Grapevine: Finding his father

This week in social news.

national library 521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
national library 521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
People come to the National Library on the Givat Ram campus of the Hebrew University for any number of reasons.
Moti Nir, 73, who was born in Alexandria in Egypt, came on a roots trip.
Nir was only three years old when he lost his father. His mother, who was fiercely Zionist, decided to move to Israel with her little boy, but his father’s family was strongly opposed to the idea – so much so that they a put lien on her assets and took out a court order to prevent her departure from Egypt. But his mother was clever and applied for an exit visa in her maiden name. It was granted, and she and Moti arrived penniless in Israel in 1949.
His mother, who came from a very affluent background, had never had to work in her life, but she was very young and adapted quickly to their new circumstances.
They lived a very simple existence. Things improved a little as time went by. Moti grew up, married and raised a fine family.
It’s popular in schools these days for students to be given assignments to trace their family roots. It’s a great way to encourage research, and it also helps to build bridges between generations, because grandparents are usually the best source of information for the start of such projects.
Nir said that when his grandchildren came to him, he had nothing to tell them, because he simply didn’t know anything about his father’s background. However, he did have a few documents that his mother had brought from Egypt, and thought that perhaps he could find out more about the Jewish community of Alexandria at the National Library.
One of the documents in his possession indicated that his father, Joseph Mark Salama, was born in Corfu in 1882. This led Moti to divert his search from the Alexandria Jewish community to the Jewish community of Corfu. He learned that in 1492, many Jews who had been expelled from Spain settled in Corfu, where they established religious, educational and charitable institutions as well as a burial society.
They even introduced Hebrew studies into the Greek academy. Many made their income from the production of olive oil and soaps.
Relations between the Jews and their non-Jewish neighbors were good until 1891, when they were accused of killing a young Christian girl. The accusations almost led to a pogrom. Of the 5,000 Jews who lived in Corfu at the time, 3,000 – mostly the wealthier members of the population – chose to emigrate. Most went to Trieste in Italy, or to Alexandria in Egypt.
Nir’s research at the National Library included perusing the lists of names, recently published by Spain and Portugal, of Jews who were expelled half a millennium ago. Among the family names were those of both his mother’s and his father’s ancestors.
Nir brought this information to Rosemary Eshel and Alona Ebinezer, two professional consultants at the library, who delved further on his behalf and produced copies of newspaper articles about an economist by the name of Joseph Salama, who was in charge of a large factory complex in Alexandria, was a generous donor to the synagogue, and also took care of various community needs. He was also the president of the Mit Ghamr congregation.
With this information in hand, Nir was able to learn more about his father from a French-language book, Les Juifs en Egypte, in which there was a large photograph of his father.
The National Library is now encouraging people to collect family stories under the Hebrew heading of “Sipurei Savta” (Grandma’s Tales) to be archived in the new enlarged National Library currently under construction, so that future generations of Israelis will have access to information about their family backgrounds. It is also encouraging famous people to donate their archives to the library so that current and future generations will know more about them.
Among the library’s recent acquisitions is the personal archive of actor, filmmaker and screenwriter Assi Dayan, who died in May 2014. Among the documents in the archive are personal letters and childhood photographs of Dayan and his siblings – Udi, a sculptor who died in November last year, and Yael, a writer and former politician, who last month celebrated her 78th birthday. Their father, celebrated soldier, politician and collector of antiquities Moshe Dayan, died in 1981, and their mother, Ruth Dayan, who is a great social activist, will celebrate her 101st birthday on March 7. Among others who have already promised their archives to the National Library are prizewinning poet Agi Mishol and playwright and translator Dan Almagor.
■ ON THE premise that a new broom sweeps clean, Rabbi Yosef Ote, the new spiritual leader of Hazvi Yisrael Synagogue in the capital’s Talbiyeh neighborhood, introduced a new custom. While it has always been customary at the end of the Saturday morning service to congratulate congregants on births, bar mitzvas, weddings and milestone birthdays, for some odd reason there has never been a tradition of thanking the people who voluntarily lead the prayers and read the Torah portion. Different people perform these tasks each week, but they have never been thanked – not even President Reuven Rivlin. But on his first Saturday, Ote, before beginning his sermon, made a point of thanking each by name and complimented them on what they had done.
Not only that, but he didn’t wait for congregants to introduce themselves to him.
He walked around the men’s section of the synagogue, shaking hands with people.
After the service he stood outside in order to meet female congregants as well.
Before delivering his sermon, he heaped praise on his predecessor, Rabbi Avigdor Burstein, who was not present to hear it, and said that he was not a replacement for Burstein, but that he would try to walk in his footsteps.
■ MANY COMMUNITY centers around the country have what they call Shabbat tarbut on Saturday mornings. In non-Orthodox communities, they may even use a microphone and a video so that the rest of the country can share in the significant remarks that may have been made by a political figure or some other personality.
“Shabbat tarbut,” in its literal sense, means Shabbat of culture, which means that they include nonreligious subjects.
For some time now, regular attendees at Beit Avi Chai in Jerusalem have been urging the cultural center’s executive director, David Rozenson, to expand the facility’s cultural and educational programs, meaning that some could easily be held on Shabbat. Rozenson, who is never shy about trying something new, introduced a number of successful pilot programs on Shabbat, without transgressing any of the Sabbath regulations, and these proved to be sufficiently successful to warrant monthly Shabbat programs.
Rozenson makes it clear that these programs are not intended to replace the Shabbat experience of the synagogue and the home, and will be conducted at times intentionally scheduled so as not to conflict with synagogue services or Shabbat meals, and the programs will fully respect the sanctity of the Sabbath. There will be no violations, and the parking lot will be closed. He has not yet specified the content of the Sabbath programs, other than to say they will be engaging and meaningful.
They will be enhanced by a wide range of educators and cultural personalities.
There will be activities for youth and the entire family, and an overarching emphasis on the unique spirit, beauty and richness of the Sabbath experience.
Rozenson hopes to launch the monthly Sabbath series on Friday eve of January 26, with a special Tu Bishvat tisch led by educator and musician David Menahem, author Dov Elboim and musician Neta Alkayam. The festive Friday eve Tu Bishvat gathering will include study of texts, discussions, refreshments and the music of Shabbat. Admission is free but subject to availability and exclusively via tickets that must be ordered in advance.
Beit Avi Chai’s Motza’ei Shabbat programs will take place Saturday eve, January 27, and will be led by musicians Peretz and Mark Eliyahu, Eldad Citrin, Hagai Bilitzki and Roni Evrin, joined by educator Tamar Elad-Appelbaum, for an evening of study, music and celebration.
Tickets can be ordered via the center’s website. In the coming months, additional components will be added, with programs for families and children.
These are being developed for Shabbat afternoon.
■ THE ANNUAL conference on Yiddish theater and multiculturalism will take place at Leyvik House, 30 Dov Hoz Street, Tel Aviv, on Tuesday, January 23, with the participation of Yiddishpiel founder Shmuel Atzmon, who will speak on the importance of preserving and promoting Yiddish theater.
A number of other well-known cultural figures will speak on displaying Yiddish theater posters past and present; collecting and documenting anything and everything related to Yiddish theater; Yiddish theatrical treasures and performances in the 21st century; and the Yiddish theater in Vilna between 1975 and 1998 and its role in the renewing of Jewish consciousness of the Jews of the Soviet Union. There will also be a lot of Yiddish entertainment by way of film, poetry and drama.
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