much love”, and about Senior Valerga (Giuseppe Valerga, 1813-1872), the new Latin Patriarch about to arrive in Jerusalem. He praises the Patriarch, and expresses his desire that the Chief Rabbi (also known as “The Rishon Letzion”) and the Catholic Patriarch of Jerusalem be “as if they are one”.

רחוב הגיא, ירושלים - מבט אל עבר "בית האיש העשיר". צילום: פליקס בונפיס, בערך 1860
HaGai Street in the Old City of Jerusalem, ca. 1860 (Photo: Félix Bonfils). From the Jacob Wahrman Archive, Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

According to Rabbi Hazan, this friendship was only natural and desirable, because the religious leaders were “two great people, each one does his work in accordance with his forefathers’ tradition.” This sentence – comparing the work of the rabbi and his tradition to that of the priest – is unusual, its content surprisingly daring, especially given the historical and religious contexts.

Rabbi Hazan goes on to ask Rabbi Gagin to visit the Patriarch upon his arrival in Jerusalem, even giving a little tip on how to win his heart. After advising The Rishon Letzion on how to behave, including wearing nice clothes, coming with a respectable entourage, and giving advance notice, he suggests sending the Patriarch local sweets, which he will surely enjoy. Rabbi Hazan explains that Italians are known to love sweets, yet in Italy no one knows how to prepare them properly. The quality of Jerusalem’s Sephardic sweets, however, does not fall short of those made in Portugal!

Here is a partial translation of the letter:

“Today, I write to you about one of the most prominent of our Christian brethren. He is a priest who was sent by the Pope to be the Roman Patriarch of Jerusalem. This knowledgeable priest is well-respected and of great importance. He is well-versed in every field and knows all Eastern languages including Hebrew and Arabic. I spoke to him about you before his journey and I expressed my desire that you shall be friends and be together ‘as one’.

Both of you are great people, each in his service and tradition of his forefathers. And therefore, when you receive my letter, rise as a lion adorned in majestic cloth, you and your close ones, all of you dressed in formal attire, proceed to visit him.

Inform him of your visit a day or two before it happens. And if you send him some sweets occasionally I am sure he will derive satisfaction from it. The Italians are known to love sweets, and in Italy no one knows how to prepare them properly. Our varieties of Sephardic sweets are just as good, if not better, than those I saw in Portugal!”

Letter from Rabbi Hazan to Rabbi Gagin written on December 16, 1847. From the Meir Benayahu Collection; available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

This article has been published as part of Gesher L’Europa, the National Library of Israel’s initiative to share stories and connect with people, institutions and communities in Europe and beyond.

One of the World’s Oldest Esther Scrolls Comes Home

Mid-15th century Iberian megillah now at the National Library of Israel in Jerusalem and online

"Incredibly rare" ca. 1465 scroll is one of few pre-Spanish Expulsion megillot in existence

One of the world’s oldest known Esther scrolls (also known as a “megillah“) has been gifted to the National Library of Israel in Jerusalem, home to the world’s largest collection of textual Judaica, where it has also been made available online for the first time.

Esther scrolls contain the story of the Book of Esther in Hebrew and are traditionally read in Jewish communities across the globe on the festival of Purim, which will take place on February 25-28 this year.

Scholars have determined that the newly received Esther scroll was written by a scribe on the Iberian Peninsula around 1465, prior to the Spanish and Portuguese Expulsions at the end of the fifteenth century. These conclusions are based on both stylistic and scientific evidence, including Carbon-14 dating.

The megillah is written in brown ink on leather in an elegant, characteristic Sephardic script, which resembles that of a Torah scroll. The first panel, before the text of the Book of Esther, includes the traditional blessings recited before and after the reading of the megillah, and attests to the ritual use of this scroll in a pre-Expulsion Iberian Jewish community.

According to experts, there are very few extant Esther scrolls from the medieval period in general, and from the fifteenth century, in particular. Torah scrolls and Esther scrolls from pre-Expulsion Spain and Portugal are even rarer, with only a small handful known to exist.

Prior to the donation, this scroll was the only complete fifteenth century megillah in private hands.

The medieval scroll is a gift from Michael Jesselson and family, continuing long-standing family support of the National Library of Israel and its collections. Michael’s father, Ludwig Jesselson, was the founding chair of the International Council of the Library (then known as the “Jewish National and University Library”) and a strong leader and advocate of the Library for decades.

According to Dr. Yoel Finkelman, curator of the National Library of Israel’s Haim and Hanna Salomon Judaica Collection, the new addition is “an incredibly rare testament to the rich material culture of the Jews of the Iberian Peninsula.  It is one of the earliest extant Esther Scrolls, and one of the few 15th century megillot in the world.  The Library is privileged to house this treasure and to preserve the legacy of pre-Expulsion Iberian Jewry for the Jewish people and the world.”