The Mystery of the Spanish Esther Scroll

"¡Que tengas un feliz Purim!" - That’s Spanish for: Have a happy Purim! A 17th century megillah stands out for being penned in the language of descendants of the inquisitions’ survivors.

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The Book of Esther, handwritten in Spanish, Amsterdam, 1684, the National Library of Israel collections, photo by Shir Bram

A partial list of key figures in the story of Purim, the festive holiday that will begin on Saturday night (Sunday night in Jerusalem), includes the following descriptors:

King Ahashverosh: Rey Ahasueros

Queen Vashti, Queen Esther: Uasti la Reyna, Ester la Reyna

Mordechai the Jew: Mordehay el Iudio

Haman, son of Hamdata the Aggegite: Haman hijo de Hamedata el aghageo

Shushan the capital: Susan la metropolitan

At least, that’s how the words appear in the Book of Esther in an all-Spanish megillah (scroll) handwritten in 1684 in Amsterdam that is in the collection of the National Library of Israel.

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An Esther Scroll, handwritten in Spanish, Amsterdam, 1684, the National Library of Israel collections, photo by Shir Bram

The Amsterdam megillah’s being written in a language other than Hebrew makes it unique. In synagogues throughout the world, the Book of Esther is read aloud from scrolls on the eve of Purim and again the next morning — always in Hebrew.

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An Esther Scroll, handwritten in Spanish, Amsterdam, 1684, the National Library of Israel collections, photo by Shir Bram

Why would the Amsterdam megillah have been written, and presumably recited on Purim, in a different language? After all, even in today’s congregations, where prayers sometimes are led by cantors and intoned by worshippers in the native land’s tongue — such as French in Reform synagogues in France or English in the United States — it’s inconceivable that Torah scrolls are not written or chanted in Hebrew. Ditto for the Book of Esther and other megillot recited on Jewish holidays.

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An Esther Scroll, handwritten in Spanish, Amsterdam, 1684, the National Library of Israel collections, photo by Shir Bram

Of course, in homes and synagogues of all Jewish denominations throughout the world, printed books of the Torah and other portions of the Bible are commonly published, read and studied in translated form alongside the facing pages’ Hebrew original. Non-Jews reading the Bible commonly do so in their native languages, too.

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An Esther Scroll, handwritten in Spanish, Amsterdam, 1684, the National Library of Israel collections, photo by Shir Bram

Maybe, then, the Amsterdam megillah was a variation of that: a Spanish-only translation that was not intended to be read publicly on Purim.

No, said Aliza Moreno, NLI’s Judaica specialist and coordinator for Latin America, who is sure that the Amsterdam megillah was written for the purpose of being read publicly.

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An Esther Scroll, handwritten in Spanish, Amsterdam, 1684, the National Library of Israel collections, photo by Shir Bram

The proof, she said, lies in the three complete blessings that appear before the megillah’s text begins. The first words of each, Bendito tu ANDR, meaning, “Blessed are You, our God, king of the universe,” is a standard opening for Jewish prayers. The megillah’s prayers are chanted only when the scroll is read publicly — and not, for example, when someone reads or studies it at school or at home.

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Bendito tu ANDR – “Blessed are You, our God, king of the universe”, an Esther Scroll, handwritten in Spanish, Amsterdam, 1684, the National Library of Israel collections, photo by Shir Bram

“Unfortunately, we can’t determine who read it or to whom, but it’s clear that the person who wrote it did so for the purpose, like a Torah scroll, of reading it in public to fulfill the mitzvah,” Moreno said of the Amsterdam megillah.

The “larger, more interesting” questions, she said, are: Why was it written in Spanish, why in Amsterdam and why in the late 17th Century?

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An Esther Scroll, handwritten in Spanish, Amsterdam, 1684, the National Library of Israel collections, photo by Shir Bram

“The story is this,” Moreno began, launching a sensible supposition encompassing Jewish history, migration and tradition — in short, the real life experienced by Jews of the day.

Following the expulsions of the Jews from the Iberian Peninsula in the late 15th century, some of those who had outwardly converted to Christianity and remained in Spain and Portugal, continued to practice Jewish customs in secret. Some of their descendants eventually settled in Amsterdam beginning about a century after the expulsion, where they were able to reconnect openly with the Judaism of their ancestors.

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An Esther Scroll, handwritten in Spanish, Amsterdam, 1684, the National Library of Israel collections, photo by Shir Bram

Because they couldn’t read Hebrew, for the first time in Jewish history, we see a pattern of communities translating multiple Hebrew texts into languages written in Latin script, Moreno said.

One of the most notable cases, she explained, was the Biblia de Ferrara, a translation of the Bible into Spanish published in the northern Italy city in 1553. NLI’s collection includes one such first edition. The Biblia de Ferrara was later published in Amsterdam in the 17th century.

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An Esther Scroll, handwritten in Spanish, Amsterdam, 1684, the National Library of Israel collections, photo by Shir Bram

“We do know that the most important community [of descendants of conversos] was Amsterdam, and we know that the style of the congregation is that the cantor prayed in Hebrew, but some of the worshippers had siddurim [prayer books] in Spanish and said the prayers in Spanish,” she said.

“This is important to state: One year before the Biblia de Ferrara was translated to Spanish, the siddur was translated to Spanish. It was a parallel phenomenon in the translations of both the siddur and Tanach [Bible],” Moreno said. The Amsterdam megillah “reflects the use of Spanish in historical context,” she added.

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An Esther Scroll, handwritten in Spanish, Amsterdam, 1684, the National Library of Israel collections, photo by Shir Bram

In the 1560s, Sephardic diaspora communities — including Salonika and Kushta (contemporary Istanbul) — who maintained Jewish observance and were not lacking in Jewish knowledge, published a limited range of Jewish texts in Ladino, such as a prayer book for women and a partial translation of the Shulkhan Arukh (Code of Jewish Law), known as Shulkhan HaPanim.

By the time the Amsterdam megillah was written, nearly two centuries had elapsed since the inquisitions began.

According to the Amsterdam megillah’s inscription under the blessing, the scribe was Benyamin Senior, and the work was commissioned by Ishak de Matatia Aboab.

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An Esther Scroll, handwritten in Spanish, Amsterdam, 1684, the National Library of Israel collections, photo by Shir Bram

The megillah’s writing is straightforward and all-text, lacking adornments and colors and illustrations. Moreno called the calligraphy “very, very beautiful” for the size of its letters and the gaps between them. “It’s beautiful, professional and readable,” she said.

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An Esther Scroll, handwritten in Spanish, Amsterdam, 1684, the National Library of Israel collections, photo by Shir Bram

So much so that the megillah was exhibited at a meeting at the National Library in mid-March of the U.S.-based Samis Foundation, which last year provided a generous grant to NLI dedicated to the Moreshet Sepharad (Sephardic tradition) collection.  

Moreno found no document explaining how the megillah came to reach the Library. Nor is she sure how it was used. “In a synagogue? In a home? Was it never read? It’s very curious for me,” she said.

If it was never recited, why was the megillah written, given the cost and time invested in producing it?

“That’s a very good question,” Moreno said, “but I can’t give a definitive answer.”

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

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Books and manuscripts in disguise? The items in the special Purim video below have been “dressed up” to appear as something they are not… Happy Purim from the National Library of Israel!

The Woman Who Taught England Chemistry

Back in the 19th century, it wasn’t considered appropriate to teach women chemistry. Jane Marcet thought it might be worthwhile anyway, so she wrote a chemistry book for women that became the one of the world's most popular textbooks for half a century.

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A woman born in 18th-century Britain was expected to look pretty and keep quiet. At least that’s how we imagine things as we look back at the past from the comfort of our 21st century. But as the European Enlightenment took hold, more and more families provided their daughters with an exceptional education that went beyond what women were expected to know at the time. This was the case in the family of Jane Haldimand, the daughter of a Swiss merchant and banker from Geneva, who had no objection to exposing his only daughter to the same subjects his sons were taught, by the best tutors money could buy.

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Portrait of Jane Marcet, from the Edgar Fahs Smith Collection, the University of Pennsylvania

It so happened that Jane studied Latin and the basic principles of chemistry, biology, history, and philosophy. She also developed an interest in art and learned to draw and sketch. At the age of 15, she was forced to take on the duties of managing the household after her mother died in childbirth. Jane became responsible for raising her younger siblings and hosting her father’s clients, and through conversations with the latter, she managed to further expand her knowledge.

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Jane Marcet in the company of her books

When Jane Haldimand married her husband, he didn’t recoil from her extensive education, quite the opposite. Her husband Alexander Marcet was a client of her father’s. He was a doctor who had studied in Edinburgh after having fled there to escape conflicts that broke out in Geneva in the mid-18th century.  Jane accepted her new name – Jane Marcet – by which she’d become well-known in the future. She shared her husband’s hobby, which he preferred over tending to his patients: The couple were simply quite interested in chemistry. The more successful Dr. Alexander Marcet’s clinic became, the more time the two could devote to scientific research. Indeed, Dr. Marcet lectured on chemistry and conducted public demonstrations and experiments, and the couple’s research contributed to medical knowledge and the diagnosis of kidney stones. The two were among the founders of the Royal Society of Medicine, and Alexander played a central role in it.

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Portrait of Marcet’s husband Alexander, by H. Meyer

In the late 18th century, science was in vogue. Dr. Marcet was only one of many popular chemistry lecturers who appeared before the general public and demonstrated the latest scientific innovations. However, this knowledge was generally the domain of men alone and wasn’t considered suitable for women. Jane Marcet didn’t necessarily set out to change this, but she wanted to spread the knowledge she had accumulated over the years in a quick and easy manner, and to make it accessible to women as well. That is how her book Conversations on Chemistry, published in 1805, came about.

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Conversations on Chemistry in Which the Elements of That Science are Familiarly Explained and Illustrated by Experiments. The first edition of this book didn’t include the name of the author. From the Edelstein Collection at the National Library of Israel.

It took Marcet about three years to write it, apparently with the help of her husband who edited the chapters. In order to avoid a conflict of interest with her husband’s work, Marcet first published the book anonymously, even though the preface clearly stated that the author was a woman. Marcet also wrote outright that the book was adapted for women and she emphasized that she believed it offered a level of knowledge suitable for ladies. At the same time, she admitted that she was not a scientist and hadn’t delved into the complexities and intricacies of science in a way that others might think wasn’t appropriate for a woman.

As hinted at in the title, the book is structured as a conversation between a teacher and her students, who are referred to by their first names. The teacher explains and demonstrates chemical principles mainly based on the work of the 18th century French chemist Antoine Lavoisier, who laid the foundations for much of modern chemistry. Interspersed throughout are sketches that Marcet herself drew, including some depicting various chemical experiments and devices.

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An illustration from the book, drawn by hand by the author, from the Edelstein Collection at the National Library of Israel.

Practically overnight, the book became a smashing success. Sixteen editions were published in Britain alone from 1805 until 1853. Numerous versions and revised or annotated editions of the book were also published in the United States, and imitations were also printed. Marcet herself was involved in updating and revising the additional editions that were published in Britain, and in 1837, her name finally appeared on the cover. The book became the leading chemistry textbook during the first half of the 19th century. A copy of the first edition is kept in the Edelstein Collection at the National Library of Israel, and pictures of it have been included in this article.

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The book is written as a conversation between a teacher and her students. The readers are invited to act out what is written. From the Edelstein Collection at the National Library of Israel.

Marcet herself continued publishing similar Conversations on… books on subjects like the natural sciences, economy, and theology. But her first published book, Conversations on Chemistry, was the most successful and what she became best-known for. The book’s level of influence can be summed up by the following anecdote: While working as an apprentice in a bookbinding workshop, a young boy came across Marcet’s book. He wasn’t deterred by the fact that its target audience was women; he kept leafing through it and fell in love with the world of chemistry. This boy was from a lower-class family, he wasn’t fortunate enough to receive a formal education, and had to study on his own. Michael Faraday would go on to became one history’s most important chemists and physicists.

From Fantasy to Reality: The Forbidden Love of Edith and J.R.R. Tolkien

"For she was (and knew she was) my Lúthien." This was how Tolkien explained the unorthodox choice of words which he placed on the tombstone of the woman he loved. What was the connection between Lúthien – the mythological image of female perfection which Tolkien himself created – and his wife Edith? And what caused their three-year separation, which almost ended in her marrying someone else?

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Left: Edith Tolkien with her eldest son, John, 1918. Right: A young Ronald Tolkien, 1911.

On the bright green grass in the Catholic section of Wolvercote Cemetery near Oxford, among the lavishly adorned tombstones mostly bearing the names of Polish immigrants, stands one simple gray granite stone, modestly engraved with the names of two characters from one of the most widely-read fantasy books ever written.

Beren and Luthien.

“But wandering in the summer in the woods of Neldoreth he came upon Luthien, daughter of Thingol and Melian, at a time of evening under moonrise, as she danced upon the unfading grass in the glades beside Esgalduin. Then all memory of his pain departed from him, and he fell into an enchantment; for Luthien was the most beautiful of all the Children of Iluvatar. Blue was her raiment as the unclouded heaven, but her eyes were grey as the starlit evening; her mantle was sewn with golden flowers, but her hair was dark as the shadows of twilight. As the light upon the leaves of trees, as the voice of clear waters, as the stars above the mists of the world, such was her glory and her loveliness; and in her face was a shining light.”

(From J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Silmarillion)
קברם המשותף של בני הזוג טולקין עם הכתובות "לותיין" ו"ברן", בית העלמין וולוורקוט שליד אוקספורד.
The Tolkiens’ shared tombstone, with the inscriptions “Luthien” and “Beren”, Wolvercote Cemetery near Oxford

But the couple buried there were real people, even if their story could have been taken out of a fairy tale. He was an author, poet, linguist, and one of the most important fantasy writers of the modern era, who was (and is still) admired throughout the world to an unprecedented extent, and she was his beloved wife, who settled (or was forced to settle?) for the adoration of her own family.

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was born in Bloemfontein, South Africa, but grew up as an orphan in late 19th century England. He lost his father when he was only four years old, and his mother when he was twelve. When Arthur Tolkien died, the widowed mother Mabel did everything in her power to provide a good life for her two sons – Ronald (of his three names, this was the name he was called by his family and close acquaintances) and young Hilary who was only a year old.

Mabel, who was an educated woman beyond what was common at the time, raised her sons in the green suburbs of Birmingham and gave them an excellent home education. Despite their poverty, it was a happy childhood. Ronald learned to love the things that filled his early life with wonder: the green trees and the countryside, his mother Mabel, and starting at the age of four – words and languages.

From the moment he learned to read, and as he progressed in his studies, Tolkien was captivated by linguistics. While his friends struggled with the correct spelling of modern English, he studied its origins and was fascinated by textbooks on ancient languages like Greek, Welsh, and Gothic.

His mother Mabel died of diabetes when she was only 34. Insulin, which could have saved her life, would only be discovered some two decades after her death. The children, who suddenly lost the wonderful environment they had grown up in along with their beloved mother, grieved bitterly. In her will, Mabel appointed Father Francis Xavier Morgan as their guardian, and the boys moved to live in the city of Birmingham itself.

Father Morgan was the priest of the small Catholic congregation that Mabel and the children had joined only four years earlier. This happened despite the protests of her family and the family of her late husband, who subsequently stopped supporting her financially. Father Francis’ visits to the Tolkien family home started out as part of his role as a dedicated parish priest, but very quickly he became a close friend to the lonely Mabel and a sort of “uncle” who provided much-needed kindness and amusement to her two sons. As Tolkien himself wrote to his own sons later in life, Father Francis was more present and significant to them than many “real” fathers.

After a rather unhappy period during which the children lived with a childless relative for a few years, Father Francis decided to move them into Mrs. Faulkner’s home on Duchess Road, near where many members of his congregation lived.

Aside from Mrs. Faulkner, the two-story house was also home to her husband Louis (who enjoyed a drink or two), their daughter Helen, the maid Annie, and another tenant who rented the room that was just below the boys’ room – a young girl named Edith Bratt. Edith was also an orphan, but that was where any similarity between her and the Tolkien brothers, with whom she’d be sharing this domestic space in the years to come, ended. While the boys came from a distinguished British lineage and benefited from a fine childhood education, she was the illegitimate daughter of Frances Bratt of Gloucester. Edith was over three years older than Ronald, her interests included music and sewing, and – she was a Protestant! This would soon become a major obstacle.

אידית בראט, בשנים הראשונות להיכרותה עם טולקין.
Edith Bratt, during the early years of her acquaintance with Tolkien

Edith was also incredibly kind, a gray-eyed beauty, and quite bored. When her guardian decided that she should live in the room in Mrs. Faulkner’s house, he thought that since she was studying music at the girls’ school, she’d be able to practice on the piano in the main room of the house. He hoped that in time she’d be able to work as a professional musician. But although she enjoyed Edith’s musical accompaniment during the evening singing sessions she occasionally hosted, Mrs. Faulkner wasn’t so generous when Edith sat down in front of the piano to practice. “My dear Edith” she’d say sourly, “I think that’s enough for now.”

When the boys arrived at the gloomy house with its climbing vines and forlorn lace curtains, it was like a breath of fresh air for Edith. She was especially fond of Ronald, the serious and talented young man. She discovered that he could be incredibly polite when necessary, but also goof around cheerfully at other times.

Despite their age gap, Ronald and Edith quickly became friends. He was mature for his age and she acted younger than hers. Together with Hilary, his mischievous brother, they conspired against the “old lady” who ran the house with an iron fist: they held secret parties in Edith’s room and went on long hikes together. As time went on, Edith and Ronald grew closer and closer, and the relationship that began as a friendship blossomed into young love.

Edith showed no interest in Ronald’s first great love (studying ancient languages ​​and inventing new ones) and had received a much simpler education than he had. And yet they found enough topics of conversation to occupy long hours spent wandering the streets and teahouses of Birmingham.

They even came up with a private whistle-call that was meant just for them. “When Ronald heard it in the early morning or at bedtime,” Tolkien’s biographer Humphrey Carpenter explained, “he would go to his window and lean out to see Edith waiting at her own window below.”

In a letter to Edith years later, Tolkien recalled with longing, “My first kiss to you and your first kiss to me (which was almost accidental)—Our goodnights when sometimes you were in your little white nightgown, and our absurd long window talks; and how we watched the sun come up over town through the mist and Big Ben toll hour after hour, and the moths almost used to frighten you away—and our whistle-call—and our cycle-rides—and the fire talks—and to three great kisses.”

But no great romantic love story is complete without something to keep the couple apart from each other – at least for a time.

Ronald was supposed to study for a scholarship exam that would allow him entry into the institution that would become the most important in his life – Oxford. But between his captivation with Edith and his efforts to invent a new language, he found it a bit difficult to concentrate and failed to pass the test.

Father Francis, the benevolent guardian, was not too pleased with this relationship developing between his promising protégé and the young Protestant woman who was three years his elder. Before he even voiced his opposition, the two began to hide their meetings. “We thought we had managed things very cleverly,” Tolkien later wrote, but community gossip was stronger than their naive schemes.

Father Francis insistently demanded that Ronald end his “inappropriate” relationship with Edith immediately. He also arranged for Ronald and Hilary to move elsewhere. At the same time, Edith received an invitation to live in Cheltenham with an elderly lawyer and his wife, and she accepted.

In the period before Edith’s trip, they continued meeting secretly here and there, whenever they “happened” to bump into each other. She bought him a pen for his 18th birthday and he bought her a wristwatch for her 21st.

But when Father Francis heard that they had met again, he was furious. He even threatened to stop supporting Ronald’s academic career if he met, spoke, or wrote to Edith again until he reached the age of 21, at which point Ronald was no longer his ​​responsibility.

What this meant was that the two endured three long years of forced separation. In the eyes of the young Tolkien, this was a truly horrible sentence.

Despite her longing for her Ronald, Edith liked her new life in Cheltenham, which was better than anything she had known before. Meanwhile, back in Birmingham, Ronald made his studies the focus of his life. He had close friends (who founded a secret society together), immersed himself in books, studied hard, began working on his own writing, played rugby, and continued working on languages, both historic and invented. 

In 1911, after he finally passed his entrance exams, Ronald went off to study at Oxford and decided that despite everything, he was going to be happy there.

It wasn’t hard. Oxford quickly became the first real home he had known since his mother’s death. 

אקסטר קולג', אוקספורד. מקום הלימודים שהיה לבית לטולקין הצעיר.
Exeter College, Oxford, was like home for the young Tolkien

But he never forgot Edith. He thought about her every day. Three years after they parted, at midnight between January 2nd and 3rd in 1913 when Ronald Tolkien became a man in his own right, he sat on the bed in his room at Oxford and wrote Edith a promise of renewed love, ending the letter with the question: “How long will it be before we can be joined together before God and the world?”

But when he received his lover’s reply, everything turned black. She, not sure he still remembered her or wanted her, was engaged to marry George Field, the brother of her classmate.

But Edith was too important to Tolkien to give her up without a fight. 

He went to Cheltenham to speak to her heart. When he got off the train, Edith was waiting for him on the platform. What did they say to each other that day after three years of silence? Did they repeat those “great kisses” from their happy times on Duchess Road? Tolkien didn’t bother leaving us a detailed record of that day, but that evening, Edith gave back the ring that George Field had given her.

Finally, John Ronald Reuel Tolkien and Edith Bratt were an official couple. At first, they kept it a secret, trying to recapture the feeling from when they’d longingly sneak around in the past. They were worried (and rightfully so) about how their families would react. Eventually, they publicly announced their engagement, and in the middle of World War I, they were married in a very modest ceremony in a small Catholic church. 

From that satisfying “happily ever after” moment, they shared a life that was a wonderful combination of love and devotion, alongside occasional disappointments and arguments. In other words, marriage.

Tolkien was drafted into the British Army during the war and returned from the battlefield in France, sick with a disease that was then known as “trench fever.” For two years he was in and out of the hospital. During the very long hours he spent in bed, he began to write what would later become his legendarium – sometimes called the “Tolkien Mythology” – the foundation of the world upon which the books he later wrote were based.  The world he created would transform him into one of history’s bestselling authors.

Edith, who in the meantime had given birth to their eldest son while she was alone and far from her beloved, described this period as a “miserable wandering homeless sort of life”. She wrote to Tolkien, teasing him somewhat begrudgingly and bitterly: “I should think you ought never to feel tired again, for the amount of Bed you have had since you came back from France nearly two years ago is enormous.”

But once the war ended, Tolkien was given his first academic position at Oxford, and life could truly begin for the young Tolkien family.

They saw ups and downs. Edith was unhappy in the elitist academic environment. She hated Oxford, hated the Catholic Church she was forced to join, and she envied her husband’s male friends who were a significant part of his inner world to which she was not granted entry.

Despite the notable differences in their education and their documented arguments and mutual complaints, none of their relatives or acquaintances ever doubted that they shared a great love.

Edith was proud of her husband, whose academic and literary success became meteoric over the years. For his part, Tolkien was a loving and devoted husband and father who took part in household chores, spent a lot of time with his children, and invented one-of-a-kind stories for them.

Modern critics tend to criticize Tolkien for his attitude toward women. They quote a letter he wrote to his son before his marriage (in which he warned him that a husband should know how to stand up for himself), point out the very small number of female characters in his literary work, and blame him for the fact that Edith followed in the path of his professional career and lived for many years in places she wasn’t fond of and where she felt no personal connection.

The truth, as always, is more complex. Tolkien adored Edith, and valued women in general to a degree that was quite unusual for those times. In fact, as an undergraduate he spoke in support of the tactics and objectives of the suffragettes while taking part in a school debate.

During Edith’s final years, once Tolkien retired and no longer had any academic obligations, he was the one who followed her. He agreed to leave Oxford for her and live in a small seaside town where she was happy. Her happiness in turn made him happy, even though the move forced him to give up large parts of his former life. As for the female characters in his works, even if they were few in number, they are all strong and magnificent, and most of them are much more impressive and talented than the men appearing beside them.

The immortal Luthien, heroine of The Silmarillion, saves Beren her beloved, just as he saves her.

“There came a time near dawn on the eve of spring, and Luthien danced upon a green hill; and suddenly she began to sing. Keen, heart-piercing was her song as the song of the lark that rises from the gates of night and pours its voice among the dying stars, seeing the sun behind the walls of the world; and the song of Luthien released the bonds of winter, and the frozen waters spoke, and flowers sprang from the cold earth where her feet had passed.

Then the spell of silence fell from Beren, and he called to her, crying Tinuviel; and the woods echoed the name. Then she halted in wonder, and fled no more, and Beren came to her. But as she looked on him, doom fell upon her, and she loved him.”

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The Hebrew edition of Beren and Lúthien, by J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by Christopher Tolkien, Keter Books

Edith was Tolkien’s Luthien. She was also the inspiration for the character. When she passed away, two years before him, he illustrated this with an incomparably beautiful gesture of love.

“For she was (and knew she was) my Lúthien,” he painfully wrote to his son Christopher when the latter asked why he wanted to have “Luthien” engraved on her tombstone. 

“I am afflicted from time to time (increasingly) with an overwhelming sense of bereavement […] Yet I hope none of my children will feel that the use of this name is a sentimental fancy. It is at any rate not comparable to the quoting of pet names in obituaries. I never called Edith Lúthien – but she was the source of the story that in time became the chief pan of the Silmarillion. It was first conceived in a small woodland glade filled with hemlocks at Roos in Yorkshire (where I was for a brief time in command of an outpost of the Humber Garrison in 1917, and she was able to live with me for a while). In those days her hair was raven, her skin clear, her eyes brighter than you have seen them, and she could sing – and dance. But the story has gone crooked, & I am left, and I cannot plead before the inexorable Mandos. […] Forever (especially when alone) we still met in the woodland glade, and went hand in hand many times to escape the shadow of imminent death before our last parting.”

From a letter to Christopher Tolkien, July 11, 1972

 

Even Borscht Tastes Like Home

New on the shelf: When we leave home, even when we make that decision willingly and voluntarily, there is still a connection to the place we left behind. And there’s nothing like food to reawaken those memories and that unique sense of longing.

By Noa Reichmann

“All Ukrainians are supposed to love borsch(t)—but what if you hate the red stuff? A young girl despises Eastern Europe’s most beloved soup, and not even the grandmothers of Kiev can persuade her to change her mind…”

         From the cover of I Hate Borsch!

Yevgenia Nayberg, an award-winning theater designer, author and illustrator, grew up in Ukraine and immigrated to the United States.

As a Ukrainian girl, she was expected to love sour beet soup, otherwise known as borsch or borscht – but what to do, she really can’t stand the “red, thick, disgusting soup!” With many a humorous illustration, she describes her excitement at all the elements of Ukrainian agriculture being enlisted in the service of making this national dish. Her sense of persecution is also translated into amusing, brightly colored illustrations.

While preparing to leave for the United States, Yevgenia receives many recipes for making borscht, and every grandma she knows swears her own recipe is the one true original. Arriving at the Promised Land of America teaches her new things about the hated dish: it’s called borscht there rather than the Ukrainian “borsch”, it comes in bottles and has no taste at all…

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Moving to the US exposed Yevgenia to new foods and tastes. But as time passed and after eating “tons” of American food, she felt something was missing. Maybe she missed the sight of the red liquid in the white ceramic bowl, the heavy crooked spoon on the wooden table, or the “amber tea in the cloudy glass”. After opening up her old suitcase and taking out her old children’s clothes, she took the borsch recipes, laid them on the table, read them one by one, and then went to the kitchen to prepare the dish.

The book ends, naturally, with the author’s own recipe for borsch.

Unfortunately, many Israeli citizens have also had to recently leave their homes, and not out of choice. Some of them don’t even have any souvenirs of their former lives, which were turned upside down in a day.

The National Library of Israel collections include recipe books produced in various communities around the country, many of them in kibbutzim.

Because of the character of life on the kibbutz in the past, most of the recipes in the older books refer to baked goods: cakes, cookies, and salted pastries. There are also recipes for salads and other dishes appropriate for hosting guests, but usually not recipes for whole meals.

This was the case with a publication released by the “Baking Mothers Organization” of Kibbutz Nahal Oz in 1985. An absolute majority of its recipes cover cookies and cakes.

The online cookbook put out by Kibbutz Be’eri in 2022 is representative of kibbutz life in the 21st century. It includes recipes for all parts of the meal: starters, soups, main dishes, and desserts. It contains traditional foods from different Jewish communities, alongside foods from around the world: sushi salad with seaweed alongside Hungarian goulash with nokedli or couscous soup.

The very mention of some dish we knew in the past always has an emotional connection – of rejection, or of longing.

May the dishes, morsels and recipes we encounter only conjure up pleasant memories!

Translated from Hebrew by Avi Woolf