Growing Up Overnight: The Teenagers of the Yom Kippur War

“We realized our world would not go back to the way it had been.” With everyone fit to serve urgently called up, these young teenagers were left behind. They ran farms, treated the wounded, and even carried the dead out of hospitals. Here, the youngsters of the Yom Kippur War share stories they will remember forever. The satisfaction, the experiences, even the love that bloomed—as well as the sights they will never forget

Danny Yardeni, 12th-grader from Kibbutz Beit Hashita, standing in for agricultural workers who were called up to fight during the Yom Kippur War, 1973, Beit Hashita Archives. This item is part of the Israel Archive Network project (IAN) and has been made accessible thanks to the collaborative efforts of the Yad Ben Zvi Archive, the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage and the National Library of Israel

The Yom Kippur War broke out unexpectedly; within hours, the streets were deserted. Naturally, the war greatly affected those who fought in it, but it also impacted those who were left behind to worry about their loved ones on the frontlines.

The teenage boys and girls found themselves in between: too young to serve in the army yet old enough to understand the enormity of the events. Israel’s economy had to face the sudden disappearance of many workers who were called to the front. In response, the teenagers stepped up. Some came to the aid of businesses, industries, or agriculture. Others volunteered wherever working hands were needed, even where young people ought not to be, such as hospital mortuaries. Many experienced things they would never be able to forget and were forced to mature instantly. Some carry the scars to these days; for others, the war brought love into their lives.

Volunteers distributing mail during the Yom Kippur War. This item is part of the Israel Archive Network project (IAN) and has been made accessible thanks to the collaborative efforts of the Yad Ben Zvi Archive, the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage and the National Library of Israel

The farms: saving the flowers

During the war, young people helped their parents as much as they could in every area of the economy. The need was especially felt in agriculture: the crops and animals could not be left unattended. Yossi Rozhani was sixteen when the war broke out and his father was called up. The family farm near Jerusalem, where Yossi was at school, kept dairy cows and chickens, among other animals. Yossi had been helping since childhood but was now left more or less alone in charge of the entire farm, his daily routine including two rounds of milking, three feedings, and more. Non-stop. Smiling, Yossi remembers how he worried that his friends in the city, who were volunteering packing military rations, would think he was shirking responsibility. He says that the experience awarded him a sense of achievement and confidence in his abilities. Even though he has long since pursued a different career, he still keeps the farm going to this day.

The situation in the agricultural school at Pardes Hanna was similar. Ilana Eisenstadt recalls that her brother, aged only seventeen, spent three months managing a dairy farm with 300 heads of cattle on his own, including birthing, veterinary care, and of course, daily milking and feeding.

Not too far away, at the Noam School in Pardes Hanna, Avi Deskel was in 10th grade. His B’nei Akiva (religious youth movement) group was approached by the sister of a soldier who asked for help: the soldier (later discovered to have been taken prisoner) had kept a flower farm at a nearby moshav. Avi remembers that the farm grew roses which needed urgent harvesting before all the work invested in them would be wasted. The B’nei Akiva members walked to the moshav every morning to help pick the flowers, pack them, and do whatever else was needed. This gave them a sense of purpose. Avi’s experiences as a teenager affected him profoundly—to this day, he is still preoccupied with the war and gives lectures about it. Likely, it also contributed to his becoming a lecturer in political science, including teaching courses on the war.

Schoolboy volunteering on a farm during the Yom Kippur War. This item is part of the Israel Archive Network project (IAN) and has been made accessible thanks to the collaborative efforts of the Yad Ben Zvi Archive, the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage and the National Library of Israel

The kibbutzim: “Alone on the tractors, we could cry”

The young people of the kibbutzim undertook an important role in preserving the harvest. Amotz Zertal from Kibbutz Ein Shemer was only thirteen then. That year, he was assigned to work on the avocado plantation. The war got him to show courage and conviction he did not know he possessed.

“That Sunday morning several volunteers stood helpless by the kibbutz dining hall,” he recalls. “I wasted no time in going to the board on which hung the keys to the kibbutz’s vehicles, grabbing the keys to the truck, driving to the dining hall, collecting the workers, and heading for the avocado plantation. Same thing the next day, but as soon as I got to the road, a patrol car appeared. The policeman motioned for me to pull over, and I was already imagining myself behind bars in prison. I was a thirteen-year-old with a truck full of workers! To my amazement, the policeman said, ‘Kiddo, when you turn left, you need to signal left, not right. Now, off you go to work.’ And so, I kept driving the laborers to the plantation every day.”

Amotz Zertal, then and now (with his mother). From the family’s albums

Zohar Rozen from Kibbutz Sarid was fifteen then. He wrote down his memories of the war. These were his impressions from a community suddenly deprived of its men:

“Throughout the night, buses and jeeps came to fetch the men. The next morning saw the village orphaned, uprooted, silent as though empty. All of a sudden, it was us, a few old men, and the women left to manage the kibbutz. As if by magic, the youths suddenly matured, the elders rejuvenated, their muscles stretching, the women went out busily taking up jobs, and as quickly as everything had emptied, it was refilled. We older teens headed to the fields to take over the cotton-picking, plowing, and harvesting shifts. It felt as though we had been given a temporary, magical toy—the tractor—which would surely soon be taken away. There, in the fields, the peaceful routine reigned. There were no sirens and no fear.

“On Sunday morning, an acquaintance of mine from the kibbutz was called up. Passing by the secretariat office, he saw me turning on the siren and said, smiling, ‘Oh, Zohar, well done. Keep the kibbutz safe, you know how it is, we’ll be back in two weeks.’ He never returned. In those days, we came to the heavy realization of what the war was really like. Our kibbutz is right next to an air force base. We saw a Phantom struggling to land and crashing in the field next to the orchard, we saw that out of each plane formation that left, only one or two would return—and we understood much, much more than we were prepared to say. In our alternative kingdom in the fields, we sat on the tractors, and there, on our own, we could cry sometimes, as it sank in that our world would not return to the way it had been. We never went back to school; we stayed to work and help. They registered it in the archive: the entire Snunit group stayed in 10th grade.” (Snunit – a swallow in Hebrew, the name of their age group on the kibbutz).

Love and war: a gift that ended in marriage

Volunteering during wartime brought about encounters which sometimes sparked romance and even true love. Noni Ziva Levy was a 10th-grader in Nahariya when she and her classmates were asked to prepare gifts for the soldiers. She wrote her name and address on the package, with a heartfelt note. To her surprise, several weeks later the recipient of the gift knocked on her door, saying he had been so touched by the note he wanted to come see the person who had written it. Their correspondence continued and the relationship became closer, until they became a couple and dated for a year and a half.

As for Ora Levy, then sixteen, from Ashkelon, volunteering took her a few steps further—all the way to starting a family. She says:

“As a section leader in the Youth Battalions [Gadna – a program that prepares Israeli youths for army service], I received a large pile of ‘sweet letters to soldiers’ [letter templates containing candy] and was asked to give them out to students at the Arye Tagar School in Ashkelon so they could write a few words to the soldiers on the frontlines. Approximately forty letters came back empty… What could I do? A mission is a mission! I sat down and wrote in them all! A few days later, replies started arriving from the soldiers, ten or so in total. At first, I gladly answered them all, but was left some weeks later writing only to one soldier who sent me long letters without spelling mistakes. I even made him a particularly invested package, attaching a note to each item inside with a blessing, joke, or drawing. On his first leave, the soldier, whose name was Yossi Tzchori, called and asked to meet. He arrived at the central bus station in Ashkelon, this handsome, bearded soldier, and we fell in love immediately. Yossi served in an auxiliary unit to the Golani Brigade, and as it turned out, he was given the leave right after the battle on Mount Hermon. Meeting me gave him the strength to rejoin the fray, and continue his army service in general. We kept writing to each other and seeing each other when we could, and two years later got married and had a wonderful daughter.”

One of the letters Ora Levy sent out during the Yom Kippur War. “The white spots are where sweets were attached by the Association for the Wellbeing of Israel’s Soldiers”. From a family album.


Ora Levy as a girl, from a family album

In the hospitals: “Years later, the flashbacks began”

All over the country, young people offered help in a variety of jobs: distributing mail, painting car headlights to darken them, maintaining the blackouts, knitting hats, and much more. Many volunteered where they were most needed: in hospitals. Their experiences there were complex and affected who they grew up to be.

When the war broke out, seventeen-year-old Eli Dror immediately wondered how he could help. Learning of the war bonds, he sold his expensive bicycle and donated the funds to the great loan collected to finance the war effort. Yet he did not stop there. When he and his friends from the Leyada High School in Jerusalem discovered that the Hadassa Ein Karem Hospital needed volunteers, they headed there right away. The girls were employed in wards, and the boys helped transport patients who were flown in by helicopters. Eli recalls:

“We would approach the helicopter as a group of four and carry the wounded out onto a gurney. Then we would rush to the emergency room with everything they had—IV drips, detached limbs, anything. Many patients from the armored forces arrived with heavy burns, and it was crucial for us to be as careful as possible, as even the smallest jolt, a little rock or unevenness on the path would hurt them terribly.

“Sometimes we would accompany them to tests, x-rays, anywhere we could help. Often, they would ask us to let their families know where they were, which we would hasten to do using the telephone installed there. This volunteering experience was extremely significant to me personally, as I felt that I was making a meaningful contribution. I believe that this is why I kept on volunteering for many years as an adult.”

Nearer the front, Sara Ameti Ben Moshe, seventeen, from Tiberias, realized that this work was the only way she could deal with the shocking situation. She recalls her time as a volunteer at Poriya Medical Center:

“We saw the entire Golan Heights aflame, planes crashing. The fear was real; we could not simply sit at home, so a few friends and I looked for something to do. We had no idea what we were getting into. There was nobody to speak to. The personnel were freaking out. I was asked to go round the wards, see who needed water, and wet their lips. That was what I did.

“There was a nurse who had fainted in the burn ward. I came in and did what was asked of me, I do not know how, but I managed to disconnect. One reservist, I remember, was a high school history teacher, and he had had his leg amputated. He was the only one who noticed we were so young, so he tried to make us laugh, lighten the mood a little.

“It was a total breaking point for me to see people rushing about and cars driving on Yom Kippur. Never again did I keep the fast, after the war, but I light a memorial candle every year because of the war. Only years later, the flashbacks began. The smell of burnt meat would throw me back there. I always used to think—who are we in comparison to the wounded soldiers? But really, all of us, the entire generation, carry this with us forever. Some more, some less.”

Sara Ameti Ben Moshe with her friends at the Poriya Medical Center in Tiberias. From a family album

Dorit Ganon Zinger, a Safed native, was only in ninth grade when the students gathered in the schoolyard with the remaining teachers, and the home front protection forces assigned jobs to the students. “I felt I was being conscripted,” she shares. “The older ones were sent to help in the primary school. We helped distribute mail or cleaned and organized equipment at Ziv, the new hospital they had just finished building.”

“Some of the girls, including me, became radio operators, while the boys carried stretchers. We were positioned at the Magen David Adom station in town. Ziv Hospital did not have a helipad yet. The helicopters would land in an open area nearby, and the wounded would be taken to the hospital by ambulance. My job included some things which today seem unthinkable for a fourteen-year-old: I was ordering blood transfusions, sending boys with stretchers to the landing area, and liaising with the pilots.

“Once the new helipad was opened, we were sent to help in the wards. I was assigned to orthopedics. My job was to change sheets, empty bedpans, and do anything else I was asked to do. I especially remember one man whose arms had been amputated, who dictated letters for his girlfriend and family to me. His optimism was infectious, despite his injuries. That entire period was terrible. Looking back, it was like living in a film. I remember, when we went back to normalcy after the war ended, everything was different. We had grown up. I am sure we matured in the blink of an eye.”

Dorit Ganon Zinger, now and as a teen. From family albums

Fifteen-year-olds at Soroka Hospital: “The first patient’s name is stuck in my mind”

Ronen Tuchfeld and Hanoch Ron were fifteen-year-old 10th-graders at Mekif Daled High School in Beer Sheva. Hanoch says that in order to volunteer for some of the tasks, they lied about their age, claiming they were in the 11th grade. This brought them to the Soroka Hospital for a volunteering experience that changed their lives.

Most young people volunteering at Soroka were charged with emergency response to helicopters arriving from the Sinai Peninsula. These were long, twelve-hour shifts. The moment a helicopter landed, they would rush to it, helping transfer the wounded onto a gurney in a quick and organized fashion, then run with them as fast as possible to the improvised emergency room that had popped up at the entrance to the hospital. To this day, Hanoch is unable to forget the first man he accompanied from the helicopter: “His name is stuck in my mind: Zvi Svitovsky. Like many, he was burned all over. To this day, I have no idea what became of him. However much I searched, I did not manage to find him.”

Ronen’s job at Soroka was even more complicated. He worked in the improvised emergency room along with another boy, replacing the orderlies who had for the most part been called to war. “The mess would begin in the afternoon,” he says. “Helicopters and buses were rehauled to carry sitting or lying patients, and each of these buses brought 50–100 wounded men to us. These were difficult sights and lots and lots of work. Everyone needed aid. Hundreds if not thousands of injured soldiers passed through there in those weeks. We would help in small ways: fetch one a glass of water, have a chat with another, keep an eye on their things, cover them well with the blanket so they would not feel exposed. The most important part was letting them feel noticed. The staff were running around like mad. Sometimes we would become attached to one of them and stay close by, creating a special connection.”

Helipad next to the future Soroka Hospital. Photographer: Boris Carmi, the Meitar Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel.

Ronen and his friend discovered that beyond the exhausting labor and rushing from one patient to another, their job included a much more difficult task which left an indelible mark on their souls. Ronen explains:

“First thing in the morning, we had to take those who had died overnight to Pathology. There, if there was room, we would put the bodies in the refrigerators. When there was no room, the bodies of soldiers who had not made it through the night would be placed on the countless stretchers at the ward entrance. They would be covered with sheets, their feet out, and small tags would be tied to their big toes with their names and ID numbers. Sometimes, the dog tags of dead soldiers who had been brought to the hospital from Sinai at night would be tied to their feet, their boots placed between their legs. And we would stand there staring, unable to understand how death suddenly seemed so near.”

The weeks Ronen spent aiding the wounded and carrying the dead impacted his life: “At the time, I understood none of what was happening to me, and I definitely did not discuss it with anyone. That was not something you did; everyone gave what they could. And so, I went on with my life. I served in the army, started a family, got a job. Only looking back, decades after the war, could I connect the dots and realize the effect that period had on me. I cannot stand the sight of needles: I still look away during vaccinations or blood tests. I was not present at my children’s births, visiting very briefly and leaving, unable to spend a long time at a hospital. That’s trauma.”

Among the many burdens they experienced while volunteering at the hospital, the boys had some beautiful moments as well. Hanoch’s mother was hospitalized at Soroka then. One day he took time to visit her during a break. From the next room, wonderful sounds wafted over: “In one room, where eight beds held wounded soldiers, the band Kaveret were delivering a heartfelt performance. I stood there listening. This is also a moment I have not forgotten.”

Yossi, Amotz, Sara, Dorit, Ronen, and many others were teenagers during the Yom Kippur War. They may not have served on the frontlines, but the war affected them profoundly, much like everyone who stayed on the home front and had to deal with the emergency that had befallen the country. Their story is also part of our shared memory of the war that was.

Jerusalem: City of Lepers?

For thousands of years, leprosy was one of the world’s most feared diseases | Jerusalem’s “Hansen House” is known as the city’s legendary leper asylum, but a look back through time reveals a longstanding relationship between the city and the illness | On Jerusalem: city of holiness and leprosy

A man and two boys suffering from leprosy, photographed at the gates of Jerusalem, 1890-1910, Underwood Brothers collection, courtesy of Yad Yitzhak Ben Zvi

“Near the rose garden in Jerusalem is a closed institution, where sadness prevails and isolation is everywhere to be found: the leper hospital.”


This was the opening sentence of an article about Hansen House in Jerusalem’s Talbiyah neighborhood, published in the Davar newspaper in November 1951. The building housing this institution was designed by the famous architect Conrad Schick, becoming something of an urban legend and the focus of horror stories told by Jerusalemites for many years. The late Jerusalemite author and scholar Yaakov Yehoshua recalled how the hospital reminded him in his youth of the weekly Torah portions of Tazria and Metzora – both related to leprosy. The connection he made between the cantor’s sad voice in the synagogue, describing the sick leper cursed by God, and the disfigured lepers residing at Hansen House, was a natural one. The hospital terrified residents of adjacent neighborhoods, and to this day, the old timers of the neighborhoods of Katamon and Talbiyah remember how they would look at the building with a mixture of awe and fear.

Though many are familiar with the leper asylum at Hansen House, the institution represents but the latest chapter in the story of Jerusalem’s relationship with the disease. An exploration of the untold story of leprosy in the Holy City reveals of a mysterious and powerful connection between the city and the illness, which was considered to be a divine curse all the way up to the 20th century.

The Jesus Hilfe or Jesus’ Help Asylum in Talbiyah in its early days, with the sign prominently placed at the entrance. From the Roni Ellenblum History of Jerusalem Collection. Prepared by: Tamar Hayardeni, Wikipedia

Leprosy, one of the world’s most notorious diseases, is mentioned already in the Bible. Like other serious skin ailments, it was considered a punishment from heaven, and those afflicted were socially shunned. The disease was caused by a bacteria which caused disfigurations of the skin and changes in the body. Leprosy has been documented for thousands of years, and the description in the Bible would appear to be one of the first documented attempts to cope with a contagious illness of this sort.

The Bible calls for expelling lepers “outside the camp”, and to a great extent, until the 21st century – treatment of lepers in Jerusalem followed suit. The Bible tells us of Uziyahu, King of Judah, who was stricken with leprosy and exiled until his death. When he dwelled in isolation in the “house of separation”, which popular traditions place in the Kidron valley east of the Old City of Jerusalem, did he imagine that an urban leper’s asylum would be built in nearby Silwan more than 2000 years later? Did the patients who collected alms at Zion Gate in the Old City in the 19th century know that the King of Jerusalem himself was a leper centuries before?

The “Lepers’ Village” near Zion Gate, Jerusalem. From the Roni Ellenblum History of Jerusalem Collection. Prepared by: Tamar Hayardeni, Wikipedia


Sick With Leprosy and Not Recovering? You’re as Good as Dead

“Leprosy” has been used as a general descriptor for a whole range of serious and disfiguring skin diseases throughout history. In 1873, Norwegian researcher Gerhard Armauer Hansen identified the bacteria causing this illness, and it has since been called Hansen’s Disease, after the man who discovered it. The leprosy the Bible speaks of has been proven to not be the disease we know today; historical-linguistic developments led to confusion on the subject. For centuries and millennia, the state of those suffering from leprosy in the Holy City was appalling.

The three powerful religions in the city – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – all considered lepers to be cursed by God, with those not recovering from the disease even considered to be effectively dead. In Judaism, the main fear of the disease was religious, as lepers were considered impure; priests were charged with removing them from the camp or the city so that the spirit of God could dwell among the Children of Israel.

Like Judaism, the other religions – including the religions of the ancient Near East in Babylon and Mesopotamia – viewed lepers as impure beings to be separated from the healthy population. Even in our time, when leprosy is no longer the threat it once was and can be effectively treated, the term “leper” remains to mark out people who are rejected from society. A formal request was once submitted to change the Hebrew term for the disease to destigmatize the people suffering from it.

Letter sent by Prof. Feliz Zagher (Sagher), director of the Hansen Hospital from 1949, requesting the name of the disease be changed. From the Roni Ellenblum History of Jerusalem Collection. Prepared by: Tamar Hayardeni, Wikipedia

Things changed during the Crusader occupation of the Holy Land. In contrast to the treatment of lepers in the Western Christian world, the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem treated them with respect. Upon conquering the city in 1099, the Crusaders came into more direct contact with lepers than they were used to, as leprosy was more prevalent in the Middle East at the time; many Crusaders were even afflicted themselves.

To deal with the lepers without expelling them, a special order was established – the Order of Saint Lazarus, named after the patron saint of lepers mentioned in the Christian Bible. Many knights afflicted with leprosy joined the order, and they were required to bear a noise-maker to announce their arrival in any densely-inhabited area. The knight bearing the noise maker became the symbol of the order, also known for its knights who fought without faceguards, in order to terrify enemies with their disfigured faces. Many of the knights knew they would not live long with the disease, and so preferred to die on the battlefield.

The peak of leprosy’s fame, or notoriety, in the city came with the rise of Jerusalem’s “Leper King”, Baldwin IV, who fought against Saladin in four battles, the last of which required he be carried by his knights to the battlefield. The Domus Leprosorum or “Leper’s Home” in Latin, the order’s center for treatment and prayer, was established outside the northern wall of Jerusalem, where the “French Hospital” stands today.

Symbol of the Order of Saint Lazarus


The Lepers at the Gate

In the modern era, even after it was scientifically proven that the Biblical leprosy and Hansen’s Disease – leprae – are not the same illness, the stigma remained. Lepers were removed from the city and healthy people refused to go near them – due to their serious and clearly visible physical symptoms, among other reasons. They were excommunicated and forced to live in an isolated community, without support beyond collecting alms. The sight of beggars at the city gates became a fixture, only increasing the locals’ disgust. Towards the end of the 19th century, most lepers in Jerusalem lived in a number of shacks next to the Old City walls, between Zion Gate and the Dung Gate. They married among themselves and lived in rickety houses made of stones taken from ruins, mud, and branches. The Ottoman government neglected them.

Lepers outside Hansen House. From the Roni Ellenblum History of Jerusalem Collection. Prepared by: Tamar Hayardeni, Wikipedia

Their condition improved thanks to the churches which became increasingly dominant in the city from the mid-19th century onward. In 1865, the land was visited by a German noblewoman named Auguste von Keffenbrinck-Ascheraden. Her shock at the sight of the scarred and pitiful lepers at the city gates led her to raise money to build a hospital and home for them. To that end, she recruited the aid of the Moravian-German church in an effort which would forever change the fate of lepers in Jerusalem.

Patients at the leper hospital in Jerusalem, late 19th century. From the Roni Ellenblum History of Jerusalem Collection. Prepared by: Tamar Hayardeni, Wikipedia


From Mamilla to Talbiyah, With a Stop in Silwan

People had only begun to leave the walls of the Old City as the 19th century came to a close, and Jerusalem’s urban heart still lay within their confines. The German countess and the Moravian church chose a nearby location known today as the neighborhood of Mamilla. The structure was established next to its pool, one of the city’s water sources, and away from the main roads to and from Jerusalem.

In 1866, the first leper’s hospital was established, and would eventually become the Lazarist Monastery on Agron Street. It had a number of rooms, which did not fill up that quickly – the Jerusalemite lepers were suspicious of the hospital built by the church; the Jews and Muslims in particular were wary of proselytizing. Still, the hospital staff managed to win their trust over time, and it soon became apparent that the hospital wasn’t big enough for all the city’s lepers.

The first leper’s asylum in the Mamilla neighborhood, which can be seen today on Agron Street. From the Roni Ellenblum History of Jerusalem Collection. Prepared by: Tamar Hayardeni, Wikipedia

In the meantime, the leper neighborhood next to Zion Gate was demolished by the Ottoman authorities between 1873 and 1975. The government had taken note of the church’s efforts to take the lepers under its wing and decided to follow suit, ordering the construction of government homes for lepers next to Bir Ayoub, south of Silwan. The urban hospital was managed under difficult conditions, without regular supervision and handling, and four patients died in its first summer. Despite this, many of the city’s patients, particularly those of Muslim faith, chose at first to go to Dir Ayoub, since the European beds and Christian nurses in the German Mamilla hospital were foreign to them. But the difficult conditions, lack of doctors, and non-separation between those with “lighter” and more “severe” leprosy led many to ultimately seek the aid of the church. This demand led the church to purchase new land southwest of the Old City to establish the Jesus Hilfe or “Jesus’ Help” hospital for lepers, which would later become Hansen House.

Lepers’ homes built in Silwan by the Ottoman government, the Schneller Orphanage Collection, Yad Yitzhak Ben Zvi


From the Ottoman Empire to the British Mandate and the State of Israel

The Jesus Hilfe hospital was established in Talbiyah on a large lot, surrounded by walls. Opened in 1887, it operated in various forms until 2002, witnessing the fall of the Ottoman Empire, the rise and fall of the British Mandate, and the coming of the State of Israel. It had room for some 60 patients alongside medical staff and nurses, and was built to be a self-sustaining establishment. Trees and plants were planted around the building and a vegetable garden was set up where the lepers could work, hoe, grow fruits and vegetables and set up a chicken farm. Cedar trees were brought in specially from Lebanon to beautify the courtyard, alongside cypress and other kinds of trees.

Hansen House’s first doctor, Dr. Adalbert Einsler (the father-in-law of architect Conrad Schick) used new methods to treat the patients. They were allowed to receive visitors and take trips around the country, and they were forced to give up begging. The leper asylum went by many names among the Arabs of Jerusalem, including dar al-masaknin (“the house of the pitiable”) and “the Morafi hospital” after the Moravian church. The lepers walking freely around the hospital terrified the city’s residents, who stayed as far away as they could.

Lepers engaging in routine activity at Hansen House, late Ottoman period. From the Roni Ellenblum History of Jerusalem Collection. Prepared by: Tamar Hayardeni, Wikipedia

After the Ottoman defeat in the First World War and the start of the British Mandate, the institution’s working relations shifted away from Germany. The hospital was placed under the supervision of the Mandate’s health department, even receiving a government budget and being placed under the aegis of the British branch of the Moravian church.

In 1919, Palestinian Jerusalem doctor Tawfiq Canaan was appointed chief physician of the institution, a position he held until the ’48 war. With the establishment of the State of Israel, the Jesus Hilfe hospital was purchased from the Moravian church. The State of Israel turned it into a government hospital and called it “Hansen Hospital,” after the man who discovered the disease. Despite the repeated demands of neighboring residents, as well as a number of attempts to move the institution, the hospital operated on site until 2002. It was then abandoned and left in that state for years – only contributing to its mysterious image. Today it serves as a cultural center and museum.

Sign for the government hospital known as Hansen House, after it was transferred to Israeli government control after the ’48 war. From the Roni Ellenblum History of Jerusalem Collection. Prepared by: Tamar Hayardeni, Wikipedia

Today, leprosy isn’t the terrifying disease it once was, and effective treatment in the early stages does much to prevent it. The national – and only – center in Israel for treating lepers is in Jerusalem, located on Strauss Street in the center of town. Leprosy ceases to be contagious after initial treatment, removing the need for isolation of patients. The infection rate is very low, and some 95% of the population is naturally immune. But the once-ominous disease left its marks on Jerusalem, just like the scars it once left on the human body, reminding us of days long past.


Rabbi Chaim Abraham Gagin: The Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem and the Ottoman Empire

Helping merchants in the markets of Jerusalem, saving the Samaritans of Nablus, and corresponding with Jewish communities around the world - the archive of Rabbi Chaim Abraham Gagin tells the story of one of the 19th century's most fascinating Jewish figures…

Illustration purportedly of Rabbi Gagin and his signature

One of the most moving treasures in the National Library of Israel is not a book, an ancient document or manuscript. Rather, it’s a stick.

More precisely, we are referring to a wooden staff consisting of two parts connected with a screw, measuring slightly over four feet and three inches long, with an ivory knob fastened at one end. It was sent to Rabbi Chaim Abraham Gagin by the Ottoman Sultan in 1842, when he was appointed to the position of “Rishon LeZion” – chief rabbi of the Jews of the Land of Israel. The Sultan would present such a staff to those in official positions as a mark of his patronage, with the item intended for use at public events and ceremonies.

Staff of the Rishon LeZion, Rabbi Chaim Abraham Gagin

For hundreds of years, under the rule of the Ottoman Empire, the “Hakham Bashi” was the title given to the chief rabbi of the Jews of the entire empire. The Hakham Bashi served as the Jewish community’s official representative before the government. The title of Rishon LeZion was given to the leader of the Jews of the Land Israel. Rabbi Gagin was the first to hold both positions at the same time.

Official appointment of Rabbi Gagin as Rishon LeZion. The tughra, the official seal of the Sultan, appears at the top.

Rabbi Chaim Abraham Gagin was born in Istanbul, or as it was then called by Jews – Kushta, almost 240 years ago, in 1787. Immigrating to Jerusalem as a child, he was drawn to the revered Beit El yeshiva in the Old City that had been founded 50 years before his birth and where a select few were allowed to devote themselves to the study of Jewish mysticism and Kabbalah. In addition to promoting Torah study, the Beit El yeshiva also fostered communal support. Students had to sign a contract pledging to love and to help one another in times of sorrow and of joy, and to refrain from bearing grudges. At that time, Beit El was the only institution in Jerusalem permitted to independently send emissaries abroad to raise funds among Jewish communities in the diaspora.

Fundraising letter of the Beit El Yeshiva

Rabbi Gagin grew up in the Beit El yeshiva. He became a rabbi, ruled on matters of Jewish law, was proficient in Kabbalah, and eventually assumed the role of head of the yeshiva. At the age of 55, married and the father of a son, he was given the titles of Hakham Bashi and Rishon LeZion. In the collections of the National Library of Israel are hundreds of items, documents and correspondence from his 8-year tenure. From his seat in the Old City of Jerusalem, Rabbi Gagin conducted extensive correspondence with dozens of communities in the Land of Israel and beyond. Tiberias, Haifa, Ramla, Safed, Acre, Beirut, Aleppo, Syria, Egypt, Yugoslavia, Morocco, Algeria, Libya, Bulgaria, Vienna and London are just some of the Jewish communities Rabbi Gagin was in contact with and assisted in countless matters. Gagin sent halakhic responses to questions that required his ruling, signed court documents such as wills, endowments and inheritances, and even rent contracts. He was in contact with very wealthy families and with communal leaders and religious court judges in many different locations, but he also personally raised funds for young bridegrooms, resolved inheritance disputes, helped establish an orphanage and even testified on behalf of a man who had come to Jerusalem from Damascus and was accused of various libels.

Transfer of a debt from Damascus to Jerusalem


Fundraising for a bridegroom


Inheritance dispute


Testimony on behalf of a resident of Damascus who had come to Jerusalem

While engaged in these activities, Rabbi Gagin continued to write essays on Torah, sermons and books which are also kept at the Library. Two of the books relate to his term in office: Sefer HaTakanot VehaHaskamot (“The Book of Regulations and Agreements”), which included the customs of Jerusalem, and is believed to be one of the first books printed in the city; and Chaim M’Yerushalayim, a book which includes a selection of sermons delivered by Rabbi Gagin while serving in his esteemed roles. Both books, which deal with communal matters, shed light on contemporary historical issues and life in Jerusalem 200 years ago, including for example the debate among Jerusalem’s rabbis about the distribution of the charity funds (haluka) collected abroad on behalf of the Holy Land’s Jewish residents.

An interesting case which illustrates the multifaceted nature of Rabbi Gagin’s work is the approbation he gave to the Samaritan community. According to Islamic practice, only “people of the book” (the ahl al-kitab), generally understood to include Jews and Christians, have the right to protection under Islamic law. Islamic religious scholars ruled that Samaritans were not of the Jewish religion and were therefore unprotected. The Samaritan community of Nablus appealed to Rabbi Gagin to help them escape the dire fate of their coreligionists living in Damascus who had nearly been wiped out due to Muslim persecution. Rabbi Gagin sent a letter in which he wrote: “The Samaritan people are an offshoot of the Children of Israel who acknowledge the truth of the Torah”. The Islamic authorities, recognizing Rabbi Gagin’s personal signature and status, accepted the document and the Samaritans duly received the government’s protection.

Signature of Rabbi Gagin

Rabbi Gagin died on 20 Iyar תר”ח, 1848, at the age of 61, and was buried in Jerusalem, on the Mount of Olives. His son Shalom Moshe Chai Gagin also served as head of the Beit El yeshiva, and was also an emissary and travelled abroad on its behalf. He named his own son Chaim Abraham after his father.

Sixty years after Rabbi Gagin’s death, the rabbis of Jerusalem signed a declaration which they presented to the Ottoman authorities. The statement reads: “We, the undersigned sages and rabbis of the Sephardi community in Jerusalem, do hereby inform and testify… that the role of Rishon LeZion has no affiliation to the role of Hakham Bashi and there is no connection between the two, as these are two distinct and separate positions. And therefore the Hakham Bashi will not be referred to by the title Rishon LeZion and the Rishon LeZion will not be referred to by the title Hakham Bashi. And to this we have signed our names… Jerusalem, Sivan התרס”ט (1909).”

The statement signed by the rabbis of Jerusalem, including Rabbi Gagin’s grandson, also named Chaim Abraham

Among the names of the 26 rabbis who signed the declaration is that of Rabbi Chaim Abraham Gagin, the grandson of Rabbi Gagin. He surely knew that his grandfather, for whom he was named, had served at the same time as both Hakham Bashi and Rishon LeZion. It seems that the years when these two roles could be held by the same person were not long lasting. Few had managed to follow in Rabbi Gagin’s footsteps and hold the staff at both ends.



The archive of Rabbi Chaim Abraham Gagin is in the process of being cataloged and will be made accessible thanks to the kind donation of the Samis Foundation, Seattle, Washington, dedicated to the memory of Samuel Israel.

Chanan and Nahbi: A Window Into Avraham Mapu’s Mind

The man who wrote the first ever Hebrew novel, Avraham Mapu, had never even been to the Land of Israel. Despite this, almost all of his works extol the Holy Land with awe and reverence, except for a single cryptic children’s story. So, what exactly is this puzzling kid’s story really trying to tell us?

Avraham Mapu, the Avraham Schwadron Collection, the National Library of Israel

“There are two rich men who live in the town of Zafron. One is called Chanan, the other Nahbi. Chanan is a generous man, granting every wish to the people around him: old clothes to some, money and bread to others.

Nahbi is a miser, unwilling to give. When his parents ask him why he turned away from the beggar in the streets, he tells them: I did not see him. He does not see anyone, he even ignores his friends and relatives.

In his [Chanan’s] house, he expresses pity for the poor, and sympathy for those close to him. The hungry knock on Chanan’s door and leave satisfied. Chanan is successful in all his undertakings, for the Lord has mercy on him and the inhabitants of Zafron praise Chanan, for he is a cherished member of the community, a man with no envy or hatred in his heart. Nahbi hates him, yet he does not hate Nahbi. Nahbi chases the poor away; Chanan takes them in.

Zafron is a small town, but it contains many poor people. However, they are not worried about the Passover holiday, for they are certain of Chanan’s charity: he buys flour and his assistants bake matzot for the poor. Once the chametz are removed from the town, Chanan sends food to the poor: matzot, meat, wine, oil and sweets for the holiday, and those who receive assistance eat and drink merrily and bless the home of the righteous man.”

Chanan and Nahbi – the tale of the good and the evil, are the main characters of a children’s story written by Avraham Mapu, but this little tale does not actually describe men at all. Chanan and Nahbi are but a metaphor. However, to understand what Chanan and Nahbi really represent, we first need to take a look into the life of their esteemed author: Avraham Mapu.

Avraham Mapu, the Avraham Schwadron Collection, the National Library of Israel

Abraham was born on January 10, 1808, in a poor suburb of Kovno, Lithuania, called Salvodka. His family had very little money but they were happy, and content with a religious, small-town life. His father, Rabbi Yekutiel was a teacher and a wise Jewish man who studied Torah and prayed with fervor. A strong believer, he tried to pass this love of studying down to his son by sending him to cheder from a young age, and telling him wonderful stories about the Land of Israel, a marvelous dream land of liberation and Jewish freedom. Little Avraham took to Jewish studies well and was known for being especially bright, but having to find work at a young age to help his struggling family, he never had much of a formal education.

By the time he was 17, Mapu had found a way to make a living on his own by following in the footsteps of his father and becoming a teacher. He was wed before his 18th birthday, and suddenly found himself in a life which exactly mirrored that of his parents – a struggling teacher, trying to build a livelihood for himself and his small Jewish family. But Avraham dreamed of more. Like his father before him, he was also a fantasist, and he knew deep in his heart that life had more in store for him. He longed to visit the Land of Israel and see for himself whether it really was the paradise described to him, a land of Jewish intellectual curiosity, where milk and honey flowed through the valleys in great rivers.

Avraham Mapu’s Wife, the Avraham Schwadron Collection, the National Library of Israel

To his disappointment, he couldn’t save enough money to quench this curiosity and cross the continents, but in search of a brighter future closer to home, Mapu found himself travelling around the Russian Empire with his wife, who by this point had given birth to two children. But despite his searching, all his travels succeeded in doing was exhaust his poor wife! Well, that’s not entirely true. His travels, despite them not bringing him the prosperity or satisfaction he so wished for, did serve to broaden his mind. Along the way, he met groups of new and revolutionary Zionist maskilim. The maskilim were ‘enlightened’ Jews and saw themselves as the pioneers of intellectual Judaism and a modern concept of Jewish self-determination. Their focus was on how to bring Judaism into the modern age and integrate a high level of rationalism into the religion while rebuilding a Jewish homeland based on the French ideals of liberty, equality, and fraternity. Meeting the prominent Haskalah pioneer Shneur Sachs in Rossyieny, Lithuania, Mapu was encouraged to act on this new-found belief system, and the preeminent writer and scholar Sachs encouraged Mapu to follow in his footsteps and write some of his own Haskalah works. Avraham considered this idea, and with caution, he carefully tiptoed into the waters of Hebrew literature.

A letter from Abraham Mapu to his brother (1859), Waldemar Mordecai Wolff Haffkine archive, the National Library of Israel

Literature in the early 19th century, even enlightened Jewish literature, was usually written in the author’s mother-tongue. But seeking a more romantic and authentic style of writing, Mapu broke new territory and started to compose his first book in Hebrew. An ardent Zionist, Mapu knew that this was the only language for his art. Modern Hebrew as we know it did not yet exist, but Mapu had been taught how to read Gemara by his father years earlier and remembered his biblical Hebrew training. Most people think of Eliezer Ben‑Yehuda as the father of modern Hebrew, and this is certainly true to an extent. That being said, Ben Yehuda was born 50 years after Mapu, by which point Mapu had already published multiple books in a mixture of biblical and adapted Hebrew prose. Mapu should really be credited as one of the first pioneers of the modern Israeli language, adjusting the old Hebrew lexicon to suit his contemporary literary needs.

Avraham Mapu, the Avraham Schwadron Collection, the National Library of Israel

Avraham began composing a book in Hebrew named “Shulamit” which was set in the Land of Israel. It documented the great beauty of the land and contrasted this sharply with dire and dreary descriptions of life in Eastern Europe. But before long, Mapu grew discontent with the challenge of writing Hebrew prose, and as he worked long days and tried to take care of his growing family, he lost his motivation for writing. He had never even been to the Holy Land and seen it for himself, and his faith in his ability to write authentically dwindled until he simply stopped writing altogether. But he always kept hold of the incomplete “Shulamit” manuscript, which would one day become Ahavat Tzion (“The Love of Zion”), one of his most well-known and beloved Hebrew books.

Ahavat Tzion, his first published work, was completed while Mapu lived in Yurburg. In 1832, Mapu was hired by a wealthy local who was seeking a tutor for his children. Mapu accepted this offer, lured in by its substantial financial reward, but he found far more than just wealth in this new role. Finally having a welcoming and friendly home in which to live, a job in which he was treated with respect and reverence, and a beautiful town to raise his family in, Mapu thrived. Close to the German border, Yurburg was a wealthy western town brimming with intellectuals who accepted Avraham as one of their own. He was able to find a community of other maskilim, who would meet to read literature and discuss the possibilities of reviving a Jewish state. But most importantly, this new community of academics encouraged Mapu to write, and write he did, finishing Ahavat Tzion and even starting on his next novel, The Guilt of Samaria.

Avraham Mapu’s original manuscript of Ahavat Tzion, the Avraham Shchwadron Collection, the National Library of Israel

Ahavat Tzion is considered the first modern Hebrew book, and tells winding tales of life in the Land of Israel. Despite never having seen the place, Mapu describes a paradise complete with sprawling nature, groups of curious Jews eager to build and share their knowledge, and a land full of passion and love. He continuously contrasts this with a grey and bleak description of life in Europe: the crumbling buildings, lack of purpose, cold weather and unfriendly people. Perhaps these descriptions were slightly hyperbolic, but they did truly reflect Mapu’s desire to leave behind his birthplace and move to Israel. For him, this far-off dream was enough to keep him going, whether it was based in reality or not.

Avraham Mapu’s original manuscript, digitized as part of the “Ktiv” Project, the National Library of Israel

His neighbors were his kindest critics, reading his works approvingly and encouraging him to continue telling his stories. But Mapu did not have that same faith in himself: “I built and destroyed, built and destroyed” he wrote in a letter to a friend, expressing how he never felt entirely content with his own writing. But arguably the most interesting thing he wrote was not in fact for his adoring friends, but for his students.

The custom for tutors in 19th century Europe was to gift a book of literature to one’s students as a reward for learning how to read. However, Mapu couldn’t find a book that he was content to pass on, and decided to take matters into his own hands instead, by composing his own book! As opposed to the children’s stories usually gifted to students, Mapu wrote a short manuscript which he named “Pedagogic Training”, a book of general knowledge, as well as grammar, Hebrew language and even some moral philosophy.

It is in this copy that we find the story of Chanan and Nahbi. Seemingly out of place in his book of languid teachings, later critics took a deeper look at this story, trying to figure out what was going through Mapu’s mind when he decided to include this fanciful tale. Some have suggested that Nahbi represents Mapu’s own miserly village of Salvodka while Chanan is a representation of Yurburg. Others think that Nahbi embodies the old, traditional shtetl Jews, while Chanan is a personification of the Haskalah movement and its liberation of the modern Jew. All agree, however, that this story, told with such moving and emotive prose, represents far more than a fairytale told for its own sake.

Avraham Mapu’s original manuscript, The Russian State Library, Moscow, Russia, digitized as part of the “Ktiv” Project, the National Library of Israel

But perhaps the most convincing interpretation is that this story is teaching us an important message about Mapu’s Zionism. Avraham Mapu saw Europe as a place of poverty, where people avert their eyes to the suffering of others, abandon their own families, and live a life of hopelessness. We can easily see how this is symbolized by the character of Nahbi. The Land of Israel, on the other hand, was a place that Mapu believed to be full of companionship, celebrations of Jewish festivals, friends eagerly offering helping hands and allowing each other to explore their culture and religion. All of this was personified by Chanan, whose character provided hope for a sorely needed escape from the realities of the world that Mapu actually occupied.

As Mapu’s list of published works grew, he went on teaching, eventually working for a state school and raising his children to become intellectuals like himself. In 1860, still quite young, his health took a turn however, and he began to lose much of his strength. His wife passed away and Avraham became frail, needing help to walk and complete even basic tasks. Despite this, he continued publishing books right up until a few months before his eventual death in 1867.

Abraham Mapu’s grave, photographer: Jüdische Friedhof Königsberg, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

Avraham Mapu left behind a legacy of great Hebrew literature and novels. Many are familiar with his name because of the roads and streets in Israel named after him, and of course his status as author of the first modern Hebrew novel. Yet, Mapu’s story of Chanan and Nahbi remains both his least understood, and arguably most interesting work, to this very day.