8 Things You Need to Know About… Benjamin de Tudela

Medieval Jewish traveler extraordinaire

1. Benjamin de Tudela visited Europe, Asia and Africa in the 12th century, writing vivid descriptions everywhere –  including his account of western Asia a hundred years before Marco Polo.

2. He was from the Navarrese town of Tudela in what is now Spain, where a street in the former Jewish quarter is named for him. Little is known of his early life, but it is clear that he gained a broad proficiency in languages.

3. His Travels of Tudela, also known as the Book of Travels, describes the Jewish communities of his day. It is considered a reliable source of information about the geography and ethnography of his time and is consulted for information about daily life.

4. His work, written in Hebrew, was translated into Latin and then other European languages. From the  Renaissance to the present, it has been a key primary source for scholars of medieval history.

travels of Tudela5. He started his travels sometime between 1159 and 1165 and ended around 1172 or ’73. Starting from the Iberian Peninsula, he went to France, Italy, Greece, Constantinople, Syria, Lebanon, the Land of Israel, northern Mesopotamia, Persia (Iraq and Iran), Arabia, Egypt and Northern Africa. Wherever he visited, he gave the demographic count of Jews, the names of their community leaders, their occupations and the activity of their merchants. Want to know about the intellectual life of Jewish Provence or the organization of synagogues in Egypt? Tudela is your man.

6. In all he visited over 300 cities, describing their landmarks, buildings, marketplaces and the customs of their citizens, both Jewish and gentile. He gives one of the earliest accurate accounts of the ancient site of Nineveh – near modern Mosul.

7. His style was concise and easy. Want to read it for yourself? You can do so online at Project Gutenberg. His work is still available in many languages: it’s a gold mine of information for Jewish and general history.

8. The 19th century writer Mendele Mocher Sforim wrote a kind of Jewish Don Quixote with a title inspired by Benjamin de Tudela – The Travels [or Wanderings] of Benjamin III.

Jerusalem TudelaLook for Binyamin miTudela Street in Jerusalem’s Rehavia neighborhood, just south of Magnes Circle.



Author’s note: OOPS! My brain was on summer vacation last week – post written, but not properly scheduled. My apologies.

12 Things You Need to Know About… David “Mickey” Marcus

Israel’s first general since Judah Maccabee

Mickey_Marcus_West_Point_Photo1. David Daniel Marcus was born in New York in 1901 to immigrant parents. He learned boxing for self-protection in the Brooklyn neighborhood where he went to school. He was admitted to West Point in 1920 and graduated in 1924 with an outstanding record.

2. After active service, Marcus attended law school. In the 1930s he served as federal attorney in New York and helped bring Lucky Luciano to justice. Mayor LaGuardia named him Commissioner of Corrections for New York City.

3. In 1940, he went back into the army. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, he volunteered to fight in the war. He parachuted into Normandy, saw fighting service, and helped draw up the surrender terms for the Axis powers.

220px-MickeyMarcus4. The year was 1944: Marcus was in charge of planning how to sustain the lives of those in the areas to be liberated. He was responsible for the prisoners in the death camps; he entered the camps, coming face-to-face with the survivors and the dead. After the war, he was named chief of the War Crimes Division, planning for the Nurenberg trials. These experiences, as might be expected, turned him into a Zionist.

5. While the United Nations deliberated over the establishment of the State of Israel, Marcus was serving as a colonel in the US Army. He was wooed by Yitzhak Shamir to help pull together a ragtag set of citizen-soldiers into a fighting force. In January 1948, “Michael Stone” arrived in Tel Aviv, using the assumed name to satisfy the US authorities and to avoid problems with what remained of the British Mandatory authority.

6. He designed a command structure for the new army, wrote training manuals and identified weak positions. When, in May 1948, the new state was attacked by Arab armies, the new army of Israel was ready.

7. Marcus had prescribed hit-and-run tactics with the Egyptian army, a technique that worked well in the south. As commander of the Jerusalem front, he broke the siege of that city by building a new road – the “Burma Road” – to bring in supplies to the Jewish defenders; the Arab siege was broken just before the cease-fire took effect. Israel’s borders were kept virtually intact.

8. As a commander he inspired confidence in his men. David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first Prime Minister [see my blogpost of October 9, 2013], named him Lieutenant General, the first general in the army of Israel in nearly two thousand years.

9. He did not live to see the peace. Six hours before the cease-fire, he was killed by friendly fire.

Marcus gravestone10. Marcus was buried at West Point with a tombstone reading, “A Soldier for All Humanity.” A monument has been erected to his memory where he fell, now in Kiriat Telshe Stone near Abu Gosh.

11. A biography about him was written in 1962 by Ted Berkman, Cast a Giant Shadow. A movie of the same name came out in 1966.

12. Kibbutz Mishman David and the neighborhood Neve David in Tel Aviv are named for him, as is the Colonel David Marcus Memorial Playground in Brooklyn.

In Haifa you’ll find David Marcus Street in French Carmel, just east of Tchernichovsky Street.

10 Things You Need to Know About…Charles Lutz

Swiss diplomat who save Jewish lives

1. Charles “Carl” Lutz was born in Walzenhausen, Switzerland, in 1895. He studied in the United States and then elected to remain there for more than twenty years, working at the Swiss legation in Washington, DC and in various consular offices.

2. From the mid-thirties until early in the forties, he served in Palestine as Swiss consul. His photo files of those years are housed at Yad Vashem.

3. In January 1942, he arrived in Budapest as the Swiss vice-consul. Because of the war then raging, he also served the interests of the United States, Great Britain and twelve other countries that had cut off ties with Hungary.

220px-Carl_Lutz_portrait4. When the Germans occupied Hungary in March 1944, Lutz tried to stop deportations of Jews to the extermination camps.

5. Working alone and with Raoul Wallenberg (of the Swedish foreign ministry), the Red Cross and others, he issued passports and documents and organized rescue missions, providing safe houses for Jews. Here’s how it worked: Initially he issued four group certificates of aliyah for 1000 persons each – he could issue these because the British held the mandate in Palestine. Soon he “augmented” the certificates, so that each of the thousand persons could bring their families along with them. Almost 50,000 Jews were put out of harm’s way with Swiss letters of protection that safeguarded them until their departure for Palestine.

6. He allowed Zionist youth activists to work out of his office; in October 1944, they forged 100,000 more of these documents – but the plot was discovered, and Lutz was forced by the authorities to identify the false papers.

7. The Germans established a separate ghetto for the document holders. Lutz managed to procure additional buildings to house 3000 more Jews under his protection. Only a handful of them did not survive the war.

8. When, in November of 1944, Eichmann ordered a forced march of Budapest’s Jews to the Austrian border, Lutz –  among others – pulled as many Jews as he could out of the shuffling columns and returned them to Budapest. He is said to have jumped into the Danube to save a bleeding Jewish woman, bluffing his way with her past her firing squad and into his car.

Swiss stamp honoring Lutz

Swiss stamp honoring Lutz

9. When the Soviets invaded, he and his wife Gertrud (“Trudi”) fled Budapest and returned to Switzerland. In 1964, he and his wife were named to the Righteous Among the Nations at Yad Vashem.

10. Lutz was nominated three times for the Nobel Peace Prize. He died in Bern in 1975. He is estimated to have saved the lives of 62,000 people.

In Haifa, Rehov Charles Lutz runs from the railway station to the northernmost point of the Bat Galim neighborhood.

10 Things You Need to Know About…Hanna Senesh

National heroine

1. Hanna Senesh (Szenes) was born in Budapest in July 1921 to a wealthy, distinguished, assimilated family. Her father was a well-known writer.

2. She, too, wished to write and, starting at age thirteen, kept a diary. She had a modern Hungarian education, but became attracted to Zionism when, in high school, she came into contact with anti-Semites.

Szenes-Hannah-23. In 1939, she went to study agriculture in Palestine. At the end of the two-year course, she joined a kibbutz at Caesarea. Working there in the kitchen and the laundry, she was less than satisfied, as reflected in her diary. During this time, she wrote poetry and a play about kibbutz life.

4. In 1943, the Jewish agency approached her about a clandestine military operation to offer aid to European Jewry. Her Hungarian background made her perfect for the project.

5. She joined the Palmach, studying first to be a wireless operator and then a paratrooper.

senesh parachuting6. In March 1944, she was dropped into Yugoslavia – one of more than thirty Jews parachuted in by the British Army to establish contact with Hungarian partisans and to aid the beleaguered Jewish populations. She crossed into Hungary in June, her entry delayed by the German invasion. Within hours, she was picked up by the Hungarian police, imprisoned in Budapest and tortured. Most of her fellow parachutists also were captured within days; only one managed to survive the war.

7. Her mother was arrested and brought to the same prison in an attempt to break her. To no avail: she would not give up the wireless codes that her enemy wanted. In November 1944 she was tried for treason and sentenced to death. Age twenty-three, she faced her firing squad.

szenes8. Her mother survived the war, and it was through her mother that her diaries were brought to public attention. In 1950, her remains were transferred to Israel and buried in the parachutists’ section on Mount Herzl. That same year, Kibbutz Yad Hannah was established, named in her memory.

9. In 1993, a Hungarian military court officially exonerated her.

Hanna S10. Here are four samples of her writing; some you may have seen set to music (please forgive the spacing in the poetry):

There are stars whose radiance is visible on Earth though they have long been extinct. There are people whose brilliance continues to light the world even though they are no longer among the living. These lights are particularly bright when the night is dark. They light the way for humankind.


In my life’s chain of events nothing was accidental. Everything happened according to an inner need.


My God, my God, I pray that these things never end

The sand and the sea,

The rustle of the waters,

Lightning of the Heavens,

The prayers of Man.


Blessed is the heart with strength to stop its breath for honor’s sake

Blessed is the match consumed in kindling flame.


In Haifa, you’ll find Hanna Senesh Street south of the Municipal Theatre, running parallel to Sederot Wingate.



12 Things You Need to Know About…Shay Agnon

0630i2-preview.pngNobel Prize-winning author

1. Shmuel Yosef “Shai” Agnon was born Shmuel Yosef Halevi Czaczkes in a shtetl in Galicia, Austia-Hungary (now Ukraine) in 1888. His father, who worked in the fur trade, was a rabbi who aligned himself with the Chasidim; his mother came from a family of Mitnagdim, who opposed the Chasidic movement.

2. After early education in a cheder, he was schooled at home by his parents. From a young age, he wrote poems and stories in Hebrew and Yiddish. He learned German from his mother and read widely. For much of the rest of his life, he was an observant Jew.

3. In 1908 he left Europe and settled in Jaffa. That same year, he published the story “Agunot” (“Forsaken Wives”) using the surname Agnon, which he was ultimately to adopt officially (1924) – wouldn’t you, if you had his last name?

4. He moved to Germany in 1913, where he met Zalman Schocken, who took him under his wing, becoming his patron and supporting him so that he could write. He married there in 1920.

5. He collaborated with Martin Buber on a collection of Chasidic stories. His prose works were published regularly in Haaretz, in the weekly journal of Hapoel Hatsair and abroad. In 1924, his personal library in Germany burned down. Later that same year, he returned to Palestine, settling in Jerusalem. In 1929, his library was again destroyed by fire, this time in an anti-Jewish riot.

6. His place in Hebrew literature was assured when, in 1931, the Schocken publishing house published his novel The Bridal Canopy (Ha225px-Agnonchnasat Kalla) to great critical acclaim.

7. His work reflects the conflict between traditional Jewish life and language, and the modern world – on being of both worlds, but belonging fully to neither. The shtetl landscape is the background for many of his stories (notably A Simple Story); others focus on the Zionist movement and contain historical figures (notably Only Yesterday). He said his inspiration came “first and foremost [from] the sacred scriptures, and after that, the teachings of the medieval sages, and the spectacles of nature and animals of the earth.” At another time, he claimed that his primary influences were the Bible, German literature and European literature in general.

8. He employs a unique idiom, rife with terms from the traditional literature in favor of terms from modern Hebrew; critics have found in his language references to the Torah, Prophets, Mishnah, midrashic and rabbinic literature. The work is a challenge to translate, because it is full of allusions, wordplay, acrostic and anagrams. Nonetheless, he has been translated into no less than eighteen languages. He brought to literature a broadened conception of the narrator’s role.

9. These are his major works: The Bridal Canopy (1931), In the Heart of the Seas (1933), A Simple Story (1935), A Guest for the Night (1938), Betrothed (1943), Only Yesterday (1945), Edo and Enam (1950), To This Day (1952). After his death, his daughter continued to publish his work posthumously: Shira (1971), A City and the Fullness Thereof (1973), In Mr. Lublin’s Store (1974). In addition there are several collections of short stories and an edition of folk tales and rabbinic texts that he edited.

200px-50_NIS_Bill_Obverse_&_Reverse10. Agnon has had enormous influence on later writers, both in Israel and beyond. I, myself, used his work as source material for my novel Rivka’s War, to gather a sense of the daily life of pioneers in Eretz Yisrael. He won the Bialik Prize twice, and the Israel Prize twice, and in 1966 was awarded a Nobel Prize “for his profoundly characteristic narrative art with motifs from the life of the Jewish people.” His likeness, his works, and an excerpt from his Nobel acceptance speech are printed on the Israeli fifty-shekel bill. So great was his fame that in his later years the city police closed off his street to cars so that the noise would not disturb his writing!

11. His home, built 1931 in the Bauhaus style in the Talpiot section of Jerusalem, is now a museum, Beit Agnon. The synagogue in that area is named for him, as is a Jewish school in Ohio.

12. When he died in Israel in February 1970, a state funeral was held on the Mount of Olives.

In Jerusalem, Shay Agnon Street is the main drag in Givat HaPorezim. In Haifa, you’ll find Shay Agnon Street running parallel to Derech Stella Maris and Derech Allenby, between the two.



10 Things You Need to Know About… Joseph Vitkin

Educator and influential labor pioneer

1. Joseph Vitkin was born in 1876 in Byelorussia and made aliyah in 1897 at the age of 21. At first he worked as a laborer, but soon, being well-educated, became a teacher in Gedera.

2. As an educator, he promoted a love of Jewish values and an appreciation of the landscape of Eretz Yisrael. He became headmaster of the Gedera school and then headmaster at Rishon leZion, where, except for a brief hiatus at Kfar Tavor, he remained for most of his life.

3. He has been called the precursor to the Second Aliyah, partly because of the time at which he emigrated, but primarily because he so effectively promoted the pioneering movement in Eretz Yisrael.

4. In 1905, he wrote and distributed a pamphlet, “A Call to the Youth of Israel whose Hearts are with their People and with Zion.” It was written in Hebrew and signed, “A Group of Young People from Eretz Yisrael.” His words made a moving appeal that greatly influenced idealistic Jewish youth in Russia.

5. The pamphlet encouraged aliyah based on manual agricultural labor in the Jewish national homeland. Vitkin did not shrink from pointing out the immense physical difficulties facing would-be pioneers; sacrifice would be necessary, but he forecast that with patience and commitment would come success.

Vitkin“Now, dear brothers, listen to the voice appealing to you from the mountain peaks of Israel: Awake! Awake! Jewish youth, come to the aid of the people…. You are needed by the people and the Land, as air is needed for breathing.”


6. His pamphlet laid out the principles of the labor movement of the Second Aliyah. Vitkin was active in the founding of HaPoel HaTzair, the Young Workers Party, in 1905.

7. He was one of those who supported the campaign to have Jewish farm owners employ Jewish laborers exclusively, rather than using Arab labor; and he advocated the formation of new Jewish agricultural settlements.

8. The land he saw as the possession of the whole people, to be won through hard work and sacrifice – an “agricultural conquest” of Eretz Yisrael through Jewish settlement.

9. In 1907, he contracted throat cancer and went for medical treatment in Vienna. Six months later, he was sent by Hovevi Zion to Russia to promote emigration. He returned to Rishon LeZion in 1907. In May 1911, suffering from acute cancer, he returned to Vienna, but to no avail. He died in Tel Aviv in 1912 at the age of 36.

10. Kfar Vitkin and many streets in Israel have been named for him. Kfar Vitkin, founded in 1930, was the first settlement on the Hefer Plain and was to become, in the 1940s, the largest moshav in the land. An interesting historical note: it was at Kfar Vitkin that the Irgun arms ship “Altalena” was intended to unload its cargo of 5000 rifles and other weapons in June 1948.

In Tel Aviv, you’ll find Vitkin Street running parallel to HaYarkon and Ben Yehuda, just north of Arlosoroff.

Kfar Vitkin is on the coast about midway between Netanya and Hadera.



12 Things You Need to Know About… Moses Haim Montefiore

Jewish benefactor extraordinaire

1. The man who would become Sir Moses Montefiore, First Baronet, was born in 1784 in Livorno to an Italian Jewish family while his parents were on a journey in Italy. As a boy he lived in London and grew to be a physically imposing six-foot-three. He became a financier, one of the twelve “Jew brokers” licensed by the City of London.

200px-Moses_Montefiore_18182. Through marriage, he gained Nathan Rothschild as a brother-in-law; his brother married a sister of Nathan Rothschild. The two families had close financial ties, and he became business partners with Nathan. While his main business was at the London Stock Exchange, he was active as well in business ventures including gas for street lighting, life insurance and banking.

3. At the age of 40, he retired from business and thereafter spent much of his time on philanthropic projects. In 1838 he was knighted by Queen Victoria and in 1848 became a baronet in recognition of his humanitarian activism on behalf of the Jewish people. He donated large sums to promote industry, education and health, especially as regarded the Old Yishuv in Jerusalem. They were dependent on charity, living in deplorable conditions, and his aim was to make them self-supporting.

4. He first visited Palestine in 1827, after which he became an observant Jew, going so far as to travel with his own shochet (ritual slaughterer). He attended synagogue for the torah readings on Mondays, Thursdays and Saturdays, and in 1831 purchased adjoining parcels of land in Ramsgate, on the southern coast of England, where he had a private synagogue built, in addition to his lodgings. He was to travel to Eretz Yisrael at total of seven times – again in 1827, ’38, ’55, ’57, ’66, and the last time in ’75, at the age of 91.

200px-Sir_Moses_H_Montefiore5. He became president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews in 1835 and served in this capacity until 1874, a period of 39 years. Notably, in 1841-2, he corresponded with Charles Henry Churchill, the British Consul in Damascus, concerning the resettlement of Jews; their letters are seen as pivotal in the infancy and development of early Zionism.

6. In 1840, he prevailed upon the Sultan of Turkey to liberate ten Syrian Jews who had been jailed in Damascus for a blood libel. In Rome, in 1858, he tried to free a Jewish youth who had been baptized by his Catholic nurse and kidnapped by church functionaries. In 1846 he traveled to Russia, succeeding in getting the Tsar to rescind the decree of expulsion against Jews from the border areas of Russian Poland. In Morocco 1864, in Romania 1867, and again in Russia 1872: he became widely known as the champion of East European and other diaspora Jews, effectively protesting their persecution.

7. As executor of the will of Judah Touro, who died in 1854, Montefiore used the estate to fund projects of Jewish residential settlement in Eretz Yisrael. In 1855, he purchased an orchard on the outskirts of Jaffa to offer agricultural training to Jews.

8. In 1860, he funded the first Jewish residential settlement and almshouse outside the walled city in Jerusalem – today known as Mishkenot Sha’ananim. It was the first settlement of the New Yishuv. Other settlements were built south of the Jaffa Road: Ohel Moshe for Sephardim and Mazkeret Moshe for Ashkenazim. Perhaps his best-known project today is the Montefiore Windmill, built in Yemin Moshe to provide cheap flour to the poor. It operated for about nineteen years and is today a beloved landmark. He helped finance several Bilu agricultural colonies and a textile factory, and it was he who provided a new printing press for Yisrael Bak [see my blog post of 4/30/14].

200px-Montefiore1009. He commissioned censuses of the Jewish community in Palestine in 1839, ’49, ’55, ’66 and ’75, thus furnishing a trove of information that is still of value today. In 1874, on the occasion of his ninetieth birthday, he established a fund that became instrumental in facilitating Hovevei Zion settlements in Palestine.

10. Jewish philanthropy was his major, but not his only, interest. He campaigned for the abolition of slavery and in 1835, with the Rothschilds, raised a government loan that made possible the abolition of slavery in the British Empire by enabling the government to compensate plantation owners.

11. He was known for his sharp wit. A story told about him, perhaps apocryphal, since the same story is told of Israel Zangwill [see my blog post of 5/3/13], concerns a well-known anti-Semite who was seated next to him at a dinner party. The man said, “I’ve just returned from Japan, where they have neither pigs nor Jews.” Montefiore promptly replied, “Then you and I should visit there, so they will have an example of each!”

150px-Montefioretomb12. His hundredth birthday was celebrated as a national event in Britain and by Jews worldwide. He died in 1885 and was buried alongside his wife at his synagogue in a mausoleum modeled on Rachel’s Tomb (outside Bethlehem). Among the many institutions named for him are the Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx, a branch of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, the Moses Montefiore Academy in Chicago, and synagogues in Illinois, Maryland and Texas.

In Tel Aviv, you’ll find Montefiore Street running northeast off Nahalat Binyamin; in Haifa, just northeast and parallel to Sederot Eliyyahu Golomb. The Montefiore Windmill in Jerusalem is in Bloomfield Park on David HaMelech.