Tag Archives: Ukrainian Jews

Jew of the Week: Moshe Dayan

The Military Genius Who Made Warand Peace 

Moshe Dayan (1915-1981) was born on the first kibbutz, Degania Alef, to Jewish-Ukrainian parents. He was named after Moshe Barsky, a kibbutznik from Degania who was murdered in an Arab attack. At just 14 years of age, Dayan joined the Haganah defense force. In 1936, he began training with a British military unit headed by his hero, Major General Wingate. During World War II, Dayan was part of a unit that ran covert operations in Nazi-allied Vichy French territory and participated in the Allied invasion of Syria and Lebanon. In one battle, a sniper bullet missed his head, but the resulting shrapnel destroyed his left eye. His eye muscles were ruined, too, so he could not be fitted with a glass eye, and henceforth wore his characteristic black patch. During Israel’s Independence War, Dayan commanded the Jordan Valley units, and was able to stop the Syrian advance. He also led the takeover of towns like Ramle and Lod, and was part of the negotiating team that brought the war to an end. In 1949, Dayan took charge of the Southern Command and worked to secure Israel’s borders. This meant a policy of strong retaliation for Arab attacks, at times brutal. While it brought him a lot of condemnation, Dayan insisted that it was “the only method that proved effective”. In 1953, Ben-Gurion appointed Dayan the new Chief of Staff, and the latter went on to implement Ben-Gurion’s “three-year defence programme” to reorganize the IDF. Among his accomplishments was founding a military academy for high-ranking officers and establishing new intelligence units. In 1955, Dayan and Shimon Peres signed a series of deals with France to strengthen the IDF, leading to the purchase of over 100 jets, 260 tanks, and 300 trucks. In 1956, Dayan led Israel’s operation in the Sinai (jointly with France and England) and proved his military genius. The French later awarded Dayan with a Legion of Honour. After retiring from the IDF, Dayan joined Ben-Gurion’s government as Minister of Agriculture. During the Six-Day War, he took the military reins again as defense minister and oversaw the liberation of Jerusalem. He remained defense minister until the Yom Kippur War, after which he resigned due to what is generally considered to be his greatest failure. He subsequently fell into a deep depression. In 1977, Dayan returned to government as foreign minister and, no longer the hawk he once was, played a key role in the peace treaty with Egypt. Dayan spoke Arabic fluently, and lamented that more Israelis didn’t. He wrote four books and was also an amateur archaeologist, amassing a large collection of antiques which are now at the Israel Museum. In 1981, he founded a new political party, Telem, but passed away shortly after from a heart attack and complications of cancer. The New York Times eulogized him as “a general who made war, a diplomat who made peace.”

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Words of the Week

We cannot save each water pipe from explosion or each tree from being uprooted. We cannot prevent the murder of workers in orange groves or of families in their beds. But we can put a very high price on their blood, a price so high that it will no longer be worthwhile for the Arabs, the Arab armies, for the Arab states to pay it.
– Moshe Dayan

 

Jews of the Week: Israel and Nisan Bak

Israel’s First Printers – and Farmers

Page from a Zohar printed by Bak in Jerusalem

Israel Bak (1797-1874) was born in Berdichev, Ukraine to a Hasidic family of printers. He took over the business at the age of 18, and over the next seven years printed thirty books. Unfortunately, the family printing press was shut down, and over the next decade Bak unsuccessfully tried to rebuild the business. In 1831, he made aliyah and settled in Tzfat. He established a new printing press, and Jewish books began to be printed in Tzfat again for the first time since the 1600s, when the previous printing press was shut down. Meanwhile, Bak also purchased a plot of land near Mt. Meron and started the first Jewish agricultural colony. Some credit him as being the first modern Jewish farmer in Israel. It was he that inspired (former Jew of the Week) Sir Moses Montefiore to start investing in more Jewish settlement and agricultural development of the Holy Land—a seminal event upon which the later Zionist movement was built. Sadly, Bak lost everything in the Tzfat earthquake of 1837 and the Druze Revolt of 1838. He relocated with his family to Jerusalem, there establishing the holy city’s first-ever printing press. From there he printed 130 books, as well as the second Hebrew newspaper in Israel’s history, Havatzelet.

Kirya Ne’emana in 1925

After he passed away, his son Nisan Bak (1815-1889) took over the printing business. Nisan sold the press in 1883, deciding to focus all of his efforts on rebuilding Jewish life in the Holy Land. Back in 1843, he had prevented the Russians from purchasing a coveted plot of land near the Western Wall where they intended to build a church and monastery. He was able to procure vast sums of money (with the help of the Ruzhiner Rebbe) to secure the area for the Jews, and there built the illustrious Tiferet Israel Synagogue (also known as Beit Knesset Nisan Bak, and the Hurva, “Ruin”, because it was destroyed by the Arabs in Israel’s War of Independence in 1948, before being rebuilt and reopened in 2010). In 1875, Bak founded one of the first modern Jewish towns in Israel, just outside Jerusalem’s walls, called Kirya Ne’emana. He built 30 homes for the Hasidic community, and distributed the remaining plots to large numbers of Iraqi, Syrian, and Persian Jews. In 1884, he co-founded (with his brother-in-law, Israel Dov Frumkin) the Ezrat Niddahim Society to stop Christian missionaries from targeting Jews. The society also established a Yemenite Jewish quarter in Jerusalem, and raised funds to support and educate Jerusalem’s impoverished.

Top left: the Hurva Synagogue in 1930; bottom left: the ruins in 1967; right: the Hurva today (photo credit: Chesdovi). Sir Moses Montefiore paid for much of the early construction. More than half of the money came from the wealthy Iraqi-Jewish family of Ezekiel Reuben. The synagogue was completed in 1864 and originally called Beit Yakov in honour of Edmond James (Yakov) de Rothschild. It was considered the most beautiful building in Jerusalem, and nicknamed “the glory of the Old City”.

Words of the Week

I see Israel, and never mind saying it, as one of the great outposts of democracy in the world, and a marvelous example of what can be done, how desert land almost can be transformed into an oasis of brotherhood and democracy. Peace for Israel means security and that security must be a reality.
– Martin Luther King, Jr.

Jews of the Week: Volodymyr Groysman and Volodymyr Zelensky

Ukraine’s President and Prime Minister

Volodymyr Zelensky

Volodymyr Oleksandrovych Zelensky (b. 1978) was born in Ukraine to Jewish parents. As a child, he spent four years living in Mongolia where his father worked. While studying at school, he joined his local comedy troupe, and eventually made it to Ukraine’s national comedy team. They won the KVN comedy championship in 1997 (a pretty big deal in the former Soviet Union) and Zelensky, despite having a law degree, decided to pursue a full-time career in comedy. He created a new troupe, Kvartal 95, which continued to perform across Russia and Ukraine, and eventually got their own TV show in 2003. Five years later, Zelensky made it to the big screen, starring in his first feature film. In 2015, Zelensky’s Kvartal 95 produced a new series, Servant of the People, with Zelensky in the lead role playing a young high school teacher who surprisingly becomes Ukraine’s president. The show was hugely popular, and was renewed for two more seasons, and a film. Last year, Zelensky registered “Servant of the People” as a political party in Ukraine, and actually ran in its real-life elections earlier this year. As he toured the country during his campaign, he also continued to perform with Kvartal 95. Incredibly, Zelensky won the election in a landslide (winning 73% of the vote), and will be inaugurated this week as Ukraine’s 6th president. It is hoped that he will strengthen Ukraine’s economy, fight corruption, bring calm to the civil wars in the country’s east, and work towards greater independence from Russia. While it is too early to tell what kind of president he will be, many are already predicting that unfortunately (as has happened too often in history) if Zelensky will turn out to be a successful president he will be hailed as a great Ukrainian, and if he fails, they will call him a traitorous Jew.

Volodymyr Groysman

While Zelensky will be Ukraine’s first Jewish president, he is preceded by Ukraine’s first Jewish prime minister, Volodymyr Borysovych Groysman (b. 1978). Groysman was born in the town of Vinnytsia, and worked in his father’s business growing up. While still studying law, he ran for city council in 2002 and won a seat. Shortly after graduating, he joined the Our Ukraine party, and the following year was elected mayor of Vinnytsia. Being just 28 years old, that made him the youngest mayor in Ukraine’s history. He was praised for his tremendous work and won re-election with 78% of the vote in 2010. Four years later, Groysman was appointed as Ukraine’s Minister of Regional Development, and several months after that, made chairman of the parliament. His popularity continued to rise quickly, and when the prime minister resigned in 2016 over corruption allegations, parliament elected Groysman as his replacement. Aged 38 years, he became Ukraine’s youngest-ever prime minister, and its first Jewish prime minister. He has worked diligently to combat corruption, and also supports greater integration with the West. Ukraine is now the only country in the world outside of Israel to have both a Jewish prime minister and a Jewish president.

Words of the Week

A person’s main vitality lies in his intellect. One who is not using his intellect to its full potential is considered asleep. Many people who seem to be alive are in fact sleeping their lives away.
– Rabbi Nachman of Breslov (Likutey Moharan I, 60:6)