After the Corona Plague, We’ll Also March and Sing

Out of thousands of vintage photographs I’ve discovered, this picture is my favorite. I found the black and white picture in the Library of Congress, and the caption read, “Group of children and adults in procession in street, some holding a banner with a Star of David,” taken between 1910 and 1930.

Jewish children’s procession. Colorized on April 10, 2020. (Library of Congress, My Heritage)

Several years ago, after research, field trips, & my wife’s assistance, we discovered the picture was taken in Jerusalem on Lag B’Omer, April 30, 1918. The children and their teachers were returning to the Old City after visiting the Tomb of the High Priest Simon the Righteous (Shimon Hatzadik). They were walking south on Nablus Road which ran between the Old City and Mount Scopus. From the shadows, it can be ascertained that the hour was early afternoon; the girls started their Spring-day hike with sweaters, and most had removed them.

The detective story of how we determined the time and place of the picture can be viewed here.

In the Age of Corona, this Picture Has Much More Significance

Lag B’Omer, the 33rd day between Passover and Shavuot, has deep Kabbalistic origins, dating back thousands of years. From Passover until Lag B’Omer, the period is commemorated as  a time of mourning, and Jewish weddings or public celebrations are not held. Lag B’Omer marks the end of a national plague that struck Eretz Yisrael and killed 24,000 of Rabbi Akiva’s students in the first century of the Common Era. For Jewish children, the day is reserved for school outings and nature walks – to this day.

In April 1918, these children were experiencing the end of the multiple plagues of Ottoman control, starvation, cholera, typhoid, malaria. (See my article, Epidemics in the Holy Land 100 Years Ago.)

There seems to be little evidence, including in Jerusalem burial society records, that the 1918 world influenza pandemic had much of an impact on the Jews of Palestine.  After all, the worst epidemics in the previous years had already taken their toll on the weak, old, young, and infirm. These children, in Jewish schools of all sorts — cheider, ultra-Orthodox, and modern Orthodox, were apparently recovering from their traumas. Aid poured in for the Jewish community in Eretz Yisrael, particularly from American Jewry.

Compare the children on Nablus Road to the visages and clothing of children in a Red Cross orphanage in Jerusalem, also in 1918. Recovery was not easy.

A group of the orphans in Jerusalem in 1918. “Their fathers and mothers had died from typhus, dysentery, malaria and exhaustion.” (Red Cross, Library of Congress). When the British army entered Jerusalem in 1918, they found 2,700 orphans wandering the streets.

A Song Lifted the Jewish Community’s Spirit

Many people still remember the stirring song “Jerusalem of Gold” which became a prayer and anthem for Jews prior to, and after, the 1967 Six Day War.  Using an old Hasiddic nigun melody, a music teacher and cantor in Jerusalem composed a song in 1918 to celebrate the liberation of Jerusalem and the Balfour Declaration in 1917.

It was called “Hava Nagila — Let Us Rejoice!” For decades, the song was one of the most popular tunes in the Jewish world – and beyond. (Harry Belafonte, Frank Sinatra, Lena Horne come to mind.)    I would like to believe the song was the the lips of the children marching in Jerusalem in 1918.

Here is the first recording of Hava Nagila.

Lag B’Omer is 32 days away. May we sing again.

About the Author
Lenny Ben-David served as a senior Israeli diplomat in Washington. He is a public affairs consultant, writer, researcher, editor, and historian of early photographs. Ben-David is the author of "American Interests in the Holy Land Revealed in Early Photographs." He worked for AIPAC for 25 years in Washington and Jerusalem.
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