Tag Archives: Ukrainian Jews

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)

Jew of the Week: Beate Sirota Gordon

The Woman Who Wrote Japan’s Constitution

Beate Sirota Gordon helped draft the Japanese constitution, and transformed Japanese society, when she was just 22 years old.

Beate Sirota (1923-2012) was born in Vienna, the daughter of Russian-Ukrainian Jewish immigrants. When she was five years old, her father, a popular musician, accepted a position to teach music at what is now the Tokyo University of the Arts. The family moved to Japan, where Sirota studied in German and American schools. At 16, she went to college in California and got a degree in languages, speaking English, German, French, Russian, and Japanese fluently. When World War II broke out, Sirota was one of just a handful of (non-Japanese) people in America who could speak Japanese, and went to work for the Office of War Information. Her main job was to monitor Japanese radio signals and translate their broadcasts. During this time, she had no contact with her parents who were still living in Japan. As soon as the war ended she volunteered to go to Japan as a US Army translator, hoping to find her parents (she did). She would become the first civilian woman admitted to the country. In 1946, the Americans started working on a new constitution for Japan and Sirota (the only woman on the committee) was tasked with writing the section on civil rights. She made it a priority to ensure that Japanese society would finally allow equality for all, especially better conditions for women who still had no rights in the country. Sirota personally drafted Article 14 (“All of the people are equal under the law and there shall be no discrimination in political, economic or social relations because of race, creed, sex, social status or family origin…”) and Article 24 (“Marriage shall be based only on the mutual consent of both sexes and it shall be maintained through mutual cooperation with the equal rights of husband and wife…”) Despite reservations from both the Japanese and American negotiators (who felt she was giving Japanese women more rights than even American woman had), Sirota eventually convinced her counterparts to include the clauses. She is therefore credited with being the central force for bringing social equality and women’s rights to Japan.

During her time working on the constitution, Sirota met her future husband, Lt. Joseph Gordon. They returned to the US and settled in New York. After briefly working for TIME magazine, Sirota pursed her passion for art, music, and dance. Meanwhile, she worked at the Japan Society helping Japanese students and immigrants (one of whom was Yoko Ono). Sirota played a large role in introducing Japanese (and Asian) music and art to the West. By 1970, she was Director of Performing Arts for the Asia Society, and began to travel all over Asia to remote communities in search of traditional art forms. She would then invite these artists on tours to the West. All in all, Sirota organized 39 tours in 16 countries. In the US alone, her shows were seen by 1.5 million people in 400 cities. She also made five films and multiple television programs about Asian art, and recorded 8 albums of music. For all of her tremendous work, Sirota received dozens of awards, including the prestigious Order of the Sacred Treasure from the Japanese government. In Japan, two films have been made about her life. In 1995, Sirota published a memoir in Japanese, followed by an English version in 1998, titled The Only Woman in the Room. Today, she is one of Japanese greatest feminist icons.

In Memory of Lori Kaye, 60, “Who Thought of Others Before Herself”

A Mystical Map of Your Soul

Words of the Week

Until now you have focused on what you need from God; it’s about time you asked, “What is needed of me?”
– Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi (1745-1813)