Bikkurim from the Children of the Diaspora,” Olami HaKatan, 1936
This is a letter written to Menachem Ussishkin, the president of the Jewish National Fund (JNF) by a boy who identified himself as “Shmueli from Poland,” writing on behalf of the children of the Hebrew schools in Poland. It was published in a children's newspaper, Olami HaKatan on the eve of the festival of Shavuot in 1936. It is accompanied by an illustration, featured on the front cover of the newspaper, depicting children bringing baskets of the “first fruit” (bikkurim) to Ussishkin, who is sitting on a bench. Date palms can be seen in the background. The illustration is titled “the Festival of Bikkurim in the Land of Israel.”
In the first paragraph of the letter, Shmueli describes that he and his classmates look at photographs of children in Israel bringing bikkurim to the JNF. Since the students in Poland do not have any agriculture of their own and therefore can't bring bikkurim, they ask if they can donate their pocket money to the JNF instead.
In the second paragraph Shmueli mentions being told that Ussishkin had recently purchased land and asks if they may contribute to that particular project. He suggests that there should be a division of the work until they have the privilege of making aliya to Israel: the children of the Diaspora will donate money to buy or, in Shmueli’s words, “redeem” the land, and the children of Israel will bring the bikkurim in their name as well.
At the end of the letter Shmueli writes that he and his classmates plan to study at the Tarbut agricultural school in Ludmil so that they are able to work in Israel as farmers and bring the bikkurim to Ussishkin in person.
Would You Like to Know More?
Shavuot - Shavuot, the festival mentioned in the article – also known as the Festival of Weeks – is celebrated on the sixth of Sivan. Shavuot, one of the three biblical pilgrim festivals, commemorates many different things: it marks the day that the Israelites received the Torah on Mount Sinai; it celebrates the wheat harvest in Israel; and it signifies the end of the Counting of the Omer. It is celebrated with many colourful and festive traditions such as holding bikkurim ceremonies, eating dairy food, decorating the synagogue with flowers and greenery, reading the Book of Ruth, and studying the Torah all through the night (Tikkun Leil Shavuot).
Tarbut Schools - The Tarbut schools existed between the world wars and close to 45,000 children learned in 270 Tarbut institutions. These schools taught both Jewish and secular studies in Hebrew with an emphasis on Israel and Zionism. In addition to the regular curriculum, the schools trained the students in physical labour to assist for their future in Israel. Tarbut also published the "Olami HaKatan" (My World) newspaper which appeared from 1936 to 1939. The newspaper aimed to connect its readers to other students of the Tarbut network and to the events in Israel. It also devoted attention to the major figures of the Zionist movement and Hebrew culture. The newspaper was aimed at younger children of primary school age and encouraged children to contribute to the newspaper. The onset of the Second World War brought the European Tarbut schools to an end and many of its students were murdered during the Holocaust.
Bikkurim - One of the names of Shavuot in the Torah is the festival of the first fruits. These first fruits are traditionally of the “seven species” that were special agricultural products of the Land of Israel: wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives, and dates (Deuteronomy 8:8). According to Jewish tradition, the first fruits, Bikkurim, were brought to the priests in the Temple in Jerusalem, as described in the Torah: “The first, the crowns of your land, you shall come, the house of the Lord your God” (Exodus 26:26).
Bikkurim Celebrations in Modern Israel - The early settlements in modern Israel transformed the traditional Bikkurim ceremony into a secular agricultural celebration – first fruit ceremonies to rejoice the end of the harvest festival (another term for Shavuot). The first fruits in the kibbutzim, in contrast to the time of the Temple, are not only the seven species but all kinds of fruits, vegetables, livestock, and even the babies born in the past year. The ceremonies feature colourful performances of songs and dances and processions of decorated agricultural tools and machinery, farm produce, and young children.
The Jewish National Fund- The Jewish National Fund (JNF) was founded in 1901 in order to buy and develop land in Ottoman Palestine for Jewish settlement. In the ensuing years, both during the British Mandate and after the establishment of the State of Israel, the JNF planted millions of trees, built dams and reservoirs, and developed more than 250,000 acres of land for settlement. The JNF was founded by the Zionist movement, and its campaigns aimed at attracting the support of Diaspora Jews. The blue JNF collection box symbolized the partnership between Israel and the Diaspora and was once found in many Jewish homes and organizations.
Ludmir - The letter refers to the town of Ludmir in Poland. Ludmir’s Jewish community is first mentioned in 1171. The Jews of Ludmir were engaged in trade and crafts, especially shoemaking and leather processing. The community grew steadily, but in the seventeenth century many Jews were murdered by the Cossacks in the Khmelnytsky pogroms. In the following years the community slowly recovered and became an important Hassidic centre when the founder of the Karliner Hassidic dynasty settled in Ludmir. A local woman, Hannah Rachel Verbermacher, known as the “Maiden of Ludmir,” became a popular Hassidic leader due to her righteousness and wisdom. She is considered the only independent female Rebbe of the Hassidic movement. Located near the border between Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine, the town developed into a thriving centre of trade, and the Jewish community flourished. At the end of the nineteenth century around 6,000 Jews lived in Ludmir, comprising about 60 percent of the town’s population. Jewish institutions were established in the town, including charitable and medical institutions, Zionist organisations, yeshivas, and secular schools such as Tarbut and ORT. By the outbreak of World War II, the Jewish population had grown to 25,000. In 1942 the Jews from Ludmir and the neighbouring villages were forced into a ghetto, and by the end of that year all of the Jews were murdered, except for a small number who managed to escape to the forests. About 140 Jews returned to Ludmir after the war, but in the following year the Jewish community ceased to exist, and in a current census no Jews were reported.
Jewish Studies teachers can use this resource when teaching about Shavuot as the Festival of the Bikkurim (First Fruits). It can trigger a conversation about the difference between the Bikkurim during Temple and modern times.
Hebrew teachers can use this letter as an example of the revival of Hebrew as a spoken language in Europe in the early twentieth century.
Israel Studies teachers can use this letter when discussing the role of the JNF in the establishment of the State of Israel. It also illustrates how Jewish festivals were adapted by the Zionist movement. This letter beautifully demonstrates the connection between Israel and the Diaspora and the Zionist sentiments of children in Poland before the establishment of the State of Israel.
Jewish History teachers can use this letter to explore the Zionist movement in Poland in the early twentieth century, the history of Ludmir, and the history of the JNF.
This resource contains two items.
What are each of the items?
How are they related?
One of these resources is a letter.
Who is the sender and who is the recipient?
What language is used in the letter?
What does the author of the letter propose to the recipient?
Where is the letter sent from?
Where is the letter sent to?
Who is the man sitting on the bench?
What are the children carrying?
What can you see in the background?
Reading Between the Lines
This letter was written by a Jewish child in Poland and printed in a Hebrew children’s newspaper in Warsaw in 1936.
What does this tell you about Hebrew education in Poland at the time?
The letter mentions the Festival of Bikkurim – another name for Shavuot.
What are Bikkurim?
What other names are there for Shavuot?
This letter emphasises the Bikkurim aspect of Shavuot which was central to the pioneers in Israel at the time.
Why was this aspect so important for them?
How was Shavuot celebrated in the agricultural settlements in Israel?
What does the phrase “land redemption” mean?
Who was Menachem Ussishkin?
The author of the letter, Shmueli, mentions the Tarbut agricultural school in Ludmir.
What was the purpose of this school?
Were there others like it?
What was the Tarbut organisation, and what did it do?
Research the Jewish community of Ludmir.
Which important Jewish figures lived there?
The author of the letter and his classmates were prepared to sacrifice their pocket money for the sake of the development of the Land of Israel.
What does that tell us about their beliefs and ideology?
Research the history of the JNF: who founded it and when?
How did the JNF “redeem” land?
What else did the JNF do?
Why were brought to the JNF?
What does the JNF do today?
How is Shavuot celebrated in your community?
How is Shavuot celebrated in Israel?
The letter tells us about donations that children in Poland wanted to make to “redeem” land in the Land of Israel.
Do you or your school contribute to charity?
Which causes do you support and how?
Imagine you are Shmueli (or one of his friends).
Based on this letter and information you can find about Jewish life in Poland in the 1930s , write a diary entry of a regular day.
What does he do? What are his dreams? What difficulties does he face?
Bikkurim from the Children of the Diaspora
(Letter to President Ussishkin)
We, the children of the Diaspora, look at pictures in books and various newspapers and see how the children of Israel bring the first of all that grows in the garden, the fields, and the orchards – first fruits for the Jewish National Fund (KKL). We, the children of the Diaspora, do not have our own fields or vineyards – and cannot bring bikkurim. Therefore, we will give as bikkurim for the redemption of the Land our pocket money, which we received from our parents to buy chocolates and go to the cinema.
Our teachers told us, that you, the distinguished president, are buying another 40,000 dunam of land in Israel. We would like to participate in the redemption of this land. Until we have the privilege of moving to Israel, we will share the work between ourselves and the children of the Land of Israel. We will help the Jewish National Fund (KKL) by redeeming the land, and the children of Israel will bring you the first fruits of the land in our name as well. They will know that we are partners in their work from afar. In just a few years we will move to the Tarbut agricultural school in Ludmir, and we will learn agriculture as necessary. Then we will make aliya to Israel and become farmers. And on the Festival of Bikkurim we will come to you, the president, baskets full of fruit on our shoulders – dedicated to the foundation that redeems our land and our nation.
In the name of the children of the Hebrew schools in Poland –