For the Sake of Love: The Jewish Women Left Behind

We never heard these stories. Forgotten stories of Jewish women who lived in Egypt and chose to remain there with the Muslim men that they loved, even though their families had immigrated to Israel. It’s time we shared these stories.

A Jewish wedding in Ayala Deckel’s family, held in the Great Synagogue in Alexandria

She boarded the ship along with the rest of her family. Everyone was excited about the voyage that would eventually bring them to Israel, the journey that would begin the great change in their lives. Yet, her heart was heavy. She didn’t really want to leave Egypt. A few minutes later, she muttered casually, “I forgot my bag by the ship, I’ll be right back.” That was the last they saw of her. She left the ship behind and returned to her lover in Egypt, choosing to stay there with him.

We never heard these stories during our childhood nor later on. The stories, like the women concealed in them, were left behind. Jewish women who lived in 20th century Egypt and who chose to remain there, though their entire families had immigrated to Israel. Women who chose to marry outside of the Jewish faith, who in most cases were expelled from home and family, left alone in a Muslim country. It’s time to tell their stories.

One of them was my aunt, Rachel. I only became aware of her existence a year ago.

Aunt Rachel, family photo

My grandfather had a large, warm and noisy family. They were five brothers and one sister. Their pictures always stood on the bookcase in my grandparents’ home. It turned out that someone was missing from the photos. Rachel wasn’t in any of them.

Rachel had fallen in love with a young Muslim man and married him when the family was still living in Egypt. Her father, my great-grandfather, did not approve of the marriage and banished her from the family home. He also demanded that everyone sever ties with her. But one sister refused to comply and kept in touch with Rachel despite her controversial marriage. Her name was Susan, I called her Tante Zuza. She would visit Rachel’s home frequently and even developed a close relationship with her son. Until it came time to immigrate to Israel.

Egypt in the early 20th century had been a cosmopolitan country to which many Jews from the Mediterranean basin had immigrated because of its economic and business potential. The essayist and author Jacqueline Kahanoff describes her childhood in Egypt at the beginning of the previous century thus, “In my youth it was only natural for me that Cairo’s residents understood one another even though they spoke different languages and had names that disclosed their different origins – Muslim, Arab, Christian, Syrian, Greek, Armenian, Italian. . .”

The Jewish community developed within this diverse climate; a traditional community with unique characteristics that set it apart from the others around it. At the same time, it was a community rooted in the local culture. Jews, Christians and Muslims had strong mutual ties of business and friendship. Marriage ties existed as well.

Jewish wedding of Ayala Deckel’s family in the Great Synagogue in Alexandria

The turning point in the life of the Jewish community came precisely with the establishment of the State of Israel. In 1948, the war between Israel and Egypt reached the streets of Cairo and Alexandria, with a series of explosions and acts of sabotage in Cairo’s Jewish Quarter. The streets were no longer safe and the Jewish community was affected directly, its members began to emigrate from Egypt to Europe, the United States and Israel.

The writings of contemporary rabbis on the issue of conversion suggests that intermarriage was a common phenomenon. They were preoccupied with it and with the dilemma of whether or not to convert a spouse who marries a member of the Jewish community.

In one of his halakhic rulings, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef wrote that in his opinion it was worth converting a Christian woman who marries a Jew even if she does not keep the commandments, arguing that if she was not converted, the couple would be likely to seek comfort among the Christian community. Rabbi Yosef believed that in the interest of keeping members in the community, it was better to convert the Christian spouse than to lose the entire family.

In another case, Rabbi Aharon Mendel HaCohen told of a young woman who wanted a young Muslim man to convert so that they could marry. The rabbis of the community agreed and married the two in a religious Jewish ceremony. However, two days after the conversion, the new convert decided to return to Islam, and took his Jewish wife with him. Since then, Rabbi Mendel HaCohen wrote that he was no longer willing to convert Muslim partners.

The famous actress and singer Leila Murad is another interesting example. She was born Lilian to a devout religious Jewish family. Her father came from Iraq and her mother from Poland. Lilian, who began singing when she was fourteen, was called the “Cinderella of Egyptian cinema.” In 1947, she married and converted to Islam. Her family, who immigrated to Israel, rarely spoke of her, perhaps one reason she is not more known in Israel.

Another was Soad Zaki, a famous singer and actress in Egypt who also married a Muslim. They eventually divorced, and he moved to the United States while she immigrated to Israel. Later, the couple renewed their relationship and he came to live with her in Israel. After both had passed way, they were buried alongside each other here.

Ayala Deckel’s recently published Hebrew book, Habaytah Haloch VeChazor (“Back and Again”)

Returning to my family—in the 1950s, when it was no longer possible to remain in Egypt, my aunt, Tante Zuza, finally left Cairo and her sister Rachel. For many years, they lived in enemy countries and all communication between them ceased. During the Six-Day War and the Yom Kippur War, they were on opposite sides of the border. While fierce battles were waged between Egypt and Israel, each worried for her family and country, but also for the sister on the other side. During those years, neither one tried to contact the other nor did they speak openly about the other. Both kept the other sister’s existence a secret. In the Israel of those years, it was disgraceful to say that you had a sister who had converted to Islam, a sister who was on the side of the enemy. In Egypt, it was extremely dangerous to say that you were from a Jewish family. Each sister lived her life. The secret remained buried in their hearts and was never spoken aloud.

After the signing of the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt in 1978, Tante Zuza, who lives in Israel, managed to contact her older sister Rachel in Egypt. My cousins ​​who witnessed the first conversation between them said that Tante Zuza sat for half an hour crying and hugging the phone receiver as if it were a human body. I imagine Rachel did the same on the other end of the line, in Egypt.

The discovery of this story shook my world. It was during the COVID pandemic, the whole country was in lockdown, and I found myself sitting at home trying to imagine what had happened back then and what was happening right now with my Muslim relatives in Egypt. I couldn’t stop thinking about how one event completely changed the fate of our family on both sides of the border.

I started researching, asking and gathering every sliver of information and very quickly, I discovered that this story was not unique to my family. Many more women had found themselves in similar situations. Women whose stories had been silenced, women whose voices have not been heard in Israeli society to this day.

Though I tried every way possible to find them, I wasn’t able to contact my Muslim family in Egypt. Instead of meeting them, I sat down and wrote. I let my thoughts travel and in my mind began to weave together the gaps that had emerged among the historical facts. This is how my [Hebrew] book Habaytah Haloch VeChazor (“Back and Again”) came into being. It tells the story of a journey between the present and the past, between secrets and facts. It is a book that strives to give voice to silenced stories and provide a meaningful platform for the women who chose to remain behind.

They Jailed Him for Insulting Hitler on an Unopened Envelope

Convicted in Poland for insulting the head of a friendly nation, Jewish hero Nahum Halberstadt was freed on Christmas Day

A Jewish man in Warsaw, 1931 (Chr. De Caters / The Israel Museum). From the Joseph and Margit Hoffman Judaica Postcard Collection [997003490760405171]; available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

“While Hitler and his clique rule Germany no decent man should have dealings in German goods.”

When Warsaw merchant and chemist Nahum Halberstadt scribbled these words on an envelope and returned to sender, he never thought they would get him incarcerated. Yet, more than two years after the unopened enveloped was sent, a Polish court sentenced Halberstadt to prison time.

His offense? Transgressing a provision of the Polish criminal code that forbade insulting heads of friendly foreign governments.

In Halberstadt’s own words:

“I had no intention of insulting Hitler. I was annoyed by the insistence and audacity of Germans who offered me German electrical bulbs for sale to Jews in Poland, especially when Jews were so maltreated in Germany. I didn’t even open their letters , as I wasn’t interested in their contents. But, moved by the terrible crimes against Jews in Germany, I wanted to tell the Germans not to pester me with their affairs, so I wrote on an envelope, ‘While Hitler and his clique rule Germany, no decent man should have dealings in German goods.’ What happened after that I didn’t know, until summoned by the police.”

Apparently what had happened was that German postal authorities intercepted the envelope with Halberstadt’s message on it and brought it to the attention of the Foreign Ministry, which in turn raised the issue with the then-friendly Polish regime.

Polish Foreign Minister Josef Beck sits with Hermann Göring in a carriage, July 1935 (Lothar Schaack / German Federal Archive / CC-BY-SA 3.0)

The case in itself, and certainly the verdict, were decried by the local Jewish community.

One contemporary news report described the scene as follows:

“Packed with eager spectators, the courtroom was in a turmoil when the verdict was handed down.”

The story in fact traveled well beyond the borders of Poland and Germany.

An editorial in The New York Times entitled “Poland Defends Hitler” emphasized the absurdity and injustice of the affair, lauding Halberstadt’s words as “a manly and natural outburst on the part of a Jew living so close to Naziland.”

An opinion piece in the B’nai Brith Messenger declared:

“This Jewish merchant now occupies a place among the Jewish heroes of our day, and his martyrdom should serve not to discourage, but rather to encourage rebellion against bigotry. For if we yield we merely encourage the proscribing of our human rights to protest against persecution.”

Taking into consideration extenuating circumstances, including Halberstadt’s advanced age, the fact that he had no previous criminal record and was “acting under provocation,” the court meted out a reduced term of eight months in jail, far less than the maximum possible sentence of three years.

Poland itself was no stranger to antisemitism. Calls for boycotts against Jewish businesses and physical attacks on Jews were common throughout the 1920s and 1930s, often perpetrated by student groups and other bigoted factions. This was especially true during the Christmas season, when efforts would be stepped up against Jewish shop owners.

Jewish shops in Warsaw, early 20th century. From the Joseph and Margit Hoffman Judaica Postcard Collection; part of the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

Nonetheless, it was during this period in the end of 1935, that a general Christmas amnesty freed Nahum Halberstadt from jail along with some 30,000 other Polish prisoners, many of them leaders of violently antisemitic Polish nationalist groups. In fact, the very same Christian holiday season in which Halberstadt became free once more saw rabid antisemitic attacks throughout Poland, including massive boycotting of Jewish-owned shops and violent attacks on Jews.

Headline appearing in the January 2, 1936 edition of The Sentinel. From the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

German forces entered Warsaw nearly four years to the day after Nahum Halberstadt was convicted of insulting the head of a friendly foreign government.

An estimated five million Polish civilians – at least three million of them Jews – were killed between 1939 and 1945.

This article has been published 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.

Six Friends, One Immortal Bond

On the eve of World War I, a group of Polish yeshiva students signed a pact to make their friendship everlasting...

"We open our hearts completely to each other... there are no secrets between us" (Image: Colorized photo of young men in Będzin / The Yad Izhak Ben-Zvi Archive, part of the National Library of Israel Digital Collection)

On February 5, 1914, mere months before the shadow of World War I settled over Europe, six young men gathered to discuss friendship and love. These passionate yeshiva students in Będzin, Poland, aimed to immortalize their friendship by establishing the “Beloved and Gracious” association.

Title page of the association’s “Golden Book,” which includes its purpose and rules

Joining was a lifetime commitment, and according to rule 26, opting out was not an option:

“Each and every one, once he signs in his handwriting […] he is thereby considered a member of the association, and he cannot remove himself from it […] and even if he fails to follow some or all of the rules, he is considered to be only rebelling from the great idea of the association, yet to be considered liberated from the association is impossible.”

In order to cement their bond and establish their association, the friends composed “The Golden Book of the Association”, a large notebook containing objectives and 31 rules, written in Hebrew and intended to make sure that the association would endure and realize its purpose. The innocence and optimism conveyed within its pages, on the eve of one of the darkest periods in modern history, is striking.

The young men, whose ages ranged from 18-23, saw the darkness waiting for them outside the walls of the study hall, and searched for a way to make the transition to the real world more bearable through love and friendship. They rejected the cynicism and loneliness that they saw around them, and wished to offer an alternative, in which all group members would be vulnerable and mutually committed.

They saw the current reality as one in which:

“Each and every one carries on his shoulders his burden of desires and goes about his way. No one enters the mind of the other […] no one desires to enter his friend’s threshold, to see, to look, and to participate in his joy and sadness.”

The future only seemed to them dimmer:

“We will now paint our foreseeable future […] we are Torah-learning young men, what will our future be […] our lives flow in a simple and predictable path. After getting married, each of us becomes a different person. Life, sometimes sad and usually full of worries, begins to change him […] the years pass […] and all the hopes and dreams that he had hoped and dreamed in his youth […] the wind has carried away, and they are gone.”

According to the association’s founders, when life becomes harder to bear, the adult sadly remember the peaceful days of youth:

“…days in which he was most joyful, in which he was surrounded by a wide world of hopes and dreams… And he then says to himself, this friend who was close to me like a brother, attached like a wick to a candle, is now so far away. Now he does not participate neither in my joy nor in my sorrow […] anyone with a heart will feel his chest tighten and his soul fill with gloom, when he looks back on the days of his youth and remembers his friends […] with whom he had grown up, learned, and dreamed.”

Thus, to prepare for the future and prevent that loneliness and grief, the six friends decided to officially seal their commitment to each other:

“Before we part from each other, before we go out into the world […] now, as the spark of our friendship has not yet burnt out […] now we wish to establish and perfect the “Beloved and Gracious” association […] one association which will bind and connect us for the rest of our lives […] we open our hearts completely to each other […] there are no secrets between us […] this association concerns mostly the future rather than the present. To take part in [each other’s] joy and sorrow, and in all affairs, including finances and advice.”


“Declaration of intent” appearing in “The Golden Book of the Association”

The rules included commitments to help each other; to be bonded closely just like brothers; to take interest in each other’s situations; to write letters to each other, and at least once every three months to send a letter to the chairman detailing one’s life affairs; to take part in family celebrations; to visit each other as much as possible; to gather when one of the friends requires special assistance; and in conclusion: “to be beloved and gracious to each other with the love of David and Jonathan, independent of all else, for the rest of our days. A true love which rises from the depths of the soul and the breadth of the heart”.

The rules of the “Beloved and Gracious” association
The association’s rationale and objectives, along with the signatures of the association members

“The Golden Book of the Association” was signed by all six members, with some of them offering a few personal details as well. The members were: Ze’ev Yaakov son of Moshe Watinsky (born 1891), Yeshaya Yona son of Shimon Yehuda Pszenica (born 1896), Chaim Yitzchak son of Alter Shmuel Welner (born 1896), Asher Arye Langfus, Yom Tov Lipa Rotenberg, and Moshe Betzalel Zeidman.

What became of the association and its members?

Did they keep their bonds of love?

We know at least a bit about two of the friends. Yeshaya Yona Pszenica took part in establishing a branch of the Noar Mizrachi religious Zionist youth movement in his town after World War I, and a few years later he took a position as the principal of Yavne, a school in Działoszyce, a town near Będzin.

As a principal, he was described as “very devoted to developing the school. The school was spotlessly clean and organized. The lessons were run punctually, in accordance with the schedule” (Yizkor book of the Jewish community in Dzialoszyce and surroundings, p. 116).

Yavneh School picture, ca. 1930s (Ghetto Fighters House Archive / Public domain)

Yeshaya Yona, his wife Chana, and his daughters Esther and Shifra, were all murdered at the Belzec extermination camp.

Chaim Yitzchak Welner met a different fate. He died in old age, in Tel Aviv in 1980. According to the Encyclopedia of Religious Zionism, Welner was also involved in establishing a branch of Noar Mizrachi in Będzin in 1918, and was also chosen for the central committee of the movement in Poland.

In 1925, he moved to the Land of Israel but had difficulty settling in, and decided to move back to Poland. Ten years later he made Aliya again and settled in Tel Aviv. Though he was a learned and knowledgeable Torah scholar, he refused to make his living from being a rabbi, and worked instead as a clerk.

Chaim Yitzchak Welner

Interestingly, there is a difference of more than one year with regard to Welner’s date of birth in the book and what appears on his gravestone.  In the book, it appears as the 23rd of Tammuz, 5656 (July 4, 1896), whereas on his gravestone it appears as the 2nd of Tammuz 5655 (June 24, 1895). The latter seems to be more reliable, as it was written when Welner was young.

Welner’s date of birth as it appears in “The Golden Book”
Welner’s gravestone

Welner’s two sons became quite prominent figures in Israel: Alter (1923-2020), who was a journalist and one of the founders of the “HaTsofeh” newspaper, and Simcha (1931-2011), who was a nuclear physicist and taught in the department of mathematics at Bar-Ilan University.


The Golden Book of the Association” was recently acquired by the National Library of Israel in Jerusalem. It provides a glimpse into the group’s touching and optimistic innocence in early 20th century Poland.

This article has been published 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.

A Letter from Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart to His Wife Constanze

The intimate letter, written in 1790, a year before Mozart's death, offers a glimpse into the lavish lifestyle of the legendary composer

It wasn’t easy being a late 18th-century celebrity superstar…

Despite his copious amounts of talent and fame, the composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was in constant pursuit of financial resources, which could help him fund the costly lifestyle he had grown accustomed to. During the later years of his tragically short life, he traveled to numerous locations across central Europe, performing concerts in the hopes of receiving generous payments, as well as further invitations to still more performances and events.

In September 1790, only a year before his early death, Mozart traveled from Vienna to Frankfurt am Main at his own expense to a most special event he could not afford to miss: the coronation of the new German Emperor Leopold II. After arriving in the city, he wrote a letter to his wife Constanze describing his journey, which took him ‘only’ six days. Frankfurt and its suburbs were fairly crowded: “We are happy that we were able to get a room”, he wrote in his letter.

The letter by Mozart to his wife, signed – Ewig dein Mzt (“Forever yours, Mzt [Mozart]”) September 28th, 1790. The National Library of Israel collections. Click on the image to enlarge.

The letter provides insight into Mozart’s impressions of the trip, which passed through a number of cities on the way. These include the composer’s delight at his comfortable carriage (“I’d love to give it a kiss”), the wonderful food in Regensburg – “we had a splendid lunch, godlike table music, an English waiter and a fantastic Moselle wine”, as well as the coffee in Wurzburg. He was less impressed, however, with Nuremberg – “an ugly city” – and he was convinced that the inn-keeper in Aschaffenburg had cheated him.

In contrast to these details concerning his lavish lifestyle, Mozart did not write much about the actual purpose of his travel, which was the concert he gave on the occasion of the coronation. He did not refer to the event, nor to the program (the famous “Coronation Concerto”). He simply wrote: “I am determined to do my work in the best possible way”, before finishing his letter with financial matters. If not for Mozart’s signature at the bottom, it would completely lack any indication that it was written by one of history’s greatest composers.