Writer Yitzhaq Shami Is Born
Yitzhak Shami pictured as child with his parents. Photo: Ben Arenstein

August 4, 1888

Yitzhaq Shami, one of the earliest writers of modern Hebrew literature, is born as Yitzhaq Sarwi to an Arabic-speaking father and a Ladino-speaking mother in Hebron. He takes the name Shami, first as a pen name and later as his legal name, because his father is from Damascus. His best known work is his 1928 novella, “Vengeance of the Fathers.”

He studies Hebrew and Arabic in school. Shami’s literary influences are predominantly Arab and Middle Eastern, and he fills his short stories, poems and one novella with Arabs and Mizrahi Jews, a rarity for the period. Shami studies under Rabbi Chaim Hezekiah Medini at a Hebron yeshiva, but he develops secular attitudes and is forced to leave. He moves to Jerusalem, where he earns a teaching degree, is exposed to Zionism and leaders including future President Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, and meets writers such as Yehuda Buria and S.Y. Agnon.

Lacking the money to study law in Constantinople, he works as a Hebrew teacher in Bulgaria, where he meets his wife, Pnina Gingold. After World War I, he returns to Hebron, where he serves as the secretary of the Jewish community. He survives the 1929 Hebron massacre by hiding in a friend’s home, moves to Tiberias, then settles in Haifa, where he dies in March 1949. Both Israelis and Palestinians celebrate his literary legacy.