Category Archives: Extraordinary Individuals

Unique Jews In a Category of Their Own

Jew of the Week: Rabbi Zecharia Barashi

World’s Oldest Jew

Rabbi Barashi (Credit: Lazar Berman)

Zecharia Barashi (1900-2017) was born in Kurdistan, the last of ten children in an observant Jewish family. His father was a rabbi who traveled from village to village, serving the needs of small Jewish communities in Iraq. Unfortunately, this job did not come with a salary, and the poor family made a meager living by sowing clothes and selling nuts and dates. Several years of harsh poverty, disease, and the difficulties of the First World War left six of the ten children dead. Barashi himself nearly died when he was 11 years old. He would follow in his father’s footsteps and become a rabbi as well. Inspired by Zionism, Barashi struggled to move the family to Israel. In 1936, he finally got a chance by working as a Hebrew interpreter for the Jewish Agency. After a long and arduous journey, the family settled in Jerusalem. Throughout World War II and Israel’s ensuing War of Independence, Barashi supported the war effort by digging trenches, and paving roads and runways. In 1950, the Jews of Iraq and Kurdistan made a mass aliyah to Israel, and Barashi soon became their spiritual leader. He would go on to earn the esteemed title of Chacham, “Sage”. He also published four important books on Judaism. He was in the midst of writing his fifth book when, at the age of 111, his eyesight became too poor. Deeply respected as one of Israel’s greatest rabbis, Barashi was known for his incredible memory, humility, and great sense of humour. Sadly, he passed away earlier this week. Until that moment, he was the world’s oldest living Jew. He was also Israel’s oldest living resident, having spent over 80 years in Jerusalem. Although he outlived two of his own children and his beloved wife, he is survived by five more children, 29 grandchildren, 72 great-grandchildren, and 24 great-great-grandchildren. His advice for a long life: “Always be happy, never jealous. Stay active. And never overeat, always leave the table a little hungry.”

Chag Purim Sameach!

Words of the Week

“My brain is the key that sets my mind free.”
Harry Houdini

Rabbi Barashi with Shimon Peres (Credit: Mark Neyman/Flash90)

Jew of the Week: Aletta Jacobs

A Great Pioneer for Women’s Rights

Aletta Jacobs

Aletta Henriëtte Jacobs (1854-1929) was born in a small village in the Netherlands, the eighth of twelve children. Growing up, she often accompanied her doctor father to work and developed a passion for medicine. Unfortunately, medical school (as well as high school) was barred to women at the time. Undeterred, Jacobs studied on her own, and passed the exam to become a pharmacist. This made her quite famous, and in 1871 the Dutch Prime Minister personally granted her permission to attend the University of Groningen. Jacobs was the university’s first female student, and eight years later became the first female physician in the Netherlands. During a brief period of study in London, Jacobs joined a group of suffrage activists and became a noted feminist. She discovered the need for effective contraceptives for women, and back in Amsterdam, starting to work on a new type of diaphragm. Many credit her as a co-inventor of the device. Jacobs opened her own medical clinic, focused on serving the poor. She fought tirelessly to alleviate the terrible living conditions of Amsterdam’s impoverished neighbourhoods, campaigned for public housing, worker’s rights, and for an end to prostitution. By 1903, Jacobs left the field of medicine and devoted herself full time to women’s rights. She traveled around the world to speak about women’s issues, and inspired many along the way. She also wrote regularly for a Dutch newspaper. During World War I, she was a staunch peace activist, meeting with European leaders to stop the conflict. She even met with US President Woodrow Wilson in 1915 to try to convince him to mediate an end to the fighting. In 1919, Jacobs saw the fruits of her labour when the Netherlands finally granted women the right to vote. She continued her important work until the last days of her life. Jacobs is included in the official ‘Canon of Dutch History’, which is taught in all primary and secondary schools in the Netherlands.

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Words of the Week

I will insist that the Hebrews have done more to civilize men than any other nation… They have given religion to three quarters of the globe and have influenced the affairs of mankind, more and more happily than any other nation, ancient or modern.
John Adams, 2nd President of the United States, in a letter to F.A Van der Kemp, 1809

On February 9th (her birthday), Aletta Jacobs was featured in a Google Doodle