In 1960, a young Israeli boy, Yossele Schumacher, was abducted by his Orthodox grandparents and hidden from his secular parents and the Israeli authorities. Within a few weeks all Israelis knew of the case. The press widely publicized the story, and the Knesset debated its implications. The Israeli police avidly sought the 8-year-old boy and searched every Orthodox community in Israel for him. His epic would last until, and beyond, a milestone event celebrated 50 years ago this month.
Yossele’s grandparents were recent immigrants to Israel from the town of Uman in the Soviet Union, and unlike the great majority of their Russian co-religionists, they had kept alive the Hasidic traditions of their forebears. Members of the Breslov sect of Hasidim, they were determined to bring their grandson up in that Hasidic tradition. The boy’s parents, however, had settled in a secular kibbutz, and they strenuously objected to the grandparents’ plans for their son. The grandfather, Rabbi Nachman Shtarkes, asked his ultra-Orthodox associates to hide Yossele, his daughter’s son. This they had managed to do for a brief period by moving him from place to place within Israel’s Orthodox enclaves. Now with the Israeli police frantically searching for Yossele, Rabbi Shtarkes and his supporters sought to smuggle the boy out of the country.
For both the ultra-Orthodox factions and the Israeli government, the stakes were high. The ultra-Orthodox—and especially the Neturei Karta, the most extreme of the anti-Zionists—were convinced that returning Yossele to his parents was part of a nefarious government plot to secularize as many Orthodox children as possible. Orthodox leaders had made similar accusations about the children of Yemenite and Moroccan immigrants. The Israeli government saw the hiding of Yossele as a direct challenge to its authority to govern all factions of the state’s varied religious mosaic.
Determined to smuggle Yossele out of the country, his abductors were faced with a serious problem. Who in the small Haredi community of that period would have the expertise and documents necessary to smuggle a young child to another country?
In what must have seemed to some Haredim an act of divine intervention a woman appeared on the ultra-Orthodox scene who would be willing and able to spirit Yossele to safety. This was Ruth Ben David, whose given name was Madeleine Feraille. She was a 40-year-old French woman with a story remarkable even in Israel, a state with many remarkable post-WWII stories. At 20 she had served in the French Resistance. She later raised her son Claude on her own, had managed an import-export firm, and had attended graduate schools in both France and Switzerland. And in the early 1950s, after a long and arduous spiritual journey, she converted to Judaism.
Yet within a few years, Ben David became convinced that the political and cultural ideas dominant among Israeli Jews were a betrayal of the Jewish tradition. She described Zionism as “the thesis that nationalism should replace the Torah as the basis of the Jewish people” and condemned the Zionist movement as “a calamitous mistake.” Israel, in her eyes, was “a mundane, materialistic, secular culture.” Having decided to live in Jerusalem, Ben David was dismayed to find that the state’s presentation of Jewish Jerusalem was decidedly secular in character. She wrote that “for the purpose of tourism, the government of Israel does not refrain from calling their part of Jerusalem ‘the Holy City,’ though they do not themselves believe in any holiness.”
But joining the Haredim as single woman was not a very practical move. With no employment prospects before her, and with her son Uriel to support, Ben David was dependent on her new religious community. In France she had been an independent woman. Now she was joining a community in which women had little agency, power, or influence. Her new community’s ideology was one of resistance to modernity, including resistance to the emancipation of women. How would that community assimilate a thoroughly modern woman?
Ben David’s mentor in the Neturei Karta, Rabbi Abraham Elie Maizes, was keenly aware of Ben David’s dilemma—and of the ultra-Orthodox community’s dilemma in its face-off with the Israeli authorities. He summoned her to his study in Jerusalem. Ben David was immediately brought into the community’s highest level of power and authority. Asked to participate in a conspiracy, one that seemed tailor-made for her, she was, in a sense, treated like a man, and a worldly, capable, man at that.
In her memoirs Ben David recalled that while sitting in Rabbi Maizes’ office and waiting for him to describe her task, she “became progressively more convinced that something of the greatest importance, something fateful, was under way.” The rabbi appealed to Ben David’s sense of destiny, telling her that “there is a great mitzvah before you, and as I see it, only you can carry this through.”
As the task was explained to her, Ben David was at first shocked and then exhilarated. Rabbi Maizes told Ben David that her experience in the French Resistance, her knowledge of European languages, and her commitment to ultra-Orthodox Judaism, made her the ideal person to smuggle Yossele out of Israel and “save” him, and hence many other children, from secularism. Only through her actions could “Torah-true Judaism” resist the secular power of the state.
Rabbi Maizes, who had survived both the Nazi and Communist regimes with his religious faith intact, saw Israeli secularism as yet another historical threat to the Jewish tradition. In his view, Israeli government threats to Jewish religious life had to be resisted with zeal and subterfuge. A Jewish government that persecuted Orthodox Jews was no different from a Fascist or Communist government. It was in fact worse. For it was violating the oath that the Jewish people were not to “rebel against the nations” and take action toward their own political independence.
When Ben David spoke of the logistical difficulties she foresaw, Rabbi Maizes invoked destiny and the will of God. “I do not know which means you will find, but I know that you are the one destined to do this. God has led you up till now on your long way. He will lead you and the child. You act, and we all shall pray for you.” As the result of this interview, Ben David became embroiled in the “Yossele Affair” of 1960 to 1962.
The Israeli authorities saw the refusal to hand over Yossele Schumacher as a serious challenge to the authority of the state, and it was determined to find him. In 1960 Israel’s Supreme Court decided in favor of Yossele’s parents and ordered Rabbi Shtarkes to hand over the boy. Yossele’s grandfather refused and was jailed. Soon Ruth Ben David found herself pitted against Israel’s much-vaunted security and intelligence services.
The Shin Bet, the internal security services, searched for Yossele in Orthodox neighborhoods, villages, and kibbutzim. But they searched in vain. And the Shin Bet’s operatives were mocked by those whose houses were searched. Yossele, it was soon assumed, must have been smuggled out of the country; he was nowhere to be found. During their searches for the boy, the police and army were taunted by groups of children singing the words “Where is Yossele?” set to a popular Hasidic niggun.
Prime Minister David Ben Gurion then turned to the Mossad, Israel’s overseas intelligence agency. In 1960 its operatives had captured Adolph Eichmann and brought him to trial in Jerusalem. In 1962, after Eichmann had been brought to trial, Israel’s prime minister reasoned that it was a small matter for the Mossad to find a missing Jewish child. There were a limited number of ultra-Orthodox communities throughout the world. Surely Israel’s spies could infiltrate one of them and find out where Yossele was hidden.
In committing herself to the Neturei Karta cause and agreeing to smuggle Yossele out of Israel, Ben David also involved her son Uriel in the conspiracy. Uriel was 20 years old at the time, and having spent years at Orthodox yeshivot was eager to help his mother smuggle the boy out of the country. And according to Ben David’s account of the case, Yossele himself was eager to cooperate in his own disappearance. “This 8-year-old boy was already a little man, gifted with intelligence and a will above his age. He understood very well what was going on, and he knowingly participated in the fight for his faith.” According to Ben David’s account, Yossele told her, “I don’t want to be with my parents, who don’t want to let me stay with them anymore. They don’t want me to be a proper Jew.”
As she later explained it the essence of the plan was for Ben David “to bring Yossele unnoticed out of Israel by having ostensibly brought with me a daughter when entering the country with whom I would then quite naturally and quite obviously be taking out when I left.”
Ben David took Yossele out of Israel in June of 1960. In the meantime, the Israeli police continued to search for him. A year later, the boy was still missing. Rabbi Nachman Shtarkes, his grandfather, had been released from jail, and the government of Israel seemed impotent in the face of ultra-Orthodox defiance. The prime minister voiced fears that a rebellion by religious fanatics was a distinct possibility. He again urged Isser Harel, head of the Mossad, to ramp up the search for the boy.
But Harel’s agents, some of whom had participated in the kidnapping of Eichmann two years earlier, were unable to infiltrate those ultra-Orthodox communities suspected of harboring Yossele. When Mossad agents attended religious services in these communities they were quickly identified. The Mossad had no agents who had mastered the intricacies and nuances of Orthodox Jewish law and custom. When discovered, these agents were summarily and angrily ejected from the synagogues and study halls. In his memoirs Isser Harel noted that it was easier for Mossad agents to infiltrate Eichmann’s Nazi circle in Argentina than it was to infiltrate Haredi communities.
And where was Yossele while the Mossad was searching for him? Ben David had taken Yossele, disguised as a girl, to Switzerland and enrolled him in a yeshiva there. As she saw it, Yossele’s best chance for concealment was among other young ultra-Orthodox boys. And his disguise when traveling was as a girl, her daughter “Claudine,” named, of course, after her own son Claude (now Uriel). The plan had the added benefit of continuing Yossele’s religious education and strengthening his ultra-Orthodox identity. When word came to her that the Mossad was looking for Yossele in Switzerland, she spirited the boy to Brussels and then to Paris. Each time she traveled, she presented the child as her daughter Claudine. When the Mossad focused its search on the Haredi community of Paris, assembling 40 agents there, Ben David took Yossele to New York and hid the boy with a family of Satmar Hasidim in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. She then returned to France.
The Mossad, anticipating that Ben David might try to hide the boy in the United States, had asked the FBI the year before to cooperate in the search for Yossele. In the summer of 1962 FBI agents searched the summer caps located in the Catskill Mountains of New York’s ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities. That summer I was a camper in one of those camps, Camp Agudah in Ferndale, NewYork. I vividly remember the agents searching our camp grounds and our rustic cabins. The boys, myself among them (and it was a boys-only camp), were singing loudly while the search was going on. But it wasn’t in prayer or greeting. Rather, we were singing, “Where is Yossele?”—the song from Israel’s ultra-Orthodox communities that our camps counselors had taught us a few days before the search. But I’m afraid that the cultural reference was lost on the strapping FBI agents who seemed pleased that we accepted their visit with equanimity, and perhaps even with celebration.
Ben David and the other conspirators who hid Yossele Schumacher and spirited him from country to country managed to keep the boy hidden for almost three years. Ben Gurion was losing patience with the Mossad and its head of operations, Isser Harel. Fascination with the Yossele case was widespread throughout Israel and Jewish communities worldwide. Ben David later said that “the Yossele affair had become an everyday topic throughout the country, and indeed, throughout the Jewish world.” “The affair,” she wrote, “dominated the minds of the Israeli public. It became a matter of prestige for the police, the government, and for Ben Gurion himself.” The tensions raised by the Yossele affair were exacerbating secular-religious tensions within Israel, and many Orthodox Jewish religious leaders called on his kidnappers to release the child. Ben David began to feel isolated and condemned. “Loneliness joined my helplessness and together surrounded me, gripping me even tighter.”
In mid-1962 the Mossad caught up with Ben David in Paris. By that time Yossele was no longer in Europe. He was living with a family in the Satmar community in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Ben David, interrogated by the team that first questioned Adolf Eichmann, denied any connection to the “Yossele affair.” When presented with evidence that she had smuggled Yossele out of Israel disguised as her daughter, Ben David proudly admitted her complicity but refused to divulge the boy’s current whereabouts. She only relented when Harel, head of the Mossad, told her that her son Uriel, now serving in the Israeli Army, had divulged his mother’s involvement in the case. She felt betrayed and realized that the kidnapping had failed.
Ben David told Harel where Yossele was living with a Hasidic family in Brooklyn, information he relayed to the U.S. Attorney General, Robert Kennedy. Kennedy instructed the FBI to give their full cooperation with Mossad. In September 1962, FBI agents, accompanied by Mossad operatives, took Yossele into custody and flew him to his parents in Israel. Ben Gurion was relieved; some would say triumphant. The ultra-Orthodox rabbis and their followers had been defeated, at least temporarily.
In her memoir, The Guardians of the City, Ben David wrote, “After the Yossele affair I was accepted by the residents of Meah Shearim as a member of the community. I had earned my place among them by fighting in the battle for Judaism. But their admiration for me was mixed with misunderstanding. I was different. No woman in Meah Shearim spoke many languages; none had attended university. It didn’t matter to them that I had accomplished these things before I had discovered the Torah. And I was the first convert they had encountered. Therefore, despite their admiration of me, they were open to gossip about my past, some of it spread by the Israeli security services.”
The insular, separatist, and anti-Zionist communities of Jerusalem’s Meah Shearim neighborhood could not fully embrace a woman as unusual as Ben David. But her will to be accepted—and her bravery—changed their minds. Despite the fact that Yossele had been found by the Mossad and returned to his parents, Ben David’s participation in the kidnapping made her a heroine among ultra-Orthodox Jews and drew her closer to the leadership of anti-Zionist Orthodoxy. So close, in fact, that some of the leading rabbis of the movement sought her hand in marriage. Though she was a convert, competition for her hand was vigorous.
In 1963, a year after Yossele’s whereabouts were discovered by the Mossad and the FBI, Ben David came to Israeli and Jewish public attention in a spectacular and unanticipated manner when she agreed to marry Rabbi Amram Blau, a 68-year-old widower with 10 adult children and the leader of the Neturei Karta. That she was a very attractive woman in her mid-forties did not hurt. A formal betrothal agreement was drawn up, but the marriage was delayed for two years. Among those objecting to the marriage were Rabbi Blau’s children. And it seems, also among the objectors, some of Blau’s rabbinic colleagues who had sought Ben David’s hand before he had and had been turned down by “the righteous convert.”
And so it was that in September 1965, in a small private ceremony held in the predominantly Orthodox city of Bnei Brak, Ben David was married to Rabbi Blau. He was 70 years old; his bride 45. He was the spiritual leader of the most rigorously Orthodox, anti-Zionist, and separatist Jewish group in Jerusalem; she was a convert from Catholicism and an independent and forceful woman who had fought in the French Resistance and defied the agents of the Mossad. Rabbi Blau too had been defying the Israeli authorities, in his case since 1948.
Until his death in 1974 Blau and his Neturei Karta colleagues continued to defy the authorities. His wife Ruth Ben David (now Ruth Blau) survived him by 26 years. Like her husband (from whom she was separated after only a few years of marriage), Ben David never recanted her views and she never apologized for the abduction of Yossele Schumacher.
Adapted from Shalom Goldman’s Jewish-Christian Difference and Modern Jewish Identity: Seven Twentieth Century Converts, Lexington Books, 2015.
Shalom Goldman is Professor of Religion at Middlebury College. His most recent book is Starstruck in the Promised Land: How the Arts Shaped American Passions about Israel.