What: During World War I, thousands of Jews, including many Americans, fought with the British Army in Palestine against the Ottoman Turks. To help them make their way in a strange new land, an editor of the New York Yiddish-language newspaper “The Tageblatt” wrote a colloquial Arabic phrasebook, the first for a Jewish audience.
He was Getzl Zelikovitz, born in his mother’s leather shop in Lithuania. By age 10 he knew 500 pages of the Talmud. Trained in Oriental languages at the Sorbonne, he served as a translator when Horatio Kitchener (later to become Lord Kitchener and a British national hero) fought with rebels in the Sudan in the 1880s – until he was expelled for sympathizing with enemy prisoners. Coming to America, Zelikovitz was hired by Republicans to stump for William McKinley.
Using his book, one learns to say many things: “Can you speak Arabic?” “Friend, do you have a needle?” “Onion and garlic are good with beans.” As Princeton librarian Rachel Simon points out, his phrasebook also offers surprising suggestions for chatting up the locals: “We want to buy land.” “Jerusalem is the fatherland of the Jews.” “God will give us a republic in Zion.” A little ego is evident, too: “Did you see President Wilson? ... I have already been to the White House.”
Where: Rare Books and Special Collections, Firestone Library