Friday, May 17, 2013

Introducing the "Cigarbox Collection" --
Donated by Dr. Othniel Seiden of Denver --
An Heirloom from his Father, Dr. Rudolph Avraham Seiden

The pictures inside
The cigarbox
A version of this article appeared in The Jerusalem Post Magazine on May 17.

By Lenny Ben-David

The antique wood cigarbox was beautifully crafted, bound like a book and entitled "Gourmet's Delight" and "Grown in California." Opening the box in Efrat, Israel, I discovered it was filled with a stack of pictures from Palestine 90-100 years ago.  Almost simultaneously I received an email from a doctor in Denver which began, "I am delighted that the pictures have found a new home!"

Grave of Maimonides (Rambam) in Tiberias (circa 1920). A version of this picture also appears in the Harvard
Library archives attributed to the Central Zionist Archives

When I discovered 22,000 newly digitalized antique pictures of Eretz Yisrael in the Library of Congress archives two years ago, I immediately recognized the pictures' hasbara value. The photos showed Jewish life in the land 150 years ago, well before Herzl and the establishment of the State of Israel.  

Metal worker making collection boxes for the
Jewish National Fund (Seidon collection)
A modern day JNF box
But many of the pictures were not captioned nor were the dates or locations always correct.  I began a painstaking process of research and enlarging photos to identify places, people and the chronological sequences. My analyses became essays which now total more than 300 photo analyses in the Israel Daily Picture blogsite.  The site has attracted some 800,000 visitors, and the Library of Congress has used some of these analyses to correct its captions. 

Many of the photo essays appeared in The Jerusalem Post Magazine, and I’m in discussions with a publisher about a book.   

Math lesson in Machane Yehuda (the shuk area of
Jerusalem). The drill: if a worker earns 17.5 Eretz
Yisrael pounds a day, how much would he receive
for six days?

The Library of Congress archives' largest collection came from the American Colony Photographic Department in Jerusalem. Other pictures on the site were taken by some of the first pioneers of photography in the 1850s and 1860s.  I have also published essays based on the photos (only after securing permission) from the archives of Harvard, the New York Public Library, and a Scottish medical school archives that contained antique pictures of the Jews of Tiberias amidst anatomical photographs of limbs, operations, and disease. 

The Cigarbox Collection 

Arab village of Kalkilya. The small structure (right) is
apparently a well with a woman standing with a
jug on her head
Dr. Othniel Seiden of Denver is a fan of  the Israel Daily Picture and offered his exceptional collection. A friend from Efrat was going to Denver and served as courier.  I was very grateful, but asked one more favor from Dr. Seiden -- that he tell the story behind the collection.  His recollection follows: 

My father, Dr. Rudolph Avraham Seiden, was born in 1900 and was first involved in Palestine through a Zionist organization in Vienna called Die Blau Weiss or the "Blue White."  As a teen, sometime around 1919, he started smuggling Jews out of Eastern Europe into Palestine through Blau Weiss.  At that time, a whole family could travel to Palestine on a family visa.  The organization established a front travel agency and hired a Greek ship in order to put together strangers as families and
Matzah factory in Haifa. Sign on the wall on the right reads
"No spitting, No smoking."  Sign on the left reads "For the
mitzvah of matzah" so that workers devote themselves to
the making of matzah
arranged tours to Palestine for these "large family groups."  When the tourists got to Palestine they "disappeared," and their return tickets were sold to people wanting to go to Europe from Palestine. 

My father's intent was to move our family to Palestine, and in the mid-1920s he went there to check things out.  He was the first chemist to take minerals out of the Dead Sea, and it was his intent to set up a factory to do that.  Unfortunately he contracted malaria and had to go back to Vienna.  

Workshop for making wagon wheels in the Mikve Yisrael agricultural school
He still longed to move us all to Palestine, and in the late 1920s my mother's family, the Abileahs, moved there. In the meantime, he worked in Vienna and held the first patent on tempered glass.
When Hitler came to power and the Austrian Nazi Party gained status, my father suddenly couldn't publish anymore and saw the writing on the wall.  In 1934, when we were planning our move, my mother's family said that life in Palestine was very difficult, and if we had a chance to go to the U.S. we should do it.  In 1935 we moved to the U.S.  Many of the Abileahs are still in Israel. [Othniel's uncle Beni Abileah was a well-known Israeli diplomat.] 

The children of Nahalal (circa 1925)

In 1980,  I started an organization called "Doctors To The World" which took medical personnel to various areas in the world to do volunteer work in needy areas.  We sent dentists into villages in Israel to serve mostly Israeli Arabs and anyone else needing help.  That was when I took out Israeli citizenship so I could get
a medical license in Israel.

Bedouin Arab family near Lake Hula and their reed huts
My father took only some of the photos.  Many were either post cards or some other stock photos.  Those that had an imprint on the back [some are stamped "Keren Hayesod Photo] I assume is that of the developing and processing individual. 

When I asked for formal permission to publish the photos, Dr. Seiden responded:  I give you full permission to use the photos I sent you in any way you feel fit, for educational purposes, or to lend and permit to be used by other media and organizations that will use them for educational or historical purposes.   

Thank you Dr. Seiden.  Yes, I should name it the “Seiden Collection,” but I will always consider them the “Cigarbox Pictures.”


  1. It just keeps getting better and better, one story more amazing than another! Bless you, Lenny, and all those who labor in love for Israel.

  2. unbelievable,,,and my life into these lives has only prospered and grown .
    we made aliyah in 1972,,,a nd our history is remarkable and currently still progressing.

  3. Hello,
    It just keeps getting better and better, one story more amazing than another! Bless you, Lenny, and all those who labor in love for Israel. anyways, it was informative, Thanks for sharing.